SGU Episode 501

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SGU Episode 501
February 14th 2015
SGU 500 SGU 502
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Massimo Pigliucci
L: Larry Fitzgerald
JN: Joe Novella
JB: Joshie Berger
JBl: Jon Blumenfeld
Quote of the Week
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.
Carl Sagan
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

SGU 500 House Party ()[edit]

  • SGU 500: Special Guests: Massimo Pigliucci, Jon Blumenfeld, Larry Fitzgerald, Joe Novella, Joshie Berger

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (7:55)[edit]

S: We're gonna start with our relatively new segment, Forgotten Superheroes of Science.

B: This week, I'm gonna talk about, for Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm gonna talk about Auguste Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, more popularly known as Ada Lovelace. Sure a lot of people may be familiar with that name. But you may not be familiar with what she achieved, really. She was an English mathematician, and she was probably the first computer scientist ever. And she's got a very fascinating story. Have you guys ever heard of her?

?: Yes

B: Some have, well, yeah.


?: Yeah!

B: With this audience, I'm sure that there are some, but she's not widely known. She was born in 1791 in London. She was the daughter of poet Lord Byron, who was also very famously known for his promiscuity. And his wife, Ann, was very afraid for her daughter. And she did not want her to become as crazy and outlandish or as artistic as her father was. And he left the family, like, when she was two years old. She was gone.

So the Mom made sure that she had the best tutors, and she was tutored in math, and mathematics, and science. Like, not many women were done at that time at all, but she was tutored very strictly and heavily on that. Another thing that her mother did that I found very odd was that she tried to, she was afraid of her becoming like her dad, so she tried to quash her imagination.

So she would actually make her sit still for extended periods of time, and not to move at all, to teach her self-control. And things like that, when she was a kid, which was kind of strange, but that's how afraid she was of her becoming this person like her dad. She was very afraid of that.

When Ada was seventeen, she met Charles Babbage. This is kind of a milestone in her life. Charles Babbage, I'm sure a lot of you guys know, he came up with the design for the difference engine and the analytical engine. The difference engine was the first automatic mechanical calculator. Never quite finished it, but he did have some pretty elaborate designs. And for various reasons, it was never finalized.

But more importantly, he also designed the analytical engine, which is more a mechanical, general purpose computer. And that was never quite finished either. But still, these designs were breakthroughs that weren't noticed for quite some time. So Ada was captivated by his devices. She was just enthralled by them, and wanted to learn as much as she could about these mechanical computers that he had designed.

So, an Italian engineer wrote an article about the analytical engine, and she was asked by Charles to translate it into English. So, she took this article and translated it into English, and her translation was good, but she also wrote little notes here and there about what she was thinking, and insights that she had. Her notes were three times longer than that article. She really was thinking long and hard and deeply about this.

And she really came up with some amazing things. She realized that this device, this analytical engine, if it ever was created, would go far beyond mathematics. It would be able to do things that

J: Like video games?

B: had never been, yeah


B: like video games.

E: City of Heroes?

B: She wasn't quite that prescient. But she realized that the codes in this computer could be used for letters, and symbols, and not just numbers, which nobody was really thinking about at that time. She actually wrote some code to create Bernouli numbers that would, instructions that would loop, and to repeat the same instructions. I mean, that's a common computer programming technique.

And so, for this, and other reasons, she's considered to be the very first computer programmer. This in the 1840's, 1850's.

?: Wow

B: Quite an amazing achievement. But that's not even the coolest. She really was forward-thinking. About this engine, she said that it might act upon other things besides numbers. The engine might compose elaborate and scientific pieces of music of any degree of complexity or extent. I mean, she really was taking this beyond mere mathematical calculation, but computation and computer science. She was sensing the glimmers of computer science that wouldn't be around for many, many decades. And nobody really at that time had any clue about what was coming. And she was the first one.

Even beyond Babbage, he was more of a mathematician engineer. She was the one that was really, really forward thinking, and prescient, actually.

E: It sounds like she was also starting to think about the practical applications of what this would yield.

B: Absolutely, absolutely. And that was clear in her mind. And it slowly became clear, and when they discovered her work a century later, they're like, "Wow! Look at this! This is a hundred years old!"

S: So, was the technology just, was like, at a plateau for a century, before they -

B: No, they actually proved that they could create a difference engine with the technology at that time. But in terms of getting the funds and the expertise together for long enough to really pull it off, it just didn't happen. But if it did happen, I mean, our civilization could be quite different.

S: It'd be all steam-punk, right?

B: Imagine


J: Oh! That would be awesome!

B: Um, imagine

E: (Laughing) Bob!

B: Imagine real computers in the, you know, a hundred years before

S: In 1850, yeah.

B: they were developed. That would be amazing. So

?: Bob, was it a shortfall of engineering? Did they just not have the expertise? Like

B: No

?: like (unintelligible)? 'Cause you're saying the science was there. It could be done, but they didn't do it.

B: Right, they didn't do it. And it was a complicated scenario. They gave him money to make the difference engine. Then they gave him ten times that amount, ultimately, and he didn't quite finish. But then he was doing the analytical engine. And they're like, "Why are you even moving on to another project? We wanted you to do this." And it just never kind of happened. So, guys, remember Ada Lovelace; mention her to your friends

?: Whoo!!


B: maybe if you want, maybe when discussing computationally deriving Bernouli numbers from hyperbolic tangent functions, perhaps. You might want to consider that. But remember what she accomplished. Thank you.

E: And if your friends turn to you and say, "Is that that porn star?" You'd have to say, "No, no, no. That's a different Lovelace?"

?: (Inaudible) right now!

?: Linda

E: Linda!

?: Yes

Interview with John Blumenthal (13:46)[edit]

News Items[edit]

Lars Anderson Archery (15:48)[edit]

Making Better Steel (21:44)[edit]

Did Williams Lie? (27:41)[edit]

(Commercial at 44:47)

Dumbest Thing of the Week (46:13)[edit]

Gwyneth Paltrow: The real golden ticket here is the Mugwort V-Steam. You sit on what is essentially a mini-throne, and a combination of infrared and mugwort steam cleanses your uterus, et al.

Best Thing of the Week (49:06)[edit]

Stephen Fry God video

S: But sometimes though, when we do the Dumbest Thing I Heard, there was a very, the best thing we heard in the last week, I know we've all been talking about this. There's another celebrity who actually said something that we all enjoyed, Stephen Fry.


E: I hope you all saw that one, that was a good video.

S: Yeah, so he was asked, he was being interviewed for a program, they asked a lot of people this question, he was essentially asked, so you're an atheist, but let's say it's all true, that the die, you are standing at the pearly gates and god is standing before you, what are you going to say to him? And he gave, I don't think there's anything new in his answer that hasn't already been passed around in non-believing circles, this whole notion that not accepting the premise that we should be kneeling before the Christian idea of what god is so he completely rejected the premise of the question, but essentially saying if the Christian god were standing before me, I would say, how dare you? You're like a psychopathic maniac.

B: Kids with bone cancer, what's that about? Insects that bore kids' eyes out. If you're omnipotent why wouldn't you just take care of that?

S: You could certainly make a universe that doesn't have parasites in it whose entire life-cycle is boring out of the eyes of children making them blind, yes.

J: Well he described god as monstrous because if god was omnipotent and omniscient, had the ability to at least fix these things or help people that need help, but the fact that if god is the way they describe, logically god doesn't seem likely to exist because if an all-loving being had unlimited power and unlimited knowledge, then why the f--k is he letting these things happen?

B: But most important are the things that we have no control over, they just happen.

S: We're not doing them to ourselves.

B: Right and that's an important point. But another thing, you said, stuff I hadn't heard before, I loved this angle, that he wouldn't have much problem if these were the Greek gods, he'd be kind of okay with it in the sense that he could understand because they're not pretending to be anything other than something that is human. They did not make claims to be omnipotent and omniscient, I liked that angle.

J: And none of them are all-loving. That's a key point here. You can't believe in an all-loving god that can do anything and knows everything and yet lets all these things... but the whole thing is, the excuse is that god is mysterious. He moves in mysterious ways.

S: Yeah, one of the answers is that god moves in mysterious ways. He may seem like a cruel monstrous bastard but we can't understand the mind of god, so.

E: We can't see the end-game, you see.

S: Another answer that some people offer is that well, he's not really omnipotent. You can't make a front without a back, you know.

?: Omnipotent, omniscient and loving kind, pick two. But you can't have all three in this world, it's not logical.

S: How do philosophers deal with the omniscient, omnipotent, all-loving god that does horrible things to us?

M: Pretty much like you do. Most philosophers, except of course those in Notre Dame, in particular Alvin Plantinga, of course that's the major school of Catholic theology. Yeah, you're right. The typical counter from theologians and some philosophers of religion is something along the lines of, well we don't have access to that information and imagine if your dog were trying to figure out why the hell are you here doing what you're doing, right? And it seems actually somewhat plausible except that it essentially boils down to an argument from ignorance, it essentially is a fancy way to say that I have no idea how that could be the case. And that would be more honest to say. The theologian should say, you got me, I have no idea. And that's where the faith comes in, right? I would actually have more respect for people who say, look I have no idea, I'm not trying to come up with reasons, there is no reason I can come up with, I just have faith, in which case that's the end of the discussion.

One important thing, that I think you guys were at some point hinting at, was the difference between the two types of evil: natural evil and human-made evil. Because the answer, those two issues are different. The answer, the theological answer to the human evil, to the existence of human evil is free will. It's the idea that well, if god didn't create us capable of doing whatever we want, or making whatever choices we want including the evil ones, then he would have essentially created us without free will. That answer is actually not very convincing. Setting aside the idea that free will in the sense of the theologian is actually a metaphysical oxymoron, it cannot exist.

But even setting that aside, it's not very convincing because you can make, you can give choices to people, the choices don't have to be all those available. For instance, I can bring my daughter to the ice cream parlour and say well, you have a choice of chocolate ice cream, vanilla, strawberry and banana. That's it. You've got four choices. She couldn't say, well you could even give me free will, because I only have three choices, I don't have infinite choices. No, you have three choices. So the idea that free will requires absolute choice including the choice of doing evil is actually not particularly easy to defend.

What is definitely not easy to defend is the natural evil. The cancer, earth quakes, tsunamis, all of that sort of stuff. That one has got nothing to do with it. The “best” response, and I use the word "best" in scare quotes here, that I heard of, is from now the name escapes me, but anyway he's a modern theologian along the lines of Plantinga, and he basically says look this is god's way to teach us lessons in character. So overcoming natural disasters, how we react to natural disasters and all of that. And my response there is OK, you could take it down three or four notches.


That's the idea of god as a father figure, right? And again, so I can use my daughter as an example. So I'm going to teach a lesson to my daughter. I'm going to put her in a situation where she's going to survive from the ordeal so that she's going to learn something, but if you put her in a situation where she actually dies out of the thing, I don't think she's going to learn that much, frankly.

J: If you cut her leg off, she would get so much out of it. What a growing experience.

M: That would be what a loving father would do, sure.

JBl?: But I ask myself why otherwise intelligent people, why don't they have a problem with this? And there is one answer which I think at least is consistent. It's not an answer that's necessarily likeable, but I think it's consistent. If you look at the way that evangelical Christians look at biblical inerrancy, and I'll get back to the question of evil in a second, how can the bible be inerrant when it's so obviously at odds with the world?

And the answer is that it's the world that's wrong. We live in a fallen world. We have a fallen world because we ate the apple in the garden of Eden and collectively we are all responsible for the fall of the world, so if there's something wrong with the world, it's our fault. If there's immorality, if there's evil, it all stems from the fall. God is still all-loving and benevolent and omniscient and omnipotent, but we've created this fallen world.

Now, I said it's consistent, I didn't say it's something I necessarily agree with. But at least when you have large groups of people who believe these kinds of things, sometimes it's instructive to go and try to say, why do these people, how can they believe in these logical inconsistencies, and if you look at the world that way... the problem of course is that you can say well, anything can exist. We see the world, the world is an illusion and therefore it could be anything, you open the door to almost anything. But at least it seems to me to be a logically consistent way to address evil by saying we live in a fallen world that's the false world. There is a real world, a perfect world that we're going to get to if we're lucky when we die, but we don't live in that world.

L: I've actually thought about questions like this a lot this past week as you guys might imagine. Massimo's point about faith was a good one, but what about speed bumps? They found these microbes, you guys probably even have notes on this. They found these microbes have not evolved in 2 billion years, because there was nothing, there was no reason for them to evolve. They hit their niche, they're fine, they're done. If we change the environment that they're in, a lot of them will die, some will change, and they'll evolve.

You could make the point first off a loving god doesn't, if you have seven children, you don't do something like, OK well nothing bad can happen to any of them. Of course you don't want anything bad to happen to any of them, but if something bad is going to happen, you want to minimise what happens to some of them compared to all of them. If you've got four billion. Again, this is not how I actually, but I'm saying it's a rational argument. You put speed bumps and we get better. We have medicines now because people got sick and people got tired of seeing people die being sick. We don't just evolve as a species, we also evolve as a culture and society because there are things in our path stopping us.

J: But to Massimo's point though, to what degree? Like he was saying that a tsunami killed 100,000 people. So speed bumps, so yeah. We're fighting against illiteracy and a lack of education, scientific illiteracy, I get that. That inspired us to do this program.

L: Right.

J: But at what point, how do you, where do you draw the line? My line is, if you're going to say that god is throwing speed bumps in peoples' way to help them grow he's doing a really poor job of it.

L: Is he?

J: Yeah.

L: All of human evolution, everything, the entire universe, comes down to you now exist. We've gotten to Jay Novella. Do you really think we're doing a bad job?

J: It's a rockin' time, Larry.

L: I'm just saying, do you really think we're doing a bad job?

J: No, but...

S: You're saying that god is the shadows from Babylon 5 is basically what you're saying.

L: Yeah, I think he's both. I think in a way he's both.

S: And the Vorlons? He's the shadows and the Vorolons?

L: He's in the shadows and the Vorlons yeah, I think he's both.

JB: But back to what Massimo was saying, growing up as a Hasidic Jew, one of the most infuriating things about really orthodox sects of any religion is this excuse that they always have of teaching us a lesson, and it goes back to biblical times because any page that you open up in the old testament, it's filled with such horror that when you ask what the f--k is going on there? The answer is, oh god was testing Abraham, he was testing Isaac. He was testing every f--king person.

And when I would ask my father when I became an atheist and asked him questions, the answer and the excuse for everything, always that we're being tested. The reason there are fossils in the ground, you're being tested about evolution. So on and so forth. Because there are so many crazy thing in Judaism. Why for 1/7 of our lives do we not to get to turn on a light? Not get to cook food? Not to get... you know what, because you'll appreciate things more. Like you were saying with your daughter, you'll appreciate it more when you do get to drive a car, so on a so forth. Why does a woman not get to touch her husband, even after she gives birth to a child and she can't get a hug or anything? Because you know what, sex is going to be so much more meaningful when you abstain from sex for half of your life, and my response to my father was right away: how come all of these abstentions and all of these rules are always against women and gay people? How come it's never, you know what, you're really going to enjoy food more if your wife only cooks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.


So how about Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays you don't eat? And you'll enjoy it a lot more. Thank you.

M: One more comment about this idea of testing which comes out often. I mentioned earlier that I do think that we need a little bit more philosophical grounding in especially these kinds of discussions. One of my favourite philosophers, Bertrand Russell, Bertrand Russell did have an answer to that kind of question, what about, what if you come up to the pearly gates, basically. And god says, well did I know show you and give you all the clues possible?

And Russell's response was: no, you did not. You gave me a brain that works in a certain way, a logical way. I can look at the evidence, I can draw my own conclusions, you gave me that brain and frankly all the evidence you gave pointed to the fact that you did not exist. And so you tricked me. So now what, I'm supposed to go to hell because you rigged the game? That's just not fair, it's like a teacher who wants you to fail and sets up the test in a way that it's simply impossible to pass.

E: A discussion of justice will come off of that, yeah.

JN: I'll tell you one last comment though. Why couldn't a god be, as an agnostic, wannabe atheist. Why couldn't god just be a creative god who created the universe and the natural laws are it?

E: And then just walked away?

JN: That's it? Not benevolent?

E: Neutral.

S: Just started the whole thing and is now out of it? The question is, there's no reason for such a hypothesis, right? The alternate answer...

J: But Joe, my answer is, sure of course that's possible, we can dream it up and it seems like that makes the most sense, but you can't say, you have a fully engaged god, that knows everything that can do everything. That's the problem, we're talking about their version of god, not that god. Their version of god makes no sense.

JN: Right, we could talk about all the different versions of god and any version of god is just pure speculation.

S: You can make a contrived version of god that is completely unfalsifiable which is what a lot of people do. Which is fine. But that puts god completely in the realm of faith. Just don't tell me you have evidence that that god exists, because you can't have it both ways. You can't have a god that is completely outside the realm of knowledge but I know he exists. Well, that doesn't work that way.

Jewie or Fiction (1:03:03)[edit]

Item #1: es is liggent - The traditional practice of having one chair in each set shorter than the others, which is generally reserved for non jews, so as to avoid handing wine to them and thus making it non kosher. Item #2: niddah - family purity laws concerning a woman during her period including the customary practice of wiping herself to examine the color of any discharge and having their husbands take the used wiping clothes, sold in all judaic stores, and stained panties to rabbis specializing in such matters. Item #3: shatnez - the current enforcement in all religious communities of the biblical prohibition to not combine wool and linen in clothing or even accessories Item #4: chalitzah - the currently preformed act in all religious communities of a sister in law removing a shoe from her brother in law and spitting at him to relieve him of the biblical obligation to enter into a levirate marriage

Science or Fiction (1:21:05)[edit]

Item #1: In the year 500 BCE the estimated total human population was 100,000,000. Alright? 100,000,000 in 500 BCE. Item #2: In the 20th century there were four 500 year floods of the Mississippi river. Item #3: The Western Electric Model 500 telephone was the standard Bell System phone in North America from 1950 through 1984, and is the most common telephone ever produced.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:26:23)[edit]

"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." - Carl Sagan

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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