SGU Episode 351

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SGU Episode 351
7th April 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 350                      SGU 352

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


M: Marshall Gillson aka Gripp

Quote of the Week

If a man, holding a belief, which he was taught in childhood, or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men who call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it, the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

William K Clifford

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


Steven Novella: Hello, and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday April 4th 2012 and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella.

Bob Novella: Hey everybody.

S: Rebecca Watson.

Rebecca Watson: Hello everyone.

S: Jay Novella.

Jay Novella: Hey guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

Evan Bernstein: Hey, whadayasaythere?

S: What's up, Evan?

E: the usual, what about you guys?

This Day in Skepticism (0:30)[edit]

R: super, hey happy world health day everyone.

S: Happy world health day!

E: Happy world health day!

R: You all knew that was happening, right?

S: Oh yeah.

J: Rebecca does this world health day mean health for the world itself, you know like being green or health for all the humans

R: Uh, this is a human focussed initiative sponsored by the World Health Organisation.

S: What gives them the right to declare world health day?

E: Right? They're imposing their views on us

R: Today is the anniversary of the founding of the WHO, and so each year they sponsor a different sort of um, a different theme, every year focussed on world health and 2012's theme is focussed on ageing and health. So a lot of what they're doing is trying to combat stereotypes about the elderly or seniors or whatever the... what's the politically correct term?

S: Geriatric Population.

B: Geezers.

E: Old fogies.

R: OK, I'm just going to go with seniors. They're combating stereotypes about seniors and also trying to focus on how people can be better prepared to age in a way that is healthy so, entering old age in a healthful manner.

S: Yeah the WHO is pointing out the fact that populations are ageing while birth rates are going down, so this is a huge demographic shift going into the future, again you can't always just extrapolate trends linearly, but at least for the time being what's happening is there are more older people and fewer younger people and that's going to present some significant challenges as, you know, fewer people are going to be around in their productive years, working and taking care of providing for people who are in their later years who are having more and more health problems, so uh this could be a massive, you know, financial burden on countries where the population is shifting significantly

B: plus the other wrinkle with that Steve is that we've got the whole ageing baby boomer population.

S: yeah, we have a little pulse coming up, yeah that's right. Well, thanks Rebecca, let's move on, we have an interesting interview coming up later in the show with a skeptical rapper called Gripp, and you may recognise a cameo in one of his songs, but before that, we're going to do some news items.

News Items[edit]

Smart Sand (2:53)[edit]

BBC news: Self-sculpting sand robots are under development at MIT

S: Have you guys heard of smart sand?

B: Yeah

J: No

B: Cool stuff.

S: Yeah I know Bob's heard of it

R: Is that like squand, the sand you can mould underwater

S: no

R: I got that for Christmas one year I thought it was awesome

S: It's better!

B: I bought that for myself one year

R: Squand!

S: Squand!

E: Squand! Squand I just like saying squand

S: Uh, this is also called smart pebbles. Imagine little cubical robots, each one about a centimetre on a side and they can attach to each other with uh, with magnets so they can form you know, different shapes as they form together. What some MIT scientists have done is they've figured out a way to create these um little smart robots that can mimic a shape that they're in contact with. So, what you do is you take like a bag of this stuff and you put something inside the bag, like maybe a little miniature um, model of a hammer, let's say, and then the smart sand will surround it, because you're just sort of mixing it up in the bag, and then it will be able to create a duplicate of the hammer. The way it mimics the shape is by subtraction. Uh, it decides what bonds it doesn't need, so if it forms the shape by almost like a sculpting process, by taking away the cubes that don't need to be there, so it's interesting that essentially each little cube has a tiny processor in it, that can store up to 32 kilobytes of code, and they have 2 kilobytes of working memory, so that's not a lot, but it's enough to put a fairly simple algorithm into each one, and then by following that algorithm, for example when they're surrounding the item to be duplicated, each one knows if it has another cube next to it, and then it uses that information in order to decide if it needs to keep, which connections to surrounding cubes it needs to keep, and then it can do a little calculation to say multiply it by five, so that you get something that's five times as big as the item that it's duplicating.

J: How big are they, Steve?

S: One centimetre on a side

B: Well I actually found that a little disappointing, because based on the title and maybe the initial paragraph, I was kind of excited that they'd actually created this stuff

S: Now Bob, how many times are you going to fall for that?

B: I know, I always do, I'm sorry, but I get excited when I see a cool headline, but I know, of course I know now to dig a little deeper to find out what's really going on. They don't have smart sand, it doesn't exist yet

S: yeah

B: and I'm not sure how long it's going to take to actually make it, I mean the big breakthrough here was the heuristics and the algorithms required for this process to work, that's the big breakthrough, and I guess they also have the big centimetre on a side cubes, that could do some of this stuff, but the sand itself, does not exist and they're trying to figure out how to miniaturize it and all that stuff, but the key thing is that they don't have it yet

J: Bob, it's going to take five years, just like every other discovery

S: that's what they said, five to ten years.

J: how did I know

S: yeah

B: funding, we want funding

S: Right? I thought it was interesting, so you think about the smart sand idea, that you have little tiny robots that can form together into any shape that you need or at least

B: like foglets

S: yeah, like at least a lot of different shapes so it becomes a multi-tool, I need a screwdriver, I need a hammer, I need a crowbar or whatever

J: so why don't you just go buy a hammer then?

S: Well, yeah, there's that, it's a really good question, is what the utility is going to be. First of all, are they going to be able to hold together strong enough that you will actually have a working crowbar, for example, you know if they kind of pull apart when you put a significant force on it... so you may end up with something that can create a really crappy crowbar, a really crappy hammer, a really crappy whatever, rather than just buying a much cheaper and idealised versions of those tools. The question is the resolution, you know bob was pointing out that these things were so big, obviously you would need to make them a lot smaller in order to be able to create different shapes with a lot of fidelity, you know what I mean.

J: Yeah

S: One that's pretty pixelated, one that's a centimetre on a side, but one thing that I have thought of previously, if you have little robots, however big they are, before you get down to that, and they're all working together to do something, how do you communicate to them? And how does each one know what all the other ones are doing? And this is an interesting way around that in that what the processor in each one of these little cubes is just following a simple algorithm. They're like little insects. But if you design an algorithm cleverly, complexity can emerge from fairly simple algorithms.

B: Yeah, emergent behaviour

S: yeah so it's actually an interesting approach. At first, like What? You put a little miniature model in a bag full of this stuff and shake it around like shake and bake, it sounded kinda weird, but it's actually an interesting idea, you know, the notion of following an algorithm rather than a more sophisticated processor in each one. I don't know, it's one of those things... I mean clearly if you extrapolated far enough into the future where you have the flow-metal terminator kind of thing, obviously that's hugely effective and useful, but at what point along that spectrum from these one centimetre cubes to flow metal will this type of technology really come into its own and be useful?

J: Bob, this sounds like the precursor to nanotechnology, not the actual machines, but maybe the way that the robots are going to talk to each other.

B: yeah it's an interesting idea and like I said previously, it really reminds me of the idea of foglets, which I think we may have mentioned once on the show before which are basically cell-sized little nano bots with extendible arms that can retract and connect to other foglets to create virtually any shape

S: what I would like, one application of this type of thing that I would love to see would be a programmable house or structure. Think about it, you don't need that much resolution because most of the structures that we build are kind of flat and square anyway, right, just walls and floors and stuff like that and even lots of shelves and furniture and stuff, having something that's a centimetre or half a centimetre, of whatever, a millimetre on a side would be plenty of resolution in order to make those kinds of essentially straight, flat, square types of structures, but could you imagine being able to design you house, and to be able to move walls around, and actually be able to make structural changes because the whole thing is made of these types of smart robots, or smart pebbles or whatever?

J: I mean take it the next step too, imagine sending a bunch of people to Mars or something and you just use this technology to build the base for them, they could have it just happen automatically without having to have machines there to do it, or with these little machines that could actually do it. That is cool, yep.

Steve: you talk about space travel. These things would obviously be easy to store, in terms of volume

J: and then if you take it to the next level, you just have nano particles or nano machines that would take local material and build it into more of these devices, so you only have to bring a very small amount and then it would just take the dirt on Mars and turn it into more of these machines and then you're good to go

S: yeah, like if you could build these out of regolith then

B: right

S: you could, yeah, build your base on the moon from one little fabricator that makes these things

B: then Jay take it one more step, imagine if we were made out of these things

E: wow, just five years away from this stuff, huh


R: can't wait

S: ok, let's come back down to earth a little bit. Rebecca, you're going to tell us about enclothed cognition.

Enclothed Cognition (10:43)[edit]

NY Times: Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat

R: yeah, this is an interesting study that just came out, enclothed cognition is a play on the term embodied cognition which is a growing area of research that we've actually talked about in the past on the show. I don't think we've actually used that term, but we've talked about some of the studies that fall within that term like the idea that washing your hands can make you feel morally clean. Basically, it's the way that your mental state can change depending upon things that are happening around you or to you. Or in this case things that you are wearing. So this is a study out of North Western University and it was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Cognition. And these researchers determined that the clothes you wear might influence your behaviour. And they weren't looking at extreme examples that you might be able to think of like wearing a tux vs wearing nothing but a diaper. Like Jay is every night we're recording the show.

J: (laughs)

R: No, they were looking at something a little more subtle. They did this through three different experiments. Experiment one, they took 58 students, and half of them wore lab coats, and the other half wore street clothes. And all of them took the stroop test, which is something else we've talked about before on the show, it's a simple test where colour words like red, blue, green are written out in an ink, and that ink doesn't necessarily match the word. For instance, the word blue could be written in red ink and the test subjects have to name the ink colour but not the word. The result of this test was that the students who were wearing lab coats got half the number of inaccuracies as the students wearing street clothes.

B: whoa

R: And the hypothesis being here that wearing something that made them think of sciency things, you know, also made them more careful, more able to do this test. However, the researchers acknowledge that different people can see lab coats in different ways, so in experiments two and three, they took a third of the test subjects and they had them wear lab coats that were identified as being scientists' lab coats. Another third wore lab coats that were identified as artists' smocks and the final third wore their street clothes, but they stared at a scientist's lab coat and the wrote about their connection to the coat. Then they took a test, all of them took a test, this time it was one of those tests that you see in news papers, or highlights magazine where the two different pictures look pretty much the same, but there are a few differences, you have to circle the differences. So they took that test and the results were that subjects that were wearing the coats identified as being science lab coats did the best on the test. The students who were wearing the artists' smocks did the worst and the students who wore street clothes and just sort of meditated upon the lab coat, they fell right in between. So it's an interesting result, and it feeds into some similar studies that have been done on how our behaviour is affected by what we're wearing or what we're um, what's happening around us. The major problem with this study is that the data isn't super convincing, the first experiment, for instance, it did find significant results, however, it was a p value of .04, which is good, but not superb, and that was just the result for the incongruent stroop test, which is the part of the test where the ink colour doesn't match the word being shown. On the congruent test, where the ink colour does match the word, there was no significant difference between the groups. News outlets also, of course, are reporting on this as though you're definitely by what you wear in a significant way, in a big way, and they're extending it and saying things like well, so does putting on a priest's frock make you more ethical? I saw that several times in several different articles. So this study doesn't really tell us, though, if that's true, if you can take these results and say, you know, if you wore a fire fighter's outfit, would you feel more courageous? It doesn't tell us that. Um, and it also doesn't tell us how much of the result they found is actually just due to novelty. So for instance, what if the students kept wearing the lab coats every day, would they continue to be more careful? Or would the effect wear off? We don't know. So it's an interesting study, it doesn't necessarily tell us everything that the news articles are hoping that it would tell us. But it does sort of support some of the other studies that have been done in this area and has made way for what might be some more interesting future research.

S: yeah, I mean you know, you're right, whenever you get a study like this that reports an effect, you always have to ask, well how robust is this effect? You know, if it's really minor, even if it's statistically significant, is it a huge effect or not? And this was an underwhelming effect in my opinion.

R: Yeah, it was pretty subtle.

S: Yeah.

R: And that subtlety isn't necessarily conveyed in the articles, most of the articles I read.

S: The popular articles about it, yeah.

R: Yeah.

S: But it also makes sense, I mean I think our image of ourselves does affect how we behave, and how we carry ourselves, I mean we're sort of prepared to believe this result

R: Yeah, we've seen this happen in more dramatic situations, you know you get a brand new suit or a brand new fancy dress and you wear it to the wedding and you feel you know, you feel different, you feel different than when you're just hanging around in your pyjamas

S: Yeah. Right, but I do think that you raise a very good point about novelty. Does this wear off?

R: Well, Steve, when you put on your doctor's coat, do you still get like a little thrill? Little chill up your spine?

S: No, you know, well definitely I can harken back to when I was a medical student, and you put on the lab coat and it probably had more of an influence back then. Now it's just something I wear, you know what I mean?

R: Yeah. You know what I bet never gets old though? Astronauts.


R: You could wear a space suit every day of your life and you would still feel like a boss every time you put it on.

J: I know, it doesn't get much more bad-ass than that, for real

E: have we ever talked about the effect of school uniforms, that's kind of what I thought about when I was reading through this article.

B: Steve when we went to Canterbury, there was a story that went around when we were freshmen, about how for one year they did an experiment where the students could wear street clothes, whatever they wanted, and grades went down precipitously and then they reinstituted the dress code which was pretty much jacket and tie every day and grades when back up but I never confirmed that story, but it was just a bit of anecdotal evidence that I remember from years ago in high school.

S: I do remember that Bob, but the thing is that that kind of data is anecdotal and we don't know if that was just one part of a bigger overhaul. That variable wasn't isolated or controlled. There was a study published a few years ago that concluded that there was little to no effect on academic performance from using school uniforms, and in some cases they may even be counterproductive, so the evidence is mixed and I don't think there's really any clear effect there. Well, let's more on, Evan you're going to give us the next installment in our death by pseudo-science series.

Death by Homeopathy (19:07)[edit]

The West Australian: Woman sues homeopath over sister's cancer death

E: In the Western Australian city of Perth, Penelope Dingle, a woman who passed away from rectal cancer in August 2005. At the time she was being treated by a homeopath named Francine Scrayen. She started seeing her in 2001 and Ms Dingle complained to Ms Scrayen that there was blood in her faeces so Ms Scrayen prescribed homeopathic remedies as a cure. Well, it didn't really work, as we know because we know what homeopathy is, and homeopathy is nothing. By February of 2003, Mrs Dingle was diagnosed with full-blown rectal cancer after seeing some real doctors. And then two days later she was referred to a colorectal cancer surgeon by the name of Dr Cameron Platel. And then when Mrs Dingle revealed to her homeopath Mrs Scrayen that she went to this doctor and got this diagnosis and they recommended conventional science based treatment for it, the homeopath insisted that Dingle had to reject all other forms of treatment other than homeopathy. And that's what she wound up doing. She wound up making that decision. So she took the homeopath's advice, and then her spiral towards a very painful and agonising kind of death was under way. But as Dingle's pain increased over the next several months, she was told by Scrayen the homeopath that the pain was all in her head and that Scrayen had consulted with a psychic to get a better read on Dingle's condition and the advice of the psychic was that Dingle needed to try to concentrate on more positive thoughts in order to beat the pain. And the woo just got worse from there. Scrayen spoke to Dingle about how to deal with her family members, most of her family members and loved ones were growing concerned with her deteriorating condition. The homeopath apparently instructed Mrs Dingle to tell her family to keep their negative vibrations away because it interferes with the homeopathic based treatment. October 2003, Dingle is rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to have the cancer removed, but unfortunately it was too little too late. The long-term damage had been done because she went untreated for so long and the surgery and the conventional after-treatment bought her about 18 months more life but she succumbed to the cancer. And according to the cancer surgeon Dr Platel, she had a good chance of survival had she been treated with conventional treatment at the time of diagnosis, but because of the delay and because she decided to seek alternative treatment and refused the chemo therapy and the surgery at the time, that led to her death. And this case made national, actually, international headlines. That brings us to current day. And the article that came out last week in which Mrs Dingle's sister is now going to sue the homeopath who persuaded her to avoid these conventional treatments and go with the homeopathy instead. It was basically deemed that Mrs. Dingle of her own volition and with apparently the encouragement of her husband who also apparently believes in homeopathy, at the time believed in homeopathy, and apparently still does, based on those people's advice lead to her ultimate death. But now she's being sued, so the homeopath is being taken to court for damages, for personal injury sustained by her sister as a direct result of her death.

S: yeah, it's an interesting angle, so the sister is saying that she was victimised by the homeopath because she suffered emotionally from the horrible death of her sister.

J: yeah

S: uh, which is interesting in that her lawyer is arguing that her homeopath had not only a responsibility to her patient, but also to the people, the patient's loved ones, and you know, from a legal point of view that's interesting, we'll see how that goes. Yeah, the thing is that even if the homeopath wasn't breaking a law, that doesn't mean that she's not criminally negligent. If you give someone medical advice that is blatantly unscientific and dangerous, of course in my opinion, you should be held responsible. You can always suse somebody for malpractice. But the problem with malpractice is that experts are held to the standard of other experts. So you would essentially need to get a homeopath to say that what this homeopath did was substandard. Good luck with that.

E: yeah right.

J: oh my god, that's pathetic, Steve

S: yeah. That's what you get when you license quacks. Is that then they self-regulate.

E: you legitimise them.

S: you legitimise them and they're held to the standard of the quack.

J: Oh god that is so... that pisses me off. I can't believe that's the reality.

S: yeah. Alright, Bob, you've got some more nano-news to cover for us. This is a real departure for you. Talking about nanotechnology. But uh, this is interesting, I did look over this. Tell us about it.

Small Scale (24:18)[edit]

Ars Technica: Scale made with a carbon nanotube sensitive enough to register a proton's mass

B: oh, you love it.


R: Bob is the reason why we put the word "nano" in our word magnets which will be available for sale at

B: that's so nice

J: You know, I'm getting sick of Bob being heralded as the nano-guy. I've been just as big a fan of it as you, if not more.

S: Jay, you have nano-envy of bob, is that your problem?


S: so Bob, tell us about this news item.

B: yes I shall. Do you guys have one of those digital scales that's supposedly really, really accurate.

J: yeah I do

B: well, you may think it's accurate. But at least now, it doesn't seem accurate to me at all any more. Scientists in Spain have created the most sensitive scale ever. It can weigh a handful of atoms only and has the potential to weigh the amazingly low mass of a single proton. This breakthrough was recently announced by a team of scientists at the Catalan institute of nanotechnology in Spain and was published in Nature Nanotechnology. Now, if you were ultra-tiny, you wouldn't, you couldn't actually weigh yourself on a conventional scale. You'd step on the nearest nanoscopic mechanical resonator. At the macro scale it's easy to use the force of gravity to determine how massive your waist line is, but when things get crazy, crazy small however, other forces dominate and a regular scale is of no use at all. SO enter this nanoscopic mechanical resonator. These devices determine the mass of very small things by determining how the object changes the frequency of a vibrating object when it's attached to it. Alright, here's a cool word alert, guys. This is called adsorption. Adsorption occurs when something is bound to the surface of an object. Absorption obviously is when something is incorporated into the interior of something else. Particles attached in this way, they lower the resonating frequency in a very predictable way depending on their mass, and also where specifically it's attached. So imagine a good analogy is a vibrating guitar string. If you adsorb some tiny object to the string, you would change how it vibrates, and therefore you could then determine how much mass had to have been attached to the string to change the frequency in the way that it did. Now, resonators like this have existed for quite a while actually, and they've been used to weigh things like cells and molecules, and as cool as that is though, their sensitivity was limited to that lower end. So of course scientists could do better. And the key innovations though that these Spanish scientists developed involved using... can you guys guess what they used? Our friend the carbon nano tube.

J: oh, why didn't I think of that?

B: carbon nanotubes yet again find another cool use.

S: is there nothing they cannot do?

E: Right? No.

B: incredible. Nanotubes have a very high vibrational frequency, which is around 2 GHz, about 2 billion vibrations per second, which is key to the sensitivity of these guys. The nanontube was suspended over a small depression or trench with each end secured so that this effectively made the nanotube shorter, which makes it even more sensitive to frequency changes. In addition, they also put this apparatus into an ultra-high vacuum and they put it at only 4 kelvin, which is very very close to absolute zero. And the final step they took to really get the sensitivity really high was to, they annealed the nanotube which is they heated it up, which I believe was able to get rid of some of the impurities that might have been attached to the nanotube itself to make it even more accurate. So with this new setup they were able to detect molecules and small numbers of xenon atoms, so based on this, now this is important, based on this they were able to determine that this device had a sensitivity of 1.7 yoctograms.

R: I'm sorry?

E: Did you just throw up?

B: I knew you'd love that, Rebecca.

E: yuck! yuck!

R: Isn't yoctogram an old Russian stand-up comedian? That's the best I can do.

J: No, you're thinking of thinking of flamogram. Totally different.

E: Carbon nanotube?

J: What is this, carbon?

R: In Russia, carbon nano tubes you!


B: I knew you'd like that term yoctogram. Yocto- is a metric prefix that corresponds to, obviously, a really really tiny number. It's actually 10^-24 or a septillionth. Now, if you want to look at the spectrum, if you start down at a thousandth, or milli. The progression goes milli, micro, nano (yay!), pico, fempto, atto, zepto, and finally, yocto. So this is way way crazy tiny. This is so small, I mean that's how much a damn proton weighs, I mean it's 10^-24. Now of course, at the other end of the spectrum, 10^24, and Evan, I know you know this, it's yotta. Right, exactly. So how big are your hard drives guys? Is that too personal?

J: That's a personal question, Bob.

B: Yay. Say 3 terabytes, maybe.

J: That's huge!

B: A yottabyte is a trillion terrabytes, so you won't be seeing any yottabyte hard drives any time soon.

E: I think we analysed that, we looked it up online and they analysed that it would take the entire economies of the entire world to create a computer with one yottabyte. That's how much storage.

R: That's so sad.

B: yeah.

J: That's right now though, but 10 years go by, you know what I mean.

B: yeah, I mean eventually.

E: in a couple of years it'll be a hundred bucks, right.

B: But, so what I was getting at guys what that they were able to calculate that this thing has the sensitivity to weigh a proton, but the thing is that a lot of the articles that I read, and you know, like I said before, or at least if you read the title, they would lead you to think that they'd detected these individual protons, but they haven't done that yet, it's only theoretical, so what they've determined is is that this device is sensitive enough that it could do that. So the biggest challenge they've got with this is actually how to manufacture these yocto-scales at low cost so lots of different labs can start using it, and who knows what else they can do with it. So your next home-scale may actually tell you how many protons you weigh. Or actually, no it won't, but.

S: Jay, to finish up the news section this week, you're going to tell us why rhinos are being hunted to extinction.

Rhino Horn (30:40)[edit]

J: Yeah, you know Evan's segment today was pseudo-science that kills, right?

S: Uh huh.

J: That's for people. But sadly, this is pseudo-science that kills animals. Traditional Chinese medicine, has sadly proliferated a dangerous belief that herbs and animal-based substances have curative or fortifying effects, and the latest crime against humanity is that we're seeing the African rhinos slowly become exterminated. Maybe I shouldn't even say slowly because some changes have been taking place over the last couple of years. In Vietnam there's been a huge new demand for rhino horns, and what this is doing is, it's basically outlining the final demise of the last remaining rhinos. There's about 28,000 rhinos left in Africa. Last year 448 were poached and they were poached exclusively for their horns. And as many of you know, rhino horn isn't really a horn at all but it's a dense hair that's made out of keratin, which is the same thing that our hair and fingernails is made out of. And what they do is they grind up the horn, and then they take that powder and they use it for all sorts of different applications. They think it's a cure-all, so you know anything from a headache to sexual potency to cancer to whatever. I mean it's been... if you read the internet you can clearly see that there are dozens of uses or claimed uses for it. Now, the incredibly high-priced rhino horns are going for something along the lines of $65,000 US or 45,000 euros per kilo. And sixty percent of traditional Chinese medicine practitioners stock rhino horn. And you know, the poachers are doing one hell of a nasty job on these animals. We're seeing things like they cut the horns off with chainsaws, and you know they're not doing it carefully, they're not sedating the animals, they're basically netting them, holding them down, they take the chainsaw, they cut the horn off. If they cut part of the face off it doesn't matter. They're in and they're out as quick as they can. And if by chance the rhino doesn't die, it has a gaping, oozing hole where its horn used to be, where they cut it off.

E: uh.

J: You know, Vietnam ended up killing off its own Javan rhinoceri. Rhinoceri? Rhinoserose?

S: Rhinoseroseses?

E: Rhinosaurs?

B: Rhinos.

J: Rhinos! Thank you. They killed off the whole population in 2010 despite local efforts to protect it. You know, Chinese medicine, sadly in this case is on the rise in Vietnam because there's a lot of people becoming rich and they're buying these things, they're buying up rhino horn, like they're buying up expensive fashion items, like purses and shoes and whatnot, it's just something that everyone has to have because it's trendy right now.

E: I don't know what you do about this because it's so ingrained in the culture.

J: yeah, I totally agree, it's sad because the more expensive it becomes the more that people in Vietnam want it, so if the price even doubled or tripled it just becomes more of a have-to-have item.

S: yeah, that's the catch 22 here, you have to cut off the demand, because the rarer you make it the more valuable it becomes until the rhinos go completely extinct. That's sort of the paradox of this thing. So they have to figure out some way to reduce demand, but unfortunately the demand is the belief in the magical power of rhino horns, and it's cultural. It's not an easy thing to change.

J: no, I mean if you had 50 years you could make a big difference by teaching the younger population, but unfortunately the only thing that I think they can do is put the rhinos in such a rhinos in such a massive protective, I don't want to say facility because they need a lot of territory to live, I would go so far as to say that the Vietnamese government should be held financially accountable, and make it their effort to save the rhino, or at least let their populate know that it's not going to be accepted, that's it, they should have incredibly harsh laws on their citizens to stop this, I mean 28,000 rhinos, they killed almost 500 last year, that is soon going to turn that population into a downward spiral that they can't come back from. How many do you need to keep a population healthy? You can't have hundreds, you need thousands.

R: there was recent news that several countries in Africa have teamed up to create one of the largest game preserves, the largest even I think, in the world. Yeah, it's the nations of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe made this sort of legendary deal, hopefully it will work out. It's a tricky thing that a lot of people are very skeptical that all the countries are going to donate enough resources to keep it going but as of right now, it's the world's largest preserve. So yeah, hopefully it'll work out. If it does work out, it's going to be a great protection for wildlife including rhinos, but also elephants, lions, crocodiles, leopards, hippos.

E: oh my!

R: so they're trying to promote this as a tourist destination and hopefully use that money to then fend off poachers. But it's definitely going to be tricky, especially considering the politics between the countries.

S: you know the one thing they don't have is a quickie with Bob.

Quickie With Bob: Mini-moons (36:18)[edit]

B: well, I'm not really in the mood but, I'll give it a go. This week I'm going to talk about mini-moons. Now, did you know that at any one time, the earth has at least one mini-moon in orbit around it. But don't get your hopes up, they're tiny, usually only about a meter wide, so they're pretty small. Now these are asteroids, or near earth objects that orbit the sun and get temporarily caught in our gravity well becoming near-earth satellites. They typically orbit for a year or so then slip away again to orbit the sun exclusively again with their other asteroid buddies in heliocentric orbits. Some lucky ones could actually orbit us for decades, how call is that? Their orbits are also very complicated and twisty, so I recommend googling this, looking it up and you can see a graphic of the kind of orbits they take, it's really kinda cool. This is because they're being only lightly tugged by the earth, so they can also be influenced by the moon and the distant sun as well. The supercomputer simulations that this information was based on simulated millions asteroids and if you ran this on your alienware laptop at home, it would have taken six years to run the program. The paper on this topic is from researchers from the university of Hawaii at Manoa, if you want to read more about it, just google mini-moons or read their paper in the March issue of Icarus. This has been your quickie with Bob, I hope it was good for you too.

J: wow, Bob, that was the first time that you've talked that little ever.

S: You're actually getting down to the quickie that we had envisioned. Good work.

Who's That Noisy? (37:50)[edit]

S: Well, let's move on, Evan, to Who's That Noisy. Tell us about last week's Who's That Noisy.

E: I'll do better than telling you about last week's Who's That Noisy. I'm going to play for you Who's That Noisy and I'm going to double down and I'm going to give you the answer to Who's That Noisy in what I'm about to play for you right now.

Noisy: This approach is, and here this is what I said that every mad scientist needs, this is a special piece of apparatus. This is my Tesla coil. This can generate lots of energy (sound of Tesla coil).

R: it's a Tesla coil!

E: that's exactly what that noisy is!

R: yes!

E: Tesla coil! Many many correct answers. So, listener Brandon Osborne emailed us to say: it sounds to me like a small Tesla coil. And Brandon is right.

All: good job Brandon.

S: Evan, you want to tell us what a Tesla coil is?

B: it's a coil that tessellates.

E: exactly. OK, wait. Who was the inverter of the Tesla coil?

S: uh, Volta?

E: close

S: I know, Benjamin Franklin, he invented everything

R: Mulva.

E: that's right. He came up with a version called the Franklin coil, but it didn't quite take. Had to wait until around 1891 when Nikola Tesla invented the Tesla coil.

S: uh, of course.

E: an electro-resonant transformer circuit. It's used to create high-voltage, low-current, high-frequency alternating current electricity.

J: and they're dangerous Evan, right?

E: yeah, I wouldn't go sticking my hand near one while it's on.

S: tell us what you've got for this week

E: alright, so here we go, let's see if you can spot this particular voice.

Noisy: Here is Oprah's hand, it's very interesting because the one thing that jumps out at me is that it's a working hand. There's a psychic ability here in her hand.

J: that was weird

E: what did you think of that

J: I thought it was weird

E: so we want to know, folks, who said that.

S: ok thanks Evan, it's time now to go on to our interview.

Interview with Marshall Gillson aka Gripp (39:40)[edit]


S: We are joined now by Marshall Gillson, otherwise known as Gripp. Marshall, welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

M: Thank you.

S: That was just a bit of a song off your latest album, that you were playing. The album's name is "Head in the Clouds". And now, is "Glass Eyeballs" the name of your group, your...

M: um.

S: Your company, what is that?

M: it's the name of my label; I started an LLC last year.


M: basically for this album, and as a note it's "Head in the Cloud".

S: I'm sorry, Head in the Cloud.

M: yeah it's supposed to be a pun. It kinda goes over people's heads, but...


S: yeah, I saw that, I was wondering if I wrote it down correctly, but Head in the Cloud, OK. So, what possessed you to include Jay in one of your songs?

M: basically, a lot of the Skeptics Guide. I wrote most of the album while I was working a full time job and I would just queue up the Skeptics Guide every day and I thought Oh, yeah, it was a funny catch phrase, pithy and succinct and gets right to the point of basically that whole song. And I thought he could probably do it better than I could.

J: hah yeah I remember when Marshall contacted me. I get a lot of requests to do voice-over work and uh, this one was very intriguing because you know I used to be a musician, I was in a band for 21 years and I really miss it. I wanted to do it. Plus you know, the type of music that you do and the particular that you asked me to do which is the Oh yeah thing, which I love that, it's one of my favourite stupid jokes that we keep pulling over and over on each other. We were doing that for years, even before we started the podcast. I had to do it. So I forced myself to get in there and lay it down for you and I gotta tell you Marshall, I played this for everybody and everybody was cracking up, like it was one of the funniest thing when I started playing it for people that I know and they knew it was my voice and it was super-funny and I love what you did, man it was great.

M: I really like the song, it's a lot more light hearted than some of the other stuff on the album, so it's good to take it from that angle, as opposed to being so so serious about it all the time.

J: So, Marshall, did you get introduced to critical thinking before the SGU, was that always a path that you found yourself on, of were we the first outlet for you?

M: Uh, you guys were not the first outlet. I've always been kinda a nerd. I haven't always been a self-identified skeptic. When I first went to college, I remember that I read Freakonomics, that was probably the first pop-science book that I read, and then it just kinda grew out of that. I was actually listening to Skeptoid before the SGU, but then I discovered the SGU and went back and listened to the whole archives.

S: So you are a long-time rap artist. How would you describe the style of your music, by the way?

M: I'd call it nerd-core, probably. But I think that might be something of a misnomer. I'm just starting to get into rapping about critical thinking and science and my nerdier side. A lot of it is much more personal and emotional. Head in the Cloud is really much more about the intersection between objectivity and subjectivity. So I believe pretty strongly that there are things that we can know scientifically and that there are ways that we can arrive at those conclusions that justify our beliefs, but I also recognise that there's this whole other side to human experience that is completely subjective that you can't really apply science to. There's nothing scientists really have much to say about how we deal with our morals or our emotions, and those are important things too. So the album deals a lot with kind of the subjective experience of living, as viewed through a very scientific, critical thinking world view.

J: yeah, we've actually talked about that on the show before. I remember Steve, that at one point you said something like: look, you know we're critical thinkers, but we're also human beings and you know, enjoy it, like you know, revel in your emotions and that actually was a cool thing that Steve said, that I didn't really think of it that way, I guess I was thinking of... let me rephrase that. I've been pushing myself towards critical thinking for so many years that I didn't connect my emotion to critical thinking, and the two do need to intermingle and you do need to play between them. So, I think that your message is definitely cool but I really got off on the skeptical lyrics because it's just so void in the music industry. People don't talk about that stuff.

M: yeah, and I think that honestly, I think that's because people get pigeon-holed in the same way that we get pigeon-holed as critical thinkers or nerds, and you're sciency and everything is factual. I think musicians kind of get pigeon-holed on the other side, you know, as all about the emotion, and all about the subjective side, and they don't get a chance to express those other things, so.

R: and on the other hand, we have a lot of very enthusiastic skeptics who want to make septic art in some way, and they're not necessarily artists, and so we end up getting a lot of, let's just say, uh, lesser quality of art that's really focussed at our community and I think that happens with any sort of sub culture. There's just not a huge pool to pull from and so when anyone is out there producing something that speaks to our community, we tend to embrace it regardless of how high the quality is. So for me, when I... I believe you sent an email to the Skepchick's sister site mad art lab, saying that you'd done this work and you wanted us to listen to it, and I remember talking with them about it, and we were all really pleasantly surprised.

S: because it didn't suck.


R: honestly, yeah, we were expecting it to be really terrible. And we were like, wait no, this guy's actually got a lot of talent, so it's really fantastic to see people who genuinely have the talent and the enthusiasm for what we tend to talk about in this community. For you to put those together is really great.

M: Thank you. And I think actually, it's kinda starting to catch on. I say that with my fingers crossed. I know that there are a bunch of atheist rappers now. I've been working with some of them. Um, I don't know really anyone who's doing skeptical rap per se. But I honestly I kinda don't think... I did a lot on this album to include it explicitly, but it's basically I consider myself a skeptical person. That colours my world view, so even if I"m not writing a song that's specifically about skepticism, I feel like that is kind of like a backdrop to anything I do.

S: so you said it was catching on. Do you mean just that there's more atheists who are, you know, rapping, or do you think that it's catching on within the broader rap, hip hop community.

M: uh. Well, I think that's kinda hard to say for me, just because I know so many of them that I kinda have a skewed perspective on it. I definitely think that there are more of them. I think that in as much as it's catching on in just society in general that atheists are more comfortable, you know, talking about it and coming out and being proud of being atheists, that that kinda translates into just greater numbers.

S: Do you think that there's resistance, or has there been traditionally resistance in the industry?

M: there definitely has. I mean, you go on youtube and watch all the videos of people flaming on both sides. And so there definitely are a lot of rappers who are very strong about their religion and so they take offence to what we're doing and, you know, it seems like an attack to them. Yes, there is! (laughs) is the short answer.

R: do you have a rap rivalry with a Christian rapper?

J: (laughs)

R: is there someone out there that's sort of your...

M: not that...

R: your Little Kim to their... yeah.

M: no, I did go to Morehouse though, and there was a ton of religion there and so I was um, you know a very strong Southern Baptist school so I was often the only atheist in the room and whenever I'd preform or talk about that there was always that kind of air in the room of oh my god did he just say that? SO I definitely knew rappers there who were very involved with their God, talking about their god in their music, I wouldn't call it a rivalry, but...

S: for the record, if you should ever find yourself in a rap battle with a Christian rapper, the SGU will host it for you.

M: alright, I'll keep that in mind.

R: totally.

J: I'm going to segue into another song here called Claim to Truth, and when we hear it you can give us a quick one-two about it.


S: sing it brother. (laughter) Well, certainly those lyrics speak to anybody that has a skeptical world-view. I mean these are terms that I think most of our listeners are going to be very familiar with, and it is very interesting to hear this kind of music with talking about Russell's Teapot and Occam's Razor.

M: That's kind of a hard core atheist song on the album. Most of them are not that strong. But um, you know, frankly though, I say that like that's super strong and offensive and such an affront and I kinda don't think that it's that bad. I mean, obviously it's kind of an angry sounding song, but really I went through great pains to not attack people for believing, but to just talk about why that's not correct, why I think that's an incorrect belief. And you kind of heard that with that part of it where I think I said in that clip, something... that stupidity is truly sublime. That, again, I phrased that very very carefully to say that that line of reasoning, that's dumb, that doesn't make any sense, but not to say: you are stupid for believing this. Which I think are very different things.

S: the bigger issue is just addressing the claims or the beliefs, and not the believer. Again, we definitely try to do that as well, we try to deal with the belief, we do go after people who are promoting irrational beliefs, but not just the rank-and-file believer, but I'll tell you that the believers rarely appreciate that distinction. I don't know if you've had the same experience. They still think you're attacking them when you say that argument is wrong.

M: I definitely have, I think that honestly, and I don't want to say this for believers either, I think this is a kind of human thing, that you internalise your beliefs. So when you say something that you believe is wrong, what people hear is: you believe this, and it's wrong, and you must be stupid to believe that. That's not the same thing! I really don't see that as the same thing. People tell me that I'm wrong all the time and I try... I don't take that personally. I just consider, am I wrong? And if I'm wrong then I'll re-evaluate. But it's a fine distinction for someone who's not used to making that distinction.

J: the other thing too is that when you were talking before about trying not to come off too hard as an atheist, atheism is now a part of the landscape, it's coming up a lot now. Atheists are becoming more and more outspoken and I was wondering if you think the term atheist is becoming less or more of a dirty word?

M: I don't know, it's never been a dirty word for me (laughs). I mean I kind of had a religious background, but not my family was never super religious so I never had any stigma about atheism. Wow, that's an interesting question.

J: It's hard to answer. I think about it.

M: I guess I definitely have friends who believe in religion and I don't get any animosity from them over it but I don't know if that translates into it being less, there being less stigma in general. That's a really big question, wow. That's going to plague me. I'm going to be thinking about that.

S: It sounds like in your personal life, it wasn't a big deal.

M: Yeah.

S: that you've been pretty much accepted by your family and friends as an atheist, it's not really been a big source of conflict for you. I guess we all have our own perspective, we're all surrounded by our own little world and it's hard to look past that.

M: I mean, really the best thing you can do for that is just be a good person, you know. Be a good person and be not ashamed to be an atheist because that's. I've definitely had encounters with people, who, they heard I was an atheist and they made up their mind about me before they even met me, and I feel there's not really much I can do about that, other than just be myself. And you know, I'm not an evil person, I don't have a lack of morality, so just to demonstrate to them that being an atheist doesn't always equate with being a corrupt morally bankrupt person is kind of taking a step in the right direction.

S: that's definitely helpful, but in my experience a very common reaction to that is: oh, you're such a nice guy even though you're an atheist, you must be the exception. People will remarkably cling to their preconceptions, even in the face of disconfirming evidence.

J: OK, I'm going to play one more song here, and this one I think is really cool, it's called The Future Goes and the description that Marshall gave me, he revealed that he's taking a masters program in Artificial Intelligence.


B: that's got to be the only song about AI

M: no, there's a couple on the album

J: just this topic alone we could talk to you for an hour about, I'd love to crawl into a deep conversation with you about it, but I've just go to ask you about the singularity. Do you believe it, is it possible, is it coming.

M: I was super excited about it before I came back to school, and the more I study the more I realise that we're so, so far from that. We're really... we're not even close. I'm taking a cognitive science class this semester. He's presented these overarching theories of consciousness and all of them are super-incomplete, they're all like a kernel of truth there, but you could never ever build a brain just from one of them. So that integration between the theories is what we're still missing. Personally, and this is explicitly just my personal speculation, I don't want to represent this as the state of the AI community or anything, I personally think that cyborgs will arrive long before we have free-standing intelligences, so.

J: that's interesting, Bob what do you think about that?

B: well I was just wondering, in the song you're saying 10 to 20 years, so you think it'll be beyond that, much longer, then we'll have real artificial general intelligence.

M: I don't know. I like... the thing is, how can you ever predict it? I mean for all I know there could be somebody right now developing it, and actually I kinda started that song to be honest before I came back, because I was getting excited, again I was excited about the singularity, I liked thinking about it, I liked reading it, which is why I came back to study it. So I think we're making great progress. The theories that we're developing are helping to develop systems that use knowledge in interesting ways, and ways that humans can not. But the idea of general intelligence is much more intricate than that.

B: oh yeah, it's an incredibly tough nut to crack. It could take decades and decades. But once we do, I think that the singularity, depending on how you define it, I think it would be inevitable, I mean.

M: All bets are off at that point. I just think that it's more likely that we'll crack offloading memory as an individual function, and you know, enhancing our mathematical reasoning, maybe as an individual function before we're able to create a whole brain that does all of these things.

B: yeah, and actually I agree that we'll be seeing that sooner, and that actually might be the best approach to super intelligence because if you enhance human intelligence, you know, you wouldn't necessarily be inclined to wipe out all humans as vermin.

S: kill all humans!

M: yeah, it sidesteps a lot of ethical problems really, because then you don't have to talk about robot rights, because it's not a robot it's a human with robot parts. So it has rights by virtual of being a human still kind of.

R: I bet we'd still have to talk about rights.

S: I agree that the cyborg as you define it, approach is probably likely to happen first, but I will add to that that I think we will reverse engineer an artificial intelligence before we fully understand the nature of consciousness and intelligence. We don't really have to understand it, we're just going to say oh, ok let's just make a cortical column, ok let's hook a few million of these together. And yeah, then we're going to have a virtual brain before we really know how it works. So I don’t...

R: It's that easy, scientists, get on it.

M: and there's this split in the AI community between knowledge-based AI and machine learning AI which is basically, well it's not what you're talking about exactly, but the knowledge based community basically puts aside what humans do. And they're like, just because this is the way humans do it, doesn't necessarily mean that's necessarily the way the computer has to do it. So they're looking for other ways that you can form the knowledge, whereas machine learning is more statistical, you know hook the neurons together and emergent properties and things like that.

J: I was talking to a bunch of people and they were talking about their iPhone, and how the iPhone has artificial intelligence now because it talks to them. Sadly, I'm not joking, I really think they really think the phone is really thinking.

M: I mean, it is thinking in a sense of it. The thing with artificial intelligence is that when it cracks problems, they tend to get taken away from it, so like search optimisation and search engines were considered an AI problem at one point and then Google figured out a great way to do it and now it's not any more basically. They just consider that it's own thing, it's search and that's a different field, and I think the same thing is kind of there with Siri. It's like when they were developing that, if you thought about a machine that could respond to natural language and find these things, that might have seemed like AI, and now they've done it it seems kind of technical, and it's like, hmm, yeah ok not really. I think that's an interesting study in how humans interact with their devices though, I mean just the idea that people could be talking to this thing and treating it like a thinking machine I think is a super-interesting thing to look at.

S: what's funny, Jay, you may recall a friend of ours, 30 years ago though that the Atari game cartridge was thinking.

M: oh, man.

S: He actually thought that the game was trying to outsmart him. A level of artificial intelligence that we still don't have.

R: It is interesting though, isn't it, to think of artificial intelligence sort of like magic, and how every, once you know what's going on, what's really going on behind what you see.

M: it's exactly like that.

R: it's no longer considered magic. Like OK, now it's in the realm of the possible, so I feel like in a way what we're talking about is defining artificial intelligence as this magical thing that maybe we'll never reach simply because each time we're going to learn everything behind it.

M: Might. And I mean these are not small questions. What does it mean that we're thinking? What is that level of consciousness that we consider our own intelligences? Do other animals have that level? If I get a machine to the level of a cat, have I proven that the machine is as intelligent as a cat or that the cat is not intelligent?

R: Maybe both.

M: there's the line there, really. Especially as a strict materialist like myself, I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea that there's fundamentally anything different about my brain.

B: so much semantics, what do you mean by thinking?

M: I kind of worry that we're going to get to the point where we can create a computer that looks like a brain then I'm not going to feel that there's anything about my brain any more. I don't want to lose the magic of that!

S: alright Marshall, well thank you so much for joining us.

M: thank you.

R: thanks, Marshall

S: that was a really fascinating discussion.

Science or Fiction (1:01:38)[edit]

Announcer: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fictitious, then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Is everybody ready for this week.

R: Yep

J: Yeah.

E: Bring on the foil coach.

S: Ok, I think you'll find these interesting. Item number one. Scientists have built a functioning quantum computer inside a diamond. Item number two. Scientists find that hospitals that spend more money have a 20-30% reduction in overall mortality in emergency room treatment. And item number three. A new analysis warns that a Titanic-like shipping disaster is as likely today as it was 100 years ago.

J: Hah! Scientists have built a functioning quantum computer inside a diamond. I mean, I hate when we're playing this game and I get one of these clues. Like, no they didn't build a functioning quantum computer inside a diamond.

E: oh no they didn't!

J: it's aggravating! Because on its surface, of course this one is the fiction. I don't even know what to say about that. OK, no but they put a cell in there and a cell is a supercomputer because blah bl blah bl blah and the DNA, whatever, OK, so I don't know anything about that, let's move on to the second one. A new study finds something about the hospitals spending more money, 20-30% reduction in overall mortality in the emergency room treatment. OK, so the hospital spends more money, and they have less, they have a significant reduction in overall mortality in the emergency room. That makes a lot of sense. I mean, you know, when you say they spend more money, what are they spending the money on? That's going to be the big twister there. Did they spend more money on facility type stuff, or is it staff? But I could see that seems to be based on reality. And the last one is one about the analysis warning that a Titanic-like shipping disaster is as likely as 100 years ago. Yeah, alright so, a Titanic-like shipping disaster, meaning what specifically? Hitting something? Running aground? I mean look at what just happened with that moron over in Italy, you know. Seriously, like really, dude? Yeah, like so many things seem so obviously wrong about that. I'm just going to pull it up close to this island because I look so cool, you know. Yeah, nice job Charlie. I don't see why that one would be fiction, I think that statistically when you run the numbers, how many ships are out there versus how many were out there back during the Titanic. What was that, 1912?

E: April 14, 1912.

J: so you increase the volume of the number of ships, and then you have boozy clown here, steering boats, sure I can see that one being science. And I want to say that the one about the diamond is fiction. I'm going to have to. Sometimes Steve throws a Duh, come on guys, that's it I'm picking that one.

S: OK, Rebecca.

R: Oh, man that is a ridiculous item. It sounds like something that Lex Luther would do. If you'd said Item number one, Lex Luther built a functioning quantum computer inside a diamond, I'd say yes, that makes perfect sense. That's how he's going to destroy Metropolis. That's my only thought on that one. Hospitals that spend more have a reduction, quite a large reduction, in mortality. Yeah. I can see how that would make perfect sense. My question would be, hospitals that are spending more are probably located in wealthier areas and are probably wealthier in general, so I can picture the mortality rate being higher at a hospital where for instance they attract better doctors, so I'm not really sure how a study would separate how much money the hospitals are spending and deciding that that has an impact on mortality. A new analysis warns that Titanic-like shipping disasters are as likely today as it was 100 years ago. At first I was thinking along the same lines as Jay, we have knuckle-heads running into things all the time. However, the problem with the Titanic wasn't just that they ran into an iceberg, it was a problem of manufacturing, the actual ship and the design of the ship was faulty, and I assume that some lessons have been learned from that, particularly, like number one, don't boast that your ship won't sink. I don't think that anybody would do that again. But more than that, for instance, life boats. There was a lack of life boats on the Titanic, and I think that currently most countries have laws on the book about how many life boats need to be on a ship compared to how many passengers. So, I'm going to go ahead and say that one is the fiction.

S: Alrighty, Evan.

E: A functioning quantum computer inside a diamond is, as Jay said, practically unbelievable, so out there, probably means it's true. Which is very cool. I can't think of a reason why they couldn't build a quantum computer inside a diamond. I mean they are able to build some pretty darn small things. It's a bigger diamond, you know, it depends, artificial diamond you build, if you make it big enough. So that one's probably science. The study finding hospitals spend more money. Um, well how are they spending the money, where's that money going to? Is that money necessarily going to emergency room treatment? Is it proportional? So I don't know about that one. I was thinking that one might be thinking. But I was also thinking the Titanic one might be fiction for a lot of reasons that Rebecca said, building floors in the ship design and so forth, that typically when you have big disasters like that you make improvements when it comes to things like design so that the things can't happen again. I'm going to go with the Titanic one, although I won't be surprised if I'm wrong and it's the hospital one.

S: OK, Bob.

B: Oh boy, this is a really really tough one. The functioning quantum computer inside a diamond. Yeah, I've got problems with this. First of all, damn, I would have read this! I would have come across it. The other thing is the word functioning, what exactly do you mean by a functioning quantum computer, you know a minimally functioning quantum computer, you know one of two qubits would be really cool, but it won't necessarily do anything of any value. I think a diamond would make a good computing substrate. I think it's very nicely electrically conductive and heat dissipation is really good and all that stuff. I really want to pick that one. But I could kind of see some kind of minimally functional quantum computer being created perhaps, and if it's true I'll be really pissed that I missed that. The second one, the 20-30% reduction in overall mortality, you know, yeah, on the surface that kind of makes sense, but I don't know, I just think that a lot of people that go to an emergency room, they're just going to die anyway, I don't care what you do, they're going to die. And a 20-30% reduction just seems huge to me. Just by spending more money in some ambiguous way, which of course Steve is not spelling out, yeah that just seems too too big to me. And I've also got a problem with the Titanic one. What do you mean by Titanic-like shipping disaster, do you mean in terms of the ship sinking, or do you mean in loss of life? If you mean in loss of life, then I'd have to agree with Rebecca and Evan, that yeah, I think we're much safer these days in terms of making sure that there's enough life boats for everybody. Hello! And uh, you've got to go through your little training session your first day on the ship. So yeah I don't think that's as likely. But I think we could easily be as likely to lose a ship. You know a ship hitting an iceberg, hello, I mean talk about kinetic energy, that's huge, plus the iceberg raked across multiple panels in the ship, yeah I could see ships going down hitting an iceberg, absolutely, so I guess you won't help me there, Steve, will you.

S: no.

B: Bastard. Um, so I'm just going to have to flip a coin with that one and say that you... I'm going to just assume that you meant in terms of just a ship going down. And I'm going to have to go with the 20-30% reduction just seems... in overall mortality, that sounds too high. And you could just throw money at stuff and you're not really going to make a difference. People come to an emergency room who are near death and they're going to die, even with Star Trek technology they're just going to die. So, crap, I'm going to go with that one, I'm going to say that's fiction.

S: oh, boys, you guys are spread out all over the place.

R: yeah.

E: all over the place

S: all over the place!

R: I don't think I've ever disagreed with Bob as much as I disagree with him right now. I don't think I've ever disagreed with Bob, period.

E: Rebecca, you find Bob disagreeable at this moment?

R: Never, never.

E: OK, damn.

R: but normally, normally at the end of science or fiction when bob goes in another direction and he explains it and I'm like oh, well crap I should have done that, but in this case.

E: now you're saying.

R: Now I'm more sure!

B: Sorry to disappoint you Rebecca.

S: alright, well let's see. I guess I'll take these in order. Starting with number 1. Scientists have built a functioning quantum computer inside a diamond. All of you guys had a little bit of trouble with this, but only Jay picked this as the fiction, correct?

J: Yes, a bad sign Steve.

S: And this one is, Science!

E: Oooh, suck.

J: I mean come on, Steve, I'm serious I'm going to hold you to such critical criteria right now.

S: Sure!

J: And begin, go ahead, let's hear about this quantum computer!

S: Here's the headline of the article: Quantum computer built inside a diamond.


S: So the interesting bit is, what they're using inside the diamond to hold the quantum qubits is the impurities, not the carbon structure of the diamond itself. Which, first I'm like great, they perfect a diamond computer, how financially practical is that going to be, but they're actually using the crappy diamonds that aren't good for jewellery because they've got lots of impurities in them, cos it's actually the impurities that they're using, like if there's either an electron on a proton or something trapped inside the crystal structure of the diamond, they can use that to store a qubit which is a superposition of a 0 and a 1, right a bit in computing is a binary piece of information, a 0 or a 1. In quantum computing it uses qubits which has that Schrödinger's Cat superposition where it's alive and dead at the same time, in this case it's a 1 and a 0 at the same time, a so-called superposition. A big problem with quantum computers up until this point has been decoherence.

B: mmm

S: the quantum states that you're using in order to encode the qubits degrades very quickly, a process called decoherence. The bigger the object that they use, like using a nucleus of an atom, the decoherence is much slower than using something like an electron, but they're also much more sluggish in terms of their computation time as well. So they were able to encode these qubits inside of a solid diamond. Up to this point, most quantum computers have been using liquid or gas substances. I think this is the first one to demonstrate a functioning quantum computer in something solid.

J: So can you play, you know, Skyrim on this computer.

S: No, because it's quantum computer, quantum computers don't function the same way.

R: Could you play quantum Skyrim?

S: Don't function the same way that standard computers do.

J: oh I see, so they don't work is what you're saying.

S: no, they work as quantum computers. Now there's an interesting test to prove that it's actually functioning like a quantum computer.

J: yeah, when it doesn't do anything, it's a quantum computer.


S: no, here we go, this is interesting. So let's say you have an unsorted database, the example that's given in the article is, let's say you're asked to find a match for a specific phone number in the phone book. The phone book is not sorted by phone number, it's sorted by name, so you'd have to look either randomly or sequentially through the phone book, but you can't follow any sequence. And there is a mathematical formula to calculate the statistics on how long it will take you on average to find the number you're looking for. It's however many entries there are, divided by two, right, not a big shock. But that's on average, you may get lucky and find it on the first one, or it may be the last one in the whole book that you check, but on average, if you do it many many many times and you take the average, it'll be about half way through.

B: Holy shit, they blew that out of the water, huh?

S: So, in a quantum computer, guess how long it will take to find the match.

R: First try.

S: Yup, it will always happen on the first try.

J: wha, how?

S: I don't know.

B: it's a super position!

S: Yeah, I don't pretend to understand it, but that is the case. So that has become the standard test for quantum computers, to see if they're actually computing in a quantum fashion rather than just a conventional way, a classical way. Is to give it this kind of unsorted database test and see how, on average, how long it takes them to find the correct match. They tested the diamond quantum computer and it found the correct answer on the first choice 95% of the time which means it has to be functioning in a quantum fashion.

B: oh my god

S: yeah. Let's go onto number 2, a new study finds that hospitals that spend more money have a 20-30% reduction in mortality in emergency room treatment. Bob thinks that this one is the fiction based on the fact that if you're going to die, you're going to die, and you can't throw money at the problem.

E: and I think it might be the fiction even though I guessed the other way.

S: Evan always hedges his bets.

R: Stop hedging your bets

S: Mr Hedge. Evan's favourite plant, the hedge.

E: mmm.

S: This is interesting because previous data has shown that how much hospitals spend doesn't really have a strong correlation to outcomes, but this one is Science.

B: sigh

S: sorry Bob

E: wow

S: This is a study, a review that showed that there's actually a pretty robust correlation between several factors, but one of which is how much hospitals spend. There's also a positive correlation to whether or not it's a teaching hospital and of course to how aggressive, interventional they are in terms of the immediate care of patients who come into the emergency room. The thing is, this may not be generalisable to all of health care. The authors are very careful to say that at least acute emergency room type problems, you know having the latest equipment, doing more studies, being more aggressive, spending more on care does actually have a fairly robust impact on outcomes. 20-30% reduction overall in mortality is huge. So, that's very interesting.

R: that is interesting.

S: yeah, which means that a new analysis warns that a Titanic-like shipping disaster is as likely today as it was 100 years ago, given that we're pretty much at the 100 year anniversary of the Titanic, is complete fiction.

J: maaa!

E: what are you sinking about?

S: In fact an analysis shows that a Titanic-like disaster would be extremely unlikely. And I was deliberately vague in terms of what I meant by Titanic-like, because every aspect of it is increasingly unlikely. You don't have to separate it out. So the risk of just having a big ship go down is a lot less. And the risk of losing the same number of people. You guys know how many guys died on the Titanic?

E: like 2100 people?

S: 1514.

J: Hun... fourteen... yeah.


S: So Jay, you brought up the Costa Concordia, and that was mentioned in the article about this as well, so that was a big cruise liner going down, how many people were lost when that ship went down?

E: about fifty.

R: single digits

J: twelve, I think.

S: 32. 1514 vs 32. There's numerous reasons for that, Rebecca, you mentioned the life boats, that's huge. Now, you're right, you have to have enough life boats for the passengers, so a lot of it is just improved regulations, so a lot of lessons were learned from the Titanic, there was a huge review and wringing of hands, and the Titanic event led to a lot of improvements in maritime safety. It's also much better training of the crew, they know how to respond in the disaster better, there's better communication among the crew, in terms of hey, there's an iceberg out there, we'd better start turning the ship! So the ships just function much much better, there's much better safety regulations in place. It would actually be very unlikely for anything approaching the Titanic to happen today.

B: it makes so much sense now.


R: in retrospect it always does.

E: I have full confidence in my answer.

S: Right (laughter). Uh, Jay, you owe us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:20:38)[edit]

J: yes, I do. This is a quote sent in by a listener named Derek Billings. And thanks for sending it in, Derek and please don't hesitate to send me your good quotes. This is a quote from a man named William K Clifford, does anybody know who William Clifford was?

E: The guy with the moustache who used to sell oatmeal and insurance on TV?

R: Mmm yes, the diabetes.

E: right.

J: no, but he did have a moustache and a big-ass beard. And he was born in 1845, he died March 1879, he was an English mathematician and philosopher. And William said, or wrote:

If a man, holding a belief, which he was taught in childhood, or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men who call into question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it, the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.

J: William K Clifford!

S: Alright, well thank you for joining me this week everyone. 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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