SGU Episode 437

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SGU Episode 437
November 30th 2013
SGU 436 SGU 438
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
EG: Eliot Goldman
Quote of the Week
The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest—but the myth—persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the clichés of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
John F. Kennedy
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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 Tuesday, November 26th 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: Hey folks, I want to wish you all a very happy Hanukkah and a happy thanksgiving this week.

J: Thank you Evan.

R: Thanksgivingukkah!

S: Thanksgivingukkah?

E: Thanksgivingukkah!

J: Vat is this, Hanukkah? What does Hanukkah mean?

E: Jewish festival of lights!

R: Really, Jay?

J: Look I know what it means, there's people out there that don't, this is an educational show, Rebecca, come on.

E: The word Hanukkah means dedication and the name is supposed to remind us all that the holiday commemorates the rededication of the holy temple in Jarusalem following the Jewish victory over the Syrian Greeks way back in 165 BCE. But what I'd like to mention tonight is that Hanukkah is falling on, the first day of Hanukkah is falling on thanksgiving which is a rarity, in fact it's so rare that it is not...

S: How rare is it?

J: Oh ho, my god.

E: The next time that this will happen, assuming that there's no major changes in either calendar, the Jewish calendar or the Gregorian calendar, between now and then, the year 79,811 will be the next time this merging of the holidays occurs.

S: Really?

J: Wow!

R: I'd like to put my nickel down and say that there are going to be some major calendrical changes to both of those.

S: Before 70,000 AD?

E: I would think so.

R: Yeah. I assume we'll all be lizards before then. Lizard people.

J: Super-intelligent lizard people with robotic arms.

R: Yeah.

S: We'll be (inaudible)

R: We'll be in like that sort of vision of the future.

J: Like Sleestack.

E: A Jewish Sleestack. I like it.

J: Alright so I'm going to formally change my show name to Chaaka right now.

E: You got it Chaaka.

R: Can I call you Chaaka Khan?

J: You can call me Chaakadoodle.

S: Alright we're off to a bad start here, bad start.

This Day in Skepticism (2:13)[edit]

  • November 30, 1954: In Sylacauga, Alabama, United States, the Hodges Meteorite crashes through a roof and hits a woman taking an afternoon nap in the only documented case of a human being hit by a rock from space.

R: And I'm sorry it's only going to get slightly more depressing. But let's take this as a celebration for this day in history I had one thing to talk about for Saturday but today that we happen to be recording which is November 26th, Tuesday, today is the birthday of Mike Lacelle who of course, long time listeners may know as probably our all-time champion biggest fan of SGU who set up and kept track of every episode before he befriended us and particularly you guys, you'd go visit in Connecticut and do nerdy things with and he played, we had an online guild together in Rift, the whole deal and sadly Mike passed away last year, far too soon and he will always be missed by everybody here at SGU.

J: Definitely yeah, so it was his birthday so I wrote a little note on there on Facebook. I rarely do that but I think about Mike every day and I just wanted to say something nice about him.

R: Yeah, he was a great guy.

E: He was family, there's no doubt about it.

R: So with that in mind, Mike would probably want us to go on and have an awesome show where Jay finally is funny for the first time every.

E: Silly or funny?

J: I'll do my best.

S: We can always hope.

R: Whichever, but funny would be best.

J: Oh my god.

R: As for the day that this comes out, in history, today is the day that marks the day in 1954, November 30th 1954, that was the first and possibly only documented case of a human being being hit by a rock from space. It happened in Alabama, it is now known as the Hodges Meteorite, so named after the woman who was smacked with it. It left an enormous bruise on her that can be found online, it looks quite painful. She had just been napping on her sofa in the afternoon, covered up with several blankets, when the meteorite fell and actually it was originally a much larger meteorite but a piece of it broke off and went through her roof, hit a radio, bounced off of it, and hit Hodges as she napped on the couch. So she was badly bruised but able to get to the hospital herself to have it checked out and what followed was a custody battle over the meteorite. The Hodges, well first the authorities came in and scooped it up. This was of course the height of cold war terror, and so they wanted to check it out, make sure it was truly just a random rock from space.

S: Not something from the Ruskies, right?

R: Right. Hodges and her husband asked to have it back but also their landlord, a woman named Birdie Guy also said that she deserved it because it was her land which technically apparently legally at the time she was in the right. It landed on her land and the meteorite belonged to her. She went to court over it, she ended up settling, I think she got like $500 in exchange for the Hodges being able to keep the meteorite. They then tried to sell it but by the time they got hold of it apparently interest had died down quite a bit, they couldn't get rid of it, and eventually Mrs Hodges, over the objections of her husband, apparently ended up donating it to the Alabama Museum of natural history which I think still has it today.

S: Yes, they still have it.

E: And it's worth $54 million dollars... No.

R: There are other cases where people claim to have been hit by meteorites but this is the best documented example. The next-best example was one from 1992, a meteorite, like a small bit of a meteorite apparently hit a young Ugandan boy but I couldn't really find much documentation on that.

S: Well I found that, I found a published report.

R: Did you? Because I found a report on the meteorite but I didn't see anything about it hitting the boy.

S: The report, because the meteorite broke up into a lot of different pieces, they gathered as many of those pieces as they could, I guess to study how it broke up and what the pieces looked like and everything, and in the report it mentions the Ugandan boy who claimed to have been hit on the head by a small piece and they actually even, there's a picture of him holding the fragment and they give the size of the fragment.

J: So what happens to you? How fast is it going like did it knock him out? Knock his teeth out?

S: Well it only weighed 3.6 grams, the piece that hit him. Apparently it was slowed significantly by the leaves of a banana plant. See!? You all mocked me for having all those banana plants at my house, but...

R: Is that what you're doing? You're just protecting yourself from meteorites?

S: A meteorite shield, that's right.

E: A meteorite umbrella.


E: Who's laughing now?

R: You know when the cops raid your house thinking that you have some sort of pot operation going, please don't tell them that they're just banana plants to protect you from the meteorites.

S: (laughs) that's right.

R: The Hodges meteorite, which is also known as the Silikowga Meteorite because that's the name of the place in Alabama where it landed, it was the size of a grapefruit apparently but you should see the bruise it left on this poor woman, it was ugly.

J: Rebecca, if I was standing next to you and I threw a grapefruit at you I would do more than bruise you, I mean this is a rock! It didn't knock her face off? Nothing crazy happened?

R: Well it hit her in the leg, in the hip.

E: It bounced off a radio first, so that's...

R: Yeah and it had bounced off a radio and made a giant bruise.

J: No banana trees or anything to help?

S: No banana plants!

News Items[edit]

MAVEN Launch (8:30)[edit]

S: Alright well for this next news item we're going to be joined by Eliot Goldman, Eliot welcome to the Skeptics' Guide.

EG: Hey thanks rogues, it's great to be here.

S: So Eliot, you're on because you work for Lockheed Martin, and you were involved in the MAVEN satellite which was just launched to Mars.


S: And... yeah.

R: Good try, Jay.

S: You kindly invited us donw to see the launch and I was able to make it down there with my family so we met you down there, we had a great time.

EG: Fantastic time. Thanks for coming down, I really enjoyed your visit.

S: So yeah we're going to talk about the MAVEN launch really quickly. So let me give a little bit of background and then you can tell us what your part of the satellite was. So MAVEN stands for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution probe and this was just launched on November 18th, everything went well, and it's on its way to Mars. It'll get there in about 10 months and it will go into a very eccentric orbit around Mars so it can sample the different levels of the atmosphere. So the primary purpose of this probe is to find out why Mars lost its dense atmosphere. We know that Mars must have had a denser atmosphere billions of years ago because there was liquid water on the surface of Mars and you need a certain amount of air pressure for that to happen. But the solar wind has since blown most of it away but the purpose of the probe is to find out exactly, or more information about what happened to Mars' atmosphere. Apparently it's also going to be a relay, a sort of communication satellite for the rovers that are still on the surface of mars as well. But you were involved in, Lockheed Martin didn't make any of the scientific instruments if I understand correctly, but they made the probe itself. So what was your part in making the probe?

EG: Yeah that's right, we built the boss, the structure, and the computers, the avionics that fly it and we also operate it, but we don't build the payloads, the payloads are built elsewhere. My specific job was designing the solar array substrates, I worked on some RF components called waveguides, I worked on the mechanisms that deploy the solar arrays and designed a bracket for the star trackers which are these fancy Italian star cameras that are super-expensive and they're mounted and look at space and give us kind of precise knowledge of position.

S: Right. I remember, right after the launch everyone was celebrating but you had to hold your breath until the solar panels opened up because that was your bit, if that didn't work then there would have been a problem for you.

EG: Yeah.

R: Would you have been fired if that didn't work?

EG: Probably not, there's someone above me I think I could pass the blame to.

R: There you go.

EG: I'd probably be under a little bit of scrutiny if we had a failure. I worked on the, what's called the R&R, the restraint and release devices for the arrays and I redesigned something we had built in the past and so the design was a little bit novel thanks to me so if there was a failure I would probably be called in to speak about it. But yeah it was an exciting thing to work on.

S: Yeah. The launch day was really exciting I mean beyond just watching a huge rocket take off like that. So the weather was a little bit dodgy, they were giving a 60% chance that the rocket was going to launch. So we didn't know until 4 minutes before the rocket took of whether or not it was actually going to happen.

J: What time did it launch, Steve?

S: It was 1:38 in the afternoon local time. Or 1:28. One of those. And it was really exciting so while you're sitting on the benches, we're just across the bay from several of the launch areas, the launch pads including the ones with the MAVEN on it. We're sitting there and they're talking the whole time, there's speakers set up so we're hearing people over the speakers. Sometimes they were talking to us, sometimes we're just hearing the NASA chatter happening. At one point they do the go, no go where there are like 30 people who all have to give a go from their station. We're hearing them read off each bit and everyone either saying go or no go and they go all the way down to the guy who is in charge of the whole thing, who gives the final go, so of course when he said that the mission was a go and they restart the clock, becaue they stop the clock at 4 minutes for 10 minutes to get caught up on everything, and they restarted the clock at 4 minutes. That was really the first moment where we knew 100% that it was going to launch and it was so exciting, it was incredible.

E: They do that for dramatic effect.

EG: Happens every time.

J: Hey so what's it like being on the other side of that? Are you in the station where they're controlling everything and what's it like/

EG: No I was down there on vacation with my family. My work is done primarily once we've built the structure and delivered it to our assembly team, we call them PATLO (sp?), assembly and test operations. And once the spacecraft has been assembled, my work is done and I'm on to the next spacecraft. So I was just down with Steve taking personal time. But I heard some of my colleagues that were on-console at that time.

R: So what's the next spacecraft?

EG: I'm working on OSIRIS-REx right now which is an asteroid sample return mission.

E: Cool.

R: That's a great name, a mighty name.

E: Yeah.


EG: I don't know, don't quiz me on the acronyms because I won't be able to tell you what they are. I told you Steve, I said you probably don't want to interview me, you probably want to interview a systems engineer someone who knows the whole spacecraft pretty intimately. I have a really narrow focus. I'm a mechanical engineer and I do design for structures and mechanisms, deployables, things like that.

S: You're like Howard Wallowitz.

R: Who's Howard Wallowitz?

S: Big Bang Theory, come on.

EG: Oh, cool.

R: Yeah, awesome reference, Steve.

S: Losers.

E: I think he listens to the show.

S: You were telling me that you are building the thing that's actually going to let the probe to make contact with the comet?

EG: Yeah well I'm working on a piece of the spacecraft called the sample return capsule. And that returns the sample once it's acquired back to Earth. So it's really a small spacecraft about 3 foot diameter, kind of conic shape and it hinges open and it accepts the sample head so it's got a sample head that touches the asteroid and kind of like a fancy space vacuum and samples up some of the regolith and then this head is stowed into the sample return capsule and then separated and I'm working on the latch mechanisms that capture it and working on that entire capsule that then goes back to Earth.

S: It must be so cool, something that you built is on its way to Mars.

EG: Oh it's fantastic. It's super fantastic. I'll tell you one of the proudest moments of my career. I worked on the Phoenix Mars Lander and I got to work on some mechanisms that were on the deck and so they're visible from the camera and the day it lands it sends back a self-portrait and I think it was the second image that it sent and it was the first full-colour image that showed the lander deck and it panned up to the horizon and right there gleaming in the centre of the picture was this mechanism I designed.

S: Cool.

J: Awesome!

R: That's really cool. Had you scratched your initials into it?

EG: Uh I did not, no. Although some of the techs do that, believe it or not. Some of the techs may or may not do that. They've been known to sign a document when it's on top of the lander surface, on the lander or the vehicle panel, the top surface of the panel often has an aluminum skin for discharge of built-up electrical charge and so their names will be captured in this foil, this aluminum foil.

R: Yeah, I would totally do that.

EG: It's kind of frowned upon but it has been done. By accident of course.

E: Of course. Yes, an oversight.

S: yeah.

R: I slipped while carrying the Sharpy and I accidentally drew my name.

J: I signed it so...

E: Oopsie.

EG: You won't find my name but I think some techs have done it. You know on the Pheonix Mars Lander, if you look at some of the initial pictures sent back from some of the instruments the science team often has little easter eggs in their components and so under the, I think it was in the ?? I think there was a wet-cell chemistry component that also had a small microscope and the first slide of the microscope was this little commemorative plaque for one of their collegues who had passed on and it was kind of a really special tribute so people have done things like that. But generally it's kind of frowned upon in the industry.

S: To add your personal touch?

EG: I do kind of, you know you get a little artistic license when you're designing and so you'll create things in a way that kind of mike have your hallmark. If you look out on the end of the solar array from MAVEN, I was the designer for the panels for the profile of the panels, the sun sensor that sits on that, there's a small triangular boom for the sun sensor and you'll notice a nested triangle within that triangular boom that I put in there to route harness through, so there's a little bit of artistry you can add to your designs. Not too often. Things are often, need to be affordable and cheap but if you design with flare some folks appreciate it.

S: Right.

R: Eliot, how does a person get into the industry of designing things that are going to be shot into space?

EG: I would recommend being a mechanical engineer. That's how I got into it. I went through a masters program at the university of Colorado which is conveniently located nearby Lockheed Martin and I did an internship with them, I learned a lot of their software at the school. So I would just say, plan ahead and make sure you learn the tools of the industry, I'm now working with alumni groups at my university to help their steering committees select the right engineering tools that help their students place better in industry.

J: In your career, how often do you get to be a part of a team that's sending something into space.

EG: Well generally every two years or year and a half I'm on a new spacecraft. I started with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter back in '04 and because Earth and Mars line up every two years, we're generally working on a Mars spacecraft every two years and so I've worked on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, I've worked on Phoenix Mars Lander, I've worked on the Hubble servicing mission, Mars Science Laboratory Aeroshell. Juno Orbiter which is a Jupiter probe and MAVEN. I've done some work on the GOCE-R (sp?) and GOCE-S (sp?) spacecraft, I got to design an instrument chassis for a magnetometer. So in my industry you do kind of get to work on a number of spacecraft.

B: You know I deployed some computer code to some computers in the United Kingdom today.

J: That's one hell of a launch, Bob. Eliot, have you ever played Kerbal Space Program, the game?

EG: No, I haven't.

J: Oh god, alright sorry to just derail this conversation. But this game is epic. You actually build your own rockets and you put instrumentation on them, you send them into orbit and you can travel to the moon and to other planets in the solar system with a real crew and you run the whole thing.

R: Not a real crew.

J: So it's a simulation... well not really, but you know in the game. It's a sumulation but the graphics are fantastic, but I figure anyone who's doing anything space oriented like you would like this type of game.

R: Well I don't know, if he's doing that all day at work, he just wants to come home and relax.

J: I guess that's a good point.

S: You don't want to play a game where you're playing a simulation of being a mechanical engineer working in the aerospace industry?


EG: Pretty much in front of a CAD terminal 8-9 hours a day doing design work and there's a lot of details and you know, kind of paperwork to go along with it too. There's changes that need to be made and approvals that need to be signed and parts lists and things like that, ordering things ahead of time. So it's not always glamorous in the space industry but I must admit that I love my job, I love going to work every day and I have really great people to work with. I work in a civil space group so we work on NASA/NOAA spacecraft, things that we get to talk about, which is kind of nice. My buddies who worked in the cloaked areas don't get to tell me what they do. You don't get bragging rights.

S: Alright well Eliot, thanks so much for inviting us down to the launch, it was great, my daughters loved it, they had such a great time.

EG: Great having you down there. Glad you guys enjoyed it.

R: Sorry the rest of us couldn't make it.

E: Yeah.

EG: Learned a lot about Steve. Did you know Steve is bananas for bananas?

J: Oh yeah... that never comes up.

R: Oddly enough we did.

J: It's funny that you say that, when you listen back to the show, you'll know why.

EG: That's funny. Cool. Yeah it was really great getting to meet you Steve and your family. Say hello to them from me and my kids.

S: Alright same here. Good talking with you Eliot.

EG: Excellent, you take care.

R: Thanks, Eliot.

Sylvia Browne Dead (21:55)[edit]

Homeopathy Death ()[edit]

Capturing Lost Energy ()[edit]

FDA Report on Burzynski ()[edit]

Comet ISON ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answers to last two weeks:

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: A new study examines South African dogs bred and trained to defend livestock, that are capable of fighting and killing cheetahs and other large predators. Item #2: A recent systematic review finds that people who suffer from food allergies are more likely to die from murder than from their allergy. Item #3: A new computer simulation suggests that a major component of the Permian extinction 252 million years ago was sulfuric acid rain with a pH of 2.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth--persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”- JFK

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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