SGU Episode 499

From SGUTranscripts
Jump to: navigation, search
  Emblem-pen-orange.png This episode needs:  transcription,  proof-reading,  formatting,  links,  'Today I Learned' list,  categories,  segment redirects. How to Contribute

SGU Episode 499
January 31st 2015
Cashew apples.jpg
SGU 498 SGU 500
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
To every complex question there is a simple answer and it is wrong.
H. L. Mencken
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Episode 500 coming up, as well as SGU House Party. Asteroid near-miss.

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (3:33)[edit]

  • Jocelyn Bell Burnel: Astrophysicist who discovered Pulsars

S: All right, well, Bob, you're gonna tell us about the next Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes, so this week, guys, I'll be talking about Jocelyn Bell Burnel. She an astrophysicist who was the first person to detect a pulsar. Have you ever heard of her?

S: Oh yeah.

B: You have? Awesome.

S: That's one female scientist I never forget, because she has the same first name as my wife, which is

E: Yeah

S: not a very common woman's first name.

B: Ah ha! Okay, so for those of you without a wife named Jocelyn, she might be brand new to you.


B: She was born in 1943 in Northern Ireland.

E: Bob, my daughter's middle name is Bell, so that's why I remember

B: Ah, okay, you too then.

S: Is that right?

B: She graduated from Oxford with a PhD, and started working on the study of quazars. She even helped to build a four acre radio telescope, which she spent two years on. And then the seminal moment happened. In 1967, she noticed an anomaly. It was this weird, persistent signal that repeated every 1.3 seconds. And she described it as a bit of scruff. But it was weird, because it couldn't be coming from a quazar.

So her PhD supervisor refused to believe that it was anything other than interference, or something caused by man made. He was very skeptical. But she spent a great deal of time going over literally miles of computer read outs over the days and weeks. And her persistence paid off. As good scientists, they crossed off the list of mundane possibilities like satellites and TV signals. And she even

E: Washing machines.

B: Even those. She briefly named it LGM for Little Green Men, because it was conceivable that it was an alien signal.

E: Ha!

B: But eventually they realized that what they had found was a very special class of neutron star, one that rotates while emitting a columnated beam of radiation like radio waves. Then the rest, as they say, is history. Anthony Hewish, her PhD supervisor, eventually won the Nobel Prize along with Martin Rile for their work on the discovery. And as you may be realizing right now, Bell Burnel did not get it.

Many important astronomers were livid that she was not included, especially physicist Fred Hoyle, who told a reporter, "Yes, Jocelyn Bell was the actual discoverer, not Hewish, who was her supervisor. So she should have been included." He even claimed at one point that Hewish stole some of her data. I'm not sure if that's actually been totally corroborated.

So, now, granted, I should say that the demarcation between supervisor and the student regarding discoveries is often a murky one, hard to tease out who did what, and who should get credit for what. And throughout all of this, Bell Burnel has acted with absolute class, accepting the outcome with grace, and no hard feelings.

S: I'd have hard feelings.

B: So my question is, why isn't she a household name? She pretty much was the first to discover a pulsar. But, guys, read up on Jocelyn Burnel, and her amazing contributions. Mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing plasma electrodynamics in rotating degenerate matter. More people should know what she did.

J: Cool!

S: All right, thanks Bob. Let's get to some news items.

News Items[edit]

Green Coffee Bean “Hoax” (6:40)[edit]

Disneyland Measles Outbreak (13:45)[edit]

S: Evan, what are you doing after the show?

E: I'm going to Disneyland

S: Thankyou, you took my cue very nicely.

S: Be careful though, have you gotten all of your vaccines?

E: Maybe! (laughs) Who knows? We'll find out, won't we? Yeah, latest news out of California regarding the measles, unfortunately is not good, is not good. As you know, there's an outbreak of the measles that has occurred in California. The latest statisics are, there are 87 confirmed cases that's as of today, who knows if that number will tick up slightly, maybe by the time the episode goes up, but of the 87 cases, 50 of them can be linked directly to Disneyland, which was once the happiest place on Earth, but I think that's an extra-ordinary claim now. We know about the vaccination status of 42 people, of these 87 cases, the rest it's unclear. Of the 42 people whose status we know, whether they were vaccinated or not, 34 of the people who contracted the measles were unvaccinated, 3 were partially vaccinated, and 5 were fully vaccinated. So what does that tell you? You were much more succeptible to catch these measles at Disneyland if you were unvaccinated as opposed to the small percentage of the people who were vaccinated and who happened to contract it.

B: Ah, it's a good point.

S: Yeah, I did a quick calculation. Assuming that 90% of the population is vaccinated, those are the latest rates, assuming that holds in Disneyland, then that means that if you're unvaccinated, you were 67 times more likely to become infected with measles than if you were vaccinated.

B: Awesome.

J: Wow.

E: Yeah, it's more evidence that shows you that vaccinations matter. It's so important. This disease of measles, this virus was eliminated back in 2000 so just 15 years ago.

S: Yeah, well to be clear, endemic measles was. Like smallpox has been completely eradicated, it doesn't exist anywhere in the world in the wild. Measles was no longer endemic in the United States, which means that there wasn't measles bouncing around in the US, all of the cases were imported from outside of the US. But now it's basically coming back as an endemic illness, as sort of a self-perpetuating illness.

B: Yeah, and those international travelers that had measles and came to the States, because of herd immunity, it never penetrated very deeply because specifically of herd immunity.

S: Yeah, there'd be a few cases, maybe with close contact, but it wouldn't lead to an outbreak, yeah. Now we're getting outbreaks because herd immunity has been eroded by pockets of vaccine refusers, essentially.

J: But Steve, do they know where this particular strain comes from, can they follow it back in any way?

S: They haven't found the original case that cased the Disneyland outbreak.

E: Patient zero?

S: Yeah, they haven't found patient zero, yeah.

E: Steve, I've heard from many places that measles is not something to be all up in arms about. It's one of those things, a chickenpox kind of thing where yeah, you know, kids get it at some point and you just kind of suffer through the symptoms and you go along your way once it's over.

S: Yeah, that's not true. It's a serious illness, I mean you're basically miserable for 2 weeks. It causes high fever and uncomfortable rash. Of the people in this outbreak, 25%, 1 in 4 have to be hospitalised.

B: Oh wow.

J: Wow.

S: And any illness that puts you in the hospital is a big deal.

E: Yeah, it's not trivial.

S: This is not a trivial illness but the anti-vaxers would want you to think that this is no big deal because they're always trying to minimise the benefits of vaccines and exaggerate their risks, that's what they do.

B: Guys, did you know that in Orange County where Disneyland is, that there are schools in that county where as many as 60-80% of the students have missed at least some of their vaccinations. 60-80% in some of these schools, that is just a mind-boggling number.

J: What the hell is going on with these states?

S: That can be a little deceptive because these schools specifically are vaccine-refuser friendly so they congregate there, you know.

B: Oh yeah, I'm sure there's a good reason for them to be that high, but still the fact remains, those numbers are huge. And one other quick thing. You might think, oh well, Disney ought to do something about it. But there's actually nothing that Disney could have done or can do in the future to prevent an outbreak like this. The bottom line is that the virus particles are airborne and when you have people congregating together, stuff like this is going to happen, so it's not like you can actually institute anything that could help this.

E: Well they're being reactive to it at least properly. Disneyland has said that all employees that could have been in contact with people diagnosed with the measles were asked to provide vaccination records or do a blood test to show they had immunity to the disease and that the employees who had not been vaccinated or could not confirm it were asked to go onto paid leave until their status could be confirmed or the 21 days are up. 21 days is the...

S: incubation period.

E: ...time in which you can give it to other people.

S: But I hear Disney is opening up a new ride, "It's a Smallpox World".


B: Oh man, nice one.

S: Can you imagine people on the teacup ride, just sort of throwing bodily fluids all around?

E: They've actually tracked some other folks who had visited Disneyland and had come down with the measles in other states, and they were able to corroborate that these people had visited Disneyland in the last month or two and it's not isolated to just California, it's getting around.

S: There was an Onion article that completely nailed it. The headline was "I Don't Vaccinate My Child Because It's My Right To Decide What Eliminated Diseases Come Roaring Back".

E: Constitutionally protected right.

S: The money quote is "The decision to cause a full-blown, multi-state pandemic of a virus that was effectively eliminated from the national population generations ago is my choice alone, and regardless of your personal convictions, that right should never be taken away from a child’s parent. Never."

B: Oh man, that's beautiful.

S: Satire is wonderful.

(Commercial at 19:58)

Galaxy-Sized Wormhole (21:29)[edit]

Fail-Safe for Artificial Life (29:02)[edit]

S: Alright guys, let's go from the really big to the really small, we're going to talk about bacteria.  This is really interesting.  Scientists at Harvard and Yale and working on a way to fail-safe artificial bacteria.  So we've been talking about genetically modified bacteria and how it's getting closer and closer to like fully-artificial life. But even now, we already, there are already genetically modified bacteria that are doing work. If you take insulin for your diabetes, that insulin probably comes from genetically modified bacteria where the gene to make insulin was inserted into the bacteria and they're cranking it out in vats. We could also genetically engineer to eat up spilled toxins or petroleum products or even to make sythetic fuel, so these little buggers can be quite useful.  However, there is a concern about releasing artificial bacteria into the environment.  They may have unintended consequences, so at present we use physical containment strategies, essentially just keeping the bacteria physically isolated so that there's no possibility they could get out there into the wild. Well researchers at Harvard and Yale have been working on a new strategy to contain artificial bacteria which actually could be applied not just to bacteria, but really to any life form.  And this one is very similar to what was discussed in the movie Jurassic Park. If you remember in Jurassic Park, there was the lysine contingency. Do you remember that?

J: Oh yeah.

S: They engineered the dinosaurs so that they couldn't make the amino acid lysine so that it had to be fed to them. So if they ever escaped they would go into a coma in a day and then die because they weren't being fed a regular diet of this missing amino acid.

B: But nature finds a way.

S: But of course life found a way in the movies. Nature finds a way. Well. I don't know if nature's going to find a way around this one. The researchers actually did something more extreme. They did a very similar thing where they engineered the bacteria so that they have to be fed an amino acid they can't obtain for themselves, but here's the twist, they are dependent on amino acid that doesn't exist in nature.

J: Oh my god that's brilliant.

B: That's inspired.

S: What they did was, so you guys know about the trinucleotide code, so DNA has four nucleic acids: cytosine, thiamine, adenine and guanine. So that's the four letter code. Each amino acid, or each three-letter combination is a code and so therefore that's four to the third power which is 64 different possibilities.  There are 20 different amino acids that make up life so there's a little bit of redundancy built in there but also some of the codons, some of the three-letter codes for things like "stop making the protein here", the so-called stop codons. So what the researchers did was they took one of the stop codons and they reprogrammed it so that it coded for an artificial amino acid that doesn't exist in nature. And they changed the codes so that this amino acid would be incorporated into critical proteins. Therefore unless the bacteria were being fed this artificial amino acid, they couldn't make their proteins and they couldn't reproduce. That's a pretty significant change, I'm not sure if the bacteria will be able to spontaneously go back. So this is like a double-failsafe: the Jurassic Park one better. The researchers also say that their plan is to incorporate like five, six, seven different types of recoding into the artificial bacteria so that it becomes less and less likely that some mutation or whatever, that something could happen that would, the bacteria could work their way around this fail-safe. So they could easily build a dozen fail-safes into an artificial life form so there's absolutely no way that it's going to be able to evolve around the need to fed, for example, artificial food in the laboratory or in their work conditions. So that's a pretty good fail-safe. I mean I think that's, never say never obviously, right. I mean we always have to anticipate things, but that looks pretty reassuring.

E: What are we going to do with this artificial bacteria?

J: All sorts of different stuff, I mean think about it. The big one that a lot of people know about is that it could eat oil that was spilled in the ocean as an example. But I mean bacteria could generate hydrogen, we could make them do whatever we want them to do.

B: Create insulin, all sorts of different chemicals that we would find incredibly helpful. I think this is a great idea, they call them geros: genetically recoded organisms. I was reading somewhere somebody was making an analogy to them as domesticating a wild creature which is I think fairly apt. Steve: question for you though. If they do get out into the wild, I know they wouldn't live very long, but could they take advantage of what little time they have in the wild to use a plasmid and transfer some key genes before they died?

S: Yeah, but if their genes are using a different code, it doesn't matter. That's the whole point. Their genes literally use a different genetic code than the rest of life on earth. Not only that, but that also makes them resistant to viruses that attack bacterial.

B: Yeah that's cool, but Steve it's not every gene though, they still might be able to transfer other important genes that have not been recoded. It's not every gene.

S: Yeah, well it depends on the extent of the recoding.

B: OK. Also, they say it was a big effort to re-engineer this genome, I'm thinking, OK what kind of effort is it going to take to re-engineer other genomes? I'm assuming they've learned a lot and they could do it quicker but it sounds like that it would be a huge effort every time they grab a new organism and try to re-engineer it.  Or maybe they could have these templates that they could just plug in to these other genomes and not be such a huge effort.

S: Yeah, I mean I would be surprised if it just didn't get easier with time. Right? I mean think about, just for example, mapping the genome. I mean it sped up by orders of magnitude just during the genome project, so I could imagine, 10-20 years, 30 years, we may be able to just do this as simple as printing something. Who knows? I doubt it's going to stay as difficult as this first one was, you know?

B: Yeah.

S: And even if it is, if it is a huge project, it takes time, that's not that big a deal because once you make the bacteria, you've got it. It's self-perpetuating. Imagine having life forms, even like vertebrate life forms that have a completely different genetic code, biochemistry that totally incompatible with other life on Earth.

B: I can't wait.

J: That can't do anything other than the specific tasks that we give it. That's the way to do it, man.

B: I can't wait to see what comes of this.

Who's That Noisy (36:30)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Launch of Mercury Atlas Aurora VII

(Commercial at 38:12)

Questions and Emails[edit]

DNA Comparisons (39:50)[edit]

I got into a discussion with “The Absurdity of Atheism” (AoA) on Facebook, ( regarding the similarity of Human and Chimp DNA. It was exhausting and ultimately nonproductive, unless someone on the fence was moved by my argument, one can hope. I’d like to know if there are resources available to help argue various points of contention with a theist. There are resources online to help the theists. The argument – he cited what looked like a legit paper that stated 66-93% of the DNA was the same and that chimps and humans had a common ancestor. From that moment on, he used the number “70%,” would not acknowledge up to 93%, said the “common ancestor” part of the paper was opinion, and that three million years was not enough time to explain the 30% divergence given current rates of mutation. Now, I am a science enthusiast. I don’t know anything about the moderator, and I feel I was not adept enough to defend my position. I found three papers from the same site that stated 93% and up to 95% simularity. One of the papers used only 800kb of genome information, which was all the information available at that time (2004). It was difficult to defend my position. David Arizona

Name That Logical Fallacy (49:29)[edit]

  • Name That Logical Fallacy
Hello! I run a Youtube channel that is completely unrelated to anything skeptical, and is mainly just about living in Japan as an international couple with a baby. However, recently in a video blog I was commenting on a silly television show here in Japan that had a segment that day with a supposed UFO expert. It was the usual stuff you see in the media, nothing special. However, I got a random comment in the youtube video that was full of the usual UFO believer arguments that I felt was full of logical fallacies, so I thought I'd ask: How many logical fallacies are in this comment? The comment: Yes. A percentage of UFO videos and pictures are faked or photoshopped. But dude really? There are thousands of videos and photos, and more and more of them in daylight and close up. Just the law of averages with thousands of them means that there are real craft. They do perform things that cannot be done with any current public technology. AND cannot be done with any materials we have with our present understanding of physics. A human body would not survive the maneuvers performed. Just go to The Disclosure Project web site and read the affidavits from hundreds of upper US and global military and scientists working on government black ops projects. You need to catch up. /end comment You can see my response here: I felt like this was my first chance to try to be a good skeptic directly, even though I've been following your show for years now, and it really feels hard to deal with people I know personally believing the usual pseudoscience fluff without insulting them. Thanks! Chase in Japan

(Commercial at 56:02)

Dumbest Thing of the Week (57:41)[edit]

Announcements (1:02:11)[edit]

  • NECSS 2015, People's Podcast Award nominations, Lawsuit is getting expensive

Science or Fiction (1:06:53)[edit]

Item #1: Raw cashews contain the same highly toxic chemical found in poison ivy, which is in the same family as the cashew tree. Item #2: Walnuts are the #1 culinary nut produced world-wide, at 23 tonnes per year. Item #3: Botanically speaking, peanuts are legumes, while cashews, pistachios, almonds, and the white part of the coconut that we eat are all seeds. Chestnuts, hazelnuts, and acorns are true nuts. Item #4: The annual pollination event of California almonds requires about 1 million beehives, half of all commercial hives in the US.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:20:54)[edit]

To every complex question there is a simple answer and it is wrong… ~ H. L. Mencken

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]

  • This episode has the first Dumbest Thing of the Week segment


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