SGU Episode 537

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SGU Episode 537
October 24th 2015
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(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 536                      SGU 538

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.

Henry David Thoreau

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Cara wins Give Forward Award thanks to Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  • Steve went to jury selection and didn't get selected
  • Back to the Future day

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:59)[edit]

  • Maria Sibylla Merian: a naturalist and illustrator in the late 1600s who was among the most significant contributors to the study of entomology and insect metamorphosis

S: But first, Bob, you're gonna tell us about the Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: For this week's Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm covering Maria Sibylla Merian (Mary-an) M-E-R—I-A-N. How would you pronounce that?

S: Marion? Mar-Ian?

B: I'm leanin' towards Mar-Ian. 1647 to 1717. She was a naturalist and science illustrator in the late 16 and early 1700's, who revolutionized botany and zoology with her detailed observations and drawings of insects, plants, and animals. Now, Merian published many books and collections of beautiful, natural engravings. Really, look her up. When you see them, you're like, “Yep, those are iconic, scientific illustrations.”

They were engravings, illustrations, paintings, and they made her famous, particularly for her drawings and meticulous observations of a butterfly metamorphosis. David Attenborough himself said that she's among the most significant contributors to the field of entomology.

Her work was especially revolutionary, considering the scientific attitude towards insects at that time. This was a little bit of a surprise. They were pretty much considered by everyone, especially scientists, as vile and disgusting, or even beasts of the devil.

S: Lord of the Flies.

B: Yes, right. That also means that no one really cared to learn much about them, including the amazing process of a metamorphosis, which was known about. I mean, they knew that that happened, but not many people understood it at all. So her findings taught scientists a great deal about that process. And of course, even the most rudimentary and critical facts, such as that they weren't created in rotting mud by spontaneous generation.

(Steve chuckles)

B: I mean, that (chuckles) was not a rare belief at that time. Remember, we're talking late 1600's. She was also among the first scientists to study insects as they lived, unlike most scientists at that time, who used preserved specimens, which of course, as you can imagine, is quite limiting. And of course, that would also give her insight into things that you just couldn't get any other way. Things about their habitats, their habits, and even how the local populations use the insects, when she went traveling.

Still, her findings were pretty much ignored by the scientific community for a little while, except the Germany high society. They were just eating that stuff up. And that's mainly because she wrote in the vernacular. She wrote in German, but she did not write in the language of science at that time, which of course, was Latin. So that's primarily, that's the main reason why, I think, that she was kind of dismissed.

In 1699, she was awarded a grant for scientific expedition to South America, to study the plants and animals, which may have been possibly the first such trip planned, that was explicitly and only for science. There's a little bit of confusion if she was the first, but I think it's fairly clear that she was, at the very least, the first European woman to do such a thing.

Very interesting, beautiful artwork, check her out, see what she's done. So remember Maria Sibylla Merian; mention her to your friends, perhaps after you put huge, fake insects in their beds or cars to scare the shit out of them.

(Rogues laugh quietly)

E: What, with Hallowe'en coming up.

C: Yeah

S: So, that was one of the acceptable vocations for a woman,

B: Yes,

S: at that time.

B: illustrations, yup.

S: Okay for them to do something artsy, like illustrate. And it was okay for them to study things like butterflies and flowers. So that was one (Cara giggles) of the acceptable science pathways for a woman at that time. But she made the most of it.

News Items[edit]

Are Placebo’s Getting Stronger? (8:32)[edit]

Danish Zoo Hubbub (17:24)[edit]

Oswald Backyard Photo (30:52)[edit]

(Commercial at 37:28)

Quickie with Bob: Mars via the Moon (38:49)[edit]

Back to the Future Day (42:21)[edit]

Back to the Future Predicts 9/11 (47:45)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (50:34)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Fusion

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Consoling Atheists (54:23)[edit]

Several e-mails responding to our discussion from the previous episode.

Science or Fiction (1:04:14)[edit]

Item #1: Physicists have conducted the first loophole-free experiment proving that Einstein’s local realism is not true and therefore either quantum non-locality or faster-than-light communication are real. Item #2: A recent mouse study finds that the cerebellum plays a critical role in the ability to ignore distractions. Item #3: Scientists have demonstrated that the rivulus fish will leap out of the water and onto land for about a minute in order to cool down if the water temperature exceeds its acclimation.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:24:19)[edit]

'No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof.' - Henry David Thoreau

Announcements (1:24:47)[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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