SGU Episode 405

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SGU Episode 405
20th April 2013
SGU 404 SGU 406
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
JR: Jon Ronson
SS: Simon Singh
Quote of the Week
Still our knowledge of the planets was meager, and where ignorance lurks, so too do the frontiers of discovery and imagination.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Saturday, April 6th, 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: Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening.

S: And, we have two very special guests with us this week. Simon Singh...

SS: Hello.

S: Simon, welcome back. And Jon Ronson.

JR: Hey.


S: Thanks so much for joining us, Jon.

R: "Hey"

E: "Hey"

JR: Ah, It just came out that way. I wasn't trying to be louche. It just came out. I wasn't thinking in loucheness.

E: It sounds like Brian Cox is with us.

S: It happens. Right, Bob?

R: Good word. Loucheness. I'm going to use that three more times today and then it'll be mine.

E: Today is short.

?: I don't even know what that means.

JR: Louche.

?: It means to be loose?

JR: No, the way I see "louche" is to be like... Oh I don't know.

S: Casual? Laid back?

JR: Yeah. Like Oscar Wilde. Simon you're nodding in agreement.

S: Oscar Wilde.

SS: I was just about to say "Oscar". That was going to be my "louche" example.

JR: Yes.

S: So, for those who may not know, Jon Ronson is a journalist and author, author of "Them", "The Psychopath Test", "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and you have some upcoming work we're going to talk to you about. And Simon Singh, also a journalist and author, author of "Trick or Treatment?", and "The Big Bang". So thanks to the both of you for joining us. We're o'er at NECSS, Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism, and we're recording a live show. And one of the great things about this is, we get "Hey Jon, join us up on the show". It's awesome. But we're going to start this show like we do with all of our shows with "this day in scepticism", Rebecca.

R: Should we do the thing where we mention that there's an audience here? Let's hear the audience.

(audience applause and shouting)

R: Now they're on an episode.


This Day in Skepticism (2:04)[edit]

  • April 20, 1535: First sundog painting

Special Report (4:58)[edit]

  • Simon Singh's New Book: Mathematics of the Simpsons

E: So, we're going to start off by talking a little bit to Simon. First to discuss your new, your upcoming project that you're working on, tell us about that.

SS: For the last year, year and a half, I've been writing a new book and it's going back to mathematics, which is kind of - my first book was about Fermat's Enigma so about mathematics. This is about mathematics, too, but it's about the mathematics of the Simpsons, the TV series.

E: Yes.

?: So cool, wow.

SS: And there's not an obvious connection there except if you look at the writers, the list of writers. There's a half a dozen or so who have really quite hardcore mathematical backgrounds. And they smuggle odd bits of mathematics, they've been doing it for about 25 years, into the Simpsons. Peculiar numbers, odd mathematical concepts. And, and that tradition has continued in Futurama, too. Same sort of family of writers have gone over and even upped the ante. So, yeah, it's been great fun. I spent a few days with the writers last, last September and I've been working on it for about a year and a half and I hope the book will be out in October.

?: That sounds cool.

?: Do they put something weird in every episode?

SS: No, no. It's, it's every few episodes. It's, I mean...

JR: Can you give an example?

SS: Ya, sure, so there is an episode ... Marge and Homer are, are giving marital advice to a baseball player and at the end of the episode the baseball player makes up with his wife, she goes on to the jumbo screen to say how much she loves her husband and when she appears on the jumbo screen, there are some numbers which are guesses, multiple choices of what the crowd attendance is that day. And they look like three arbitrary numbers kind of eight thousand, nine thousand, eight and a half thousand, and so on. But if you look at the numbers in detail they turn out to be very special numbers. One is a Mersenne prime number, one is a narcissitic number, and one is a perfect number. And you would never guess it unless you froze the screen at that moment, went away, and did some analysis. So that then means there is an opportunity to go out and talk about what narcissitic numbers are, what Mersenne primes are, what perfect numbers are, why they're special, and so on.

JR: I'm presuming a narcissistic number is basically a pain in the ass?


SS: A narcissistic number is a number which can be made up from its own constituents. I can't think of a number off hand, they're rare and peculiar. But, for example, if you have a 4-digit number, you take each of the individual digits within those four numbers, raise it to the fourth power, because there are four digits within the number, and you regenerate the number itself. So it's a number that loves itself so much that it can recreate itself. (laughter) And there are only I think, I think I'm right when I say there are only four narcissistic numbers.

JR: Underneath, have those numbers got low self-esteem?


SS: Ya, so, so that...

R: What about the other, what about the other numbers?

SS: So a Mersenne prime number. Mersenne prime nubmers were developed by a french chap Mersenne about 350 years ago who noticed that if you raise 2 to the power of a prime number, so 2 to the power of a 3rd subtract 1, or 2 to the power of a 5th subtract 1, it's a very good recipe for generating new prime numbers. And so they're very special within the world of mathematics. Mersenne primes are some of the biggest primes we know. We only know about 40 Mersenne primes. But many of them are the very very biggest prime numbers we have.

R: I think you talked about that in Fermat's, right?

JR: I mentioned Mersenne, yeah, you're right, yeag. Because Mersenne was living at the same time as Fermat. Fermat was one of the all-time great mathematicians and he used to work at home and didn't really discuss his ideas with the rest of the mathematical community. So Mersenne was kind of an intermediary. He would take Fermat's ideas and spread them amongst the mathematical community around France and in fact around Europe.

R: We should mention that it's called "Fermat's last Theorem" in the US because they didn't think that Americans knew what an Enigma was.

JR: No, no, other way around.

R: Oh, oh, really?

JR: In fact it was Fermat's. I name my books after what they are about. I wrote a book about the big bang and called it "Big Bang". I wrote a book about codes and called it "The Code Book". I wrote a book about Fermat's last theorem - it's called "Fermat's last Theorem". But in America there was already a book with that title, so you guys have "Fermat's Enigma".

R: Oh. Where did I get that book from? (laughs) England I guess.

?: Is a perfect number interesting?

SS: A perfect number is, yeah, perfect number is ... so 6 is the smallest perfect number because it's got three divisors. 1, 2, and 3 will go into 6 and 1+2+3=6. So that's a perfect number. 28 is a perfect number because 1 and 4 and 7, 2 and 14 - have I got those right? Add up those digits and you get 28, so that's another perfect number. I kind of think 496 is the next one. I think 8128 is the next one. Am I really just making, picking random ...

?: You could say anything right now.

R: That's not true, actually. Our audience at these always googles what we're saying as we say it.

JR: I know. This is what worries me. But I think it was someone like Gauss said "Perfect numbers like perfect men are very rare". So, again, within mathematics they are kind of a precious commodity.

?: Is there any utility to them beyond that, that symmetry?

SS: NO, no, perfect numbers are pretty useless, but Mersenne primes are very interesting. Just because primes are the very building blocks of mathematics. In the same way that all the elements, all the chemical compounds are made of the atoms, all the numbers are multiples of primes, so they are inherently more valuable.

?: Do I remember perfect numbers like from Schoolhouse Rock? (sings) "It's a perfect number...."

E: No.

R: You made that song up. Just now. No, you know, you asked though if they're interesting and I should note that all numbers are interesting, because if you find one number that's not interesting, then that makes it interesting. Who, who came up with that?

SS: I have no idea. I have no idea, but I just edited that out of the book.


SS: It's one of the... I've got to hand in the book in three days.

?: Just now.

R: He's like - I just heard it aloud and I realized it's stupid.

SS: No, no, no, no, no. I threw it out about two days ago. And it's a really painful thing when you spent months and months writing the book and in this last phase you just start throwing stuff out because it's a lovely, it's a lovely little argument and I kind of crowbarred it in and I realized I kind of crowbarred it in because it's a lovely story but it doesn't really fit in with... It's been a painful week of throwing stuff out.

JR: You know personally as a writer I find throwing stuff out to be the best part.

SS: Really? Ach.

JR: I love it. I love to find a sentence and there's like two words in the sentence that aren't necessary. And you only realize it when you go back a month later and it just gives me unbelievable happiness.

?: What to actually get rid of the two words?

JR: Yeah.

R: It's like popping a pimple or something.

JR: Yeah, it is. It is. Which I guess is the reason that my books are so short. I just love to, I just love to get rid of anything superfluous.

?: How do you feel if I like rip out pages? Does that really get you going?

JR: Well actually, funnily enough there was, in my last book, in "The Psychopath Test" there was four pages that I just agonized over and what it was was I wanted to mathematically prove that the more psychopathic a particular CEO behaved, there was a guy called "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap, the higher the stock price rose. I wanted to prove an actual correlation between the two. And I comissioned some economists to do it. (inaudible) I spent ages and ages and ages doing it. And it just sat like a big boring splotch in the middle of the book. And I sent it to Ben Goldacre and I said "look, I just need to know: is this interesting?" And he just wrote back thrilled to say that no, it's not interesting. It took me three months and I ...

R: I'm not surprised.

?: It just sucked. The chapter sucked, is what you are saying.

JR: It just slowed down the narrative. I think because I create narratives in my stories. It's a story it's an unfolding story. And this felt like four pages of a Ben Goldacre book, of something, of a different sort of book.

?: Wohow.

R: A shitty book.

JR: A different pace, you know, a different feel. I think that was the problem with it. And then also the fact that it probably was just stating the obvious.

(transcribed until 13:20)

News Items[edit]

Bitcoins (18:24)[edit]

Internet Criminals (29:46)[edit]

BRAIN Project (36:08)[edit]

Evidence of Dark Matter (52:21)[edit]

Hallucinating Music (57:55)[edit]

Science or Fiction (1:01:28)[edit]

Item #1: A new cancer treatment being tested on mice shows no side effects – the treatment attacks only cancer cells and leaves the neighboring healthy cells alone. Item #2: A comparative biology study shows the life expectancy of a mouse can double from 4 years to 8 years with an infusion of stem cells from the naked mole rat. Item #3: Scientists have developed a means of allowing the thoughts of a person to control the movements of a mouse.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:16:32)[edit]

Still our knowledge of the planets was meager, and where ignorance lurks, so too do the frontiers of discovery and imagination.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson

S: 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, where you will find the show notes as well as links to our blogs, videos, online forum, and other content. You can send us feedback or questions to Also, please consider supporting the SGU by visiting the store page on our website, where you will find merchandise, premium content, and subscription information. Our listeners are what make SGU possible.


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