SGU Episode 425

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SGU Episode 425
September 7th 2013
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 424                      SGU 426

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

'Science is the only thing that disproves science, and it does it all the time.'

Matt Dillahunty

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 September 4th 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: Lashanatova for a good year, happy new year to all of our SGU friends out there.

R: Yeah, happy new year. What year is this?

E: 5774.

S: 5774.

E: Which is proof that the world is less than 6000 years old.

J: I always though it was funny where people just said, OK this is year one. Right now we're in year one.

R: Did they start out with year one or year zero?

B: It should be zero (laughs)

J: Oh please, I don't want to have that conversation again.

R: Oh. Fair enough.

S: Yeah, they totally screwed up. But yeah, our calendar, they didn't decide until hundreds of years later, I think it was getting close to the first millennium before it was in wide use.

R: Yes, so nobody even got the joy of living in year one.

S: Or year zero.

R: Because they didn't know it at the time.

S: Right, that's correct.

B: Or year negative one.

S: Yeah, could you imagine? Year negative 3! Something big is going to happen in three years! Alright.

This Day in Skepticism (1:54)[edit]

  • September 7th 1936: the last Tasmanian Tiger died at the Hobart Zoo.

R: Hey, happy National Threatened Species Day, everybody.

J: Threatened species?

E: Exactly which species? All of them?

R: Well this is a date primarily commemorated in Australia. Maybe even exclusively commemorated in Australia. But the date was chosen because, and this is kind of a sad one, I apologise. September 7th 1936 is the date when the last known Tasmanian tiger died at Hobart Zoo in Tasmania.

S: But Rebecca, those things were killing machines, they were sheep killers. They would roam the countryside slaughtering livestock left and right. They had no choice but to wipe them out.

R: Right, right. They were supposedly kind of cowardly.


R: Reports say that they couldn't run very fast, they looked really awkward when they ran and when they were caught they just didn't put up a fight and some of them died from shock immediately.

J: What? Did they have like really big dorky paws? How pathetic.

R: No. Although they look kind of like a cross between a dog and a cat with stripes, like a cross between a dog a cat and maybe like a badger. I don't know, I think they're kind of cute. But it really is a shame, you can see footage of the last living Tasmanian tiger if you look on YouTube, somebody shot footage of it pacing around in its cage at the zoo and it just looks like such an amazing animal because I was watching it and I was trying to think of whether it more closely resembled a cat or a dog and then I remembered like it's kind of useless to even think in those terms because any resemblance to cats and dogs and tigers is just convergent evolution because they split apart so long ago and they were actually marsupials, they had little pouches.

J: part of the marsupial family.

R: Yeah. They had pouches and the whole deal, so they're more closely related to the Tasmanian devil.

E: Did you think the Partridge family, Jay?

S: I know you're making an obscure Jerky Boys email there. So we don't get emails, marsupials are an infra-class of mammals.

J: Now these guys, weren't these the ones that had the big open mouths, like the extra big mouths?

R: Yeah. They had like, when their mouths were fully extended, to me it looks like a hippo. Again I can only grok them by comparing them to other animals.

S: To placentals? You're so biased.

R: Yeah, yeah. Anti-marsupial.

S: There actually was an anti-marsupial bias at the time which partly contributed to their extinction because according to Australian Geographic, they suffered a lot from competition to introduced species, introduced placental species and the thought was, well placentals are inherently superior to marsupials so it's only natural that the dingoes wipe out the thylacines which they did on the mainland.

E: The dingo ate my thylacine!

S: Right.

R: Who knew that racism extended to the animal kingdom?

S: Yeah.

R: White people, come on. Get your shit together.

S: Our placental species are superior to these native marsupials.

B: There is some DNA I hope?

S: We talked about that. Yeah, there's DNA but not clear if they'll be able to resurrect it.

E: Repopulate.

S: Through cloning. It's theoretically possible, it's not even been 100 years so it should be theoretically possible, DNA can survive that long. There are specimens, I don't know if they have sufficiently intact DNA.

R: You know amazingly enough, the Tasmanian tiger is thus far the only species to go extinct in Tasmania since white people showed up. So it's a huge number on Australia but because Tasmania is a bit more, a bit wilder, I think and also because the Government did a slightly better job of protecting species on Tasmania they've had a much better record, so as of right now the tiger is it.

S: They added the thylacine to the endangered species list 2 months before the last one died.

J: Oh god.

S: Too late.

B: Good timing.

J: Someone wasn't paying attention, right? I mean come on.

S: Well it was the sheep herders. I mean seriously, they blamed them for the death of their sheep when actually dingoes were much more responsible and they lobbied against, they wanted to wipe out the thylacine, they thought it was a threat to their sheep.

R: And there wasn't even a concerted effort among zoos to breed them and keep them, so they went presumably extinct in the wild and then just a few years later, maybe within the decade, the only ones left in zoos ended up dying as well and to me the most heart breaking part of the story is that the last one in the Hobart Zoo died most likely of neglect.

J: Oh my god.

B: What!?

R: It was locked out of its enclosure and there was extreme weather at the time.

E: Did they know it was the last one?

R: Yeah.

E: Whaa? How could that?

R: Because humans are awful.

E: That's criminal.

S: Yeah, it was a different time.

B: Even if it wasn't neglect, just the idea. Could you imagine being with the last member of a species? Especially something as big and beautiful as that, could you just imagine? The emotions would be quite striking I woudl think, this is it, game over.

J: I'm sad hearing about it. I couldn't imagine being involved with it.

S: Well one last thing. It is interesting, the thylacine has crossed from real species to cryptobiological species in that there are now people who think that the thylacine roams the back woods of Tasmania when there's really no credible evidence that one has been around since 1936. So kind of like the ivory billed woodpecker in this country. A creature that went extinct in the early 20th century and now there's dubious reports of sightings of it.

R: Yeah there were 320 sightings of the Tasmanian Tiger between 1934 and 1980 and a study of those sightings found that just under half could be considered "good" and none of them were conclusive.

S: Yeah.

News Items[edit]

NASA Spiders (8:38)[edit]

S: Well we're going to go from talking about the Tasmanian tiger to talking about NASA spiders, Bob tell me why NASA is interested in spiders.

R: Space spiders.

E: Spiders from Mars.

B: I never think the words NASA and arachnid would ever go together, but yeah it's true. NASA is getting ready to deploy what they're calling 3D printing spiders that will eventually be able to build spacecraft or even huge structures in orbit.

J: Awesome!

B: Just take that in for a moment, it's amazing stuff. So NASA has partnered with a company called Tethers Unlimited. There's actually be whispers and rumours for a long time about what they've been working on and that it might be something stupendous and it sure seems like it may well be. The project's called Spider Fab for spider fabrication and the idea encompasses an array of technologies that involve these spider-like mulit-armed robots that will be able to orient and move themselves in space to construct things like solar panels, antennas, trusses, even kilometre-scale antenna reflectors. I mean imagine seeing something, a structure in space, clearly with the naked eye, not just a point of light the space station but looking up there and seeing a structure. I mean it reminded me of the Elysium space station, remember those scenes in the movie, it was really striking, and that is actually something that we could see within our lifetimes. These spider robots are going to be using 3D-printing, we've talked about that a lot, to create structures out of polymers and other materials. Ultimately what they're doing here, the plan is to combine advances in automated assembly technologies with these robots and then with additive manufacturing, which is the 3D-printing, to essentially transform out capabilities in Earth orbit and well beyond as well. So and there's tons of benefits, I bet you guys can just throw out a few of them pretty easily. But construction costs are one huge benefit. Any time you take people out of this part of the loop, you dramatically cut costs. I mean compare the cost of sending a probe to Mars to sending even just one person to Mars, obviously there's no life support, you don't need to feed them and make sure that they're comfortable. So the cost to create these amazing structures in space will be dramatically cut.

E: They'll work full-time.

B: Oh yeah. Right.

S: They don't take coffee breaks.

E: No breaks.

B: I'd be willing to give them some coffee. The other cool aspect to this is that, if you think about it, space deployments are expensive partly because the objects have to be built to survive the rigours of being launched and it's easy to forget about that, but it makes sense. These structures have to be constructed to survive that, otherwise if you just send to space a pile of broken parts, I mean obviously not a good move. This company, Tethers Unlimited, is calling these satellites, they refer to them as a chrysalis or even an embryo. So what they're going to contain would be stuff like raw material needed in a very compact and durable state so it would be very inexpensive to get it ready. Just pretty much dump it in there and you're almost ready to go because it would be very hard to damage these things. And also they talk about including stuff like software DNA instructions because there's so many biological analogies here. So of course you would need the instructions for actually building these structures using the spider robots. Orbital construction of course, allows things to be made that dwarf what's possible with today’s systems and not just from a pure physical size, and this was a good quote from the CEO of Tethers Unlimited. His name is Rob Hoy, he said, "this radically different approach to building space systems will enable us to create antennas and arrays that are tens to hundreds of times larger than are possible now, providing higher power, higher bandwidth, higher resolution and higher sensitivity for a wide range of space missions. So everything about this is just so out of scale that I'm just so excited to see what this could possibly bring in the next generation or so. So where are they right now? So right now it seems like they're in the first phase of the spider fab architecture. What they're doing, I don't know it's a little sketchy exactly where they are but I think what they're doing is they're constructing things like trusses using robots and 3D-printing. They call it a trusselator device and a truss is essentially a large support structure and then once you have the support structure down, then you're all set to attach things to it like multi-hundred kilowatt solar arrays, large solar sails and even football field size antennas that they would attach to these trusses. So the future is looking pretty good for this. They said that they're not ready for deployment yet obviously, but they don't think they're very far away, and a big help: NASA just gave them a 500,000 dollar infusion of funds.

R: This still doesn't seem like very much, does it?

B: Yeah, now that you think about it, they should have thrown another zero or two on there.

R: This is the second infusion of cash they've given them, I'm not sure how much the first one was, but it still doesn't seem like that much.

B: That's true, I mean that's the most recent chunk of money that they've given them. I don't know what their full budget is but they made it seem like they're really not that far away from deploying it, at least the first phase of it.

S: What did they say, 5 to 10 years?


B: Yeah, right.

S: One more funding cycle.

B: Yeah, exactly. And who knows? They might run into some problems. But if you think about it, I mean automated assembly, you know automated robotic assembly and 3D-printing, it's a no brainer. That stuff is going to happen in one form or the other.

S: There's no question that that is where space fabrication is going. What's the other option? It's so much better than having people be out there in space suits with wrenches or to launch stuff into space that's fabricated down here because as you say, you can't really launch anything that's delicate into space.

B: Right.

E: I wonder how they developed a printer that will withstand the super-frigid temperatures that these machines are going to have to be working in.

B: Well that's just it I mean who knows? The low temperature and pressure could greatly accelerate the hardening of the material and making it strong enough to support weight even sooner, I don't know, but they did look into that very seriously of course and clearly it wasn't that much of a problem, I mean they're using polymers and other materials which is the most detail I could find about exactly what kind of 3D-printing this is. But I mean material science is so advanced now that it was never mentioned as an issue, they pretty much solved that problem relatively early on in the process and they're pretty psyched about it.

S: This is the kind of thing you could strap on the top of a rocket, right, you wouldn't need a space shuttle type device to get it into orbit?

B: No that's just it. All you would need, you would need just a series of low-cost launch systems, you really wouldn't need anything special.

S: Alright, start building that space hotel, come on.

B: Yeah.

Chicken Wings and Penis Size (15:44)[edit]

TCM for Flu ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Seal

Questions and Emails ()[edit]

Question #1: Pox Parties ()[edit]

Have you guys ever talked about intentionally infecting kids with chicken pox? As a small child I remember my mother doing this when my childhood friend. She took my brother and I over to play with him and tried to get us infected. My brother broke out, while I only had three actual pockmarks. I never challenged this idea and figured that all parents did this. I mentioned this at work and my co-worker was flabbergast; citing that that was ”a stupid practice”. He went on to say that there is a vaccine for chicken pox and that purposely infecting your child just opens them up to get shingles later.I personally haven’t had a memory this old brought up and challenged. I would like to believe that I am analytical and not subject to wives tales, but I personally never challenged the memory and practice. Maybe you guys could talk about this as I’m sure other have had similar experiences.Thanks,Andrew MartinezRochester, NY

Question #2: Aromatherapy ()[edit]

I’m a new fan of the show and a budding skeptic so if this topic has already been covered maybe you can point me in the right direction for some good info.My brother’s wife has recently been selling essential oils and she is absolutely in love with them. Any and all problems you may have can be helped with the use of the proper oil. It sounded a little shady to me so I tried doing some research and I found plenty of people talking about how its a scam but I also seemed to find some studies to back up some small claims of oil users. Nothing earth shattering but maybe some use in helping with headaches, stomachaches, and relaxation.So, I’m asking you guys to help me understand this once and for all. Did I find bogus info? Is there perhaps some small benefit to this? Or is it straight pseudo science and quackery all the way thru.RobertTexas

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: A thorough review of published studies in Psychology found that only 5% of published replications confirm the prior results. Item #2: Studies have found that as many as 50% of published peer-reviewed research contains statistical errors, sometimes changing the conclusions of the study. Item #3: In surveys, 34% of researchers admitted to questionable research practices themselves, and up to 72% in their colleagues.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'Science is the only thing that disproves science, and it does it all the time.'- Matt Dillahunty

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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