SGU Episode 397

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

SGU Episode 397
23rd February 2013
Russian meteor.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 396                      SGU 398

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.

Winston Churchill

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 Wednesday, February 20, 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: Gott kvold, everyone.

J: I'm very cold, thank you.

S: What language is that, Evan?

E: Icelandic.

J: Did you say "golf cold"?

E: No, not "golf" cold. Goff cold.

J: Yeah, golf cold.

E: Goth cold. That's how you would bastardize it in American.

R: No, Goth, like what teenagers dress up as.

S: Somebody should develop a slang based upon that language, just like in A Clockwork Orange, they had the slang based upon Russian. Like, "horror show." So that would be Goth cold.

This Day in Skepticism (0:57)[edit]

  • February 23, 1927 - German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg writes a letter to fellow physicist Wolfgang Pauli, in which he describes his uncertainty principle for the first time.

R: Hey, speaking of Goths.

B: (laughing) Good luck.

R: This is a good one. You're gonna like this. Speaking of Goths, today, February 23, 1927, the German physicist Heisenberg first described the uncertainty principle in a letter he wrote to Wolfgang Pauli.

S: Are you certain about that?

R: Ah, well. I do know it was on that date, but I'm not sure how quickly he wrote it.

J: That letter started with "Hey, Pauli. I found something. I'm not too sure about it, but I need your help."

B: (laughing) Oh, god.

R: Any more? Any more?

B: No.

E: Uhhhhhhhh.

R: Good.

B: I would never sully his memory, making a lame joke like that.

R: Well, the classic one is that he's in his car, he's pulled over by the cop. The cop says "Do you know how fast you were going?" and Heisenberg says "No, but I do know exactly where I am." Which, of course, refers to the uncertainty principle. For those who don't know, it's the idea that the more precisely we can figure out a particle's position, the less precisely we can know its velocity.

B: Yeah, position and momentum. But also, that's a specific case. It more generally applies to lots of different paired variables. They're called conjugate variables. There's lots of different things you could apply it to besides position and momentum, but, yeah, that's one of my favorite principles.

R: I didn't know you had a favorite principle, but I like that. (Bob laughs)

S: It's right up there with the Pauli exclusion principles of Wolfgang Pauli.

B: It blows away the Pauli exclusion principle.


S: That two identical fermions may occupy the same quantum state simultaneously. That's pretty .. .

B: Nah.

S: Come on.

B: Compared to the uncertainty principle? Or the indeterminacy principle.

S: Did you know that Wolfgang Pauli, in his later years, started to write about evolution and consciousness, and he opposed the neo-Darwinian synthesis of the time? And, to this day, creationists quote him as a Nobel-winning physicist who was way ahead of his time in recognizing

E: Oh, that's great.

S: that evolution was bunk?

R: Oh, Wolfgang.

B: Wow.

(garbled comments)

B: All the more reason to denigrate his principle over

S: The thing is he was looking at

E; That's the point, Bob. (Bob laughs)

S: He was looking at it from the point of view of a physicist and saying have you actually . . . first of all, he didn't like the fact that biologists were using the term "random" colloquially rather than mathematically and rigorously. Okay. And he said, have you done the calculations to prove that random mutations can result in the diversity that we see today in, or are you not worried about how much time there was for evolution to take place. And he said . . . I guess he was advocating the alternate notion that there's some directed mutations. That it's not all, the mutations are not random. But subsequent research has definitely demonstrated that mutations occur without reference to their usability or their phenotypic effects.

E: Yeah.

S: So, essentially, random.

B: Yeah, but did he understand selective pressure?

S: Yeah, that wasn't the basis of his objection.

B: Okay.

S: And remember, this is all pre-molecular genetics. So you can't fault him for knowledge that didn't exist at the time.

B: I can.

R: No, Bob can fault him. (laughter)

S: But still, it's an example of a brilliant scientist venturing out of his field of expertise and he just didn't understand all the nitty-gritty details of evolution or biology at the time. He tried to look at biology, look at evolution, through the lens of a mathematician, and it led him astray.

E: That's a shame.

B: He should have made a time machine using his Pauli exclusion principle and then maybe he would have understood.

E: Wow. Wow. Bob, why don't you just dig up the corpse and start slapping it a bit?

J: Whenever you hear a scientist make a huge gaff like this it's because they're typically talking outside of their field of expertise, and that's the problem. 'Cause you're like he's a scientist and this guy should know what he's talking about. And that's typically not the case.

S: Um hm.

E: He should know enough to defer to the experts on such matters.

S: Yeah. It's like Lord Kelvin tried to prove that the earth was young, as a physicist, when the geologists knew it was old. And he thought he knew better than the geologists. But he didn't.

R: I think cases like that are a really good example even for skeptics to remember the importance of not relying on arguments from authority and to always go back to what the person's actually saying as opposed to what they're degrees are.

S: Right.

B: Yeah, but Steve, didn't Kelvin hedge his bets a little bit by saying that unless there's some unknown process in the earth that causes things to heat up and he was unaware of radioactive decay. If he did know it he might have, he would have probably thought twice about it. Like, oh, okay.

S: Yeah. That's right.

News Items[edit]

Russian Meteor (5:59)[edit]

S: So, Bob, tell us about this Russian meteor hubbub.

B: Well, guys, Friday, February 15th, I think should be forever known as Asteroid Day. I actually said "Holy crap!" out loud in a crowded cafeteria line at work when I read the line "Hundreds injured by Russian meteorite." It's like "Holy Crap!" So I'm watching the video, I'm buying my food, ignoring the people, the person making my, trying to charge me for my breakfast. And like I'm reading, looking at this video, just my mind is completely blown. And not only was that arguably a once-in-a-century meteor, but we also had a crazy fly-by by the other bigger asteroid that same day, so close that it was in the orbit of satellites. So that's why I think it should be called Asteroid Day. Pretty amazing day.

E: And the two are not related, no relation . . .

(garbled comments)

J: Well, kinda. I mean it's with all this global warming and everything. (laughter)

B: Whoa – non sequitur.

S: No, that was, a CNN news anchor asked Bill Nye if these meteorites had anything to do with global warming. And Bill Nye was a little

B: Aghast, I hope.

S: A little aghast, yeah.

R: His bow tie spun around. (laughter)

B: Nice visual.

J: It's the first time Bill Nye said on TV "Are you shitting me?" (laughter)

B: All right, back to me. (laughter) The first thing I want to say about this is I love the story

E: About Pauli?

B: for many reasons.

E: Yeah.

B: One reason being that no psychics predicted it. Hello? McFly. Don't you think one damn psychic would predict this if psychics were real. That's all I gotta say about that.

E: It's not gonna stop them from claiming it, though. Someone's gonna look back into their freakin' notes, you know, on their website or whatever, from two years ago.

B: Oh, come on.

R: Yeah, I'm pretty sure Nostradamus had something to say about this.

E: That was me.

B: So during the morning commute in Chelyabinsk, Russia in Siberia, this utterly amazing meteor appeared in the sky, flared up into a ball rivaling the sun, and exploded, producing a shock wave that broke windows, it damaged buildings, injuring close to 1,500 people.

S: Wow.

B: If you haven't seen the video, I have to ask: why? And how is that even possible? Okay?

R: Oh, I could answer that actually. There were very many people in Germany who couldn't watch the video because, like the big video that was going around, one of the most popular ones, had a radio playing in the background, and the local . . . Germany's version of those guys who run around suing everybody for downloading MP3's a couple years ago?

B: Yeah.

R: Their version was demanding money for every time it was played, every time the video was played

B: Oh, my god.

R: so it had to be blocked in Germany. So, that's their excuse. It's a pretty good excuse.

B: All right, so, filtered like that, okay, that's the one excuse I've hard that makes any sense at all.

S: But there were hundreds of videos of this thing.

E: Yeah, hundreds.

R: There were, yeah.

B: Yeah, there might have been hundreds, but there's really one main video. The one, the best kick-ass video. That's the one I see over and over and over.

R: The one of the driver

B: Oh, yeah. So I haven't seen many more than that one. Except the blast of light that you see, that totally

E: Like the shock waves, yeah. The windows all being blown out.

B: There's really only a few. So I don't know where all those other ones are, but

J: I like the one where you could hear it. There was a guy sitting out on his deck, and he didn't really see anything but you hear the phenomenal noise of that crash. Wow. It was really scary just to hear it off of the, I guess this guy was using a small video camera. Hey, I got a question. Why was that guy videotaping himself driving on the highway?

B: The first thing I thought was all right, everyone's got a smart phone with a video recorder on it. All right, some guy just had it at the ready, ready to go. But it turns out that a lot of people in Russia have these car cams, these dashboard cameras because nobody trusts the cops. Because if you get into an accident, chances are that you are gonna be totally screwed because the cops are totally on the take, and this stuff. Plus, apparently, lots of government officials have, they can pretty much do anything they want on the road and they get away with it, so unless you have video evidence, you're gonna get totally nailed in court. So everybody's got these dashboard cameras.

R: You're half right.

B: Half?

R: See, well, yeah, I have to say this because I've, for quite awhile now, I've been a huge fan of a series of videos that you can find on YouTube of insurance scams. And one of the main reasons why Russians and also there are a few other countries, that it's taken off and the reason why they put them in there—go look at these videos—like failed insurance scam videos. They show people just running out into the street to try to get hit by cars in order to sue them or to threaten to sue and get money. It's really hilarious. I mean, it's awful, in a lot of ways, but the bad ones, the failed ones, are hilarious. So anyway.

B: Okay. I have heard of that angle. Not in relation to these dashboard cams, but I would say I was 70% right. But that is a good point. This thing was pretty much a whopper. I'm surprised how much the estimates changed, though, in terms of its size and weight. But they're saying now it's probably 50, 55 feet long and weighed not, what were they saying initially?

E: Ten thousand tons?

B: No, no. Initially they were saying that a thousand tons or something, but now, ten thousand tons. Imagine something like that, ten thousand tons, entering the atmosphere at supersonic speed, and this thing was cruising. Eighteen kilometers a second, 40,000 miles an hour.

E: That's mach 61! Mach 61.

R: I can't imagine that many tons, so could you phrase this in terms of how many elephants it would be. Or something along those lines. (laughter)

B: Umm. I really can't. Ten thousand, so twenty thousand pounds?

S: That would be ten thousand one-tonned elephants.

R: Thank you.

B: Wow. (garbled simultaneous comments) Do they weigh a ton? I don't even know what the hell they weigh.

E: Hey, wait. African elephants? (laughter)

R: Laden or unladen? (laughter)

E: I don't know that.

S: Seriously, an adult African elephant weighs up to like 10-15,000 pounds. So about five to seven tons. Or four to five thousand kilograms, or metric tons.

B: So, you've got this thing cruising in at 40,000 miles an hour. The kinetic energy alone would knock Galactus on his ass. So, but, even at that speed, though, the atmosphere totally

E: Is that from He-Man or something?

S: Don't embarrass yourself, Evan. (laughter)

B: Even at that speed though, the atmosphere totally made that asteroid its bitch. According to Phil Plait anyway, the atmosphere could slow it down in just a few seconds from many times the speed of sound to sub-sonic. I mean that's just amazing deceleration. So of course the kinetic energy has to go somewhere, so it went into heat. So this thing just got really hot really fast. Scientists estimate that it exploded with the force of, I've heard 300 to 500 kilotons of TNT. Half a megaton, that's pretty huge. That's 30 times bigger than the bomb at Hiroshima. And the shock wave that it produced, that blasted all the damage that was on the ground. Broken windows and damaged buildings, all the injuries were essentially from falling glass, I believe. The pressure wave at ground level, typically you'd see, if it was five times above normal air pressure at sea level, you'd see some ground damage. But this was so widespread that they think that it might have been ten to twenty times that. I wonder what that would feel like if you were close enough to really feel that pressure wave? What would that feel like?

J: Not good, I'm sure. Most of the meteor probably got vaporized, but if any of it survived, it would be really valuable. You ever look up how much meteors weigh and how much they cost and all that stuff? Like these things actually go for quite a bit of money on eBay.

B: These will be, yes, they're already on eBay and I don't trust any of them, but they have found some, and yeah, if you have a piece of that . . . The problem I think would be how do you prove? Where's your certificate of authenticity? How do you possibly prove that this actually came from that meteor? I don't know how you would do it, but you would certainly find people that would want to buy it.

S: You and Jay both said "meteor" but you really should say "meteorite."

B: Hey, a couple of miscellaneous things. They're actually not sure if it was an asteroid or a comet. That's kind of, it's kind of, a lot of people are leaning towards asteroid. It's kind of similar to the Tunguska in 1908. There's some controversy over whether that was an asteroid. The main reason for this I think is there's so little out there that they're thinking maybe it was just a dirty ice ball with some rock in it and other things. And of course there are some conspiracies that have risen up around this. Of course. I found one good one from Russian Nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He said "It's not meteors falling, it's a new weapon being tested by the Americans." He then referred to warmongers in the United States being responsible for that. So, yes, this weapon was indistinguishable from a ten thousand ton rock or ball of ice entering the atmosphere at supersonic speed. Yeah, we could do that. And a lot of people are saying, why didn't we spot this thing? Why didn't we see it? And there's a lot of reasons for that. Basically, it's just too damn small. And it came out of the daytime sky. Yeah, I think we should start trying to detect things like this, 'cause if it was twice as big and came directly down into the atmosphere instead of at an angle; one of the reasons why it exploded in the air was because it went through so much of the atmosphere. If it came more straight down, then you would have seen, a lot of that city could have been destroyed. Could have been really nasty. So

S: A couple other tidbits I found interesting. This was the biggest meteor since Tunguska.

B: Yup. Yup. That we know of.

S: That we know of. Yeah, 'cause some could have hit the ocean or something and nobody ever knew about it. But, this, and both over Siberia, just by coincidence.

R: That's not really just a coincidence. It's a huge '(garbled)

S: It is. It's huge. But still, the same region of the earth. The other thing is, do you know what percentage of the earth is covered by urban areas?

R: One.

E: Less than one?

B: Hmm.

S: Three percent.

B: Oh, I was gonna say three.

S: So that's

R: But you didn't.

S: So that essentially amounts to the probability of one of these hitting an urban area. Imagine if this hit Chicago.

B: But not only that. The big fear with that is that we'll mis-identify it as a nuclear strike. And then start World War III just because of a stupid meteor.

E: I don't think so, 'cause we can detect incoming nuclear devices. We couldn't detect, the Russians couldn't detect this thing flying through the atmosphere.

S: Also, there wouldn't be any radiation. Right?

B: I don't know, you see a city going up in smoke, and you just press the damn button. It doesn't take long to launch one of those guys.

R: Yeah, but where are you launching it to?

S: (laughing) Yeah, who are you attacking?

R: Surely in the time it takes you to figure out who did it, you'd figure out that it was from space.

Spontaneous Human Combustion (17:25)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, tell us about the latest victim of spontaneous human combustion.

J: Local police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States, have recently investigated a fire in a home and guess what crazy how they haven't ruled out the fire could have been none other than spontaneous human combustion. So, for those of you who don't know what this is, it's the burning of a body without an external source of fire. That's the claim, that there is no actual external source of fire. There's a lot of history here, a lot of cases. I think there's 300 reported cases, or 200 actually, reported cases, in the last 300 years. That's right. There's a lot to read about spontaneous human combustion on line, but the bottom line is this: there is no proof that is any kind of internal chemical reaction happening in the human body. There's also no proof that there's anything supernatural going on. So in this case, the incident in Oklahoma, the investigators of the fire said that there wasn't evidence of an accelerant, which is gasoline or some type of fuel. They say that no other fire damage was found in the house, which is actually not that uncommon when somebody is the actual source of the fire. Sheriff Lockhart said they found the nearly completely charred remains of a man in the kitchen. He said, and I'm quoting, "The body was burned and it was incinerated. This is a case that I've never seen before. This is very bizarre. We're thinking someone poured something on him, but there was no fire source. I'm not saying this is what it is, but I haven't ruled it out." Meaning he hasn't ruled out spontaneous human combustion. There was no damage to the furniture or the upholstery surrounding him. The police officer also said that the body appeared to have burned for up to ten hours. The local authorities said that the victim, 65-year-old Danny VanZant, had a history of heavy drinking and smoking.

R: That's interesting. Probably doesn't have anything to do with the fact that he died exactly the way we've seen other people die with those same issues E: Do none of these investigators know how to use Google? I mean in about five seconds they could figure out that there's a possible alternative explanation to spontaneous human combustion.

J: And why's the sheriff investigating this? Why not the fire chief? Like someone with some type of education in fire sciences.

R: Well, I think Evan is onto something there. I would say that the answer is "No." They do not know how to use Google. In the past we've talked about studies that show that people are surprisingly bad at Googling for things so I would imagine in a case like this he wouldn't Google for the exact details of the case, he would Google "spontaneous human combustion." Because that's the thing that he's

E: And come up with all the crap.

R: Exactly. Yeah.

J: So the sheriff continued to say that his body was burned in an inconsistent way from an accidental fire such as from a cigarette dropping. Which, I'm really not sure that that's the case, right? Like, we're talking about someone who doesn't have an education in fire science. So let me hit you guys with some science. Let's just go down to the baseline here.

B: Hit me!

E: Ow.

J: What do we need for combustion to happen? You need at least three things. You need a source of ignition, like heat, some kind of heat, you know, it could be another fire source or whatever, right?

E: Cigarette. Anything.

J: Yeah.

B: Oxygen!

J: Oxygen and fuel. In these cases where the police or family members are finding somebody burned, and the rest of the house isn't burned, how can that possibly be? What's actually taking place? Is there any science that we could talk about right now that could make it so somebody can burn, their actual flesh would burn but the surrounding house wouldn't. Seems very counterintuitive, I know. But there are actually a few different things at play here. One is, there's something called the wick effect where somebody's fat tissue in their body could liquefy from heat and then that fat could actually work just like a candle where that is the actual fuel source. And for somebody that's unconscious, say, from, oh, I don't know, overdrinking, they can burn. They can actually die from this. There have been cases, a very famous picture of spontaneous human combustion. There was a charred body and you see it's charred all the down to the legs, and it stops pretty much there, around the knees, if I'm remembering correctly. Very important point to add in here: the lady tripped, and her head went into the fireplace. Now it's also possible with someone that's taking in a lot of alcohol, literally you have alcohol in the fluids in your body. That is flammable. And a dehydrated person, in this case Mr. VanZant, didn't even have running water in his house. So, he's drinking something. And the way they described the house, he was filthy, everything in the house was dirty, and everything. It was a pretty grotesque picture. I'm just sure that this guy was not a peak performance.

S: Well, the other thing that researchers have found is that if you have a closed room, and let's say somebody who falls asleep, they're on medication, they're drinking alcohol, so they're unconscious, their cigarette drops on them, it starts to burn, you've got the inside-out wick effect going on; that the burning will eat up the oxygen in the room. So the oxygen will drop to very low levels; too low for there to be big flames. So that's why the room doesn't go up in flames. But the body

E: continues to burn, yeah.

S: can slowly burn and consume the body, just leaving the extremities, the feet and you know, and the head or whatever, without causing a lot of flame damage to surrounding furniture or to the room. And that perfectly explains cases like this. That has been demonstrated experimentally. It's only unknown to people who have never investigated, who don't know what they're talking about. So this is an absolutely typical case of not spontaneous combustion. It may not be that common for all of those variables to be there at the same time, but there are a couple hundred or so cases that are documented in which this is what happened. So it's not surprising at all, actually.

R: I think we're going to continue to hear the spontaneous combustion b.s. until it happens to a Russian standing right in front of his car. (laughter)

E: A dog, right? Or a cat. Animals . . . only humans ever seem to combust.

S: There's no spontaneous cow combustion. (laughter)

E: No. No.

R: I'm sorry I laugh, but . . . as a vegetarian I shouldn't laugh at that visual, but it's quite funny.

Cosmos Unstable (24:05)[edit]

S: But, don't worry, Jay, because before too long, the entire universe is going to collapse.

E: I knew it.

S: So you don't have to worry about spontaneous human combustion.

B: No, it's not.

S: Well, hang on. So, it turns out that it's possible our universe may be inherently unstable. And that all it has to do with the damn Higgs boson.

R: I knew that little guy was gonna cause trouble.

E: I blame you, Bob.

B: Don't use Higgs in vain.

S: So, the current estimate of the mass of the Higgs, Bob?

B: Is it twenty . . .

S: One hundred and twenty-six giga-electron volts. Puts it right into that range that when the physicists, you know, the theoretical physicists, do all the calculations about the ground state of the universe and all that, it turns out that that's right in the zone that if the Higgs has that weight, the ground state of the universe, the vacuum of the universe, is unstable. It's called vacuum instability. And this means that the universe has a half-life. That at some point in time, the universe will spontaneously collapse to a lower energy vacuum state, which will essentially start a new universe, in a way, and if you imagine what everyone describes this as is everything, like a wave of destruction utterly annihilating everything in its path that moves through the universe at the speed of light.

B: I hate when that happens.

S: Now I don't know where this would start; there's no such thing as the center of the universe. But, I guess it would, maybe it would start in multiple places at once, I don't know. But just imagine this wave of annihilation moving at the speed of light through the universe as it collapses to a more stable state. Now, the interesting thing is, various physical properties will make our universe stable. Other arrangements of those physical properties, again, like the mass of the Higgs being one; the mass of the top quark apparently is another one that's related to this; would make the universe unstable, and in between there is this narrow band that is called "meta-stable" which essentially means that the universe is unstable, but it will take longer than the age of the universe for it to collapse. For this to happen. So it's not technically stable, but you don't have to worry about it 'cause it would take so long to collapse, the universe is longer than that. Anyway, the age of the universe would be longer than that.

R: I mean you probably don't have to worry about it anyway. (laughter) We're still talking about quite a long time.

S: Yeah, it would be billions of years from now, in any case.

B: Yeah, but Steve, the interesting thing that I remember reading about this was that 124 to 126 gev, that's right on the border, that's a special number, for this thing to happen.

S: Yeah, that's what I'm saying, it puts us right in that narrow meta-stable band. It seems like another massive coincidence about the laws of the universe that happens to put it in this special state, this meta-stability. Now, of course, the LHC is shutting down for two years for upgrades and maintenance. They have to do this. But when it comes back online in 2015 it'll be able to get up to higher energies, and it will take a couple of years to gather data and analyze data to refine the mass of the Higgs. So we won't know for four or five years or so if the current estimate of the mass of the Higgs is accurate. If the mass is higher, then we may get back into the stable zone. And of course there are other things that could also re-establish the stability of the universe. Again, like whatever the mass of the top quark turns out to be. But also apparently that there may be solutions to this in super-symmetry and in string theory. So, I know that the super-symmetry proponents are loving this, because they say "Oh we can solve this problem with super-symmetry." And the other thing that I read where multiple people, multiple physicists were saying "Well, this is also only true if the standard model is accurate throughout the entire range of possible energy states." And that, it's possible that the standard model doesn't hold up, and that it breaks down at higher energies, you know, and that some deeper model actually holds true, and

E: So does that inoculate us from this catastrophe?

S: Yes. Yes. Yeah, so this instability will go away if the standard model does not hold up throughout the entire range of energies. So there's lots of other unknowns here. So I wouldn't panic just yet that this is going to happen.

E: Phew. Don't panic.

S: It is interesting that the values that we have now puts us in this little narrow band of meta-stability.

B: Yeah, that's a little scary.

S: And you wonder, you know the laws of the universe seems to conspire to, you know this is all the anthropic principle, right? So, if gravity were a little bit different, we wouldn't be here. If any of a hundred properties of the universe were a little bit different, we wouldn't have the stability necessary for us to evolve.

J: You think that if humanity survives for, what did you say, eight billion years? And they're at the end, like the end is coming, do you think that our technology could be so advanced that we could make it through?

S: Oh, you can't even think about that. I mean, it doesn't seem likely. I mean, who could, change the laws of physics? I mean, it doesn't seem likely.

E: We can't confirm that it hasn't started.

B: I don't know, Steve. Eight billion years of research? We could do a lot of stuff.

S: So that's what I'm saying, you can't even think about it.

B: If we're still around you certainly won't be able to call them human, that's for damn sure.

E: What if it's started already and it's already seven billion years somewhere into its . . .

S: Yeah, it could be just so far away that it won't get to us for awhile.

B: Well, the thing is, if it's approaching you at the speed of light, you won't know it until it's right on your, in your face.

E: That's kind of the point. So can we ever really know?

J: It's like the nothing from that movie, what was that one, Atreyu, remember that?

S: Oh, yeah. The Neverending Story of the Nothing, yeah.

R: Oh, right. That was terrifying.

S: Also, that was a Dr. Who episode, or series of episodes, where the universe was just going away. The lights were blinking out, and the nothing was taking over everything.

E: There you go, Jay.

S: So we need Dr. Who to fix it. He's got to throw his Tardis into the sun and it's gotta explode in something and that will

R: Don't be ridiculous, that's not, that won't fix anything. I wonder if the alternate universe already exists, though. Not that it would necessarily be already coming at us and existing in our universe. But does it already exist elsewhere, and then it pops into our universe, or is what they're saying that it would spring into being for the first time within our universe.

S: So, what some physicists are saying is that this could lead to a cyclical universe and that maybe when this happens it's actually the quote, unquote, big bang that leads to the next cycle.

B: Oh, yeah.

R: Right.

S: And that has a half-life of whatever, twenty, thirty billion years. And then at some point it happens again, and you get another big bang and another universe. This keeps happening over and over again. And some people think that that's a real probability. That that's the way the laws of physics may work.

R: That'd be all right.

S: Yeah.

E: I'm okay with that scenario.

B: I could deal with that.

R: See? So don't we all fell better now?

E: I'm good for twenty or thirty billion.

S: Yeah.

J: Yeah, I wouldn't mind taking a billion years to contemplate this issue. (laughter)

Bigfoot DNA Published (31:51)[edit]

S: All right, Evan. So we talked, a couple of months ago I think, about the analysis of alleged Bigfoot DNA, but at the time the results were not published. But I hear that they were finally published in a journal.

E: Yup, finally published in a

R: Wow.

E: In a journal.

R: What journal would do such a thing?

E: Well, is it Nature, is it Science, I mean, you know, so many reputable . . . is it The New England Journal of Medicine? Not quite. Well, Steve, you're right. We talked a few months ago about Dr. Melba Ketchum, and she's the Texas veterinarian who claims to have acquired a lot of Bigfoot DNA. And for five years she and her colleagues have been testing the DNA. And they came to the conclusion that yes, in fact, they came up, this is authentic Bigfoot DNA. Let's see, it is the, it's a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago, this is their claim. A hybrid cross of modern homo sapiens with an unknown primate species. Right? So, they claim that of their samples that the mitochondrial DNA is human, that would be the female half. And the nuclear DNA is an unknown hominid related to homo sapiens. Some big boy in the woods, right? And that's the claim. So, like you were saying, Steve, they took this idea, put it into a paper, shopped it around to a lot of different places asking journals all over the place to please, please publish this. They felt the science was perhaps sketchy at best, and outright nonsense at worst. Nobody would publish it, so what do you do? Right? What's the old adage, if you can't get someone to publish your paper then create your own journal and publish it there.

S: That's an old adage? (laughter)

E: That's what my old grandpappy would tell me.

B: Okay.

E: Enter DeNovo Scientific Journal.

S: Is that a new scientific journal?

E: It is, it's so fresh (laughter)

S; De novo

E: Novo meaning new. Yes.

S: Will you explain the joke there, Evan. (laughter)

R: That's my favorite part. (laughter)

E: Ketchum herself, here is what she said:

Rather than spend another five years just trying to find a journal to publish and hoping that decent open-minded reviewers would be chosen, we acquired the rights to another journal, this journal, and renamed it so that we would not lose the passing peer reviews that are expected by the public and scientific community.

Uh huh.

S: Right. So she made a new journal solely for the purpose of publishing her own paper, put out Volume 1, Issue 1 with a single paper in it her own.

R: Called it open access and then charged people (laughter) . . . her article.

E: If that's not scientific transparency, I don't know what is.

S: Good job. That's good work, boys.

E: Here's what Todd Disotell, a human origins expert at New York University, said about this:

DeNovo is clearly a fake vanity journal with lots of shutter stock pictures, misspellings, and it was created on February 4, 2013. I've only read the abstract and conclusion of the paper and neither makes any sense.

R: It is remarkable how many typos are on that website. For it being so small.

S: It's a hack job. So let me, very quickly, let me review the DNA evidence, because I was recently asked about previous articles that I had written about the Starchild Project. Do you guys remember that? The alleged alien-human hybrid?

B: Oh, yeah.

E: Lloyd Pye.

S: Lloyd Pye. He's still pushing this. What's remarkable is that the exact same thing happened in both cases. In one case studying alleged Bigfoot DNA and the other an alien-human hybrid DNA. What both cases found is that mitochondrial DNA was a hundred percent human. Now mitochondrial DNA is smaller and more stable. So it's easier to get a thorough analysis of that DNA, a sequence of it. So the sequences that they can get were a hundred percent human. The nuclear DNA, which is bigger and less stable, they both found some human DNA plus some anomalies, which could potentially be contaminants.

B: Therefore, Bigfoot exists! (laughter)

S: Yeah, and in one case they interpreted it as an alien and in another case they interpreted it as Bigfoot. But both of the results are the exact same thing. Everything that we know about is a hundred percent human, but there's probably just some sloppy technique or whatever on old nuclear DNA that's degraded, and they came up with some anomalies, and in both cases they concluded hybrid. Unbelievable. Coincidence?

E: Science! (laughter) Coincidence? I think not.

Intellectually Lazy (36:37)[edit]

S: In fact, one might even call it intellectually lazy.

R: Oh, ho. Yeah. Hey, it's funny you should mention that, Steve, because I just read an interesting article based on a study that just came out. In the

B: Wait, are you doing your own segue?

R: Yeah, 'cause I'm better at it than Steve, so I finally decided to take

B: Awesome, okay.

R: Take matter into my own hands.

B: Sorry to interrupt.

R: In the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, which is not a b.s. journal that was created last week. (laughter)

B: Really.

R: to publish one study. It does sound kind of b.s.-y, doesn't it?

E: Yeah.

R: "Psychonomic." True story. I had a guy on Twitter, he got in touch with me because he was writing an article debunking skeptics, and he asked me for my credentials.

J: Debunking skeptics?

R: Yeah. (laughter) Yeah. He wanted to

S: There's a few of 'em out there, yeah.

E: How'd that turn out?

R: He wanted to prove that no skeptics, like the skeptics who were in the public spotlight, didn't have scientific training. And so he asked me what my scientific credentials were, and I had a Ph.D. in theoretical biology. I named a diploma mill, and I'm still waiting for him to write his article, but I cannot wait.

B: Theoretical biology, nice.

R: Yeah, it's a good . . . I was really proud when I came up with that. Okay, so anyway. The Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, real journal talking about real psychology. It was quite interesting. What these researchers found was that we are all intellectually lazy. But, we know we're intellectually lazy. And we feel a little guilty about it, maybe. So what they did was, they took a couple hundred people, and they gave them the bat and ball problem. Which, I'm sure everyone at this point has, everybody on this podcast has probably heard already. I think we've talked about it before. It's a simple word problem that goes like this: A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? So, many people who have not heard this problem before will intuitively say that the ball costs ten cents. But if you think about it for a minute, then you'll realize that the correct answer is that the ball costs five cents. And the bat is one dollar more, a dollar five, adds up to a dollar ten. So, it's something that requires just a slight amount of effort to think through and solve. So the researchers gave all their subjects that problem, and they also gave them a second problem, which was an easier, a simpler version, of that problem. And this one goes: a magazine and a banana together cost $2.90. The magazine costs $2.00. How much does the banana cost? That's just a simple case of subtraction. The banana costs ninety cents. Easy. They gave these tests to all of these university students. 248 French university students. And among them, 21 percent managed to solve the bat and ball problem correctly. And the simpler problem 98 percent of participants solved correctly. So so far kind of obvious. The slightly harder problem was slightly harder to solve. So fewer people solved it.

S: Let me just add one little wrinkle, though. It's not just that it's harder, it's designed in a way to encourage you to substitute a simpler operation for the more complex operation, and that's what people do. They substitute the subtraction for the more difficult operation you have to do to get the right answer.

R: Good point, yeah.

S: It's a subtle difference. But that's actually, that's the intellectual lazy part here, is substituting the easier calculation. Even though you know it's not really the right one.

R: Right. The second problem that they came up with, the control problem, the easy problem, is meant to mimic what your brain is doing when you get the first problem wrong. You're doing a simple subtraction. So, here's where it gets interesting, though. The researchers asked people to give an idea of how confident they were that they were correct on each question. And what they found was that people seemed to know that they were being intellectually lazy because they were answering that they were less confident of the standard bat-and-ball problem than they were for the control simple version. So the researchers were interpreting this as saying that we are not oblivious to the fact that we are cutting corners, that we're being intellectually lazy. So, that's the new part of this. Not that we are intellectually lazy, I think everybody already figured that. But that we know when we're being intellectually lazy. Which is kind of interesting.

E: I was a bit surprised reading this. I would have thought they might have realized this sooner than, well, sooner than recently.

S: I was not surprised by this because if you read Thomas Gilovich's book, How We Know What Isn't So, he makes a big point of that, that when we do take mental shortcuts or when we're being biased in our reasoning, we generally know it. We generally are being totally transparent and we even know that we're being transparent. In other words, you may say something that's safe, that's face-saving, but not honest and other people can see right through you and we assume "doesn't that person know how obvious he's being, how transparent he's being?" It turns out people do know how transparent they're being, but it's still the pathway of least resistance to say the face-saving thing. So this kind of goes along with that. We know we're taking mental shortcuts but we do it anyway. So we actually have more insight than may naively seem to be the case.

R: But apparently there are plenty of people out there, psychologists, who did still think that we were happy fools, I think is the phrase that they used. That we were just sort of dumbly being dumb. And not realizing it. So this goes against that.

E: Think there's an evolutionary advantage in there somewhere?

S: I think it's just conflicts between different parts of the brain. The social part of the brain and the more rational part of the brain, and the social part seems to win out a lot of the time. We do what is the social pathway of least resistance, even when we know we're doing something wrong or taking shortcuts. And this is different, this is not social, this is just, sometimes we do the simpler thing 'cause it's easier, even when we know we're taking shortcuts and it doesn't make us confident in our results.

R: I found it interesting that in this article they refer to it as being intellectually miserly. Which suggests that we're saving something by not thinking a problem through completely, whether that's time or brain power, somehow . . . they don't go into. But, I mean, I guess there are some advantages to taking shortcuts sometimes.

S: What's interesting is that a lot of the time we're operating at pretty much the extent of our raw brain power, even though we may not realize it.

E: We're only using ten percent of it. (laughter)

J: You mean, Steve, this is as good as it's gonna get for me?

S: No, no, not at all. But, what I'm saying is, you may not realize how much of your brain's raw resources you're using in just everyday mental activity. That's why things like talking on the phone when driving reduces your performance. There's a phenomenon called interference. It may seem like you have all this extra brain power, you're not really working very hard, but your brain actually is working very hard. It's deciding what information to pay attention to; it's allocating resources; it's doing all kinds of stuff in the background, even when you're not consciously, necessarily, working on a hard problem. And so it makes sense that we would have all these mental shortcuts that try to be miserly; that try to get things done quickly without having to use up a lot of our brain resources, because we need those brain resources to run away from tigers or whatever, you know.

R: And of course this feeds into the study we talked about last week, the invisible gorilla test that was done on the radiologists.

S; Exactly.

R: Same sort of deal.

J: So this is as good as it's gonna get for me.

R: Well, for you, probably yes.

Who's That Noisy? (45:32)[edit]

  • Puzzle: There are three switches downstairs. Each corresponds to one of the three light bulbs in the attic. You can not see the lights in the attic from where the switches are located. You can turn the switches on and off and leave them in any position. How would you identify which switch corresponds to which light bulb, if you are only allowed one trip upstairs?

S: So, Evan, how did that puzzle work out last week?

E: Yeah, very well. Very well. I'd say we had tons of correct responses to that puzzle. Let's recap.

S: How much does each response weigh?

R: Like, as an elephant? (laughter)

E: Here's the puzzle from last week: There are three switches downstairs. Each corresponds to one of three incandescent light bulbs in the attic. You cannot see the lights in the attic from where the switches are located. You can turn the switches on and off and leave them in any position. How would you identify which switch corresponds to which light bulb, if you are only allowed one trip upstairs? And although there were many variations to the answer, here's one of them. What you can do is keep the first bulb switched on for a few minutes. And that bulb's gonna get warm, right? Incandescent light bulb. Which was the key. A lot of people did figure that out. Then what you do is switch it off. Switch on another one. Right? And then go up the stairs, walk into the room. So you know which one the warm one was, the warm one that's off; you've identified that one. And you know which switch you turned on, and the last one has to be the last switch.

S: Yup.

J: There it is.

S: One thing that is interesting is that the original form of that puzzle did not include the modifier "incandescent," but we added it. In order to address the objection "well what if it's an LED light or something that doesn't get noticeably warm?" But people definitely did key in on that. So, people gave some different answers to this question which were interesting.

E: Yeah. One was, one person suggested that you could tie strings to all the switches. Right? Walk upstairs and then start flipping switches with the strings. That's one trip up, you know, I mean you need to introduce the strings.

B: No, I like it.

E: Yeah, it's an interesting

S: It's creative. I betcha you couldn't pull if off with one trip to the attic, though. 'Cause you wouldn't know that the strings worked and they were on well enough. So that's practically difficult, but I give him a pass for creativity there.

E: Yeah. Was there one you liked, Steve?

S: Well the other one I thought was interesting was somebody, and I didn't have time to figure out if this were true or not, but they said that you could, they invoked electrical engineering to say that, well if it's incandescent that means if you put another bulb in series it will be half as bright. And so you could somehow take the light switch off and install another, whatever, bulb, in series on that switch. It made sense. I'm not an electrical engineer. I don't know if the claim is actually true. Did you look into that at all, Evan?

E: No, actually, I didn't look into that particular one.

R: We'll just assume that person was right.

B: Way to go, person!

R: Until someone else writes in next week.

E: Clever. Someone might as well have said, nobody suggested this, but, unscrew the switchplate in the wall; take everything off so that you have, you know, the wires that are exposed to the switches. Start yanking on the switches hard enough to see which lights might pull out. Pull two of 'em out, and you can kind of make a guess as you go upstairs. That would be a bit extreme, I would think.

S: Yeah.

J: When I first read this one, you know what, it, what stumped me was I wasn't allowing myself to think out of the box enough. I was thinking I have to be more formulaic about it. I wasn't thinking, in the real world, if you were gonna try to solve this problem, what would you do? I thought there was like a trick to it that was more of like a formula, I think.

S: Yeah, you were trying to solve it with math. So, that's why I like this puzzle, 'cause it's what's called a lateral thinking puzzle. You have to introduce a new element. You can't solve it necessarily with the information that you're given. Or you can, but you've gotta think of it in a different way.

E: So we drew randomly from all the correct guesses. There were quite a few of them. Congratulations to everyone who guessed correctly, or some version of the correct guess. And this week is David Young. David, you are now in the drawing for the final drawing of the year. Well done.

S: Congratulations.

E: So we'll see you at the end of the year for the final drawing.

S: And what have you got for this week?

E: I'm gonna play it for you right now. Let's go.

Bird-like tweeting. The tweet song is repeated several times, pretty much the same each time.

J: I mean, Evan, what's so hard about it, it's just a bunch of birds. What's up?

E: Um hmmm. What if I were to tell you, what if I were to tell you, and give everybody a clue, that was no bird. That was not a bird.

S: Interesting.

J: That's the trick, isn't it?

E: Yeah. (laughs) Go ahead and give it your guess.

S: See, Evan, I always think you're gonna say "wtf" when you start to say that.

R: Yeah, I was thinking that, too.

E: (laughs) What the noisy? or is our forums. You can post your answer there for us as well. And I wish everyone a heartfelt, good luck.

S: Thanks, Evan.

Special Report: Retro Futurism (50:43)[edit]

S: So, a special segment this week. This was brought to our attention, this video from 1967, Walter Cronkite demonstrating the quote unquote home of the future. The home of the 21st Century, which we are now in. And I love, love, this retro-futurism, looking back at what the people of the past thought that their future, our present, was going to look at. It's fascinating how they get it wrong. Not just that they do get it wrong, but how they get it wrong. You guys have all seen this video now, right?

E: uh huh.

B; Oh, yeah.

J: Yeah, it was . . . I loved it. I thought that, first of all, I love that guy. He's just cool. He's the old-school news reporter, like, he just seems like he's got his shit together and I like that. But, it wasn't that off, you know. They had some really good predictions in there.

S: The centerpiece is, this is apparently like a family room in a modern home. A 21st Century home. And there's a wide-screen TV, which looks like a projection. It's a screen, that the image is projected on somehow. You don't see the projector. But the room, the home, is controlled by this control panel that looks like it's out of something that NASA used to send the Apollo to the moon.

E: Right. Or for flying the Death Star around.

S: Yeah. It's massive. It's a console that you sit at like a table. And there's all these knobs and buttons. So of course the controls are all 1960s. You know, it's like the bridge of the starship Enterprise with the analog dials turning and stuff. So the concept of the remote control, a hand-held device, was not there.

R: Well, to be fair, though, I have a remote control that is probably only a third the size of that console and twice as confusing. (laughter)

S: Is that right? Living in the past there, Rebecca?

R: We call it the "Admiral." (laughter)

J: I don't know, Steve, even that element, you know, you're spinning it, so it looks like this big honkin' nasty thing that you have to deal with. You can't sit on your butt and make changes. But, I kind of looked at it like this was the control center for all the entertainment things in the room, and it looked cool. It would be an awesome thing to have a retro living room. I would love that.

S: Yeah, but it's retro, it's cool because we think of it as retro. All right, so here's the other thing that they missed. And this is what I find fascinating is that futurists tend to extrapolate current technology into the future and they don't anticipate game-changing technology. Of course, 'cause it's hard to anticipate that.

R: If they did, they'd be millionaires.

S: Right. So what they didn't anticipate here was the graphical user interface.

B: Yeah.

S: Right? That's what's missing from all of this. He's not interacting with what we would think of as a graphical user interface. A computer screen with stuff on it. The choices of what TV show you wanna watch are coming up on a menu that looks like a DOS menu. You know, on a little screen on the console. It's not on the TV, first of all. And there's no graphical interface. I mean they just didn't have that concept. It didn't even exist back then. So then they

B: Or, how 'bout voice interaction? Even better.

S: Yeah. Yeah. Or voice control. The other thing that I find really funny, did you guys notice how absolutely 1960's the décor was?

(garbled reactions)

J: That was really cool.

S: You know what it reminded me of?

B: For ten minutes. What?

J: Let me see, let me guess, because it reminded me of um. . .

E: What, growing up at home?

J: It looked like . . . Steve, it reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

S: Yeah, it reminded me of that. It also reminded me of our trip to Disney World when we were kids, the

R: Epcot Center.

E: Oh, the Home of the Future?

S: No, no. Before Epcot. The Land of Tomorrow . . . Tomorrowland.

(garbled comments)

J: The Carousel of Tomorrow.

B: Carousel of Progress.

S: So, yeah. It showed the future home with this 1960's décor. And with this kind of similar extrapolation into the future. It was the 1960's view of the future. It's awesome.

E: World's Fair event.

S: Now it does have this awesome, fabulous, retro feel to it that I love.

E: Do you guys remember who Professor John Frink is?

S: No.

E: No?

R: No.

E: Professor from the Simpsons . . . you know, the character with the Jerry Lewis voice?

S and R: Oh, yeah.

E: Well, he was in the 1970's, right, and he ran across something in which he made a little prediction about future technology. Here we go:

I predict that within 100 years computers will be twice as powerful, ten thousand times larger and so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe will own them.


E: There's your future prediction for you. Twice as powerful.

B: That's a common theme. Read Asimov, he's got these globe-spanning machines, computers, that are gargantuan. And just miniaturization wasn't on most of these guys' radars.

E: The micro-chip, yeah.

B: Yeah, they didn't see it. I remember early predictions about, oh there's gonna be five computers running the country. No, there's gonna be about a billion, little ones, doing most of the work.

S: Here's another thing. You guys remember the movie Minority Report. Very, I think, thoughtful portrayal of the near future. But one thing that struck me at the time, was, this was, I guess, the early 2000's when this came out. The cell phones that people were using were teeny tiny. And they almost looked absurdly small. But at the time there was a trend towards personal phones, cell phones, becoming smaller and smaller.

B: Like Zoolander?

S: Yeah, Zoolander's another (words drowned out by laughter)

E: I remember that.

S: How small your phone was was the status symbol 'cause the smaller phones were the newer, more expensive ones.

R: Then the iPhone came out.

S: Then, not, yeah, the iPhone, but more generally, the smart phone. Yeah, the smart phone. And now everyone wanted bigger phones. They wanted the phones to be bigger and bigger, so all of the extrapolations missed the game changer of the smart phone. And these teeny tiny cell phones never existed. Which is interesting. So obviously, a cautionary tale on how difficult it is to think about the future. And again, the general rule, which I see everywhere, is the fallacy of extrapolating from current trends and not anticipating the game-changing, the trends themselves change. For reasons that are difficult to predict, impossible to predict.

B: Well, plus, people tend to overestimate the near term, and underestimate farther out in the future.

S: One other observation is that people, what's difficult to anticipate, even more than the technology, is how people will use the technology.

B: Right.

S: 'Cause until you put it in the hands of a million people, it's hard to know how the public is going to react.

B: Just text, think of texting. When I first saw texting I was like, really? I mean, what's the attraction with texting? But it really is addictive, and it has such a niche in so many people's lives. It's so great to just zip in and zip out of a conversation with somebody without doing, so how's the wife and kids . . . without all the niceties. It's like bam, bam, you're in and out and

S: Exactly. Who would have thought, it seems like a step backwards. Who would have thought? Why wouldn't you just call them and talk to them, why would you waste time texting? It doesn't make any sense. And again, the element, to zero in on the element that people didn't anticipate there, is the advantage of communicating in virtual time versus real time. It's actually a lot more convenient to converse with somebody in virtual time 'cause it's on your own schedule.

J: I hated texting when it came out, but then when it was free, I just started to use it, you know. And now, texting is so critical to the ways that we communicate with people,

B: Oh, my god.

J: It's unbelievable how it's so, it's embedded in our society now.

S: Right. Like email. Email's the same thing, it's communication in virtual time and that just works so well for certain functions.

Science or Fiction (59:06)[edit]

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts; two genuine and one fictitious. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. Are you guys ready for this week?

R: Super ready.

E: Si, senor.

S: Here we go. Item number one. Researchers have demonstrated that the teeth of toothed whales are not related to other mammalian teeth but have a distinct embryological derivation. Item number two. A new study finds that a magnetic bracelet-like device was effective in reducing esophageal reflux. And item number three. New research finds that bilingual children have greater working memory and executive function than their monolingual counterparts. Bob, go first.

B: All right. So the toothed whale, I mean, yeah, I could see that, I could see how it would be distinct, embryologically, I guess. But, what would take so long? I mean we've been collecting, doing, what's it called, scrimshaw, on whales' teeth for a long time. Wouldn't some distinct features have come out before now? Maybe it's subtle. I could see, you know, subtle, not easy to detect. So I can kind of see that. The second one of course has gotta be baloney. Really? Come on. Magnetic bracelet that works, in doing anything other than placebo bullshit. So, I can't pick it, and I have to pick it. So I don't know what the hell to do with that one. New research, and then there are, yeah, the kids and their working memory because they're bilingual. I could see tons of benefits from having, from being bilingual. But would it extend to greater working memory? And executive function.

S: Si, senor.

E: Yahvol.

B: This is tough, Steve. I really wanna pick the magnetic bracelet because ughhh. I don't think you should put stuff in there like this.

E: Well done, Steve, you pissed off Bob.

B: Number, number two. Spontaneous combustion is real. (laughter)

E: Number three, the Easter bunny was seen by fifty witnesses.

B: It's like it can't possibly be true. But maybe there's some subtle thing I'm missing, and, you wouldn't have put it in . . . bah uh ba. (laughter)

R: Oh, man.

S: And, therefore . . .

B: All right, so I'm gonna go with . . . you know, screw it. I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go with the language one.

S: As being the fiction.

B: I think bilingual is great, is awesome. Almost as good as being tri-lingual. But working memory and executive function just be . . . for being . . . maybe. But the other two I just can't really pick. So I'm gonna go with that. Done.

S: Okay. Jay?

J: Okay, the one about the whale teeth? What's up with that? Like, the whale teeth . . . yeah, these teeth . . . what the hell? (laughter) It's so weird! All right. They have teeth but they're not teeth. Okay. They're something else. That just seems so weird to me. Okay, the one about the magnetic bracelet-like device. Okay, guys. The dash like hanging off the end of the word bracelet. That could mean anything! Could mean anything, right?

B: Within reason.

J: Was effective in reducing esophageal (he pronounces it with a hard "g")

B and S: Esophageal.

J: That one seems like crap to me as well. But. You know the dash like at the end of the word bracelet. That could mean anything so I'm gonna put that one as a maybe. And the one about the new research about the bilingual children having the greater working memory. Wow. I agree with Bob: that's pretty insane. But, I will say that I'm sure that having multiple languages rattling around in your head does give you an increase in a lot of different things. I'm sure that it's huge. It's another language, Bob, it's a completely separate language. (laughter)

S: It's like those French have a different word for everything!

J: Oh, god. I just think it requires, I think it requires a lot of the brain to hold languages. There's a lot of associations that are being made, and every word doesn't have an exact duplicate in the other language. So, it's a big deal. So, I'm gonna say I believe three, the one about the bilingual children. Two is iffy; I don't like the whale teeth. So I'm gonna say the whale teeth is the fake.

S: Okay. Rebecca.

R: All right. The bilingual thing? I agree with Jay, it's a whole other language. (laughter)

S: Well what if they're both Romantic languages?

R: Whole other language.

E: Icelandic? Is that a Romantic language?

S: No.

R: There's still enough differences between languages of Latin descent that I think would provide great benefits. So. The whale one confuses me. The only thing that I can think of that I read recently was they discovered a new weird-toothed whale on a California highway. But I don't remember anything about its teeth having anything like that. Just normal teeth, I thought. Normal whale teeth. The magnetic bracelet-like device; I have a theory and the theory is that Steve is trying to pull one over on us

B: You think?

R: by using the word

E: Bob's all flustered.

R: by using the word "bracelet." Maybe it doesn't necessarily . . . maybe it's something that actually goes in the esophagus. It's like a ring-type thing. Doesn't necessarily have to go on your wrist. That's my theory about that.

J: It's "like" a bracelet.

R: Yeah, exactly. The bracelet-"like" device. I think that's where he's gonna weasel out. "Well, it's not really a bracelet. You don't wear it on your wrist. You stick it in your throat and so it has . . ." like, you know. I can see that. There's a difference and I can see that.

B: Instead of your wrist it's your esophagus.

E: It reduced the reflux because you choked to death on the thing.

R: Exactly. So that's, I don't know, that's what I suspect is going on there. So I’m gonna go with the whale one because maybe that thing about them finding a whale maybe he switched that up and made up this weird thing about their teeth. Of course their teeth are related to other mammalian teeth. They're mammals. There's evolution. They're related. I'm gonna go with that one as being the fake.

S: Okay. Evan.

E: Do you guys remember Cookie the Whale? The Carvel Ice Cream

B: Yeah, yeah.

E: cake mold?

R: It's not Cookie. You're thinking of Cookie Puss. It's . . .

E: Oh, yeah. What's the name of the whale, then?

J: Fudgey!

R: Fudgey the Whale.

E: Fudgey! Fudgey the Whale, and the 500-year-old man would get on there, right? Tom Carvel, and kind of

S: The thing is weren't . . they were all the same mold.

E: That's right!

S: They were decorated differently.

E: That's right . . . turned different directions

R: What? You shut your face!

E: Come on!

R: Really?

E: That was the trick.

R: I didn't know that. My whole world is . . . .

E: After a few years you eventually figure that out, right. Cookie O' Puss and all those.

R: It's just Cookie Puss.

E: So I saw whales in the first item here, and that made me think of that.

R: And you thought "cake." (laughter)

S: Free associating.

E: I'm free wheeling it, here. Moving on, bracelet-like device, okay, you guys are hung up on bracelet-like device. I was stuck with here a new study finds, all right? There are new studies all the time on all sorts of stuff. I'm not surprised a new study finds that a magnetic bracelet-like device was effective. Okay, but how, what's the quality of the study? We don't know anything about that. It could be a bunch of crap, but it's a new study. So, that one could be plaus . . .

B: Wellll, I would . . . shut up.

E: Well, that's why . . . so I'm gonna say that one's science. Bilingual children. All right, so I'm leaning towards Bob and agreeing with him on this one. And, no, I don't know . . . greater working memory and executive function. See I don't think that that's necessarily the case. I bet we're gonna find out that there's not a great difference, if any difference, between the two. So, Bob, I'm joining your camp.

B: Welcome aboard!

E: Bilingual children. Thank you.

S: All right, then. An even split between one and three. So you all agree (laughter) that a new study finds that a magnetic bracelet-like device was effective in reducing esophageal reflux.

R: Yeah, why not? Obviously.

B: This will be a totally pyrrhic victory if you win this, Steve. (laughter) Just saying that right now.

S: I'll just tell you that I took that directly from the headline. "Bracelet-like device." I did not make up that term. This one is science.

R: Hooray!

B: You are so lucky, Steve. Just saying.

E: Science, yeah.

S: And Rebecca's right,

R: What?

S: The bracelet-like device goes around the esophagus

(lots of comments and noise)

R: You do stick it in your throat!

E: With a vice-lock mechanism, there.

J: That is so lame! Come off it!

R: You stick it in your throat.

S: Jay, I didn't make up the headline. That was them. This is sphincter augmentation. (laughter)

J: Say that again, what was that?

B: Nice.

S: It keeps the acid from going from the stomach back into the esophagus . . . (garbled)

B: Keeps the acid from doing what?

S: I don't know why it's magnetic. I don't know why that helps it. It's the ring, it, constricts the esophagus

E: Maybe it's a marketing scheme.

B: No, no, no, no, no. I know. When they wanna get it out, they just stick a magnet down your throat and it flies out.

S: I think that it may decrease acid. That's the notion that the magnetic field decreases the production of acid.

R: Do you think you could wear really cool necklaces without a chain and just like stick it to your throat?

B: Oh, awesome.

R: How magnetic is it? That's what I'm asking. (laughter)

E: How many Gauss are we talking here?

S: Now, Evan, I do have to say, I don't include studies that I think are utter crap.

B: Yes, that's what I was gonna say.

S: . . . study showed . . . 'cause I think that's unfair. I mean I might not always completely buy the results of the study, or it may be preliminary, but at least I think it's . . . there's a certain threshold. It has to be at least a decent study before I'll include it as a science. And this was a decent study. It was a hundred patients who were treated with, although there was no control group. It was a single study group. But it did show, compared to baseline, the baseline was really the control, that they improved. And decreased reflux symptoms, decreased acid exposure, and decreased use of proton pump inhibitors. Those are drugs to treat acid reflux.

E: ppi's.

S: So, that one is science. Let's go on to number three. New research finds that bilingual children have greater working memory and executive function. And their monolingual counterparts, Bob and Evan, you think this one is the fiction. Jay and Rebecca think this one is science. And this one . . . is . . . science.

B: Crap! (exclamations by all, garbled together)

S: Jay and Rebecca. And yeah, so

R: Well done, Jay.

S: Bob, you did key in on the interesting bit here. So it has definitely been demonstrated before that children who do things like learn a second language or take up an instrument, that this has cognitive benefits. But this was the first study to show that it extends farther than was previously thought. It actually extends to working memory, working memory being the number of bits of information you can hold and manipulate in your head at one time. It's the data, it's like your RAM. It's the data on which your brain does operations, that it manipulates.

B: Whatever. I don't care anymore. (laughter)

S: What's also interesting is that the study noted that people can, and this gets back to your question earlier in the podcast, Jay, this is as good as it's gonna get. Well, actually you can improve your working memory.


S: Yeah, right. By exercising it. Yeah, by doing things. But you have to do pretty extreme things, like learn another language. Become proficient at an instrument, et cetera. And also, the children, they studied children five to seven years old who were bilingual, and also they have greater executive function. The other thing, the reason they chose bilingual children is because one of the problems with previous music studies, so children who have learned an instrument, is that it's possible that there was some self-selectivity going on here.

B: A-a-a-a-h.

S: That children who take up and become proficient in an instrument might have been smarter to begin with. But children who are bilingual, that's typically a choice that was made by their parents. Not by them. And therefore, it's probably less of a self-selected population and therefore we're looking more at the effect of the bilingualality. Biling . .. how do you say that?

B: Bilinguality, I'd say.

R: Yeah, I like bilinguality.

E: That is a little funky sound there.

S: Yeah. The bilinguality itself. Bilingualitudinosity. Okay, so all of this means that researchers have demonstrated that the teeth of toothed whales are not related to other mammalian teeth but have a distinct embryological derivation is . . . fiction.

E: What a bunch of crap.

S: Now what is interesting about whale teeth is that whale teeth are very different than all other mammals' teeth. All mammals have the same basic type of teeth. They have incisors, canine teeth, premolars and molars. Whales, remember you guys liked Shamu at the Sea World,

B: Yeah, they're all pointy.

S: They're all conical, and they're all the same. They've lost those four tooth types and they all have this simplified conical tooth. I was hoping that somebody would say "Yeah, they're really different. Morphologically. Maybe that's because they're not related." But what researchers found is that they did evolve from terrestrial mammalian teeth and they found the molecular mechanism that makes them develop the way that they do. Two proteins that guide development along the jaw and when they occur together, the teeth lose their distinctive three-dimensional morphology, their features, and they develop this much simpler conical shape. So, what the study showed, very interestingly, is that significant developmental changes can be triggered by very simple developmental triggers, or embryological triggers, in this case just a single protein, or two proteins interacting can change the shape of the teeth. Which is not news. I mean we know that. You know, any developmental biologist or embryologist knows that you make tiny change in how things develop and that could result in huge differences in the ultimate morphology, or phenotype that you result with. So good job, Jay and Rebecca.

J and R: Thank you.

E: Good job by us, too, even though we got it wrong.

S: Yeah! You get honorable mention.

E: Thank you.

J: Evan, give it up.

R: No, no.

J: That's like, you know, every kid gets a trophy thing in school. (laughter) You lost! You sucked today! This show, you sucked. Eat it! And grow up.

E: Yeah, great fatherly advice there, Jay.

B: Evan, just come to my pity party.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:53)[edit]

S: Jay, Jay, please give me a quote.

J: A listener named Simon Evans from England sent in a fantastic Winston Churchill quote. And the quote is:

The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.

(shouts) Winston Churchill

E: Woo hoo, Winston.

J: When I yelled his name out, my cat did one of those "I'm gonna launch off of you with my nails."

B: I hate that.

J: You remember those? Oh, god, that hurt!


NECSS 2013 (1:15:28)[edit]

J: Hey, guys. Guess what we're all doing in April?

R: Hanging out in New York!

B: Hot tub party!

J: Yeah, baby! Yeah, we're gonna be a NECSS 2013. The line-up is fantastic this year. We have a new conference center that we're gonna be at. It's fantastic. I'm really excited about it this year. We have a lot of cool things going on. The Friday night activity in particular is going to be epic. I really don't think anyone that cares about seeing something they've never seen before: don't miss the show. It's gonna be fantastic.

S: And we got a new speaker. Jon Ronson will be at NECSS.

R: Hooray!

J: Jon is epic.

S: He's always fun.

R: My super best friend.

E: Lovin' 'im.

J: So guys, go to N-E-C-S-S-dot-o-r-g. Check it out. If you like what you see, please join us and come up and say hi to us, 'cause we'll be there, sellin' some SGU swag and everything. And we're gonna be hangin' out. And we're doing our private recording on Saturday night, which is always a blast.

S: All right, guys. Thanks for joining me this week.

R: Thank you, Steve.

B: I got nothin' better to do.

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.


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