SGU Episode 345

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SGU Episode 345
25th February 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 344                      SGU 346

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


FC: Fraser Cain

PG: Pamela Gay

Quote of the Week

Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.

Vernon Sanders Law

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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 Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, February 22, 2012 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 Even Bernstein.

E: Hello everyone. How is everyone tonight?

S: Great. How's everyone doing?

R: Super.

B: Pretty good.

J: Fabulously.

E: Hanging in there. Not bad.

This Day in Skepticism (0:31)[edit]

  • February 25, 1866 - Discovery of the Calaveras Skull

R: You know, it's a very exciting day today, today being February the 25th. This is the anniversary of the discovery of the Calaveras Skull, which was found in 1866.

E: Not one of those crystal skulls, is it?

R: No. This was a real skull, uh, you know it's a real skull just by the name, because as our Spanish speakers know, Calaveras Skull means Skull Skull. So.. that's handy.

S: Skull skull.

E: Skull skull.

R: Yeah the Calaveras Skull is one of the great archaeological hoaxes of the past couple hundred years. What happened was in 1866, on February 25th, some miners claimed that they found a human skull beneath a layer of lava very deep in the earth, so they handed it over to some geologists. It eventually made its way into the hands of Josiah Whitney, who was a professor of Geology at Harvard University and the state Geologist of California. I'm not exactly sure if that's a position that still exists, but he held it back then. And Whitney..

E: That's a hell of a commute..

R: ..made an announcement that it was a genuine skull, and so at the time it was announced as the oldest possible human being that had ever been found. It was immediately met with quite a bit of skepticism, (B: Yay!) mostly because the skull happened to look exactly like human skulls do today. So it was eventually embraced by Creationists, because Creationists used it as some evidence that humans had existed for millions of years without having ever changed, so the Old Earth-style Creationists...

E: Yeah you find a skull that deep and...

S: Yeah it was technically Pliocene strata which would make it between 5.3 and 2.5 million years before present, which of course is a lot longer than Homo sapiens have been around, and a lot longer than Homo sapiens have been in North America.

B: Yeah, so that would present a problem..

R: It wasn't until though, a good 30 years later that an archaeologist from the Smithsonian named William Holmes decided to investigate it more thoroughly. There had already been these rumblings about people not believing it was true, and also rumors that the miners had deliberately set it up as a hoax. So this one particular archaeologist decided to look into it and he performed some tests, he found that to not many people's shock, it was in fact a much more recent skull than had been suggested. In fact, it was a skull of a Native American. It matched, at least, it matched the skull of a Native American and it would have possibly been about 1,000 years old, as opposed to millions of years old.

E: Wow. 1/6th the age of the earth.

R: (Laughs) Exactly. He also went back and talked to some of the friends of the miners. The miners who had discovered it were dead, unfortunately, but he was able to talk to many other people who confirmed that these guys had set this up as a deliberate hoax on one particular scientist who almost didn't fall for it. It was apparently first turned over to a guy named William Jones, who is a physician and a natural history buff, and he found cobwebs inside it, and tossed it out into the street, so the story goes. But then he thought twice about it, went back, picked it up, gave it a little more consideration, thought it might be genuine, turned it over to Whitney, and Whitney took it as the real thing.

S: There are remarkable similarities between this story and the story of Piltdown man.

B: Ahh yeah.

S: One is that the skull was taken as confirmation of the beliefs at the time specifically of this guy, Josiah Whitney believed that humans were much more ancient than other scientists at the time believed, and he thought they coexisted with mastodons and so he took this skull as confirmation of his pet theory. And that motivated him highly to accept it as real. The second similarity is that it was really, it was very quickly, I think more quickly than Piltdown, thought to be a hoax. It was not generally accepted as real, but still it took 30 years. Like with Piltdown, there was a long delay before definitive testing of the fossil itself.

J: Why did they wait so long?

S: I don't know. Do you know, by the way..

B: Time was slower back then..

S: you know what test they used to date it? The fluorine absorption dating. Fluorine absorption.

E: Gosh I haven't heard of that in..

R: And was the first time that had been done, I think, or one of the first times that had been done.

S: Yeah so that was probably why they waited, because they didn't have a method for testing it. Very quickly, fluorine absorption uses the absorption of fluoride from groundwater into bones that are in the earth, so it tells you how long they've been in that soil. But there's no standard rate, so you need to compare it to other bones in the same soil that you date by some other means. Or you could only give relative dating. It's older than this bone, or not as old as that bone. But if you have any kind of reference, then you could put it in between specific dates. Certainly though, it's an accurate enough method to give you three orders of magnitude. You know, the difference between 1000 years and several million years. That's an easy determination to make, even with the fluorine absorption dating.

R: And it was backed up by carbon dating in 1992, that suggests that it was about 1000 years old.

S: There you go.

R: Yeah, and it wasn't just Whitney who was going based on.. who was grasping a hold of this because of what he believed in. As recently as 2008, Walter Brown.. Walt Brown's book In the Beginning: Compelling Evidence for Creation and the Flood cited this as evidence in favor of Creationism.

S: I'm shocked. A Creationist who's latching on to flimsy evidence because it happens to support their world view?

R: It's stunning.

E: Funny that book didn't make it to the New York Times' Bestseller List..

J: And I'm sure that they retracted that after it was proven false, right?

R: You mean after it was proven false 100 years prior to the publishing of that book?


R: Yeah, no.

News Items[edit]

Tiny Lizards (7:31)[edit]

S: Well, have you guys seen the tiny lizards of Madagascar?

R: Yes..

J: They're awesome!

B: They're adorable!

E: I want one.

S: They're so tiny.

J: So easy to smuggle, too.

S: Yeah I wonder if they would become popular pets. So scientists have discovered..

B: Too tiny.

S: .. a species or several species actually, of chameleons that are among, it says, among the world's tiniest lizards. I guess they're not the smallest.

J: So Steve, do they think those chameleons are pretending to be that small?

S: (Laughs) It's just camouflage? It's all an illusion?

E: They're actually huge.

S: One species, Brookesia micra reaches a maximum length of just 29 mm. That's teeny tiny. There's a picture we'll link to of the guy on the head of a match. It's standing on somebody's thumb, and it's tiny, it's teeny tiny. They're very cute. What's interesting is that this is probably a manifestation of island dwarfism, which is a very interesting phenomenon. I know we've talked about it a little bit before. Madagascar in general has very small fauna. You guys have probably seen the movie Madagascar, right? Even though it was a cartoon. All the animals are very small compared to say, African animals. And this has been an observed phenomenon and a lot of speculation about it and study and research trying to figure out why does there appear to be this tendency for large animals to become smaller when they migrate to an island. There's also an observation called island gigantism where some species, particularly small species, may become larger. Where relatively large species become smaller.

E: It depends on what else is on the island.

S: That's part of it. So part of it may be driven by competition. Herbivores may become smaller because there's just less food available and smaller animals are better able to survive eras or periods of time where there's a food scarcity, and so every time you get to any kind of food crisis, it's all the small creatures that survive. And then predators become smaller in order to adapt to the smaller prey. A large predator can't survive on small small prey. They have to become small in order to.. for them to have enough food.

B: Yeah well that makes sense, but you also mentioned that some animals get bigger though..

S: Yeah so some small animals.. like there are giant rats on certain islands.. right?

B: Cool.

J: Yeah like Manhattan Island.

S: Yeah Homo floresiensis is a dwarf human species found on the island of Flores, but on the same island there were also fossils at the same time of giant rats. So imagine a hobbit-sized person with a dog-sized rat.

B: Really, dogs? What kind of dog are we talking about?

S: I know.. dog-sized is like.. there is a huge range.

B: Chihuahua? St. Bernard?

E: World's smallest dog.

S: Head to body , 41 to 45 cm.

J: So what you're saying is that there were small people riding giant dog-sized rats.

S: Yeah, basically. So in this case, island dwarfism is really just a subset of so-called insular dwarfism, so it's just a result of isolation of a being restricted to a very small distribution, geographical distribution. But that doesn't have to be an island. It could be isolation due to a desert, if you're in an oasis in a desert for example, you're trapped in a very small area. That also engenders dwarfism. So what they think happened here was that you already had dwarf chameleons on Madagascar. And then among those dwarf chameleons, some populations then became isolated in little parts of the island and then you had insular dwarfism among the dwarf chameleons on Madagascar, and they become micro-chameleons. Really, really tiny.

R: This is what I wanted to major in when I was in 6th grade.

S: Yeah..

E: Teeny, tiny animals?

R: Tiny Biology. I started to go into Microbiology and then I realized that it was not cute enough.

E: Whoa.. too small.

J: I have some tiny biology.

R: I know you do.

S: Okay, well let's move on.

J: Wait a second. These would be very easy pets to have. They wouldn't eat much, there's not much poop to clean up.

S: Yeah you could have a terrarium, right, one of those giant fish bowls, and that would be a massive forest to them. You could have 20 of them in there, that'd be cool.

B: If you could find them.

S: Now the thing is, during the day, they hide in the ground leaves, the leaves on the ground. And then at night they then climb up the trees to feed and the scientists had to stake out likely places where they would emerge at night time and then catch them in the light. But during the day they're hidden, which is part of the advantage of being small, that you can hide really well.

Missing Dark Matter (12:37)[edit]

S: Alright Bob, tell us about how scientists have found the missing dark matter. Isn't that a little redundant, missing dark matter?

B: They're calling it bright matter now. Alright, this is the coolest dark matter news I've seen in a long time. Japanese scientists have taken observational data of galaxies and combined that with simulations that they've done on computers to show that galaxies aren't distinct island universes but could all be connected by a vast web of dark matter that fills intergalactic space. Researchers at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Physics and Mathematics of the Universe is the name of this place, and Nagoya University may have solved one of the long-standing mysteries of dark matter with this news. Now dark matter and its partner dark energy, of course, constitute most of the matter and energy of the known universe, but scientists and I are very frustrated because we don't know even the most fundamental things about them. We do know some things of course, we do know that there is some type of new matter out there that is utterly undetectable except for its gravitational influence. We know that it constitutes a big chunk of the known matter of the universe.. about 22%. Well.. what we thought was the entire universe previously, really is only 4.. a paltry 4.5% so it's really tiny. But one of the big mysteries about this is not only what the hell it is.. which of course we still aren't sure.. but where the hell it is. Now this is the mystery that now looks like these guys may have solved. And it all starts with gravitational lensing. I'm sure you guys have heard about gravitational lenses?

E: Oh yes.

B: Since gravity bends light, if there happens to be a galaxy between me and you, the galaxy will distort the path of the light, changing how you look to me and where you appear to be. So that's essentially what's happening. This phenomenon, it's a natural byproduct of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Hey, did you guys know, by the way, that Einstein wasn't the first person to verbalize the idea of gravitational lensing?

E: He made it famous but uh..

B: A physicist named Orest Khvolson wrote about it 12 years before Einstein did, I thought that was an interesting fact.

S: Well also, Bob, classical physics also predicts and produces gravitational lensing, just not as much as relativistic theory, as the theory of general relativity.

B: Okay, I didn't know that it actually made solid predictions about it. So if the mass is big enough and symmetrical enough, you can even appear.. the object on the other side of this gravitational source can even appear like a ring of light around the galaxy, or whatever the gravitational source is. And they call these.. I've heard them referred to as Einstein rings, and also I was kind of happy to find out that some people call them Khvolson rings as well, in honor of this guy who first wrote about this idea. The problem is that this is a really minuscule effet. Even if we're talking about a huge galaxy, it's going to be really difficult if not impossible, just by using a galaxy to really see and get a handle on this lensing. So.. but it's not a minuscule effect, however, if you have 24 million galaxies. And this is exactly what the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.. which I think we've talked about before.. this is what this survey has given researchers in its 12 years of mapping the night sky and making its data freely available to anyone online. Bottom line is that with so many galaxies surveyed in high enough detail, what you can then do with that is examine the subtle effects of this gravitational lensing, but on a really huge scale. And the thing is that these scientists weren't looking for a lensing effect caused by galaxies, they were looking for this lensing caused by the dark matter itself that might be around or near the galaxies. Therefore, if you look at the distortion caused by the lensing, you can then infer the density and the distribution of the mass that would have to cause that. The result then is a dark matter density distribution over a distance of about 100 million light years from the center of all those galaxies. So with all this data, they then plugged it into a computer simulation to flesh it out and what they found.. it was to me, at least visually, was the most extraordinary discovery of all.. the dark matter would have to extend from galaxy to galaxy in such a way that they're all connected in this vast web of dark matter.

J: So Bob, are you saying that the aggregate of all of those galaxies is actually forming one gigantic lens?

B: No, no. What I'm saying is that if you looked at all these galaxies and everything around the galaxies of course, and you look at the lensing, the gravitational lensing that's happening, the only way to explain the amount of gravitational lensing that you're seeing would have to be dark matter that extends, that fills intergalactic space and actually even connects galaxy to galaxy. It's really cool to think of all these galaxies, they're really connected, they're actually.. the outskirts of the galaxies.. it extends so far that it actually connects up from galaxy to galaxy. So if these guys are right.. and remember a lot of this is based on a computer simulation, but it's based on really solid data, and it looks pretty good. So the mystery of where dark matter is, which was a mystery, they really weren't sure where all of this stuff was. It looks like it was solved. It's in intergalactic space and connecting everything up. Of course now one of the main things we still have to figure out is what the hell that stuff is. But I thought this was a really interesting story.

S: Bob, one thing I'm confused about is just in my limited understanding of this issue is I thought that the purpose of hypothesizing the existence of dark matter in the first place was to explain galactic rotation. It was extra gravity within galaxies.. then they must have figured out that there is also missing matter between galaxies?

B: Yeah, the matter, the dark matter just within and nearby the galaxy is not enough to account for all this gravitational lensing that they saw.

S: So the "missing dark matter" was that a response to the observation of this lensing phenomenon, or the lensing just helped locate the dark matter but we knew there was missing dark matter for some other reason? Because that's what I'm missing. If that's true, what's the other reason?

B: I see.

S: How did we know there was missing dark matter? And that the amount that would need to exist within galaxies in order to account for galactic rotation wasn't enough, enough for what?

B: Yeah if they didn't have the lensing, the massive lensing effects, then how did they even know to think, "well there's gotta be more dark matter somewhere."

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah I'm not sure. I don't know the answer to that question, that's a good one.

S: Okay. Dark matter is endlessly fascinating. Imagine how fascinating it's going to be when we actually figure out what the hell it is.

B: Ha ha ha.

Anti-Climate Gate (19:23)[edit]

S: Let's come back down to earth a little bit. Rebecca, there's sort of a follow-up to Climate Gate. Some people are calling this the Anti-Climate Gate.

R: I guess a lot of people are comparing it to Climate Gate, but it is actually quite a bit different. If you guys recall, "Climate Gate" was some private personal emails from climate researchers that were leaked and a big deal was made of them. After a serious investigation, the researchers were cleared of all wrongdoing. The only real similarity that has to what has just happened is the fact that both involve a large PR machine. So this is kind of interesting. Heartland Institute is essentially a think-tank that has in the past focused on issues like the tobacco industry for instance. In the 90's they worked with Philip Morris to cast doubt on the health risks of second-hand smoke, which a lot of our listeners might have seen on an episode of Bullshit. We get asked about that occasionally by email. The fact is that the science clearly shows the dangers of second-hand smoke and that was pretty much a PR piece that was done on second-hand smoke that made people doubt the science. So, recently Heartland Institute has been focused on climate change. They are one of the big players amongst those who are "skeptics" of climate change. Some would say deniers of climate change. Specifically they've been advocating against the science that shows that climate change is real and most likely caused by humans. Last week, some of Heartland's internal documents were accidentally.. apparently accidentally.. emailed outside of the group. And whoever received those documents then forwarded them on to noted climate blog, where they were published in full. And Heartland has issued a statement in which they acknowledge that that's basically what happened. The documents included budgetary information that has been corroborated, like the fact that a handful of very large corporations are funding it, particularly corporations like Microsoft, Coke Industries, RJR Tobacco, and Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris. The global warming denialist wing of the institute itself is funded almost entirely by one anonymous donor, who gave about 1 million dollars in 2011 and has apparently promised a significant increase for 2012. So the documents also detail where the money is going. Notably to outspoken climate change denialists, and I quote, "Funding for high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmest AGW message. At the moment this funding primarily goes to Craig Idso- $11,600 per month, Fred Singer- $5,000 per month plus expenses, Robert Carter - $1,667 per month, and a number of other individuals, but we will consider expanding it if funding can be found." The documents also discuss the news outlets that they use to disseminate information, such as this paragraph about Forbes, "Efforts at places such as Forbes are especially important now that they have begun to allow high-profile climate scientists such as Gleick to post warmest-science essays that counter our own. This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out." Anthony Watts also gets a mention in the documents as the institute has pledged about $90,000 to him in 2012 to create a new website. The documents also reveal that the institute is developing a curriculum for K-12 schools, elementary schools. A fact that has been confirmed by Think Progress and other sources. Possibly the most damning sentence in all the documents is one referencing Dr. David Wojick's planned curriculum. They write, "His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain, two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science." That comes from the climate strategy memo which is the only one of the documents that Heartland said in their statement is not authentic. Probably because of statements like that. That said, pretty much everything in that document is corroborated in the other documents and by other sources. So it's pretty much moot. We know that there's going to be that curriculum and you know, it's all super damning. Their stance on the science is unfortunately clear. Now I wanted to mention that these documents happen to be revealed on the same day that researcher John Mashey published a damning report called "Fake Science, Fakexperts, Funny Finances, Free of Tax," which revealed that Dr. S. Fred Singer, who Heartland keeps on retainer at $5,000 a month, claimed Dr. Frederick Seitz as the chair of the Science and Environmental Policy Project for 2 full years after Seitz died. Mashey's report includes other fundraising facts that corroborate the documents and concludes that Heartland is actually operating like a for-profit public relations firm that lobbies on behalf of some of the largest corporations in the world. As opposed to it just being a non-profit science-based think tank, as its tax filings represent. So all of this debuting at once is pretty awful for Heartland and pretty conclusive for those of us who have long suspected that the big proponents of climate change denialism are less interested in a fair, transparent discussion f the science and are more interested in underhanded PR tactics that basically confuse the general public and silence their critics.

J: But Rebecca, I'm curious to know what's their motivation. Why.. is that they just absolutely, blindly believe that global warming doesn't exist and they'll do anything to make other people agree with them?

R: You know, I can't comment ont he motives of the individuals, but they're doing their damnedest not do present science that counters the science that climate scientists are presenting, which is how they're representing themselves. That's what a think-tank should be doing, is doing some kind of research. You know doing studies that go toward some goal. They're not doing any of that. What they're dong is they're fighting the science the same way Creationists fighting the science, by attempting to silence critics, by injecting confusion, by making the general public think that there's a controversy when there is none. This is exactly what we see happening with Creationism and it's because.. they do this because they can't fall back on the science. They don't have any science to support their position. They have to fall back on nasty public relations tricks. So whether or not they believe what they're saying, I can't tell you. But I can tell you that their tactics are underhanded.

J: Do you guys think this is actually going to have any effect on their movement?

S: I do, I do. Well I think on public opinion, which is what it's all about. You know, Climate Gate had an amazing effect on public opinion, acceptance of global warming dropped significantly in the wake of Climate Gate. I dont 'know, it depends on how much play this gets in the media.

R: The reason why Cimate Gate had that effect on public opinion though is because we've got organizations like Heartland who are basically PR machines that are turning things into big deals. And I don't think that the science side of things has that kind of machine. I mean, it's got bloggers basically, and so the bloggers are doing their damnedest, but whether or not.. and it has hit the mainstream media. I saw some articles in the Guardian, for instance, reporting on this. So the more the mainstream media picks up on it, the better it will be. Although I haven't seen.. for instance maybe if ABC News or USA Today or somebody picks it up, then it could be really great. But otherwise, there's a chance that this could be kept to within our circles and could never actually reach out into the general public where it can truly be appreciated.

S: Yeah it always seems like there is so much more money on the other side.

R: Well that's because ya know the science side all, of the money is going to into the science. The other side doesn't have to worry about things like research. All their money can go straight into lobbying and into PR, and so they get a huge boom from that.

S: But they also seem to attract wealthy, motivated donors.

R: Yeah, well you know the large corporations that are sponsoring Heartland, you know they definitely have an interest in what's happening. You know, particularly if you look at the second-hand smoke issue and Philip Morris. Why wouldn't Philip Morris pour millions of dollars into an organization that's fighting so hard for them to suppress science that's inconvenient for them.

Nanoparticle Safety (29:11)[edit]

S: Jay, you're gonna tell us about nano particle safety. We've discussed this, I think, briefly before on the show, but there is some new news about this.

J: Yeah the news is that a recent study was done by a team out of Cornell, in New York, and they tested oral doses of polystyrene nano particles. They did this in chickens. And the test they conducted was simulating the effect of nano particles on the human intestine.

B: Nano!

J: And they also wanted a "Quickie with Bob!" Nah I'm just kidding.

B: Ha ha ha

J: And they also used lab dish cells that are from the lining of the human gut. So, what they found was the chickens exposed to the high oral doses of the polystyrene particles that were about 15 nanometers across, absorbed less iron in their diet. And the chickens that were exposed to the doses.. they also exposed these chickens over time, and the ones that were tested over time had to increase the size of their intestinal villa and that means that they... the villa was growing so that they could absorb more iron so they could make up for the iron deficiency. And they also think that the.. this was having an effect on the absorption of other things like calcium, copper, zinc, vitamins A, D, E, and K. They're not 100% sure about that, but they .. just from the biology they can surmise that those things were affected as well, but of course there needs to be more research in there. The chickens were given roughly the same dose, weight for weight, that an adult human in a developed country would be getting. Which means that there is a... significant, I don't know if that's the right word.. but we are all getting nano particles in our foods and medication. And you know, polystyrene was though to be.. it's been experimented on and thought to be generally considered a non-toxic additive. But ya know now they're finding that there is a potential mechanism here that could make it.. especially chronically.. that could do some harm. So these engineered nano particles that we eat in increasing amounts all the time, they're in the form of a titanium oxide or aluminum silicates. And we find these like I said in our food, and they're used as stabilizers in food. And also they're used in medications to help with non-caking and delivery of medication. In 2002, they estimated that people who live in developed countries are consuming 1000 billion engineered particles. And they're saying that one thing they think.. Crohn's Disease could partially be affected by this or could actually inflame Crohn's Disease. Which if you don't know what that is, that's a swelling or spasming of your intestine. The good news is that it's not killing anybody, and that they're aware of it and that they're definitely going to be putting more time and energy into analyzing and doing the research necessary to find out more biological effects of nano particles. The bad news is though, hey you know what?.. we're manufacturing things that could potentially be doing some harm, small or large, and also probably depending on the individual. Everyone may be reacting differently.

S: Yeah. I noticed some other nanoparticle hazards in the news recently, ya know while I was reading for the show. There's one report that indicates that certain nano manufacturing processes that produce very fine dust could be a huge explosive risk. Because in any fine fine particle, there's so much surface area and access to air that it becomes a huge explosion risk. So there's not an obviously direct health hazard from inhaling it, but just an industrial hazard. It just ya know brings up the broader issues that as we're getting down to the smaller and smaller scale, that there could be unintended consequences and this is new, we're going to be learning about the real-world effects of manufacturing and creating things on this tiny scale.

J: Bob.. no comment, Bob?

E: He said nano.

B: I got no comment.

J: Are you sad?

B: At this time.. yeah I mean clearly there's a safety concern with this stuff. And we've got to .. which doesn't mean that research should stop, it's just that they've got to deal with this and understand the risks. I still that obviously that the benefits will far outweigh any of these risks. But yeah it's gotta be vetted and just pour more money into it!

S: Billions, even.

E: Billions!

R: Billions.

B: Steve, I actually.. I have a decent answer to your question now.

E: What are you talking about..

B: I don't know if you just wanna..

S: To which question?

B: The one about the dark matter.

S: Yeah okay. Hit me.

B: The difference, Steve, is that it's a comparison between the global cosmic mass density. They've used tools like say the W-map probe, which .. ya know, the cosmic microwave background radiation, using tools like that they've been able to derive what this global cosmic mass density is likely to be. And when they compare that to actually counting all the galaxies and adding and weighing them, and extrapolating what the universe, what the mass of the universe should be, there is a difference between those two. So that's where I think they've realized that wait.. there's something missing here. It's gonna be the dark matter, where is it? So that's kind of what they've answered. That's the crux of the mystery.

S: So in other words, that's an independent reason to suppose that there is dark matter. One is the rotation of galaxies, the second now is this measurement of the cosmic background radiation that says "oh yeah the universe needs more matter." It's not just galaxies.

B: Right, yeah. And I'm sure there's even more but those are the two biggies.

S: Yeah, okay. Great.

S: Well, we have a great interview coming up with Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay, so let's go to that now.

Interview with Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay (35:40)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay, Fraser and Pamela, welcome back to the Skeptics' Guide.

PG: Well thanks for having us back, it's a pleasure.

FC: Hello, skeptics.

J: What's up?

S: We love having you guys.

B: Heyyy.

E: Definitely.

FC: We love to be here.

R: Awwww. You're the best.

S: And if there's anyone listening to our show who doesn't know, Pamela and Fraser host a wildly popular astronomy podcast called Astronomy Cast strangely enough. An excellent show, they are kind enough to join us on the Skeptics' Guide from time to time to get us up to date on some astronomy news. So we wanted you guys to come on this week to talk about the recent NASA budget which is interesting and a bit controversial, can you tell us about it?

FC: Wah, wah, wahhh.


S: Fraser, you're obviously very happy with it, so give us the skinny.

FC: Well you know what, actually I would but Pamela is actually more deeply affected by it personally than I am so I think I'll let Pamela take a crack at it first.

PG: So this is one of those things where it was kind of a roller coaster because on Monday NASA came out with this amazingly flashy press conference, this was Monday February 13th. And the fact that it was on the 13th probably should have clued us in that this wouldn't be good news, but we're not superstitious so we weren't worried. They came on, they did this fabulously flashy video at the beginning highlighting things, showing big bold words like "education" and "research" and "development" and "space exploration" and as I'm watching this I'm like hopeful, because a lot of my funding comes from NASA education and public outreach programs that fund us doing citizen science and engaging everyday people in participating in NASA research. So that was February 13th. And then the numbers came out and people started going over the numbers in detail and realising that not all was rosy. Now we knew right from the beginning that Mars was having a dead planet problem. While the United States has become amazingly successful at getting missions to the surface of Mars that just won't die, the Mars rovers were supposed to last tens of days and are now still going 9 years later. We're good at getting to Mars, but NASA cut the current planned next big thing to Mars, ExoMars. Now I have to admit, I kind of suspect that was coming when they released the big "Here's what's up at NASA for the next 10 years" plan at the Lunar and Planetary Scientists conference last yaer. Mars was the thing that seemed the most fragile, it was an extremely expensive mission, it's an extremely risky mission, we have to be able to land to spacecraft side-by-side on Mars for it to work, there is a lot of people who don't study Mars who are going "bad, bad, this is a mistake, we should be going to Europa". But there's a lot of politics behind going to Mars, we'd worked really, really hard to keep our allegiances to the European Space Agency with this. So when they killed Mars, I wasn't surprised. The good news was funding going to research and development, they highlight education, they mentioned they're going to work on solving the "how do we build engines and fuel cells to get us to the outer solar system problem" and turn back on plutonium production. Then Tuesday happened. So our valentines day gift from NASA was, various of us who serve on review panels or have certain types of grants got emails saying "there's no money in the first half of 2013, we'll get back to you." Not 2013, 2012. So the big program that funds massive NASA education, public outreach isn't going to be soliciting proposals, NASA education got cut 36 million dollars out of 136 million dollar budget and that's a fairly significant hunk and then as we started looking more in detail what was happening, we realised planetary science didn't just lose ExoMars, it lost 20.6% of its budget across the board. So there's lots of other things that are going to be suffering as well. Some things did OK. James Webb did OK, helio physics got a 6.3% boost, money went to the Kennedy Space Flight Centre to help foster the commercial space agencies taking off, quite literally. But if you're a fan of planetary science, if you're a fan of eduction, you're kind of crying a little bit on Valentines day.

S: Yeah, so like the big theme here was shifting funding from robotic planetary exploration to more peopled space flight and space flight technology, is that fair?

FC: Well I think there was, I mean there was a huge cut to the, as Pamela said, to the mars exploration, you had about a 40% cut and that definitely let down a lot of the international obligations that NASA has for doing the ExoMars project, and there definitely is, we actually, I remember we talked with you guys a few months ago about the new launcher that's being developed and so this is still rolling. There's this, there's the Orion capsule, and they're moving towards launching these, doing some test launches by 2017. But a lot of it comes from older projects just went so far over budget that...

PG: Yeah.

E: Like James Webb.

FC: Right, so the James Webb and the Curiosity Rover both went really over budget and really gobbled up into other programs and so there is a lot of stuff that would have, if those projects hadn't gone as over budget as they had, might have been able to get queued up as well.

PG: And NASA really had no reason to believe that ExoMars would be on budget either. Now there were folks though that fought tooth and nail, Ed Weiler who left NASA larger because of this, we found out this week, he was one of the strongest advocates and one of the... he was really "dad" in a lot of ways, he was the guy you went to and you knew you were going to get the true, straight forward dirt. He faught tooth and nail to keep these programs going but he and Charlie Bolden just simply lost the fight.

S: And overall I read that the NASA budget is going to be flat for a few years, meaning not even increasing with inflation, so it's going to be decreasing in terms of real dollars over the next few years.

PG: Yes, and this is a scary thing, and the thing that troubles me the most is that when you look historically at NASA's budget and compare it to the total US budget, the percentage of the budget that goes to NASA has steadily decreased in recent years, and for the first time ever, we're dropping below 0.5% of the US budget.

E: Do you think that people, or I should say politicians for the most part, they're too far removed from the generations of NASA in its early days, or in its first/second generation that did want to see the United States lead the world in this science and this technology? That seems to have waned, I think in the last generation, and that could be a reason why we're seeing this fall in the overall budget.

PG: I think it also has a lot to do with the population. One of the things that always surprises me is how little people see coming out of the money that goes to NASA and they just don't understand why we do some of the things we do. I have a horse and out at the barn I'm dealing with lots of different types of people that I don't interact day-to-day at the university, and I was talking to one woman about how we have a spacecraft orbiting the asteroid Vesta and she was very confused, she was like "we need to worry about asteroids, or are they going to come attack us?" and it was an earnest question, an honest question. And if people don't see value in what we do, that means a) Fraser and I need to work harder, and b) politicians have absolutely no motivation, especially when people are yelling and screaming for other things.

S: Yeah, that's sort of the astronomical equivalent of "why are we studying fruit flies?" Well, you kind of have to see the role that it plays in our scientific understanding of the universe, and the spin-off from that, you can't take such a narrow, like if this is not applied research that has some very immediate direct application, then people don't see the utility of it. But yeah, but that's of course our job as science educators, is to explain to the public why this is cool, and practical. It's not just, we're not just entertaining ourselves, this is improving our understanding and you can't predict the benefits that come out of this sort of thing.

FC: Well there's a bunch of rays of hope in the budget as well, it's not completely negative. One thing that's really neat is that if you actually look at the budget itself, you can look forward and see the launch schedule for the next couple of years and for the first couple of years, who knows if the long term budget is going to work out the way they're planning, but in the short term, you see a lot of standard launches and flights and then as it moves forward, the whole launch schedual starts to shift over to SpaceX and so you're seeing in 2012 there's one SpaceX launch, in 2013, there's going to be two, in 2014 there's three, and more. And so over the next couple of years, there's going to be more and more of this, of the launch responsibilities taken out of the hands directly of NASA engineers and into some of these private partners, you know, Elon Musk's SpaceX company is one example, there's Orbital and others, which will then I think get some more of the spirit of entrepreneurship into this process, and I think that's– a lot of people are really counting on that process to bring down the cost of space exploration and help NASA really focus on the things that it's good at and maybe away from some of the things that maybe business and the private industry can focus on like bringing launch costs down.

PG: And this is really a necessary expenditure. Right now we're purchasing the seats that the astronauts fly into space on from the Russians and the Russians have a great scam going on. They used to charge space tourists 20 million dollars to go up, occasionally 30 million dollars, the amount did go up, but it pretty much stopped at 30 million. Well the US is getting charged 63 million per person to send astronauts into space.

S: Mmhmm.

B: Wow.

E: Eugh.

PG: Yeah.

J: And there's no negotiating? We can't tell them, "hey are you kidding me, what the hell is this about?"

PG: We don't have a plan B.

R: Yeah, are we going to go to China?

E: We don't have a half-off coupon or something?

FC: I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of that comes from NASA making expectations on the Russians on levels of safety and redundancy and things like that that maybe a space tourist just really doesn't care about, right? "Just get me to the station!" Right?

PG: Russia's actually claiming it's because the dollar sucks, and that could actually have something to do with it.

S: So Frasser, tell us about the skydiving stunt that's coming up.

FC: Ugh, I don't like this one bit.

E: Good luck.

FC: So yeah, if anyone remembers, what was it back in the 50's? There was a um...

PG: 1960, Joe Kittinger.

FC: Right, right. Joe Kittinger, Right. So he went up on a balloon and jumped out of this balloon from an altitude of what, 120,000 feet, broke the sound barrier and nearly died and sky-dived from essentially the edge of space. And now, after deciding that that sounds like a great idea, there's a new Austrian extreme athlete, a guy named Felix Baumgartner, and he's going to be doing the same thing. He's going to be jumping, same thing, up in a balloon, he's going to be wearing a space suit, he's going to have his own breathing apparatus, because it's super cold, it's like -60 at 120,000 feet up, he's going to jump from this balloon, go supersonic breifly within about the first 35 seconds and pass through the atmosphere, try not to fall into like a flat spin where he'll get, he'll go unconcious, and be able to pull his 'chute at the right time and land safely. And this is all being underwritten by Red Bull, which is quite funny. Which is the soft drink, right?

PG: Because Red Bull gives you wings.

FC: They give you wings, yeah. He'll need them, yeah.

E: Oh I get it.

B: You know I jumped out a plane at 11,000 feet, I know exactly what he's going through, I mean yeah it's hard, it's really hard.

E: You're a piker, Bob.

J: So guys, I was talking to people at work and they said that there was some worry about the speed that the guy's going to go at and then when he starts entering the Earth's atmosphere the drag is going to heat him up?

FC: Yeah, well right. So the thing is, when you get that drag heating you up, that's the situation where you've got something that's like orbital velocity, that's going 25,000 kilometres an hour, and then it's trying to move from the orbital velocity to land and so you've got to be slowed down, I mean even at as fast as point, he's going to be breaking the speed of sound, but he's not going to be going 25 times as fast, so the greater concern is that when you transition from essentially almost no atmosphere to the thickening of the atmosphere, it's going to cause these aerodynamic issues that he's going to have to manage at the right time and not get thrown into like a flat spin and get knocked unconscious, and didn't this happen to Joe Kittinger way back when? He actually was knocked unconscious briefly because of this, so when he hit the thicker atmosphere he spun out and almost died.

PG: So the thing, to get the numbers in perspective, the international space station is orbiting at 27,500 km/h so the astronauts coming down from it have to dump all of that velocity. This guy's going straight up in a balloon and coming straight back down so he doesn't have those couple of tens of thousands of kilometres per hour to get rid of.

E: Will he have a camera fixed to his helmet?

FC: Oh I'm sure.

PG: Yes, yes. This will of course be a commercial some day.

FC: He's going to free fall for five and a half minutes.

PG: And he's only taking 20 minutes of oxygen.

R: It'll be a commercial if he lives, let's put it that way, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

J: Do you think there's a chance, a good chance, that anything bad is going to happen? Or are they totally prepared.

FC: It's super dangerous.

E: There's got to be a risk, yeah.

PG: I'd put it in the category of probably 25% riskier than any descent through the atmosphere, that's kind of back-of-the-envelope guesstimate because he doesn't exactly have computers controlling his descent. But he's prepared, they've thought it through.

E: Hitting his mark: there must be a target that he's going to hit, and I'm sure there's a variance allowable for that.

PG: (laughs) A landing ellipse, that's what we call them officially.

FC: They're doing it in Roswell, right? Doing it in Roswell, New Mexico which I guess is maybe a publicity stunt to part of it too?

PG: Yeah I have no clue how he's going to land in the right place, I have to just admit that upfront, that part perplexes me.

FC: Well part of it is that they're picking a fairly sparsely populated part of the US so he could land in a pretty wide area around and not disturb anyone's house when he smashes into it. Well you know, I wouldn't be surprised, it'll be interesting to see what happens, if he does this, there's a whole group of extreme athletes and you could imagine them doing this, following in his footsteps. We'll see, if he makes it look easy then other people might want to follow in his footsteps, and maybe it's going to be a whole new kind of like extreme tourism...

R: Way to die.


FC: Way to die, yeah.

B: Talk about an expensive sport though, I mean how much money has he invested in this?

PG: Yeah.

R: Well he doesn't have to invest any.

PG: How much money? He has Red Bull.

B: Well yeah, well what does it cost for somebody?

FC: I don't know what it's costing them.

PG: Well it's the cost of a space suit, a 600 foot wide balloon and the oxygen that goes in his tank and the parachute that he's wearing.

B: So 50 bucks.

PG: (laughs) So I could imagine the overall cost in the grand scheme of things isn't that much.

B: Yeah.

PG: Probably taking someone on a deep sea dive costs much more money if you have a little tiny submarine involved.

E: You know what's probably the most expensive thing is the insurance.

FC: Yeah.

PG: Yeah, seriously.

FC: Well a lot of testing, because they've been doing a bunch of testing in special atmospheric chambers to see how well his suit handles the low atmosphere and how well he's able to move and how well he's able to move through his process, because again, that balloon, if you've ever seen some of these really cool videos people take of these balloon rides to space, they don't give you a lot of control, they just go up and up and up and up, it's not like you can slow down and stop and come back down, so once he's on its way up he's going to have to be able to get himself out of his seat and out the balloon at the right time. And they've been doing a lot of tests with that in atmospheric chambers to make sure his suit can handle, so I'm sure all that testing time and all of that equipment and all of that gear and all of those people to sort of make sure, to go through all the steps is going to be a lot of the expense. At the end of the day when he finally hops in the balloon and hops out, he's...

S: So guys, before we leave, tell our listeners how they can find your show.

FC: Well they can go to and they can also find us on iTunes and the other thing that we've been doing that's really interesting within the last couple of months is that we've been now recording every episode of astronomy cast as a Google+ Hangout On Air so you can actually join us on Mondays at noon Pacific, 3 Eastern, 8 o'clock Greenwich Mean Time, and join us live, watch us record the show and even jump into the hangout and ask us questions and participate. And then the other thing that we're doing is on Thursdays we're recording what we're calling right now the Weekly Space Hangout, and this is where we pull together space journalists, Phil Plait and Alan Boyle and Emily Lakdawalla and Ian O'Neill and Pamela and myself and other special guests to sort of talk about this week's space news, which actually is kind of the thing that we don't do on Astronomy Cast and that's on Thursday mornings at 10 am Pacific, 1 Eastern, 6pm Greenwich Mean Time. You can tell I've done that a bunch of times now.


FC: But it's really fun, and it's great because it's really interactive, we answer questions from the viewers and it's a pretty neat live experience, so those are the two big things that we're doing right now.

B: What a great idea.

S: Yeah, you told us about that, your Google+ experience and it's an intriguing idea, we might think about exploring that ourselves.

FC: Your fans would love it, and I'm now encouraging them to write you email...

R: Not necessary, not actually necessary.

FC: ...and spam you until you guys do it, because it would be awesome and they would love it.

B: More spam!

FC: More spam is what you need, so yeah. People love it, and I think watching you guys record the show would both require you to sort of tighten up the salty language and at the same time...

R: Look, f-ck you Fraser, god.


FC: ...give people your show. Yeah. Be great.

S: All right, well thanks for joining us guys, we always love to have you on the show.

PG: It's our pleasure, thank you so much for inviting us again.

FC: Thanks a lot.

J: Bye guys, love your enthusiasm.

B: Bye guys.

R: Thanks guys.

J: Bye.

PG: Buh bye.

Who's That Noisy (56:29)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Black Sea Ice Sheets

S: Evan, it's time for Who's That Noisy.

E: Here is last week's Who's That Noisy.

(creaking, whistling noise)

E: I'm sure you guys remember that from last week.

S: Oh yeah.

R: I remember it well.

E: Of course you know exactly what that is.

S: It's Jay after he visits a Mexican restaurant.


J: Oh boy.

E: Close, close, that was the second most guessed answer. No, actually, what that is is sounds of the frozen sea, the black sea specifically in Odessa which is a town on the coast of the black sea, of the Ukraine, and those are ice sheets cracking and buckling under the pressure and flow of the sea as it's rocking back and forth and it's making some pretty nasty and horrific kinds of sounds, you don't want to be anywhere near that ice especially if you're standing on it because you're likely to get swallowed up at some point, but it's fascinating video footage but also to accompany, you can look for it online. It's been making the rounds recently on the web. We've had several people who have sent this particular one to our attention so it was too good, in a way too popular not to use. And to reveal for you the winner of this Who's That Noisy in our next episode.

S: OK, thanks Evan so let's go to what you have for this week.

E: It's going to be short and sweet. OK, here we go:

That the best way to really get an idea is to tell a story about it.

E: Alright, so I hope you recognise that voice, go ahead give it the best guess. or our forums, and good luck to everyone.

S: OK, thank you, Evan.

Science or Fiction (58:23)[edit]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake and then you guys have to figure out which one is the fake. Are you guys ready?


J: Steve! More excited, Steve!

S: I'm trying to get some excitement going this week. Alright, here we go. I know you're ready because ready ever time I ask you so I'm just going to go right in to it. Item number one. A new linguistic analysis suggests an independent origin of language in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Item number two. A new study finds that some fish are able to estimate numbers as well as college students. And item number three. Scientists have made a prototype for an artificial muscle motor that does not require external electronics or hard metal parts. Jay, go first.

J: The one about the linguistic analysis saying the origin of language is in three different places, I don't have a problem with that. That could make sense, actually, that at a certain time in the evolution of man, they would have evolved enough where they would develop the language and more and more advanced language as time goes on, I don't think it needed to start one place, I think it was actually in my mind it makes more sense that it started multiple places. Alright, the one about fish estimating numbers as well as college students. Wow, I don't even know where to begin with that. Fish can estimate numbers as well as college students. And you know that there is some stupid detail on here like maybe when they're in a school of fish and they, to tell how many fish are around them and that equals blah, blah, blah. Whatever. This is ridiculous, Steve, like come on. Really? You want me to actually try to figure this one out? No.

R: I like it when he gets angry before he even hears the answers.


J: The last one about scientists making a prototype for artificial muscle, so I'm assuming by what you wrote here Steve, that that artificial muscle is able to communicate with the brain without using external electronics or metal parts, meaning that it has a built in type of way of communicating. Yeah. Sure, I could see that but once again there's just so little here to go on like I can see that they came up with something that has an electrical charge that's generated by it somehow, so my opinion it's between the fish and this one about the artificial muscle, and the fish one just seems like there's a sneaky little thing in there, there has to be. So I think it's going to be the artificial muscle as the fake.

S: OK, Bob.

B: I'll start at the bottom, yeah the artificial muscle, yeah sure I don't have too much of a problem with this, I'm having a hard time though trying to figure out exactly how they'd do it. It could be some kind of biological construct that's getting energy maybe just from the local environment, or maybe it's actually tied into the blood stream, getting nutrients that way so sure, it seems a little bit more advanced considering that there's no external electronics or metal parts, but I can kind of see that one. The fish one, yeah that's just, how would you even test that? Yeah, that's a tough one but something about it well I'll put it this way, it doesn't rub me the wrong way as much as the first one with the independent origins of language, it just seems to me that language would have arisen in Africa before our ancestors left of sooon thereafter and not, I think by the time we had spread all throughout Africa, Europe and Asia, we would have... yeah there's just something about that that I just think we would have, it would have arisen in a small community in Africa or soon thereafter leaving, you know after we had left Africa and not have multiple independent origins, so I'm going to say that one is fiction.

S: OK, Evan.

E: Uh, language. Origins. It seems, a lot of what Bob said I agree with. If it is fiction, why couldn't it have originated in three distinct different areas? The second one about fish estimating numbers, I just recently had a conversation with my Mom of all people, and we were talking about the intelligence of dogs, and the subject of counting, numbers came up. She is of the opinion that dogs are smart enough to recognise numbers because she was talking about the dog pushing the elevator button on its own. I'm like how does the dog know which, you know? It just has to be a pattern, the dog knows to go to this particular button, it doesn't know that it's the 12th floor, right? There's no way. But I did a little research on it afterwards and there are some studies talking about how dogs are kind of able to count or something like counting so based on that, fish being able to estimate numbers is probably plausible, I just don't know about as well as college students. I'm leaning towards that one being science. The last one, the artificial muscle motor not requiring external electronics or hard metal parts. I get the hard metal, I get without hard metal parts I suppose but external electronics? I mean what powers this thing? Although I'm a little confused as to how exactly you power this particular artificial muscle motor, that doesn't mean that it's not true clearly, but I'm having, I guess a more difficult time trying to justify why I would choose the languages one as science, so therefore I have to default to that, the origin of language one is going to be fiction.

S: OK, Rebecca.

R: OK. I just want to say that first of all, dogs can totally count, particularly border collies are known to count because they're bred to keep track of a certain number of livestock and so I've had border collie owners tell me that they're very good at handling groups of children, for instance they'll notice immediately if one is missing, they're good at things like that. So dogs can count, I think fish can count too. Because I think Jay brought up a good point about schools of fish and how it would be advantageous for a species in schools to make quick note of numbers and it's not like, it's not talking about exact numbers, this is estimating numbers so yeah, I think fish would be able to do that fairly well and at least as well as college students, I've known a few college students in my day and let me tell you, not as smart as border collies in my experience. So yeah, for me it's between the language one and the artificial muscle motor one, that sounds really awesome, I hope that that's the science. As for language originating in three different places at once, I don't think that there's any solid accepted, one accepted theory for the origin of language, as far as I know, as little as I know, it's still a subject of hot debate, but I don't think that there's necessarily anything to suggest that it originated in three different times, I don't buy it, I'm going to go with that one as the fiction as well.

S: OK, it's looks like Jay, you are by yourself with the muscle motor, the rest of you, about the language. So you all agree that a new study finds that some fish are able to estimate numbers as well as college students, you all think that one is science, and that one is... science.

R: Yay!

E: Cool, thanks Mom.

S: And yeah obviously one key word there was "estimate", they're not counting. You might wonder how they know how the fish are estimating numbers, what's the research paradigm? This is a study of guppies and college students of course.

E: Aw, I love puppies.

S: It's already established that guppies prefer to join larger groups, probably because they have better protection in larger numbers. So if they're placed between say two tanks with different amounts of fish in them, they will try to, they swim towards and try to join the larger of the two groups they are presented with. So therefore you can use that behaviour to test how well, how good they are at estimating numbers, at estimating the size of the group. For a little bit more background, there's also research that shows, and this is true of humans, of non-human primates and a lot of other animals, that we essentially have two somewhat independent systems for estimating numbers. We use one method for precisely counting numbers up to a small number and even animals can distinguish one, two, three and four. They seem to have up to four, they can precisely know small numbers. For larger than four, they can only estimate. And there the key seems to be the ratio, that they're better at estimating large amounts comparatively when there's a large ratio difference. So they're better at estimating the difference between 25 and 5 rather than 25 and 20 for example. Which makes sense. So guppies can do this as well, they can estimate, they can look at two groups and estimate which one is the bigger and they can do it in terms of how sensitive they are to the ratio, how small a ratio difference, they can do that better, they perform better than college students, at estimating numbers of the same size with the same ratio. That raises the question of whether or not this number estimation ability is evolutionarily very ancient in the vertebrate group, you know is it something that, do we share this ability with guppies because a common ancestor had number estimation ability or were they independently evolved? That's not a question addressed by this research but it's interesting. Let's go on to number one. A new linguistic analysis suggests an independent origin of life... of language in Africa, Europe and Asia. Bob, Rebecca and Evan think this one is the fiction, Jay you think this one is science, and this one is... the fiction.

B: Yay! Sorry Jay.

S: Bob's record is still unbroken.

R: Bob's crazy streak, it's out of control.

S: So yeah, there certainly is no consensus at the moment at exactly what the history of language is but no one that I could found is proposing completely independent origins of language in these three different continents. The news story that inspired that fake item was a study that was published in science about a year ago that was claiming the out-of-Africa hypothesis. A linguist by the name of Quentin Atkinson published a study in Science a year ago claiming that after analysing the world's languages and looking for patterns, he concluded that the root language of all human language came out of Western Africa. They essentially followed a genetic type of algoritm where as sub-populations branch off from root populations there were certain paterns that are seen for example the amount of genetic diversity tends to go down in each subsequent group that branches off from the root or the original group, that the amount of genetic diversity is greatest within the original group and then we see that in Africa, they have, if you made a genetic map of humanity, all non-Africans are one little branch and then Africans represent a great deal of diversity. Well they found the same thing for language, that the number of phonemes and the amount of diversity was greatest in West Africa and it seemed to trail off as you get further and further away from that so they essentially applied that same analysis to conclude.

B: Cool.

S: However, now another linguist Michael Cysouw, I'm not sure if I'm going to pronounce that correctly, essentially looked at the same data and said that's not the only interpretation of the data, that the data is also consistent with other interpretations like a different location for the origin and he says that the search for the site of origin of language remains very much alive. So even he's not saying that there's this multiple origin, it's just that we don't know where the origin is and this analysis isn't definitive. Alright, well let's go on to number three. Scientists have made a prototype for an artificial muscle motor that does not require external electronic or hard metal parts, and that one is science. Now of course they haven't integrated it into a body, they haven't in any way addressed the issue of making a prosthesis out of this, they just made the motor that fictions like a muscle, meaning that it's soft, it's made entirely of soft parts, there's no hard parts to it. So this obviously would have a lot of application. And Evan, you were wondering about well what would be the energy source? And this is an electrostatic motor which actually functions a lot like biological muscles in that it's an elastic material that stretches or relaxes when you apply an electrical current across it and then when you remove the electrical current it contracts and squeezes back down together. So this can be used to make motors that function like a muscle, that can be flatter, more flexible and that you can activate with a current. The prototype that exists right now is very inefficient, so before it gets to the application stage, we're definitely going to have to perfect or improve this technology but it is a very interesting step in the direction of creating soft motors for robots, for prosthetics, that would be the two obvious applications, but just the ability to have either a flat or soft motor could have a lot of other applications outside of robotics. Incidentally, the first electrostatic motor was introduced by who, who do you think?

E: Volta? Tesla?

S: No. Benjamin Franklin, 1749.

E: Ooh.

R: Clever bastard.

S: He made an electrostatic motor that he used in order to turn a turkey on a spit.

J: (laughs)

R: Always looking at what's important, Ben.

E: In what year?

S: 1749.

E: OK.

B: Holy crap.

R: Roasting the national bird.

S: Yep. Absolutely.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:54)[edit]

S: So Jay, your consolation prize, as is often the case, is reading us the quote this week.

J: This week's quote:

Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.

J: Vernon Sanders Law!

S: And who is that guy?

J: I challenge our listeners to find out who the right Vernon Sanders Law was to that quote.

R: He was a retired major league baseball pitcher.

J: It is that guy?

R: According to Google, and that's...

J: Yeah, but I'm not sure that's him because there's other ones on the internet and I can't figure out...

R: How many Vernon Sanders Laws could there be?

E: Four.

R: He's the only one with a Wikipedia page.

J: It's probably him.

S: Alright, thanks Jay. And thank you all from joining me this week.

R: Thank you.

B: Hey yeah, good episode.

E: Hey, it was long, I mean fun.

S: It was a pleasure as always, and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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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