SGU Episode 544

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SGU Episode 544
December 12th 2015
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SGU 543                      SGU 545

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

It sometimes seems to me that we are all afflicted with an urge and have a longing for the impossible. The reality around is too common, too dull, too ordinary for us. We hanker after the unnatural, the supernatural, that which does not exist… We long for a miracle!

M.C. Escher

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Email rogues your favorite segments, interviews, skeptics, and assholes of the year for year-end wrap up

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (1:49)[edit]

  • Caroline Herschel: Astronomer who was the first woman to be paid for scientific work

S: Bob, you're gonna start with a Forgotten Superhero of Science.

B: Yes, for this week's Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I am talking about Caroline Herschel, 1750 – 1848. She was an astronomer, and the first woman known to discover a comet, and also the first one to be paid for doing science.

Herschel had an interesting life. It seems that her life wasn't supposed to be remarkable. She had so much going against her. Not only was she a woman in the 1700's, which is bad enough in terms of rights and things, but also, she was scarred from diseases. And she had typhus when she was ten, which stunted her growth, leaving her at four feet three inches tall. So, very tiny woman. And because of that, her parents realized that, well she'd probably never get married, so her mother wanted her to train to be a maid, with no education. But her dad did not agree with that at all. He gave her an education by himself, beyond even what was typical for women at that time.

But it was her brother, though, that truly gave her life a chance. And he, of course, is the famous astronomer, William Herschel. He discovered Uranus. He brought her with him as an assistant, where, among many of her other duties, she did calculations, and paperwork, and ultimately made her own observations and discoveries.

These included, she was an independent discoverer or M110, which is a small companion galaxy of the Andromeda galaxy. That discovery is actually funny, because I can't help but think of M110 and Andromeda as a metaphor for Caroline and William. One was diminutive, but active. And even though associated with a dominant sibling, is very interesting in its own right. It's just, interesting parallels.

So, continuing, Caroline was the first woman to discover a comet. Ultimately, she discovered eight of them. She discovered more than a dozen nubulas, and as I said, she was the first woman to receive regularly government payment for her science work, in a time when many men did not even get paid. And on top of that, she also helped William to discover Uranus, which he said in his own words.

So, also among her many awards, the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their gold medal for her work. No woman would get that award again until Cara Rubin in 1996. So, remember Caroline Herschel, mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing Hubble Type E5 dwarf ceroidal galaxies.

S: That was nice of her brother to hook her up that way.

B: Totally! He did not want her to live a life in poverty, and doing manual labor. Brought her with him wherever he went, even when he was hired as the Royal Astronomer, brought her with him. And she did a lot of his work. She just basically did whatever he said. But she got so knowledgeable and experienced that she made her own fantastic discoveries.

S: Yeah, that is totally cool.

News Items[edit]

More Free-Energy (4:38)[edit]

Storing Nuclear Waste (13:58)[edit]

S: All right, Cara,

C: Yes

S: a new study has shed some light on storing nuclear waste.

C: Yes

S: So let's talk about that.

C: So, the main question that comes out of this study is, is our nuclear waste disposal as safe as we think it is? So, before we get into what the study shows, I think we should talk a little bit about some background.

Currently, we bring nuclear waste in this country to WIPP, which is an acronym for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, which is a Department of Energy repository deep in the New Mexico desert. I know a lot about WIPP because a few years ago, I actually did a television shoot at WIPP for the travel channel. I was on a show called

B: Cool!

C: America Declassified, and it was one of these shoots where it was actually really fun, I got to go down into this plant, and learn all about it. And I'll tell you more about that. But the funny thing is, when it finally went to air, of course, they took what I thought of as sort of an innocuous shoot, where we learned a lot about the science of nuclear waste disposal into an

(Spooky music starts) “Is this the most dangerous place in America?” (Music ends)

Which often happens. And no, the answer is “no.” The answer's still “no,” even after this study. But we can talk a little bit about the new nuance that we figured out. So WIPP is an interesting place. It's outside of Carlsbad, like twenty some-odd miles outside of Carlsbad, sort of out in the middle of nowhere. When you drive up on it, it's just like, sand, and dirt, and then you see trucks, and you see one building, but the majority of WIPP is actually underground. That makes sense.

It's basically an old salt mine, or an old salt repository from the Permian age. So there's this salt that exists out in the desert from back when like, the ocean was on land here in the United States.

E: The time of Noah's Arc?

C: Exactly. Back from Noah's day. And so, when the water all evaporated, we were left with all this Permian-age salt. And it forms this really interesting geologic structure. And as far back as the 1950's, scientists were thinking, “Maybe these types of places would be good places to store things that we don't want to leak.” Because salt has some really interesting properties. When it's packed so incredibly densely, and under so much pressure, it basically doesn't allow for fluid transfer, and it especially doesn't allow for transfer of oily fluids.

Once in a while, what will happen is the salt will crack, but because of the nature of the salt repositories, the pressure actually makes the salt self-healing. And even if there is a crack, and something could kind of move into that crack, it'll seal up on its own, naturally. So scientists have often thought about this as being a very good place to store nuclear waste. And even though WIPP was under construction since the eighties, it didn't officially open until 1999.

To this day, it holds nearly a hundred thousand cubic meters of radioactive waste from World War II through the Cold War era. It's the only facility authorized to handle waste with atomic numbers that are higher than ninety-two. So the majority of the waste that's actually held in WIPP is waste from plutonium manufacture, so things like gloves, clothes, sludge, anything that came in contact with the plutonium during its manufacture.

It's the only place in the country that can accept nuclear waste from weapons programs. But there is no repository. There is no disposal place for spent nuclear fuel, or related waste from commercial reactors. So do keep that in mind. Waste that's even more radioactive, oftentimes, you'll hear the waste at WIPP referred to as “low level nuclear waste,” which is funny, 'cause it's plutonium, and it's weapons-grade manufactured. But there's actually high level nuclear waste, which is like nuclear straight out of power plant, or spent nuclear fuel. We don't have anywhere to store that, 'cause nobody can agree on what we should do with it. So it's in temporary storage.

S: Yeah, right now, it's at a hundred and thirty one temporary sites in thirty-nine states,

J: What?

C: Yeah

S: including sixty-six operating nuclear power plants. They're just basically storing their waste in pools next to their plant.

C: Nearby, yeah, it's something like sixty-seven thousand metric tons, spent nuclear fuel

E: Ooh!

C: exists in this country, and we don't really know what to do with it. But in 1999, it was approved for WIPP to open, to start taking in all of the nuclear waste, basically, from the Cold War era. And so, big trucks will ship this waste across the country very carefully, and then it will be deposited down within these salt mines. It's fascinating, you guys. You ride a five minute elevator, because you're going over two thousand feet below the surface.

B: Whoa!

C: It's the weirdest thing.

E: Is it hot down there, or what?

C: It's actually kind of cold down there. It's very

E: Okay

C: cavernous, and the salt itself, you can chip it off the walls. It's a fascinating geological study; it's also a fascinating ecological study. Just as a random side note, when I was talking to their lead scientist, when I was there for the show, he said that he had a team of grad students who were digging through the salt, and they had found microorganisms that seem to be sort of in a sleep state, are evolutionarily indistinguishable from microorganisms that would have lived there back when it was Permian age. This is very interesting, the kind of weird stuff that's happening this far below the surface of the Earth, that things can actually live down there.

But so far, WIPP has been pretty safe. You know, for the most part, no leaks, no major struggles. One good example, other than one that I'll tell you about, but one good example is that in 2011, a center in Carlsbad (which I said was less than thirty miles away) detected radioactive iodine in the atmosphere. Turns out it wasn't from WIPP, it was actually from Fukashima. So the levels of radioactivity coming out of WIPP are nil. They're low enough or not at all, to the extent that Fukashima levels are detectable about WIPP levels, out in the atmosphere.

But things changed in February, 2014. So this is about nine months after I visited, a fire broke out, which is a huge risk in a mine scenario. I remember we all had to carry these portable breather machines, these like, cans, just in case if a fire did break out, they give you just enough air to get back out of the mine, because it's a dangerous – there's electricity running down there, so people can see. It's dangerous, 'cause you're kind of self-contained.

So fire broke out, and separately, there was a radioactive leak that was detected, but nobody could ever figure out the cause. So because of that, WIPP hasn't received any new waste since February 2004. Received a lot of waste between '99 and 2014.

Now, that's your background on WIPP, but let's move on to what this study tells us. It was actually published in November, the November issue of Science. It's called Deformation-Assisted Fluid Percolation in Rock Salt. It's a pretty innocuous-sounding title, but the findings could be significant, right, when we think about the way that we dispose of nuclear waste.

Here's what it tells us: Using 3D micro-CT imaging, under certain conditions, researchers from the University of Texas have shown that salt mines can be permeable to liquids, when this was previously thought to be impossible.

B: Not good.

C: So that's kind of a really big deal. It turns out that that liquid flow can happen for a lot of factors, but pressure and temperature seem to be key. So, it actually turns out that they may be more permeable – the salt itself may be more permeable the deeper down you go, and the more pressure that is put on them, which is scary, because that's where all the stuff is buried. And it was previously thought, like I said before, that cracks in the salt could be the only culprit for leakage, but those cracks seal up so quickly, because that's what salt does, it like, self-seals, it self-heals.

So there was never a concern that this could make its way into a water table, which is well above those two thousand feet; there was never a concern that it could leach into other areas. But now, it appears as though, under very specific conditions – and the study here was done in salt mines that are used for storing petroleum products, 'cause that's another usage of these big salt mines, is to store things like oil, right? 'Cause oil can't seep through salt, or at least we didn't think it could.

They found that what's actually happening is that the salt itself, the crystal structure of the rock salt itself, is deforming. And it stretches these tiny, little isolated pockets of brine that form between the salt crystals. So it's changing the actual interlocking structure of the salt. And it ends up linking all of these little pockets to create a pore. And so, once it creates that pore, it's like a network of pores, and that allows fluid to sometimes move through it.

Now, there's no evidence whatsoever that this has happened at WIPP; there's no evidence that this will happen at WIPP; there's no evidence that this is widespread; but this is the first time that we've seen that under specific laboratory conditions, with really high-powered, high level imaging, this is possible. And that means that we need to have a bit of a paradigm shift, and rethink the way that we're storing these things, which is a huge bummer considering, because it seems to be the only viable storage, or – I shouldn't say storage, it's actually a disposal technique – that we have. Like, what's better? And I think that's a big question.

S: What about Yukka mountain?

C: What's goin' on at Yukka mountain?

S: Yukka mountain's very controversial. The government spent twenty years looking for the best site to put spent nuclear fuel, and they spent nine billion dollars.

B: (Pained) Ah!

S: They've been studying Yukka

C: (Whispering) Geez!

S: mountain for twenty years, and they concluded, the Department of Energy, and the I-Triple E, they studied it for years, and they concluded that it's completely stable, that it's stable for one million years. It's a thousand feet of rock below ground, and a thousand feet above the water table. It's geologically stable; it's not porous; and they built an infrastructure of tunnels in there. They have it completely prepared for the depository sites.

But that's because Nevada – it's in Nevada – the state doesn't want it there, and now they're opposing it. So it seems to be dead for now.

C: Yeah, WIPP had the same problem.

S: Yeah

C: Like, it was ready to go for a while, but everybody had to agree, like, “Hey! People don't want these trucks of nuclear waste going through their community.”

S: Yeah, it seems to be a NIMBY problem.

C: Yeah

S: So, I've read the scientific debate back and forth, and it seems that the consensus, the science, is on the pro-Yukka mountain side, and that the objections that Nevada is raising are not valid. One scientist said they just don't stand up to scrutiny, they don't have the science. John Karrick, who's a fellow of the American Nuclear Society reviewed their objections, and said there's just nothing to them. The science really shows that it's stable.

The issue was raised about transporting it across the country, but we already do that, and there's never been an incident in thirty-five years. We know how to safely do it. Obviously, there's always risks, but it seems like the risk is pretty low. They've said, “Oh, it's a target for terrorists,” and I don't see that either. Terrorists are not gonna go after a heavily armed infrastructure. They don't go against soldiers who are armed and defending infrastructure, you know.

C: It's also not a good place to try and get, like, you're not gonna get yellowcake there.

S: No

C: This is spent fuel.

S: No, no, no, yeah.

C: It's not even helpful,

E: No, it's waste.

C: yeah, to dig anything out of there.

S: So here's the other point, that I've never seen anybody raise, but to me, it seems pretty interesting, is they want the site to be stable for a million years. That's the standard. And the critics are saying, “Aw, this, after thousands of years, this could be unstable.” So, do you really think that in one thousand years, we're not gonna have the technology to do something a little bit better with that spent nuclear fuel?

C: Yeah, and the truth is, when you bury it,

B: Launch into the sun!

C: we've been burying it – or at least not the nuclear fuel, but the weapons-grade fuel – it's really systematic and redundant.

S: Yeah

C: Like, it's in barrels in these big metal containers in these whatever. Then it gets crushed by the salt. Everything's really beautifully mapped. They know exactly where it is; they're testing with Geiger counters and all this stuff, to make sure that there's no radiation on the outside of the container. Then the container becomes shielded. We know where it is, so if we had to dig it up, once we have better shielding, we could totally do that.

S: Yeah

C: I think the important question – and this was the most fun question for me when I was talking to these scientists, and I'm interested to hear what you guys say – how do you mark it so that thirty thousand years in the future, if there is a race that lives here, if there is a people, if we are visited, if we have evolved in a different way, and no longer speak the English language, whatever the case may be? How do you mark this site to warn people, “Don't dig here for oil, don't dig down for water, you don't want to go near this, because it's still radioactive.

S: Yeah, we actually talked about that on a previous episode.

C: Did you? That's awesome!

S: Yeah

C: 'Cause to me, that's the most – it's not fun, but ...

B: It's interesting – right – but it's very problematic. Very

C: Yeah, it's a cool question.

B: I've seen series of images that seem very straightforward. “Yes, this is a bad place. Do not go here.” But just by looking at it, from a slightly different angle, you can completely misinterpret what the images are. I don't think there's a good way to predict what would be absolutely effective in doing that.

C: Well, and some scientists would argue, some of these planners would argue that just labeling it at all, even with a danger label, might actually invite people

B: Yeah

C: to want to stay there.

S: I honestly think that it's not an issue unless our civilization collapses in the next century, because we'll put it some place stable, like Yukka mountain; and you know what? In a hundred years, we'll probably be burning it as fuel.

(Cara chuckles)

S: We'll be doing so – two hundred years, three hundred years,

B: Right

S: whatever.

E: Fertilizer

S: We'll be using it.

B: To the sun.

S: Right, we'll have our space elevator. We'll just launch it, whatever. I'm sure there will be solutions.

E: I like that.

S: I don't think that burying it is gonna be our cutting edge, technological solution a thousand years from now. That's my point.

C: I agree.

S: In fact, we have nuclear power plants today that can burn spent nuclear fuel of existing nuclear power

B: Right

S: plants. We already have them, designs for these third, fourth generation reactors that can burn the fuel, the waste of previous generation nuclear power plants already. So ...

E: So we're on our way.

S: Yeah, so saying like, “Oh, we can't guarantee it's gonna be stable for a million years.” Who cares? I just don't think that's – I mean, we're doing that. I think the argument is that it is stable, but I just don't see that as a huge negative point. It kind of assumes that we're not gonna develop any other technological approaches to that spent nuclear fuel.

C: I think the concern is the eventuality that you mentioned. If civilization collapses -

S: Yeah

C: which I know sounds crazy.

S: Then we'll have bigger problems. (Laughs)

C: We will have bigger problems,

E: Yeah, right?

C: but with that being said, if civilization does collapse, but that doesn't mean that Earth is no longer inhabitable, then because we have bigger problems, this will not be a priority, and it may be something that we never took care of.

S: Yeah

C: So we could be leaving a really big problem for future generations, or for future settlements. And I think that, to me, is what makes this a problem that absolutely needs a solution, or at least some sort of eventuality

S: Yeah

C: worked in – a warning.

(Commercial at 29:26)

Gene Editing Ethics (31:00)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (41:06)[edit]

What's The Word (44:25)[edit]

  • Consilience

S: All right, Cara, what's the word?

C: What is the word? The word this week is actually a word that was submitted by a listener. It was submitted by Tim Quinlin. And the word is consilience. I love this word.

S: It's a great word.

C: This is a word that I actually didn't know, weirdly, as a science communicator. I feel like I should know it.

B: It's things coming together, right?

C: Yes, things coming together, but more specifically, any guesses?

S: It's also a title of a book by Neil Wilson.

B: Yes.

C: It is a title, in which he kind of reinforces this idea.

S: Yeah

C: So, consilience is the linking together of principles from different disciplines, especially when forming a comprehensive theory. So, especially

E: Evolution

C: in the science – exactly. Consilience refers to the convergence or concordance of evidence in which a lot of different independent sources or schools of thought come together to form a greater, unified theory. So, if you look at it another way, I've seen this example used in a lot of places, or variations on this example. If I wanted to measure the speed that a runner achieves on the track, I could use a lot of different methods. I could use a radar gun, I could calculate it geometrically, I could use a stopwatch, but they would all actually give me the same answer, because even though I'm using different tools to measure it, the concept of him running, and the speed at which he's running is standard, and doesn't change.

So, if you extend that analogy to a larger phenomenon like evolution via natural selection, you see consilience from geology, genetics, biology, paleontology, physiology, anatomy, even physics, a whole lot of other fields of science. So, consilience as a principle is also relevant to philosophy, history, art, humanities, and the term itself was actually coined in, like, 1840 by William Whewell? It might be Webel. I have no idea how to pronounce his last name. W-H-E-W-E-L-L. And he's British. William Whe-fvell, Whe-wel.

He's stating that, quote, “The consilience of an induction -” that's really the whole phrase that he coined - “The consilience of inductions takes place when an induction obtained from one class of facts coincides with an induction obtained from another, different class. Thus, consilience is a test of the truth of the theory in which it occurs.”

So the word actually comes from the Latin “com,” meaning “together;” and “salite,” meaning “to leap,” like salience. So it literally comes from a jumping together.

S: It is a great concept. It really gets to the heart of what is powerful about science. It's describing one underlying reality. If that underlying reality weren't there, or if science weren't describing it in a meaningful way, we wouldn't see, necessarily, consilience, you know.

C: Yeah

S: Evolution is real. That's why, if you study either developmental biology, or paleontology, or geology, or comparative anatomy, or genetics, like philogenetics, all of those completely independent lines of evidence all lead to the same answer, because the answer's true.

C: Yes

S: And that's the power of science.

C: And it really, I think, helps reinforce one of the other common words. I get this written to me all the time. What's the biggest word that people misuse in science? Or, what's the difference between a scientific usage and a layman usage? And it's theory. You hear people talk all the time about

B: Yes

C: the difference between a theory and a hypothesis. And I get it. It was drilled into me when I was doing my Master's thesis, because I said, “My theory is ...” And I remember my professor went like, “You don't have a theory! You can't have a theory! A theory, you don't have the hubris to have your own theory about something!”

(Bob laughs)

C: “A theory requires consilience!” Other than that, it's a hypothesis. You have to have multiple lines of evidence, you just do!

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Frame Dragging (48:10)[edit]

What is frame dragging?

Dumbest Thing of the Week (50:35)[edit]

Interview with Michael Shermer (54:05)[edit]

(Commercial at 1:13:08)

Science or Fiction (1:14:12)[edit]

Item #1: A new study finds that increasing the alcohol tax is Maryland was followed by a decrease in the incidence of gonorrhea. Item #2: A paper published in Applied Energy shows that storing energy in metal powder is a feasible alternative to fossil fuels. Item #3: New research finds that feeding pigs human food waste, or swill, is partially responsible for the recent swine flu epidemic.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:28:10)[edit]

'It sometimes seems to me that we are all afflicted with an urge and have a longing for the impossible. The reality around is too common, too dull, too ordinary for us. We hanker after the unnatural, the supernatural, that which does not exist… We long for a miracle!' -M.C. Escher

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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