SGU Episode 308

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SGU Episode 308
8thJune 2011
Nazi Spaceship.jpg
SGU 307 SGU 309
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
PP: Phil Plait
Quote of the Week
Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing! You see things, not as they are, but as you are.
Eric Butterworth
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday June 8th, 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: And Evan Bernstein

E: Yuan Shang Hao. Good evening to all of our listeners in China of which there are...

J: I like your intonation

S: Inflection

B: I'm not sure if it was accurate though but it sounded good

E: Does anyone listen to us in China?

R: Of course, yeah, we have some Chinese listeners

S: But if you use the wrong inflection you say, 'I wanna massage your grandmother', so you've gotta be careful

E: You know the thing about saying 'good evening' in Chinese is that I want to say it again in an hour. I don't know what it is

B: O.M.G.

R: Wow

J: That was so bad

R: He's been working on that joke all night

E: Where's my rim shot? Ah crud. (cymbals)

R: You get a sad trombone (sad trombone)

S: Rebecca you're joining us from London this week

J: I say

R: I am, yes, I'm back in Old Blighty, as no-one calls it

E: Rebecca Poppins

R: Yeah, so once again the listeners are being treated to Rebecca at one thirty in the morning. Awesome.

J: But you're still kind of on US time

R: No, not really

J: But you're not in a bad mood

R: No, not really

J: Well at least you're happy recording the show

R: No

This Day in Skepticism ()[edit]

June 11, 1854. G.F. Bernhard Riemann proposed that space is curved in a lecture titled Über die Hypothesen welche der Geometrie zu Grunde liegen.

S: Alright. Evan tell us what is absolutely fascinating about this day in skepticism

E: Well on this day that you're listening to the show it was 1854 in which the famous mathematician Bernhard Riemann proposed that space is curved and he announced this in a lecture titled On the Hypothesis on which Geometry is Based, which is apparently a very famous lecture that he gave. And what he did is he described the old-fashioned, Euclidean two-dimensional plane geometry along with some other examples of old geometry and... well let me put it to you this way. There's an example in which on a piece of paper there lived a bookworm, right, and this bookworm was drawn on the piece of paper so it was drawn in two-dimensional. You take the paper and you fold it up and you crumple it up. Now the worm drawn on the paper has no sense of the cumbling and the distortion of space that's going on around him because he also exists in two dimensions. Right, follow me so far?

S: Right

R: Yeah

B: Gotcha

S: Oh yeah

E: Whereas actually that crumpled paper is in three dimensions. So extend that out, we live in a world of three dimensions, but actually everything going around us exists in, what we believe is four dimensions, the fourth dimensions being time. And this was important not only as an important discovery of his time but it also influenced scientists and physicists such as Einstein who used Riemann's work in his theory of general relativity in which he incorporated time as the fourth dimension.

S: Yeah but when Riemann was talking about higher dimension I think he was talking about higher spatial dimensions, not necessarily with time as the fourth dimension. That was something that Einstein inserted. He was saying that space itself is curved into a physical fourth dimension which we can't perceive because we're on the surface of the paper like the...

E: That's right, we're like the worm. The two-dimensional worm on the paper has no idea it's getting all crumpled and crushed up.

S: But it's interesting. Imagine being the first guy to think of space as not linear, that's it's not Euclidean, that it's curved. That's mind blowing, right?

E: Big deal

B: The way he did that was to... I guess he was the first one to actually think of introducing numbers at every point in space and that was how he came upon the idea of using that method to describe how it was bent. I guess a pretty key insight. I wonder how relativity would have been affected if he hadn't come up with that and whether it would have been delayed significantly.

R: I don't know. For some reason this reminds me a lot of, was it Plato? Plato's cave/wall idea of people who are...

E: Shadows?

R: Yeah, I guess seeing shadows on a cave/wall so they assume that that's all that life is are these two-dimensional shadows, so if you were to explain the three-dimensional world to them it would blow their minds. And of course you can't say that Plato was thinking in terms of, well maybe there was a fourth dimension, a fourth spatial dimension as such, but I mean he was thinking in those sorts of terms, don't you think?

S: Yeah well that... our perception of reality is shaped by the physical reality in which we live

J: Right

S: We may be ignorant of reality in the same way that the cave shadow people are ignorant of their ultimate reality

R: Right and that's not to suggest that Plato had any sort of evidence of a fourth spatial dimension. I just want to put that out there. For conspiracy theorists out there...

S: He was talking more in just general philosophical terms, not that specific manifestation

J: Bob, what about this thing where we have these three dimensions that we can easily perceive and understand. But why do the dimensions end there? In other words, why couldn't there have been a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, an eighth dimension that are physical dimensions?

B: There actually might be and some theories actually, string theory and things, actually consider that - have that as an integral part of that. But those dimensions are, it's kind of weird, they're actually wrapped up and compacted in such a small space that they're not visible easily, so higher dimensions can exist in our universe but we just can't really detect them yet, it's not obvious beyond the three spatial dimensions we're aware of now.

E: I've heard that membrane theory relies on 11 dimensions - they can calculate 11 dimensions based on those theories.

B: Yeah

J: How about - I've heard of other theories talking about other dimensions of time. Imagine two dimensions of time, say, four or five dimensions of say space and two of time. What would that be like?

R: Crazy. That would be...

B: Crazy. How many... two watches wherever you go

S: This kind of stuff only makes sense in the context of mathematics. We can't, you know, really think about it physically.

J: You know just because we can think of them mathematically does that mean that they actually exist?

S: No. No, but there is something to the fact that it makes the Math more elegant. It sort of solves problems to bump things up a dimension and think of the reality as a three dimensional manifestation of a four dimensional reality or however many you ultimately get up to. So what does this mean? I mean this is a big question in theoretical physics or science in general, you know, when things start to fit together and become more elegant and have more explanatory power. That's nice, but it's not the same thing as it being actually the case and that's where we get into the debate about whether or not string theory can be a real science because it's not empirical, just theoretical.

News Items[edit]

SGU-24 (7:24)[edit]

The first 24 hour Live SGU event. September 23, 2011, starting at 8:00pm

S: Well we have a couple of news items coming up. Phil Plait's going to be coming up in a while to talk about some astronomy news but first we have a couple of other news items. The first one is SGU related. Do you guys know... I know you guys know what's going to happen... I hope you know by now - September 23rd and 24th, this fall, 2011, a very special event will be occurring: we will be holding... we have decided for some crazy reason to do a 24 hour live streaming SGU event.

R: Extravaganza

B: Extreme is right

J: And I want everyone to know from the beginning that I'm totally against it

E: Yes, we are bringing J kicking and screaming to this event

R: Which should only make it more entertaining I think

E: Oh yeah

B: I thought of a name, I just thought of a name for it

S: What?

B: Skeptapalooza

S: Oh come on

R: That's a terrible name

B: Best one I've heard yet

S: Alright, our working title is SGU24 but we're certainly open to suggestions

J: And I get to play Jack Bower then

E: "Where's the bomb?"

S: Does that mean we get to torture you and stop your heart and then get it going again?

J: Jump my heart with a car battery and then I'll be able to do 14 hours of show? (all laugh)

I loved every goddam season of that programme.

R: You know Jay, for some reason when I hear you mention 24 hours it doesn't really bother me that much, but when you mention 14 hours it occurs to me, like, we will have already been recording for ten hours and we'll have 14 to go and now I'm against it too.

S: Well that's like we were flying to Australia and we were on the plane for what seems like forever and we find out we still have ten more hours left on the plane. Yeah it's bad. This won't be quite that bad because it'll be in my house

E: We like doing the heavy lifting, these special events, things that other sane people would never try.

S: So more details will be unfolding over the ensuing months, but save the dates September 23rd at 8pm and for the following 24 hours you'll be able to eat, sleep and breathe the SGU. And it'll be video. And we'll be broadcasting from a very special location.

R: You already said, from your house

S: But it's a special location within my house.

E: Right...

B: And we haven't named it yet, we need a special name

J: Bob, we did name it!

S: It's the skeptilair.

R: (groans) Oh, please make it stop.

E: The skeptiman cave, with Rebecca

R: It's just gonna continue to get worse isn't it.

S: Unfortunately

J: This show will be fused... it'll be infused... with have Star Trek, with Star Wars, it'll have internet, it'll have TVs, it'll have computers, it'll have gadgets, it'll have things that pop and bubble

B: Skulls!

E: And it'll have no bathroom breaks. We'll all have to go down on one leg.

S: We'll all have catheters going to bottles strapped to our thighs

B: And one dead body

E: Oooo...

S: At least one dead body, yes

E: At least one, if not more

J: Yeah, SGU just jumped the shark

(all laugh)

R: Also we'll be introducing a young child onto the show. Our new, six-year-old love child.

(all chuckle nervously)

B: I thought you were referencing Oliver from the Brady Bunch

R: Oliver

B: The punk

R: The kid on married with children

E: You remember the Brady Bunch, Rebecca? No?

R: I've heard of the Brady Bunch

B: (gasp)

E: Heard of the Brady Bunch...

R: Anyway, the point is

J: 'Pork chops and applesauce'

(all laugh)

E: 'Oh, my nose!' (chuckles to self)

R: Are these... Are these Brady Bunch jokes? Is that what we...

J: Mum always said don't paintball in the house

E: That's why they're all zooming over your head

S: Yes

R: Yes. Alright, can we go back to Star Trek?

J: Oh woah.

E: 'He's dead Jim'

B: Never thought I'd hear her say that

S: But worse, can you imagine 24 hours of this?

R: I'm just gonna bring earplugs

(Steve laughs)

R: I'm going to bring a big pair of headphones. So I can just listen to my music.

S: Noise cancellation.

Alright, well, let's go on...

B: Geek cancellation

Psychic Tipster (12:06)[edit]

Reuters: UPDATE 6-Texas authorites find no bodies after psychic tip

S: ...To another news item, Rebecca. A psychic gave a very interesting tip to the police

R: That's right, Steve. 'Texas authorities find up to 30 bodies'. That was the headline that Reuters decided to run with. 'Texas authorities find up to 30 bodies, including children, buried in a mass grave in a rural home East of Houston', local media reported.

(All laugh)

R: Ah, it goes on to say, 'It might not have been 30, it was 25 to 30, but preliminary reports did indicate that there were children.' So a really horrific scene there, Tuesday night, that was on June 7. And there was a lot of confusion as these reports were coming in, but it turns out that this amazing find was in fact discovered by a psychic. It came in through a psychic tip, the psychic told the police to go to this specific house in Texas and to search for bodies, the police went there, they didn't find anything so the same caller, the same anonymous psychic caller called back and again stated that there were bodies there it's just that the police were in slightly the wrong spot. So the psychic gave even more exact directions so the police went back and they found... Nothing.

S: Nothing?

Nothing. There was nothing. They found a small amount of blood on the porch of a house nearby and for some reason that turned into 'Texas authorities find up to 30 bodies including children', which is basically what the psychic had reported. But try as the might, the Texas authorities were actually unable to find any evidence of any bodies. The home-owners, the people who lived in the house on that property were truckers, cross-country truckers, who were out on the road when it happened. When reached for comment they said no, they were not murderers.

J: We don't know nothing about no bodies

B: Exactly

E: 'No bodies' (laughs)

R: But, apparently some slightly deranged person had cut his wrists on their porch a few weeks back.

S: Apparently it was the daughter's fiancée who was AWOL from the army

R: Yes

S: And cut himself deliberately and blood went all over the place and now is in a military psych facility, apparently.

R: Yes. And so, yeah, there was absolutely nothing. There was no sign of any bodies anywhere on the property. There was no reason to suspect that these people killed anyone. It was all thanks to one anonymous quote-unquote 'psychic'. So now after it's finally come out there were, in fact, no bodies, the police are discussing trying to charge the tipster. Although there's no real indication whether or not they'll be able to discover the identity of the caller. But hopefully they can and hopefully this person will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Because this is what we see again and again. You see, when people ask, 'What's the harm? Psychic detectives, they're just adding another, you know, another possibility of finding a body or finding a murderer', well this is the problem. You have somebody that thinks that they're a psychic offering what they think... And they might actually believe this, they may actually think that they're having psychic visions about something and think that they're helping. But what they're only doing, really, is that they're wasting the police's time. Can you imagine how many detectives and how many offices they had to be on this searching this property to find out that there's absolutely nothing? And that...

S: And the FBI get involved.

R: Yeah. Surely they had something better to do.

S: Yeah

E: There were aerial video pictures of the groups - all the cars and all the detectives and the personnel - it was throngs of people at this supposed place. It was a huge waste of resources. Huge.

R: Yeah. And, of course, to me it's still not as bad as the cases you have where there's been a disappearance of someone and there's been a quote-unquote 'psychic' contact the relatives or someone and say that they have evidence of where this person is.

J: (In character) The kid's dead.

R: Exactly, that causes an incredible amount of emotional, psychological damage to these families. In this case, at least the damage was just economic, I suppose. But that's your tax dollars at work. Tracking down the pointless tips from pychics.

S: Now Rebecca, there're a few details to this story that I found very interesting. Of course, I'm basing this... I've read multiple articles on this and they were shuffling around the same basic facts. And that one was the blood on the porch. Another one though, was that when the cops got there they described a quote-unquote 'Overwhelming smell of decomposition'.

R: Oh yeah, yeah I saw that noted as well.

S: Yeah, so... which leant... so now you have the blood and the decomp. which meant 'oh right, this is legit, there's something here', so that's how they justified the massive response. Yeah, initially it was just a couple of guys going to check it out, but these details led to the more... calling in the FBI and getting the bigger response. Plus they also noted that there were some details, some, you know, some geographic details relating to the layout of the house that the psychic got pretty accurately and that that convinced them also that this was a legitimate tip, and not just a lunatic.

R: Right. And of course maybe the psychic just had knowledge of this area, been by or something.

S: Yeah

R: There was also the fact that apparently the property owner's son is a convicted sex offender, though he hasn't lived there for over a year and that the smell, the foul stench that the police identified was found to be coming from piles of rotting garbage.

S: Yeah. They were truckers who were on the road, so they were...

R: Right

S: Yeah

R: There were a lot of little details that when combined with this quote-unquote 'psychic tip' led the police to realise they... you know, needed to do something because these were all adding to a sort-of confirmation bias

S: Yeah, exactly, it's circumstantial evidence, confirmation bias, and you think, 'What's the chance that the police checking out a tip are gonna find blood on the porch?' Well it turns out it's probably not... You know first it asks the wrong question. The question is not, 'What's the chance of finding blood?', it's 'What's the chance of finding something suspcious?'

R: Right

S: And all the different things that could be suspicious. And the fact that somebody bled sometime in the last week or so was not that remarkable. And the quote-unquote 'decomp' was just the truckers on the road left the garbage behind which was rotting and smelling.

R: Yeah

S: So those, kind of, circumstantial things, you know, it's actually pretty likely, but when you're hunting for confirmation of your suspicions it's amazing how many connections you can make even on something apparently random like this. My only other question is, as you say, was this really just a random tip from an alleged psychic or did she have reason to point the police out to this house?

R: Yeah, I mean I, not knowing anything about... anything... (laughs)

S: You know, we don't have the details

R: Yeah, it's hard to say

E: It's unfolding, you know, it's still unfolding

R: I'm hoping that maybe somebody is looking into the guy who slit his wrists on the porch - I mean, it was a woman who called in but it's obviously some bad blood, so to speak, happening around there. So it's not out of the question to imagine that there might be someone who had reason to want to disrupt the people who lived there. That could be a cause.

S: And the police said specifically that somebody was looking into the revenge angle. That this was done to make trouble for the home-owners

R: Yeah

S: Okay. Well we're going to bring in Phil Plait the Bad Astronomy to cover these next few items because they have an Astronomy-theme. So Phil, welcome to Skeptics' Guide.


PP: Hey, thanks for having me on once again

S: It's always great to have you, Phil Plat

PP: Kay, thanks

R: Oh, yeah, right, rings a bell

E: Phil Prat, what a good gag

PP: You know I don't care if people mispronounce my name so long as they can spell it and can find it online

R: Right, spoken like a true nerd

E: Can we call you Philip?

PP: No

S: Is your name Philip or is it really legally just Phil?

E: I don't know, I'd have to check my birth certificate. Which I know actually has my middle name misspelled on it but there you go

R: Phil Plait doesn't know his own name

PP: Those details are irrelevant

Explosion on the Sun (21:57)[edit]

Bad Astronomy, Discover magazine: The Sun lets loose a HUGE explosion

S: So Phil, we were going to talk about this news item about this massive explosion on the sun we just had to talk about with you so won't you tell us about it?

PP: This is a pretty good story. The sun goes through these cycles, it has a magnetic field like a... like a magnet. And the magnetic field goes through cycles and it gets stronger every few years. It's an 11 year cycle. So it gets stronger then it fades, it gets stronger then it fades and we're sort of on the ramp up to the peak solar activity and we see this manifested on the surface of the sun with sunspots and solar flares and all kinds of cool stuff like that.

S: Phil, do we know what causes that cycle?

PP: No (laughs). That's the good part.

S: Okay...

PP: Well, there's some models that indicate why the sun's solar cycle goes up and down, it has to do with the way that the gas... is actually a plasma, it's an ionised gas inside the sun, is circulating around and when you move charged particles you generate a magnetic field and so this movement is very complicated and it has to do with the way that this gas is being transported in the solar interior. And what happens is is that the magnetic field gets dragged along with the stuff inside the sun, breaks through the sun's surface and that's why we see sunspots and various things, and magnetic field effects, it's the gas itself.

S: Is it an oscillation like a Cepheid variable's an oscillation, is that the theory?

PP: No, it has more to do with the way gas is flowing through the centre of the sun... well not through the centre, not through the core itself, but at the core the gas is very hot, it radiates that heat away. The gas above that then convects. The hot stuff rises and the cool stuff sinks just like in the Earth's atmosphere or in a boiling pot of water, and the problem is that that's not a simple system – the sun is rotating so there're rivers of gas like jet streams that are moving underneath the sun's surface. It's really complicated and the models that are trying to figure out how that works... They're not bad, they're doing a decent job but it's really really hard to figure out exactly all the motions that are going on inside, you know, this star that we're living nearby.

S: Right

PP: So what happens is as the magnetic field pokes through the surface of the sun it creates sunspots and these magnetic lines, you can think of them as like field lines, get tangled up and there's energy stored in them and if they get too tangled up they can actually sort of erupt – one of them snaps and it sets up a cascade or a lot of them snap and they all release their energy. You can imagine them like a bunch of mousetraps sitting on your floor and you throw a ping pong ball in there and as everything bounces around the mousetraps release all their energy you get a lot of snapping and motion and all kinds of craziness. Well that's what happens. And this can form a solar flare. It's a gigantic explosion on the surface of the sun. And it can be billions of megatons of energy released in just a few minutes. That's what happened on the sun and it wasn't actually that big of a flare as they go, they're different classes and this was a fare-to-middling sized explosion. But what happened, it was pretty unusual, is that there was an enormous fountain of gas that erupted off the surface of the sun and that's not usually associated with these types of events and now NASA has the Solar Dynamics Observatory which is this really phenomenal satellite and it's observing the sun at a lot of different wavelengths. So we have a high resolution, really gorgeous basically video, just images taken every couple of minutes or something like that, and you can string them together to make videos so you can see this flare. The eruption, this fountain of material flowing out from the sun and falling back down. And in different wavelengths it's just unbelievable it looks like, you know, ink flowing through water in one wavelength of light and in another it looks like fiery gas blowing out, it's just spectacular.

R: So Phil, how long until we all die?

PP: Ah, for you? Well it depends on your lifestyle habits – is there something you need to tell us?

R: Well, you know now I'm just a bit concerned about crazy things flying out of the sun at me.

PP: Well in this case, this particular event wasn't energetic enough to really do much. It did blow out a cloud of particles called coronal mass ejection, and that's gonna kinda sorta nick the Earth. It's not really directed at us. There maybe some aurorae associated with this, probably not much. On the other hand, you know, big flares, something that's bigger than this, we saw bigger ones earlier this year in February, they can damage satellites, they can affect the Earth's magnetic field. They can't really cause any specific problems here on Earth directly – you're not going to get irradiated, you're not going to turn into the Incredible Hulk, you're not going to melt, you're not going to turn into chud or morlocks or anything like that. Sorry.

B: Cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers.

PP: I know I know, a couple of you guys would probably love to see that happen.

(All laugh)

PP: But it can have effects you know. We have satellites up in space that can be damaged by this. You're basically zapping them with excess current and that can fry their electronics and we depend on a lot of the satellites like GPS, for financial transactions and all kinds of stuff like that. So corporations take this pretty seriously, they try to make sure their satellites are safeguarded against these kinds of events. Not all of them are. So we have to be careful about this and understand these sorts of events better so that we can build better satellites and protect them. Plus, you know, there're astronauts the International Space Station and they can be in danger of radioactive... well not radioactive, it's radiation, it's different than what we might we might think of as radioactivity, but these bizarre floods of subatomic particles that can come through the metal and whatnot, and I can't believe I just said whatnot, but the metal and other materials if I want to be a little more scientific, umm, in the space station - they may have to go to a better protected section of the station so that they don't get irradiated.

S: Yeah, or otherwise they might turn into the Fantastic Four

PP: I think that's true, yeah

E: Oh god

PP: Although I hope they make a better movie with actual astronauts than they would from the comic books.

S: Phil, if this explosion were aimed right at the Earth how bad would it have been?

PP: This one wouldn't have been as bad. We get some pretty spectacular aurora you know you can never say it's completely safe, we might lose a satellite, some of them might get damaged, sometimes satellites like Hubble and a lot of other ones, when they detect that there's excess current or that there's a problem they shut down automatically, they go into what's called 'safe-mode'. Sometimes, if we have enough advance warning, if there's a big flare, an X-class flare, one of these gigantic ones like we had earlier this year, or back in 2003 when the sun was just popping them off like popcorn it was really amazing, if you have enough warning you can shut down sensitive satellites and that's something that a lot of people are looking into. There's a space weather centre actually here in Boulder, it's not far from where I live, and they monitor the sun very careful, they issue warnings all the time in the hope that even just a few minutes warning can be enough to shut down these satellites and potentially save, you know, billions or tens of billions of dollars of assets in space.

E: Hey Phil just a few years ago we were talking about the lack of activity going on in the sun and how that was very unusual that low amount of activity for a long time, no sunspots for many months in a row. Now that we're seeing... since then the sun has been active with sunspots and all these other things that the sun does. What can we expect? Does the sun make up for lost time in a sense because of that lower activity and is it, like, trying to catch up to an equilibrium now?

PP: Nobody knows. I remember a couple of years ago people were arguing about this, that this long period of solar minimum which we kind of understand why it happened, or at least how it happened, but why the circumstances were set up for it to happen or not are not terribly well understood, but we do know that it was a record length of time with basically minimal solar activity. And so people were arguing, does this mean that the solar cycle will be also, you know, lower activity? when it reaches its peak will it be a lower than usual peak? Or will this mean that sun is building up energy and it's going to explode? Not literally, but you know, do something equally serious, and nobody really knows, and the thing is you have to be careful, I know you guys talk about anomaly hunting, the sun is going to do stuff like this. In February we had a bunch of X-class flares, there was a lower energy M-class flare. It was an unusual event because of that fountain of material that had never been seen before but, you know, who knows if it's actually happened before and we missed it, we just didn't have the equipment to see it, so you can't put too much credit to a single event or even a series of events. We just have to keep, you know, averaging up what's going on and see what's gonna happen. The peak of this cycle should happen in mid- to late-2013 and then into 2014 and it's actually after the peak that we usually see the strongest flares. And we'll just have to see what happens in, you know, 2014/2015 when the sun really starts to pop these guys off.

R: It seems a lot like climate science where we can't really look at it on a day-to-day scale. We have to look at it at... it's such a complex system. You know you have to look at it at a much larger scale. But, you know, I think scientists can understand that but from the perspective of someone who doesn't necessarily know how these things work I think it's easy for the media to, sort of, blow things like this out of proportion. Have you seen anything... any terrible reporting on this in that respect, Phil?

PP: Duh. Actually, this particular event... I poked around a few websites and it was being reported fairly well, but I can't remember which one it was, you know, I wanna say it was the Daily Mail but that's sort of my go-to garbage tabloid, that basically said we're all gonna die. I can't remember if that's the one I saw or not so I don't wanna cast aspersions on them when it's not deserved because usually it is the Daily Mail. But people... you're right in a lot of the things you said, people don't necessarily understand what's going on when they see this they panic. I got some emails from some people who were concerned about this and I had to say, no, you know, this was not that big of a deal. And you're right that we have to look at the long time scale. Just because a bunch of tornadoes broke out across the Mid West or in New England over the past few weeks doesn't mean they were swarming even if we get stronger hurricanes or more hurricanes this season, or a longer hurricane season doesn't mean that global warming is affecting you. You can't look at it that way, you've just got to take a step back, use longer time scale bins and hope that these trends are enough to see what's going on.

S: Yeah, and how many 11 year cycles have we been able to observe? How long have we had good observation of the sun?

PP: Well the first observations of the solar magnetic activity were actually in 1859 and it's pretty interesting actually, the guy, Carrington, looked at the sun with a visible light telescope and saw a flare – which is extremely rare for a flare to actually be seen with visible light. It's still to this day the strongest solar flare that's ever been seen. It caused all kinds of havoc on the earth at the time the telegraph... and stuff. And so we've been measuring the sun's activity now for about 150 years and when you look at the cycles they're all over the place, some are really strong some last longer some are weaker, it's just difficult to know what any given cycle's gonna do. We can only say that it's roughly 11 years it's not exactly 11 years. The activity tends to be strongest after the peak, that sort of stuff, but for any given event you can't really predict it. You can see, 'Hey look, there's a big old sun spot cluster there, and magnetic fields that are really strong, we ought to be keeping our eyes on it'. But that's no different from your tropical depression appearing in the Atlantic and the conditions look good to form a hurricane.

S: Yeah.

PP: You never now what's gonna happen. You've just gotta keep your eyes open for the precursors and hope for the best.

S: Well there's a couple of the news items we'd like you to hang around for if that's okay.

How Common is the Moon? (34:25)[edit]

BBC news: Moons like Earth's could be more common than we thought

S: Bob, give us the summary on the new computer models about the formation of the moon.

B: Define summary.

S: (laughs)

E: The opposite of wintry.

(all laugh)

S: All right, not Bob length.

B: Researchers are redefining the rarity of Earth-moon system. They're saying that a whopping one in ten rocky planets may have satellites that's as big as our moon when compared to the Earth. Using these new sophisticated computer simulations it seems that the massive impacts that resulted in our relatively huge moon may be common, actually, throughout the universe. This research is coming from the Scientists from the Zurich Institute of Theoretical Physics in Switzerland and the Morishma at the University of Colorado in the US. They simulated planet formation from gas and chunks of planetesimal and they took these results and they factored them into another simulation, an N-body simulation, to see what the chances were that large satellites could form for that. And they were quite surprised to find that there was about a one in twelve chance of forming a planet and the satellite moon with both having more than half the mass of the Earth and the moon respectively. Now I liked how the BBC news article I read went into a little bit more statistical information about this. They were saying that the one in twelve or one in ten figure that you read everywhere else, they were saying that for the full range of possibilities it was between one in 45 and one in four. So that's kind of what the statistics were telling them, and they kinda distilled that down to about one in twelve. So now this is all tied, of course, to the once controversial and now pretty much generally accepted theory about how our moon formed. The common wisdom now is that it was a collision between the Earth Mark I, which some people refer to as Earth Mark I, colliding with this Mars-sized object and creating a huge debris ring which kind of coalesced in about a hundred years to form the moon as we know it. Of course it was a lot closer, about 15 times larger – the parent size is about 15 times larger than the way we see it now. The cool thing is that this could actually help with planet hunting – I wasn't aware of this. Large moons can distort the measurements that are made to find planets. This new knowledge could actually make finding them easier. Now Phil wasn't sure, I mean, just because you know this fact, how could this make it easier? I mean what is it about the distortion, how could the moon distort the measurements of finding a planet? A planet and a moon are pretty much like one system from a distance anyway. You know, I was having a hard time trying to figure out how a big moon could distort planet hunter measurements.

PP: Actually I'm with you, I don't now. I read the press release and it's pretty vague on that. I've not read the actual paper or talked to anybody about this. The way you find planets are actually a bunch of ways, but the two big ones are either the way the planet is pulling on the star and as it orbits the star the star is making a little circle and it creates a dopplar shift and you can see that sort of red and blue shift in the spectrum. But that should not be affected very much by a big moon. It's hard enough to see that with a low mass planet like the Earth around a star it's a very very tiny effect.

B: Right

PP: The bigger the planet the closer in it is the more that effect is and the easier it is to see. And it's hard to see how the moon would affect this – I don't know, I'm not that familiar with it. The other way is through transits where the planet literally gets between us and the star and it blocks a little bit of the starlight. Now for a Jupiter-sized planet and a star like the sun - it'll block about one percent of the star's light which is actually fairly easy to measure, you can use equipment you can buy off the shelf, which is really cool. For an Earth-like planet the effect is actually, I think, a ten thousandth the brightness of the star which is a lot harder to measure. If there's a moon that's orbiting that planet and the moon is, like, like, our moon, a significant fraction of the planet's size, then you might see more or less light dropping. If the planet and the moon transit the star you get a slightly bigger dip than if the moon is lined up with the planet from our point of view, if that makes any sense.

B: Yeah.

PP: That's the only way I can see off the top of my head there may be other things. You need to talk to an exoplanet hunter to get the deal on this.

B: Exoplanet hunter – what a cool job.

R: It's a great name.

B: The other thing that this highlights is the importance of the moon itself. Without the moon the Earth would be a very different place and I think it's a pretty safe bet that homosapiens would not be here without the moon. One of the big things that it does is that it stabilises the tilt of the Earth's axis, what's referred to as its obliquity. Without this the tilt would over greatly extended time-spans would mess with the overall heating of the Earth in ways that could make it fairly inimical to life, although I'm sure it would find ways around it.

R: Umm, would that be needed though, if nothing had smashed into the Earth in the first place to create the moon? In other words, is the moon just balancing out the wobble that was created by its own creation?

B: No. No, without the moon and without any impact they think they found some good examples that ummm... Yeah, the tilt would vary over great periods of time.

R: Because there are lot of planets without moons. What is it about the Earth that makes it require a moon?

PP: Well think of it this way. If you have a spinning top and it's perfectly balanced it'll spin really well. But if you put a lump of clay on one side of it and let it spin it'll start to wobble and that wobble can become chaotic. And so that's kinda what's happening with the Earth. You've got continents that are moving around and they cause it to be off-balance. As the Earth spins and as the moon pulls on the Earth you get a bulge around the middle of the Earth and it's the torque of the moon on that bulge, I think, that stabilises it. I'm not an expert on this but that's how I understand it. And that prevents the Earth's wobble from becoming chaotic. Venus spins much more slowly than the Earth, so I don't think it's as big of a deal. Mars, on the other hand, has roughly the same rate of spin as the Earth – it spins once a day – and there is evidence that in the past the axis of its spin has changed and some times a lot, indicating that... and I should add that it does not have a big moon it has too little dinky moons, and so it's possible that without that big moon torquing the Earth and keeping the spin from going all wobbly you get a planet that flips over and that has drastic effects on the seasons. It's not obvious, it's certainly not easy to understand how that all works, but it does seem to be the way the science is pointing right now.

S: Yeah, I remember when I was reading about the stabilising effect of the moon on the Earth, and how nice it is to have that. And at the same time, how rare the previous thinking was about how common we would see an Earth-Moon type of system. I was depressed as it would probably be very very few worlds out there that are as compatible to human life as our own system so if this is true, if these computer models are correct, and it's actually far more common, maybe, on average, one per solar system or something of that order of magnitude, that's reassuring for prospects of habitable planets out there.

B: Absolutely.

PP: You know it's reassuring, but it's not surprising at all. I've never bought into the Rare Earth idea.

S: Yeah

PP: You can say Earths must be common because we're on one – what are the odds? But that's, you know, you guys know all about that – it's like the water in the puddle saying “How remarkable it is that there's just enough water in here to fit the puddle” - you're looking at it the wrong way. So the idea that we're just the right size, just the right distance from the sun, with the moon and the magnetic field, and, and, and... it's like, you know, I'm not buying into all this. I think that there are lots of Earths out there. It's not uncommon to see stars like the sun. 10% of the stars in the galaxy are like the sun. We're starting to see that planets are common. We're starting to get an idea that planets the size of the Earth are common. If they're spinning rapidly and they have enough radioactive materials in their core they're gonna have a magnetic field. And so I think that that's something we're gonna see as common. And now, you know, if the moon is important for us to be here it seems very unlikely that we'd be the only planet in the galaxy like that, and we know that collisions are common, we know that planets are moving around in their star systems early on in the history of these things and so all of this stuff does not strike me as being all that surprising. I would have expected it. I don't know if I would have said as many as one in four Earth-like planets might have big moons, but the way objects get tossed around and the recent finding that there may be more planets wandering interstellar space than there are stars in the galaxy...

S: Yeah, how cool is that?

B: That is awesome

PP: ...Lends credence to this. The planets are moving around, they interact with each other, they change positions in the solar system, they toss each other out gravitationally, so we know that this stuff happens. So I wouldn't use the word inevitable, but I would say that this finding is not surprising. It's just cool.

S: Yeah, it's just never been aesthetically pleasing to me to think that the Earth is really really rare. For all the reasons that you said. There's sort of the principle of mediocrity or whatever you call it, that chances are we're an unremarkable planet around an unremarkable star, around an unremarkable galaxy, you know. There's never any reason to think that we have a very special position in the universe. But there is a bit of the lottery fallacy that you were alluding to. If life were very rare, any life that did arise would marvel at how rare it was. Right?

PP: Unless there were two planets in that system that had life on them

S: Right

B: Right

S: But the premise is that life is rare, so that would be possible but exceedingly unlikely. But the billions of planets roaming around interstellar space is fascinating but it's also a bit scary because you think what's the possibility that, like, a Jupiter-sized planet will come ripping through the solar system.

PP: Very very rare. The universe is a very big place, the odds of that happening are extremely low. If they were high we probably wouldn't be here, right?

S: Right

PP: If over four and half billion years, the age of the Earth, some Jupiter-sized planet... if the odds were 100% that it would scream through the solar system it would have happened by now. So the odds of it happening are very very low. It makes for a great science-fiction movie.

S: Yeah

PP: Or a good novel or something like that, but I wouldn't necessarily bet on it as a certainty. Certainly they're out there. That's something I've been wondering about for a long time – if there are frozen planets out there, and it's nice to see this big study. I mean this is not theoretical – these were observations that...

S: Yeah

PP: These planets gave themselves away through their gravity, effecting stars behind them and magnifying that light using basically a relativistic lens to... gravitational lens that Einstein predicted. So this is a direct observation and extrapolating to the entire sky you get this number of hundreds of billions of planets like this, which is awesome. But I don't think that hundreds of billions of planets spread out over the volume of a galaxy... it's still pretty thin stuff, so I don't think that this is that big of a problem for us.

E: What are the chances of any of those planets having life? You've gotta consider it small to none.

PP: Hard to say, you know. Jupiter is warmer than it would be... Let me rephrase that, it's actually radiating more heat than it receives from the sun. Left over heat from its formation, as well as some other sources of heat, so a giant planet could still be fairly warm, but there are other problems – there are gigantic convection currents bringing gas up and down so any life in a temperate zone would be dragged down to the hotter interior, so that's always been the problem with the theoretical models of how life might be inside a Jupiter-like planet. But you know what? I've learnt not to bet against nature. And I think that's the way to go. If they're out there, who knows? We'd have to go and take a look to be sure.

B: So this is all good but what's with the attitude?

PP: Shut up! What attitude?

E: You tell him

S: It was my attitude!

PP: My attitude of wonder and joy about the wonders of the universe? Is that what you're complaining about?

J: I'm pretty sure I've asked you this before but I live like a moment to moment life, which means that you could tell me the same joke, but, Phil because you really understand things, you know what's out there, you can write books like you did about the 59 ways you can get killed. Do you ever legitimately get frightened?

R: Like clowns, things like that?

E: Like crying in your bed at night?

J: No, I mean, you know... Is there anything that occurs that you're like, 'you know what, that is down right frightening - I don't like the idea that that might be coming at us at like a million miles an hour right now', you know what I mean?

PP: Oh, there's a ton of stuff like that. But you gotta differentiate between that stuff existing and that stuff being an actual danger – a threat to the Earth. Gamma ray bursts, supernovae and, my favourite, magnetars are these incredibly charged neutron stars that have field strengths that is quadrillions of times stronger than the Earth's magnetic fields, and they release super enormous blasts of energy and we got hit by one in 2004 actually, although it didn't really damage us. If there was one closer to us it could. But, you know what, we haven't been damaged by one of those things, there hasn't been a gamma ray burst in human history that has hurt us. There are no stars close enough to go supernova that can hurt us in this way, so this is not the kind of stuff that worries us. An asteroid impact, yeah, that could happen, a solar flare damaging our satellites and causing issues down here because of that – that's a legitimate worry, but that's also the sort of thing we can choose to protect ourselves from, we just haven't made that choice yet. So I don't lie awake at night fretting about these things. I have to worry about paying my taxes and worrying about what my kid is doing. Those are more the day-to-day things I'm worried about.

S: Yeah, Jay, it's far worse being a physician, knowing all the ways the body can fail, and knowing that one of those will happen to you soon.

J: Soon! (Laughs)

R: You make it sound like a threat

S: Soon-ish, within decades, which on astronomical scales is much quicker than anything that Phil has to worry about.

J: Steve, do you lie in bed at night going, “Nooo!!”

S: There definitely are times when I get little symptoms where I know all the horrible things it could be a symptom of, and I just have to say alright, don't worry about it, it's probably nothing and so far it has been.

J: Yeah, I find as I get older I ask myself a lot, and I mean this dead seriously, 'am I having a heart attack right now?' Is that pain right there the beginning of the end?

S: That's true, when you're in your 20's and you get a little left-sided chest pain you don't worry about it, you're like, I'm 25, you know, I'm not having a heart attack. But when you're 46 and the same exact thing happens you're like, okay, how much do I gotta worry about this?

PP: Hey wait a minute, why choose the age of 46?

S: Because that's my current age.

PP: Okay, yeah, that's my age as well.

S: Yeah. Yeah we're getting to that age where, you know, little things like that crop up and it's actually statistally plausible that it could be something serious.

PP: Everything is cancer. You know every time I look and I see a new mole on my shoulder it's like, 'Oh no!'

R: I don't even do that just with moles, with me it's just whatever random pain I have. Well it's cancer of the whatever-that-is.

B: 'Whatever-that-is'! God!(laughs)

S: ...Of the connectigizoid!

J: The claven.

B: “The clay-ven” (in mock-Jewish voice)

UFO Nazi Connection (50:59)[edit]

Huffington Post: Area 51 personnel feel 'betrayed' by Annie Jacobsen's Soviet-Nazi UFO connection

S: Alright, one more news item. We have to end on a funny one for Phil. Alright Evan, tell us about UFO Nazis.

E: Well how about this one? So there's an author and her name is Annie Jacobson, and she has a new book that is out called 'Area 51 – An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base'. She spends the majority of her time in this book talking the legitimate science and projects and experimental aircraft and other things that have been taking place at this facility for the past sixty years. She got together with some people who used to work there who had declassified information and they would share it. However, it's the last chapter of the book which is making headlines. Because she is drawing the conclusion that the famous saucer crash involved with Area 51 Roswell is actually a conspiracy in which the Auschwitz doctor Joseph Mengele, the German aircraft designing brothers the Haughton brothers and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin formed a conspiracy in the late 1940's to scare America silly with a Nazi-Soviet flying saucer which was crowded, get this, with 13-year olds which were surgically altered under the...

S: By Joseph Mengele.

E: ...By Joseph Mengele.

S: Yeah. To look alien.

E: ...To look alien. And that is actually the recovered pieces of the famous crash. And those people, the surgically altered people are the supposed aliens that were recovered from the crash.

R: Well I'll never again say that the 911 Truthers have the dumbest conspiracy theory out there.

S: Well you know there's always gotta be one dumber than whatever you're currently talking about.

R: That's true.

E: Now Annie Jacobson is a journalist. And the reviews I've read about the book say that she's done a decent, not perfect, job in the various chapters of the book that have to deal with the hard sciences. But this last chapter in which she draws this conclusion, she's basing it entirely upon an unnamed source, one person, an unnamed source.

PP: Glen Beck (coughs).

(all laugh)

PP: Sorry, something in my throat there.

E: Might as well be. ...Who apparently fed her all this information and that's what she's going by. And she says "Oh I totally trust this source, I mean he's very, very reliable."

R: I think I know who this source is; the source is her publicist.

S: (laughs) I was gonna say that.

B: That's right Rebecca.

E: Exactly.

R: No one would be talking about this if it weren't for that last chapter.

E; Right? Because you have to have a new angle to this whole story...

S: Exactly.

E: ...if you want your book to sell well in these days.

R: Yeah, especially 'cause it was that last chapter. I's like you know she turned in the completed book and it was all sourced and nice and ready to go, and they're like "This is good, but..."

PP: "It's way too accurate."

R: "...can't you just throw in one giant lie at the end? Just tack it on. Good job."

Steve: It's like Steve Martin tells that joke - if you're making demands, you have to always throw in that one crazy one. "I want the letter M stricken from the alphabet!" That way you can always claim insanity afterwards.


S: It's sort of a simple thing. In the last chapter you gotta go totally off the rails and start making crazy conspiracy theories 'cause that's what's gonna sell your book.

PP: I actually have two comments on this. One is that this idea that Nazis are tied with UFOs has been around for a long time. I remember reading a novel based on this conspiracy theory back when I was in grad school in the 90s. And the book wasn't new then. I think it was called "Genesis". It was this ginormous 800 page science fiction novel. It sounded fun and it was just basically the Nazi scientists that were behind all this escaped, they moved to Antarctica, they built a base there, they perfected UFO technology, and we're gonna rise again basically, so this has been around a while.

S: This is Richard Hoagland. He wrote "Our Breakaway Nazi Civilisation". He thinks NASA's run by Nazis and they're the shadow government that's doing all this UFO/face on Mars stuff.

PP: As soon as you say "Richard Hoagland", you can just put a period after that and we're done as far as I'm concerned.


S: Hoaglaaaand!

B: Oh yeah.

E: (laughs)

J: Steve, when you say that, just quickly going through your mind, like okay, he really believes that there's Nazis out there, and I have to make light of this real quick, but does he actually think they're still wearing their badass clothes with the leather and the boots, you know they still have (inaudible) and...?

R: You know there are still Nazis out there, let's (laughs) not suggest that there's no such thing as Nazis anymore.

S: Jay, I'm looking at a picture on his website, and it's a spaceship - a Nazi spaceship, that looks like a modified Nazi helmet with the skull and crossbones on the front.

(all laugh)

J: Right, there's my answer!

E: That would not be difficult mein Fuhrer (German accent).

J: A Nazi spaceship!

PP: There's a movie about Nazi UFOs from the Moon. It actually looks like a pretty fun movie.

E: Is it a porn, what the hell?

S: Nazi UFOs from the Moon?

PP: Does anyone know? It was announced about a year ago. I think it's an independent project. This is a great idea for a fictionalised novel or movie, but then on the other hand most of the stuff that Hoagland does is heavily fictionalised so there you go.

E: You know Phil, also there have been stories in the past drawn up by the UFO crowd that the Soviets had something to do with the famous crash that took place at Roswell as well. So what's happening is kind of blending all of these different aspects together and the alien bodies that were supposedly recovered. She's picking out these pieces and forming her own little opinion as to what this all means to her

PP: You know it was the expanding time waves from the Roswell crash that caused building 7 to collapse on September 11.

(sounds of agreement)

R: Yeah that makes sense actually.

B: I hate when time waves do that!

PP: I've got the equations right here. It's quite simple. I actually... to even the most dimmest person to do a second (inaudible).

B: Most dimmest!

PP: I want to say one other thing about this too. In the article on where Ms Jacobson is being quoted, she says "I don't have to..." Well what happened was these guys basically came out and said "Listen, we were sources for some of her information in the book, the good stuff in the book, and we were shocked by this last chapter, and I can't believe she took our information and did this, and she didn't ask us about this." And she is quoted here as saying, this is a quote, "For starters, journalists don't share their information with their sources prior to publication,. That's a standard rule." she said " I'm following journalist tradition." So what she's really saying is "I got this information. I'm not going to go check with the experts on it to find out what's going on because journalists don't do that." You know what? I think they do I think that's exactly what journalists do. They check their sources. So that quotation by her really sets off a lot of alarms in my head, and she goes on to say "What others think of my book can't matter to me in terms of being a journalist." (laughs) The word journalist is not a shield to be able to say whatever you want.

R: Maybe if she calls herself a journalist enough times, she'll actually become a journalist. That must be what she's thinking.

PP: You know, I've seen stuff like this happen before and I always want to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. I don't know what's going on, I haven't read the book, I've only read this article. The article could be sensationalising the last chapter. It could be relatively harmless and being misinterpreted, whatever. But these quotations from her really make me suspicious about the integrity of that last chapter. I think I'm safe in saying that.

S: Well Phil thank you for joining us it's always a pleasure.

PP: Thanks everybody. Thanks for having me on, it's always fun.

E: Thank you Phil.

S: We're gonna see you at TAM in about four weeks.

PP: I'll see you guys at TAM. I'm gonna see you at CSICon in New Orleans in October...

S: And DragonCon.

B: DragonConnn!

PP: ...and DragonCon yeah, I can't wait for DragonCon that's gonna be great.

S: You're gonna be sick of us.

R: Yeah.

E: Gonna be?

PP: I'm sorry, gonna be?

R: He's already sick of all of you.

E: Hello? Hello? More so.

J: Hello? (laughs)

S: (laughter) Alright goodnight Phil.

PP: Thanks folks...

J: Later!

PP: to you later.

B: Night buddy.

Who's That Noisy? (59:23)[edit]

Science or Fiction ( )[edit]

Item number one. Astronomers find evidence that some or perhaps all of the large moons of Jupiter were proto-planets captured from the inner solar system in the early days of the solar system when Jupiter was much closer to the sun. Item number two. Research finds that citizens from so-called "blue" states are just as likely to hold liberal or conservative views on specific issues as citizens from "red" states. And item number three. Scientists discover that dolphins actually project two beams of ultrasound for use in echolocation.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:13)[edit]

"Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing! You see things, not as they are, but as you are."

J: Eric Butterworth!

Announcements ( )[edit]

Voiceover: 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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