SGU Episode 356

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SGU Episode 356
12th May 2012
SGU 355 SGU 357
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin.
Thomas Henry Huxley
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, May 8th 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 Novalla...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Howdy-doo everyone.

S: Hey Evan.

R: Super.

E: How's everyone tonight?

R: Well, you know, we're all celebrating the 102nd birthday of Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin.

J: Sure

R: Of course.

S: Absolutely.

This Day in Skepticism (0:28)[edit]

R: On May 12th 1910, Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin was born and, in case you don't know who she was, allow me to give you a quick synopsis. She was a chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1964 and she's best known for discovering three-dimensional biomolecular structures. In fact, she won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of Vitamin B12 but she also figured out the structures of penecilin and insulin. For insulin she actually had to help develop the entire field of X-ray crystallography and she did it and it was amazing. So she was a really cool lady in the 1940s. Fun Dorothy Hodgkin fact: one of her students was Margaret Thatcher though you can't blame Dorothy for what happened there as Dorothy tended to hang out mostly with communists and she herself put a lot of effort into using her scientific knowledge to help end social inequality. Because of that from 1976 to 1988 she was president of the Pugwash Conference which is an international organization that...

E: Washes pugs.

R: ...seeks to reduce the harm caused by armed conflicts.

E: That too.

R: Dorothy died in 1994. Happy birthday Dorothy.

E: We miss you. Thanks for the insulin.

S: Interestingly, another woman, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, used X-ray crystallography to figure out the helical structure of DNA.

R: Mmmm... uh-huh.

S: Which then Watson and Crick stole.

R: Bastards!


R: Man's always keeping us down.

S: Nah, they deserve credit but Jocelyn Bell Burnell definnitely got totally hosed out of her credit for that experiment.

R: And speaking of awesome women, Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkins' mother was a huge influence in pushing her to pursue her love of chemistry. So it's good to have great female role models.

S: Or supportive parents in general.

R: Yeah.

S: Even supportive fathers correlate really highly with girls going into science fields.

R: Indeed.

B: Rebecca, you mentioned three-dimensional biomolecular structures.

R: Uh-huh, I did.

B: Are there two-dimensional ones?

R: Yeah, the kind you draw on a piece of paper.

B: Ah-hah, I hadn't considered that.

R: Dummy.


J: Yeah, Bob, what the hell?

E: Yeah, now if you'd said one-dimensional then we'd be like, "Aw, c'mon..."

R: Somebody is going to write in with a really intelligent response to that and I look forward to it.

S: There probably are two-dimensional structures.

R: Yeah, that's what I'm waiting for.

S: Like flat molecules.

E: Oh yeah, flat.

S: C'mon, Bob, this isn't Dinosaur Farts. I mean how complicated is it.

News Items[edit]

Dinosaur Farts (3:05)[edit] Study: Dinosaurs may have caused extinction with flatulence

R: Hey it's funny you should mention it, Steve, because I'd also like to talk about farting dinosaurs.

E: It is kinda funny.

J: What?

S: Really?

R: Yeah, who would have guessed? This is one of my favourite news to come out this week. The first article I saw was an AP news-story and the headline was, 'study: dinosaurs may have caused extinction with flatulence' so obviously I had to click on that. I read the article but the article completely did not justify the headline, it didn't talk about extinction at all. So I found another article on, of all things, Fox News' website and there the headline was even stronger, 'dinosaurs gassed themselves into extinction, British scientists say'

E: Okay...

R: This is how that article began, "Dinosaurs may have farted themselves to extinction according to a new study by British scientists. The researchers calculated that the prehistoric beast pumped out more than 520 million tons or 472 million metric tons of methane a year. Enough to warm the planet and hasten their own eventual demise. Until now an asteroid strike and volcanic activity around 65 million years ago had seemed the most likely cause of their extinction." So that's pretty strong language to suggest this study apparently says that dinosaurs pooted themselves to death.

J: So they did or they didn't?

R: Well, it turns out that they didn't in all likelihood. Because when you read this article you'll notice even the Fox News article all the quotes from scientists don't say anything about extinction, they're all entirely about how much greenhouse gas was pumped out of dino-butts and what kind of effect it had on the mesozoic climate, which is quite a bit. The researchers said that the wetlands, forest fires and leaking gas fields of that time period might have contributed upwards of 8 parts per million methane to the air and their study suggests that sauropods, which are the plant-eating dinosaurs, may have contributed another 2 to 4 parts per million.

E: Ah-hah

R: They think that that would have a significant impact on the warm, wet climate of the mesozoic. Luckily, P.Z. Myers on his blog Pharyngula saw this article and read the actual paper and clarified that the researchers did not in fact mention anything about extinction in the actual paper.

S: Are you saying that the science journalists were just making stuff up that wasn't in the original research?

R: No, because I would never call them science journalists.


R: I think to achieve that moniker you have to have a modicum of interest or education in science.

S: Do you mean the generalist-journalist-who-are-now-on-the-science-beat-because-the-infrastructure-of-journalism-no-longer-supports-science-journalists didn't read the original research before reporting on it?

R: Yes, Steve, that is exactly what I'm saying.

S: Wow!

E: Can you say that in four notes?

R: P.Z. very helpfully wrote out the exact part of the research paper that probably lent itself to being completely misconstrued by the quote unquote "journalists" in question and here it is, "Although dinosaurs are unique in the large body sizes they achieved there may have been other occasions in the past where animal-produced methane contributed substantially to global environmental gas composition. For example, it has been speculated that the extinction of megafauna coincident with human colonization of the Americas may be related to a reduction of atmospheric methane levels." So of course that paragraph has nothing to do with dinosaurs but I'm sure that many Fox News readers assume that dinosaurs would be included on a list of megafauna that existed during the time of humans so you can kind of understand where they get that.

E: Ooh!

R: Zing!

J: So do they know what it smelled like?

R: Well, you know, methane itself is odorless but I think juding by the diet of sauropods and comparining it to the diet of present-day methane-producing animals like cows I think that scientsits would classify it as, 'totally rancid'.

E: Yeah, in direct proportion to the size of their movements I would guess.

B: I think I know what really took them out though. I think it's pretty obvious that with all that gas in the atmosphere when the meteor did arrive it just ignited the entire atmosphere.

E: Ha ha! Good point.

R: P.Z. did note that according to the researchers and I quote, "A medium-sized sauropod would have farted out 2675 litres of gas a day."

J: Wow.

S: See the problem was they weren't advanced alien dinosaurs.

R: Mmmm...

E: Let's face it, yeah.

S: The advanced dinosaurs don't gas themselves to death.

R: That's true.

J: Or they shoot their farts with the lasers and it burns them up.

S: They light their own farts?

E: Yeah...

R: Yeah.

E: Convert it to a usable form of energy.

S: Now one serious question I had about this, I don't know if it was addressed in the article, is that yeah dinosaurs were big, the sauropods were huge, but was the total animal bio-mass greater at that time than it is today? Wouldn't there just be more, smaller animals today and fewer, large animals during a megafauna era? You could think, perhaps naively, that it would all balance out but I guess they took that into consideration when they did their calculations.

R: Yeah, I'm not actually sure but there must be some figures for today as to how many parts per million methane are released into the atmosphere by living creatures.

S: Yeah, it's less than what they calculate. They said it's the same if you add the biologically-produced methane plus industrial-produced equals what the dinosaurs were putting out by themselves.

R: Yeah, you're right. One thing that I would suggest then is that different species equals different ways of processing food and also different ways of expelling gas the large amounts of herbivores, like very large herbivores, would probably contribute to a greater amount of methane.

S: Yeah, maybe that's it, maybe they produced more methane per biomass maybe. Interesting.

Aura Reading (9:46)[edit]

Neurologica: Is Aura Reading Synaesthesia? Probably Not.

S: The next news item has a similar theme, Rebecca, to your item.

R: Is the them farts?

S: It's not farts. See if you can pick up on what it is? So I was trawling through science news items looking for something to blog about when I hit science blogging gold. An interesting study that everyone was reporting completely wrong. This is a study about people who claim to see auras, you guys know about...

R: When people fart.

S: ...about aura reading. People think that you're surrounded by with like a halo of purple and that says something about your spirit or your personality.

R: Like a cloud of methane.

S: No. So there actually has been a hypothesis out there for a while about 10 years or so that perhaps some people who believe they are seeing auras have a form of synaesthesia, specifically face/colour synaesthesia. So there are synaesthetes who do report that familiar people and also familiar emotions (often these two things overlap) are associated with a colour - they actually see a colour in association with a specific person or even like an emotional concept. Synaesthesia, again for a bit of background, is when two processing areas in the brain are connected, the connections between them are more robust and this leads to a bleedover of one sensation or one information type into another so people might see sound or taste colour or numbers might have a texture to them. Very interesting. So with face/colour synaesthesia it's the faces that they see get associated with specific colours so the hypothesis was that maybe seeing the colour associated with the person is interpretted by some people as reading an aura. There was prior research that indicates that people who claim to read auras do have a slightly higher incidents of synaesthesia than the general population. But there really hasn't been any specific evidence linking the two, there have been really just some case reports. So a recent study set out to compare the two phenomena, face/colour synaesthesia and aura reading, they did a number of things, they compared stroop test outcomes and some other things that are interesting. But the primary thing that is being reported on is they interviewed another of people with the face/colour synaesthesia and then came up with typical features of that phenomenom and then they compared that to typical new-age spiritual guru aura reading and they determined that if you look at the specific features they actually are very different and they concluded that they are quote unquote "phenomenologically...dissimilar" they are not the same thing. For example people claim that you could learn to aura read, right? Typically those people who read auras learn to do this later in life as adults, for example whereas the synaesthetes have synaesthesia from as young as they can remember. It seems to be something they're born with. The synaesthetes tend to see the colour more overlayed over the subject whereas the aura reading is more of a silhouette around it. Synaesthesia is always one colour whereas aura reading, in some concepts of what the aura is, is supposed to have these 7 layers that correspond to different layers of your spirituality.

B: Do they change over time, Steve?

S: That's another distinction that two different synaesthetes will see different colours associated with the same person, the colours are personal to them. Whereas aura readers agree on like what personality types are supposed to have what colour. You know, so when they're cold reading somebody and then go this is a bubbly personality they'll assign the same colour to it. Wheras synaesthetes can be purple for one synaesthete, yellow for another, there's really no rhyme or reason to it, it's only consistent within that one person. So very different when you look at all the details they said it's basically not the same thing. That doesn't mean that there isn't somebody out there that has synaesthesia and thought that maybe they were seeing auras, it just means that phenomenologically these are two dfiferent things. But I came to this news item from a press release the title of which is, "Synaesthesia may explain healers claims of seeing people's aura." It sounds like the research is showing that there is an explanation for aura reading, that synaesthesia explains the phenomenon of aura. So that's what I thought when I first read it and some articles reproducing the same press release get rid of the 'may' they just say synaesthesia explains the healer's claim of seeing people's aura and some even say 'proves' like, "scientists prove that synaesthesia explains aura reading."

E: Now we're just making stuff up.

S: So I went from that to the abstract and I read through the abstract and yeah it does kinda read as if it's supporting that notion and then I got to the last sentence where they said, "and are results showed that they're phenomenologically dissimilar." I had to read that a couple of times. I have to say the abstract was not really written very well in that, you know, sometimes you read scientific papers and the authors are just using really obtuse language and it's like they're trying to be difficult to understand rather than explaining or at least summarising or explaining their concepts in easy-to-understand language. They're not using technical terms when they have they're just being, "well they're phenomenologically dissimilar." you know. Really? You couldn't say, "they're not the same"? Just say something that would make the average person reading it would understand what the hell you're talking about. But anyway, then I had to dig into it and say, 'am I reading this correct?' The main article, the first third of it is the hypothesis and why people thought this hypothesis was reasonable so if you just read the introduction to this article you would get the sense that they were supporting the hypothesis. But then they say, 'so we set out to test the hypothesis' then they tested it and found out that it wasn't true at least as far as their analysis went. The conclusion of the actual evidence from this study is that synaesthesia and aura reading are not the same and yet universally, 100% of the science news reporting that I found on the internet said the opposite, that it explains aura reading. They got it 180 degrees wrong.

E: Sounds like classic sensationalism.

R: That's even more than sensationalism, that's...

S: Wrong. It's wrong...

R: ...dishonesty.

S: ...they blew it. They got it wrong.

R: It's intellectually dishonest.

S: I think it all traces back to the press release from Granada University.

B: It's laziness.

S: The University of Granada set out the original press release, I think that's probably the university where at least one of the scientists is from, and whoever put that press release together blew it. They got it wrong. They must have misunderstood because they didn't read deeply into the paper and then they interviewed the researchers with the premise that showed there is a connection so all of the researcher quotes are explaining like 'what the implications would be if synaesthesia did explain aura reading which makes no sense given that's the opposite conclusion of the study. I think the researchers didn't pick up on this or, you know, you could talk to a reporter for an hour and they're just mining for a quote or two and you have no idea what's going on in their head. There's a good book about how scientists talk to the media and it says you can't just do that, you can't just answer the journalists' questions and assume they know what they're talking about. You have to ask them, "so what story are you telling here?" Make sure that they understand what you're research said. You never know how much to blame the reasearchers, you don't know how complicit they were or how naive they were in the whole process. They might have done all of that but the quote unquote "journalists" didn't care, they had their story and they were going with it. But then the worst thing is, I don't know if it's worse but just as bad, is all of the news outlets that just copied it.

R: Yeah.

S: And nobody went to, even some sites that should know better, went to the original study to confirm that that's what it actually showed.

E: *cough* Science Daily *cough*

S: Science Daily blew it, every outlet blew it, Evan, nobody got it wrong.

R: Yeah, that sort of gets back to something we used to hammer on about quite a bit but we've sort of dropped talking about it because now it's just so obvious and depressing but it's the fact that so many mainstream new sources have cut their science departments and assigned the science beat to a general reporter who probably doesn't even know that there's an original paper to go to, you know, and they're on a deadline and they're like, "oh, here's something cute that will get clicks." and that's it.

S: Yeah, that's a big part of the problem but as Evan was saying Science Daily got it wrong and they're a science news outlet. They only have a science beat.

B: That's bad.

R: Yeah, that is a problem.

S: And they're usually pretty good. I noticed that while most other sites reproduce press releases without changing a period, Science Daily actually adds some content. They actually do some reporting, not just reproducing press releases so it's a little disapointing to see how throoughly they blew this. I mean it was so bad I had to read the article a couple of times just to make sure I got it right but it's clear, it's absolutely crystal clear that the conclusion of the research is that these are not the same phenomenon.

B: I would love to hear a recording of that interview with that journalist and the researchers and hearing them talk past each other and each side missing the point, like, "oh man!"

S: I've been there, I've spoken to journalists who clearly are on their own agenda and don't give a rat's ass about what you're saying. They're just like, "Can you say this? Can you give me this quote so I can plug it in to my story?" it's so obvious. Then I have to ask them or you have to back up and say this is what's really going on here but they just don't care. It's tough, it's really difficult but this is the state of news reporting that we have now. But we have science blogs and the good news is, it's hard to say now because now that I've learned my own google searches are honed towards me, like when I search on this topic now I come up against 20 websites linking back to my article but I don't know if it's because I'm doing the search from my own computer or not.

J: Steve, did I hear you right? Are you saying when you search for stuff you actually find yourself talking about it?

R: I get that too, my top resutls are usually Skepchick.

E: It's part of Google profiles.

R: It's because Google is very targeted.

J: They would be like me looking up some porn video I want and there's a video of me up there.

S: Just like it, Jay, just like it.

E: Horrifying.

R: Have you made a lot of porn, Jay?

E: The internet shuts down when you start searching for porn, Jay, that's when the internet shuts down.

B: That would turn me off porn permanently.

48 Frames per Second (22:13)[edit] High frame rate cinema booed but shows will go on

S: All right well let's move on. Bob, in preparation for the summer blockbusters, you're going to give us a little update on film technology.

B: Yeah, it's blockbuster movie time, I'm so excited. Are you guys excited about all the great movies coming out this summer?

S: Oh, yeah.

B: There's so much. This is the time when movie studios really don't give a crap about Oscar contenders and all they want to do is blow stuff up and I love it. And uh, this season, unofficially started, I think it's unofficial, I'm not sure how official it was, started with the release of Avengers, and I hear it was an awesome movie, everyone is telling me it's awesome.

R: It was so awesome!

S: Highly recommended.

B: Oh, I know OK

E: Most of what I saw was awesome.

R: Let's talk about all the spoilers.

B: No, no!

E: Easter eggs, Easter eggs.

B: But I haven't seen it yet but I plan to see it very very soon.

S: My wife who is a reluctant nerd I call her, she's not really a nerd, she loved it it's a fun movie really for anyone.

E: She didn't dress up in a black widow costume?

S: No, no I tried, I tried Evan. No.


S: But go on, Bob.

J: Oh my god, that's rid...

B: So coinciding with the release of these movies is news that a new film technology may soon be in widespread release. This is called HFR which stands for High Frame Rate technology. Movies for the past 80 years have been filmed at 24 frames per second, but in the near future they may be made, they may be filmed at 48 or 60 frames per second which some say could revolutionise the movie-viewing experience, but unfortunately many who previewed this technology were surprisingly completely underwhelmed by it. What the frack? Just totally surprised me, I really didn't see that coming. It just seems like a no-brainer to me that when you up the frame rate for movies it would just make it better, you know how could that not make movies look even better than they do now? I was really surprised that it was actually getting negative reviews. But this type of news is especially exciting for me even if it doesn't pan out because considering the revolution we've seen in movie theatre, well actually what we haven't seen is any real revolutions in movie theatre technology especially when you compare it to home movie technology for the past 20 years. Steve, Jay I don't know if you remember growing up we had, I remember we were so excited, we got a 28 inch CRT, and a new TV, and it looked really huge to us. But now most TVs dwarf that and they use all sorts of new technology like flat screen, HD, LED, LCD, OLED...


B: ...3D. All these advances in movies and it just seems like it's just what's going on, what's happened with movie technology I mean since I've been around, I mean the big advances that I grew up with, you guys remember Sensurround, right, the movie theatre would actually shake, I mean that didn't last too long, it was just like a gimmick. But what are some of the big revolutions in movie theatre technology?

S: Sound systems have, you know.

B: Yeah, they have, they have um...

E: Sound, 3D technology.

R: Seats that move.

B: (laughs) Yeah, right? Better seats.

J: The projectors are...

B: How about CG? But I'm talking mainly what you're seeing on screen though, like CG. CG's been big, I mean that hasn't been around for that long in movie theatres and to me that's a really big advance and IMAX, to me IMAX was like a godsend because it's such an amazing movie experience.

J: Well Bob, what do they shoot IMAX in?

B: Well I was kind of surprised, I just assumed well IMAX is so amazing, isn't that 48 frames a second?

E: Nope.

B: Or even more? But actually it's not. IMAX is 24 frames per second as well, although the film, I think it's like a 66mm film, I mean the film itself is huge.

S: Yeah.

E: It's a wider film, yeah.

B: IMAX actually tried to go to 48 frames per second in '92, it was called IMAX HD which is a little bit of a misnomer it seems, but actually it was too expensive and it was too damaging to the film and the projector so they abandoned it, so even IMAX itself is not, as awesome as it is, is not 48 frames a second. What really, what started this whole, this whole news item I think was a recent viewing at the cinemacon 2012 in Las Vegas, which is an annual gathering of theatre owners, and they, Peter Jackson who filmed The Hobbit, which is, I can't wait to see, and he filmed it using this technology, he had a 10 minute broadcast of some unfinished footage and a lot of the criticisms were really interesting. Now a lot of people were saying that the big epic fight scenes that they saw were really amazing and that the depth of field and the clarity was amazing but a lot of the like, the personal scenes, like between some of the actors, they seemed oddly cold or it said that some people said that it was too much like digital footage you see from live sports channels or on daytime television.

R: Yeah, that's, it's... sorry... we talked about this exact problem.

B: We did?

R: Yeah, just... it was maybe a year or two ago. We were talking about frame rate and how the higher frame rates look like soap operas and it's very difficult for audiences to get over that idea. I don't remember what spurred us to talking about it, it wasn't, The Hobbit stuff wasn't on the scene yet.

B: Right.

R: Bigger fans than Bob can probably find the episode and let us know what we were talking about. But yeah, that was the exact complaint, that it looked artificial despite the fact that it's actually closer to what our eyes are really seeing in everyday life. It's kind of interesting.

B: Yeah, that's really it. Another good quote was, somebody said that it looked much more like visiting the set of a film rather than seeing the textured cinematography of a finished movie and I think that that really is the crux of the problem. But there are lots of benefits to this new technology and the big proponent of this is Peter Jackson of course, of The Lord of the Rings fame and now making The Hobbit. The name of the movie is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. But there are a lot of benefits, it definitely is more lifelike and Jackson wrote in a Facebook post recently that there's often quite a lot of blur in each conventional movie frame during fast movements and if the camera's moving around quickly the image can judder or strobe. So when you have a higher frame rate it can greatly reduce or even totally eliminate a lot of these problems. And the other benefit for HFR is for 3D movies, it removes the eye strain, Peter Jackson was looking, he said he was watching his film of course because he's making it, he would watch it for hour of a day, you know hours during the day, to look and the dailies and stuff that, and he said that the eye strain is pretty much not even there any more, he described it as being much more gentle on the eyes without the strobing or as much flicker and much less eye strain, so and he was really funny he had a really great response to a lot of this criticism. He just said three words: deal with it. I mean that's what he said, just deal with it. I could see how this guy's emotionally invested in this, despite his protestations, I'm sure he was taken aback a bit by this negative reaction and sometimes I think that he may not have released this footage if he knew the extent of the criticism. And then of course on the other hand he's getting millions of dollars worth of free publicity about this even if some of it was negative, so maybe it is kind of working out for him. But the big question here I think is will people want to deal with it?

J: I would be curious to know what people would have thought if he didn't say it was shot at 48 frames.

E: They would have said something doesn't look right. They'd be left guessing.

B: Yeah. They definitely, they still would have complained Jay. And I found a fantastic quote from Anthony Bresnician from Inside Movies. He said that, referring to Jackson, he said "he may be underestimating how much those so-called flaws have become part of the language of visual storytelling." and I think that's an excellent point because even the so-called flaws in the medium can become part of peoples' expectations to such a degree that it seems like something's missing when it's gone even though the objective quality really has improved. What I want to end with though is that I think there's a few reasons why I think that people will still broadly accept HFR technology. And I think they are fairly compelling reasons. I think it may really be just a matter of getting used to it like Jackson said, after watching it, you know 10 minutes wasn't enough if you watch it for a while you get used to this technology and he's seen hours upon hours of this footage. And also there's another interesting take on this. It may make the flaws of 24 frames per second noticeable to an annoying degree. He said that when he watches conventional movies now, it's much less satisfying to him because he notices all of the stuff that he didn't notice before. It's kind of like a good analogy, I can still watch non-HD TV and I do quite often but at times it feels like something's missing since I'm so used to HD now sometimes I think damn, you know, this picture really sucks.

S: Yeah, I think a lot of it is us getting used to it, but I think it's also that just the film making needs to adapt to it as well. The lighting and the feel and everything and it's just like when we went from regular definition to high definition you had to upgrade sets and props and whatnot so I think it's the same thing. Have you ever watched like when you do behind the scenes movie making and they show you some raw footage?

B: Yes.

S: Of the movie?

E: Yeah. It's all video.

S: And then you watch the actual film, it's very different.

B: Do you know why, Steve?

E: Lots of reasons why.

B: And this is my last point right here. This actually, I'm so glad I found this, I found this at the 11th hour, not many websites had this very key point I think, in that the footage Jackson released had not gone through post-production. And that is so important.

S: Yeah.

B: And it's not, this type of post production isn't simply a matter of adding special effects, they do things like digital colour grading, they add texture, they take out highlights and to me that changes this whole thing because it hasn't gone through that...

S: Yeah. That invalidates it in fact, you can't make any judgement.

B: Absolutely I think it's completely unfair to criticise something that has not gone through post-production.

R: Well he's been pretty clear that he plans for The Hobbit to be the movie that completely remakes...

E: Redefines the medium.

R: movies are made, that forces cinemas to upgrade because, and he's absolutely right. The Hobbit is going to be huge regardless, like he could have shot it in poop vision and it would still be great.


R: People would still be buying the tickets and theatres would be upgrading their equipment to handle it. So yeah, if you're going to...

E: Do you need special glasses for that? I hope so.

R: If you're going to force a revolution then this is how to do it. I mean how many theatres installed the tingler before they realised that that wasn't really going to work out, I don't know.

E: The tingler?

R: The tingler, you know, the electric shock seats.

B: Oh god.

J: Oh yeah, because they were so loved, yeah.

R: No but you know it is...

E: In Soviet Russia maybe.

R: is possible for people to be really excited about a new innovation and have it not catch on. It took 3D two tries to get big.

S: No, more like three.

J: Yeah, most people don't know.

E: 3D is from the 40's, 50's?

J: Most people don't know how much things have changed in the film world, the film-making world in just the last 10 years.

B: Oh absolutely, oh my god yeah.

J: I mean the equipment has travelled from basically most people were shooting on film or tape and now the industry is phenomenally evolved, and it's so much better, it's so much easier to work, so many more people can do it it's like writing a blog versus you know printing a newspaper, it's that easy. It's not easy but it's that much more accessible, the software, prices have come down, the power of the software has sky-rocketed, I mean you could literally shoot on your digital camera, put it on your computer five seconds later and start editing it immediately.

B: And Rebecca you mentioned 3D. I think that movie theatres' owners are going to be motivated to upgrade because first off, it's not very expensive I mean it was like thousands of dollars it's not something like you know, 100,000 dollars to upgrade, it's not going to be that expensive. And secondly, 3D is just so huge now and you know people pay more, you know they're paying 12, 15, 18 dollars to watch a 3D movie, more than just a regular movie and apparently supposed to reduce this eye-strain and make it a much more pleasant experience, I think they're going to be motivated to do this.

R: Yeah, I guess my point with bringing up 3D is just that it took a number of tries for 3D to not be considered a total joke and it's still considered a total joke by most cinephiles I think.

E: Yeah.

B: Yeah.

R: The general public has I think, I mean I was a little too young to really appreciate it before but it's my understanding that even the general public saw it as kind of a goofy fad before.

S: Because it was gimmicky.

R: Yeah, yeah.

S: The quality wasn't very good, it was gimmicky...

E: It was hokey, yeah.

S: they're making these CG movies where like you really appreciate, like with The Avengers you're flying through the city, I mean it really adds, you know. So it I think a while for the art to catch up to the science, how to use this technology in a way to really enhance the cinematic experience, not just as a techno-gimmick, and that's why I think 3D's taking off.

R: Yeah.

S: Plus I think that the technology got to the point where you can enjoy the experience and it wasn't distracting or detracting because it was, the eye strain etc. We're not quite there yet, but...

B: And yet it's still gimmicky, it's still gimmicky in a lot of ways, I'm constantly rolling my eyes when I see these movies that come out as 3D because you know they tacked on the whole idea of 3D for this movie just to cash in, and you know to really take advantage of 3D you've got to design it from the ground up and really be thinking 3D from day one, like Avatar was.

Baby Powder (36:00)[edit]

The Telegraph: Pills filled with powdered human baby flesh found by customs officials

S: All right, well let's move on. Jay, you're going to talk about baby powder?

J: OK, this one is by far the worst thing I have ever reported on.

B: Oh, come on.

E: We'll always have Tom Cruise.

J: If you're weak in the stomach, don't listen to this news item because it's absolutely disgusting. There's a new kind of baby powder on the streets of South Korea, but this one is made from real babies. The Korean Customs Service have seized thousands of pills that are filled with powdered flesh from dead babies.

E: All right so, we're not talking like skin that has naturally sort of shed from live babies, right? And they've collected those flakes of skin and crushed them into a powder, right?

J: No, from what I've read they think that they're getting the skin from aborted babies or babies that have died in hospitals in China.

R: All right, I don't buy it. I don't buy it for a second, and there are several reasons why. Here's what I do think is true. I think that South Korean authorities did find, take into possession, traditional Chinese medicine that was, that were capsules that were said to contain human flesh. But what we're talking about are capsules that are filled with a ground up substance and there's really nothing in any of the news reports I read to suggest how, like what kind of tests were done to figure out that these are the flesh of dead babies, like call me a skeptic, but I don't think that our CSI is to the point where you can examine ground up bits of granules and tell whether or not it's a...

S: Sure you can, absolutely. You could tell if there are human proteins in there, absolutely.

R: No, you didn't let me finish.

J: She's talking about baby proteins.

R: And tell whether it's baby or adult. That's one issue I have with this. The second being that I don't think that there's a test in which you could tell whether or not these are the ground up remains of a dead baby or a placenta.

S: Mmmhmm.

R: And when we look at traditional Chinese medicine and the remedies that are often sold as traditional Chinese medicine, we don't find baby on the list pretty much anywhere at all. Baby is not a traditional Chinese remedy. Placenta is a traditional Chinese remedy. It's very, very, very popular and I think that ground up placenta could very easily, due to a translation issue, could get out into the press as dead, ground up baby.

B: I hope you're right.

R: So I don't buy that these are ground up babies.

J: Yeah I think it's possible that you're right, Rebecca. When I read this stuff I felt like there just wasn't enough information, enough stuff that made me feel that this was 100%. You know, they are making claims, I mean these news articles are stating a lot of different things here about you know, they knew exactly how many pills, they knew that the pills were disguised as stamina boosters.

R: And which you know, placenta is sold as a stamina booster.

J: Sure, I'm not disagreeing with you at all, I mean I think, we get news items like this all the time, where we question how accurate is it, I mean look at, we just talked earlier in the show about reporters that can't even report, you know they read something and they don't even know what they read and they're misreporting the information whether deliberately or not so yeah, there's a very strong potential here that there's something not accurate about this. But it is something that's come up in the community, a lot of people are concerned about it or wanting more information about it, it is one of those big eye-catchy headlines. Strangely, I don't usually watch any of the major news stations because I just don't trust any of them, but I did do a quick look online and I found this in very few places. How about you guys?

R: Well we've gotten it from a million different people.

S: Yeah, unfortunately, I did try to dig deeper into this myself, because I agree with Rebecca, you hear this and it's so easy for this to be sensationalised. Unfortunately just about everything, the internet essentially is filled now with links to this story and it's overwhelming anything else about it. I couldn't find any smoking gun reports that show yes, this is absolutely confirmed, what I did find is that there were reports that the powder was DNA tested and found to be human DNA, that South Korea is claiming that's what the pills contain, human remains, and it's not just that they've confiscated the pills with powder, that they have reason to believe this is part of a smuggling ring that is doing this, that this is not, this is one piece of the puzzle, but that there's... but again this is all second, third hand reports of overseas journalists and I don't know, you know you would need an investigative journalist in Korea, in China, digging behind this to see what's really going on. China denies it, they say that, the Chinese government, they say that they strictly oversee the disposal of infants and foetal remains so that this sort of thing wouldn't happen but you know, I don't that really tells us anything, that the Chinese government is denying it.

R: Yeah, and all of the facts that you mentioned fit with the idea of it being placenta. I mean placenta is human remains.

E: Yeah, proteins and all.

S: Yeah. That's a legitimate point, Rebecca but also I would easily believe that people also believe that taking essentially ground up either aborted foetuses or babies would also be a stamina booster or have powers.

R: Yeah the thing is I've been searching and I haven't been able to find a single instance of anyone claiming to believe that ground up infants increase stamina. I can't find that at all. And that's one of the main reasons that I'm suspicious of it. If ground-up infant was something that's been 100 years ago or 50 years ago, even 10 years ago...

S: Oh I don't know that it's that old.

R: ...was spoken of as something, you know.

S: Yeah I did read one report that said that this is something that is specific to ethnic Koreans living in China. But again, this is all second-hand reports.

E: Right.

R: I don't know.

S: And this has been going on since last year, so there has been some time to investigate this. The South Koreans, it's not like this is...

R: Right, this is actually an old story.

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah.

R: And yeah, the thing is I understand the child, the one-child policy in China would probably make a lot of Westerners think well cool, that's where the foetuses are coming from, but you'd have to have a lot of foetuses in order, like these are really inexpensive pills that are being smuggled, like tons and tons of them.

S: But anyway this is all second-hand information. I agree with Rebecca's skepticism however I don't think it's impossible and I think we don't know. The news reporting is all sensational, it is second-hand and it would be nice to actually have a real journalist dig to the bottom of the story and see what's going on.

E: They may not like what they find though.

S: Yeah... it's people!

E: I mean right, right? This is the Soylent Green story, this is it. If there ever was one.

J: The thing that bothers me is I absolutely believe that there are people out there that would pay for pills like this.

B: Oh yeah.

E: Oh yeah, people are F'ed up.

B: Absolutely.

R: Yeah, and I also, one of the other reasons why I was immediately skeptical of it is because it plays on our idea of that and particularly our interest in other cultures doing weird, disgusting, immoral things.

S: It's a perfect urban legend.

R: Yeah, exactly.

E: Yes, that's the other thing.

S: But it doesn't mean it's not true, right.

R: Also true, yeah.

E: When will we ever find out the truth, I don't know.

B: You can't handle the truth.

E: I may not want to handle this truth.

S: Well we really, we do need to follow this story because this is the kind of thing where, like say six months from now, there may be some obscure reports like oh remember that whole baby powder thing was all fake, and of course no one is going to care, but the meme is out there and everyone is going to remember oh yeah, the Chinese were selling ground up babies in pills and nobody will notice if it ever gets debunked. So we'll try to keep on top of it, and hey also any of our listeners from Korea, from China, if you have the inside scoop on this story please tell us because we are utterly dependent on the crappy press that we have and I was utterly unable to find any sources that I felt were credible enough that I could really rely upon what they were saying.

E: And if it turns out to be wrong, let us know because I have a great joke in queue ready to fly...

S: If it's wrong, OK.

E: case it is wrong, if it's wrong.

B: Awesome.

E: But only if it's wrong!

S: Poor taste?

E: It's a problem, yeah.

Killing Bigfoot (45:12)[edit] It’s officially legal to kill Bigfoot in Texas

S: All right, well Evan, you're going to tell us quickly what bigfoot hunters are doing in Texas.

E: Yeah, well Steve you know this is the one question. It is the question alone that has been plaguing the human mind for as long as the human mind became aware of itself. Or at least since the 1967 Patterson Gimly film.

S: Gimly...

E: Of course... Gimly... you know. Especially the one with the made-up Chewbakka strap around, I love that, that's the best one. And that question is: is it legal to hunt and kill a bigfoot in Texas? Well, there may be large areas of the rest of this country that might be under the impression that Texas has this general shoot first ask questions later statute in place. Well, it turns out that there are no statutes specifically preventing the hunting of a bigfoot in Texas, right? So why do we know this, and why is it news this week? Why does anybody care? Well, we have our online cryptophiles to thank for that. And for those of you who don't know, a cryptophile is someone who loves the notion that live creatures can exist, or had once existed with no supporting evidence. And one particular cryptophile recently wrote to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department asking that very question, about the legality of hunting and killing bigfoot. And he received a response, an official response which read in part as follows. I quote.

If the commission does not specifically list an indigenous non-game species, then the species is considered non-protected, non-game wildlife. A non-protected, non-game animal may be hunted on private property with landowner consent by any means at any time and there is no bag limit or possession limit.

E: And they went even a little further than that. They said in case it were deemed to be an exotic animal, but they have coverage for that. And I quote:

An exotic animal is an animal that is non-indigenous to Texas. Unless the exotic is an endangered species, then exotics may be hunted on private property with landowner consent, and a hunting license is required.

E: So there you have it. Texas is saying go get those bigfoot, there's nothing stopping you in case they're out there.

S: Yeah, but that is kind of a non-event, they're just interpreting the law. Because bigfoot don't exist, they're not endangered and they're not game animals, and therefore, but default, the rules for everything else applies, which means that you can't hunt them except on private property.

E: Yeah, that's right.

S: So if a bigfoot stumbles into your back yard you can shoot it.

R: The yeti corn is still protected, right? The noble yeti corn at least has a safe space.

E: Don't worry Maw, that corn's protected.

J: Yeah I agree with Steve, this isn't a news item, this is just an interpretation of the law that...

S: Yeah, they didn't pass a law saying you can kill bigfoot, they just said well I guess, because they don't exist, they're not covered by these other laws, so they default to everything else.

R: It's like having a domestic violence issue with a ghost.

S: Right.

E: Right, no more so than any laws governing what can be done to say leprechauns or morlocks...

B: Unicorns.

S: Or Eskimos.

E: Or Ferengi for that matter, right?

S: Ferengi, yeah.

E: Yeah, it's pretty unreasonable to expect governing bodies...

S: Trying to apply existing laws to non-existing creatures, you could run into all kinds of dilemmas.

E: Right? Human imagination can conjure up so much, could you imagine having to come up with laws for every stupid thought that comes out of a collection of peoples' heads?

S: Right.

E: It's insane and unreasonable. However, as we're talking about examples of unreasonableness, I'll give you two examples from the state of Washington, where there are counties, the counties of Skamania and Whatcom, they have actual statues specifically mentioning bigfoot in terms of protecting these particular figments.

R: Well, the Pacific North West is... (inaudible)

S: Bigfoot is protected in Washington?

E: Yes, the actual statute ordinance, the actual ordinance, creatures generally... this is the one about, this creature is generally and commonly known as sasquatch, yeti, bigfoot or giant, hairy ape.

S: (laughing) giant hairy ape.

E: All of which makes...

B: Like Jay.

E: All of which are used interchangeably. Whereas, say it says the absence of specific national and state laws restricting the taking of specimens has created a dangerous state of affairs within this county with regards to firearms and other deadly devices and so on and so forth. So here we go. In 1969 they deemed that the slaying of such a creature was a felony, that's interesting, punishable by five years in prison and may have exceeded the jurisdictional authority of that port of county commissioners. However, that was changed, they updated that in 1984 and in 1984 they reduced it to more of a misdemeanour. And they've deemed the entire county a preserve...

S: A bigfoot preserve?

E: Yeah, a protection refuge area.

S: So let me play devil's advocate for a little bit. I think it's ridiculous in that there's no reason to think that bigfoot exists, so having a specific law about a mythological creature is kind of silly. But I do think that it's not a bad idea to have a law that says that it's illegal to kill an animal unknown to science. Let's say it was framed that way. If you think that you have an animal that is not known to science in the sights of your gun, don't frigging shoot it. That's kind of a win-win. If the creature does exist, you don't want to kill it and if it doesn't exist, then what are you shooting? Think about this, if you think you're shooting a bigfoot you probably have a human in your cross-hairs.

E: Human in a costume, yep.

S: Yeah. So that, it's actually, I don't think it's a good idea for it to be legal to kill bigfoot because that is just dangerous.

R: I mentioned this last year, actually. Back in July there was a chupacabra in Texas that was spotted by a Texas teenager and he said it looked like nothing I had ever seen before, and then he shot it.


R: And then I compared that to another story coming out of China wherein a woman found a possible alien and she said my neighbours agreed that it was like nothing we'd seen before. So they fed it cucumbers and peaches and nurtured it and it turned out to be a mangy monkey I think.

B: Monkey.


R: But the differences between these two stories was I think really telling in terms of our two cultures and also imagine if those were two difference species that scientists could learn something interesting from. Even if it's not a new species, if it's a known species with a new disease, particularly a disease that might spread rapidly through a population, there's a lot that researchers can learn, don't just, don't just kill it.

SGU Dinner at TAM 2012 (52:36)[edit]

Tam 2012 program

S: One last news item, it's time once again for the lead-up to The Amazing Meeting, TAM 2012, July 12th-15th in Las Vegas, and of course the entire SGU is going to be there, as usual we're going to be putting on two one hour live recordings. And we're also doing once again, the SGU dinner. I know you guys are looking forward to it.

B: Yay, yeah!

R: Yeah, good food, good company, mmhmm.

E: Awesome time.

S: Yep, so this even sells out every year that we've done it, we have a, I think there's a 300 person limit on the room that we have, of course the entire SGU will be there, we will make our way around to every table, we are going to do some kind of entertainment but in addition to that we're also going to do an auction, a very popular event ever year. We auction off all sorts of things, including a guest rogue spot on the show, among other things. The JREF is going to be doing, auctioning some items at the same time as well. And we expanded the dinner to three hours, so it's a full three hours with the SGU. A lot of our skeptical colleagues show up as well.

R: You're going to be so sick of us by the end of this dinner.

S: (laughs)

E: Oh yeah.

R: Let me tell ya.

E: You'll be heading for the bathrooms.

R: You'll be like, get out of my face, Steve, Jesus leave me alone.

E: I just ate, god.

S: I love, these dinners have been a lot of fun, we really enjoy it.

R: Yeah.

J: TAM is awesome, I recommend anyone who hasn't gone yet, you definitely should go check it out, it really is, it's the single biggest gathering of skeptics and...

S: Yeah there were 1600 people there last year.

J: Yeah, you're going to meet a lot of famous skeptics, and you know people who write blogs and podcasters and lecturers and authors and everything, and then you get to just hang out with other skeptics and there's a lot of time to socialise and everything, and you know TAM is just the event that you have to make at least once or twice in your life.

R: And if you're a woman, and you would like to go to TAM but you're not sure you can afford it, Skeptchick and Surly Amy are once again running the Surly Women Grants for TAM. You can go to Skeptchick and you'll find a link for the application, if you would like to apply for a grant. And if you'd like to help us raise money to send women, you can purchase a "you can make a difference" necklace from Surly Amy at and all that money goes towards helping more women get to TAM.

S: Um, and there's other special stuff which we will be talking about in the coming weeks. That's enough of a teaser for now for TAM.

Who's That Noisy? (55:11)[edit]

S: Evan.

E: Steve.

S: We're moving on to Who's That Noisy? Taken a couple of weeks off from WTN.

E: Yeah, it happens around the time of our live shows, NECSS and whatnot. But we're back to it and I'll replay for you all the last Who's That Noisy from episode 353. 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. This guy has no idea.

S: Hmmm.

R: Eating nails for breakfast.

B: Yummy.

E: Who does that sound like?

R: Some jerk.

E: (laughs) A Jerk named Steve Spangler, perhaps? Author, professional speaker, Emmy Award winner, science teacher, founder of two companies, toy maker and trained magician. And he goes around and he has shows on the internet and on TV and he teaches people about science and fun in explosive sorts of ways. In fact he's most famous for the popular experiment of dropping Mentos into a bottle of diet coke and the result being the geyser effect.

R: Oh, yeah.

B: Oh, that's him.

R: OK, he's all right.

S: He's a good guy.

R: He's all right.

E: He's a good guy, he's a good guy. But he brings up an interesting point about the iron in cereal. Fortified iron, meaning added after the fact, not part of the natural ingredients. So are we really eating nails, Steve? That's the question.

S: Oh yeah. So...


E: And they're good for you.

J: I ate nails for breakfast as a kid, every day.

S: Yeah, it's fortified with iron, iron is iron. It's usually powdered. You think of iron filings, you think of something that you have, remember those toys where you could put beards and moustaches on people by moving the iron filings around with a magnet?

E: Still have one.

R: They also make a version with a penis.

S: Yeah, I'm sure, so...

E: Oooh.


S: That's what I think comes into people's mind, but it's very finely, tiny, tiny micron-big filings or like atomised, so-called atomised iron or powdered iron. There is no safety issue in terms of like negative effects from the iron itself. And it does get absorbed into the system, you do get iron from eating it. The only real question is the so-called bioavailability, how much of the iron do you absorb? And is it sufficient? Is it a good source of iron? There are a couple of published studies that I found that concluded that it really is not a very effective form of iron, so the bioavailability is low, and that therefore if you like really need to get your iron, it's probably not the best source of it, again not that there's anything bad about it, it's just that you're not going to absorb as much as you would other forms of iron which are like chemical iron, you know.

E: Well, just eat more of the food that have the iron, that regularly occurs in those foods. Beans, meats, other things like that.

S: Right, exactly you probably shouldn't be relying upon fortified cereals for your vitamins in any case. What was Calvin's favourite cereal, chocolate-covered sugar bombs?

B: Yeah.

E: Yeah, that's right.

S: You're probably just better off eating lots of fruits and vegetables and having a well-rounded diet, you'll get plenty of iron, but since we're talking about it, guys, you know men, don't really need to eat a lot of iron. When you're growing up you do, but if you're an adult male who does not have a disease or anaemia or something, you don't really need to, you shouldn't be in fact, taking vitamins, uh iron supplements or anything with a lot of iron because you...

E: But women need more iron.

S: ...because we recycle our red blood cells and we recapture all of that iron so not much of it is lost. But women who are menstruating lose some of their iron every month and they...

R: I've heard that that's actually a myth, I've heard that most women don't actually lose enough blood during menstruation to cause anaemia.

S: Yeah, most women don't. Most women are not anaemic. But believe me, iron-deficiency anaemia is much more common in menstruating women than it is in men.

R: Yeah.

S: Yeah, so yeah I'm not saying every woman gets this, but some women can get iron deficiency anaemia because of that, and it's usually because they have heavy flow, you know they bleed more than the average woman, so that's usually the cause. But women have a higher tolerance for taking iron supplements because they are losing a little bit of iron on a regular basis whereas men don't unless you have some reason why you frequently bleed.

E: And you can get iron toxicity right, by taking too much.

S: If you take too much, yep. Some people have to donate blood frequently because they have an iron deposition disorder, that's actually the treatment. Actually they don't make you...

R: That's the most helpful disease ever.

S: They actually just take it out, they do flebotomy, they don't, if you, they're doing it therapeutically, they don't actually donate it.

R: That's the least helpful disease ever.

E: We had a winner, there were several winners, but the first person to guess correctly, mddawson from the message boards, so well done mddawson, Dr. Dawson. Let's move on to this week, brand new, fresh out of the cage. Recently released.

J: Right, we got it, play it.

(high pitched sound, perhaps whistling)

J: I know what it is.

E: Do say.

R: It's a whistle?

J: It's the noise, like when you're wearing a cowboy outfit and you're riding a horse in the dessert.

E: It's the Clint Eastwood noise?

J: Right, it's the noise that just happens to happens when you happen to have the outfit and the gun and if you're smoking a, like a really small cigar.

R: This sounds right, yeah.

S: And if you're bad-ass enough.

E: That's right, and you never miss when you shoot, never.

J: Wouldn't it be cool if people like Neil deGrasse Tyson like they hit a certain level of awesomeness and they just have theme music that just naturally occurs because they're so cool?


S: Well, you could make that happen, I mean it doesn't take, we have the technology to play music and follow people around with it.

J: No, no no no no. I'm not talking about...

E: That'll become a fad someday.

R: People have the technology to get restraining orders which is what I'm saying.

J: It's woven into nature, that if you become cool enough, you get theme music that just plays like when you enter a room.

S: So coolness would have to be an inherent property of nature rather than a cultural construct, is that what you're saying?

E: It's not a boom box, it's an iPod. Please. Uh, are our forums, you can go ahead and post your guess there once the episode is up, and is our email address send us your guesses there. Good luck to everyone!

J: And go to TAM.

Science or Fiction (1:01:54)[edit]

S: Let's move on to Science or Fiction.

Iszi Lawrence: 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, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week too.

R: Daah.

B: Yay.

S: You know, my themes are usually opportunistic, it's like whatever's there.

R: I was hoping to disabuse you of the theme habit.

S: No. This one, the theme this week is planetary astronomy. Phil Plait is going to be on our show next week, so I'm getting all the astronomy Science or Fiction out this week while he's not on the show.

R: Mmm.

S: OK, here we go. Item number one. Astronomers have demonstrated the ability to detect the composition of expolanet atmospheres by viewing massive lightening discharges. Item number two. Astronomers find that solar systems with so-called hot Jupiters do not have any other detectable planets in their system. And item number three. Astronomers plan to view the upcoming transit of Venus across the sun with the Hubble telescope by using the moon as a giant mirror. Jay, you're sounding sleepy so we'll get yours out of the way first.

J: So the one about the astronomers being able to tell things about an exoplanet's atmosphere by viewing the lightning, that is really cool and it makes sense because the lightning is going to interact with the atmosphere. So that makes sense, and I think that that is a very cool technique if indeed that's happening. So the one about the solar systems with hot Jupiters not having any other detectable planets in their system. Steve, would you care to tell me what a hot Jupiter is?

S: Yeah, a hot Jupiter is a Jupiter-sized planet that is very close to its parent star.

B: Bizarrely close.

J: That's interesting, I would think from my information that this one is fake because it's very rare, or I've never even heard of a solar system only having one planet. I wonder if the hot Jupiter is the result of say, all the planets colliding with each other or something like that, I have no idea, so. And then the last one. The one about using the moon as a giant mirror. Now we know that the moon is made of cheese, and if they use it as a mirror it could melt that cheese, and that could be delicious. I clearly don't know anything about that as well, I didn't read that, using the moon as a mirror, that sounds like Steve throwing a curve ball at us. OK, so I think that using the moon as a mirror is ridiculous, and I know that one is not the fake, so I'm going to pick the Jupiter one as the fake.

S: OK. Evan.

E: Demonstrate the ability to detect the composition of exoplanet atmospheres by viewing massive lightning discharges. Sure, I think they could actually do that. How the lightning discharges react to the elements in the atmospheres of those planets probably gives off specific readings. So I think that one's correct. Jay, you went with the hot Jupiters being the fictions. Don't have other detectable planets in their system. None? Seems extreme. So they ate up all the debris that would have otherwise turned into the planets? Boy I just don't know about that. It seems extreme. So I might be leaning with Jay in that regard. The last one, yeah I've heard about the upcoming transit of Venus, but they're going to point Hubble at it using the moon as a giant mirror. I think so. So I'm leaning towards that one being science as well. Oh, I might be leaning with Jay about the Jupiters, the hot Jupiters, but there's something about the giant mirror that I have no idea how they would really accurately do that. And why would they do that, wouldn't there be, don't they have other telescopes that they can do this with, do they have to really use Hubble specifically or is this just an exercise of some sort? Maybe they're going to use it as an exercise. Oh crud, I have to guess. I'll say Hubble telescope as a giant mirror. I'm going to guess that one's fiction.

S: OK, Rebecca.

R: Uh yeah, we've been talking about trying to film something about the transit of Venus, and not we you guys and I, but my partner and I. And we've been talking about the difficulty of doing that because you can't just point a camera at the sun. Um, which yeah I assume is the problem with Hubble, so using the Moon as a giant mirror sounds like a really cool way for them at least to get around that. We can't use it, but that makes sense to me, it seems like a really great idea. So I was torn between hot Jupiter and exoplanet atmospheres, and hot Jupiter thing makes sense like Evan mentioned, maybe it collects all the mass that would have otherwise formed planets, it could collect all the mass into the hot Jupiter and then any moons that planet might have, I don't know. Um, I like the idea of detecting the composition of an atmosphere by looking at the lightning discharges. My question is whether or not we would be able to get a clear view of those storms. You know, we can see the storms on our actual Jupiter, but can we see the storms on exoplanets? I'm not really sure about that. So I'm thinking maybe that one is that astronomers have suggested that that is a thing that they could do in the future but I don't know that they've actually managed to view storms yet. So, I was thinking that's the fiction. So I'm going to go with that one then at the very least Steve doesn't have a sweep this week.

S: Nice.

R: And that's what really matters.

E: All right, Bob give us the reveal.

S: I prefer the even spreads, means I did a good job. Yep, three-way tie bob, you're the tie-breaker.

B: The transit of Venus across the moon. Yeah, I can kind of see that. I would think that you would need a very very accurate mapping of the moon so that you could predict the paths of the reflected light so that you could then reconstruct the image. I don't know what resolution you would need in order to do that, but it seems feasible. The second one, the hot Jupiters, this one makes sense to me as well because I believe the theory is that for these hot Jupiters to get so close to the sun it's going to have to traverse through the solar system to get down there somehow and I would think it would kind of make sense that, if I'm remembering correctly, that if it did do that then I could see how it would potentially disrupt other planetary orbits, possibly eject them or merge with them, so that kid of makes sense. Plus they're saying detectable planets. There could be small planets that we can't detect yet. So that can kind of make that work out in my mind too. The first one, I just totally agree with Rebecca on that, yeah we could determine if exoplanets have atmospheres, what temperature possibly the planet is, but detecting lightning discharges on an exoplanet? I don't think we could do that yet, I mean it's just so far away. For that reason, I'm going to say that that is fiction.

R: Woop!

S: OK.

R: GWR, that's right.

S: Got two people on number one, we'll take them in reverse order.

B: You went with me in my mind.

R: So awkward.

S: Astronomers plan to view the upcoming transit of Venus across the sun with the Hubble telescope by using the moon as a giant mirror. Evan, you think that one is the fiction.

E: Not any more.

S: And that one is... science.

R: Aw. Yay!

E: See, I got it right.

S: This one is science.

J: Oh, awesome.

S: Yeah, they recently pointed the Hubble at the Tycho crater, not because they were interested in Tycho, even though it's cool.

B: Oh, just using a crater, sweet.

S: Yeah, but using it as a mirror to look at the transit of Venus which is coming up on June 5th or 6th and Bob and Rebecca made a lot of interesting points that are correct, that you know obviously you can't point the Hubble at the sun, it will fry it. You have to look at it indirectly. Do you guys know why they're doing this?

E: To see if they cab.

B: Uuum.

S: Yeah, pretty much. But they want...

R: Probably to learn more about Venus I assume.

S: No. It's not to learn more about Venus, really.

B: How about the test, to test transit method technologies, for detecting exoplanets.

S: Exactly, exactly.

R: Aaah.

S: They're doing this to test methods for looking at the atmosphere of exoplanets as they transit, so they're essentially using Venus as an example of an exoplanet transiting its sun, its star. And they want to see if they can tell, they want to see what the chemical make-up is of Venus', we know what the chemical make-up is of Venus' atmosphere.

B: Confirm it.

S: But what they specifically want to see, if they look at Venus with this technique, will it show signs of life? Now we know there are no signs of life on Venus so if it shows features that we would otherwise attribute to life that would make us more cautious about that interpretation if we get the same, similar results from exoplanets. So this is just informing us, it's like a control, so we know how to interpret using a similar technique, we could look at the starlight shining through the atmosphere of an exoplanet as it transits, as it passes in front of its star and then because of spectroscopy we could see the chemical make-up of the atmosphere and but you know, it's just refining that technique so that we know how to interpret it when we do it on exoplanets.

B: Great idea.

S: Yeah, is that cool?

R: Yeah, very cool.

S: Let's go back to number two. Astronomers find that solar systems with so-called hot Jupiters do not have any other detectable planets in their system. Jay, you think this one is the fiction and this one is also science.

J: Hey!

R: Woo Bob, high five.


R: A little off, but that's all right.

B: Yay.

S: Yeah, this one's also interesting, I had to track down the original article again because I wanted to see exactly what did they determine here and how did they determine it? But what astronomers did was very interesting. This hypothesis has been out for a while, in fact I remember when I first heard it. This is like in the early days of detecting all of the exoplanets that we've been detecting. Some of the first worlds that we discovered were these hot Jupiters, you know Jovian-sized planets very close to their star. And even at the time astronomers were hypothesizing that, well probably what's happening is they're forming farther out from the star like where our own Jupiter is and then because of interactions among the planets, they're spiralling in to this very, very close orbit and on their way they'd kick out all the other planets. And so, if most systems, if this were typical, it might be that most systems out there would consist of just Jovian planets close to their suns and no other planets. And I was like, oh if that's true that would suck, that would really tank the Drake Equation in terms of the probability of there being life out there. But it turns out this is a rare situation. Something like one percent of stars that we've investigated so far have this configuration, just this one solitary hot Jupiter very close to the sun. So that's good.

B: Luckily our Jupiter didn't do it.

R: Yeah, suck it Jupiter.

S: Exactly. So what the astronomers think is that the hot Jupiters started out in a very elliptical orbit and then the tidal forces as they pass close to their star dragged them into a more and more circular and very close orbit and over the millions of years where that happens they interact with the other planets that would be in the inner solar system, especially Earth-like worlds in the Goldilocks zone, and they kick them out. But this isn't just theoretical, and that's the thing I was interested in. They actually looked over data of exoplanets and they found that in all of the systems that we have discovered so far with a hot Jupiter, they found no evidence of any other planets in the system. Then as controls they looked at systems that had warm Jupiters, Jupiters that are farther out from the sun and about 10% of them had evidence for other planets, and they looked at hot Neptunes, so smaller planets, still gas giants but much smaller than Jupiter, close to the sun, and 30% of them had signs of planets, other planets in the system. So they think that their techniques are working, that they would detect planets if they were there, but the systems with hot Jupiters just don't have them. Now of course, this doesn't tell us anything about planets beyond the orbit of the Jovian worlds, so there could still be Plutos out there whether they are planets or dwarf planets. But it does mean in a system with a hot Jupiter, there is no Earth in the Goldilocks zone, probably. That's what that means. Sounds interesting, it's observational not just theoretical. All of this means that astronomers have demonstrated the ability to detect the composition of exoplanet atmospheres by viewing massive lightening discharges is fiction. And everybody in fact was correct, just Jay and Evan, you focussed on the wrong thing. Yes, this technique should work, the lightning is interacting with the atmosphere and we can tell what chemicals are in the atmosphere like oxygen or methane or carbon dioxide by examining the interaction with the lightning. But astronomers are talking about looking at lightning in the atmosphere of planets in our own solar system from probes in orbit around those planets, so very close. Doing this sort of analysis in planets, in exoplanets you know, around other stars is hopeless, I mean they're so far away that they're not even talking about that. They're talking about close-up images of worlds in our own solar system. So good work Bob and Rebecca.

R: Thank you.

B: Thank you.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:21)[edit]

S: So Jay, do you have a quote this week?

J: I have a quote sent in by a listener named Ulrich Fisher from Surrey, B.C. Canada.

E: From the Northern Realms.

J: The quote is:

Skepticism is the highest duty and blind faith the one unpardonable sin.

J: Who was that written by, Steve?

S: I believe that's a quote from T. H. Huxley, my fave...

J: Thomas Henry Huxley!


E: That's what the T. H. stands for.

S: My favourite philosopher. Darwin's bulldog.

B: Yeah.

J: T. H. Huxley is going to be at TAM this year.

S: (laughing) I wish. All right, well thanks Jay, that's a good one this week, and thank you guys for joining me this week.

B: Yeah, it's a good episode.

J: Thanks, Steve.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Hey, it's good to be back at the computer.

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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

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