SGU Episode 301

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SGU Episode 301
April 20th 2011
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 300                      SGU 302

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


I: Iszi Lawrence

Quote of the Week

'I think that it is much more likely, that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.'

Richard Feynman

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, April twentieth, 2011, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson,

R: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein,

E: Buenos Sera everyone.

S: And we have a special guest rogue this week, Iszi Lawrence. Iszi, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

I: Thank you very much. And hello!

J: Hello.

B: Hello.

I: Hello.

S: Iszi is a stand-up comedian, a writer, an artist, and you somehow managed to get I'm impressed by that.

I: I bought that when I was ten years old.

S: Is that right?

E: You must have!

I: I had a little dance when I did. It was brilliant. Didn't know what I wanted to be or anything. I thought, “Iszi, brilliant.” Got that. But it's spelled weird; it's I-S-Z-I, 'cause I'm nerdy. And I thought, "Actually, if you get a mirror, the word "is" spells my name. Huh! Brilliant.”


S: There are many reasons why we wanted to have you on our show. But the reason why we're having you on this week is because as astute listeners may have noticed, you have done the new intro and outro to The Skeptic's Guide.

I: Yeah, it's gonna be very weird actually hearing my voice, because I listen to your podcast very regularly. And actually to hear me, just going "Hello." I don't know which one you went with as well, because I did like the posh one. Because Jay,

S: The good one. Posh.

I: Jay got me to do a very sexy one. So I don't know if that's the one where I'm going, (Soft voice) "Oh hello, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide."


E: Oh, it's that one.

I: Just for personal use.

R: That's probably why.

J: Yeah. That was the first show. What are you talking about?

S: We got a ton of email about why we changed the intro voice. And the only thing I'm gonna say about that is that the original intro voice was done by Jay's ex-wife. That should be enough to explain to you why we had to get her voice off the show. We had so many complaints about the fake British accent that replaced her, that we had to -

R: I'd like to point out that I had nothing to do with that.

S: Yeah, yeah.

E: But it was an authentic fake British accent, folks, come on.

S: That was a professional overpaid actress. But we decided we wanted to get an authentic, a real British accent. So,

B: It sounded fine to me! I said, "Yep! There's the accent. But people that live it, live with that accent every day. It was jarring for some reason for them. It was just a little bit unsettling,

I: For some reason

B: beyond us.

I: (Fake southern drawl) Imagine if I spoke like this entire time.

E: You're from Tennessee!

I: Bad accents. They're always, yes. It wasn't so much, it was kind of cute, because it was kind of like, "Oh, she's obviously American." And she'd say things like "Today," would say very well. Very clipped, old fashioned English, and then she would suddenly say, "Fiction," and it would all go American. It's bizarre.


If you learn to speak properly, there wouldn't be a problem. I mean, really.

R: So what we just heard was Iszi doing an impression of an American doing a bad impression of an English person.

J: Doing our intro, yeah.

R: Yeah.

E: That's talent.

I: Thank you very much.

J: But Iszi, we had a good time. Come on, it was worth the hour it took, right?

I: It was brilliant. You shouting at me, going, "No! A bigger pause now! Get it right! Get it right!"


B: You could hear a whip in the background if you listen really carefully.

S: Yeah, he burned his way through a few Brits before he got to you.

R: I insisted that he spend no more than an hour with Iszi, because I did not want her burned out.

I: Also, you didn't want me overtaking you, Rebecca, in the whole fresont between you and Jay, sort of sleights. Ooh!

B: Fresont! Wow!

R: Does that exist?

I: I think it definitely does.

E: Sexual tension on ...

I: Sexual tension? Oh yeah? It's why we listen. We don't care about science, the listeners, we just want to -

B: Hey!

E: Sorry, Bob, the truth hurts.

R: The good news is that I've learned a lot from US sitcoms; and what I've learned is that the two leads with the sexual tension can never get together or else it ruins everything. So...

J: Look at True Blood!

R: I won't, because I'm not a fourteen year old girl, but ...


B: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait a second! True Blood? We're not talking Twilight.

E: Twilight, Twilight.

B: True Blood.

R: True Blood is Twilight for people who are ...


R: just satisfying their inner fourteen year old girl.

B: Oh my god!

R: It's Twilight with sex.

E: That's a shot across the bow.

S: But what that really means that it's time to move on to some actual science discussion, because we're done with the whole vampire thing.

This Day in Skepticism (3:53)[edit]

  • April 23, 2009: 2009 The gamma ray burst GRB 090423 is observed for 10 seconds. The event signals the most distant object of any kind and also the oldest known object in the universe.

S: Evan, let's go back to you, and you're gonna tell us what's special about today.

E: April 23rd 2009, so only two years ago, Gamma Ray Burst GRB 090423 is observed for ten seconds! This event signaled at the time the most distant object of any kind in the known universe.

S: And also the most ancient!

E: The most – at the same time!

S: Yeah! Those two things are related!

E: They definitely are. A redshift of zee equals ...

B: Zed, it's zed.

E: A red shift - thank you - of Zed 8.2 was the measurement. Only outdone by a galaxy they discovered in 2010 with a redshift of 8.3. But still, it's oldest, most ancient GRB ever detected. And it was detected by the Swift telescope.

B: But wait, but also, isn't the other piece of that is that it was actually the most energetic, and that follows as well. It was an energetic gamma-ray burst. And we actually have no idea what process could have created it! Which is really interesting.

S: I couldn't find a specific explanation. I think it's still not known.

B: It's a mystery, big mystery.

E: It's hailed by astronomers as a watershed event that marked the beginning of the study of the universe as it was before most of the structure that was known about the universe came into being. So it was quite an event at the time. Still being studied!

S: Yeah, well it's just two years ago.

News Items[edit]

Hottel UFO Document (6:20)[edit]

Have you guys heard about the Hottel? H-O-T-T-E-L document? Well, to back up a little bit, the FBI created a website that they're calling The Vault. What this is, is documents that have been released through Freedom of Information Acts, since it's been released into the public domain, they're just putting these documents up on a website database.

You can go to the FBI Vault and you can just search thousands of documents. I'm not sure how many they have on there now, but they're putting up more all the time. And this has led to UFO enthusiasts going through these documents and dredging up new bits of information that they say support their UFO conspiracy theories.

We've actually seen just in the last couple of weeks two different news items related to this, the FBI Vault. The first one is the Guy Hottel document; and this is a memo that was sent from the head of the Washington office for the FBI, up the chain to the director of the FBI at the time.

I'll read you the entire text of the document.

The following information was furnished to S. A redacted.

So the name was redacted.

by redacted. An investigator for the air forces stated that three so-called flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico. They were described as being circular in shape with raised centers, approximately fifty feet in diameter. Each one was occupied by three bodies of human shape, but only three feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of a very fine texture. Each body was bandaged in a manner similar to the blackout suits used by speed fliers and test piolts. No further evaluation was attempted by S.A. redacted concerning the above.

That was the entire memo. This was dated March 22nd 1950; so not long after the whole Roswell incident, which was three years earlier, 1947, which was also the same year of the Kenneth Arnold sighting that is credited with sparking the modern flying saucer fascination.

So this document's making the rounds on UFO sites as smoking gun evidence of a government cover up, of recovering alien bodies at around that time. Even though this actually is not referring to Roswell specifically. This event occurred later.

There's a couple ways you could look at this. We always look at things based upon plausibility, and then what has actual investigation revealed about the evidence of this. The plausibility of this is – so you have to first of all understand this is at least second-hand information that's coming to the office in Washington, is being passed up the chain routinely.

And the agent said that no further evaluation was attempted, although I've read since writing about this last week that their policy was not to investigate UFO's. They only got involved to enough depth to see if there was any criminal activity, because that's their purview. So if there was no indication that there was any criminal activity going on, then they would not do any further investigation.

I: I think there might be some evidence of drug-taking or similar hallucination in some of the ...


S: Well, interestingly, this did result from criminal activity. When people investigated, tried to follow back the chain of where this information was coming from, it passed through about five different people; and it leads back to a couple of con artists who were using this report that the government had recovered these crashed flying saucers and alien bodies to sell what they were claiming was alien technology.

So the rumor that they created in order to do their con found its way to this FBI agent, who then just dutifully reported it. But then nothing further was done. So this is a sixty year old hoax.

R: Or actual evidence of alien invasion.

S: Yeah.

E: Three feet tall aliens, apparently.

R: Failed alien invasion.

E: With human-shaped bodies.

I: Is it the Sontarans from Doctor Who that were a bit like that? Sontarans? Is that right?

S: It is kind of quaint, when you think about it. Metallic fabric? Isn't that right out of science fiction movies from the time?

R: Yeah, if you look at the way that UFO and alien reports have mutated, evolved, over the years, they all adhere exactly to what was popular in sci fi at the time, whether it was through television or movies or books, comic books.

J: If it was in the seventies, they'd be wearing neon jump suits, and leg warmers in the eighties.


R: We went from little green aliens to the Greys, which are more popular now.

J: So Steve, what does this all mean?

S: Again, hearsay is still hearsay, even if it gets written down by and FBI agent in an official memo.

I: How much does a bit of alien technology set you back – I mean in real money, not dollars, but ...


S: In pounds?

I: Yeah, in Pounds. What alien technology were they selling? Was it indicator lights?

J: They were selling metallic-like fabric.


J: Imagine how disappointed you'd be if you're the owner of this really awesome company, that has a ton of money, and you drop a few million down on an alien ray gun. You open it up, and it's like, "It doesn't work!" Or it's like a Star Trek phaser they bought from Walmart of something?

R: Yeah, and it happened pretty recently with the guys who sold the Bigfoot costume as an actual big foot.

E: Oh yeah!

B: Yeah, that was great!

R: Yeah, some bits of raccoon and costume.

JFK Document (12:31)[edit]

S: Very quickly, the other news item relates to a JFK document. And here, this refers also to the MJ12. You guys familiar with the Majestic Twelve documents?

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: This was an alleged ...

R: I'm not.

S: The MJ12 was alleged to be a secret government project that was covering up and looking into the whole UFO thing back in the 1950's, 1960's. But the documents that the famous MJ12 documents allegedly signed by Harry Truman emerged out of nowhere, right? So apparently the story goes, they were just mysteriously left for a UFO investigator in a manila envelope by somebody that was never identified.

E: Deepthroat.

S: Yeah, they just appear out of nowhere. And they haven't really stood up to scrutiny. But the documents, again, that are making the rounds indicate only that JFK had taken some interest in the information about UFO's. So just the notion that – and also there was a suggestion that information was being kept from the President. So there were other agencies in the government that were keeping information from the President.

B: Like Independence Day!

S: Yeah, right!

E: I don't think it's implausible that the President had a legitimate interest in UFO's.

S: Well, yeah, that's ...

E: That was occurring at the time.

S: They're trying to say that because the President was interested in UFO's, there must be something to it. But, remember, this was the height of the Cold War. And what the interest was, was Kennedy was concerned that the Soviet Union would interpret UFO reports as American aggression. And that that would trigger come kind of response from them.

B: Well, what about the idea though, Steve, that perhaps some potential alien reports were in fact something that the Ruskies were doing, that we would want to know about? Is that something to look at.

S: UFO reports might have been of Russian activity. In fact, the US government allowed rumours of flying saucers to spread because it covered up stuff that we were doing. So if we were flying a secret plane, and people reported a flying saucer, they would just let that rumour go.

B: They must have loved it!

S: Yeah! It was automatic cover for what they were doing. So that's what all the interest within the government, legitimate interest at the time was referring to, was basically the cold war with the Soviet Union, covering up our activity, interested in what they were doing, and also hoping that it wasn't going to inadvertently lead to a misinterpretation of aggression on one side or the other.

E: But these UFO nutters say, "Oh, this is evidence that the President understood that there's alien activity going on, and trying to cover it up. And he was assassinated ten days after.

S: Yeah, so they try to link it to the assassination. He was killed because he was going to investigate the UFO thing.

R: Yeah, I'm sure he did a lot of things in the ten days leading up to his assassination, none of which had anything to do with the assassination.

S: Right. So, I expect more of these now that the FBI Vault is online. It makes it easier to go searching through all these documents.

I: See, I'm a huge fan of conspiracy theories because that's how I got started in skepticism. Because I watched the 9/11 Truther films and all of that kind of thing. And it got me for about a month, and then it was just like, "Oh." When you just do a tiny bit of research into anything you like. "Oh, I'm an idiot."

B: Why can't more people just do that and just say, "Oh." We just never get to that point. They just don't say, "Oh."

R: It takes a lot of guts to be able to realize that you're wrong, and admit that you're wrong, even just admitting it to yourself.

E: Especially if you have some sort of deep heartfelt feelings for the subject in one way or the other.

I: Also, I think that conspiracy theories are kind of reassuring in a way, because it's much more reassuring to believe that there is a government cover-up here, than it is that these weird things that we can't identify are in the sky. Or we've seen something we can't explain, or indeed, that anybody could go out and kill a bunch of people for no particular reason that we're aware of until it happens. That's much more scary.

Whereas putting a huge, big story where it takes a lot of people, and you get an enemy that's quite, you know...

S: I agree. That's a part of the psychology of the grand conspiracy theories. But the problem with them, of course, intellectually is that they're designed to be insulated from disconfirmation. Once you believe in the conspiracy, there's no way to prove that it's not going on, because any evidence against the conspiracy is part of the conspiracy. Any evidence that's missing is being covered up. So you're locked into the belief system.

I: Yeah, Steven, but that's what they told me you'd say, so ...


S: Exactly! Seriously, that's what people do! You joke, but that's ... they even try to inoculate you sometimes against people who will try to disabuse you of your belief.

New Method to find Exoplanets (17:40)[edit]

S: Bob, tell us about a new method for finding exoplanets, because we don't have enough methods yet for finding these things.

B: Yeah, right. If you follow astronomy news at all, it's hard to miss a lot of these news items about exoplanet discoveries. The past ten or fifteen years, it just exploded, the amount of planets that we've found. So as these methods that we have, like Steve mentioned, that we have to detect them, they have become more and more refined. And new tools come on line, like with the Kepler Space Telescope, which is really causing a huge influx of new potential candidates.

But now there's another technique. And Steve, yeah, you make it kind of sound like, "Oh, how many do we need?" But this one is kind of special.

S: No, I think we need more methods, actually, because the ones we have are sort of limited in what...

B: Well, yeah

S: they can see, yeah.

B: Then this is exactly what this new one addresses. This one uses the emission of radio auroras from gas giants that our radio telescopes can actually detect. The key advantage is that it may allow for us to detect these Jupiter-sized Jovian objects, Jovian planets that are billions of miles from the star that they're orbiting.

Now, current methods have little hope of doing that as easily as this new technique does. Doctor Jonathan Nichols and colleagues at the University of Leicester recently...

(Isza laughs)

B: What? Oh come on!

I: He said Lies-sester. Lester, please! It says Lester. How do you spell "lester?"

R: You picked the perfect show to talk about this news story.

J: How's it feel Bob? Einstein!

B: I think these people don't know how to spell, but I'll pronounce it the appropriate way, sure.

I: Tell me where you think the national astronomy meeting is actually being held. I want you to pronounce that place in Wales.

B: Oh yeah, I was really anticipating this one. Lon-dude-no, I would say.

I: Lon-dude-no? No. Chan-dud-no.

B: Lan-dud-no?

I: Double-L is a C-H in Welsh.

B: Interesting.

E: Got that?

I: The irony of meeting there – I've gigged a couple of times in Llandudno, and it's every single time you go, it's pouring with rain. There's no cloudier, wetter place in the country than there. And the idea of astronomy with, ah! Perfect season skies.

J: I can't even understand what you're saying when ... Lun-ded-no?

I: Lan-dud-no. I'm not doing it right, because I'm not doing it proper Welsh accent. Do a bit Welsh, (speaks in Welsh) That means...

S: That sounds almost Elvish.

E: Italian!

I: It is, seriously, Tolkein was ripping off of Welsh.

S: Was that right?

I: Yeah. Elvish stuff.

E: What a bloke.

I: Exactly. Sorry.

S: So, Leicester, Bob. These guys were in Leicester?

B: Yeah, at the University of Lester. They recently presented their results at the Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting ... in Wales!


B: He said this is the first study to predict the radio emissions by exoplanetary systems similar to those we find at Jupiter or Saturn. At both of these planets, we see radio waves associated with auroras generated by interactions with ionized gas coming from volcanic moons.

Now, our studies shows that we could detect emissions from radio auroras from Jupiter-like systems orbiting at distances as far out as Pluto. And that's the key thing.

The emissions then are generated by fast-moving electrons from the moons, that are coming from the moons, that are spiraling along the gas-giant's magnetic field lines. But instead of generating visible light, like you would see with the aurora borealis or australis; planets can also generate these auroras that are lower energy radio light that we can detect with radio telescopes from great distances apparently.

Now the two, I think we should just quickly mention the two most widely-used techniques to detect these planets. And we've mentioned them before, you got the transit method, where the planet occludes a star, and you can kind of see the dip in radiation coming from the sun; and there's the wobble method, which basically detects the gravitational tug of war between the planet and the star that are detectable.

Now, if you use these techniques to find a Jupiter or Saturn-sized planet at the distances that they are, you would have to either be very, very lucky, or have to wait a long time since their orbits are twelve years and thirty years I think respectively.

S: But the chance that they will occlude, and the amount that they'll occlude would be less. So the transit method and the tugging method both favor larger planets closer to their parent star.

B: Exactly. So the closer you are, the better it is with those techniques. And that's why less than ten percent of all the exoplanets ever found are actually at distances comparable to our outer planets. Very small percentage.

Like I said, they either got lucky with these, or they watch them for a long time. So this is the gap that this new technique is filling here. So it's kind of like the old story of the drunk looking for his keys under a streetlight. He's doing that because that's the only place he would be able to see them, right?

These radio auroras are kind of like another streetlight that turned on down the road. Like, “Oh! Here's another way we could look and find these other planets.”

S: But they said it's only good out to about a 150 light years.

B: Yeah, that's true, which is kind of a disappointing limit...

S: limitation. There's still a lot of stars that close, but still, that's a limitation.

B: Yeah, that's true.

S: Cool. But they haven't actually found any planets using this method yet.

B: No, they're just releasing this information just recently.

S: So you're saying it's plausible, so now they have to actually start using it to see...

B: Yeah, but what a great idea though, using these radio waves. We've got, our radio telescopes are incredible! Especially some of the new ones coming out. I think the new one coming out later this year is LOFAR. Really, really advanced. And they specifically mention that one that will be able to detect this stuff. So maybe later this year, we'll start detecting some of this stuff.

S: And it seems pretty likely that the Jovians would have moons that were producing an ionosphere. They're putting on ions in one way or another.

B: Yeah, the tidal forces, you gotta create some sort of volcanism, right? And a lot of these emissions are coming from these volcanoes on these moons.

S: Yeah, or geysers like with, they discovered that between Enceladus and Saturn there is not only an ionosphere, but there's these beams of electrons going back and forth between the planet and the moon.

E: Sharing electrons.

S: Because it's within the magnetosphere of Saturn, and it's spewing out all these ions. And that is creating these belts of electrons between the moon and Saturn.

I: So if you went on there, and you didn't, for whatever reason wear a space helmet, would your hair stand on end? Is it that static?

S: That would be the least of your worries.

I: Well, yeah.


Plans for NASA Space Shuttles (24:44)[edit]

S: Jay, tell us

Another Power Balance Lawsuit ()[edit]

Nails of Christ ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week - simulation of gravity waves from black holes.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: A recent study suggests that all people have one of three types of gut flora ecosystems, which does not follow racial or geographical lines. Item #2: Scientists have developed a fabric-like material that can automatically repair itself if it is scratched or even cut. Item #3: Computer simulations find that temperatures and pressures in the Earth's mantle are sufficient for the abiogenesis of long-chain hydrocarbons - the formation of oil from methane rather than decomposing organic matter.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'I think that it is much more likely, that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence.' -Richard Feynman

Voice-over: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at You can also check out our other podcast, The SGU 5x5, as well as find links to our blogs and the SGU forums. For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by leaving us a review on iTunes, Zune, or your portal of choice.


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