SGU Episode 496

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SGU Episode 496
January 10th 2015
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SGU 495                      SGU 497

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


TF: Tim Farley

Quote of the Week, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.

Thomas Jefferson

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • New years resolutions. Evan is going to build a garden. Jay will build a spaceship. Steve and Julie will build a hobbit hole. Collectively, they resolve to improve the SGU.
  • They discuss how they will cope without Rebecca

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:26)[edit]

S: So we're going to start off with a new segment that Bob is going to head up, Bob we're calling it the forgotten heroes of science, did you like that?

B: Or, I had recommended "Forgotten Superheroes of Science", got a little bit of alliteration going on there.

S: So this is people who made significant contributions to science, but are not household names. They're not as well known as they should be given their contributions.

E: They're not household names yet, we're about to help that out though.

S: Yeah, we'll see. So who are you starting up the segment with?

B: So for my first episode of Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I picked a trail-blazing American astronomer: Annie Jump Cannon. Now that name might sound familiar, especially if you paid really close attention to Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos last year. She was highlighted in one of his episodes and I thought wow, this person was pretty damn pivotal and I'm a big astronomy buff and how could I never have heard of her, so I was really surprised.

Annie was born Dec 11th 1863 in Dover, Delaware, about a century before I was born. In 1896 she was hired by the Harvard observatory at 50c an hour to classify bright Southern Hemisphere stars. Now, other sources claim she was paid 25c a day which is quite a difference, but whatever it was, she was almost certainly paid less than the secretaries at Harvard were paid. And I would think astronomers would deserve at least something at the very least commensurate with the secretary's.

So doing her typical classification tasks, she inherited some classification schemes from previous people who were doing her work and none of them seemed good for her, so she developed her own scheme that involved spectral classification. So what would happen would be that her team would receive the spectra of stars which would be produced by a prism showing the rainbow of colors, but with absorption lines missing meaning that certain chemical elements in the star are absorbed by that specific wavelength that was missing, of radiation. And the thicker the absorption line, the more of that element that there was. So using this method she came up with her scheme using the letters O, B, A, F, G, K, M, which I'm sure many, many of you have heard about especially if you consider the mnemonic that is often used to remember it, "I'll be a fine guy/girl, kiss me". So using those letters you can classify stars from hottest to coldest, and then you could also throw a number, 0-9 after it to bridge the gap within that range for each letter. So for example, an O star would be stars between 30,000 and 60,000K and they would be blue stars, and you could throw the numbers afterwards to fill in those gradations of temperatures between those two numbers.

S: Now Bob, what I've read is that Annie inherited the OBAFGKM classification system, the letters, she kept them the same so as not to confuse previous texts, but she just came up with new definitions for them, and that she came up with the "Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me" mnemonic.

B: Yes Steve, one of the schemes that she inherited had actually over 20, 22 different classifications, she simplified it down to the OBAFGKM, so it was, so sure a lot of the letters could have been the same, but she's the one that used those specific ones and only those for the first time, it appears.

So then, later on, it was determined that this method could be used to classify stars by their surface or effective temperature, which is valuable information. So this became the Harvard Classification System, which was the standard used by many astronomers for generations, all astronomers really, for generations. The one that's used now is a variant of that, still using those same letters, but from what I can tell, she was the first one to use those specific letters.

So she was actually quite adept, as you can imagine. She could classify three stars per minute just by looking at their spectral lines, and she has the honor of being the person with the most stellar classifications that anyone ever performed, even until this day, 350,000 stars that she classified that are published in the Draper Catalogs. So Cannon received many honorary degrees from many different colleges, she was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford in 1925, she was the first woman to hold an officer position in the American Astronomical Society, and all of this she accomplished while being almost completely deaf throughout her entire career.

J: Wow.

S: It was Scarlet Fever.

B: Yeah. So people, read up on Annie and her amazing contributions, mention her to friends sometimes, like when you're talking about spectral stellar classifications.


S: Which comes up all the time.

E: Right, at cocktail parties.

B: And lots of other reasons too, and more people should know about what she did.

S: Her career is like iconic for women being neglected in the sciences at this time. She was educated, she was smart, she was obviously diligent and yet she had no opportunities as a scientist simply because she was a woman. Imagine what she might have accomplished if she'd had the freedom to pursue her career like any man at the time could. So she mode the most of her career that she could given the degree to which she was being held back but it was just pure sexism that she wasn't allowed to accomplish even more.

E: Yep.

B: Yeah, and she and others like her at this time were inspirations to the giants that followed her.

Special Report (10:20)[edit]

  • The Rogues review how psychics fared in 2014
  • Rogues make their psychic predictions for the next year

S: The first show that we record in each new year...

Annoucement (37:16)[edit]


News Items[edit]

The Science of God (40:24)[edit]

Science 2015 (46:39)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (51:20)[edit]

  • First WTN of the year

Interview wtih Tim Farley (52:40)[edit]

Science or Fiction (1:07:47)[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that Americans purchase more food in the period following the holidays (January through March) than during the holiday season (Thanksgiving through New Year). Item #2: A recent review finds that about 60% of skin infections presenting to medical care are caused by spider bites. Item #3: Researchers find that an existing drug increases the activity of brown fat, increasing resting metabolic rate by over 200 Calories per day.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:19:32)[edit]

', once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.' - Thomas Jefferson

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.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Segment changes: Who's That Noisy is now done by Jay, Quote of the week is now done by Evan, and a new segment, Forgotten Superheroes of Science, is introduced.


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