SGU Episode 506

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SGU Episode 506
March 21st 2015
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SGU 505                      SGU 507

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


R: Richard Saunders

Quote of the Week

The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification.

Thomas Henry Huxley

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (6:41)[edit]

  • Irène Joliot-Curie: Nobel prize winning chemist who discovered artificial radioactivity

S: All right, well, we're gonna talk a little bit more about skepticism in Australia, but first we're going to do our next instalment of Forgotten Superheroes of Science.

B: This week, I'll be talking about Irene Joliot Curie. 1897 to 1915.

E: Don't you mean Marie Curie or ...

B: No!

E: The other Curie

B: This is the - almost as famous, and I think probably much less well-known daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie.

E: Ah! Daughter!

B: She - yes, she was a chemist, who along with her husband discovered artificial or induced radioactivity. Ever hear of her? Steve? You were kind of on the fence about whether she should have been included.

S: Well, we've talked about her on the show before.

B: Yeah, we have mentioned her. I still, yeah, but I think she's very, very unknown.

E: Yeah

B: Not well known at all.

S: Well, she's overshadowed by her

B: Completely

S: her mother, who was apparently the only female scientist most of the population can


B: Yeah, right.

E: That's true! Gosh

B: Now, Marie and Pierre, of course, they were the Nobel prize-winning scientists for their ground-breaking work isolating natural radiation. Irene clearly inherited not only a good environment, but also some smarts as well. Apparently she was very good at math, science in general. But her educational start was very interesting. Her mother, and other prominent French academics formed what they called "the co-operative," in which they would all teach each other's kids at their homes. So the various kids

S: Cool

B: go to the different peoples' houses, and they'd be taught by these famous, at the time, and many names we would recognize today, be taught by them. So that was really cool, I thought. But later in life, she met and married Frederick Joliot, and they became a family of super-scientists.

E: Ooh!

B: Actually, this was interesting!

E: Did they have capes?

B: Nah


B: Not in public!

E: No capes.

B: This couple actually had early brushes with history. They almost discovered the neutron, and almost discovered the positron, came very close, but they failed to go that very last step to understand exactly what they were dealing with. And so the credit went to others, who fully recognized, "Oh! This is what this is" type of thing.

They came so close, but it seemed, reading about this couple, seemed fame was inevitable. Something would have happened regardless, because they discovered that you can artificially create radiating materials. Now they did this by bombarding a stable isotope of elements such as alluminum with alpha particles, which are essentially helium nuclei. This produced a radioactive isotope of phosphorus.

So, that was, it was an incredible breakthrough. And what, if you think about it, what they essentially did was to perform a form of alchemy, right? They're essentially turning one element into another, which is kind of funny. Of course, it's not gold or anything, but it was an amazing breakthrough. And for this, they won a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1935 for the discovery of artificial or synthetic radioactivity.

This work helped lay the foundation for nuclear medicine today. And it was also the foundation used by another group of scientists to discover nuclear fission itself, or splitting atoms to release huge amounts of energy. They played an integral part in that discovery, by their discovery of artificial radiation. So, mention Irene Joliot Curie to your friends, perhaps when discussing the role of neutron activation in the creation of radionuclides.

J: Right!

S: And ironically, like her mother, she died of leukemia at the age of fifty-eight,

B: Yes

S: because of exposure to radioactive materials. The one source I'm reading said it might have, she accidentally was exposed to pollonium when a sealed capsule exploded in her lab.

E: Ooh!

B: Right.

S: And that might have been

B: The key

S: the key, yeah.

B: What really did it, that's true.

News Items[edit]

Australia Pans Homeopathy (10:36)[edit]

NYT and Wearable Tech (20:10)[edit]

LHC Computer Grid (31:52)[edit]

Naturopathy (40:50)[edit]

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1. Garbage Disposals vs Composting (48:13)[edit]

S: Alright, let's go on. There's going to be no Who's That Noisy this week because Jay's not here and nobody had an opportunity to replace it so Jay will be back next week with the follow-up of Who's That Noisy. I do want to do one quick email we haven't done email in a while because all of our other segments were kind of crowding it out. This one comes from Steve from Canadia.

E: (laughs)

S: Steve writes:

Hi all Yeah, I'll make it brief. I am a lazy sod, but with a good, environmentally friendly heart, metaphorically speaking. I have been considering installing a garbage disposal in my sink as part of our kitchen renos. My wife thinks composting all our waste is better for the environment but it is messy (a bit), smelly (a bit) and inconvenient, especially with meat and fish waste which gets a bit funky in the summer. I find conflicting information on the things when I do a bit of research. What's the friggin' deal? Thanks guys Thanks Steve from Canadia

S: Well, Steve from Canadia. Yeah, you pretty much got it. I'm familiar with composting, I haven't taken the bullet myself, I haven't started, I've been thinking about composting for my garden, just haven't had the time, the activation energy to get it going. But I know people who compost, I've read a lot about it, and I did some more research to help answer this question. So the essence of composting is that you take any organic waste, basically your food items, anything that's biodegradable, it could also be like egg shells and banana peels and leftover, any leftover food basically, and instead of throwing that away, you put it in a big bin, but you have to put it there with other things, for example like bacterial cultures.

E: Right, it has to be able to break down.

S: Yeah, and could also put in grass clippings or other things too. And then it has to get warm, so it heats up the degradation of the organic material gets it warm and the bacteria chews it up and over time it breaks it down into a nice compost, into a nice fertilizer, just really thick organic material so it's great, the end result is great if you have a use for the fertilizer, and it does remove waste from landfills and from the garbage stream so it's a perfectly good thing to do. However, it's not easy. It's not something that you should take on lightly. It does require maintenance. It's not a do it and forget it kind of project. It's, you're going to have to dedicate a certain amount of time to maintaining your compost.

E: It's like owning a pet, maybe.

S: Yeah that's probably not a, depending on the pet, that's probably not a bad analogy.

E: Dog or cat, yeah.

S: So it's also, you've got to have a place to put it. I can't imagine doing it unless you have an outdoor bin because it can get a bit smelly.

E: The only people I know who compost are hard-core gardeners, of the individuals that I have ever met. I've never met someone who's gone, as you've described it, half way with it, Steve, or their heart not entirely in it. They've got some marvellous landscaping that they've done or have gardens that they maintain, those are the ones that go through and put the time and effort into making composting work for them, but that's the only time I've really ever seen it in action.

S: yeah and if you live in a Northern environment or Southern, Richard in your Hemisphere, if you live in a cold environment where we have a winter where it gets sub-freezing, you have to maintain it during the winter as well. One of my big concerns is am I going to have to trudge out in the snow to my compost bin in the winter to get rid of my...

E: That's why you have kids, you can send them to do it. Get your shovel and turn that compost pile! Shut the door on the way out!

S: If there are composters out there who want to tell us their personal experience or want to add to this, go ahead. But I think the bottom line is yeah, it's overall a good thing but it's no small investment of time and effort. So if you're considering doing it, read up on it, see what it really involves, make sure it's right for you.

Dumbest Thing of the Week (52:32)[edit]

Science or Fiction (58:18)[edit]

Item #1: A new analysis finds that beetles as a group have an extremely low extinction rate, which is partially responsible for their extensive diversity. Item #2: Flies have a stunted pair of hind wings that rapidly vibrate and act as gyroscopes, detecting pitch, yaw, and roll in flight. Item #3: A new study finds that people generally become more distrusting and suspicious as they become older.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:21)[edit]

"The man of science has learned to believe in justification, not by faith, but by verification." - Thomas Henry Huxley

Announcements (1:17:39)[edit]

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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