SGU Episode 353

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SGU Episode 353
21st April 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 352                      SGU 354

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Everyone, in some small sacred sanctuary of the self, is nuts.

Leo Rosten

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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 Monday April 16th 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 Evan Bernstein.

E: Carpe dium.

S: To you too, Evan.

R: So I'm just going to quit the podcast now and go out for a bike ride.

S: Yeah, (inaudible) your life.

E: Should I have said Carpe Podcast?

R: Yeah, that's probably a little better.

E: I'm not sure that was a popular phrase back when, but.

S: Carpe diem tomorrow.

E: (laughs)

J: Carpe manyana.

E: Crape diem.

S: Carpe manyana.

This Day in Skepticism[edit]

The Surgeons Photo (0:48)[edit]

(April 21, 1934 - Surgeon's Photo of the Loch Ness Monster published)

R: Hey so, happy Loch Ness Monster Day, everybody.

S: Yeah, cool.

J: Thanks.

E: Oh, thanks, what did I win?

R: Uh huh, I bet you didn't know that was a national holiday.

E: What!?

R: It's not.

J: What do people do on that holiday?

R: It's not.

J: Oh.

R: Uh, they take photographs, blurry photographs of toys floating in water. Yes, it's not a national holiday but I'm campaigning to make it one.

J: (laughs)

R: Today is the day in 1934 the famous photograph of quote, unquote "The Loch Ness Monster" was published in a newspaper. Does anybody know what newspaper?

All: uuuh.

J: It was in Scotland wasn't it?

R: I'll give you a hint, the newspaper still exists today and is quite popular in the UK and has also published other similar, maybe hoxes and unbelievable claims.

E: The Sun, the Sun.

R: (laughs) Close, the Daily Mail.

J: Of course!

R: Our good friends, the Daily Mail were the first to publish this particular photo, supposedly taken by a gynaecologist named Robert Kenneth Wilson. Wilson didn't want his name attached to the photo originally and so that's why it is well known as the surgeon's photograph. And it's the famous one, the one you think of when you think of Nessie. It looks like, you know maybe the neck of the monster rising out of the water, however there's absolutely nothing in the photo to give it any sense of scale except for the suspiciously small size of the ripples.

S: Yeah.

E: Oh yeah.

S: I've always thought that it looked like a hand. You know, the head, if you make that shape with your hand it kind of looks exactly like that.

E: Yeah.

R: Yeah I agree.

E: It does.

R: There have been a number of debunkings. I think the one that gained the most traction was published in as early as 1975 or so but it was claimed that this was a plot by the son in law of a big game hunter who was ridiculed by the Daily Mail and so this guy attempted to get revenge on the Daily mail by creating this hoax and by getting the surgeon to offer the pictures to the Daily Mail.

S: Was this Marmaduke Wetherell?

R: Marmaduke is correct, yes.

S: Marmaduke, I love it.

R: Such a great name, Marmaduke Wetherell.

S: Marmaduke!

B: My god, if he had any idea what he was creating with this one little hoax.

E: Quite amazing what, yeah.

B: An entire sub-genre of bullshit.

E: It's iconic.

R: Mmhmm.

E: This photograph.

S: Mmhmm.

R: I should say, Marmaduke Wetherell is the name of the aforementioned big game hunter.

S: Yeah, right.

R: And Christian Spurling is the son-in-law who supposedly built, it was apparently a toy submarine that had a head and neck attached with wood. That had been built by the son-in-law, Christian Spurling. And then the two of them got a few other people involved to get the photos to the Daily Mail.

J: Did you guys ever see the picture and think that it was like an elephant's trunk coming out of the water?

B: (laughs)

R: That was a common claim, mmhmm.

B: How'd an elephant get in there though?

J: Well that kind of thing, it doesn't have to be an elephant, it could be some type of sea creature sticking a tentacle out or whatever. When I look at the picture thinking that it's a dinosaur like they describe, it looks a lot more fake to me. It looks small to me then, it doesn't look... but when I think of it as an elephant's trunk type of appendage then it looks more real.

S: Well have you guys seen the original photo, not the cropped one that we're all familiar with?

J: Sure.

E: Yes, that's right.

B: Oh, I yeah but I forget, what was...

S: You could see how small it is in the loch.

E: Much better scale.

S: Yeah, the scale is much more apparent and you could see that it's a very tiny thing but then you zoom in on it and, I mean there were still anomalies that make you think that it's not a huge thing but you lose the ability to really see the scale.

J: This was one of those topics that we saw on that TV show "In Search Of" in the 70s.

S: Yeah.

E: Hmm.

B: That Spock was the host for.

J: Yeah, Leonard Nimoy hosted it, it's burned into my mind, like when I see that picture I hear his voice talking about it.

E: (laughs) I head that Bilbo Baggins song when I...

S: (laughs)

J: Oh god. I feel so bad for him because of that. Those of you who don't know, Leonard Nimoy recorded this song about Bilbo Baggins and he made a video[1], it had to be in 70s right? Some point in the 70s.

E: Oh yeah.

J: It's more embarrassing than watching William Shatner sing about Mr Tambourine Man[2]. That's how bad it is.

E: Yeah, or Rocket Man, yeah.

B: That's saying something, oh my god.

E: It is that bad, you cringe.

S: That's when Nimoy was trying way too hard to be not-Spock.

R: Yeah.

E: Right.

S: Yeah.

R: He kind of went in the wrong direction there.

E: His artsy phase, yeah. But eventually directed Three Men and a Little Lady, so.

R: Leonard Nimoy directed Three Men and a Little... and a Baby or whatever?

E: Yep. Yeah, Three Men and a Little Lady, is that what it was?

B: Yeah.

R: Wait, that was the second one. Did he do the first one or the second one?

J: Yes, no he did the first one I'm not sure if he did the second.

News Items[edit]

Life on Mars (6:03)[edit] Is this proof of life on Mars?

S: Well, Bob. Tell us about Life on Mars, is it possible that we've already discovered life on Mars but just didn't notice.

B: Well, I didn't see this one coming, and if it's true, it would be both historic and the height of lameness all at the same time.

E: (laughs)

B: A recent reanalysis of the Mars Viking data seems to point to the existence of microbial life on Mars. That means that we may have discovered life on another planet 35 or 36 years ago and didn't even notice. So what the hell, if this is true, I'm going to be really happy and really pissed. Now, researchers from a plethora of universities including Los Angeles, California, Tempe Arizona and Sienna, Italy have recently published a paper in the International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences (IJASS) in which they discussed their work using NASA's data from the old Viking mission. Now a little history about Viking, the twin Viking landers landed on Mars in the summer of '76 and their primary goal was to find signs of life, for example by examining the Martian dirt and looking for the hallmarks of biological activity.

E: Which is what?

B: They don't call Martian dirt regolith do they, is that just specific to the Moon?

S: No, I don't think so, it's anything that's not soil that's on the surface of a world.

B: Right.

S: It's not specific to the Moon.

B: OK. To do this, the probes had three experiments, three or four depending on your source, optimised for that task. One of these experiments was called the LR or Labelled Release apparatus. What this device did was it scooped up dirt and mixed it with some water that had nutrients tagged with radioactive carbon atoms. So if there were microbes in this dirt, they would metabolise the nutrients, and in essence they would breath out the carbon dioxide or methane gas which would then be detected by a radiation detector that was in the probe. So like all good scientists, of course, they also had a control sample, or multiple control samples in the experiment, and this consisted of isolating some of the samples of soil in the dark for months at a time, which would apparently just kill any photosynthetic bacteria or microbe-bacteria like organisms. Or, it would kill anything that relied of photosynthetic organisms to survive. But I also read another source that said that what they did was they just heated the sample to such a temperature that it would be enough to kill anything that was living inside of it. So, but after they performed these steps, the control samples were then fed the nutrients and examined again. Now when these active soil samples, the ones that weren't treated and could potentially have live organisms, when they were fed the water the detectors got hit with a pulse of like 10,000 counts of radioactive molecules. If you compare that to the normal background radiation found on Mars, it's usually about 50 counts or so, so clearly something interesting was happening. Perhaps it was even biological. If this were the end of the story then things, obviously I think, would have played out very, very differently. But unfortunately the other experiments did not agree with these results, including an experiment that used a mass spectrometer that didn't find any organic molecules at all which seems pretty damning to me. Therefore no discovery of life on Mars was made and the general consensus seems to have been that there was some geo-chemical reaction taking place in these LR experiments, or maybe there was some other fluke occurrence that happened. And this was kind of interesting, I came across a comment on one of these websites. Somebody named Richard Hallavese made a comment, he said that I worked on Viking back in the early 70s on the hydrogen flame ionisation detector and other experiments and the entire design team was dismayed when the purely political announcement was made denying our clear findings of microbial life on Mars. It was finally explained as people weren't ready to accept life on other planets. So in truth, some of the higher-ups weren't ready to be open minded and accept facts as they were. So, I mean I don't know who this guy is, I tried to google him and I couldn't find any evidence that he really, that he worked on these projects, so take that for what it's worth, but it's just, his perspective is a little interesting if it's even true, and I do tend to doubt it. I don't think that NASA's reaction would have been, at that time, oh people aren't ready to accept it. I mean come on, that would have been the finding, you know, one of the biggest findings in history and they were just going to put a lid on it? So I doubt that.

S: Yeah, that sounds like crap.

B: Now jump ahead 36 years and now, a mostly new generation of scientists and computational tools have resurrected this old data, and they disagree with the results that few people seem to have doubted for more than a generation. So what led them to this startling conclusion? It looks like one of the first things they did was to do away with this idea that the initial results was just this weird geochemical reaction. And apparently, when the LR experiment was repeated four or five months later, nothing happened. So if this were merely some chemical reaction with rocks or maybe some other elements in the dirt, then why would it not occur again months later? So what they did next then was to evaluate the data from a completely different perspective. They were looking at it in terms of complexity, and specifically how complex was the radioactive gas signal that was emitted by the dirt, and how did it change over time? And they did this obviously because in general biology is more complex than non-biology. If you closely examine the complexity then, it could give insight into whether it was caused by some biological process or not. So that is kind of where they were coming from. So this mathematical complexity analysis allowed them to compare it to the control sample signals in a way that made the differences kind of like really stand out and kind of put them on two ends of a spectrum. The interesting thing is though that they did similar analyses against earthly biological data. They, like for example they took temperature readings from a rat and they also took other clearly non-biological data from Earth and when they compared all this data together, everything from Voyager and everything from Earth sources, what happened was that the live soil samples from Mars clustered together with the rat data on one end and the Mars control data clustered with the Earth non-biological data on the other end. So to me, this makes their results a little bit more compelling, rather than if they had just looked at the Mars data. They, comparing it with, you know clear signals from Earth, things that we know are biological or non-biological to me makes it a little bit more compelling. Joseph Miller is a researcher with the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, he recently said, on the basis of what we've done so far, I'd say I'm 99% sure there's life there. That's the one quote that really, really stands out and that you kind of read everywhere. I mean that's a hell of a confidence level. But still though, there's some scientists, I'm not sure how widespread this belief is, but I'm sure a lot of them are saying that we really need to replicate the technique that they used on more samples from Earth to verify that it really can distinguish biological data from non-biological data. I'm sure we're going to be hearing more about this in the future. But as to the immediate future, now you guys now the Curiosity Rover is set to land on Mars in August. NASA says that it doesn't have the specific tools to detect life, which is really annoying, but it could lend support to this latest experiment, and it would also support the one that was conducted 36 years ago on Viking. But guys, I mean why can't the Curiosity probe detect life, I mean what would be more powerful than if the Curiosity had just a microscope, just a silly microscope so that you could actually see, yup, look at that, that's some weird alien microbe, it's clearly nothing that, you know, it's clearly biological. I mean how hard would it be? I'm sure they've got really good reasons that they couldn't put something as definitive as that on there, and that's not really its goal, but it's still kind of annoying that we're sending these multi-, I don't know what it costs, hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, these probes, and they can't definitively say, yep that's life right there, it's just a little bit annoying.

J: But now what do we do, like what's the next step here?

B: Well we'll see if the Curiosity rover can support, can lend any support to this new theory, and if it can, then I'm sure that it would warrant even more research and more tests, and just more verification of the specific technique that these guys used, you could do that on Earth, you don't need to do it on Mars. And then of course the next question would be, is it Earth derived, or is it purely, totally alien? I mean there could just be cross-seeding between Earth and Mars and back again, so it could be, you know, just like Earth life in terms of DNA and chirality, you know the way the proteins are oriented and all sorts of stuff that would let you think, yup this has go to be from Earth or maybe Earth life came from Mars in some way, but either answer would be fantastic, I don't care. I mean of course I would prefer completely alien DNA, but I'll take it any way that I can.

E: Right, Bob and they're confident it's not contamination from the Viking craft itself?

B: It could have been, I mean yeah, they actually talk about that as well. I think some of the images that they had from Mars showed these dark patches that kind of reminded some of the scientists of lichen and so what I think the Curiosity rover is going to have a really high-res camera that will be able to get a close look at that stuff, and that was just another thing that could be an interesting finding from the Curiosity rover but we'll see.

S: OK, thanks Bob.

Indian Skeptic Charged with Blasphemy (15:42)[edit]

BoingBoing: Indian skeptic charged with "blasphemy" for revealing secret behind "miracle" of weeping cross

S: We have an update on one of our friends, a friend of the SGU, Sanal Edamaruku.

B: Sanal!

E: Yeah!

S: Sanal, Indian skeptic who was interviewed on our show before, you guys remember him from the...

B: Killing, killing, killing!

S: ...Tantric killing challenge, right. But Evan, he's got himself into another controversy.

E: He sure has, a big one. A big one that's making international headlines, which in a way is a good thing but you know, maybe it's not such a good thing. So as we know, Sanal is the founder and president of Rational International, and he's the president of the Indian Rationalists Association. He's authored many books and articles which deal mainly with rationalistic thoughts and anti-superstition, which is prevalent in India. And it's not small task considering India's population of over one billion people, many of which are steeped in a culture of belief in astrology, in ancient medicine, Tantric healers, reincarnators, miracle men and other fictions. But recently, Sanal made a trip to India's capital city of Mumbai and paid visit to the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni, a little Catholic church where a supposed miracle had taken place. A Jesus statue, at this church, started dropping water from its feet. And this was deemed by the faithful to be attributable to some level of divinity and higher power. People were actually collecting these drops of the Jesus foot water and touting it as holy water because, hey, let's face it, how could a wooden statue of Jesus all of a sudden start dripping water from its feet?

S: That's unpossible.

E: That's unpossible. I really don't understand why people are so impressed with that. I mean, if water had been dripping upwards maybe from the top of the statue's head, then maybe you could possibly call that a miracle, but that's not what happened. But surely there can be no other explanation other than a miracle of god, right? Well, that was until Sanal showed up. He wasn't alone because India TV channel 9 had invited Sanal to come along with them to help figure out an alternative explanation for the wet-foot miracle. And hats off to TV channel 9, right, for utilising this correct tool, namely a skeptic practised in the art of figuring out hoaxes and pointing out charlatans. So good for them.

B: So that was their goal though, it wasn't like, oh let's see the skeptic explain this one. Or did they really expect and hope that he would throw some light onto this? You know, of all the TV stints that he's done, he's a celebrity in his own right.

S: He's a celebrity, he was a draw by himself.

E: No doubt about it.

B: Yeah, I was wondering what their motivation was, OK.

E: And within minutes of arriving, and upon cursory inspection, Sanal was able to determine the source of the water, which was a drainage tube from a nearby washing room. And but perhaps more importantly, Sanal pegged the mechanism as the capillary action.

S: mmhmm.

E: Capillary action is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of forces such as gravity. Instead, there are forces such as adhesion, cohesion, surface tension that cause the movement of water within these porous spaces, these spaces of porous material. That's how water can apparently get from one place to another without actually pouring down. And so he picked this out right away and he went further than that. He accused the church of miracle mongering because church officials had been using this event as a means of drumming up support, both financial and otherwise.

S: Mmhmm.

E: And needless to say, the local church leaders and their faithful flock in attendance for the investigation were less than pleased with Sanal's opinion on the matter. They demanded that he apologise for his blasphemy and they went so far as to public threaten him with a blasphemy case, which is a real set of legal charges in India that can result in arrest, attention and punishment by the state. So, no joke. As of today, there are reportedly three petitions out for Sanal's arrest and the Mumbai police had announced they were interested in arresting Sanal, but as of today that has yet to officially transpire. We'll keep an eye on it and see what happens this week. But perhaps officials are thinking twice in some sort of momentary lapse of reason that they're having since this unfolded. Realising, maybe this isn't the right way to go about this. So perhaps they're taking a step back and kind of analysing things a little bit more critically which would be a good thing. But in the mean time the story went viral, skeptical communities around the world are following these events closely and what was pretty much an isolated little miracle case in India, of interest to the locals, is now making world headlines thanks to the efforts of Sanal and his group. Rationalists International has formed the Sanal Edamaruku defence committee and you can go there to help contribute to a little legal defence fund that has started to accumulate. In case he is arrested and going to be brought up on these charges he's going to need some help in that matter.

R: If he's not, let the guy buy a sweet new ride or something, he deserves it.


E: Right, or something.

S: He actually is welcoming the court case, he's like, hey this will be a great opportunity to, in a court of law, explain the evidence that shows that this is not a miracle and to show that the Catholic church in this instance is being deceptive. He's like yeah, bring it. He's welcome the attention, and this actually is playing right into his hands. Otherwise, so he debunked this miracle claim, who would hear about it, maybe it gets a little bit, a news flash on the TV. The Catholic church, by trying to get him arrested for blasphemy, is making this making this international news, they're drawing a lot of attention to the fact that they got totally showed up by a skeptic. He, according to their own reports, the rationalist reports, he completely kicked the butt of a Catholic bishop in a televised debate on this topic which is not a surprise given that he appears to have the facts on his side. So this is a classic example, in my opinion, of just drawing more attention to your own embarrassment.

R: The Streisand Effect.

S: Yeah, this is a dumb move on the part of the local representatives of the Catholic church. I mean, really, arrested for blasphemy, you think that's a good move? And apparently there's a law on the books, it's against the law to injure somebody's religious beliefs, that's what they mean by blasphemy.

R: Yeah, I wonder how much of that is one of those laws like we have here in the US where you get these old laws that just sort of sit and rot until...

S: Yeah.

R: know, someone actually tries to press the issue and then finds that its...

S: Yeah, it's like sodomy laws in states in states in the United States, like 200 year old laws that nobody really enforces until somebody makes a case out of it and tries to make a case out of it and tries to enforce it, yeah.

E: I'll make a federal out of it. Yyyeah.

S: Yeah... (laughs)

B: I wonder if that's even the case though, who knows maybe that isn't such an old thing that that is disregarded and laughed at in India.

S: Yeah, I don't know.

B: Maybe, for all I know, maybe it's not. Maybe he can get nailed with that. I mean if they could, if all they have to do is prove that he injured somebody's belief then maybe the truth won't even matter.

R: Well I don't mean to suggest that just because it's an old law that isn't enforced any more doesn't mean that there isn't a real danger for those who are prosecuted by it, so even if it is an outdated law there is still some risk there and he'll probably have to have to spend all this money defending himself, it's still a huge problem.

E: Yeah, you're still at the mercy of actual people whether it be a judge or a jury, I'm not sure how the system works there, but hey it just takes a few of them to share a belief in this sort of stuff that might skew things really against him, so you're right Rebecca, there is a risk here. Sanal Edamaruku had a good quote and sort of summed things up when he said, "it's nothing new that the Catholic bishops try to sentence their opponents to the stake when they run out of arguments. But try as they may, they cannot stop me to stand for reason, science and historic facts. And I am not alone. Freedom of expression is under attack, and we are going to defend it." Hear hear. I'll say.

R: That's awesome.

J: You know, in a country where it's so unpopular, it's so, in such the minority and it's got to be an insanely difficult environment to navigate through, and he does it steadfast and with his head raised high and I'm always excited to hear what he does.

S: Well, good luck Sanal and we will pass along any updates we get on the story.

Multitasking (24:39)[edit]

BBC news: Media multi-tasking 'of benefit'

S: So how do you guys think you are at multitasking?

E: Terrible.

R: I'm sorry, what?

S: Multitasking.

J: (laughs)

S: I'm sorry were you doing something else?


J: I am freakishly bad at multitasking.

S: Well that's good to hear you say that because people who think they're good at multitasking are actually worse than people who don't think that they're good. And people who multitask frequently are worse at multitasking that people who don't. There's a new study about multitasking but I'm going to use this as an opportunity to give a summary of the research, what do we know so far? Multitasking is attempting to do more than one thing at once, essentially, as the name strongly implies. And it turns out that our brains are simply not evolved to do that. We don't have multi-core processors or multi-threading. We have the ability to really only play deep or focussed attention to one thing at a time. You could think of our attention as being either broad and superficial or shallow, or the more we focus it down the deeper it could get but the narrower it has to be. And it's a finite resource right? Like Data, right, we can't pay deep or full attention to multiple things at once.

B: Yeah, that's cool.

S: Yeah, so you could sort of keep your attention wide and be alerted to many different sources of sensory input but you can't be, again, paying detailed attention to all those things. Or you focus down narrow and you block out other sensory stimuli. But it's also interesting to think of the brain as having multiple types of finite resources. Attention is a finite resource. Memory is a finite resource, and sensory perception is a finite resource. And all of those things conspire together to mean that we're actually pretty significantly limited in what we can do in terms of engaging cognitively in tasks. So what are people doing when they are multitasking? Generally what they're doing is they're switching back and forth between or among the various tasks that they're engaged in and that means that, if you are let's say trying to do two tasks simultaneously, you're going to be switching from one to the other. You're going to do worse than half as well at each of those tasks because some of your finite resources are being used for switching back and forth, so it's not just that you're dividing your resources in half and giving half to each task, you are doing that but then a certain amount of those resources are then going to the very task of switching from one to the other, you're having to load information into your working memory, and then swap it out. You're shifting your attention, shifting your focus, getting back mentally to where you were with one task before you had switched to the other one. So that results in what's called interference, doing one task interferes with your ability to do another task. This is very well documented. There's also a special category of multitaskers, and this is, there's a new study about this specific thing, and that's called multi-media or media multitaskers. And this is becoming increasingly common and perhaps we all do this to some degree, and that is the task of consuming multiple sources of media at the same time. Such as watching TV while texting your friend and watching something on your iPad. Essentially, paying attention to dividing your attention among multiple media sources at the same time. People who do that a lot, so called heavy media multitaskers, tend to be worse at multitasking than low media multitaskers. The suspected reason, again there really isn't evidence to show us cause and effect so we don't know if consuming media multitasking causes people's brains to work this way or if people who already tend to operate this way are more drawn towards or tolerant of media multitasking, but heavy media multitaskers tend to have superficial attention that is broadly distributed as opposed to focussed attention that they can direct at one thing. So they're not as good at filtering out information that is not relevant to the task that they're engaged in. Interestingly, even when they're instructed in an experiment to focus their attention on task-specific information and to ignore task-irrelevant information, they're still worse at it. They don't do it well, than low media multitaskers. Again, this raises the question, why is that? And what's going on in their brains that makes them bad at this and what's the cause and effect. So a string of experiments have shown that heavy media multitaskers perform worse on all kinds of cognitive tasks. The new study is the first one, according to the authors and as far as I could find, the first one to show a potential advantage to being a heavy media multitasker in a way that also kind of makes sense. What the researchers did was they gave subjects, they first divided them into heavy versus light media multitaskers. They gave them each task to, you're looking at a computer screen and you have a target shape, and then you have to find the target shape among a lot of closely related or similar shapes that are popping up on the screen. So you have to pay close attention to what's happening on the screen and find the target. So that was one task and then in a similar related version of the task, an audio signal drew attention to the target shape. So if you were able to pay attention to the visual and the audio information at the same time you would have an advantage. Heavy media multitaskers did better when the audio signal was there, than the light multitaskers. But when it wasn't there, the light media multitaskers did better than the heavy media multitaskers.

B: That makes sense.

S: Yeah it all kind of makes superficial sense, if you think of being a multitasker means that you're spreading your attention out amongst multiple things but not focussing down on anything specific and not being able to filter out extraneous information, that explains all of the research results. It also goes along with this new results, was OK, there's a little advantage in there in that you're better at simultaneously processing different sources of sensory information than somebody who's not used to doing that. Again, with no data indicating what the arrow of cause and effect is. You have to think, OK so from a practical point of view, how good is that advantage? When does that come up? That you need to integrate multiple different sensory modalities. I'm sure there are instances. People will be able to send us examples of when it would be useful but, given the number of experiments that show a huge disadvantage to being a heavy media multitasker, this is probably just a slight advantage in the other direction and doesn't really counterbalance all the negative. You know and it raises an interesting question of what is the ultimate societal effect of all of this going to be? You know, we're increasingly bombarded with multimedia and with multiple things to pay attention to. We're already seeing it's problem for drivers, you know who might have a radio or mp3 player and a cell phone, sometimes complicated instrumentation of the car itself, you know, the environmental system and everything, and it absolutely, and again there have been multiple experiments showing this, it absolutely degrades driving performance, leading to more accidents. What's the end result of all of this going to be? Are we going to create a generation of people with a form of ADHD? You know these, difficulty in paying close attention to a task at hand and filtering out distracting or extraneous information? Or is this just a manifestation of the adolescence of our interaction with multimedia? And is this going to be something that's going to define the current generation but not necessary extrapolate into the future where people will learn how to cope with it a little more maturely? I don't know, what do you guys think?

J: Steve, do you think that we evolved to focus down on one thing? Or why wouldn't we evolve to have our attention be split up among different stimuli?

S: Well, no you can do that, you can divide your attention. It's as if, you know if you want to put it into an evolutionary situation, you could think if you're on the plains of Africa and you need to be alert to threat coming at you from any direction, you can sort of pay attention to your whole environment but you're not getting a lot of detail about any one thing in your environment. You're just spreading out that finite attention to everything so if anything comes at you from any direction you can respond to it, but imagine you're carefully studying something in your environment, whether it's a plant or you're looking at animal tracks, and now you're not paying attention to everything, you're filtering out extraneous information. This is related, of course, to inattentional blindness, you know.

B: Mmm.

J: Yep.

S: Which we're familiar with, or change blindness. You actually don't perceive things. There's a lot of interesting sub-questions here too. One thing that's really interesting that I found when I was going through the research on this is that if you give somebody a task that requires a lot of sensory processing, they become less distractable, or the interference phenomenon tends to go away. And that's because they've saturated their perceptual capacity, they have no more capacity with which to be distracted. Interesting, it's kind of paradoxical. If you make the perceptual task really hard then they're no longer distractable because they don't have any resources left to notice anything distracting.

J: mmm.

R: mm.

S: But there's also memory saturation, and also executive function. Executive function sort of controls what you're paying attention to and how you're switching between tasks, and the timing and the tactics with which you do things. That's a finite resource too. There's also a phenomenon known as automaticity.

B: Cool word.

S: Yeah, automaticity. If you become really...

E: It sounds like you're mispronouncing a word.

S: No I mean it's the same root as automatic, but it's when...

E: I heard.

S: ... a task becomes so learned...

B: Internalised.

S: ...that it becomes, yeah, that the amount of resources that it takes to do that task becomes much less.

E: Uh, driving a car.

S: Well, yeah, on autopilot right? So you can go through the motions of driving a car completely disengaged from your attention and executive function, right, so people have that experience or you're thinking about something and you're on quote, unquote "autopilot", you're not using a lot of your cognitive resources. But you're also not like necessarily controlling where you're driving. You end up some place, well how did I get here? Because you weren't paying attention to where you were driving.

B: Oh my god yeah.

E: (laughs)

S: that's why people are terrible drivers, because it requires maintaining a certain level of attention, for a prolonged period of time, and people are not really good at that. You know our attention tends to drift and we tend to focus on other things.

R: That's why I don't drive.

S: It's perfect for a computer. I mean computers can infinitely maintain their attention on a specific task so that's why I think that having like collision avoidance systems, you know, computers essentially looking over your shoulder and paying attention for you will be hugely advantageous in driving.

B: Well even cars that are completely driven by computers. And they've gone so far with that technology.

S: Yeah.

B: there are some car companies that are making cars now that will be able to perform that in at least a limited way.

S: Yeah.

R: Well, we talked about this, Google has already made the cars, they've been driving on our streets for the last, what, year, year and a half, two years?

S: Yeah, so I think the bottom line of all of the research is, don't fool yourself into thinking that you can multitask. You simply can't. Your performance will degrade significantly at anything you try to do. If something is important, give it your undivided attention, try to minimise distracting elements in your environment. It really does matter, and if you don't think it does, there's research shows you're just fooling yourself and you're probably even worse at it than somebody that isn't fooling themselves about it.

B: Yeah.

Monkeys Recognize Words (37:49)[edit]

BBC Nature: Baboons recognise words on a screen

S: All right. Well, talking about cognitive ability, we have some monkey news. We're partial to monkey news on the SGU.

J: Monkey.

S: Monkey.

R: That's right.

S: Rebecca.

R: Monkeys have bested birds again.

J: Come on.

S: Well there were no birds in the study, I'd just like to point that out.

E: (laughs)

R: Steve, show me a bird that can read. Oh, what you've got nothing? OK then I'll just move on.

S: These monkeys can't read either.

R: Hey, hey, shut your mouth, OK?

E: Do they speed read?

R: These, well first of all, they are baboons. They are very intelligent baboons. They are baboons at a facility in France, who despite being in France, have been "learning to read English". I like the study because, first of all because it's a study on animals where, animals in captivity where you don't have to feel bad for the animals because it sounds like a pretty chilled place so the baboons are hanging out and at any time, they can independently decide that they want to go and take this test. And when they do, they just wander into a little room where there's a computer set up, the computer automatically recognises them and starts up this program that they then play. And they get treats. And then they go back to doing whatever they were doing.

B: Yay. They got any openings?

R: Yeah, exactly, this is my ideal professional situation.

B: (laughs)

R: Hanging out, picking nits off your buddy, going in for some treats, so...

E: Sweet. The baboons always had it better than us.

R: Yeah, so here's what the computer program does: it shows the baboon a series of four letters. And the letters can either form an English word like k-i-t-e, or it could be gibberish, like e-k-t-i.

E: Ekti.

R: Ekti, exactly. And the Baboon can choose to either click a plus sign if it's not a word, and a circle if it is a word. The baboons went through thousands and thousands of tests like this, and of course, each time they get it right, they get a treat. So they go through thousands of tests and eventually they learn the words. So they don't know that kite means a thing, a toy that you fly in the sky attached to a string, but they do know that kite is the thing that matches with the circle and that ekti is the thing that matches with the plus. So right now you're probably thinking well, that doesn't sound that impressive because, you know it too thousands of test and eventually they just learned that one series of letters equals treat, you know if you push this button and another series of letters equals treat if you put this other button. However, the really interesting thing, and I agree, they're not reading as we understand it, where you read words and you associate them with real-life things and you understand what the words mean on multiple levels, that's not what they're doing. But this part is really interesting, the baboons, after a while, after a few thousand tests, the baboons were able to recognise an English word that they hadn't seen before, with apparently a pretty high degree of efficiency.

B: that's awesome.

R: So, for instance... I can't think of a four letter word that's not a curse word.

E: (laughs)

R: (laughing) I seriously just came up blank. So let's say r-o-a-d shows up on the screen and the baboon has never seen it before, however he chooses that it's a real word more often than not. So what this experiment maybe shows is, not just the ability of baboons to recognise patterns that they've seen, but to recognise a pattern of the English language, like an overall pattern that they are using and applying to new situations. This ties in with how little kids, for instance, can look at a word that they've never seen before and get that it's English. Previously it was guessed that they, that little kids were figuring that out because they could sound out the word and it sounded like a word that they had heard before. However, this goes to show that it might be something a bit more complicated and more interesting, that it's actually a sort of object recognition, pattern recognition that is happening in the brain and this could also have consequences for research into dyslexia because it suggests that the problem of dyslexia might be happening in a completely different part of the brain than we originally thought. There's the part of the brain that processes language and there'e the part of the brain that identifies objects. So this study suggests that it might be a problem in the latter category as opposed to the former. So no, they're not picking up novels just yet and reading them and understanding them, but it is an interesting, apparently quite well done study, and I really enjoyed it because the baboon life sounds pretty awesome.

S: Yeah, I think the connection to dyslexia is a little speculative, that seemed like a real leap to me.

R: Oh yeah.

S: There's a lot a dyslexia research that wouldn't necessarily comport with this, but yeah I think, again it's one study, you know, we need to see that this result is real, this effect is real. But also, the interpretation is going to require lots of other studies to say, to test it, and to see if it's really true or it's better than other interpretations, the notion that primates and even up to and including humans may be using a non-language mechanism of recognising when a clustering of letters is s word as opposed to a random clustering of letters. It's really fascinating but this is not enough evidence to conclude that that's in fact the case. Yeah.

R: Yeah. Not enough to conclude, but enough to...

S: Hypothesise, hypothesise.

R: ... say hmmm, that's interesting.

S: Yeah, exactly.

R: Hey, someone on twitter has just asked for a quickie with bob.

S: Really.

B: Ha!

R: Yes, dlandandcole who is also on youtube, I know him, because I tweeted while Steve was blah, blah, blahing about multitasking, media multitasking.

S: Excuse me, I was pontificating, thank you.

R: (laughs)

B: (laughs)

R: Well I was tweeting during that, I don't actually remember what you said, so I mentioned that you were talking about that on SGU, so yeah dlandandcole responded and asked for a quickie with bob.

J: That whole explanation was longer than the quickie with Bob.


R: That's true.

S: And Jay, and now I just made it longer still.

R: So meta.

Quickie with Bob: Cosmic Superwind (45:04)[edit] Mystery of cosmic 'superwinds' solved?

B: All right David, this is your quickie with Bob. I will do this, but just this once or twice. This week it's super wind mystery solved. Now you've all heard of solar wind, did you know that certain dying stars produce a super solar wind that's 100 million times as powerful as regular solar wind. over 10,000 years this wind could actually take away almost half of the dying star's mass. Now how this one worked, though, has always been a mystery. Using the very large telescope in Chile, astronomers may have solved it by peering into the atmospheres of distant suns. Scientists have long suspected that the wind was made up of dust grains that form in the outer atmosphere and get pushed away by the solar radiation. These grains were thought to be too small, though, not to burn up before the super wind could form and do what super wind does. We now know though that these grains are bigger than we thought, almost a micrometer which is a lot bigger than they anticipated. These grains don't burn because they can reflect the light that hits them allowing themselves to be pushed away by the starlight to rocket speeds, about 20,000 miles an hour. Ultimately, clouds of these grains will impact clouds of gas that form the next generation of stars and planets that form around them, and the Earth and Sun then are probably made up from these super wind grains. So Google super wind and mystery if you want to read more about it, it's a fascinating topic and this has been your Quickie With Bob, I hope it was good for you too.

S: OK, thanks Bob.

R: Thank you very much.

Who's That Noisy? (46:28)[edit]

Answer to last week: Ice chimes

S: Evan.

E: Steve?

S: You know what I'm going to say.

E: (laughs) I do, but you know, I'm just following the script.

S: So make it happen.

E: You want me to just jump into it, don't you?

S: Abso... with both feet, go ahead.

E: Last week's Who's That Noisy!

Check out the sound that this makes (tinkling sound).

S: All right, so Evan, who's that tinkling?

E: Who's that tinkling is... ahah, the famous, well it's not so famous, Shop Vac Chimes.

S: But of course.

E: Here's what you do. First of all, you move to somewhere cold, like Canada or Norway or somewhere else cold, all right, and you leave your Shop Vac out in a snow storm, or at least an ice storm, over night and what will happen is that your Shop Vac will become filled with ice and snow and other things but it makes sort of this, you know, uh show should you... a cylinder in a sense, well the Shop Vac is a cylinder. But Ice will sort of form around the ridge and make this bowl of ice if you can envision that. And then what you do, see is you take some ice-melt right, some rock salt that you throw on the ground right, to make your driveway clean or your walk way. All you do is take a handful of that stuff and sprinkle it in, and voilà, you get chime noises from the ice melt hitting the ice inside your Shop Vac.

S: Hmmm.

E: And uh, it's all the rage you know, 700 people have viewed this video on youtube so uh... (laughs)

S: OK.

E: ...I knew this one might be a little bit tricky for the audience and nobody was able to guess correctly.

S: Did anybody get close, like ice or anything like that?

E: No, there was not a suggestion of ice.

S: Interesting.

E: They didn't, so I put together something this week which, the interesting thing about this week's Who's That Noisy is that I just only recently learned about this particular noisy, this particular person who's going to be the subject of the noisy, and I'm very very happy that I discovered it and I can't wait, during the reveal on a future show, to talk a little bit more about this particular fellow, so give it a listen. Here we go.

25 years, General Mills has been iron fortifying cereal. It's really iron, it's called roughly sheared ingot iron, so you're eating nails for breakfast.

Guy has no idea...

J: You're eating nails for breakfast.

E: Did you hear that OK? Eating nails for breakfast.

S: Yeah, yeah got it.

E: So go ahead and send us your guess,

S: And we could talk about the claim he's discussing as well.

E: Mmhmm, yes we will.

J: Aaah.

S: In that little piece, yeah. Alrighty, thanks Evan.

E: You're welcome.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Titanic Correction (49:14)[edit]

S: Let's do one or two emails, we'll see how much time we have. The first one comes from Nigel Underhill, if that is your real name.

E: Underhill.

S: Underhill. Nigel writes,

From Snopes: Claim: The Titanic was never advertised using the word "unsinkable." : FALSE ...However, claiming (as White Star did) that although others may have used the word, White Star itself did not describe the Titanic as "unsinkable" in its advertising is a bit disingenuous. The February 1993 issue of The Titanic Commutator unearthed a White Star promotional flyer for the Olympic and Titanic that claimed "as far as it is possible to do, these two wonderful vessels are designed to be unsinkable." I never trust advertising to be fact ;)

S: Bob, would you like to explain your unmitigated failure at reporting this myth last week?

B: Yeah, well it was one website yeah. I didn't exhaustively research it, it kind of just came out in the conversation and this one website, I think I said on the show that it didn't, I don't think I specifically said they never said unsinkable. They didn't really push it.

S: Yeah.

B: They barely mentioned it, as the website said. Maybe I didn't characterise the website sufficiently, and maybe the website just didn't have its facts right, but that just goes to show you that you've got to, even these little offhand comments, you can get nailed by and so uh, you should, I should have probably at least vetted that a little bit more before I said it.

S: But actually this is an interesting story, it is an interesting historical question as to whether or not there was this belief or claim that the Titanic was unsinkable prior to its sinking. And it depends on how you look at it. The one document that Nigel referenced is the only one that I see, trying to more extensively research this myself, where the company White Star Line actually used the word unsinkable in writing. There were other sort of vague references to it as well. So they never, the issue is they never said, they never made the unqualified claim that it was unsinkable, right. So in that pamphlet they said, as far as is possible, it was designed to be unsinkable. In another document they said that, or in an interview in a newspaper article, that it's practically unsinkable. They never said this ship is unsinkable. So in a way, the myth is correct, it's correct that it is a myth. They never specifically claimed that it was unsinkable. However, they did use the word unsinkable, although they qualified it "as far as possible" and "practically". The separate question is, did people at the time, before the Titanic sink, was that meme out there, that these ships, the Titanic and its sister ships, that they were unsinkable? That's a hard question to ask. But there is some suggestion that yeah, that belief was out there. So, here is, in my opinion, the most telling, this was a quote on April 15th 1912, this is actually the ship sank, but before the news got out that it sank. So for a while the world new that the Titanic hit an iceberg but they didn't know its fate and there was rumours going around that it was being towed into harbour and whatnot, you know, it was not confirmed that it had sunk. So on the morning of April 15th 1912, after reports came out that it hit an iceberg, A. S. Franklin, vice president of International Mercantile Marine, the American holding company that owned White Star Lines gave this statement to the press: We can not state too strongly our belief that the ship is unsinkable and passengers perfectly safe. The ship is reported to have gone down several feet by the head, this may be due to water filling forward compartments, and the ship may go down many feet by the head and still keep afloat for an indefinite period. So right there, before the news was out, he used the word unsinkable unqualified, so. And there is other bits of information as well to indicate that that meme was basically out there, even before it sank.

E: Did people really think, unsinkable? I mean it's like saying well this car is uncrashable, right? It just doesn't make sense.

S: Well, the technology was a lot better, and this was at a time in history when technology was like magic, you know it was going to, everything was possible, we will have invented everything and solved all problems, so the super high technology ships were thought of as, yeah I mean, sinking is an engineering problem and we solved it, these have... you can flood up to four compartments and the ship will still stay afloat, the captain can flip a switch and close hatches and so yeah, I mean it kind of made sense that the average person might believe that this ship was, you know these new-fangled ships were actually unsinkable.

B: Isn't it true though that they actually didn't put tops on those compartments?

S: Yeah, yes. Yes.

B: I mean that's kind of silly, like hello!

S: Well apparently it would have made it a lot harder for the crew to get around the ship if they did that. So there was a reason for it, it wasn't just like stupidity. I guess they thought it was enough without them. Again, it could have survived four compartments opening up, but apparently five opened up, so that exceeded the capacity.

Advanced Dinosaurs (55:08)[edit]

S: Another email, this one comes from Eric Rosinski from Arkansas, and Eric writes: "Just wondering if you guys had stumbled upon this little gem," and he gives a link.[3] "Good example of horrendous journalism." Now have you guys seen this bit of news about the smart dinosaurs on other planets?

B: Oh my god.

J: Yeah (laughs)

B: This is so weird.

R: It's very exciting.

E: It's a foregone fact and conclusion.

J: Of course, yeah of course.

R: Dinosaurs in space, it's awesome...

E: I say!

R: ...and awesome might be a...

S: Yeah (laughs). So, uh this is, the thing is, this is, yes, this is horrible reporting, but this was, this is entirely the fault of the researcher himself. The bit about the dinosaurs was actually from the researcher, not invented by the journalist. The journalist ran with it, and they deserve to be criticized for that. But what this is is a study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, and it's a study of chirality which, by coincidence Bob, you mentioned earlier in the show.

B: Yeah.

S: Although you called it chi-rality, I always thought it was ki-rality.

R: Here we go again.

S: Here we go.

E: ki-mera, chi-mera.

B: Mine sounds better.

S: It's ki-rality!

E: (laughs)

S: The question is, why is life on Earth based on left-handed amino acids? Why not right-handed amino acids?

R: It's sinister.

S: Yeah, meanwhile, most sugars are right-handed, so we have left-handed proteins and right-handed sugars. What this study showed was that this correlates with amino acid, the chirality of amino-acids that were carried to Earth on meteorites. And that, the notion is that, well, life was just taking advantage of the most abundant resource. More amino acids were left-handed so that's what predominated. He then says that this is not necessarily a universal condition everywhere in the universe, or even in the galaxy, that it may be a result of local conditions. Another part of the galaxy, because of whatever, whatever density of hydrogen clouds or whatever in inter-stellar space could result in a preponderance of right-handed amino-acids and life evolving on planets in that part of the galaxy may be based on you know, right handed proteins, and not left-handed amino acid proteins like we have on earth.

E: And therefore, dinosaurs.

S: So the researcher is Ronald Breslow, University Professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Biology at Columbia University. And he writes, "Of course, showing that it could have happened this way is not the same as showing that it did. An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D-amino acids and L-sugars. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs,

J: (laughs)

S: "if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them." Did you get the logical connection between the chirality of amino acids and such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs?

B: No, there is no connection.

S: Because there is no connection! He just took a complete leap off of a cliff! I mean what the hell!?

B: It struck me as such a non-sequitur. He just like, well I gotta throw something in there that's going to make for a catchy title for an article, so I'm just going to throw in dinosaurs, you know.

S: Yeah.

E: (laughing) everyone loves dinosaurs.

B: Well, why not advanced flowers, or advanced terra-birds or mushrooms? It's like oh I'll pick dinosaurs.

S: Or primitive, why not primitive flowers? Why anything? I mean this has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on what life...

E: leprechauns.

S: ...that evolved on another planet would look like. They wouldn't be dinosaurs because dinosaurs are a group of living creatures on Earth. It would be something else. But yeah, P. Z. wrote about this too, P. Z. Myers and he...

B: Oh did he?

S: ...totally trashed the guy yeah, he's like just throwing in dinosaurs completely at random, people like dinosaurs, but yeah it's like it seems like it's designed to just garner attention to an otherwise obscure bit of research. You know, interesting in its own right, you know the whole bit about chirality and stuff.

B: Well sure.

S: What the hell? (laughs) I mean come one. And then the media just dutifully reporting it and putting that in their headline.

J: Well, it worked, right?

S: Scientist says life on other planets could be advanced dinosaurs.

E: (laughs)

S: What!?

J: (laughing) Advanced dinosaurs... Oh god that is awesome.

E: I couldn't have made that up.

S: Oh it's just crazy.

E: Uh, I'm hungry, anyone else want some ki-nese food?

S: (laughing) ki-nese food.

J: (laughs)

E: That was for you, Bob.

R: That was a keep-joke.

E: (laughs)

S: (laughs) Well, I think it's time for Science or Fiction, so let's move on.

Science or Fiction (1:00:13)[edit]

It's time for science or fiction (music).

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two genuine and one fictitious, and then I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. We have a theme this week.

R: Ugh.

S: And four items.

R: Uuugh!

S: The theme is, "oh carbon nanotubes, is there nothing you can't do?" (laughs).

R: aahhh.

J: Oh, boy. Alright, Bob. Put on your carbon nanotube hat and get ready, Bob.

R: You know Bob's going to go last so we can't even...

E: What!?

R: ...just go with that.

S: Maybe I'll made Bob go first.

B: I don't remember reading much this week about nanotubes, shit.

B: These are four items. So, you know I can't, my problem is, when I use a carbon nanotube news item you guys think well this is probably real, because they can do anything, but if they're all carbon nanotubes you can't use that strategy.

R: You've caught on, Steve.

B: You're so sly.

E: There's that much carbon news?

S: Apparently there is! Right here we go.

R: Yeah, this could be composed entirely of news items we've already talked about on the show and I would have no idea.

S: (laughs) Cos yeah, Rebecca's like carbon nanotubes blah bl-blah blah blah, wah wa-wah wah. Wah wa-wah wah.

R: Yeah, in one ear, out the other, do not give a shit.

E: wah wah wah wah.

R: It's when I start media multitasking.

S: OK, here we are. Item number one. Medical researchers have demonstrated that a form of carbon nanotubes can function as an effective chemotherapeutic agent again several types of solid tumours. Item number two. Researchers have developed a form of carbon nanotubes that form into durable sponges that can float on water and soak up 100 times their weight in oil. Item number three. Scientists have successfully created a form of graphene that can act as a semiconductor - previously known forms are either conductors or insulators. And item number four. Researchers have discovered that carbon nanotubes more than double the growth rate of plant cells in culture. OK Bob, I'm going to make you go first.

J: Mmhmmmm.

E: Hmm.

B: Wow, I'm just overwhelmed with nanotube goodness here. It's going to paralyse me.

E: This is called a slowie with Bob.

B: Yeah like, for once, I don't think I read one nanotube article and now you hit me with four. I'm just going to go with my gut. let's see, the first one, using nanotubes as a chemotherapeutic agent. Yeah, well yeah, I could kind of see somehow doping the nanotube with some molecules that would target tumours and perhaps even then just unload some payload of you know, some of these chemotherapeutic agents in the tumour, so yeah I can kind of see that. Let's see, the second one, you've got durable sponges that can float on water, they're hydrophobic and oleophilic, very good characteristics for these things to have. Jeeze, for nanotubes to do that, um yeah, I don't know about that one. Let's see, the third one, we've got a graphene that can act as a semiconductor. Yeah, I guess, yeah, making a semiconductor, again it's just a matter of doping it with certain molecules that could turn it into a semiconductor, I think. The one that's getting me though is this fourth one, doubling the growth rate of plant cells in culture, I mean off hand I can't think of a way nanotubes could do that, and that just sounds like such a huge advance, doubling the growth rate, I mean oof. That's amazing. And probably too amazing, so I'm going to just have to say that that one is fiction.

S: OK, uh, Jay.

J: OK, the first one about the carbon nanotubes being able to be like a, be as effective as chemo for cancer, wow that's really, really interesting. Of course, we've got to ask here like how do they, what are they doing to the cancer? You know, it could be anything, I've actually done some reading about this idea and they were saying that just a nanotube could just rupture the cancer cells and kill them that way or whatever, but I wouldn't put it past carbon nanotubes to be able to have a deadly effect on any cells, in particular maybe there's certain types of cancer cells that they could target, so that's believable. The one about the nanotubes turning into sponges that could soak up 100 times their weight in oil, why would they only absorb oil? Maybe they have an aperture on them that fits the oil molecule and it wouldn't soak up water, you know that one seems somewhat plausible, that you could make a structure that would connect to oil molecules and maybe you know, it's the hundred times thing that is the change here, but I could still, I could see that one. The next one about the semiconductor. Yeah, sure semiconductor, sure ya, sure, graphene, sure. Insulators, absolutely. I don't see any reason why I don't like that one. You know, I'm like I'm kind of sizing myself up here for a big GWB. But, you know, nanotubes that can double the growth rate of plant cells in culture, what are the nanotubes doing with the plant cells? Like so what are they doing? Seriously, doubling the plant growth? There are just like, nanotubes hanging around with these plant cells and they're somehow inspiring them to double their growth, I mean even though Bob's been hemming and hawing since he gave the answer, I'm still inclined to go with him, so I will go with Bob.

S: OK. Evan.

E: Carbon nanotubes can function as an effective chemotherapeutic agent. So I don't know, several types of solid tumours. I don't know. Maybe not. The next one where the researchers developed a form of carbon nanotubes that form into durable sponges floating on water and soaking up a hundred times their weight in oil. I think that one will turn out to be science, a little more plausible when I compare the two, so I'll say that one's science. The next one, scientists successfully creating a form of graphene acting as a semiconductor. OK, I can dig that. And then there's the last one, Bob's choice, carbon nanotubes more than double the growth rate of plant cells in culture. That one does sound fantastic. Bob, this is not, it's not that I don't have confidence in you in these things, I definitely would be probably perhaps wise to agree with you, but I'm thinking that the chemotherapeutic agent, against these tumours, I think this one's a little too fantastic, even more fantastic than its utilisation in plant cells. So I'm leaning towards that one, I'll say that the solid tumours one is the fiction.

S: OK, and Rebecca.

R: All right, I have no idea.

J: (laughs)

R: I'm going to choose based entirely on the format of the question, and for that reason I'm going to say that scientists have successfully created a form of graphene that can act as a semiconductor is the fiction because you felt the need to add, previously known forms are either conductors or insulators. I feel that that tips your hand Steven.

S: Mmhmm.

R: And uh (laughs). I don't know anything about carbon nanotubes, so that one.

E: They're very very small, you see.

J: And they're made out of carbon.

R: Thanks, guys. Thanks.

B: And they're tubular.

R: They're tubular, yeah thanks.

S: Not a perfect distribution, but three of the four were covered, that's good. So there's only one that you all agree on. You all agree that researchers have developed a form of carbon nanotubes that form into durable sponges that can float on water and soak up 100 times their weight in oil.

B: I'm not sure about that one.

S: So you all think that one is science. And that one is... science.

E: Oh.

J: Aha!

S: Wouldn't it be great, though...

R: I almost went that one just to cover the spread, it was seriously between that one and the one I chose.

S: No you wouldn't have covered it because Jay and Bob doubled up.

R: Oh.

S: They were both on (inaudible). So yeah this is really cool, so they made a form of the carbon nanotubes with a dash of boron. And this causes them to kink in a certain way that they spontaneously form into these very durable sponges. They said that they have put some of the sponges through compression, decompression cycles 10,000 times and they still retain their shape, so that's pretty durable. And Bob, you're right, they are hydrophobic and oleophilic so that they would float on top of water and suck up oil, so just perfect for oil spills. You could just dump these things in the ocean or wherever, they would soak up all the oil, you scoop them back up, you could then squeeze out the oil and reuse them, throw them back out there and just literally sponge up all the oil. So, I don't know if these will actually pan out as being useful for that purpose, but that's what everyone's talking about.

B: It never does, it never does.

S: Yeah, the researcher also said... don't say never. The researcher also said, they took it, they soaked up oil with one of these sponges, then he lit it on fire, burned off all the oil...

J: Oh my!

S: ...and the sponge was still there, useful and ready to go again.

B: Awesome.

R: That's pretty cool.

E: Wow.

S: Yeah, so pretty cool. All right, where to go to next? I guess I'll move on to number three. Scientists have successfully created a form of graphene that can act as a semiconductor. Previously known forms were either conductors or insulators. Rebecca, you think this one is fiction based on form alone. The rest of you think this one is science. And this one is... science.

J: Science!

R: Aargh.

B: Yay!

S: Sorry Rebecca.

E: Wow.

R: It was worth a shot.

S: Yeah.

E: Definitely worth a shot.

J: I know how you feel.

S: So this has actually been something that scientists have been chasing for a while. If we're going to build computers and electronics etc. etc. out of graphene, we need graphene semiconductors. Graphene, for those of you who don't know, we should give the very basic, graphene is like chicken wire made from carbon atoms. The carbon atoms will form into these hexagonal rings which then all link together, looking just like chicken wire, forming a molecule-thick flat sheet, very strong with lots of interesting properties, including conducting electricity a lot faster than metal wires would or silicon. Therefore making it very desirable potentially for computers or electronics. If you roll up a sheet of graphene into a tube then you have a carbon nano-tube. Researchers, now that they have those two basic structures down, they're looking at other ways to alter this carbon family by, as Bob said, doping it with one thing or another and seeing what properties emerge. Scientists have been trying really hard to make graphene semiconductors because that will allow you to build circuits and whatnot that can control the flow of electrons, and therefore you have a carbon, a graphene-based computer, at least potentially. And now some scientists have done that, making what they are calling graphene monoxide. So including oxygen in the graphene matrix. They've actually created a family of graphene monoxide with slightly different structures. They did it by accident, they were exploring the properties of graphene and in one experiment they had graphene oxide and they heated it in a vacuum to reduce the oxygen, but instead of getting rid of the oxygen, they ended up with graphene with even more oxygen in it, and in a different configuration, and they discovered that this graphene monoxide as they're calling it, is actually a semiconductor. So you know, again, it remains to be seen if and when this will actually lead to graphene-based computers, I mean it's still really expensive to make this stuff. So you always have to ask the question, will it scale up, can it be mass produced, can it be controlled to the point where you can make stuff out of it? At least it has the properties. So now we have graphene conductors, graphene insulators and graphene semiconductors. Those are all the pieces we need to make electronics. Now we just need to figure out how to scale it up and mass produce it. All right, guess we'll go back to item number one. Medical researchers have demonstrated that a form of carbon nanotubes can function as an effective chemotherapeutic agent, against several types of solid tumours. Evan, you think this one is the fiction. Bob and Jay think this one is science. And this one... is... the fiction.

B: Oh.

R: Ooooh.

J: Oohh.

S: Congratulations Evan!

E: Wow!

J: Way to go Evan, nice job!

R: Good job.

S: You broke away from the pack and it paid off, good to see.

E: Time for the victory music, here we go (theme to "Sanford and Son"[4] plays).


J: Oooh yeaah.

S: Evan, how long have you been holding on to that one?

R: Yeah, really.

E: (laughs) Since 1975.


S: Waiting to be the sole victor in science or fiction.

E: It's been a while.

S: So the real news item is actually quite interesting, and it does involve using carbon nanotubes to kill cancer cells in the study breast cancer stem cells. But the carbon nanotubes themselves did not have any cancer activity. They're certainly not chemotherapeutic. What they did was they injected carbon nanotubes, a specific kind called multi-walled carbon nanotubes, into breast cancer and then they activated it with a brief pulse of a certain kind of laser and this caused the nanotubes to vibrate and create a great deal of heat. Enough heat to kill the cells. I did look up, just to be sure that there wasn't also like carbon nanotubes killing cancer, the only other thing I came up with and Bob I almost corrected you on this, but I thought that this is in your wheel house, it'd be too easy. Carbon nanotubes have been used to deliver chemotherapy to cancer cells.

B: Yeah, that's the angle I thought you meant, but.

R: Yeah, that's what I thought.

S: That's not what I said, it's not delivering chemotherapy, that it is functioning, it says nanotubes can function as effective chemotherapeutic agents, so I was very clear in how I wrote it because I did find news items to show that carbon nanotubes could be used as a way of delivering the chemotherapy. All this means that researchers have discovered that carbon nanotubes more than double the growth rate of plant cells in culture is science.

B: Cool, wow!

E: Double. Wow.

S: And this is actually more interesting than it may at first sound. You're like, oh so what, you know plant cells but we actually use plant cells in order to produce a lot of commercial stuff. Not just agriculture but also producing medical products like drugs. So there's a lot of industry based around the notion of growing plants, certain kinds of plant cells in culture and if you could get them to grow and develop twice as fast, that could be a huge boon to those industries. This also uses multi-walled carbon nanotubes and Jay you asked how they function. They stimulate the activity of genes inside the cells that are involved with cell growth. They also think that they may form channels that can transport water into the cells therefore giving them more resources with which to grow quickly.

J: Very cool.

R: You know what, I'm doing Science or Fiction in a future show...

S: You are.

R: ...and it's going to be all My Little Pony or something.


S: OK!

R: Just wait.

S: Knock yourself out.

E: One could only help.

R: You'll feel my pain.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:36)[edit]

S: All right Jay, top us off with a quote.

J: Top of the quote to you.

E: (laughs)

J: This is a quote from a man named Leo Rosten. Leo was born in the Russian Empire, a part of it which is now called Poland and he died in New York City, 1908-1997, the guy had a nice long life. He was a teacher and an academic but he's best known as a humorist in the fields of script writing, story writing, journalism and Yiddish lexicography. The quote is, "Everyone, in some small sacred sanctuary of the self, is nuts." Leo Rosten!

S: I like that quote.

J: I know, I picked it because it's a little interesting tid-bit of information to remind you that no matter who you're talking to, no matter how rational they might seem or no matter how much of a skeptic you think they are, there's something about everyone that's not quite right. And that could be somebody's sacred cow, a hidden belief that they have, something that they hold inside themselves, they don't let other people know, that might be their holdout for believing in something.

S: But even not that. I mean I think even, this quote I really liked it because it just rings true in that I think just being human we all have our own little neuroses and psychoses and quirks and emotional needs and childish thoughts and reactions that we keep to ourselves because we know that they're socially unacceptable. That's why this is like in the small, sacred sanctuary of the self, deep down inside, we're all, um have feelings and desires and beliefs etc. that we know, if we expose them raw to the outside world, would make us look crazy.

E: Oh yeah.

J: That was a quote sent in by a listener called Craig Good.

S: Good quote, Craig.

R: Craig is our friend at Pixar.

S: Yes.

E: One of them, yes.

B: Pixar, yay!

R: Friends at Pixar.

S: Pixar are so awesome. I'm still waiting for my tour, thank you.

E: Oh yeah, Pixar. I have a correction.

S: You do.

E: It's from this episode.

S: OK.


E: Leonard Nimoy did in fact direct the movie Three Men and a Baby.

J: Thank you.

B: Wait, I've got a correction, I meant to pick one instead of four.

S: Yeah.

R: Too late!


S: All right, well thanks for joining me this week everyone.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Good show everyone.

S: And until next week, which will be our live show from NECSS, 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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