SGU Episode 509

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SGU Episode 509
April 11th 2015
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 508                      SGU 510

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self delusion and ignorance which does harm.

Marcus Aurelius

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Large Hadron Collider is running again
  • Rogues will be at NECSS when this podcast comes out

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (2:05)[edit]

  • Fazlur Khan: Architect and structural engineer whose tubular design caused a renaissance in supertall buildings.

S: Bob, tell us about this week's Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes, this week's Superhero is Fazlur Roman Khan, 1929 to 1982. He was Bangladeshi American architect, and structural engineer. And his architectural breakthrough in tubular designs for skyscrapers made the existence of supertall buildings a reality. Ever hear of him?

S: Nope

E: Ah, no, nope.

B: Khan! Was born in Bangladesh. He received a Masters and PhD in structural engineering, and a Master's also in applied mechanics. Two of those masters he got in actually, like, three years. Smart guy. In 1960, I didn't know this, but in 1960, architects actually only had a few options for designing tall buildings. Once you got above twenty or thirty stories, there was a problem. It became increasingly inefficient, costly, and dangerous So it was a problem.

So in that time frame, he came up with his tubular design idea. Now, the idea is that you're using the outer perimeter of walls to simulate the strong, efficient tubes that are now fairly ubiquitous, that now give this building so much more strength. And this technique is actually used in almost all buildings taller than forty stories. I mean, it was a renaissance, this guy caused.

So, the benefits, though is not just taller buildings. There's plenty of benefits that flow from just this tubular design. First off, they can withstand more lateral loads, like wind and earthquakes. How important is that?

E: Very

B: That's a key factor in all supertall buildings. How is it gonna react to the wind? And how is it gonna react to earthquakes. Huge, huge, huge consideration. This design uses less costly material, yet they could stand far taller than ever before, and also, because of this efficient use of space, the available interior of the buildings jumped dramatically with his design.

So you've got more square footage per unit area in the building, which, I mean, how huge is that just in terms of selling real estate, and offices, and things like that. And just for living conditions.

E: Fewer columns needed to support the floors, and ...

B: Yeah, it really opened things up. And finally, his design allowed for more creativity in the design. So, basically, he changed buildings from these box-like structures, to be more like a sculpture. You could really kind of tweak it, and make it look more beautiful than just a standard box.

And so, this guy had a tremendous, tremendous impact. At that time, supertall buildings, they had, like, a thirty year hiatus. It was a lull. There really wasn't a lot goin' on until his idea of the tubular design, which has many little variations depending on what you want to accentuate in your building. Until that came out, they were really in the doldrums. And, so it's no wonder that he's been called the Einstein of structural engineering.

And finally, if you're wondering, "Well, what did he design?" He designed the Sears Tower, which is now the Willis Tower, which was the world's tallest building from its completion in 1974 up until the Petronas Towers were finished in 1996. So, remember Fazlur Khan; mention him to your friends, maybe when discussing the roles spandrels play in load resisting spatial skeletons!

Steve's New Camera (5:30)[edit]

  • 24 megapixels, mirrorless. It sounds exactly like a commercial, but it wasn't.

News Items[edit]

Self-Driving Cars (9:04)[edit]

Google University (20:35)[edit]

The Size of Aliens (25:33)[edit]

(Commercial at 32:18)

Toxic Oceans (34:01)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, you're gonna tell us why a lot of things on Earth died two hundred and one million years ago.

B: Yeah, this was a nasty extinction, the end of the Triassic mass extinction pretty much ravaged much of the life all over the Earth two hundred million years ago. Now, new clues seem to reveal that a poisoned ocean may have been the culprit for the massive loss of sea life. So, of the five great mass extinctions we've identified in Earth's history, the end Triassic, for various reasons, is pretty much the least well known extinction.

Most mysterious of all is not the terrestrial extinction, but the extinctions that happened in the sea, in the oceans. That's the one that's even more, "What the hell, what happened down there?" Some people say, maybe it was a meteor, but there's really no evidence of that. Some think it might have been the volcanism that was happening at the time. And to me, that seems a little bit more likely. But how did that really play into what happened to the sea life?

So, researchers were looking at fossilised bacteria, a very special kind of bacteria off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Now, that part of the Earth today was actually part of the bottom of the Panthalassa Ocean two hundred million years ago. And that was one of the two oceans I believe that were around the supercontinent Pangea two hundred million years ago. And this is called green sulphur bacteria. And they were key, they were a very critical find for them, because they only live in extremely oxygen-deprived environments.

They also are associated with hydrogen sulphide, which is that rotten egg smell. But the chemical, hydrogen sulphide, it just doesn't smell really bad, it's essentially a poison that also happens to be corrosive, flammable, and explosive. So it's just nasty stuff!

E: But other than that, it's great.

B: Yeah! You do not want to be swimming around in that. So, and also, this was somewhat important as well. The researchers also noted that nitrogen levels in the organic matter at that time, changed significantly. Which means essentially that the flow of nutrients during this low oxygen period, they were also severely impacted.

So, all right, this is the picture, as best I can tell, that they're putting together now, for what happened. So, Pangea was beginning to break up at this time, due to, of course, the tectonic plate movement. The rifts that were all over the place between these plates were spewing out huge amounts of CO2 into the environment. Now, CO2 would impact the oceans by lowering the oxygen content, and then also changing the circulation, and making them more acidic.

Now, this environment was preferential to microbes like the green sulphur bacteria, causing them to proliferate, and also raising the levels of the poisonous hydrogen sulphide. Now, this leads to a cool term called, "photic zone eucinea," pze - phottic zone eucinea. And that essentially is just the double whammy, poisoning of water with the hydrogen sulphide and the low oxygen levels. Whent hose things occur at the same time, bam! You've got this PZE phenomenon.

They've suspected that PZE was around at that time, because it's been hinted at in some of the other evidence that they've gathered. But they thought it was only a localised phenomenon, just something that wasn't all over the place. And the key evidence here now, or the key finding here is that this is the first evidence that this was a global phenomenon, and could very well have been the significant, or the critical cause of the massive marine die-off. And that's essentially the bottom line.

So the most important aspect of this, however, it's not just potentially figuring out, you know, the coup de gras that wiped out most of the sea life back then.

S: Coup de gras (Pronounces the S, incorrectly I believe)

B: Coup de gras (Pronouncing S) yeah, I know it

E: Coup de Gracie

B: I was thinkin, see, I hate when that happens, 'cause I was thinking, "Wait, was it?" I know that we were wrong, but I didn't know if coup de gras (no s) was also acceptable

S: Yeah (Chuckles)

B: Was it? But it's flat out wrong.

E: (Laughs)

B: I just

S: Coup de gra is wrong

B: I just don't like the sound of it. All right, coup de gras, all right.

E: It's like Mardi Gras (With S)

S: No, it's Mardi Gras (No S)

(Evan and Bob laugh)

S: Mardi Gra means Fat Tuesday, coup de gras means the blow of grace. If you say coup de gra, you're saying the blow of fat.

B: Right, but that's what I meant.

E: Okay

B: All right, guys.


B: So guys, guys, so the most important aspect of this, however, is it's not just potentially figuring out the coup de gras (S) that wiped out much of the sea life two hundred million years ago. It's the application to the current day, to the here and now. Can this actually happen again the not to distant future? And, could we actually have a hand in having it happen? That's a big question.

So, I'll end with a quote from Professor Jessica Whiteside of the University of Southhampton. She is also the co-author of the study. She said, "The release of CO2 was probably at least as rapid as that caused by the burning of fossil fuels today. Although the initial concentrations were much higher in the Triassic. The consequences of rapidly rising CO2 in ancient times inform us of the possible consequences of our own carbon dioxide crisis.

S: Yeah

B: So, I mean, we are putting out as much, according to Whiteside, CO2 as what was happening back then, although, keep in mind that their initial concentrations, of course were much higher. But still,

S: Yeah

B: I mean, that just means we gotta do it for longer. And, man, not good.

Brontosaurus is Back (39:42)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (48:36)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Tesla Coil

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Cults (51:22)[edit]

Saving you all the extra words about how wonderful you and your fellow rogues are, I wanted to point out that you were actually a bit off in your comparison of religions and cults in episode #508. The problem, from my perspective is one that appeared to be dichotomous thinking. As someone who has begun researching the effect upon atheistic clients when psychotherapists share their belief system with them and as a psychotherapist who has heard from clients what they have suffered as they attempted to exit religion, it is quite clear to me that there is a vast continuum of reactions in this area. Clearly there are the horror stories of former Scientologists and the laissez-faire attitudes of liberal religious people when friends and neighbors part from their church or synagogue. There is, however, a vast and nuanced range of other experiences involving shunning, social marginalization, forced religious interventions, and all manner of slights in between the extremes. I am concerned that sharing a dichotomous attitude as you and the rogues appeared to do in the episode washes out all the gray and gives religious people a place of privilege to continue to engage in the oppression of those who have found the belief system lacking. Thanks for your many hours of work in skepticism. You are a great gift to so many. Sincerely, Dwight

Question #2: Power Lifting Suits (57:10)[edit]

Hey all, I think you guys were talking about two different things when Steve was talking about light calf compression sleeves, but Bob was talking about Powerlifting suits. Powerlifting suits are seriously strong. There are two different categories of powerlifting competitions: raw and equipped. Raw competitions don't allow powerlifting suits. The equipped competitions all have higher records at all weight classes. Sancho

Dumbest Thing of the Week (1:00:55)[edit]

(Commercial at 1:02:44)

Science or Fiction (1:03:49)[edit]

Item #1: Researchers unveil a prototype aluminum-ion battery with almost 10 times the capacity by weight of current lithium-ion batteries.

Item #2: A new medical report indicates that food allergies can be transmitted through blood product transfusions.

Item #3: A new study finds that the sun has a near quasi-annual, or two year, seasonal fluctuation in solar activity.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:15:36)[edit]

"If anyone can show me, and prove to me, that I am wrong in thought or deed, I will gladly change. I seek the truth, which never yet hurt anybody. It is only persistence in self-delusion and ignorance which does harm." - Marcus Aurelius

Announcements (1:17:10)[edit]

  • SkepticalCon: June 6, Jay interviewed ShellShocked podcast,

(Membership drive at 1:17:57)

(Episode wrap up at 1:20:27)

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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