SGU Episode 391

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to navigation Jump to search
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs: transcription, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.
Please help out by contributing!
How to Contribute

SGU Episode 391
12th Jan 2013
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 390                      SGU 392

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Captain, the most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom, is 'I do not know.'

Lt. Commander Data

Download Podcast
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 Tuesday, January 8th 2013 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: Hi, hi, hi everyone!

B: Hello!

S: Well, hello Mr Deltoid. What's up?


E: That was on this weekand and for the first time in about --oh, I don't know-- probably fifteen years I sat down and watched it beginning to end...

All: The Clockwork Orange

E: The Clockwork Orange, and wow, it's just... it's a tour de force, really.

S: Did you viddy well, little brother?

E: (laughter)) little bit of the ultra-violence.

B: That movie, you'd think that it wouldn't age well. Because of just how weird and it seems like it was very much shot in the 70s. It has a very intense 70s feel to it...

S: Weird does age well, cause it isn't really anchored in any particular time...

This Day in Skepticism (1:04)[edit]

  • January 12, 1967: Dr. James Bedford becomes the first person to be cryonically preserved with intent of future resuscitation.

R: Hey Jay! Happy bedford Day!

J: Awesome! Thank you for reminding me!

E: What's a Bedford?

R: A bedford is a cryonically preserved man. On January 12th, 1967, Dr James Bedford became the first person to be cryonically suspended, following his death from cancer at the age of 73. The Life Extension Society offered anybody the chance to be the first person to be frozen, and they said, "free of charge". So it was quite the deal, Bedford was accepted, and it's nice to think of this as, like, a happy Futurama-esque type of thing, where he died and he was carefully packed up and placed in a container where he remains to this day. Unfortunately the job was pretty well botched, apparently. Robert Nelson of the Cryonic Society of California took the lead on it, but he was missing for an hour after Bedford died. He eventually came around, and he and his cohorts injected Bedford with all the necessary chemicals, laid dry ice on him and packed him up and shoveled him from place to place as hijinx ensued, apparantly, like a Weekend at Bernies sequel set in the Arctic. Within a week Bedford's family could apparently tell how inept Nelson was, and they took control of the body, which was smart because in the following decade Nelson would be sued for allowing nine bodies to thaw without telling anybody...

B: Oops...

R: The family ended up spending hundreds of thousands of dollars just to maintain Bedford's body while fighting with various Cryonics organizations, before at last Alcors Life Extension Program stepped in and offered to take him in. Remarkably, throughout all of that Bedfords body did appear to have been frozen through all of this wacky adventures. However, the chemicals he was injected with probably did not prevent ice crystals from forming or in any way protect his brain. So at this point he's probably just a well-preserved frozen meat potato. But he is a well-preserved frozen meat potato of historical import. Happy Bedford Day!

B: There had to be a first, right?

S: And he's still at Alcor?

R: Yes.

E: Well, contracts are contracts. They have to live up to their obligation.

B: I wouldn't just say that. I mean, the people at Alcor absolutely have a commitment to preserving life and they knew that this person wanted to be frozen...

R: But the real heroes of the story are Bedford's family, I think. Because his family apparently didn't even... I think it was mostly his son, his daughter-in-law and his wife, and apparently they didn't even really believe that his was going to work, but they were really committed to honoring his final wishes, so --you know, that's a crazy thing: can you imagine all of that money on chemicals and upkeep just to keep the body of your loved one frozen, when you don't even think that's actually going to do anything? Just because that's what he wanted before he died? It's kind of amazing.

S: Bob, speaking of frozen temperatures:


News Items[edit]

Below Absolute Zero (4:15)[edit]

S: I've read on the internet, that scientists have produced a temperature lower than absolute zero, and I know that science reporting on the internet can be misleading. So it's pretty exciting...?


B: So frustrating. Ah, you know --like Steve was saying-- if you believe in a lot of these news stories, scientists are saying that they have, they've gone faster than the speed of light! -- No, wait, that's not it... They've actually created temperatures colder than absolute zero. There's lots of parellels with the "breaking of the speed of light"... Y'know, so many people are reporting it, it's gotte be true, right? Ah, let me just give you some examples:, a site that I like a lot, wrote in a post: "Scientists have created a gas colder than absolute zero", and Geekosystem said that: "Take that, Lord Kelvin! Researchers create gas particles colder than absolute zero" and it just wrankles me, every time I read that over and over and over. Now, here's some good titles... here are some of the good titles that I came across -- Newscientists had one: "Cloud of atoms goes beyond absolute zero". Now beyond is much better, it's not perfect but it's much better than going below zero, cause beyond has lots of other implications with it. And my favorite was from Ars Technica. Their title was: "Entropy drop -- Scientists create negative temperature system" and that's really the crux right there...

S: That's the only accurate description of all of the things you have said...

B: Yeah, absolutely. Beyond I could deal with because in a sense you can think of it of going beyond, but below is kind of pissing me of...

E: Did you guys find this to be subtle differences or extreme sort of differences...


E: ...and descriptions of what was going on, cause I had a hard time ??? it, too, and I thought it was more on the subtle side.

B: It's-- some of them, some of the articles were actually fairly decent in some of the details, but they clearly said at the beginning, that they made temperatures colder than absolute zero, which they absolutely did not do. That's, and, just having that one sentence in your article is enought to ruin it for me cause it just shows that you really did not do your research and you don't understand-- as little as I understand, you understand even less. So let's go over what the scientists did or did not do. These scientists were from the University of Munich in Germany. They cooled a 100.000 atoms to a few billionth of a degree Kelvin, nano-Kelvin. Now, we should dive into Kelvin just a little bit. I'm sure just most-- everyone has heard about the Kelvin temperature scale. The important thing is that it's very different from Celsius and Fahrenheit that everyone is used to, because it's an absolute temperature scale. The coldest temperature is zero--bam! That's it! By definition it doesn't get any colder than zero. Otherwise this is known as absolute zero, of course, and this is the point at which all thermal motion stops. And for a little bit of perspective: it's -459°F and -273°C.

S: And the pedantic point that we often get called on...

B: and I, cause I said "degrees", you don't have to say "degrees"...

S: Yeah, there are no "degrees Kelvin", it's just "Kelvin".

B: Yeah. So it's considered impossible, then, to actually reach absolute zero, which pretty much everyone was just ignoring in these articles. One reason, this was an interesting take: it would take infinite energy to remove that last iotta of heat, kind of exceeding the speed of light, you get diminishing returns, it takes more and more energy to have, you know, less and less significant gain. So, it's kind of like that, with removing heat and making things colder takes more energy. Eventually you would need infinite energy to remove the last bit.

S: But worse than that, Bob, is that you can't be going slower than stopped, right? I mean, so, conceptionally there is no such thing as "below absolute zero" on that scale!

E: But there is no quantum equivalent of that? I mean, there is no quantum way to go about achieving that...?

B: Well, actually it's even worse if you look at it from a quantum mechanical point of view. You know, Heisenberg uncertainty principal says it is a minimum amount of uncertainty in an atom's position and momentum, so if you know where your atom-- you have to know where your atom is in the experiment, so you have to know it's position to a certain level of exactitude. But that means, that the momentum will be even, will have lots of uncertainty. So therefore there's always gonna be this little bit of uncertainty in the movement, which means there's gonna always be some heat, and reaching absolute zero is impossible.

S: Yeah, cause if you-- if an atom was at absolute rest, than you would know exactly its position and momentum, and that's impossible.

B: Right, it's just impossible. Which is a lamentation of nature itself, not hour instrumentality or our technology.

S: ...apperently...

B: It's beyond that. Yeah. So back to the scientists. So they cooled these atoms, they put 'em in a vacuum of course to isolate them from the environment and other heat sources. And they used --this is critical-- they used a web of laser beams and magnetic fields, to keep the atoms in this sort of lattice arrangement and to control, how they behaved. Now, they authored their behaviour in such a way that they created in essence another state of matter. Another state that scientists unfortunately describe as negative temperature. And I don't like "temperature" in this situation because there's so much baggage with it, cause everyone thinks, you know, "-5 Celsius", "-5 Fahrenheit", I mean the people intuitively know that you can go beyond and, you know, below zero, but you can't do that with Kelvin, and that's -- so it's got a lot of problems with it that people just can't-- or having a hard time just thinking "Oh, so what? Now there weren't below zero, not a big deal! I do that every day in the winter." But when you talk about negative temperature, that's when things get a little bit whacky. It's negative in that the pattern of the distribution of energy is inverted when you compare that pattern to positive temperature. The Boltzman Distribution is the distribution of energies of atoms with a positive temperature. Negative temperature is the opposite. It's inverted, so that's kind of where "negative" comes in. It's not negative as in "below zero", it's negative in that it's, the distribution is kind of different.

So here's a good way to understand it: when you have positive temperature, which is temperature that we know of, that we deal with every day, it's regular temperature that you heard of before you probably even read this article. Positive temperature will always have most of the particles in question in a low-energy state with a decreasing number in higher states. Ok? So no matter how hot things get, you always can have most of those atoms in the lowish energy state, with a number of other, fewer amount of atoms in that higher energy state. So, that's positive energy.

Negative energy is the exact opposite. Most of the particles are in the highest possible energy state, with fewer and fewer in the lower energy state. Bam! That's it! That's negative temperature. It doesn't sound that bizzar when you look at it that way. Altough it's not classical, you need a quantum system that really, to really see this. You not gonna see this on some really cold planet in outer space, or pretty much anywhere else. This is something that-- they didn't-- I don't think they even thought they could do this years ago. I didn't even think they thought they can actually pull this off, cause it's such a quirky, unusual thing and you need quatum mechanics to actually do it. So, this temperature realm then wasn't created by slowly cooling more and more until you got below absolute zero. If you think of absolute zero as the low point of a valley between mountains, what they did was not to dig a little bit deeper in that valley; what they did is make it so that in one step you move from the valley to the low point of the valley to the peak of a mountain in just one step. So that's...

J: What do you mean by one step? I'm not sure...

B: Because what they did, they took the system of atoms, and they brought it to just about, very close to absolute zero, and then, using the laser beams and magnetic fields, they tweaked in in such a way to give all-- most of the particles the maximum amount of energy that they could attain in that system. So they went to a very low energy, cold system, to a much higher energy, stable system in one step.

S: The other thing, that --correct me if I'm wrong, Bob-- that, because it was in a vaccuum, and isolated as it was, once the atoms were in that inverted distribution, where they were mostly in a high-energy state, because now we're talking about a different property, and that's-- it's a thermodynamic property of the distribution of energy-- it would actually-- it would have had to spontanously decrease its entropy in order to spread out. And they didn't have the energy to do that. And so it was sort of stuck in that state.

B: Right. And that was the key to these atoms exhibiting...

S: yeah

B: ...that negative temperature effect. Yeah, that was absolute key: Without their artificial manipulation of those atoms using their technology, their lasers and magnetic fields, they would}ve never been able to pull this off. But they did show that they can create this realm of negative temperature, and this isn't just a weird little, you know, lab experiment. This is real, this is definitely something that exists.

E: It occurs naturally, Bob?

B: No, but it's... negative temperature may result from a, like, a quirk in our technical definition of temperature, when you bring in thermodynamics and energy, but the behaviour of these systems are bizarr and they are very real, so this is a real thing. And the potential, I think, is really, really fascinating. For example, the negative temperatures kept the cluster of atoms from collapsing, which has some similarities to dark energy and how it's preventing the universe from collapsing, so we might get some insight into dark energy from these, this, you know, negative temperature realm here. Another one is that the negative temperatures could create these really bizarr, hyper-efficient heat engines, really wild stuff, they could potentially not only absorb energy from hotter substance but they could absorb energy from colder ones also at the same time. Really kinda counter-intuitive things that a heat engine based on this technology could potentially do. Another thing is that a cloud of these negative temperature atoms-- they would actually in a sense defy gravity: they would float up instead of floating down as you would think. So there is a lot of meat to this topic. If you're even a little interested, I recommend just go to a bunch of websites, especially Ars Technica, had a great discussion of this. (inaudible) original work from the authors, and it's really fascinating stuff.

S: Yeah, it's interesting. It's very-- definitely esoteric. But one concept, I think, that really makes it is the thermodynamic distribution of the energies. Once you get that, than it's all-- seems to make sense.

B: Right.

S: Alright, let's get down to earth, I guess, a little bit. Rebecca, tell us about the Houston cancer quack.

Burzynski Challenge (14:50)[edit]

R: Happy Birthday Stanilaw Burzynski

S: who by the way was my jackass of the year for 2012

R: that's right

E: Ah

R:if our listeners recalled two long episodes ago we did talk about Burzynski. He is the jerkwad who sells phony quote and quote cures to people with cancer at a very steep price in Houston and he's also of course threatened to sue ton of people who critize him incluiding skeptical teenage hero Rhys Morgan.

E: Yeah and now there is you calling him jerkwad

R: (laughs) Oh yeah i'm looking forward to my letter from his lawyers. So yes skeptics are doing something about it. If you go to the Houston cancer quack[1], you will see information on the fact that on january 23rd, it's Stanislaw Burzinski's 78th birthday. and to mark that occasion skeptics are attempting to raise at least 30 000 dollars which they will donate to St Jude children's hospital for kids with cancer and what they're doing is they're hoping to attract some a bit of media attention to this and also to challenge Burzinski to match those funds in order to help kids with cancer as oppose to ripping off people of all ages with cancer as he currently does. the 30 000 mark was chosen because that's about the cost of what Burzinski charges for his anti-neoplaston therapy Steve say it

S: Anti-neoplaston yeah

R: So yeah 30 ... 30 grand, it' what it costs so wouldn't it be cool if we could raise 30 000 dollars and then go to him and say will you match us? will you actually help kids with cancer? I'm not expecting him to match it but what we can do is raise some money for a good cause while hopefully turning a bit of the media spotlight on to Burzinski in the hopes that more people will call him out maybe he will be further investigated maybe we can prevent more people from getting rip off.

E: Hey is there any chance that he is gonna pony up 30 grand and kinda turn it to his advantages in a sense and you know say I'm not such a bad guy after all look at me I'm you know I love children too and all that stuff?

R: Well you know even if he does then great for children with cancer I'm mean it's kind of "–"

E: Well sure

R: It's kinda of a win-win on our end because you know "–"

E: But does he look a sympathetic figure at that point I'm just saying but we're trying to frame the debate here and let people understand exactly what's going on. Will people be sympathetic to him?

S: Say will it be a PR backfire if he actually gives the money?

R: I can't imagine that it would because what this is doing it's simply turning the microscope under Burzinsky because once we show what he's actually doing regardless of whether or not he ponies up the 30 000 dollars. More media attention on what he's doing means that he's going to be called out, that he won't be able to perpetuate his little scam.

S:Well we hope, I mean, the evidence suggest that more media attention might actually drive more patients to his clinic.

R: That's true. That could happen

S: We can't really guaranty that's not the case. But it is I mean you know, they're trying to frame the question in a loaded way that 's sort of a no win for him. It's like: will you finally do something to help, to really help cancer patients? you know that's like: have you stopped beating your wife yet? There is no question


S: That you give to that. there is no answer you can give to call into question the question itself but "–"

R: Yeah there is "–"

B: Whatever

R: That all the information that they're sending out in order to promote this effort includes extensive information on Burzinski's unethical trials and things like that and even actual descriptions of what happen to people who have been ripped off by him so

S: Yeah

R: You know patients stories

S: It's amazing that he's been able to scurp by for decades.

R: So yeah, I mean all of this it's going out to media outlets and I don't know I'm hopeful though we can actually catch someone eyes you know get some actually investigative reports done. I've already seen some. There is some major online outlets that have covered him like Boing Boing.

S: Yeah

R:I believe it has taking him to task

E: That's good

R: So yeah so hopefully we get a bit more of that going.

S: Yeah

R: I wish them the best of luck

S: Yeah I "&ndash" absolutely it's a reasonable idea you know. I'd say it couldn't hurt, I hope not but I do think he's got enough exposure. He probably has more than enough patients to treat so doesn't really matter if he gets more attention.


S: You know he's already come up against the Texas board of health and got in by multiple times I don't know what else we can do from that point of view.

R: Yeah I mean if there is enough public outrage then you know there is more look how long it took "&ndash"

S: (inaudible)

R: Look how long it took to get rid of Wakefield you know

E: Oof... 12 years

R: Yeah and a lot of that came by the efforts of skeptics you know who didn't stop criticizing, didn't stop publicizing what he was doing

S: Yeah the only difference is that Burzinsky has already gone through the process and got off

R: Yeah

S: You know it's not like they just haven't seen fit to investigate him or bring him before the board of health it's been done. He just manages to slink away every time.

R: Yeah

S: Which is unfortunate. I think it's just we just don't have the regulatory infrastructure here to deal with people like Burzinsky. So long as you're not doing certain things as sleeping with your patients or overbilling medic care you know if you're not doing those things if you're just practicing pseudo-science, it's very difficult and in some states impossible to

E: Wah

S: To get doctors you know to hem to act against their license or to do something. Base upon that the only thing you're left with is malpractice.

E: Yeah malpractice

S: Yeah but then you need somebody to sue him you know for malpractice

R: Are there any lobbying groups that are working on trying to push for legislation on things like that, do you know of, Steve?

S: Well there is the institute for science and medicine, ISM, of which I am the chairman

R: Never heard of them

S: Yeah


E: What now?

S: We're still getting started. It's the same casting characters: skeptical physicians who are trying to do this and then there are definitively local efforts in various states but not nearly enough. The problem is that we don't have funding you know this is something we do on our spare time on a shoe string budget. Whereas we're fighting against people who have millions of dollars at their disposal because there is money on the other side and there isn't money on our side. There is money in selling snake oil and pseudo-science. There is no money on calling BS on it.

R:Well, maybe that should be this group next fund raising effort

S: Sure


S: Well we're always talking about what we could be doing on our end to try to combat this. So anyway this is a reasonable enough experiment and we'll see how it goes. I wish it well.

Genome Editing (22:24)[edit]

Celebrity Pseudoscience (32:59)[edit]

Celebrity Experts (43:20)[edit]

Who's That Noisy? (49:13)[edit]

  • Last week's puzzle: A jeweler has 9 pearls, which all look and feel exactly alike. However, he knows that one of them weighs more than the other 8. He has access to a classic scale (the ones with two arms, often seen in Lady Justice's hand). What is the minimum number of measurements required to know, with absolute certainty, which pearl is the one that weights more? Answer: 2

Name That Logical Fallacy (52:47)[edit]

It’s really not that hard to answer those questions no matter what understanding you come from. God of course created them full grown to start with. Adam did not have to wait for the trees to grow old enough to bear fruit from a seedling start. God did not create trees as seeds in the ground, and God according to Genesis did not create an egg for the first chicken to hatch from. The Starting place of growth of all creation is clearly full grown adulthood. The light-year travel time is clearly by the same extension created already reaching the earth. Basically at the same extension that God created all the matter and energy and photons in the star light-years away, he also simultaneously created every photon from its rays traveling to earth.[1]

Science or Fiction (1:02:02)[edit]

Item number one. A new study finds that the international prototype kilogram (IPK) has put on about 100 micrograms during its lifetime. Item number two. China is confirmed to have "cyber assassin" agents who specialize in killing targets by hacking medical or other technology. And item number three. Scientists discover that the Penicillium mold is able to reproduce sexually.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:06)[edit]

Captain, the most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom, is 'I do not know.'

Lt. Commander Data played by Brent Spiner


NECSS (1:16:52)[edit]

NECSS - Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism

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.


Navi-previous.png Back to top of page Navi-next.png