SGU Episode 380

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SGU Episode 380
27th October 2012
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 379                      SGU 381

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The Web is great for finding a list of the ten biggest cities in the United States, but if the scientific literature is merely littered with wrong facts, then cyberspace is an enticing quagmire of falsehoods, propaganda, and just plain bunkum. There simply is no substitute for skepticism.

Samuel Arbesman

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, October 17, 2012, and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

B: Hey, everybody.

S: Jay Novella,

J: Hey guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Here I am. How's everyone?

J: Hello.

B: Good, thanks.

S: Rebecca is preparing for her paranormal road trip, which, by the time this show goes out, will have been done.

R: She claims she just got her driver's license about a week ago in preparation for this trip.

B: Oh, boy.

E: I'm not sure driving halfway down the United States is the best way to—

J: I think it's gonna be hysterical. I mean, could you imagine all the things that she's gonna say. Like, all the comments that she's gonna come out with?

E: Yeah, like "what's that red octagon that says 'stop' mean?" (laughter)

J: "What does the sign that says 'stop' mean?" Yeah.

S: And she'll have two British guys with her giving her directions. (laughter)

E: They'll say "Turn left, I mean right!"

B: "You're on the wrong side of the road!"

E: Could you imagine?

This Day in Skepticism (1:07)[edit]

S: We have a couple of interesting "This Day in Skepticism" or science news. The first is October 27, 1780 was the first astronomical expedition of the United States. Observers left from Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Penobscot Bay

B: Penobscot

S: Yeah, Penobscot. They were led by Samuel Williams and they were there to observe an eclipse that was occurring that year. Interestingly, this was, we were fighting a war with Britain at the time. But the British Navy allowed the scientists into the Bay and to set up their equipment so that they could observe the eclipse.

B: That's cool.

J: Yeah.

S: But there was a hitch. According to the expedition's calculations they were trying to view totality. But they found that they were outside of the path of totality and a sliver of the sun was still visible even during the maximal eclipse.

E: Aghh! What a drag!

J: So, totality meaning a complete solar eclipse.

S: Yeah, one hundred percent blocked—

E: One hundred percent in the line.

S: But still, they made their observations.

B: Somebody screwed up.

S: It was successful to that extent.

E: But it was only, it was the first expedition, you know. I mean, that's pretty good for the first one.

S: For the U.S., yeah.

E: Yeah, for the U.S. They got better at it.

J: What else you got, Steve?

S: And, in 1891, Philip B. Downing invented something very important and was awarded a U.S. patent for . . . do you know?

J: Yes, the stuffing for pillows.

S: He made a design improvement to the street mailbox. He developed that little

J: The flag?

S: opening, the flap, doohicky, so you know how you can drop the letter in but you can't reach in there and pull letter out. And also obviously protects the letter from the rain and from the weather.

J: Oh you mean the thing, when you're doing a drop-off of mail for the post office and you slip it in the slot and then you can't reach your hand in there.

S: Yes.

E: Because there's a piece of metal, like an L-shaped piece of metal, that would block you.

S: Right.

E: It would hold the letter until you put it down and then the letter slides down safely depositing it into the box.

S: Correct.

E: Unfortunately, it does not protect against, say, bags of dog poop that get put into the mailbox.

B: (disgusted noise) How lame.

E: But you know, bad senses of humor.

J: Do people do that?

E: What I'm saying is that people have been known to throw all sorts of objects in there. Garbage and clothes . . .

S: Yeah, it just keeps you from taking stuff out.

E: Right.

S: Invented in 1891. Still used today. A lot of longevity for that particular invention.

News Items[edit]

Genetic Logic Circuit (3:34)[edit]

S: Well Jay, you're gonna tell us about building computers, sort of, out of bacteria.

J: Sweet. Yeah, how impressive is that idea? But, put simply, at its core, a computer processor does some very basic things that some scientists believe that they might be able to duplicate in bacteria. So a computer processor, as we know it, the kind that we have in our cell phones and our laptops and everything, manages a gigantic number of logic gates that are made out of electrical wiring, transistors and integrated circuits. Logic gates have served us well. Every device we own, like I said, has at least one of these in them, including your car, if you have a modern car, it has a lot of processors in it. And I'd to thank Jesus and Al Gore for both of things.

B: Oh, jeez. Oh, Gore.

J: Logic gates compare the bits or the ones and zeroes in which computers encode information. So every logic gate has two or more inputs and one output. The output depends on the input and the operation the gate performs. And then, as you string logic gates together you can get to very complicated pieces of logic that determine the outcome of events and different, lots of different things. The interesting thing is that logic gates can be made out of tons of different things. So, you could actually make a logic gate out of a series of pipes with plumbing and water going through it. You could make logic gates out of wooden levers and whatnot. You can make them large mechanical logic gates.

S: It reminds me of a discussion about artificial intelligence and consciousness, you know.

B: ____________'s Room?

S: Yeah, you think about having a computer brain that has the complexity and processing power of a human brain and it seems intuitive that it can be consciously aware. Think, okay, but what if you had, like as you say, like your logic gate, was people using a slide rule, but you had seven billion of them and you had some way of coordinating and communicating among those people, and let's just say for hypothetical purposes you can get to the point where, although very slow, you can actually have a powerful supercomputer comprised of people using slide rules. Could that be conscious? It still could process the same information that a silicon or whatever computer can. So it's an interesting thought experiment. I think the answer is no, but I think substrate does matter in that context. But it does, it is dependent on this notion that anything could be a logic gate as long as you fit the minimum criteria of you have different inputs, one output, and you have some logic to it.

J: Well, to continue on, this was a very interesting bit of research that's being done. There's two people: Tae Seok Moon and Christopher Voigt, who's a Ph.D. And they're working on building logic gates out of genes. How cool is that, guys?

E: That's very cool.

S: Yes.

B: Sounds a lot better than water pipes.

J: they made the largest genetic-based circuit to date. So this is what's going on. Moon is the lead author of an article that describes the project in the October 7 issue of Nature and it's called Genetic Programs Constructed From Layered Logic Gates in Single Cells. The tiny circuit constructed from these gene gates could someday be components of engineered cells that will monitor and respond and interact with their very small local environment. The specialized bacteria could do powerful and specific things. This is what they were talking about in the article. They can clean up pollutants, they can excrete out bio-fuels. They can be infection-control bacteria that might bustle around and kill pathogens. There's dozens of other things that you could get bacteria to do that would be very helpful, beneficial: fighting disease. You know, just doing all sorts of different things. One of the things that they were discussing is there's a couple of gates that are typical in all computing and anything that deals with a logic gate. There's an "AND" gate, and an "OR" gate, right? They're two very different and specific things. So an AND gate, for example, turns on only if all its inputs are on. So if it has two or more inputs, if all of them are saying yes, the logic gate is opened. OR gate turns on if any of its inputs are on. So if one or more of its inputs is in the on state, the gate opens. And to simulate these in genes, Moon had to find a gene that would, say, be an AND gate, its activation would have to be controlled by two or more molecules, not actually input, so the molecules, these binding molecules, would actually become the input of the gate. If you

E: Right.

J: If you can follow what I'm saying. If both molecules are present, then the gate would be turned on. And relax, Bob, not that kind of turned on.

B: Ha ha.

S: If I can, Jay, so, the proteins are, they bind to promoter regions of DNA. So these are regions of DNA that regulate whether a gene is turned on or not. Whether the gene gets transcribed and turned into protein. All you need to do is find a gene that has two or more promoter sites. If all of those promoter sites need to be bound in order for the gene to make the protein, then you have an AND gate, essentially, and the output is the production of the protein.

J: That's right. So an example of this is salmonella bacteria, or better known as the thing that causes food poisoning. And I've had it, and it's terrible. But anyway

S: Can I just say when I read that I'm like the organism that cause food poisoning, as if there's one. It's one of many bacteria that can cause food poisoning.

E: Good point.

J: You're right, of course, Steve. But this is the big one. That's the one everyone knows.

S: Yeah.

J: That's why they used it. The circuit Moon eventually built consisted of four sensors for four different molecules, like Steve was describing, that fed into three two-input AND gates. Does that make sense?

S: Yeah.

J: And if all four molecules were present and all three AND gates turned on, and the last one produced a reporter protein that fluoresced red so that the operation of the circuit could be easily monitored. That's cool. I mean that's the biological gate is showing you that it's working. I thought that was really really interesting.

E: Right down to the indicator light. That's very cool.

J: Yeah, I know, right? Hey, your genes are blinking. Someday Moon imagines a synthetic bacteria, bacterium, that might detect four different cancer indicators and in the presence of all four, release something to kill the tumor.

S: Yeah. So you're actually programming the cell as like a drug-delivery system. It will be able to detect with multiple inputs a situation in which the drug should be released. Very likely to be a cancer cell.

J: So another thing, there are lots of things in their way to make this work, but, one of the ones I found most interesting is this idea that biological circuits could accidentally cross-talk with each other or get confused if they were in the region of another one and part of that problem is that biology is really unorganized in a way. Meaning that, you know, with electrical wiring the precision is incredible. But in biology there's lots of things floating around. Even inside of a cell and everything there's lots of moving parts and stuff like that.

S: It's messy. I mean, even evolution. Receptor sites, et cetera, are not clean. It's not like a hundred percent on or off. There's lots of related proteins and related receptors and there's gonna be some cross-reactivity. It's not clean.

J: Yeah, they call that cross-talk, and Moon had to eliminate this. And one way that he did it was he took three different strains of bacteria and he took pieces of each one of them. And then what he did was, he prompted the bacteria to reproduce and he hand-picked the ones that were least likely to cross-talk but still functioned. So basically he was looking, as he was forcing these things to reproduce, he was hand-selecting the mutations that were in his benefit, which another cool thing.

B: So he was creating this selective pressure himself.

J: Yeah.

B: Forcing the evolution of the bacteria in the direction that he wanted, which could be slow, but an effective way of going about doing it.

J: Yeah. Yeah, but I would find that probably to be common in situations like this where they're looking for mutations that have different properties and whatnot. Yeah, that's the way to make it happen. Moon said:

"We're not trying to build a computer out of biological logic gates. You can't build a computer this way. Instead, we're trying to make controllers that will access all the things biological organisms so in simple programmable ways. I see the cell as a system that consists of a sensor, a controller (which is the logic circuit), and an actuator. This paper covers work on the controller, but eventually the controller's output will drive an actuator, something that will do work on the cell's surroundings."

So, like Steve said, this is all about not just detecting things, but actually reacting to the environment and doing things on that level. Very very small immediate fast-moving level.

B: Steve, you're saying, if the output is the creation of a protein, how does that speak to how fast this thing is gonna go about doing its business?

S: Yeah, obviously it's not going to be doing it at computer speeds.

B: Right.

S: (garbled) –this isn't going to be a computer. But that could still be fast in biological terms.

B: Yeah, especially if you've got many many cells or bacteria doing the, performing this task. It wouldn't take long for something significant to build up.

S: Right. Right. So we'll see. Like any new idea, we can sit here and speculate about how it might be used, but how it actually gets used is probably going to be very different. But it is a neat basic concept.

Efficient Language (13:26)[edit]

S: Lets go on to the next news item, this one really caught my interest. We talk about language a lot on the show, I mean this is a podcast made of words so language is important.

E: (chuckles)Yep, pendantic!

S: Yes, I have a bit of a fascination with this. This is a study looking at how people react to artificial languages, so they had their subjects, they made, it was a very small artificial language that they made up for the study, and they wanted to se how the subjects would spontaneously alter or change the language depending on various situations. But, before I tell you the results, I'll give you a bit of background, there is a few different hypotheses or theories about why languages are structured the way they are, and specifically why certain patterns or structures seem to recur in many different or even disparate languages. One possibility is that modern languages all have a common root. If you went back far enough in time two seemingly disparate languages may have evolved from the same root language, that's one possibility. Another possibility is that there is something inherent in the way our brains work that guide languages in certain directions and the third related to that, it there is some inherent logic to language that asserts itself over and over again as languages evolve. So this study was really, was partly addressing that question, are these patterns that we see in languages the same because there's a logic to how people see and use languages and that is in fact what they found. So, what this study shows, again, kind of makes sense, but it may seem like this is an obvious outcome, but when you put it into the context of our different theories of language it makes more sense. What they found is that when the subjects were presented with ambiguous situations, where the artificial language could not unambiguously describe the scene that they were being told to describe in the artificial language, they would add details, they would change the form of words in order to make it unambiguous. But they wouldn't do it otherwise. Specifically, they used, the variable here is case. Case is the different forms of nouns that vary depending on what role the noun is playing in the sentence.

E: For example.

S: I'll give you some examples. So in English actually, we do not use case very much. There's only a few cases in English. The main one that we use is the genitive case, or possessive case. English has really just three cases: nominative, oblique and genitive. But other languages have many different cases. They might have a different form of the noun for when the noun is doing the action, when the action's being done to them,

E: Which gender is saying it. Or to which gender it's referring?

S: No, that's different. That's gender. That's different than case. So, I can run through them: there's nominative case, when the noun is the subject; accusative case when it's a direct object of a verb; dative case indicates indirect object of a verb; ablative case is movement from something, so if you're going from your house, that's the ablative case; genitive, which is possessive; vocative case is addressee, like, how you doing tonight, Evan; locative case, you know, where—at home; and instrumental indicates an object used in performing an action: you mop the floor with a mop. So in English we don't use forms of the noun to indicate all those cases. We use word order or prepositions. With, of, to. But other languages don't use word order, they have a fluid word order. So like if I say "Evan hit Bob." In English that means Evan hit Bob. In other languages that word order would mean nothing. And it could as easily mean that Bob hit Evan as Evan hit Bob. And you would know by the nouns you used for Bob and Evan which one was doing the action and which one was having the action done to him.

B: Well that explains some weird ways that people learn language, English as a second language, the way they construct sentences. Because it's a new concept to them, and sometimes I try to make sense of why they used that particular word order. And that explains some of what I've heard. Interesting.

S: Oh, yeah, absolutely. If your hear Chinese speakers who, for whom English is a second language and they haven't quite mastered it, they don't know quite how to use prepositions properly 'cause they don't use prepositions. Or they don't quite get the word order correct. 'Cause they're not used to thinking in word order and prepositions, and that's how we think about language. And we would be lost in a language that had a fluid word order until we mastered all those cases that don't even exist in English. So what this means is that different languages found different solutions to the same problem of unambiguously indicating who is doing what in a sentence. Case, preposition, word order. Those are different solutions. So what the researchers did is they gave, in the artificial languages they created, word order was fluid. So the speaker had to use case in order to indicate the different purpose that the noun was serving in the sentence. So what they found was that the speakers used case only when it was necessary to make the sentence unambiguous. But then dropped it when it wasn't necessary. So they interpreted that to mean that there are . . . what they felt they did was they demonstrated there are two sort of logical imperatives in how people use language and they extrapolated this to how language evolves over time. That we have a tendency to make language unambiguous and efficient. And we will use the most efficient construction that is still unambiguous. Obviously we don't always do this all the time, but that's sort of the tendency within language to do that. And that explains how languages evolve over time. We tend to shorten sentences. We tend to swallow consonants, like, people make fun of the way we say the double "t's" or the double, say "hi'en" instead of "hidden," you know, or "wri'en" instead of "written."

B: So we're just being efficient, that's all.

S: Yes. Well, this is a natural tendency in languages over time. You tend to swallow syllables, you tend to shorten words. If you don't lose any meaning, or if there's, if the resulting shortened sentence or word is just as unambiguous as the longer version, then there's no impediment to doing that. And therefore we'll do it. We'll take the shortcut. So language becomes efficient over time, but we also make changes in order to make it unambiguous. We'll add cases or prepositions or whatever. You find some strategy to render it unambiguous as well.

E: Well, sure, 'cause you want people to understand the point you're trying to drive home.

S: Yeah, but you don't want to say one more syllable than you absolutely have to.

E: Exactly. Efficiency.

J: Why's that?

B: Well I think you can think of it as

E: Time is short.

B: like a genetic propensity to be more efficient but unambiguous at the same time and our languages reflect that.

S: Yeah. Exactly. And so the authors also talk about the fact it's, you know we talk about being pedantic and keeping true to the correct original form, if you will, of a language, when in fact, they say, it's good for languages to change over time. As languages evolve over time they become more efficient and unambiguous, let them change over time.

E: Oh, boy.

S: Yeah.

E: I betcha some people are gonna disagree with that.

S: Well, I think, we've said as much before, ourselves. You know, that languages are living things left to change, but you have to balance that against a certain amount of stability in the language so that people know what other people are saying. When I've thought about this, when I'm going to be pedantic it's when there is, it's for the purpose of unam . . . unambiguity(?) Is that a word? Is when you're confusing different forms of the word or different uses of a word that actually obscure the meaning. As opposed to "this is just the right way to do it."

B: Okay, yeah. That makes sense.

E: Hey, Bob, I'm sorry I hit you earlier in Steve's example. I hope it didn't hurt too badly. (laughter)

B: I'm over it.

Closest Exoplanet (22:01)[edit]

S: All right, well, Bob, you're gonna tell us about some of the latest exciting exoplanet discoveries.

B: Yes I am, and sorry to say that my news item blows away all of your items. (laughter and overlapping comments) I'm just saying. European astronomers announced on October 17th that they found an earth-sized planet around another star. Big deal, big deal, right? That happens all the time these days.

E: Nowadays.

B: Yes, but this planet was found around the closest star system to Earth: Alpha Centauri. How cool is that?

J: Wow!

E: What is that, about 4.7 light years, 4.3? B: 4.3, 4.4. I've heard both. Now the other cool thing is that this is overwhelmingly likely to be the closest exoplanet to earth ever found. In a million years they're gonna say, yup, this is pretty much the closest one.

E: Unless there's a rogue planet out there. I don't see, how could we possibly have one that's closer? I don't think we could.

B: Yeah, I mean, unless

E: By definition.

B: Unless it is a rogue planet. But this is gonna be it, guys. This is gonna be the closest one and this is so exciting. Geoffrey Marcy, an exoplanet astronomer at the University of California, Berkeley said "This is close enough you can almost spit there" which I thought was funny.

J: How many light years is it?

E: Four.

B: That's a helluva loogie if it's gonna go 25.6 trillion miles. 4.4, Jay. So this is a funny little quote. So before you get your hopes up, guys, though, this planet is very close to its own sun. It's only about 4 million miles away, compared to our distance, Earth's distance, is like 93 million. And Mercury at its closest is 29, so this is even well within the orbit of Mercury. So that means the surface is going to be somewhat inhospitable to carbon-based life.

S: Be lava. Yeah, Bob, I was gonna say that if this were in the Goldilocks zone and it were an earth-sized planet, then absolutely your news item would be the best. But, come on, it's really close to its star, it's inhospitable to anything that we would recognize as life or

B: Oh, yeah, totally. We're talking 2200 degrees, and that means that there's , like you said, there's really not gonna be any life, unless there's something really far-out

E: Lava Man

B: Like those rock lava creatures from Star Trek. Remember those dudes with the claws?

S: They'd be something like that. (overlapping comments) The Horda. (more overlapping comments)

B: --the other one with the Lincoln, you know, remember Lincoln and Surak, they made a good versus evil

S: Yeah.

E: Okay.

B: So, yeah, that was really disappointing.

S: But we're not gonna be having a conversation with Alpha Centaurans any time soon.

J: But Bob, that scuttles the whole thing. So they found the planet that's way too hot. What's the point, then?

B: Well, all right, there's a couple points. First off, the information, what they learned and just the Alpha Centauri system itself is really fascinating and I'll tell you about it if you're interested. Well, I don't care if you're not, even if you're not interested. But the planet, this is the lightest, least massive planet they're ever found. 1.13 times the mass of the Earth. Which is, in terms of mass anyway, if they're correct, this is very close to Earth mass. Its year is only 3.2 days long.

E: Wow, that thing is whipping around fast.

B: Oh, man, yeah. Since Rebecca's not here I'll make fun of her. If she lived on that planet, she's be about three-and-a-half thousand years old. Which is such an amazing—3.2 days is the year. It's just mind-boggling.

J: Happy New Year!

B: But even Alpha Centauri is fascinating, I think. The system. For lots of reasons. Not only because it's the closest one, but it's a triple-star system, which looks, if you look at the constellation Centaurus in the southern hemisphere, which we can't see, it looks like one big bright star, obviously, because the three starts kinda just merge into one to the human eye. Now, the planet that they found was found orbiting one of these stars, namely Alpha Centauri B, which is slightly smaller and I think about half as dim as our sun. Alphas Centauri A is a little bigger and brighter than our sun. It's funny how our sun is kinda like right in between those two guys. Now, A and B are in an 80-year orbit around each other, separated by about nine billion miles. That may seem like a lot, but Alpha Centauri C is the weirdo in the group. This is a dwarf star orbiting its bigger sisters from about a trillion miles away. It's really really far away from these guys.

E: Wow.

B: But this is the reason why it's called Proxima Centauri since its orbit makes it the closest, or most proximate star to our sun. So Proxima Centauri is the star that is the closest to the sun. You also might recognize Alpha Centauri for other reasons. Maybe because it contains the planet Cybertron, which is the home world of the Transformers. (chuckling in the background) The blue-skinned Na'vi from Avatar also live there. And if you ever journey there you may pass by the Lost in Space crew, who are desperately trying to find this star system, so if you do, please give them directions. I don't think they ever found it. And if you are actually thinking of going there, or sending a probe, I think it's obvious you should reconsider because it would take about 40,000 years to get there using our lame, non-science-fiction rocket technology. But if you did get there, the planet would have some very interesting similarities and differences to Earth. Most of the constellations would be the same, right? Since it's so close to us, right, it makes sense that a lot of our constellations would be similar. Like the Big Dipper and Orion, for example. Also, if you were on the planet and not burning to death you would notice that conventional night and day would also exist when Stars A and B were on one side of the planet, you would have night and day just like we know. But during those times when the planet's in between those two stars, one side would experience like a very bright twilight, like everything was illuminated by big stadium floodlights. Even the story of how they found this was fairly interesting. They used the tried-and-true radial velocity method, which we've talked about on this show before. This method measures the gravitational tug of a planet onto its star, which imparts a kind of small acceleration to the star, making it go kind of back and forth. And this acceleration of the star Doppler shifts the light, changes the frequency of the light that's coming to the Earth, which we can see once we remove all the other sources that could be confused for the same thing. And it was really difficult to actually pull this, to tease this information from the sun because there's so many different things going on on that star. They had to really subtract everything that wasn't based on the tug of, the pull of this planet. So it was very very subtle. The tug on Alpha Centauri B was only about one mile per hour, or twenty inches a second, which would really be a relaxing walking speed. I mean it's such a minor tug. In fact, this is the smallest wobble the Swiss team has ever recorded. I think it might be the smallest wobble ever recorded, although I couldn’t confirm that. And the recorded data that they got was actually so sensitive that the team could see sun spots on the star and even disturbances caused by giant solar flares. So the information, the data, was very detailed. You may be disappointed that there's most likely no life on this planet, but remember though, and this gets to you guys saying "what's the big deal," remember that 70% of all small planets that we've found have other planets as well.

E: That was going to be my next point is, how many other planets do we know exist in this system?

B: Astronomer and paper co-author Stéphane Udry of the University of Geneva said:

Finding in our closest neighbor a one-earth massed planet really opens up the prospect for finding planets there in the habitable zone.

So that's really the big takeaway here is that now that we're refining our techniques, hopefully they'll be able to look in the habitable zone and try to find earth-size planets or bigger, maybe mega-earths or super-earths, in the habitable zone, and that would be tremendous. Unfortunately, the way the stars are oriented now, it's not really an optimal time to do this kind of research. So it might be a few years before they could really do a deep dive into this and see what else is there. But they might find it. So, in a few years, we may find one day that in Alpha Centauri there's an earth-size planet far enough away from its sun for liquid water and perhaps for life to exist. But chances are, they won't have blue skin or robot skin or wear silver jumpsuits. But even if it's Centauri bacteria it would be awesome. So I'm looking forward for them to actually look a lot deeper into this in the near future.

Alien Hacker (30:34)[edit]

S: All right, well, Evan, you're gonna tell us about the guy who hacked his way into U.S. Defense Department computers in order to find evidence of aliens.

E: And this particular story dates back to 2002. Well, 2001 actually. So this is a long-standing continuing saga. And the headline I read from Slate reads as such: "United Kingdom Will Not Extradite the Alien-Hunting Hacker With Asperger's Who Broke into NASA and Military Computers." So let me explain what this is all about. The gentleman's name is Gary McKinnon and he's a Scottish-born systems administrator and a hacker who was accused in 2002 of perpetrating what's known as the biggest military computer hack of all time. Now, McKinnon, in his defense, states he was merely looking for evidence of free-energy suppression and UFO cover-up activity and other sort of similar technologies and pieces of evidence that would be potentially useful to the public. So that, he's says that was his motivation. And using his hacker name Solo, which is kind of a cool name, McKinnon allegedly hacked into almost a hundred U.S. military and NASA computers and some private company computers as well, over a 13-month period between February of 2001 and March of 2002. The U.S. authorities claim he deleted critical files from operating systems which shut down the U.S. Army's military district of Washington and their network of 2,000 computers for the better part of a day. And McKinnon at the time posted a notice on the military website in the middle of all this stating "Your security is crap."

S: Um hm.

B: Wow. Hire him!

E: Definitely. Yeah, you know. He was arrested. He was arrested by British police in London in March, 2002. And since that time he and his lawyers have been fighting all attempts to have him extradited to the United States of America. The charges standing against McKinnon are eight counts of hacking U.S. government computers and private company computers. The sentence for such a crime is as severe as life in prison. However, in 2008, this story takes a big twist. After years of appealing and being denied by various British courts, including the House of Lords, the European Court of Human Rights, which seemed to be McKinnon's final chance to avoid an extradition, that court denied his appeal. Now upon losing that appeal, McKinnon's lawyers revealed that Gary suffered from Asperger's Syndrome. So for the first six years of this story, this was unknown and it was finally revealed. So his lawyers were arguing that therefore the extradition would be inappropriate and an endangerment to his health. So this opened a whole new chapter into this particular person's trial for extradition.

S: Yeah, but it sounds like, Evan, it wasn't so much the Asperger's as the fact that he, that they feared that he would become suicidal. And that risk was out of proportion to the punishment. So extraditing him would be unjust.

E: Right.

S: Suicidality. Not necessarily specifically for the Asperger's.

E: Well, is there a connection between Asperger's and suicide? That was actually gonna be one of my questions kind of later in the piece. But Steve, if you have some, do you know anything about that? Is there any evidence of that?

S: There's no direct connection. There may be a higher risk of depression in Asperger's. I don't know, actually. I didn't explore that angle. They're not directly related. There may be an indirect relationship.

E: No directly, right.

S: The other point they brought up was that his Asperger's was part of the reason why he hacked the computers over and over and over again.

E: Yeah.

S: You know, he was sort of obsessive about it in his pursuit of this information, so they're trying to mitigate his guilt because of the obsessive nature of Asperger's. That's more where it comes in.

J: But, Steve, do you find that to be a valid excuse? I mean if he's still performing dangerous behavior, compromising government systems and things like that, I don't care what his problem is.

S: Well, Asperger's, for those who don't know, is a mild, if you will, form of autism.

E: Wide spectrum, right, Steve? I mean a lot of people can fall on that

S: It was added to the autism spectrum disorder, you know, basically at the mildest manifestation end. You probably know people who fit into this category. Somebody who, they do tend to gravitate towards hobbies and careers

J: Skeptical conferences? (laughter)

S: Well, I wasn't gonna say that, but certainly that fits the profile of a computer programmer. Somebody who could focus their attention, is very bright, who can do that kind of a technical task and doesn't mind spending lots of time by themselves.

J: Pretty much all my hobbies, right, Bob?

B: Yeah, right. In fact I remember reading a story about the first guy that coded BitTorrent. He, very gifted programmer, very very gifted, obviously, if he was the first to come up with that whole idea. And he, I remember his wife, in the article saying that he was just obsessed. He would spend ten hours at a time non-stop just coding and coding and coding and look what he did. I mean, there's just an amazing, it's an amazing utility that I remember reading that BitTorrents, at any one time, are taking up a surprisingly significant fraction of all the internet bandwidth.

E: Guy, do you find it, though, interesting at all that the lawyer chose to only reveal this as part of a defense only after what seemed to be kind of his final chance to avoid extradition? Why didn't this come out in 2002, 2003 or any of the other various lower courts that were hearing this? Why is this the first time we're hearing about it?

B: I think it's like a ace in the hole. He was saving that for when he really needed it.

E: Right. That's what I was thinking, too.

S: But he could say it was to protect his privacy. He didn't want to reveal it until he absolutely had to. He could make a reasonable case with that.

J: And they could test him, Ev, to see if he is suffering from it. It's not like they couldn't validate it if they wanted to.

E: Well what this did to the case is, like I said, it took a twist. So in early 2009 McKinnon actually signed a confession. And he submits it to another piece of the British, part of the British government called the Crown Prosecution Service. In one last attempt to escape having to stand trial in a U.S. court, basically he was signing a confession saying, yes I did this stuff, but let me be tried in Britain. Do not send me to the U.S. courts where they're gonna be much, apparently much harsher on him than they would if standing trial in Britain. And the CPS, the Crown Prosecution Service, actually denied that request, and it looked like he was heading to the United States. But, at this point this has become a hot political issue and was reported widely. And human rights groups get involved and so much. And the pressure was on the British government and it wound up putting the extradition on hold until it could review and take into account this new psychological evidence, which, you know

S: Yeah.

E: Seems like that's the way it goes. So in January 2010 a British high court grants judicial review. And that effectively marked the beginning of the end of any extradition and just recently, as the headline reads, the British government has officially now ceased all efforts to extradite McKinnon. So, the story intersects with skepticism in some obvious ways. You can classify this particular story in a lot of different ways. I think you could classify it under the heading of how pseudoscience and belief in nonsense is, in its way, dangerous. No one died as a result of McKinnon's actions, that's a fact, okay? But this modern culture's become so saturated with the belief that extraterrestrial crafts and creatures have or are visiting the earth, it's not a benign idea.

S: It did foment distrust in the government. And conspiracy mongering, conspiracy thinking. So it's not a healthy thing. The other thing that it did reveal a massive vulnerability in the infrastructure of our Defense Department in terms of being protected from cyber attacks. I'd rather have it be a ultimately harmless conspiracy nut who cracked into our defense system, as opposed to like a terrorist organization.

J: Well, of course. But Steve, I agree with that, but at the same time, he still did some real damage.

S: Oh, yeah, yeah. That doesn't mitigate his guilt. Just to be looking at the consequences. You would want . . . he's the kind of guy who should be hired as a white hat hacker who's testing the vulnerability of systems. That would be a good job for him. It's too bad he didn't do that, but

B: Yeah, I wonder how relevant his skills are now. I mean we are going back eight, nine, ten years, when he did this. And security has changed a lot in that time. I wonder if he could still even pull off something like that, considering the advances that I assume our military systems

E: Improvements.

B: have gone through in the intervening time.

S: I would hope.

E: Well, god, I would hope so. Plus remember when this happened it's all around the time of 9/11.

S: It was right after 9/11.

E: Right after. So, you know, the U.S. government was not messing around with anything at that point. They were taking every bit of this as serious as possible.

S: They were not in a good mood at that time.

E: Nooo. Not in any kind of mood to (garbled)

J: Well they wouldn't be today either, though. Of course, things became a lot more severe after 9/11, but, even still, I think if he did this before 9/11 with the amount of damage that he did, keep in mind, guys, it was the biggest hack against the U.S. government ever.

S: Cyber security remains a huge issue. For all the world governments. And also, any institution, industry, whatever, with a vulnerable infrastructure. Doesn't have to be a government. I mean, think about hacking into nuclear power plants.

E: Or Sony or MasterCard to get all their credit card information.

S: It's a huge issue. Absolutely huge.

E: Huge issue.

B: That's one of those things that are a little scary and I think it's one of those areas we really need to be one of the world leaders in that type of thing because it's just so scary to think that we could be hacked and you know, like, nuclear power stations—what the hell? They could have their way with that. Or even our military infrastructure. Wow!

S: Yeah, I

B: I really hope that they're just putting tons of money and research and . . .

J: They are, Bob. They are.

E: And trying to keep up with it. Hard.

J: The fact that we've thwarted hundreds of thousands of attempts and everything. We're doing it successfully right now. It's just things get scary as technology increases. Everything that we are goes online. And we're gonna enter the cloud. Everything that you are is gonna be in a computer somewhere. Right now, if you think about in your smart phone, how much of your life is in there already. But imagine where anything about you is gonna be online.

S: Unless you go off the grid, man.

J: Yeah, but

E: That's right. Bear skins and stone knives.

J: It's already gotten to an incredibly personal level, but what happens when every computer you own is just a terminal that's just your window into your files and everything about you that's up in the cloud and then people can hack into your personal stuff. That's really scary.

B: I wanna stop these people.

E: Yeah, let me take a quick second though to clarify sort of a distinction. This is something that I've had to learn over the years, because I've expressed my . . . I've been pretty opinionated in the past about hacker culture. I've been outspoken about it, and of all the opinions I've expressed, I've actually been taken to task pretty harshly in stating in the past how I've had problems with hacker culture, but I've refined my thoughts, and in light of being better educated, as any good skeptic does, I've learned now to disagree only with the behavior of illegal hacking. That there is actually a legitimate aspect to hacking. They call it online "ethical" hacking. And it's an actual term. It's a legitimate term, which applies to security professionals who apply their hacking skills for defensive purposes and people who are hired for their services to take down these companies so that, or private companies or governments and whatnot, so that they can see where their soft underbelly is and help plug those holes. I think that's a very very positive aspect.

S: Yeah, the term "hacker" does not imply illegal. There are different types of hackers. I just wanna make that clarification.

J: I think there's something really cool and badass about people that take the time and energy to, in amazingly clever ways, break into computer systems and everything. I mean there's an art form to it.

E: Right.

Who's That Noisy? (43:17)[edit]

S: Well, Evan, it's time once again for "Who's That Noisy?"

E: It is. And due to our revised recording schedule that we have this week, I'm going to be playing for you the new "Who's That Noisy?" and in a future episode we're going to be doing the reveal for not only the prior week's "Who's That Noisy?" but also for this week's "Who's That Noisy?" So, everyone follow that? Good, because here we go, who's that noisy? Name it.

(Music in the background, and a bass voice singing "dum dum dum dum," etc.) A man's voice: Suddenly, mitosis takes place. The DNA strand separates in a dazzling display of color.


B: Whoa.

J: I love it. I love that.

E: All right.

S: Gotta love those old science recordings. Or mockery thereof, whichever the case may be.

E; (laughing) I think you're onto something. So, I have a feeling we'll get more than one correct answer on this one. Be the first by emailing us at or posting on our forums This is a fun one, so enjoy it and good luck, everyone!

S: And to clarify, we are recording our next two shows at CSICON, so the reveal for last week and this week's "Who's That Noisy?" will be in three weeks, as the podcasting time is reckoned.

E: There you go. Thank you for that calendar, Steve.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Zombie Bite (44:36)[edit]

S: Okay. We're gonna do one email this week. You guys all seen the first episode of the new season of The Walking Dead?

J: Of course!

B: Silly question.

(overlapping comments)

E: No, but that's okay, we'll talk about it anyways.

J: So this is a spoiler alert.

S: A little spoiler alert.

E: That's okay, I'm good with that. I can do it.

S: And remember, if you buy the Walking Dead trading cards, you might be lucky enough to get an original and unique drawing of the members of the SGU in zombie form. But onto the question, this comes from Henry Loo, and he writes

Hey Guys, I've got a fun Medical Question for you all and maybe a little bit more aimed towards Dr. Novella due to his medical background. If you've seen the new season of the Walking Dead, in the first episode the old guy gets bitten on the leg and the main character decides to amputate his leg because he thinks it's like a venomous snake bite. The rationale is even though they all know they're all infected already, that zombie bites cause a secondary infection that makes you sick and you die thereby allowing the primary infection to turn you into a zombie. Is the choice to amputate really stupid even if the infection was like a venomous bite? You would think they made a relatively moderate problem of a huge bite into an enormous problem given that there's going to be massive blood loss now, chance of incidental infection, and well....the old guy is really old and he probably can't take the shock of getting his leg hacked on repeatedly by a handaxe. If they intended to cauterize the amputation later, wouldn't it have been better to just cauterize the huge bite wound instead and hope that would be enough? It seems like anything they could do to help the amputation they've could have done to the bite wound and it wouldn't have been as bad. Dr. Novella has talked about in medicine that usually treatments have risks but the benefits outweigh the risks. In this case I'm wondering if the Amputation is causing more damage than it's helping, given their fictional situation. Thanks, Henry Loo

J: Well, there's a few things we have to ask, like first, if you get bit by something, anything, and it has a highly infectious contagion in it, how quickly is that going to get in your blood, and travel up your limb, or whatever, right?

E: I'd say almost instantaneously, right?

S: No. No, I wouldn't say instantaneously.

E: Well, the traveling, the infection would happen instantaneously, but to travel your system, it would take time.

S: So there's two different kinds of things that bites can get into your system. Some kind of venom, right?

J and E: Um hm.

S: Or,

E: Bacteria.

S: bacter . . . or some kind of infection.

J: Or a virus, yeah.

S: Yeah, a virus or bacteria. And they would be at different rates. A snake bite, for example, a venomous snake bite, that's sort of evolved to be efficient and spreading quickly. Getting into your blood system. Local effects are bad, but it'll also then get into the bloodstream and have systemic effects, which are usually worse, like paralysis.

E: Neurotoxin.

S: Yes. Bacteria and viruses, there's a couple of factors here that we have to consider. It's not just how quickly they get into your bloodstream, but also the local tissue, but also how much of it. It's also about the dose. The inoculation, the inoculum. How many bacteria are we talking about? Your immune system can fight off small amounts of infection or keep it at bay, but a high enough inoculum, too many bacteria or viruses all at once will overwhelm your immune system and then establish an infection, maybe even a blood infection, a systemic infection, and that's where you're really in trouble. Certainly hacking off a leg to prevent a garden variety bacterial infection from a mouth wound is not the way to go. You would have been better off just cleaning the wound. And yes, may have gotten some bacterial infection, maybe even some septicemia, you know, some bacteria in the blood, but if you cleaned it quickly it probably would have minimized that. Then you would give them antibiotics. I don't know if they have antibiotics. Part of the reason why they're where they are in this episode is they're hoping to score some supplies, including possibly some medical supplies, so maybe they could just have cleaned it, stopped the bleeding, tried to—they either had already a supply of antibiotics or gotten a supply—that would have prevented the bacterial infection. The real, I think, ringer here is the zombie virus itself. We don't know a lot about it, but what's been established in the series so far is that the virus is everywhere and everyone is infected with it, so that, if you die from any reason, within a minute you're coming back as a zombie. So the virus is obviously already in the system. You don't have to die from a zombie bite in order to turn into a zombie.

J: But that zombie bite will kill you, though. That's the thing. He would have slowly died from whatever, like being overwhelmed by the virus.

S: Right. So, but so does the zombie bite, though, does that kill you because it just gives you a nasty infection, because you bleed, you go into shock, or is it because you get a high enough dose of the virus all at once? Maybe the chronic infection that everyone has is a low-level, the virus is almost dormant. It's not really doing anything but it will be activated once you die; but if you get a bite you get a huge bolus of virus that then sets up an infection and kills you and turns you into a zombie.

J: But Steve, you're dancing around the thing here. First off, I don't accept the idea that they could have just washed out his wound and he would have been okay. For some reason that seems a little counterintuitive. I mean, I think that they've learned to experience that you get bit, even if it's not a really deep wound, I mean you get bit and it's gonna kill you.

S: Yeah, so, that's what I'm leading up to, Jay. All these variables matter to the ultimate question of "should he have chopped his leg off or not." If we take the premise that the, a zombie bite introduces a large bolus of virus that will, even if you're already infected, the extra virus is enough to cause a fulminant infection that kills you and turns you into a zombie. Then that's at least a rationale for hacking off his leg, in order to prevent that from happening. And then, what we don't know is, is how quickly does the virus get into your system, and that depends on the properties of the virus which are not really known to any kind of certainty by the characters in the show or by the audience watching it. We just don't know the answer to that. It's certainly, you know, you talk about risk versus benefit here. If they know from experience that the zombie bite will inevitably lead to a rapid death and zombification, then you actually have nothing to lose by cutting the leg off, because he's dead anyway.

E: But if he turns into a zombie it's a hobbled zombie and you can run away from him. (laughter)

J: Of course, Evan.

S: There you go.

J: You've so insightful.

S: There's a one percent chance that cutting it off very quickly may prevent him from dying from the bite wound and turning into a zombie. Then it was worth it, because the only other possibility is a hundred percent chance of death and zombification. So

J: But in this case, they cut the guy's leg off below the knee. That's such a massive artery that you're cutting into.

S: Well he did, they did show him tying off the leg with a belt first. That's something. It wasn't enough to stop the bleeding but it probably slowed it. They needed to really tie it a lot tighter, I think, like really tourniquet style. They need to tourniquet his leg up. They didn't do that. They just sort of tied it with a tight belt.

J: But then that type of wound, I'm curious to see what happens in the next episode, though. That type of wound needs surgery.

S: Oh, yeah.

J: You can't just cauterize that. That's not gonna stop it.

E: So what happened? Did they go kind of hopping away with this guy and

S: No, it was the end of the episode.

E: Oh, we don't know where it goes.

S: It took like six, seven hacks to get his leg off.

B: Oh, nasty!

S: He went unconscious from the pain and the blood loss and shock, and that was the end of the episode. There was something else happened there, but we don't need to throw another spoiler in.

J: I think that he's gonna die from that.

S: Yeah, I mean there's a high probability of dying. Now let's say they can stop the bleeding with more tourniqueting of the leg and they get antibiotics, they keep an infection from happening. That's a really rough wound. I mean when they, when you do a surgical amputation of a wound you don't just hack it off or saw it off. You create a muscle flap, and you go very careful with how, you know, you have to make sure you feed the flap with arteries. It's a delicate procedure to get a good stump. He's gonna have a horrible stump. If he does survive all of this. To the point where, and he's the only doctor that they have access to right now, so

E: Assuming nothing gets infected. I mean, isn't this, isn't a wound like that horribly subject to infection?

S: Yeah, he just picked an axe up off the floor and hacked his leg off, I mean

E: Oh, forget it!

S: There's no question—there's no question that he has an infection. That's not the question. The only question is how bad is it and will they have access to antibiotics.

E: See, I don't know. Would I want to be hobbled on one leg and survive in a world in which I'm escaping from zombies? It's almost like, well, let's get it over with.

S: All right, well, the other bit here is

B: Better that than dead!

S: This is their doctor, and the guy who hacked his leg off, his wife is pregnant and ready to pop, and he said "we need our doctor alive." He needs that guy alive for his wife, and that's why he did this desperate act to keep him alive, even without a leg.

B: Yeah.

E: Interesting.

J: Yeah, well, you know what? Good luck, pal. (laughter)

E: Better you than me?

S: All right, well, thanks for the question Henry.


Evan on Television: The Trisha Show (53:58)[edit]

S: Evan, before we go on to Science or Fiction, you have a quick announcement.

E: I just want to let the audience know that I had the opportunity to participate on a television program called The Tricia Show recently, and I was on there as the skeptic who was putting up the points against some psychics that they had on the show. And this is a nationally televised show. It's a daytime show, so check your local listings. It's going to air on October 31st in the morning in most markets, and you should just go ahead and check your local listings for that. I was only on the show for just a few minutes, but I think my participation in it was worthwhile, and I got some good points, and we're gonna see what they do to it in editing. It will be interesting to see, and hope you enjoy it, and watch it when you can. Set your DVRs, and tell a friend.

SGU Nominated For The 2012 Stitcher Award (54:46)[edit]

S: And since we're doing our announcements, it's come to our attention that we have been nominated for the 2012 Stitcher Podcast Awards. You can go to and click on the 2012 Stitcher Awards. Apparently you can vote once a day every day until November 5. The Skeptics' Guide is nominated in the science category, as you might expect. And so, we always appreciate the support of our listeners.

Science or Fiction (55:17)[edit]

S: And now, let's go on to Science or Fiction

Voiceover: 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 ask my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. We have a theme this week, and four items.

B: Ew.

E: Wow.

S: I'm sorry Rebecca is not here to enjoy this one.

E: And only three participants, yeah.

S: Here we go. The theme is the hagfish.

E: There's a hagfish?

B: That's the theme?

S: That's the theme.

E: A hagfish?

S: Yes. The hagfish.

E: O-o-o-kay.

S: Item number one. The hagfish can rapidly produce as much as 20 liters of slime as a defense against predators. Item number two. The oldest fossil hagfish is 300 million years old and shows remarkable similarity to modern hagfish, demonstrating unusual evolutionary stability. Item number three. Molecular analysis has confirmed that hagfish are transitional between vertebrates and invertebrates. And item number four. Hagfish are the only creatures known to have a skull but no vertebral column. Bob, go first.

B: Twenty liters of slime. I admire that ability. (laughter) If it's true. I wish I could do that. But twenty liters does sound like an awful lot. I'm not sure how big hagfish are.

S: They're a small creature. You could hold one in your hand. It looks like an eel that's maybe one to two feet long.

B: Still, twenty liters sounds huge, unless it could take in water and then slimify and then expel it. I can't imagine it being able to produce that much or have it on hand ready to go. Let's see. Number two, they found a fossil that's 300 million years old, okay. SO it's very stable. Yeah, I can kind of buy that one. Lots of examples of that kind of stability. Sharks haven't changed much in many millions of years as well. Number three, it's transitional between vertebrates and invertebrates. Oof. I never heard of that one. Transitional. Number four, the only creature known to have a skull but no vertebral column. I can't imagine. For that to happen I would think it would have had to have had vertebrae but then somehow lost it, but, I mean, could it have changed to cartilage? But yet keep the skull. Oh, wow.

S: And therefore

B: All that time I spent reading news items. (laughter) I can't say it was wasted,

E: No, it's never, never wasted.

S: But it won't help you here. (laughter)

B: Wish I could just send an email to myself: Bob, read about hagfish.

E: Hagfish.

?: You bastard. Bastard.

B: I think I'm just gonna go with the slime. It just seems like twenty liters just seems like too much. Even if you're sucking in water, you can't turn water into slime that fast.

S: All right, so slime is the fiction.

B: Yeah, so slime is the fiction.

S: Okay, Evan.

E: Am I the only one here who doesn't know what a hagfish is?

B: I've heard of it but I really can't even picture the damn thing.

E: Hagfish. I've never even heard of it. Hagfish are transitional between vertebrates and invertebrates. I've got nothing to go on there. Sure, why not? One of many probably, you know, I mean, transitional is, I don't see any reason why it couldn't be that. So I'll say that one's science. The oldest fossil, 300 million years old, okay. Remarkable similarity to modern hagfish, okay. Nothing special there, I don't think. Demonstrating unusual evolutionary stability. Okay, so, I'm not seeing anything there that's striking a strange chord in me. So, twenty liters of slime. That's a lot of slime. And hagfish, the only creatures known to have a skull but no vertebral column. Well, if the one about the skull is going to be the fiction, perhaps it's, they're basically not the only creature to have it, so I'm, but twenty liters of slime, Bob, boy, you're right. That's a lot of slime. And rapidly produced, something so small. I'm trying to think of another animal that's small that can produce a lot of defense sort of liquid or goo or whatever.

J: My ex-wife.

B: OOohhh.

E: I keep thinking of snakes and spitting cobras, and that kind of stuff, and they put out like streams of stuff, but not twenty liters. Twenty liters is too much, so I will put my nickel down with Bob and say that the slime is the fiction.


S: All righty, Jay.

J: You know the only one that I was feeling like is a hundred percent sure is the slime one. I don't think it produces twenty liters of slime, I think it excretes something that just reacts with water, and makes like a gelatin.

B: Wish I'd thought of that.

J: There's no way that it has twenty liters of anything inside of it unless the thing is gigantic.

S: As I said, you could hold it in the palm of your hand.

J: Then, okay. So there you go. So if it's doing that, then it's definitely just got some type of reactive whatever, which is the only one of all of these that I can make make sense. The second one is about it being a 300 million year-old and shows that it has a lot of evolutionary stability. All right. So I, you know, 300 million years is a l-o-o-ong time. Is there anything alive that hasn't changed that much in 300 million years? I'm sure a lot of people have a lot of different answers on that, but is this fish one of them? The molecular analysis that confirmed it's transitional between a vertebrate and an invertebrate. I don't see why I wouldn't believe that. I can believe that it is transitional. And the last one, about the hagfish are known to have a skull but no vertebral column. That's kind of odd, isn't it, Bob?

B: Yeah.

J: I mean it has a skull but it's sitting on top of what? But don't all fish, like aren't fish bones mostly cartilage? These are all really good questions, and I don't have any of the answers. 'Cause I'm not a fishologist. Thank you.

E: An ichthy-a-what

B: Ichthyologist?

J: Okay. I'm gonna say I'm gonna believe the slime. I 'm going to believe that it's the oldest fossil and the molecular one, I'm not gonna believe that it's 300 million years old. I don't think anything lasts that long. Unusual evolutionary stability for 300 million years, I don't think so. That's the fake.

S: Okay. Guess I'll take these in reverse order. You all agree that hagfish are the only creatures known to have a skull but no vertebral column.

J: Steve, do me a favor, just say I lost. Just tell me now. Don't make me suffer through all four of these.

S: No, no. You have to suffer. I will say that interestingly, if you think about it, two, three and four are all kind of related.

B: Yeah.

S: If it is 300 million years old, that means that that's the right time for it to be transitional and it kind of would make sense that it would have part of what vertebrates have. I think those all can kind of fit together. But let's see if they actually do. So you all think number four, about hagfish are the only creatures known to have a skull but no vertebral column. You all agreed with that one, and that one is . . . science.

E: Oh, boy. I almost, I almost . . . god, I came close to choosing that one.

B: So is it, is it just cartilage?

S: They don't have a vertebral column, although they have a spinal cord, just no bones. So it's a skull and a spinal cord, but no vertebral column.

B: Huh.

J: So, Steve, when you say vertebral column . . .

S: That's the bones. This'll make a little more sense when I go over the other items. 'Cause these all do tie together.

E: Are you gonna come back to it?

S: Let's go to number three: molecular analysis has confirmed that hagfish are a transitional between vertebrates and invertebrates. You all also think that that one is science, and that one is . . . the fiction.

B: (quietly) Oooh.

J: (loudly) Oooooohhhhh!

S: Sorry, guys.

E: Eeeee-eee.

S: Recent molecular analysis has in fact shown the opposite. That it is not basal or transitional between vertebrates and invertebrates. It was thought that perhaps, because of its morphology, et cetera, that it might be the closest living relative of the common ancestor, basal common ancestor to all vertebrates. That it essentially exists in that zone between vertebrates and invertebrates and might have given us a clue as to what the common ancestor of all vertebrates looked like. But, molecular analysis showed that in fact it's a vertebrate. It's well within the vertebrate clade. In fact, it's related to the lamprey.

E: It's a vertebrate with no vertebral column.

S: Yes. Lamprey and hagfish are both part of the same clade, the jawless fish, or the Agnatha.

B: Oh, cool.

S: Yeah, so, it's a jawless fish.

E: So you couldn't make a horror movie about it and call it Jaws.

S: So that leaves this huge gaping hole between vertebrates and invertebrates that we have nothing to fill.

E: Oops.

S: We don't know what the . . . I mean obviously what did fill that gap, all those creatures died out a long time ago. Nothing survived to the current time

E: See that, Steve. Therefore, evolution can't possibly be correct. (laughter)

S: We'll find, I'm sure some fossil species that fill that gap, but

E: And then two new gaps will arise.

B: Smaller ones.

J: All right, let's talk about slime.

S: Hagfish isn't it. We're getting there. The oldest fossil hagfish is 300 million years old and shows remarkable similarity to modern hagfish demonstrating unusual evolutionary stability. That one is true, in fact

J: I can't believe it.

S: As far as we know there's only one fossil hagfish and it looks very very similar, again lending support to the notion that it's a very basal creature. It's very primitive, if you will. There are some differences. It had other structures in the head and, well, the fossil revealed tentacles, head structures and internal organs. No other fossils in this group, Myxinidae, has been reported. The fossil hagfish differed from living forms in the position of the gills, the feeding apparatus, and it had more developed eyes, actually

B: Wow.

S: than the living one. But otherwise it was very similar. So, showing a long conservative geological history. Conservation is the term for stable over evolutionary time.

E: Conservation.

S: They're conserved, features are conserved. They last a long time throughout evolutionary history. Yeah, there were so many things I could have talked about with the hagfish. They have eye spots. It's one of those creatures that have a very primitive but functional eye. Probably can see the direction of light, maybe make out sort of vague, shadowy forms, but can't focus. It doesn't have a lens or any of the other sophisticated structures of an eye. This also brings up another notion, and that is, the question was, does it have the form that it has, primitive eyes, skull but no vertebral column, because those are features that it had 300 million years ago and they're essentially primitive, and they're basal to the vertebral line, or is it degenerate? Did it lose these structures over evolutionary time? And now the thinking is that it's degenerate. That the hagfish has lost its vertebral column. Lost its eyes. Through its early evolution. So it makes it look more primitive than it actually is. And that's why the molecular analysis, molecular genetic analysis, differed from the morphological analysis, 'cause it answered that question. It's not primitive, it's degenerate. Like, parasites for example, parasites often become much more simple, simplified over time, they lose a lot of their structure. The hagfish is not a parasite, but it is a scavenger. It feeds on dead fish, dead carcasses at the bottom of the ocean. And in fact it will often eat its way inside the creature and then eat it from the inside out.

B: Cool.

J: (makes a disgusted sound)

S: It doesn't have a jaw, but it does have a ring of teeth that are made from keratin. Keratinous teeth. Which means that the hagfish can produce as much as twenty liters of slime as a defense against predators is science. And that's the one I was hoping to get you guys on. It's the most surprising fact about it. I mean, we'll link to videos of

E: (laughing) That's gotta be disgusting.

S: Yeah, just like, pulling slime off the hagfish, just throwing off slime. And Jay, you're exactly correct, it secretes a protein that reacts with the salt water to produce the slime.

E: Good job, Jay.

S: So it greatly expands in volume once the protein is secreted. And this is a very active area of research, to look at the structure of this protein and maybe we could learn stuff about it.

J: It's not the only creature that does that, anyway.

S: Yeah, yeah. And there's also theories about how does the slime function as a defense mechanism. And it seems that the dominant theory is the gill-clogging theory. It clogs up the gills of fish predators. But of course it can also can potentially clog up the gills of the hagfish itself. So it has developed techniques to free itself from its own slime. It can sneeze and project out any slime that's in its gills. And it also curls up in a certain way that pushes all the slime off of its body so it sort of escapes from the predator and the slime at the same time. It's a pretty cool little creature. Obviously very successful strategy, that's survived for 300 million years without much change because it's very successful at what it does.

J: Maybe we should have one on the show.

S: Yeah, sure. Well, I think we just did. (laughter) It was tricky, it was tricky.

E: Very tricky.

S: You know four items is always tricky, and yeah. You didn't know about it. It's a really bizarre creature.

J: But if you had to pick a winner from tonight's game, Steve, who would it be?

S: Well, you definitely hit the nail on the head with the slime, Jay, so you do get some

E: Brownie points!

S: Honorable mention.

J: Thank you.

S: for that.

E: I agree with that. How about you, Bob?

S: You were wrong and you lost.

B: Not really. (laughter) The fiction was my second choice, so I think, I'm just gonna say that.

S: Yeah.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:09:45)[edit]

S: All right, well, Jay, do you have a quote for us this week?

J: The quote was sent in by McGuffin. McGuffin! Yeah.

S: Isn't that like when you screw up on a golf swing and you take another swing?

E: That's a Mulligan. (laughter) Good one.

J: This is a quote by Samuel Arbesman. Does anybody know who Samuel Arbesman is?

E: I don't know that name, no.

J: He is a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Apparently this is a quote from a book that he wrote. And the quote is:

The Web is great for finding a list of the ten biggest cities in the United States, but if the scientific literature is merely littered with wrong facts, then cyberspace is an enticing quagmire of falsehoods, propaganda, and just plain bunkum. There simply is no substitute for skepticism.

E: Um hm.

B: Huhh.

J: (Shouts) Samuel Arbesman!

S: Nice quote.

E: Sammy.

J: Pretty much says it all. The internet is a rat trap for bad information. You have to be a skeptic just to navigate yourself through the web and not get caught up in any of the B.S. that you'll find on there. That's why finding sites that you trust, new sources that you trust, columnists that you trust, blogs that you trust, you know, and even still, you have to keep your skeptical radar up and functioning because we even make mistakes on this show and we're highly skeptical.

S: Occasionally.

J: But it happens, and we welcome anybody's updates or better information, and when we can, we'll let the audience know. And it's just the process of science.

S: Absolutely.

E: Look, you know, I mean we share genetic traits with the hagfish. What can we say? We're flawed.

S: We're closely related to the hagfish.

J: So, as people are listening to this, Steve, we're gonna be at CSICON.

S: That's right. We're at CSICON as we speak. Hopefully having a good time. Probably at the SGU dinner or recording our private show.

E: Very cool.

B: Cool.

S: But we'll be back. The next two episodes after this one will be the ones we recorded live at CSICON. Then we'll be back to our old schedule for the winter. 'Cause the next event after CSICON is gonna be NECSS in April. It's a long time. All right, guys, well thanks for joining me this week.

J: Thank you, Steve.

B: You're welcome.

E: Doctor.

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

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


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