SGU Episode 375

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SGU Episode 375
22nd September 2012

Transcript Verified Transcript Verified

SGU 374 SGU 376
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
The most important service rendered by the press and the magazines is that of educating people to approach printed matter with distrust.
Samuel Butler
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, September 18th, 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: Hello everyone.

S: How is everyone this week?

E: Good.

R: Pretty good, pretty good.

E: Back here at our stations.

S: That's right, back in the saddle after our slight break after Dragon*Con because we recorded two episodes at Dragon*Con.

R: Yeah, it was a nice break but it's good to talk to you guys again.

J: The coolest thing to happen to me in the past two weeks: a listener of the show made zombie pictures of us.

S: Yeah!

E: Zombie.

R: Yeah, that was so cool.

B: That made my entire month of September.

S: Bob, do you like zombies?

B: (laughs) We all came out fantastic. Oh, my god. I want to commission him to do more of me. I'm like, "here's X amount of money. I want three zombies; I want this one extra-decayed, I want this one extra-gory..."

R: Oh my god, Bob, Bob, Bob.

B: What.

R: You have to pay him to do like a 4-foot-tall canvas painting of you like posing, you know, like they have in rich people's homes.


R: Like you sitting in the chair.

J: Like on a chaise lounge?

R: Yeah, but you're a zombie. But you're wearing a nice robe, you know. Maybe you're petting a cat.

B: Or just a thong.


E: A zombie cat.

J: You'd see our zombie portraits on Facebook on our accounts; we have them all there.

S: But these are for the official AMC Walking Dead trading cards, and as of now, these are all one-of-a-kind special collectors cards, so you'd have to probably purchase a lot of the Walking Dead trading cards to be lucky enough to get one of our pictures.

R: And the artist by the way is Gary Kezele, we should mention his name.

S: Yes, he's awesome.

R: I may have mispronunced his last name.

E: Ka-zeele?

B: I'm going with Ka-zelle.

E: Gary K.

This Day in Skepticism (2:11)[edit]

  • September 22, 1823: Joseph Smith supposedly finds the Golden plates that eventually become the Book of Mormon. Also: Hobbit Day.

R: Hey, happy golden plate day, everybody.

E: Golden plate day, ooh.

R: Yeah, yeah. Today, September 22nd, 1823, is the day that Joseph Smith definitely absolutely for real walked into the—to a hill near his house in Western New York and dug up a stone box that was full of golden books, basically. And on the books were written what came to be known as the Book of Mormon.

E: Wow.

R: No one actually is sure that the books—I mean, obviously the books existed, because who would lie about something like that? Certainly not a convicted felon like Joseph Smith.

E: That's all in the past now.

R: He did have—he had several—he had eleven men say that they had actually seen the plates, although it's not too clear if they saw them in person or in magical visions.

E: It doesn't matter.

R: Correct.

E: Details, details.

R: I mean, both of these things count, yeah. The plates—the writing on the plates, which was the Book of Mormon—the writing was actually not in English. Unfortunately the angels did not write in English; it was written in Reformed Egyptian, which Joseph Smith did not speak or read. However, he had a seer stone, which is a rock that he was previously using to find gold and water, a divining rock of sorts.

E: Or dowsing rock.

R: Yeah. He took the seer stone and he put it in a hat and then he stuck his head in the hat; he stuck his face in the hat...

E: Oh. And let me guess, it said Gryffindor!

B: Oh boy.

R: (laughs) What he saw was the Book of Mormon in English. He would see it line by line by gazing into the hat and he would read out what he saw and someone else wrote it down and that's how the Book of Mormon came to be.

E: Wow.

R: Yeah. Happy golden plate day, everybody.

E: I wonder if he knew he was going to win a Tony Award... sometime later in life.

B: That was a great show; I saw it last month; it was fantastic.

R: Did you? I haven't had a chance to see it yet. Of course we're talking about The Book of Mormon, the Broadway musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

S: This is the same year, 1827 by the way, that Beethoven died.

R: Maybe they're related. Maybe the angel that showed him the plates was not Moroni, but was actually the ghost of Beethoven.

S: The ghost of Beethoven?

R: It's possible.

E: Wow. You know what happened when Beethoven died?

R: He decomposed?

E: Exactly.

R: Yeah.

J: Oh my god.

B: Oh my god.

R: Yeah, I know all the best Christmas cracker jokes.

E: Wow, Rebecca that was a stinker.

J: Rebecca, you're like the clearing house of all jokes that are bad.

R: Yeah. No I've heard them all. Twice. You know also this day in science history, etc.. Happy Hobbit Day. Happy Hobbit Day, everyone.

E: Hobbit?

S: Happy birthday to both Frodo and Bilbo.

R: Yes, unlike the angel Moroni, these are fictional characters you might know from J.R.R. Tolkein's books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and they apparently share a birthday. Although, there's a, I think there's a bit of a to-do about this in the Tolkeinite circle because the Shire calendar does not exactly match up with the Gregorian calendar and the actual birthday of the hobbits would be September 12th on our calendar, or possibly September 14th; it's unclear.

B: Yeah, you've got to be careful about that, though because the hobbit calendar also predicts the end of the world in 2015, so don't worry about it.

R: Right.

E: Yeah.

R: But it's unclear which world, whether or not the Elves will live.

S: Which age, it could be the, you know...

J: Yeah, but that is supposed to be on Earth, isn't it.

S: Well it's Middle Earth, you know.

News Items[edit]

Warp Drive (6:25)[edit] Warp Drive May Be More Feasible Than Thought, Scientists Say

S: The other iconic aspect of science fiction is warp drive. Bob, the folks at NASA think that we should actually take warp drive seriously.

B: Yeah. You know it's funny, it's really shocked me; it may actually not be long until we are no longer a prewarp civilisation. Are you guys excited about that?

R: That's super.

S: I don't even believe you.

J: Can't wait.

B: As Steve said, some NASA scientists are now saying that it could be much easier than we previously thought to create a real warp drive for a space ship that could speed along at potentially ten times the speed of light. And regarding this, Harold White of NASA's Johnson Space Centre said recently, "there is hope." He actually said, "there is hope" about this. He said this at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, which is kind of like a conference to discuss interstellar space flight. He also said, "the findings that are presented today change it from impractical to plausible and worth further investigation." Which shocked the crap out of me because for me, I always thought, from what I've read, and I've read about this a fair amount, was that it was just completely implausible.

S: Yeah but Bob, apparently they have this hot young new researcher at NASA called Zefram Cochrane.

B: (laughs)

S: Who's been working on it. Comes from this place called Memory Alpha.

B: Oh, he's got nothing, he's got nothing. There are so many different ways to tackle this one so I'm going to start with Alcubierre. He's a physicist who came up with the Alcubierre warp drive idea back in 1994 and he was the first to show that it was at least theoretically feasible and not totally in the realm of fantasy. His idea is interesting. It required a ship surrounded by a ring of exotic matter, which is a form of hypothetical—I stress hypothetical—matter, which has many weird attributes, one of them being negative mass, whatever that means. And so what it would do is it would compress space-time in front of the ship and expand it behind the ship, meanwhile the ship itself would be safe and snug inside this warp bubble thingy, which is composed of flat space-time so it was relatively safe in there. So this distorted space-time then could propel the ship, apparently, at up to 10 times the speed of light, kind of like riding a really, really fast wave. So the first thing most people should think is, "how is this even feasible?" I mean, nothing can go faster than light, right? And the answer is well, yes and no, it depends. Einstein showed us that nothing, matter, energy, information, nothing can go faster than light, but the premise of that statement though requires something traveling in space. Space or space-time itself, however, is a different story. It could move relative to other parts of space-time at velocities well above the speed of light; it's not hindered by the speed-of-light law. For example—there's a few examples that everyone's probably familiar with. The Big Bang and the inflationary period right after the Big Bang. Space-time was expanding for a period of time faster than the speed of light. There's an example right there of something traveling faster than light that's totally OK with the laws of physics. Another way is to think about galaxies that are billions of light-years away. They are receding from us faster than the speed of light because all of the space-time between us is expanding. Let's try this analogy, I thought that this one was a goofy but informative analogy. Imagine a rubber band that's like dipped in glue and there's an ant on this rubber band. Now the ant can only go a certain speed because the glue is really slowing him down, but if you stretch that rubber band, the ant will move relative to one end of the rubber band faster than he'd ever be able to go in local rubber band space.

S: Right.

E: Does the ant have to stretch with the rubber band?

B: No. No.

R: What a tortured analogy that was.

E: (inaudible) OK, the ant remains (inaudible). I see what you're saying.

B: (laughs) Whatever. All right, so Alcubierre's theory looked good but it had a major problem, of course: the energy required to pull this off would be the equivalent of converting the planet Jupiter into energy. Now, Jupiter's about—

R: Wait, I thought that the problem with this plan was that it relies on a magical material that doesn't exist. Isn't that a problem? That seems like a problem.

J: Yeah, that's pretty troubling to me as well.

R: Any theory that starts with "pretend there's a magical material that doesn't actually exist" is going to have a serious hurdle to overcome.

S: That's a non-trivial problem.

B: Well, it is. It is, and it is kind of funny how a lot of the research I did didn't just totally jump on that and I think that the reason is because, exotic matter, you know they didn't just pull that completely and utterly out of their butts and say, you know, "let's have a miracle right here to pull this off." You know there's some interpretations of some equations where there could be exotic matter, so it's not completely fabricated.

R: It does sound like that "Far Side" cartoon though.

B: (laughs) Yeah, yes. Yes.

R: Is it Far Side? Maybe not. Where the scientist has drawn out all of the formulas over the chalkboard and then he's like "and here, a miracle."

S: That's a New Yorker cartoon.

R: Is it? OK.


B: And then a miracle happens, wasn't a scientist saying "I think you gotta flesh out this area a little more."

R: Yeah.

S: Should be a little bit more explicit in this step, yeah.

B: So yeah, this is one of the non-trivial problems. You would need so much energy; I mean we're talking 320 Earths worth of mass, which is approximately 4x1028 megatons, which is gargantuan.

S: So even if you had a 100% efficient matter-antimatter drive, that's a huge pile of dilithium crystals you would need.

B: Yeah. So besides the exotic matter, Rebecca, that pretty much killed the idea right there.

R: Don't blame it on me.

B: (laughs) I'm just saying.

S: Joy kill, Rebecca.

E: Wet blanket.

B: But recently however, new calculations showed that it needn't take so much energy if you changed the shape of the ring around the ship into more of a torus or a doughnut shape. The energy—for some reason the energy required drops from a Jupiter-sized amount of energy to the size of the Voyager 1 probe that NASA launched in 1977. Now that's a dramatic reduction obviously, but we're still, you think about it, we're still talking about 17,000 megatons of energy, 17 gigatons of energy, still huge, it's like 3 global thermonuclear wars worth of energy all at once, I mean still that's gargantuan, but hey it's a hell of a lot better than Jupiter. And the cool thing is that they've got a way to deal with that potentially as well. It looks like if you oscillate the intensity of the warped space-time around the bubble over time, the energy requirements drop even more. Of course they're not sure exactly by how much, it could be significant or maybe not so significant, but that's another way that this could be something that's much more manageable. And actually, I wasn't aware of this, there's actually some really cool by-products or ramifications of this technology if it's real. So imagine you're in this warp bubble, guys, and there would be no g-forces in the bubble; you're kind of like freefall for the entire trip so what that means is that there'd be no g-forces from acceleration. So you could accelerate at, you know, so fast that it would turn you into chunky salsa in a regular spaceship but because of the way this technology is set up, you wouldn't experience g-forces, which is pretty awesome. The other cool thing which makes a lot of sense if you think about it; I never thought of this, there'd be tremendous tidal forces at the edge of the bubble. Right? Because you'd have these massive curvatures of space, by definition they're really dramatic curvatures of space, which is essentially one way to look at what tidal forces are. And I was thinking, "that would make an awesome weapon", right? Shoot this thing at a ship or even a planet and the tidal forces would just rip anything apart that it comes close to. So, just throwing that out there. Another downside though...

R: I'm glad that you've already created this; in your head, there's this peaceful technology and you've already made it into a weapon. Good job.

B: Hey.

S: Not just a weapon, a doomsday machine.

R: Yeah. (laughs)

E: How do we get one of these doomsday machines?

B: And you know it's funny, I was thinking about it. 10 times the speed of light, yeah that's pretty awesome, but that's not really that fast if you think about it. It's only about warp factor 2 using the Star Trek way of reckoning speed, which, you know, warp 2 is cool and all but the Enterprise never really travelled anywhere at a poky warp 2. It's always like warp 8, warp 9; we've got to get there fast. But yeah, we could go to the closest stars, but it's not like we're going to go terribly far, it'd still take a long time.

J: Bob wait a second, wait. Hold on a second!

B: What!?

J: Has geek culture really, have we dropped so low, are we actually at that point that literally like the moment that a scientist says, "you know what, we probably might be able to do this," you're already going, "well, you know 2 times the speed of light isn't really that great."

R: Boring!

J: Breaking the speed of light, Bob!

B: Jay, Jay. Well, Jay, it's not really breaking the speed of light.

J: Yes it is! It is! It is!

B: But it's not breaking any laws of physics, but I just need to keep it in perspective.

J: No, but, but, but from a perspective where hey, how long would it take you to get from here to there it is breaking the speed of light, and what I'm saying is that you just reduced it down to basically like an it's-not-good-enough routine. It is good enough, it's fantastic if we get there.

S: But Bob, we can get to other stars in months as opposed to tens of thousands of years.

B: I know. Of course, it's fantastic and I would be the first one on that damn ship, or maybe the second one after they test it out. Yeah, of course it is, but I'm just saying, putting it into perspective, it's not like we can circumnavigate the galaxy. It's not Star Trek. Warp 2—

J: Rebecca, you give him an inch, he wants the galaxy.

R: I know, he's the embodiment of that Louis C.K. bit[link needed] where it's like everything is wonderful and nobody's happy.

B: I love him! I just started watching him on Netflix; he totally rocks.

J: Well Bob, don't worry about that, they'll test that thing out on monkeys and people that wear glasses first.

B: Well guys, it's not going to happen, all right? I'm putting my dollar down.

E: We're not 5-10 years away from this is what you're saying.

B: There's tons of other things that scientists call non-trivial problems. Besides the exotic matter, even if the energy requirements weren't that bad, there's still some big problems here. For example, to generate the warp bubble, it seems like the exotic matter would have to move locally at faster than light speeds, and that's not going to happen. So that could potentially be bad, and also this would require tachyons to exist, which is bad because I don't think tachyons exist. You've heard of those, they're hypothetical particles that travel at greater than the speed of light. They never go slower than the speed of light; they always go faster than the speed of light.

E: Higgs.

B: And check this out: if you could figure out a way of producing tachyons, which don't exist, then that might mean that a singularity might appear in front of your ship. So OK, I got a black hole in front of my ship now, so there's all these weird problems that crop up. Oh, and listen to this one: If you throw in quantum mechanics, some cool scientist looked at this and added quantum mechanics to the whole mix, and he said, "wait a second, if we do this then Hawking radiation is going to fry anybody or anything inside of the bubble." And the list goes on and on; there's all these huge potential problems.

S: Now that's for the engineers to worry about.

B: Yeah. So my opinion, the scientists that are pushing this seem a little overly optimistic. They're actually starting lab experiments; they've actually started to do of course very small-scale lab experiments to see if they could find a hint of this possibility. So I think that, I don't know it still seems incredibly overoptimistic for lots of reasons, some of which I've mentioned. So I don't expect to see warp drive and greater-than-light speed in the near future, but I'm still holding out hope that before I die we'll be able to at least hit Ludicrous speed[1].

R: Ludacris the rapper?

B: No. Come on. Help me out here, Steve.

E: Spaceballs.

B: Yeah, Evan, yeah.

S: Spaceballs, yeah. Or we need to get the Infinite Improbability drive.

B: Well, yeah.

S: Bypass all of these problems.

E: Small steps.

S: But Bob, they're doing—they're planning on thinking about doing experiments on these warp bubbles in the lab. This is one of those things where it may not lead to the precise technology that we envision; you know a starship with warp drive, but something else interesting and potentially...

E: Some off-label use?

S: changing may come out of that.

B: No that's true; I didn't think of that.

R: Probably a weapon.

B: Yeah. If we get a cool weapon out of it then I'll be happy. Yeah, that's true.

S: You Americans.

E: Just point it that way.

S: We cannot allow a warp bubble gap.

E: God no.

S: We have to figure this out before somebody else does.

E: So what do you think, we've got about four or five movies in there; I think that's good.

S: It's good enough? We've hit our quota already, hit our quota early this episode.

R: Yeah, might as well pack it in.

Bad Science Reporting (19:39)[edit]

The NESS: Who's to Blame for Bad Science News Reporting

S: All right, let me talk about some bad science reporting; some bad science news reporting.

B: Again!?

S: Which we do talk about quite a bit on the show because it happens all the time. There was a recent study that came out looking at the source of bad science news reporting. Bad operationally, defined as spin, meaning a significant alteration in the interpretation of a study. In other words, if a study was either weakly positive or even neutral or whatever, that the news reporting reported it as being a lot more definitive or positive than it actually was. And they looked at three layers: they looked at the original article, specifically the conclusion and the abstract of the technical article relating to research; they looked at the press release, which is often generated by a press officer as part of whatever institution the researchers were from or the funding organisation, whatever, whoever thinks they can promote their group or institution by promoting the research. And then at the mainstream news media reporting of those stories. And they found a couple of things that were fairly interesting: One is no surprise and that is a lot of news stories are distorted; had "spin" but what they did find was a significant correlation between over-selling the findings of the study in the original abstract and the presence of spin in the press release and the subsequent news reporting. So the original spin propagated through the next two layers, being magnified each step of the way. So the researchers of this article put a lot of the blame for hype in science news reporting on the researchers themselves, not necessarily the journalists. This doesn't let them off the hook; I think it does, in my opinion, emphasise that scientists need to be aware of what they're writing, what they're saying to the media, what they're putting in their abstract, and this is having an influence on the way science is being represented and reported to the public.

E: Steve, maybe they think they do; maybe they think they're getting the right points across or putting it in proper context, but they just really don't know how to do it.

S: So I think there's a couple of sources of the spin in the abstracts of the articles. One is that the scientists are actually over-interpreting their results. They—this is just researcher bias; my results are game-changing; they're really important; the effect that I was looking for is really real and robust, rather than eh, the results are mediocre, ambiguous, not that significant, not that robust. Researcher bias, wanting the results to be more impressive. I think the second is researchers who know that they're over-selling the results but are doing so in order to garner attention to their research. This is the space dinosaur effect, right? You know we talked about the guy who was writing about the chirality of amino acids in asteroids and somehow it concluded with "there are hyper-intelligent space dinosaurs[2] out there".

R: Yeah, I'd be interested in seeing a related study that looks at scientists who exaggerate in their abstract or misrepresent their conclusions and who is getting the press; who the mainstream media is actually reporting on? Because I mean, I would guess that the people who are exaggerating are the ones that are getting the mainstream press, which provides sort of a feedback loop of sorts, or it's a reward system for misrepresenting their own data.

S: Yeah.

B: That's actually depressing, because if that's really the case, then I don't see this changing any time soon. I mean, that's just human nature; you know, how do you stop that.

S: There's a culture in science and reputation is huge in science. You know, if there was negative backlash against researchers for over-hyping their own results, which there is within the culture of science, if it were more significant, I think that can have a feedback effect and reduce it. And also, you know what? This spin got past peer reviewers. So right there, peer review is imperfect, but peer reviewers should be paying more attention to over-hyping the results, and you often see that the peer-review process does have an effect, and we write this, talk about this all the time, like on Science Based Medicine. I know David Gorski has made this observation a lot[3]; I've made this observation a lot. You see what the researchers are telling the press, and the popular articles they're writing about their research, and then you read the published research and it's much more sedate because I bet you it was a lot more hyped in the original version, then some peer reviewer said "your conclusions are not justified by your data; scale it back." So that filter is there but the filter needs to be better and editors need to be paying more attention to that; reviewers need to be paying more attention to it. But the other thing is the journalists were propagating forward the spin almost without filter. This is why I don't let the journalists off the hook. They weren't doing their job, so even if they weren't the source of the spin, they weren't doing their job of being journalists; they were just propagating forward the press releases; they weren't talking to other scientists to say, "hey are these guys full of shit or is this real; I mean, what do you think about this other guy's research, are they over selling themselves?"

E: A second opinion, yeah.

S: How about get an objective source, and of course, good journalists do this but we're seeing the rank-and-file-probably-not-trained-as-a-science journalist because of the whole collapse of the news reporting infrastructure, which we've talked about. They're not doing their jobs, sometimes they're just copying forward the press release. Probably the only people in this equation who are doing their job, it doesn't let them off the hook either, but the people who are writing the press releases, it is their job to get attention to the research; that is what they're supposed to be doing. And if they're just propagating the spin that the researchers did, they're not journalists, they're marketers. So even though it is distasteful that they're also carrying forward the spin, they're actually the only ones who are doing their jobs because they're marketers. The scientists are scientists; the journalists are journalists. They're the ones who I give the most blame to. They're the ones that are not supposed to be selling hype, they're supposed to be—

R: Well unfortunately the new job description of journalists isn't doing journalism; it's selling newspapers.

S: Yeah. Yeah, that's the problem.

R: That's why this happens, yeah.

B: How about this, Steve: as part of the education when you get towards—you get closer to your PhD or your masters or whatever, they should—I mean, do they even have like a class on how to deal with the media? That could be invaluable I would think.

S: No; it's the kind of thing that you picked up through mentorship, you know?

R: I think some colleges are doing that now; I think we talked about this in the past.

S: I think—I wouldn't be surprised, yeah. I wouldn't be surprised if they're starting to do that now because there is more attention being paid to this. We had someone on our show[4], if you recall, from an organisation promoting this and involved in the book "A Guide for Scientists to Talk to the Media [sic]". So yeah, there are efforts in this direction, but my experience is that it still has a very low penetrance; it's still very much a new thing and most working scientists out there probably have not had formal education in how to deal with the media. And you see it; I mean, we talk about these news stories all the time where some naive researcher for whatever reason their obscure research thrusts them into the media and they're completely unprepared for it and nonsense ensues. No matter how obscure you think your research is, that may happen to you. You may write something in your abstract that some press officer picks up on and suddenly it's got national news. I think this happened collectively to climatologists as a profession. Suddenly, global warming was the biggest controversy on the planet, and here you have these climatologists who never got the time of day from the media getting all this attention and they weren't quite sure how to deal with it collectively. So, I do think that as a profession, —and this is under the broader concept of scientists need to learn how to popularise and the necessity, the benefits of popularising their science. Still very variable; a lot of my colleagues think it's distasteful, or they think that they do it because once a year they take an interview from a reporter or something, but I don't think they understand how vitally important communicating science to the public is.

R: You know, I almost think though that in relation to this study, the takeaway is really more about the pressures we put on scientists to produce work that's going to capture headlines. And you know, as opposed to doing just good solid work, you know, trying to find results that aren't there; trying to get into newspapers, that shouldn't be scientists' job.

S: Yeah, no I agree, scientists have to get grants; journals want their impact factor; they want to get in the news too so there's motivations up and down the chain to showcase research and to maybe make it look a little bit more exciting than it is. At the end of the day, I think that experts and scientists recognise what's real and what's hype and we have to keep that check in place, you know.

Dark Energy Camera (30:03)[edit]

BBC: Dark Energy Camera Snaps First Images Ahead of Survey

S: OK well, let's move on to the next item. Jay, you're going to tell us about the dark energy camera.

J: Yeah, the camera is the result of eight years of a collaborative effort between scientists, engineers and technicians over three continents and the basic question that the camera is trying to answer is, "why is the expansion of the universe speeding up?" So with that as the original premise, it's a pretty big question to ask and it's one that's been vexing scientists for a very long time and it's really requiring us to find out more detailed information about what is the universe; what's in the universe. The camera is a 570 megapixel camera and they took the first picture on September 12th and a man named James Siegrist, who is the associate director of science for high energy physics with the US Department of Energy said, "the results of this survey will bring us closer to understanding the mystery of the dark energy and what it means for the universe."

S: So this is, we should say, the highest resolution camera ever built.

J: Absolutely, by a long shot. The dark energy camera was constructed at the US Department of Energy and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, and the camera was mounted onto a Victor M Blanco telescope, which you should look up if you want details on that. This entire thing is around the size of a phone booth, if anyone remembers what a phone booth is. And it's in Chile right now. So it of course is the most powerful survey instrument of its kind and it's able to see light from over 100,000 galaxies and up to 8 billion light years away in each snapshot, which is a huge, huge increase from any of its predecessors. What's even more interesting is that the astronomical community can gain access to this device and use it through the National Optical Astronomy Observatory's Open Access Telescope Allocation Program. Which basically means that they could put in a request to use it and time is being allocated to other institutions and groups that want to do different things. So it's not only going to be used to explore dark matter but it will also be used to do things like study asteroids in our solar system and also incredibly profound things like helping us understand the origins and the fate of our own universe. So first off, very impressive project, took eight years, they pulled it together; the thing seems to be working great; it's going to be in full effect in December of this year and I'm looking forward to seeing these pictures.

B: Yeah, that's going to be fantastic.

S: If I used it to take bird pictures, then I wouldn't have to get close at all; I could take just a picture of my back yard and there would be dozens of birds I could have close-up photos of.

E: And there'd be some dark energy there too.

R: Wow, that's a stupid use of an awesome technology.


R: Way to find the most boring use for that. Good job.

E: Birds! Come on!

J: Steve is like, "I could zoom in on a bird in California."

S: No imagine, you have a picture; it'd be like Blade Runner where you have a picture and you could zoom in and keep zooming in, in, in, in, in.

R: Don't call forth the name Blade Runner in a vain attempt to make your stupid idea sound cooler.

J: I completely agree, Steve. First of all, that technology in Blade Runner

S: Thank you, Jay.

J: I'm not done. That technology in Blade Runner, which Rebecca I'm sure remembers because she got angry at you the same instant I did, it can look around corners, OK? This think can't do that. So please. Don't go there.

S: Anyway.


S: What the camera's actually going to do, if I read this correctly, is just take a really detailed survey of lots of galaxies and galaxy clusters.

E: Millions.

S: And it'll be looking, surveying them and looking at how they move over time, and then that's going to be the primary information that's going to be collected.

J: Yeah, that sounds accurate. It's also important to note that they're going to be using it for a lot of other things that aren't as profound as that. I mean, it's going to be great to look up close at other big objects.

Crowdsourcing Science (34:08)[edit]

Eventbrite: Crowdsourcing Discovery Kickoff Party

S: All right, well, Rebecca, tell us about crowdsourcing science.

R: Uh, yeah. There is apparently a new project called Crowdsourcing Discovery and it's been launched by two researchers, one Ethan Pearlstein, or maybe Pearlstein, I don't know, at Princeton University. He studies how drugs work. And David Salzer, who has a lab at Columbia Med School, and he studies how drugs affect the brain. And now the labs are joining together in order to solve the mystery of how amphetamines actually work because even though people take those drugs all the time, apparently the actual science of how they do what they do is lacking. So that's what these labs want to study and they are launching this thing, Crowdsourcing Discovery. My issue with this is I tried to get as much information about this as I could but it was rather difficult, other than event that is happening, which I will plug them, Thursday October 4th in New York City, at Dewey's Flatiron; New York Skeptics know where that is because they meet there quite often actually, at 7 pm. So they have an event listing for this and they describe the research that they've done and the research that they hope to do. And they say since this is uncharted territory, meaning how these drugs affect the brain, we don't know for sure where this will end up, which means you will get to experience the thrill of discovery as it occurs. So it's not really clear whether or not they're just looking for money or whether they're looking for true citizen-science-type stuff, but I took particular issue with something in their event details. They say, and I quote, "the web, itself the fruit of curiosity-driven basic research has transformed every industry and creative endeavour it has touched, promoting collaboration, openness and efficiency, but scientists are stuck in a closed, pre-internet mindset. We aim to change that." All right. That is like so completely wrong that it couldn't possibly be wronger. There are tons of researchers out there that are using citizen science and in fact if you google "citizen science" you will find them, things like Foldit, things like Galaxy Zoo. These researchers are utilizing people at home not for funding but for actual hands-on research help and it's working out quite well. So scientists aren't stuck in pre-internet mindsets, although they get the feeling that these scientists are because there's—I can't find any website for Crowdsourcing Discovery; I can't find any other information about it, like there's no information on what they're looking for exactly. Are they looking for money? Are they looking for hands-on research akin to Foldit or Galazy Zoo? I do not know. I support citizen science stuff and I support crowdsourcing and I think you can do really fantastic things. I know Discover Magazine blogs has one; you can sign up to that just alerts you for citizen scientist opportunities and it can be things as simple as "if you live in New England, go outside and look in your yard and tell us what bugs you find, upload pictures and descriptions" and that helps researchers figure out what bugs are where; what invasive species are moving in, things like that. So there are a lot of really great citizen science stuff and it sounds like this could be really exciting. Unfortunately, there's not a ton of information. So maybe someone wants to go to the kickoff party and report back. I don't live in New York but I do have several friends who do, so maybe I'll send them over.

S: Yeah I assumed that this was for funding.

J: That's what it seemed like to me too.

R: Actually so it says, "using the internet, we will enable the public to fund and participate in a basic research project at an unprecedented level." So yes, they are looking for funding and apparently some sort of hands-on work, but they don't say what and also they don't say why—I mean, if this research is so important, which it sounds like it is, why can't they pursue funding from other sources. It'd be nice to know—I mean, I don't question the fact that it's very difficult for researchers to find funding, however, it would be nice to know what funding they did pursue; how much they need, things like that. But maybe that's—maybe this kickoff is meant to brainstorm on things like that and start setting up a website for it.

S: It seems to be like right at the very beginning of it, yeah. My reaction to it was—I mean, I agree with everything you're saying, but I do think that funding for scientific research is really decreasing, especially recently. Researchers are finding it harder and harder to get grants; a smaller percentage of grants are being funded. I do think that it would be really interesting to pursue this kind of idea; you know, we just completed a kickstarter campaign for our SGU video project and there are people who are finding lots of funding for projects essentially by crowdsourcing on the internet that maybe would otherwise not have been funded; why not use that to fund scientific projects? The potential upside is that it would involve people in research; it would be a good connection between the public and scientific researchers; it will give the public a bit of a direct say; you could vote with your dollars directly rather than through some government agency in terms of what to fund and this may funnel a lot more funding into scientific research. The downside, as I see it, is that the public gets to decide what gets funded, and that's a problem because then it becomes a popularity contest rather than more of an expert analysis of getting the most bang for the buck; which research projects are really likely to bear fruit and are worth investing. So I could see that a lot of nonsense and pseudo-science would get funded through that kind of process but it's kind of like everything with the internet, you get less of the traditional expert filters and you get more democracy, which means there's going to be a lot more crap, but it's also an opportunity for a lot of merit based success, you know. So I think that in terms of like social media, a lot of people who may not have got through the traditional barriers of editors and publishers, etc. were able to rise to the top just based on the quality of their work. But of course, they're floating on top of a sea of a lot of mediocrity and crap and the same thing would be true of, I think, any open funding of projects like scientific research. But it would be a really interesting experiment to do. What would be the result if you had a kickstarter for scientific research? I think that's an experiment that somebody's going to do eventually.

R: But then how do you control for... what if William Morris donates all the money you need for your kickstarter to do your study on the effects of tobacco?

E: Then that's a problem.

S: The trick is that you can't use this to bypass the law. So if you're going to be doing research on humans, even though you're funding it through a kickstarter-type internet campaign, you still have to get an IRB approval and follow the law in terms of doing human research. You still have to be transparent in terms of your funding resources, your funding sources, and declare any conflicts of interest. So all of that still needs to come into play, even—the only difference is that you're not going to the NIH with a grant proposal; you're just telling the public, "here's why my research is interesting. This is why you should fund me", and then see what happens. I don't know; I honestly don't know if it's going to be a net positive or negative, to be honest with you, I think it's interesting and I think it's an experiment that should be done and probably will be at some point.

R: Well, right now they've only sold three tickets to their lunch party.

E: You've got to start somewhere.

J: So they've just sold another one since we were recording this?

R: No, one of them bought two tickets.

S: Well the tickets are free.

E: Three free tickets.

R: Maybe we can send some listeners their way to help out and report back.

Spheres on Mars (42:54)[edit]

Sydney Morning Herald: Mars Rover Discovers Mysterious 'Blueberries'

S: Evan, you're going to tell us about blueberries on Mars.

E: Yeah well, you know, there are apparently blueberries on Mars, but not really. Hey, we've been talking a lot about Curiosity, the Mars rover that recently landed on Mars, but we can't forget its older, older, older brother Opportunity, which landed in 2004 and it's still going strong.

S: It's still chugging along.

E: I mean, eight and a half years; I mean, talk about that aspect alone; it was supposed to be a 90-day mission, three months. Send this thing to Mars, it works for three months, mission accomplished, right? This thing has been going on for eight and a half years.

B: You'd think they'd underestimate. I think they underestimate.

R: I'm sure they purposely underestimated a bit, but that's a lot.

B: Yeah, eight years is crazy.

E: I thought about that. Call it the Scotty factor, right, where Scotty says, "this'll take eight weeks to fix, and he fixes it in two days." So, total underestimation of the potential—it's fascinating; great story for NASA, great story for our history of exploring Mars. But perhaps eight and a half years later, of course, since it landed, Opportunity is still finding things, and they're saying that it's taken one of the most extraordinary pictures of the whole mission in that time, just recently. So we know that there are these sphericules, these little tiny spheres on Mars, which they've dubbed "blueberries" and they were discovered near the Opportunity landing site. Now these ones that were originally found way back when, they were iron-rich spheres and probably made of haematite. And of course, that suggests that Mars was once water-rich, a water-rich environment to have created these because we've seen these on Earth as well in dry lake beds out in Nevada and other places, so there's been a comparison there. But only recently has Opportunity discovered a new different kind of sphere that are not iron-rich composites; they're made of well, something else. That's the mystery; that's the curiosity, to borrow the title of the other rover. And they're saying that they're different in concentration; these spheres are different in structure; they're different in composition and they're different in distribution, and that's according to the principal investigator.

B: But otherwise the same.

E: Yeah but otherwise they're entirely the same. And that was said by Opportunity's principal investigator, Steve Squires of Cornell University out in Ithaca. Carl Sagan's old stomping grounds. So yeah, a legitimate mystery on our hands as to what are these things. They described them as having sort of a crunchy texture on the outside, yet sort of...

S: With a creamy filling?

E: What else could they possibly be? Start thinking about it.

B: Alien artifacts.

E: Well, or seeds; little seeds or some sort. You know, things are bound to spring out.

S: Marbles.

E: Someone lost their marbles or ball bearing on Mars, yeah.

S: It's a mystery.

E&B: It's a mystery.

S: All right. Well, if NASA figures out what these things are, we'll keep you updated.

E: Yep, we'll have a new report.

CSICon 2012 (46:03)[edit]

CSICon 2012

S: One last news item, just a quick announcement, actually. A reminder that the entire SGU crew will be at CSICon in Nashville, Tennessee, October 25th to 28th. We're actually—we're going to be doing a live show from CSICon on Thursday night, the 25th, and then on Saturday night we will be doing an SGU dinner. So if you will be in the area, will be attending CSICon, also remember to sign up, it's a separate signup for the SGU dinner. They have a lot of great speakers there, a very impressive lineup. In addition to us they have James Alcock, PZ Meyers, Joe Nickell, Kimble Atwood, Massimo Polidoro, George Hrab, David Gorski, the entire CSI crew of course will be there, John Ronson, Richard Wiseman, Eugenie Scott, Carol Tavris.

B: Wow, that's a hell of a crew.

E: That's an impressive line-up.

B: It's going to be a fun convention.

R: I cannot wait, and there's the big Halloween party; they're offering—you have to dress up; I mean you don't have to, but you have to dress up, and they are offering a prize to anyone who can psychically predict what costume CFI CEO Ron Lindsay will be wearing. Last year he wore a—I thought it was like a Nazi commander thing but he insists[5] that it was—he looked really offended that I thought that and then he told me no, he's actually dressed as a South American dictator.

S: OK. No, not a Nazi, a South American Dictator. An ex-Nazi!

R: He's promised that this costume will be more chipper though, so use that when you're considering your guesses.

E: Buenos noches, mein führer.


R: But yeah, that was an absolute blast last year, I can't wait. And also don't forget that if you live between Nashville and Buffalo, New York, Richard Wiseman, John Ronson and I will be on a road trip going down stopping off at various places. You can find out more at

S: I don't know about Rebecca but the other four of us are still trying to decide on our costumes and we're taking requests, so if you have an idea for what costume you want us to wear then just email us and we'll take it into consideration.


B: No promises.

R: The theme is... I think the theme is going to be like zombie cowboys.

B: What!? Oh!

R: That doesn't mean that you have to dress up like that, but I think I might—

B: I could totally work that.

E: I'll be a zombie Indian. People chase me around...

B: Shit.

R: I just feel like because I'm hosting it I should probably adhere to the theme.

Who's That Noisy (48:58)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Being Human

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

E: Thank you for the reminder, Steve. I appreciate that every week.

S: I know you forget.

E: I am very forgetful when it comes to this and I don't understand why. I must have a mental block made of concrete but in any case you are right. I will play for you the Who's That Noisy from a couple of episodes ago. See if you remember this:

It's a lot to take in, you know. Werewolves, ghosts, vampires, and even bleeding homeopathy before this.

R: I know who that is.

E: Yeah Rebecca, help us out with this one; give us some details.

R: That's what's her chunk from Being Human.

E: You are correct. Being Human is the television series that that was taken from; the actress's name is Sinead Keenen. And she played the role of werewolf Nina Pickering on this supernatural drama, which airs on BBC 3.

R: Well there was also I think SciFi or someone made an American version which actually wasn't too bad. I don't know if it's still on.

S: Did anybody get that correct, Evan?

E: Oh yeah, we had several correct guesses but the person who guessed correctly first was Rhiannon Davies from the United Kingdom. Well done, Rhiannon; congratulations.

R: I did just check and it is still on by the way, the US version.

E: SciFi you say? SyFy Network?

R: Yeah, SyFy.

E: SyFy. They had a show on there called SG-U once, I think; didn't they?

R: Yeah.

E: That's gone.

S: After us.

R: Let's never speak of it again.

E: I want to send a thank you to Tree Lobsters for providing us that clip, so thank you very much.

R: Tree Lobsters who blogs for Mad Art Lab.

E: Hey, hey.

S: And therefore what have you got for this week?

E: This week I've got something. I'll let you listen for yourself; be your own judge of exactly what is this noise:

(low rumbling sound)

E: All right.

S: That was it?

E: That's it.

R: It was from Jaws.

E: That's it. Well, I can't say you're right but I can say you're wrong.

S: OK.

R: OK.

E: Give us your best guess, folks. Our email is Our forums is Feel free to give us your guess and as I say every week, and I mean this with all my heart and my soul, good luck.

J: Good luck everybody!

S: All right. Thanks, Evan.

J: Sorry Evan, I get so excited.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Correction - Blue Moon (51:45)[edit]

S: We have a couple of corrections this week, one from each of the two live shows that we did at Dragon*Con. The first one is—deals with...

E: Suck it up. Oh.

S: ...the blue moon. Remember we had a quick discussion on the blue moon (see episode 373) and both of these corrections also just come from the folks on the SGU forums; I'll sort of collectively give them the credit for bringing this up. So I mentioned the fact that we were talking about the lunar hypothesis about the lunar effect of people going crazy or more animal bites or whatever on the full moon and the evidence doesn't support any such effect, but it was a blue moon at the end of August this year in that it was the second full moon in a given calendar month. However, several people pointed out that the original definition of a blue moon was something a little bit different. It was, in fact, the third full mean in a season that has four full moons. Did you guys know that?

B: No.

J: Yes, I knew that.

S: This came up I think the last time we brought up the blue moon; I think I just forgot that we were corrected on this previously. The reason that it has such an obscure meaning is because this was used for ecclesiastical calendar making; you know, knowing when for example, the date of Easter should be in a given year. So it's an obscure meaning for an obscure use. The newer definition of the second full moon in a calendar month was inadvertently introduced by Sky and Telescope. They refer to this themselves as a "mistake" but then it became the more generally accepted definition of a blue moon. You know, this creates of course the traditionalist versus the use argument; what's the real definition of a blue moon, is it the original definition or the one that most people think it is; what criterion do you use?

R: And the answer is yes.

S: And the answer is: whatever you want. This is not a scientific definition, right? It's not as if it means something about the universe. This is purely a cultural construct invented initially for the ecclesiastical calendar and now has a colloquial or more folk or common meaning. Both are equally valid in my opinion. The second full moon in a calendar month is a little bit easier. They both retain the original meaning. Actually, the term "blue moon" predates both of those interpretations; both of those definitions. The term was borrowed for that original ecclesiastical use but there are older references referring to a rare event; you know, once in a blue moon. And both of those events, the third full moon in a season with four or the second in a month both occur roughly every two to three years or so, a rarish event so lending, you know, making the saying "once in a blue moon" appropriate in either case. So there is precedent for this saying even before that ecclesiastical use, so. No right or wrong answer to this one in my opinion, but yes, it is more complicated as is often the case.

Correction - Frances Kelsey (55:05)[edit]

S: The second one involves Frances Kelsey. If you remember, Frances Kelsey I mentioned was the person working at the FDA who was solely responsible for refusing approval for thalidomide and thereby preventing the horrible birth defects from occurring to Americans while the drug was being used for pregnancy—for morning sickness in pregnancy over in Europe and in other countries. Do you guys know what mistake I made when talking about Frances Kelsey?

R: Was it that you called her a man?

S: Yep, that's it. Frances Kelsey is in fact a woman, and I can say "is" because she is still alive.

R: Awesome.

E: Get on the show!

S: She is 98 years old.

E: Oh, she can use Skype.

S: She was born July 24th, 1914; she's still around.

E: Dang.

R: Very good.

B: Wow.

E: Frances.

J: Steve, if it's possible, we really should interview her.

S: If it's possible, that would be awesome. So interestingly, reading up on her history, after getting her degree in pharmacology, she applied for graduate work at the University of Chicago and the director, E.M.K. Geiling, assumed that Frances was a man and she accepted the position without ever clarifying her gender.

E: Good for her! Screw them.

S: So I wasn't the first one to mistake Frances, the androgynous name, for a guy.

J: But that's actually pretty cool that she didn't let the guy know that it was a woman, and what, did she just show up for work one day and they were like "uh".

S: I guess so. I guess so. And it doesn't matter, and it shouldn't matter.

J: No, I know it doesn't matter, Steve; on paper it doesn't matter.

S: But this was 1936.

J: That's what I'm talking about. Today it's even less relevant but back in the day they must have been "What? What are you, the guy's wife? Like what's going on?" And she's like, "I don't think so."

R: Oh you've got to be careful though, the last time I mentioned that an androgynous name might be female we got hate mail calling me a Feminazi. So careful there.

S: And you were also wrong, Rebecca about the word "pendantic", so don't you forget it.


R: Oh I take it back; that's my mistake; no that wasn't hate mail that was just a...

J: Yeah Rebecca, didn't you see my email, where I'm like, "no I think you got it right, Rebecca." No response.

R: No, he did respond to me because I... (giggles) OK. Someone wrote in and suggested that I—and wanted to inform me that the correct pronounciation was pedantic, that there was only one n in pedantic, and I responded and said, "Thanks. Maybe you should listen to that episode a little more carefully." And he responded and said, "Uh, I already did."


R: And I responded to that saying, "You know, I can't tell if you get the joke or not, but thanks." Because he might get the joke; maybe he's just being even dryer than I could be.

S: You never know, right?

E: It's possible.

S: We have so many listeners that it's frequent that people misunderstand the sequence of our banter and like reply to us about something that nobody ever said or just didn't get what we were talking about. But when you correct them and then they double down; it's like, "no this is what you said." I was there.

E: And then they sign, "love the show anyways."

R: But usually that tactic works on me because I'm always like "well, I guess I just misremembered; I probably said something stupid and I don't remember." I totally give them the benefit of the doubt.

S: You see I record the show and then I edit the show, so I'm far more intimate with every word that goes on the show, so I generally do remember those details.

J: How about like three minutes ago when Rebecca said "pronounciation".

S: Yeah.

R: Wait!

E: Jay, what movie, what word did you just botch?

R: I don't think I said that!

J: No you did, I've been laughing with my headset turned off, like loudly.

R: What? I said "pronounciation"?

J: Yes.

S: You did, I picked up on it as well.

R: Really? Did I?

J: Yep.

R: See? See what I mean? That's why I just give people the benefit of the doubt.

S: We can convince you of anything, in other words.

R: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know.

S: All right. Well, thanks for those corrections, our vigilant forum posters. Well guys, let's go on to Science or Fiction.

Science or Fiction (59:37)[edit]

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 skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Straight up Science or Fiction this week. Is everybody ready?

R: Mmhmm.

J: Absolutely.

E: Ready to go.

S: OK, no theme. Here we go. Item #1: A new study finds that more than 30% of patients who meet strict criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome are infected with the XMRV virus. Item #2: Russian scientists announce an earlier discovery of a massive deposit of diamonds, estimated at trillions of carats or 10 times existing world reserves, in a large Siberian meteor crater. Item #3: A large study of SAT scores finds that they are good predictors of later college performance across socio-economic status. This week you guys don't get the benefit of all riding on my coat tails, so you're on your own.

J: Oh my god.

R: Oh, give me a break.

E: Wow.

B: How did we survive without you?

B: Shit. I shouldn't say anything.

R: Insufferable.

S: I was going to make the person who complained the most go first, but you were all pretty equal. Jay was the loudest, so Jay, you go first.

J: That was loud? If I'm going to get penalised for complaining, let me complain again.


J: So that first one about the people with chronic fatigue syndrome were infected with an actual virus, the XMRV virus. But the thing that's interesting is there's only about 30% of the patients who meet the strict criteria and that's interesting because I would imagine that chronic fatigue is one of those nebulous things like, "oh I'm dizzy," like a million things can make people have chronic fatigue. A lot of things, at the very least, you know, why wouldn't a virus be one of them and I think this is a pretty interesting idea and it makes sense. OK, I like that one. The second one is about the diamonds; about this huge vat of diamonds in Siberia—in a Siberian meteor crater. That's awesome; ten times the existing world reserves. Yeah, that's certainly possible, like it doesn't seem crazy. Sure, there could have been a huge deposit of diamonds somewhere, somebody found them and there you go. Who owns it, Steve, Russian scientists? This guy doesn't own it. That sounds like something the Russian mob will get their hands on. Anyway, OK, I've got no reason to doubt that one. The last one about the SAT scores being a predictor of later performance... yeah, I could see that but I could also see how that could be wrong as well. And out of the three of them this one seems the least likely in my opinion. So I'm going to say that that one is true and then I'm going to have to go back to the other two and I will say that... son of a... I'm going with the SAT one as the fake.

S: SAT the fake?

J: Yeah.

R: Oh my god.

S: All right. Bob, you go next.

B: These are real good, Steve; these are excellent. I could have a problem with any of them. All right, let's see. 30% of chronic fatigue syndrome patients are infected with this virus. 30%, that's the perfect percentage, you know it's not crazy, it's not too much, it's not like 45 or 50%, but it's not too tiny. Oh, it's frustrating. Yeah, I'm going to... God, viruses can cause so many different things... Yeah, I'm going to have to tentatively go with that one. The SAT one yeah that makes sense, but like Jay said, you could also see how it doesn't but also I'm going to say that one's OK as well, because the second one, the diamonds is totally rubbing me the wrong way. Come on, ten times the world reserves is gargantuan. I mean, I hate to resort to this but that would be plastered everywhere and I think De Beers would rather start the zombie apocalypse than let this news get out.

J: Bob, what about the Bears?

B: The Bears. And the icing on the cake: they find it in a meteor crater? I guess it's possible that there's a lot of diamonds that are very low quality and it doesn't matter but that's not enough to make me not choose that one as the fiction.

S: Diamonds are the fiction. OK. Evan.

E: Chronic fatigue syndrome, huh? Steve, you blogged about this before. I don't remember you blogging anything recently about it, and something having to do with a virus but I can't say for sure; I just can't remember exactly which viruses you were talking about, Steve, when you were blogging about it. I seem to recall it was something different, which leads me to believe that there may be multiple viruses that are perhaps associated with CFS. If there are multiple viruses that can relate to this then that would kind of cut away at a larger percentage of patients. That's my vector on that one. The massive deposit of diamonds. Wow, trillions of carats. I guess, you know, you've got a meteor coming down, impact and the heat and the carbon and the compression. I think that part of it is very plausible. So that's a maybe. And then the SAT scores being good predictors of later college performance. Hmm. I was kind of leaning with Jay maybe thinking this one is going to wind up being the fiction.

J: Come on, commit.

E: I'll go with my first instinct, Steve, which is the chronic fatigue syndrome. I think multiple viruses perhaps are in play here and therefore I think that 30% is an inaccurate number so that's my play there. I'll say that one is fiction.

S: So, we're even spread, Rebecca.

R: All right.

E: Bust us up.

R: As for multiple viruses possibly being the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome, I think Evan is correct in that multiple viruses have been identified as possibilities. However, I think that none of those virii have stood up to scientific scrutiny. About diamonds, I need to just say, you guys seem to be under the impression that diamond prices are determined by the number of diamonds in existence, which is not true.

E: It's a factor. Not the factor.

R: Not really.

B: It's all De Beers; they can guarantee—they'll give you a guarantee of what the future worth is going to be. It's totally propped up.

R: Yeah, the number of diamonds on the market is just strictly controlled by companies; yeah, De Beers. But that's what makes this an even more amazing news item is because it's not like there were just a couple of diamonds in the world and now they've found ten times as many in a crater. It's that there were already a massive number of diamonds in the world, and now they've found ten times as many so it's an awesome discovery if it's true and I think it is. And the idea that SAT scores are good predictors of later college performance, that matches with my experience. I am a good test taker and that's pretty much all college was. So I think SATs are given at a late enough date just before—I mean you're talking like a year to two years before someone enters college. If they can study for an SAT, if they can pass, you know, get a good score on an SAT then yeah, I think that would be a very good predictor of how well they do in college. So yeah, I think it's the chronic fatigue syndrome; I think that actually the opposite is true in that I think that what scientists have found is that viruses do not—the viruses they've been looking at do not cause chronic fatigue syndrome.

S: All right. A good spread across all three; I like that. Let's take these in reverse order. A large study of SAT scores finds that they are good predictors of later performance across socio-economic status. Jay, you think this is the fiction.

J: Oh boy.

S: Everyone else thinks that this one is science, and this one is... science. Sorry, Jay. So the controversy was that—I mean, SAT scores are absolutely testing for something, and it makes sense that they would correlate with—it's an academic test; why wouldn't it correlate with academic performance? But it's been criticised because it plays a large role in access to competitive colleges, there are a lot of people who are very critical of it; said that it discriminated against people from lower socio-economic classes just because of the nature of the test itself. But recent research finds that, in fact, it has the same predictive ability of later college performance regardless of socio-economic status.

R: But wait, that doesn't necessarily mean that it doesn't work against people with lower socio-economic status. It could just mean that both the SAT and college are more difficult for people with lower socio-economic status.

S: Hold on there. The research also found—not done yet—they also found that the socio-economic status of students who are enrolled in college was very similar to the socio-economic status of students who were applying to college. So there wasn't a filter between applying and getting in, it's just that people with a lower socio-economic status were not applying to college in the same numbers. So you can't blame any of the filters, like the SAT scores or anything for keeping them out of college; they're just not applying. So the research strongly suggests that not only is there no correlation between socio-economic status and performance on SATs or the predictive power of SATs and college performance, but it also does not seem to be a barrier to students getting into college. There's something else going on; they don't have it or see it as an opportunity.

R: Or they're not able to because they can't afford college.

S: Yeah, they don't have the opportunity, yeah. That's what I meant. So, but it's not the SATs, according to this research they're not being kept out by an unfair SAT system; it seems to be working the same way across socio-economic status. Let's continue to work our way backwards. Russian scientists announce an earlier discovery of a massive deposit of diamonds estimated at trillions of carats or ten times existing world reserves in a large Siberian meteor crater. Bob, you think this is fiction, everyone else thinks this one is science, and this one is... science!

B: Oh.

J: Oh.

S: Very cool

E: Wow, Science.

B: Holy crap.

S: This one has been out there; some of you might have read this.

B: Not me.

S: Apparently. This was actually discovered in the late 1970s by Soviet scientists and they deliberately sat on this for the last 40 years because they were making a killing in selling synthetic diamonds.

B: Oh my god, that's awesome.

E: See? Market forces at work.

S: Absolutely. There's a couple of interesting tidbits here. Evan, you hit on the fact that these are likely to be impact diamonds, actually produced by the meteor strike, which was about 35 million years old. Now the articles that I read about it—one of the articles said that you see large numbers of impact diamonds when a meteor strikes an existing diamond mine, or diamond deposit, I should say, which is interesting. I guess it's because the conditions are already correct in terms of the carbon and whatnot and then the pressure and the heat of the impact just accelerates the process and makes a ton of diamonds. Another interesting thing about these diamonds is that they are not gem quality, so they will not disrupt the jewelery market, but they are very useful for industrial use, so these are industrial-grade diamonds and in fact they're excellent industrial grade diamonds because a couple of reports said that they're harder than your average diamonds; I thought diamonds were diamonds, maybe because of fewer impurities or whatever, but they're particularly hard diamonds, so that's good for industrial use. And they're particularly large, because of the way that they formed, you get these nice large crystals. While this won't lower the price of your diamond necklace or ring, this will provide so many large, hard diamonds for potential industrial use that this could have an impact on several industries; it may actually alter their practice based upon the available of this huge resource now. So industrial diamonds are suddenly affordable to a lot more uses, a lot more industries than they otherwise would have been. So very, very interesting.

B: I wonder what other countries are sitting on for the past forty years.

S: Yeah right.

B: UFOs perhaps?

J: Right?

R: Mostly just human rights abuses, boo.

B: Yeah right.

E: Like baby powder pills.

S: But if you think about it, this was a conspiracy to cover up the existence of a massive diamond find for the last forty years.

E: Soviet Union 40 years ago.

S: Which means a new study finds that more than 30% of patients who meet strict criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome are infected with the XMRV virus, that news item is fiction. And thank you Bob, I thought that the 30% figure was perfect.

B: Bastard.

E: So what is it?

S: And Rebecca, you are correct; the research showed no correlation, no association, in fact there was zero evidence of the XMRV or the pMLV virus in patients meeting criteria for chronic fatigue syndrome. This was a huge controversy; the XMRV controversy because there was a study published earlier showing the potential existence of XMRV in some patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, or CFS. And the CFS community seized upon this and said, "A-ha! We're not crazy; this is a real disease; you have a real cause; it's a viral infection; we want antiviral medication to be treated for it." The scientific community was like, "not so fast;" I mean, this is an interesting finding but we need to confirm it. There was a follow-up study which was negative but was not really large enough to be definitive, so then there was—the controversy heated up; so you had the two camps: those listening to the first study which was preliminary and positive; those listening to the second study which was preliminary and negatively. So science in this case I think worked the way it's supposed to work. They got together; they did a consensus trial with a lot of subjects; you fix all the problems that both sides are pointing at in the other study and so you have a study that fixes all the problems and is as ironclad as we could make it. They used really good strict criteria for deciding who has chronic fatigue syndrome; they used very sensitive techniques for looking for these viruses; they had blinded controls; they sent known positives and known negatives to the labs to make sure their assays were working; all the ducks were in a row, and zero XMRV and pMLV. So this really, as much as one study can, this is a so-called consensus trial, this pretty much kills the XMRV controversy in terms of chronic fatigue syndrome. I doubt this will end the public controversy; there's just too many people I think invested too much in this; now it's just the conspiracy theories will come out of the woodwork, but in terms of scientific researchers it's done. So one of the original researchers that found the possible link with XMRV, Ian Libkin, was involved in this study is quoted as saying, "although the once promising XMRV and pMLV hypothesis has been excluded, the consequences of the early reports linking these viruses to disease are that new resources and investigators have been recruited to investigate the challenges of CFS/ME." So he's basically saying, "OK, so my hypothesis was wrong but at least it cast more attention on this very challenging disease." OK, we'll give him that. But he is accepting the results of this study and accepting the death of the XMRV and pMLV hypotheses.

R: Which is good because—I mean, were he a different personality we would have immediately like another Andrew Wakefield, you know.

S: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You always wonder which way they're going to go when the nail's in the coffin of their hypothesis, will they become a crank and champion the community who wants to believe in this, or deny it or whatever, or are they going to accept the science; you know, stay true to their creed and give up on their favourite hypothesis. You always wonder and you see scientists go either way; you have the Andrew Wakefields, although I think he's—my opinion was that he was a little more of a crank from the beginning. There are scientists who, when the moment of truth comes, they just can't let go of their hypothesis, yeah.

R: Or they just see a lot of money to be made.

S: Yeah, that's what I mean; I think that was more the Andrew Wakefield, that's what you're getting at.

R: Yeah.

S: —but there's like the Pons and Fleischmann, who decided to say, "nope there really is cold fusion, we were right even though the rest of the community disagree with us." So, good work Evan and Rebecca; you guys were right this week.

E: Hey.

R: Thank you.

E: Thank you.

B: (raspberry sound)


E: One raspberry.

R: A raspberry.

E: Mmm. Raspberry.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:17:25)[edit]

S: Uh Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?

J: I have a quote sent in by a listener named Tyler Davis from New Zealand. The quote is:

The most important service rendered by the press and the magazines is that of educating people to approach printed matter with distrust.

J: That's from Samuel Butler.

S: That's a good quote. A little cynical, but I think it's true; you need to have a healthy skepticism towards anything claimed in the news, printed, heard on TV, whatever.

J: Samuel Butler!

S: Thank you, Jay.

Announcements (1:17:56)[edit]

J: I have something very cool and important I think I want to share with our audience. There is a six-year-old boy name Zach who likes to play Science or Fiction along with us and not too long ago, while Zach's dad was driving him around in the car and they were listening to the show, Zach said, "peanut butter is definitely the fake, Dad. Which one are you voting for?"

S: And he was right.

J: That's right. So his dad said that he was going to email us and see if we can all basically say hi to him and say his name on the show. So Zach, this is your shout-out from the SGU. We love the fact that you're listening to the show; we want you to continue to listening to the show and win at science or fiction and become a professional skeptic.

S: You have to have a better record than Bob by the end of the year. That's your mission. Which means you have to pay attention and read science every day. All right, well, thanks for listening to the show, Zach.

B: Thanks, Zach!

S: Thanks for joining me this week, everyone.

R: Thank you, Steve.

E: Thanks, doctor.

J: God bless you.

B: I have nothing better to do.

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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