SGU Episode 541

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SGU Episode 541
November 21st 2015
SGU 540 SGU 542
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria

Quote of the Week
Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence.
Abigail Adams
Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Jay has strep throat. Leads to discussion of tonsil stones.

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (4:47)[edit]

  • Birute Mary Galdikas: an anthropologist who has studied and observed Orangutans for over 40 years making her the leading world authority on these animals

S: Well, Bob, you're back this week with a Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes, for this week's Superhero of Science, I am going to talk about Birute Mary Galdikas. She is an anthropologist, primatologist, conservationist, and a few other “ists.” And she's also the leading authority on organgutans. I love reading her bio. She was, at the age of six, she was inspired by The Man in the Yellow Hat,

C: Aw...

B: from the Curious George book series to be become an explorer. The course of her career though was set as a graduate student when she approached the famous Kenyan anthropologist, Dr. Lewis Leeky, about her wish to study orangutans. And he was skeptical at first, but ultimately, he was convinced, and he got her funding for her organgutan studies in Borneo. Now this part is fascinating. This completed the trio of women that he called the “trimates,” which he had specifically hand-picked to study humans' closest relatives, the Great Apes.

So I'm sure you know these names: Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees, Diane Fossi studied mountain gorillas, and now there was Birute Galdikas, who studied orangutans. And he pretty much – I did not know this – did you know, Steve, that he was instrumental in setting these women on their course, that made them world famous.

Birute has studied them now for over forty years. In fact, she has led the longest, unbroken study by an individual of any wild mammal in the world. I mean, forty-plus years. And people were telling her it couldn't be done, they're too reclusive, they're in these swamps, they're not gonna tolerate your presence. And she proved them all wrong.

So she initially brought these beautiful animals to the world's attention for the first time in the mid-seventies, when she got a cover article on National Geographic. I think she's had two altogether now. But she didn't only tremendously expand what's known about these creatures. She also has worked tirelessly to preserve their habitats, which of course is critical, but especially considering that even despite her work, the poaching and habitat destruction has brought their populations dangerously close to extinction. I didn't know it was quite that bad.

In fact, some people predict that they could be gone outside of wild preserves, of course, within twenty years, within twenty years, we may not have hardly any wild orangutans any more. That is scary as hell. Imagine what their state would be now if it weren't for her efforts.

So, remember Birute Mary Galdikas, mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing primates that eat dirt and rocks, and can blow raspberries.

(Cara quietly laughs)

S: They can blow raspberries?

B: 'Cause yes! Come on! You've seen the movie with the, where the what's his name?

E: Oh, Clyde!

B: Clyde! Yeah, Clyde

E: Of course.

B: Yeah. I think they, that's something that they can just do. Either easily trained, or just kind of on their own. But they also can sometimes eat dirt and rocks! Nice!

C: Oh no!

S: Clyde was a female. You know how you know?

B: How do you know? Oh, the pads,

S: Yeah

B: The super (inaudible 7:46) pads?

S: Yeah, the males store fat in their face, and so they get these big, huge faces. The females don't. Yeah.

C: So at the L.A. Zoo, we have a really beautiful orangutan exhibit, and there's one female orangutan there named Elouise who was born in 1968. She's been there for forty-six years. She's a mom, and

B: Whoa!

C: she has a disorder that's like cerebral palsy.

E: Oh no!

C: And so she's really interesting. She sits very close to the glass. She loves people. She can't move very easily, so she'll just lie there all day and look you in the eyes, and hold her hand up to the glass. And even despite that, they've worked really hard to make sure that she's happy and healthy. And she's a really good mom. And I love going to visit her.

B: Aw, tell her I said hi.

C: I will! (Laughs)

(Rogues laugh)

News Items[edit]

DOJ and Supplements (8:33)[edit]

Armadillos Carry Leprosy (23:45)[edit]

Sun Stole Mars’ Atmosphere (33:47)[edit]

Meier’s Paris Prediction (41:48)[edit]

What's the Word (47:16)[edit]

  • Albedo

S: So I'm gonna go straight,

C: So sad

S: Cara, to What's the Word?

E: Yeah

C: What's the Word this week, you guys? The word is “Albedo.”

B: Oh yeah!

E: Oh! The people who have white skin, and white hair, and ...

C: And white libidos, no.

B: And pink, no, no, that's albino.

E: Wrong, that's albino!

C: Yeah, so, but you stumbled on to something very good there, Evan.

E: Did I?

C: And of course, yes, you did. And of course, Bob is like, “Oh yes!” because this seems like a very Bob-like word.

(Evan laughs)

C: I feel like Bob definitely knows albedo. It's probably part of his lexicon.

B: Very astronomical.

C: Very astronomical. And I wanted to sort of keep in this theme that I'm sure I'm gonna drop this week, but only because I had urging from a couple of people, of words that sort of sound dirty, but aren't, like (sexy voice) albedo... It's not dirty at all.

B: Libedo?

C: Yeah. (Cara and Evan laugh) So, albedo is a noun. And in general, it just refers to the intensity of light that's reflected from an object. So how much light is that object reflecting back into the atmosphere? It's often measured as a coefficient or ratio on a scale from zero, meaning that there's no reflection at all (that's like a completely black surface) to one, which would be a pure white surface. That would reflect back a hundred percent of the radiation it encounters, 'cause of course, white light includes all of the different colors of visible light.

S: Wouldn't albedo of one be something that's white, or would it be a mirror?

C: Both.

S: Both would be ...

C: Isn't that weird? Both would have an albedo of one. But only if it's like, a very, very good mirror, or something that is the purest kind of white.

S: Yeah

C: Yeah. In astronomy, it's used to talk about that ratio that's often reflected by either a planet, a satellite, or any celestial body. So even though it broadly refers to light reflected off of an object, in astronomy, we almost always talk about an albedo as relating to a planetary body, or a celestial body.

In meteorology, we're often talking about the Earth's surface, or the atmosphere; so the albedo of certain areas on the surface, or within the atmosphere.

E: Right

C: In planetary and climate science, we're often referring to ice coverage when we talk about albedo. This is something that you may actually encounter if you're reading the news about new climate science, and about ice melt. Actually, as ice melts, the albedo actually goes up because more and more dirt, and dust, and things mix in with that pure white ice, and it becomes darker in color.

In physics though, it has a pretty different definition. But I think it actually did evolve from that original definition, which is the probability that a neutron passing through a surface will return through that surface. So here, it's kind of similar, but they're talking about neutrons, and not actually photons, or visible light packets.

And then, randomly, another definition of albedo that I found because I want to be exhaustive here, is the white inner rind of a citrus fruit, 'cause, sure.

S: Sure

E: Okay

C: So, what you're seeing there is there is a common theme. And, Evan, you hit on it right at the beginning when you said “albino.”

E: Well, there you go!

C: Right? White.

E: Yes, white!

C: Yeah, the term, “albedo” actually comes from the Latin which means “whiteness” from “albus,” which means “white.” Like, egg albumen is white. Now, a lot of sources link the first usage to 1859, but I found another source, actually a fun word blog called the Sesquiotica blog (I really hope I'm pronouncing (chuckles) that right). The Sesquiotica blog, which cites an even earlier incidence, there they credit it to Johan Heinrich Lambert in 1790, was the first usage there of albedo referring to that reflective state.

S: All right, I have to ask you a couple trivia questions.

C: Oh, shit.

S: Which planet in the solar system has the highest albedo?

B: Is it Venus?

S: Venus, very good.

C: Wait, dammit!

S: What's the albedo?

B: Oh, I don't know. Point-eight.

C: Point-four?

S: Point-seven-five, point-seven-five.

E: Yes!

C: Oh, point-seven-five, that's high! Okay.

S: What's the body in the solar system with the highest albedo?

E: Our Moon.

C: One of the moons? Someone's moon.

S: It is someone's moon. Which moon is it?

E: Io! Europa!

C: Enceladus!

B: Is it Europa?

E: Titan!

C: Enceladus, Ganymede, Europa, Io.

S: Cara, you were right the first time, Enceladus.

C: Enceladus! Yay! I don't know why I knew that.

E: That's my daughter Rachel's favorite moon, by the way.

C: Point-nine-five.

S: It's almost one.

B: Wow!

E: Almost one.

S: It's almost one.

C: It's super-reflective! So like, you'd have to wear sunglasses to look at this moon.

S: All right, I like that word, Cara.

C: It's a good one, right?

S: Albedo, yeah. It's a good concept to know.

C: I feel like we could use it a lot.

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Skeptical Hoaxes (52:02)[edit]

I am interested in what your opinion is of skeptics using hoaxes and what are the ethical considerations skeptics should be aware of when conducting experiments and investigations? This is for the podcast. Stay skeptical, Kevin

Question #2: Microgravity (58:18)[edit]

Hi Everybody, Love the show. As i listened to show #540 (WOW) I heard the item in 'Science or Fiction' about meds degrading in 'microgravity'. This brought to mind one of my all-time favorite (least favorite) failures in science education; that being the answer to the question 'Why do astronauts float in space e.g. at the space station??' I've asked dozens and dozens (maybe hundreds) of people from all walks of life and educational backgrounds and I have only had one correct answer. I wanted to ask your opinion, if you think use of the term 'microgravity', which implies little to no gravity, instead of 'weightlessness' is incorrect or misleading. I think science education is important but extremely difficult and the words used are critical. I'm also curious about your thoughts as to why nobody knows why the astronauts float, is it because of words like this or is the answer just too difficult to convey to the herd. Thanks for your work, Joel Joel Anderson Detroit, Mi

Science or Fiction (1:06:55)[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that pigeons are able to categorize digitized slides and mammograms of benign and malignant human breast tissue as well as highly trained humans. Item #2: An NIH survey finds that 10 percent of American adults have a drug addiction at some point in their lives. Item #3: Astronomers have found a distant galaxy supercluster that appears to be completely devoid of dark matter.

Year End Wrap-Up Approaching (1:24:22)[edit]

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:25:09)[edit]

"Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence." - Abigail Adams

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]

  • Trivia: Evan's daughter's favorite moon is Enceladus (Mentioned during Cara's What's the Word segment).


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