SGU Episode 442

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

SGU Episode 442
January 4th 2014
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 441                      SGU 443

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


H: Hai Ting

M: Matthew Schickele

Quote of the Week

Science advances through tentative answers to a series of more and more subtle questions which reach deeper and deeper into the essence of natural phenomena.

Louis Pasteur

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

This Day in Skepticism ()[edit]

  • January 4, 1904: Thomas Edison electrocutes Topsy the Elephant

Predictions 2013 ()[edit]

  • Predictions 2013: The rogues compare their predictions to the professional 'psychics'

News Items[edit]

Atmosphere on a super earth ()[edit]

Reverse Ageing ()[edit]

Magnetic Pooping ()[edit]

Virgin Births ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Castrati

Interview with Hai Ting Chinn and Matthew Schickele (50:55)[edit]

E: Ave Maria.

S: So, what was interesting about that, Evan?

E: Yeah, what was interesting about that? Hmm... Well, we have some special guests with us tonight, to help us explain exactly what that was. So, let's welcome Hai Ting, and Matthew from Scopes Monkey Choir.

R: Hey!

J: Hey guys! What's up!

H: Hey everybody!

M: How y'all doing? Happy New Year!

R: Where did you come from?

H: Oh, we just dropped in from the heavens. We were hanging with Shubert up there.

S: We always have experts just waiting on the sidelines in case we have to bring them in to tell us what's going on.

M: Yeah.

H: (Laughs)

E: Well, why don't you guys explain exactly what that was we were hearing?

H: Well, that was the sound of the voice of Alessandro Moreschi, recorded in 1902. And Mr. Moreski was widely known as the last of the castrati.

S: That doesn't sound good.

H: Nah, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. A castrato was a man who was, well, castrated before he hit puberty; and his voice changed. So, Mr. Moreski was employed in the Sistine Chapel Choir in Rome, that was the Pope's own choir. And he made this recording, and I think nine others, that also included some of the rest of the choir singing. And there were most likely other soprano castrati in that choir when he recorded them.

Now, he lived until ... he was born in 1858. So, what I mean by all that, is he was probably technically not the last of the castrati.

M: But he gets that name largely because he's the only castrato to ever make a solo recording. So, it's the only document we have of what that voice type sounded like, from that tradition.

H: Most people think that he was not the greatest of singers. The castrati really reigned supreme in opera for two hundred years. They were super stars in their day. And it actually goes way back before this period, before 1900.

M: Yeah, there actually are documents of eunuchs singing dotted throughout history. So the Europeans of this period, they weren't the first to notice that there was this particular quality to the voice.

H: Didn't you say Sumaria, that there's documentation.

M: Oh yeah! The ancient Sumerians also noticed that their eunuchs had a very interesting voice.

H: And they wrote it down on clay tablets.

M: Or something.

H: Then, throughout the ages, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, because Saint Paul apparently said that women were supposed to shut up in church, and thus not sing. All high parts were taken by other boys, or these eunuchs. And they were in use in chapel choirs, especially in Constantinople, documented as early as the 1100's, and then continuously in Rome up through this period, obviously, up to 1900.

And they started singing opera when opera started, basically, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. And they became especially famous super stars in the middle eighteenth century.

M: So, this is in the period where opera was basically pop music. The most famous castrati of that era, they were rock stars, basically.

H: And they were taken ... sometimes it's said that poor boys who had some talent, or a nice voice were kind of sold to be castrated. But it was really more like, if they showed some talent, and a nice voice, they were taken to one of these conservatories, which was a live-in music school. And if they tested well with the music teachers, then they were sent home to have operation performed. And then they were...

J: All right, hold on a second.


J: Now, there was no father, or uncle, or someone that was like, telling them, "Don't sing well?"

H: No! They ... That's why it was on poor boys, because they would go to a conservatory, and once the operation had been performed, then they would get nearly paid to sing, and be a sort of possible support for their families.

M: It was, for a while, it was a way for both the boy and the family to get out of poverty.

J: Oh my god!

S: Talk about taking a hit for the team!

H: Totally! Yeah.

J: Your family's like, "Son, this is such a good news, bad news situation."


J: The good news is, we're not gonna have to eat, like, wood dust any more for dinner! The bad news is that this weird guy is gonna cut your balls off."

H: (Laughting) Yes!

M: But not actually off, just ...

H: Wait, I should say ...

M: disconnected.

H: I should also mention at this point that there were a couple of boys throughout history, there are documented where the boys actually asked to have the operation performed themselves. And in fact, petitioned Dukes to pay for the operation, so that they could keep singing. It was such a rock star status at the time.

R: But I mean, how can we know, though that that was actually the boys' petition, and not heavy pressure from the people who would be profiting off of their careers?

H: Yeah, I'm not sure there's any way to prove that.

S: Yeah, you can't separate those things.

H: But Matt, you were just about to explain the actual operation, in case you guys are uncomfortable.

M: No! I'm not describing the operation.

H: (Laughs)

R: I would like to hear.

J: So they put a rubber band on it? What do they do?

R: They don't cut them off completely?

H: They don't cut them out, completely. They would dope the boy up with opium, or something like that, and supposedly put them in a hot bath until they were nearly insensible. And then they would snip the ducts leading to the testicles. And this may or may not have caused the testicles to later shrivel up, but they didn't remove them. And they didn't do anything to the penis.

S: Right.

H: So they still had...

S: But the testosterone wasn't getting into the blood system, is the …

H: Yes, exactly. And therefore, they didn't mature in the same way that normal boys would go through puberty. Their vocal chords didn't lengthen. They didn't grow beards. And they didn't, apparently, suffer from male pattern baldness.

M: So, but also, that's one of the reasons why the voice type was not the same as a little boy, and it was not the same as a woman's voice, because their vocal chords stayed basically the same size. Now, at puberty, the male vocal chord increases in size by approximately sixty three percent – or I should say on average, sixty three percent. So that wouldn't happen to these kids. So they would still have these small vocal chords, but then their bodies would grow up to be adults. And in fact, because the other physical effects of the balls being separated, they would actually sometimes be very large people.

H: Yeah, they actually didn't go through … their bones did not stop growing in the same way that normal men's do. There's something, probably, Steve, you know better about this – there's something called the Epiphyseal plate

S: Right.

H: at the end of the bones. In normal, maturity, that would get filled in with bone...

S: It fuses.

H: and stop growing.

S: It's called fusing, yeah. And once they fuse, the bones stop growing. It's like with certain kinds of dwarfism; they fuse early, which is why all the arms and legs and fingers and things are just short. They're not necessarily small, but everything is short because the epiphyseal plates fused prematurely.

H: (Inaudible)


S: I was actually suggesting …

R: Fascinating!

S: I thought maybe Hai Ting might want to sing something for us, since she's an actual opera singer.

H: I can't really imitate either one, either the castrati or the (inaudible)

R: I would be very interested to hear you imitating a counter-tenor imitating a castrati.

M: Yeah, it's like the turducken of opera.

J: I'm not actually logging off of this show until she does it, so

H: (Sings for a few seconds)

M: Not bad, not bad!

R: Yeah!

S: Well, Evan, before we let Matt and Hai Ting go, can you tell us who won this week?

E: Yeah, there were a lot of correct answers; I'm surprised …

S: Hai Ting didn't win, did she?

E: No, no.

H: Damn!

R: It was an inside job!

E: But listener Graham Lappin did win.

S: Graham Lappin?

E: Graham Lappin did win, from the United Kingdom. So Graham, well done! And we've gone ahead and decided to run our contest again for 2014, so you're the first winner of '14. And your name's gonna go into a drawing at the end of the year; and we're going to select from that pool of people to join us in early 2015 for a game of Science or Fiction with the rogues. So, well done Graham!

H: Well done, Graham.

S: All right. Evan, why don't you play the Who's That Noisy for this week?

E: You got it. So, to kick off the new year, let's get to a little science. Here we go.

(Something that sounds like a dog singing)

(Male voice): Whose fleece was white as snow! Okay.

J: Evan, that's the noise the boys make when they put them in the nut-killing bath.

H: (Laughs) I was gonna say it's the pig that ate the kid's nuts.


E: So, there ya go. A little hint from a human being afterwards should help you guys out. So, all right. So, go ahead, and send us your answer. We have an email address for Who's That Noisy submissions called Or, go ahead and register on our forums if you haven't already. Or if you have, put your answer there in the sub-forum for Who's That Noisy. And that is And as I say every week, good luck everyone.

S: Hai Ting and Matthew, thank you so much for joining us for the first show of 2014!

H: Thank you so much for having us!

M: Thanks so much! And we'll see you guys at NECSS.

R: Yeah!

S: Yes, we will see you at NECSS.

J: Looking forward to it.

Science or Fiction (1:04:08)[edit]

Item #1: Researchers find that human hunter/gatherers follow a movement pattern that is the same as the foraging patterns of many animals, such as sharks and honey bees. Item #2: Astronomers report the first discovery of a possible exomoon. Item #3: A new survey of dinosaur species concludes that as many as half of known species sported some type of feather.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

“Science advances through tentative answers to a series of more and more subtle questions which reach deeper and deeper into the essence of natural phenomena.”~Louis Pasteur

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.


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