SGU Episode 474

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SGU Episode 474
August 9th 2014
SGU 473 SGU 475
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
'You got it buddy: the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away /Step right up'
Tom Waits
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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 Sketpics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday August 6th 2014 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: Hello my friends, how are you?

J: Hello, hello.

B: Good, good good.

S: How is everyone doing this evening?

R: Super.

E: Not too bad.

B: Soooo nice.

J: Pretty epic, how about you, Steve?

S: Good, I just tasted the most delicious strawberry I ever had in my life.

J: What?

E: That's...

R: Alright.

J: This is about the guy who came to NECSS?

S: Yeah, Kevin Faulta is a stawberry geneticist and he sent me a whole bunch of strawberry plants that I have been growing on my deck and they are producing strawberries now and they are delicious, because they're not commerical, they're like heirloom varieties of stawberies so they have all these kind of really aromatic, strong flavours, very interesting.

J: But hold on, now wait. First, these are not available in the stores, correct?

S: No, correct, you've got to grow them.

J: But is he developing them to be sold in stores?

S: Well that's my understanding, that he's trying to take the awesome flavour genes out of these strawberries and put them into commerical varieties.

B: Wait, he wants to genetically modify them?

J: Could you at least save me one? I want to taste an epic strawberry before I die.

S: Sure, come on over.

R: I make an amazing strawberry shortcake and I desperately want these for it.

J: Rebecca, if you're free, you could come down Sunday, it's my birthday party.

R: It's funny you should mention it actually, I just found out that my sister in law is working at Music Fest in Bethlehem, Pensilvania, where George Hrab is, which isn't too far from you guys, and she has tickets to see Wheezer on saturday and I'm really debating whether or not I want to drive 5 hours.

J: So then you stop by on the way.

R: It's not really what you would call on the way.

J: You swing through, you swing by.

R: But happy birthday.

J: Thankyou, it's not quite here yet, but it's coming.

This Day in Skepticism (2:02)[edit]

  • August 9, 1945: Nuclear bombing of Nagasaki

R: Speaking of disastrous days in history, um...

J: Hah, hey! Whoa.

E: OK.

R: This one's kind of a downer. On August 9th, 1945, was the bombing of Nagasaki, the time when the United States dropped its second atomic bomb, dropped in a foreign country. Three days earlier, we had dropped a bomb on Hiroshima. Yeah, on the 9th, Nagasaki had its turn and I think it's interesting, well first because it's obviously a huge moment in human history when I think it's probably the biggest, most violent thing that science has ever brought us, I think, the nuclear bomb, so I think it's worth noting and remembering, so this is the 49th anniversary. Also I wanted to bring it up because I just read a really interesting story that I had never seen before. The story about how steel mill workers in another city in Japan, the present day city of Kitakyushu, Fukuoka prefecture. Used to be known as Kokora I believe. Steel mill workers there heard the air planes coming with an atomic bomb, that they assumed was an atomic bomb, or at least some kind of devastating strike, since the drop on Hiroshima had just occurred a few days prior, everyone was on edge, and in this particular city they actually had weapons manufacturing plants so they thought that there were probably a target, and in fact they were, that was the first target that the US was going for on that day. And so the still mill workers started burning tar, coal tar, in order to lay down a smoke screen so that the planes couldn't see their target, and amazingly it worked. The US planes couldn't find their target and so they moved to their second option which was Nagasaki. You know, that is something that I had never known before, that Nagasaki wasn't the initial target, but US military confirm this, although in the documents they just say that there were weather problems, problems with visibility, but if you look at the weather reports it was actually a clear day. And so the steel mill workers had held their silence for the past 49 years out of respect for the people who died in Nagasaki because their actions that day might have saved their own town but it actually lead to the deaths of all of these people in Nagasaki, so it didn't seem like something to crow about or to be called a hero over, you know. But I thought that was very interesting, and obviously it's very complicated where they were an enemy of the Unted States at the time, and who do you root for in a situation like this where obviously thousands and thousands of casualties are going to be innocent people who have nothing to do with the war, so you want to kind of cheer these people on for saving their city but at the same time there's another city that was just next on the list. So it's kind of depressing but also I thought very interesting. So yeah, it's the 49th of the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki.

S: Yeah, there was cloud cover over Nagasaki actually too, and they actually almost missed their target because... just at the last minute there was a break in the cloud and they dropped the bomb, and they were two miles off their mark so it wasn't as devastating as it would have been, had it been optimally dropped. They estimate that 40,000 people were killed outright and something like 80,000 ultimately died from the effects of the bomb. It was partly, it was less than Hiroshima partly because it was a little bit off-target, but also, Nagasaki was like rimmed by mountains so it really contained the blast and the radiation a lot more.

R: Unfortunately, it wasn't, like you would think that the death toll would be lower too because maybe people would have heard about Hiroshima and would have fled the cities but it seems like the Japanese government didn't really do their work in preparing their civilians for the possibility of these atomic bombings. You could say that for Hiroshima they probably did not know that the US definitely had an atomic bomb and were prepared to drop it, but for Nagasaki they did.

B: Wow, wasn't there also the belief that the United States dropped a bomb on Hiroshima but maybe that's the only bomb they had and one of the reasons why they dropped it, I remember reading somewhere, was to show we have more than one, we have 2 maybe we have 100, who knows? But I think they only had two.

R: Well, they had two but they had the resources to make a third one by the end of the month and they had plans to make three more by September.

S: Yeah, they had the ability to crank these out by that point. This is the "fat man" was the type of bomb. If you look at a picture of the bomb, it actually looks like a cartoon bomb, it has that shape to it, round shape with the fins on the back. This is a 21 kiloton bomb and it was only the third nuclear device that we exploded, the first one...

R: In the desert.

S: Was the test, yeah. Then there was the big boy and then the fat man.

R: Yeah there were debates on whether or not to do a demonstration showing the Japanese what it was capable of, what the US was capable of, but they worried that if they were to do that that they would lose the element of shock and awe and also that it might prepare the Japanese to be able to stop the planes in some way or to...

E: Identify and take them down before they were able to do their mission, yeah.

S: You know, it's hard to talk about this because as you say Rebecca, it's a terrible thing. Could you imagine 40,000 people being instantly vaporised, I mean just psychologically the impact of that. But it's also hard from the historical perspective that we have to wrap our mind around the times. This is the end of literally a world war. It would be horrible to have to face that decision because it's not like there were good choices. This is a horrible choice, there were other horrible choices.

R: Right, I think it was definitely a lose-lose sort of situation and I find it very interesting to read the, I'm not a big history buff but I do find this sort of interesting, like seeing all the different perspectives and how a person makes a decision like this and then how you live with it, I mean it's... I can't even imagine being one of the people directly involved in flying the planes or in any other way.

News Items[edit]

Ebola 2014 (9:10)[edit]

S: Alright well we're going to go on to another sunny news item, Jay you're going to tell us about the Ebola.

J: Yeah, I thought it would be good to just give some baseline information here so people understand what's happening better and understand the virus a little bit better. It's very interesting to read about, I'll tell you that much, there's a lot to it, a lot of details and it just keeps going on and on there's a lot of different versions of it and everything. So to start off, with this current situation, we have a total of 932 deaths, as of today 8/6/2014, that was the number I pulled this morning. The current virus has a 57% death rate and that is well below the 78.5% average death rate over the 14 past outbreaks, with the same exact virus.

B: Well are you sure it's the same exact, because I know there are different strains, there is Ebola Zaire which is one of them, some of them are more dangerous that others, did you come across any of that?

J: Yeah I did, well actually Bob, the variation is pretty wide. I think at its worst, one of the varieties is 90%.

S: Yeah this outbreak is confirmed to be the Zaire Ebola virus which is the deadliest strain.

J: Ebola was first discovered in 1976, it was largely centred in central and West Africa, and I found that part very interesting. If you just simply ask why, which is it centralised there? It's because it's living in animals, right so we’re not really 100% sure if as for example, they think that fruit bats could be one of the reservoirs of the virus.

B: Oh, I hope not, I love those guys.

J: But I read conflicting information saying that the fruit bats may not be a reservoir for the vius meaning that it lives in them, and when people encoutner a fruit bat that has the ebola virus that isn't being killed by it, they can get the virus from it. But they're not sure, but what we do know is that it can and is spread by coming into physical contact and the exchange of bodily fluids with chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope, porcupines, and of course, the fruit bat. Now, other than the fruit bat, it was described that all those other animals catch and spread ebola like humans do, which I found interesting as well. So the ebola virus belongs to a class of diseases known as viral haemorrhagic fevers.

S: Haemorrhagic.

J: Statistically, how could I pronounce everything? I'm like 10% correct.

S: I'm just telling you.

R: You're doing very well, Jay. You said Ebola right, you said monkeys right...

J: Yeah, monkeys. I took time!

E: Moooonkeys.

J: This is a class of fevers, they all have similar traits and all the different varieties that Bob was saying, they're all the in same class and they promote bleeding by consuming the parts of your blood that form clots... it's pretty interesting what's physically taking place and this is why this virus, or this series of viruses have a bleeding problem, is that you actually don't form blood clots the same way any more, you don't have the ability to do it as a normal person does. So very bad, very powerful way for it to also spread itself. Now, listen to this. From the moment of infection, guess how long it takes for the average person to first see symptoms?

B: Two to 20 days or something?

E: Two days?

J: Steve?

S: Yeah, I remember 2 to 21 days.

J: Well it averages out to something like 5-7 days, but it could be as long anywhere from 2 to 21 days. Now you could actually have Ebola and be spreading it and not know it for 21 days. That's terrible. It's not good. So the long incubation there could mean if we aren't careful, it's one of those things that could make it spread a lot easier. The virus however does not live in the air, it's not airborne, you really only get it from the transmission of bodily fluids. So if you think about it, it's typically passed from an animal to a human and it's when humans handle these animals, right, how often do they come into contact with these animals? It's actually pretty often, there's lots of different reasons why people in that part of the world are coming into contact with these animals, with the corpses of these animals, and that's another thing about Ebola, it could be transmitted through a corpse, the virus stays around for a long time, it doesn't have to be in living tissue like you would normally think. Absolutely the drop off happens, but you could have a corpse that's a day old or two days old and you could still catch the virus from it. Now there's one more thing that I read, and this is actually very shocking and mildly disturbing is that men's semen can harbour the virus for up to 7 weeks after they've recovered from the actual virus.

R: Oh my god.

J: So guys, from the World Health Organisation or WHO, here's a very interesting quote.

S: Who?


E: Yes.

J: Now they call this virus by the way, EVD. "EVD is a severe acute viral illness often characterised by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function and in some cases both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings include low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes. It sounds a lot like the flu doesn't it? Especially the first half of that. Even the vomiting and the diarrhoea, that could happen from the flu as well. The virus can potentially have very bad long term complications like hepatitis, fatigue, headache and testicular inflammation, which I thought was also interesting, I had never heard that before. Now the question: How dangerous is it? This is important because this is where we get into the sensationalisation of Ebola and later on in this topic I'm going to talk about how people are taking advantage of the fact that it's a scary idea that there's this bad virus going around. Unless you live in one of the outbreak areas, Ebola is simply just not a threat. You're more likely to die from the flu and statistically the flu kills waaaay more people than Ebola does.

S: Yeah, this is the biggest outbreak that we've ever recorded of Ebola, 900+, yeah.

J: The flue is kicking Ebola's ass every winter.

S: Yeah, oh yeah.

J: Samples of Ebola are considered highly dangerous however, and extreme caution is advised. You could catch it from someone who has a scuff mark on their arm. Anything that will produced bodily liquid. Unfortunately there's no vaccines, several companies are testing drugs and vaccines right now of course and I think this has been a continued effort, but we don't have anything that is legal to use right now. Now let's move into the second half of this news item where we'll quickly go over... you OK Ev?

E: Yeah, yeah, you took like a little right-hand turn there suddenly and the car kind of jerked, I'm good, I'm good, I'm following you.

J: There's a lot of people that are jumping on the bandwagon for a lot of different reasons. One, people want to use it as a well to propel their blog and I'll shamelessly bring up Mike Adams from Natural News. Our buddy, you're buddy, the guy that wants your kids to never put fluoride in their mouth again and oh, the death rec guy, he recently put an article up on his site called "infected Ebola patient being flown to Atlanta, are health authorities risking a US outbreak?" Donald Trump also was tweeting some very nervous and itchy emails about being worried about bringing the two health care providers back to the United States for treatment. The fact of the matter is that under the right care and supervision it's simply not an issue and doing moderate research and finding some good sources of information like the WHO website, the World Health Organisation, you can easily find out what the real information is. So I'm sorry Mike, I'm sorry Donald Trump, no it's not a bad idea to bring back the US citizens and ensure that they get high-level care.

S: Yeah, these, there are two American patients that are being treated in Atlanta, in Emery, and the hospital is equipped to deal with this kind of infection and as you say it's not airborne, it's actually not that hard to have precautions to keep this from spreading because you just have to have bodily fluid precautions, you know hospitals know how to do that. But this one particularly knows how to deal with this level of infection, it really isn't anything to worry about.

R: And this isn't the first time that Ebola has been in United States either.

E: I didn't think it was.

R: Yeah, a lot of people are claiming that, but it's not true, there was a woman a few years back that had a different strain where the strain wasn't even identified for several weeks after she got better and she infected a bunch of people and literally no-one died from it. And also there are scientists who are studying Ebola every day here in the United States, and they do that with active strains and they know how to take care of it and so nobody, there's no giant outbreaks, no-one's dying.

E: Yeah, that's a good point. Hey what about the possibility that this thing might mutate and become something like airborne as opposed to fluid transmission?

J: It's always possible, Ev, they just don't know, it could happen but right now it is what it is and we'll treat it the way it's behaving. So there's a couple of other quicky things I just want to bring up. One, there's a lot of wacky conspiracy theories, there's people that are saying that with essential oils you can be cured of Ebola and all that, it's all nonsense I'm sure a lot of you...

B: It's despicable nonsense.

E: Oh gosh.

J: they're taking advantage of people that are scared, there's money there, and they will fill in those new empty spaces of places to make money. The conspiracy theories are pretty funny, some people are claiming it's a bio-weapon. Now it actually could be a bio-weapon and it could be an effective bio-weapon, depending on the particular strain. It's ridiculous to say that it's being spread as a bio-weapon, who's deliberately being killed by it, is it thinning out of the world population and all that nonsense, but I did want to bring up one interesting thing, any of you play a game called Plague, Inc.?

B: No, but I've seen it played.

E: No.

R: Yeah.

J: Rebecca, yeah I'm sure you did. You and I share a lot of, we like those mid-level games on the iPad right?

R: You've got to get Madagascar, that's the key.

J: Yeah, that is the key. Very interestingly, this game simulates a lot of different plagues, but you're the plague, and you're trying to kill the entire world population, so there is one style of the game is you can play a virus, a real virus, or even a bio-weapon. And it's really cool, like it's interesting because you have to mutate your virus and you have to time it correctly and everything so if you're interested to see how a virus like this possibly could spread and how quickly and everything, play the game, it's more fun than accurate but it's definitely interesting.

S: Yeah, so I want to point out that there are a lot of homoeopaths claiming that homoeopathy can cure Ebola, with a dilution of rattle snake venom because rattle snake venom causes the same symptoms so it magically cures Ebola when you dilute it out of existence.

E: Think of who they're peddling that to right, where Ebola is happening in these villages in Africa where these sorts of beliefs, we laugh at it here but I tell you what in a place like that I'll bet you they think that's really legitimate thing.

J: Of course they do.

R: Well people here think it's a real legitimate thing.

E: Well more-so there.

R: There problem isn't that, I don't think it's necessarily that they're less skeptical there, but I think that the problem is that they're desperate there and that's where quacks thrive is when people are desperate and don't have access to good, quality medical care. They reach out for whatever they can and if they think that this is their only hope then why wouldn't they? You know? And it is infuriating to see quacks just abusing what they know to be happening in that area.

J: Definitely. There's a large number of health care professionals that are putting their lives at risk to help those in need that are suffering from Ebola right now, a large number of people from around the world are flying to help those in Africa and wherever else the virus is showing up. So first, I'd really like to thank those health-care providers, it's very dangerous, they're putting their lives at risk to do this. Second, you don't see a bus-load of homoeopaths loaded with potions going to help the infected, you know?

E: Homeopaths without borders?

J: Yeah.

Rosetta in Orbit (21:52)[edit]

S. Alright well let's transition to some brighter news items evan you're going to tell us about the first probe to rendezvous with a comet

E. Steve that's right not only that it is the first mission designed to orbit and land on comet more on that later rosetta is the name of the pro and it was built and launched by the european space agency with the purpose of studying the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko or "Chury" for short. Thank goodness they give it a short name cherry and this morning august 6th 2014 it entered into orbit it became the first man made object to orbit a comet think about that that is freaking incredible. Rosetta will remain in close proximity to to the icy nucleus as it touches towards the warmer inner readers of the sun domain and at that time as it is heading towards the sun a small lender is going to be released on to the surface of Chury from Rosetta which makes it even cooler than that and this has been a project in the making for quite a long time. It started in 1993 that is when the international project was approved of the cost and mission of e s a horizon mission science program it was originally scheduled for launch in January 2003 but it got postponed it there was a failure of a rocket that was going to launch it into space so they have to wait until they got that sorted out march of 2004 is when it went up. And here is how it got to the concert here is what is needed to do and what the scientists had to come up with Rosetta received its first earth gravity assist in march of 2005 save a lot so they launch it they send it out it comes back to the earth and the planet give it a gravity assist push a boost to its next set of orbits. In which it received a Mars gravity assist in February of 2007 propeller back towards the earth. The earth gave it its second gravity assist in November of 2007 and then if you buy asteroid Stynes in September of 2008 which sent it back to the earth for its second gravity assist in November 2009.

B. What a wait, I hate gravity assist.

E. And then asteroid Lucietta in July 2010 was it next rendezvous point and right after that it went into space with nothing around it. It entered hibernation in June 2011 it had to be awakened it was the city for almost 3 years January 2014 this year they had to wake it up they went really 100 percent shore it was going to wake up but it did it had to make a series of manoeuvres, thruster burns, in order to line it up with Chury and that happened in May of 2014. And there have been other burns occurring between then and now in the last couple of months it started right in to orbit as of today 80 miles above the comet something could have gone wrong at any one of dozen or more. Enter s. Yeah it could have missed...

S. Yeah, and if it missed, it's done, yeah it had the ability to make minor tweaks to its orbit but the dance it did with the Earth, Mars and these asteroids had to really work out.

E. And here are all the firsts Rosetta is going to be accomplishing. First spacecraft to orbit a comet, comet nucleus I should say which is happening. It will be the first spacecraft to fly alongside a comet as it heads towards the inner solar system, very cool. It will be the first spacecraft to see how a comet is transformed by the warmth of the sun. After its arrival it will dispatch the robotic lander for a touchdown on a comet nucleus that's very cool. Rosetta's instruments will obtain the first images of a comet's surface and make the first analysis of the surface of a comet to see what it is made of. And finally it will be the first spacecraft ever to fly close to Jupiter's orbit using solar cells as its main power source. So this little machine, only about 30 meters wide at its full extension with the solar panels, is the little engine that could, frankly. It really really truly is an amazing feat. Tip your hats to the scientists and everybody involved in this program it is just a marve.

S: It's already sending us back pictures of Chury and it's interesting, it's got like two pieces with a thin neck in between. They don't know if this is because it was broken apart at one point or if this is the merger of two chunks or maybe just eroded this way, like every time it gets near the sun a lot of it evaporates, maybe this is just what was left. So maybe we'll be able to figure that out by studying it more closely. Alright thanks, Evan, let's move on.

EM Drive (26:52)[edit]

S: Let's move on. Bob, talking about the Little Engine that Could, you're going to tell us about NASA's testing of a propellantless drive that's got quite a buzz going this last week.

B: Yeah, apaarently NASA has successfully tested a revolutionary spaceship propulsion technology using microwaves that will allow for a reactionless drive. That means it doesn't require any conventional fuel or anything squirted out of the back to push it, conservation of momentum be damned apparently. So if you haven't heard about this, welcome back to conciousness. I don't even know really where to start with this. Tons of horrible reporting about this out there, even from Wired and Popular Mechanics, very disappointing. So just a quick timeline overview. In 2000 some goof-ball named Roger Shawyer claimed that bouncing microwaves inside a tapered metal vessel can propel it with nothing actually leaving the back end of it as you would think. He claimed that because one end is smaller than the other, more force is pushed against it moving the device in that direction. And this force is supposedly greater than just the force of the photons hitting the device as you might think. In 2001 he was given 45,000 quatloos from the British Government to test it. They use quatloos. In 2012 the Chinese did a study on a variation of Shawyer's device and claimed that they measured a tiny unexplained force and now NASA has tested this idea on another variation of the drive and they're claiming an even tinier success. So the obvious knee-jerk reaction to the physics minded for this would be that this is a violation of conservation of momentum. This conservation of momentum, this is a rock-solid, fundamental. Essentially fundamentally momentum always remains constant. You've heard energy's never created or destroyed, that's same with momentum. It can't be created or destroyed, only changed. It relates to Newton's laws of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So a conventional rocket exhaust is different because it cancels out the forward movement of the rocket and that satisfies the laws of conservation. This does not. So a lot of people are using a really good analogy. They say that this drive is like pushing on your steering wheel to move your car while you're sitting in the car. And that's a very good analogy I think. Physics does not allow for anything like this and Shawyer has claimed that he's using standard physics so that just won't happen that way. So the latest news from NASA is what everyone's been crowing about for days so I'm going to focus on that. So they took, NASA took a similar engine design called the Cannae Drive, designed by some guy named Fetta. So they tested two of those drives, one was working and one was a null test device that was deactivated in some way. They tested them against this incredibly sensitive machine, it's a low-thrust torsion pendulum that could sense micronewtons of force, very very very tiny amounts of force. And we're not talkign apples to oranges here since the vessel they tested is similar enough to Shawyer's design he himself said, from what I understand of the NASA and Cannae work, their thruster actually works along similar lines to EM-drive. So they are similar enough. They both still create these resident waves of microwaves inside an asymmetrical vessel to create a thrust with no conventional action-reaction. So they are very similar in those very important regards. So when it's all said and done they claim to have detected an anomalous thrust of 30 to 50 micronewtons, incredibly small, and then the Internet went a little crazy. What's wrong with this? What are the huge red flags? So like I said, there's the apparent violation of the laws of momentum which I mentioned. This paper that was written about this experiment was not a formal vetted and signed-off experimental write-up by NASA, that's not what it was. But that's kind of how it's being portrayed by almost every site that I've gone to. According to the scientist and science blogger Mica McKinnon, it's a conference paper. Conference papers are totally preliminary, that's what their purpose is. They essentially say to the community, "hey, check this shit out, what do you think, anything we could do to make this better?" that's pretty much the attitude and I think that's a very important distinction compared to a real experimental write-up, only one of the news sites even really mentioned that so it's kind of frustrating. So also people are throwing around the name NASA which I think is a little bit misleading, this is a gargantuan agency, close to 20,000 employees. The guys that were important in these experiments, one of them, he believes in faster than light drives that most people in the community will say that that's just not going to happen. Another guy is on his team, is his team mate. So I think to equate this team of people with NASA, capital letters, with no qualification at all, just doesn't seem right to me. You get the implication that NASA has signed off on this and they are behind this and NASA, NASA, NASA, and it's really not quite like that. So this next point irked me. In their paper the team said that htey won't evaluate the theory behind this device, which is good because the theory sucks, so that's a really good thing, just focus on the experiment. But yet, in the introduction, they throw out this gem, they say: "the electric propulsion device is producing a force that is not attributable to classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore," here it comes, "is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma."

S: There you go.

S: OK, oh boy. So then they mention that, they mention those four words four more times in their paper. They don't go into great detail but they are throwing that out that. So where did quantum vacuum virtual vacuum come from? I don't know. Neither do physicists. It's techno-babble that would sound great on a Star Trek episode but it's completely unwarranted just to throw that out that. So it doesn't take much just to realise that what they're trying to get across here is that the engine is pushing against the virtual particles, quantum virtual particles which constantly pop into existence even in the supposed nothingness of a vacuum and then they mutually annihilate each other. There's pretty good science behind that, but to throw out this term in this way, I don't know why they just pulled that, just right out of their butts, this sounds really cool, let's refer to it this way. So respected physicist Shaun Carroll, he agrees with me of course. He says, "there is a quantum vacuum but it's nothing like a plasma, in particular, it does not have a rest frame so there's nothing to push against so you can't use it for propulsion, the whole thing is just nonsense." The researchers who wrote this paper, like I said, they pretty much just pulled it out of their butts. They claim that the engine pushes against the background virtual particles which suffuse the universe, which would require a rewrite of physics and they just throw that out there as a possible explanation based on what? An incredibly tiny anomalous force that is discussed in a conference paper that has not been reproduced, the way they did it. Very, very irresponsible. So the experiment, another biggie here, the experiment also, they don't seem to control enough for possible sources of error, and that's, especially with such a tiny force, you've got to really control for every little thing, and they did make some effort and they do mention it here and there, but they should, I believe they should have literally devoted whole sections of the paper to just describing how they tried to minimise this, and there's so many ways that these errors could have crept in. If you compared the power input to the amount of measured thrust, there's plenty left over that could account for these errors. Instead, at the end of the conference paper, they talk about how cool this engine would be, how much money and time we would save travelling to other planets, and my attitude was hey, if you can get around conservation of momentum there's plenty of other things I'd be talking about rather than how long it's going to take to get to Mars using this device. So another great example of the lack of serious controls is a vacuum test. This is designed for a ship that's going to fly in space and you're trying to isolate it as much as you can. They did not even test it in a vacuum. They explicitly say in their paper, "testing at vacuum conditions was not possible using our current RF amplifiers." OK, I understand you had some limitations for whatever reason, but that, to me it's a joke almost, it's such a clear potential source of error. Any heating of the air around the device, just a little air current could have caused the forces that they tested because they were so, so tiny. It would not take much at all and to me that's a big, big, a big miss right there.

S: Yeah, this is like the free energy devices.

B: Oh absolutely.

S: That have this minuscule excess of energy and claim that that's some whatever, exotic free-energy source, but it's so minuscule that means that even the subtlest experimental error or just unaccounted-for force can be responsible for it. So until you actually scale it up, it's just not convincing.

B: Yeah, they even made mention of, they were like 75 miles away from the shore and they said that the waves, the waves hitting the shore.

S: 25 miles.

B: The effect, well it doesn't really matter because they said that the effects of those waves could actually have impacts on experiments 100 miles inland. So I mean they're talking away waves miles away that could have an impact, and they said even worse than that was just people walking nearby, other experiments happening in other rooms, such little things that you really have to nail down so, so well.

S: Healthy scepticism is warranted at this time.

B: Absolutely.

S: It's unfortunate that the NASA name is having such an effect, so many people saying oh NASA has verified the Chinese test. Well first of all they didn't because the effect was so much tinier.

B: Which is what you would expect, right? You would expect NASA technicians to have better equipment in a lot of ways, especially for devices that test things that go into space, so it makes sense that it was a lot tighter for these guys.

Hobbit Update (37:38)[edit]

Volcanoes on Io ()[edit]

Who's That Noisy ()[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Dolph Lundgren

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Herxing ()[edit]

What can you guys tell me about 'herxing' (aka Jarisch-Herxheimer reaction)? As far as I can make out, it is a minor footnote of medical science, but to the 'chronic Lyme' crowd it is a crucial and magical diagnostic tool — better than any serological test. According to Wikipedia, 'reaction commonly occurs within two hours of drug administration, but is usually self-limiting.' In 'chronic Lyme' land, though, herxing goes on for days, weeks, months, years. It waxes and wanes. It can produce a wide variety of symptoms and often resembles the throes of religious ecstasy. Most dubious, 'chronic Lyme' sufferers are instructed to gauge their own health and response to treatment with this bizarro yardstick where the sicker you feel, the better you're getting.Seems like a sketchy racket to me. Kindly disinfect with sunlight. Thanks!JeremyNYC

Interview with Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki ()[edit]

  • Interview with Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki

If you happen to have a friend with a kid and the kid has chronic myeloid leukemia(?) or something and the doctor says well I think we should use Cyclophosphamide(?) you're not gonna say... that's hippie bullcrap! We should be using phithier-urasol(?)! You're wrong!

Or if a metallurgist says the way you turn iron into steel is you add a few percentage points of carbon, or if an electrical engineer says well to plot out the electrical grid to feed old-langly(?) electricity to all the houses, I have to use the square root of -1, you don't disagree with them.

Why is it that it's only global warming that has a fake controversey set up about it. Nobody worries about the fact that the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago ...except for 40% of americans and 46% of australians... ''(laughter)'' but apart from why is that? ...and then you're going to play around with conspiracy theory.

It's an interesting question, I mean, we talk about these topics all the time. And we haven't really talked about like why is there a problem with global warming. Why is there a problem with GMO. I think it just kind of gets popularized through one chann--somebody popularizes it...some big name or somehow it gets into the social consciousness and it spreads. I don't think there's like a deliberate meaning I don't think –

Ah, but it is deliberate. read the book by Naomi Oreskes naomi o-r-e-s-k-e it's called the Merchants of Doubt. She says she then makes a nice analogy with tobacco. All you have to do is say doubt. Ok professor Novella says that there's a 94% chance that if you smoke so many cigarettes you will all have lung cancer but professor Saunders says there's a 93% --92%...well they're disagreeing with each other. Therefore they're BOTH WRONG! All you have to do is throw the doubt.

So there's been this deliberate -- who did it like-- disinformation --the George C Marshall Institute Washington DC. The history is well and carefully arbated(?) it's a well funded campaign to stop the people who're making money out of business as usual from suffering. And it *will* change. We will change.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: Researchers report that they were able to change the color of a butterfly population’s wings from brown to violet in just six generations of selection. Item #2: A new study finds that asking people a single question, to rate themselves on a 7 point narcissism scale, is as reliable and valid as longer narcissism surveys consisting of 40 or more questions. Item #3: Scientists have developed a technique for bending sound waves along a curved path in open air, without the need of any special medium.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

'You got it buddy: the large print giveth, and the small print taketh away /Step right up'- Tom Waits

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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