SGU Episode 578

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SGU Episode 573
August 6th 2016
SGU 577 SGU 579
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria
GH: Grant Richey
Quote of the Week
Every person who has mastered a profession is a skeptic concerning it..
George Bernard Shaw
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


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

S: Hello, and welcome to The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016; and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella,

(The men from the SGU went on a replica of the Enterprise from Star Trek)

(It was made with meticulous detail, and with better, modern materials)

Forgotten Superheroes of Science: Elizabeth Rona (7:15)[edit]

S: Bob, you're gonna do a Forgotten Superheroes of Science.

B: Yes! For this week's Forgotten Superheroes of Science, I'm going to talk about Elizabeth Rona. 1890-1981. She was a highly regarded nuclear chemist who's expertise at manipulating the radioactive element pallonium profoundly affected her field. And she even contributed to the Manhattan Project because of it. While researching Rona's, it's hard to separate the words, “Rona” and “pallonium.” They were very difficult to disentangle, so great was her impact on pallonium research.

Pallonium is of course a radioactive element, and it's especially nasty. It does not take much, I think just a couple grams could potentially wipe out millions of people. This is really scary stuff.

S: Really? A couple of grams would wipe out a million people?

B: I was shocked. I think it was a gram or two. Rona worked with Irene Curie, which is the daughter of Marie, both of whom (mother and daughter) won a Nobel prize. She worked with her, and some other luminaries in the field; and she became internationally recognized as an expert at isolating and preparing pallonium.

Her reputation was noticed by members of the Manhattan Project, who asked her to consult on Pallonium extraction, and she even gave them specifications to use in their plutonium plants; and they proved critical for the implosion-type nuclear weapon design that was ultimately used in the Fat Man bomb. So she contributed some critical insights into that.

Another interesting side of her career was the promotion of nuclear safety standards. One of these ways was through the Atoms for Peace program; and she knew this well, of course, after doing so many years of research. But she also had some close calls. During her career she suspected that these elements were not safe, though almost everyone at the time was down-playing the danger. They just did not know how bad this stuff was.

Yet she still asked for protective masks and gear, and it was denied. They refused to do it, so convinced were they of the safety of this stuff. But she bought her own protective gear any way – very smart move – and she was convinced that the mask saved her life when there was a radioactive explosion which contaminated her laboratory.

So her efforts led to safer laboratories, and increased radiation safety standards throughout the world. So, very impactful in many, many ways. So, remember Elizabeth Rona; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing polinides and their phomohedral beta form.

S: Yeah, so Bob, I looked it up. Toxicologists estimate that one gram of pallonium could be enough to kill fifty million people.

B: Yeah

C: Jesus!

S: And to make another fifty million people sick. You remember that Lysenko, yeah, was murdered, probably with Pallonium. That could have been accomplished with less than a microgram.

E: Who the hell would want to handle that stuff?

C: I know!

J: Where is this stuff, though?

B: You can find it in ore, but you would need a ton of specific ore to get – let me see if I remember ... point zero, zero, zero, one grams of pallonium. If you're gonna collect pallonium, that's not the way to do it. You would bombard elements with neutrons and stuff, and you could get it much faster that way.

But don't forget, guys: If somebody comes across a gram of pallonium, it's not like you can go into the middle of Manhattan and release it and kill everybody. It wouldn't be that easy. It could potentially, there's enough poison in it that if you directly administered it to many millions of people, it could potentially kill them. But it's not like you're just gonna release it and ...

S: Yeah ...

B: Right

S: that's optimally, right. And you have to ingest it. It needs contact with your inner tissue ...

J: Oh, okay.

S: in order to be that toxic.

B: Right. And if you put it on your skin right now, you would probably be okay. But if you had a cut, that's one way that it would get in, and you would be in deep shit.

(Cara shudders)

S: (Italian accent) He died 'a moider!

News Items[edit]

Young Blood (11:25)[edit]

(A billionaire believes getting blood transfusions from young people may allow him to live forever)

Electroceuticals (20:10)[edit]

(Little collars or sheaths that induce or prevent an electical pulse that would have an effect on downstream muscles)

Female Orgasm(25:51)[edit]

S: All right, let's move on. Cara, let me ask you a question: What do you think about the female orgasm?

C: (Laguhs nervously) Um ... it's awesome?

S: Yeah? You're a fan?

C: I'm a fan. I have them from time to time. (Laughs)

B: I'm a fan as well,

C: Yeah

B: I'm jealous actually.

C: I think life would be quite depressing if the female orgasm did not exist.

S: Jay, I know you have no idea what we're talking about, but just pay attention ...

(Rogues laugh except for Jay)

J: Huh? Right.

S: So, a news item that has been very popular on social media this week is a study looking at potentially the origins of the female orgasm. There's a few layers here I want to talk about. It's very interesting. Here is the Guardian headline: “Mystery of the Female Orgasm May Be Solved.”

B: What?

S: Yeah.

B: What was mysterious about it?

S: Yeah, exactly. So, I'll get to that. One thing that interests me, I'm very interested in journalistic narratives, right? So journalists tend to (especially mediocre journalists, which is by definition most, but clearly not all; there is some good journalism out there). But still, especially with science stories, they follow one of a very few narratives.

One narrative that we know of is “the scientists are baffled,” right? Another one is, “there's a raging controversy,”

C: Yeah

S: whether the controversy is real or not. And then another one is, “Mystery solved,” right? There was this huge mystery, but scientists have finally solved it.

E: Case closed!

C: It's funny, 'cause you see it on the cover of The Sun also! Mystery ...

E: Sun, yes! Wait, National Enquirer has a new headline as well!

S: It's not that scientists don't solve mysteries, it's that when you start with a narrative, then that really spins the story to fit the narrative. So they always exaggerate how much we didn't know, and exaggerate how much we now know, you know what I mean? The new information.

So you could take any incremental new discovery and then pretend, like, “Oh, we knew absolutely nothing! And now this explains everything.”

So I hate that narrative. It's rarely accurate, and I do think a lot of the journalism about this has fallen into that.

The other layer here is that the notion that there was a mystery about the female orgasm itself is I think is a scientific myth, and a very, very common one. So here's the question: Scientists have not been able to demonstrate that the female orgasm any adaptive or selective benefit. It's not necessary to become pregnant; it's not necessary for pair bonding; a lot of the times women don't get orgasms from regular sex, and they can get orgasms from many other things other than sex.

So it doesn't seem to be a really good correlation there. So that was the quote-unquote, “mystery.” Well, then why do women have orgasms?

But the problem is it's only a mystery if you fall for the hyper-adaptationalist fallacy, that everything biological has to have a specific purpose.

B: Yeah. Male nipples!

S: Yeah, so one school of thought is that the female orgasms is the equivalent of male nipples, which essentially means that women have orgasms because men have orgasms; and it's just a developmental biology holdover. The clitoris is a developmental analogy to the penis, and so because the anatomy for the male orgasm is already there before the sexes diverge developmentally, well, it's just a hold over. Women have orgasms for the same reason that men have nipples, right? It was selected for in men, and the anatomy applies to women as well. So that's one school of thought.

The other school of thought is that there is some benefit. There is a specific benefit to the female orgasm. We just need to figure out what it is. The problem is scientists have not been able to demonstrate that it actually has any benefit.

C: You mean, like, benefit to reproduction.

S: Yes, selective benefit.

C: Because I was like, “Hmm ... it has benefits, I'll tell you ...”

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It actually has a selective benefit, something that you could select for that has an evolutionary advantage, right?

C: Gotcha.

S: Does it increase the probability of conception for example? And the answer to that is no. So, this new study actually doesn't even look at either of those questions, and doesn't take either of those approaches. It's not looking at all at whether or not the female orgasm in humans has any purpose or any advantage or any function. All they're looking at is the potential evolutionary routes of female orgasm in mammals.

B: So they were basically exploring the first train of thought that you mentioned before, that it's kind of a hold over.

S: No, no. Their study is tangential to all of that. So let me explain what they were looking at. Again, just because you're looking at the evolutionary routes doesn't mean it does or does not have a purpose today. So that's completely tangential. But let's back up a little bit.

It turns out that the basal mammal (the branch of the mammal tree) had a type of ovulation that is triggered by sex, right? So for many mammals, it's a waste of resources for the females to ovulate all the time, because they may have only rare opportunities to mate. So they don't drop an egg on a monthly cycle; rather, they drop an egg only when they have sex, which means that sex has to trigger dropping an egg.

B: Isn't that too late though?

S: No. The sperm hangs out for days, the egg's in there. It's all good.

B: Oh, it's still there for days. That's true.

S: It's in the fallopian tubes, and then they'll get fertilized in the ...

B: Hey! How are ya?

S: Keep going down to the uterus ...

E: Hey, buy you a drink?

S: It's all good. Yeah.


S: So that's a fact of most mammals, have that kind of ovulation, have that triggered ovulation. So the idea here is that the female orgasm causes muscle contraction, causes hormonal spikes, triggers the release of the egg, and so it's important for, to increase the probability of ovulating, and therefore getting pregnant.

There are a couple of branches of mammals including primates and rodents (so primates obviously including humans) where they were much more social, and so the females had much more continuous access to males. Basically, having sex all the time.

B: Yay!

S: So, it made sense for them to just ovulate on a cycle. So, human females will ovulate once a month. It doesn't have to be triggered by anything. Therefore, the original purpose of the female orgasm triggering ovulation no longer existed, but it's a hold over, right? But it doesn't mean that it's gonna just magically disappear because it's no longer necessary.

E: Kinda like an appendix.

S: So I guess in that way, the female orgasm is vestigial. But doesn't mean it wasn't co-opted for something else.

B: Ah.

S: To support this, they hypothesized that in mammals who need female orgasm to trigger ovulation, the clitoris is much closer to, and might even be within the vagina, so that it would be more stimulated during coitus. In mammals that have cyclical ovulation, the clitoris has moved farther away from the vagina, so it's less stimulated during copulation; and triggering an orgasm from sex is less common, is less assured.

So that was their hypothesis. And they looked at comparative anatomy, and it turns out that yeah, that those two things correlate. In mammals that have triggered ovulation, the clitoris is in the vagina; mammals that have cyclical ovulation, the clitoris is moved away from the vagina. Why that happens, that's a separate line of inquiry, maybe to get it away from the urethra, whatever. That's not really clear.

B: Genetic drift?

S: But there was no selective pressure to keep it in the vagina, basically to ensure that copulation would trigger an orgasm. That selective pressure went away.

So that supports their hypothesis, 'cause of that comparative anatomy holds out. So that doesn't mean that that doesn't serve any purpose, because once a feature (a piece of anatomy, a function, or whatever) no longer serves the purpose for which it previously evolved, it's freed up, right? It's freed up to genetically drift, to go away, to be co-opted to be used for something else. So, it's still possible that the female orgasm is just a vestigial hold over; it's possible that it has been co-opted to serve some other function, but not necessarily. Not everything has to serve a function.

So basically, none of them have held up; over decades, no one's been able to prove that there's any specific adaptation for it. I think right now, the parsimonious answer is that it's a vestigial hold over from our mammalian origins, where you had stimulated ovulation, and not cyclical ovulation; and there's no known current function, evolutionarily speaking, obviously. (Cara chuckles) I'm sure women are happy that they have one.

(Commercial at 35:21)

Private Mission to the Moon (36:49)[edit]

(A company called Moon Express has applied for permission to go beyond Earth orbit)

(There is a prize being offered for landing a rover on the Moon and driving it)

What's the Word: Mondegreen (41:20)[edit]

  • Mondegreen

S: Okay, Cara, What's the Word?

C: Ooh! I love the word this week. The word this week was recommended by Dr. Janet Patton from Portland. And thank you so much, Dr. Patton, for the kind words. The word this week is: Mondegreen. Have you guys ever heard of a mondegreen?

J: No

C: No?

S: When you sent it to me.

(Cara and Evan laugh)

C: I hadn't heard of it previously either, now I want to use it all the time. So, a mondegreen is a word or a phrase that results from a mishearing of something that was said or sung. It's similar to a malapropism, but instead of you saying the wrong word, you heard the wrong word, or phrase.

So, for example, just to distinguish the two, a malapropism would be like saying, “For all intensive purposes,” (Evan laughs) instead of saying “for all intents and purposes,” which is very

J: (British accent) Intensive purposes!

C: Yeah, but a mondegreen would be mishearing, “'Cuse me while I kiss this guy,” instead of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky.”

E: Oh, right, right,

C: Yeah, so I remember the early days of the internet, after chat rooms, but when videos were like, only coded in flash. There was this site that I used to go to all the time called I'm not sure if it's still online. But they had a whole bunch of misheard lyric videos from the Beatles, “She's got a chicken to ride. My baby donkey,” to Abba's, “Jackie Chan's on me.” And they're really fun.

(Evan laughs)

C: So, we've seen this a lot in skeptic presentations as well. Michael Shermer did one.

E: Richard Wiseman

C: Yeah, Rishard Wiseman does one, and it's really funny. The etymology of this is awesome. Since mondegreen is a modern word, and because of that, we know a lot about where it came from. It was first coined by author Silvia White in 1954. And the story goes that when White was a child, she misheard the lyrics of a famous Scottish ballad.

The Scottish ballad actually went, “Ye highlands and ye lowlands, oh where have you been? Thou, how ya slay the Earl of Murray, and lay him on the green.” But she heard, “Thou, how you slay the Earl of Murray, and Lady Mondegreen.” And it became

B: Ah!

C: actually the stand-in for this experience, Lady Mondegreen. Yeah, fascinating.

S: Cool

B: Cool word, I like it.

S: My favorite stories about that is the class of kindergarten students who thought they all had headlights.

C: Aw!

(Rogues laugh)

C: That is so cute!

S: And they're fitting it to the closest word that they already know.

C: Yeah

S: And our brain does that.

E: Right

S: Our brain hears sounds that it thinks is speech, and then tries to make the best match it can to that. So this is just slotting it incorrectly, you know. But it really sounds like that to you, this ...

C: It does, and especially if you animate it around it,

S: Yeah

C: or if you reinforce it over and over. You know, there's some great videos online of the American Idol spin offs in other countries, where people are auditioning for American Idol, and they're not native English speakers. But their singing English songs, because, of course, a lot of American songs are popular around the world. And the mondegreens that they sing are too much.

B: Oh god!

C: It's so funny, the phrases that they think that the singers are saying, 'cause a lot of them don't make sense, because they've heard the sounds of English language, but grammatically, it's just a bunch of words strung together.

S: Right, right, that's funny.

C: Great, yeah.

Who's That Noisy (44:37)[edit]

  • Answer to last week:

Last week: TESLA's Spirit Coyle

(A muffled human voice talking in an auditorium while metallic scratching noises continuously go on)

(It is a device he made a device that could pick up radio signals. He thought it was aliens at the time)

This week's: Woman's voice (possibly black American): People have been criticized ... and talked about through out the ages for havin' different beliefs, and apparently I am no exception. ... is a constant challenge. I will continue. I will not allow them to stop me.

Your Questions and E-mails[edit]

Question #1: Nimrod (47:53)[edit]

Cara began the segment on coolness talking about the evolution of the meaning of the term 'cool.' Then later in the segment, she poked fun at one of the study's authors' names, Nimrod. The thing is, 'Nimrod' was not originally a derogatory term, but in fact a compliment! Nimrod was a descendant of the Biblical Noah, cited in the Old Testament as a 'great hunter.' People began using that word as a complimentary allusion; calling someone a 'nimrod' was a compliment to their skill as a hunter. Then, as language evolved, people started using it sarcastically. The classic — though not first — example of this is Bugs Bunny calling Elmer Fudd a 'poor little nimrod.' From this, we get people confusing the meaning of the term, taking it as a simple insult, so that in subsequent usage, only the insulting sense remained current. The name of the scientist coauthor of that paper had a Levantine sounding name, so I would guess that where he comes from, 'nimrod' continues to be a salubrious term, since it remains a stronger cultural reference there. More at Wiktionary: Warren Young Aztec, NM

(Commercial at 52:16)

Interview With Grant Richey: (54:05)[edit]


(Does flossing your teeth work?)

(Bottom line: Learn to floss correctly)

(Commercial at 1:08:21)

Science or Fiction (1:10:19)[edit]

  1. 1:
  2. 2:
  3. 3:

(Steve demonstrates that he is skeptical of reviews while shopping online)

(Science or Fiction music)
It's time for Science or Fiction

SGU Will Be At DragonCon: (1:29:14)[edit]

Labor Day weekend, Friday to Monday.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:30:26)[edit]

“Every person who has mastered a profession is a skeptic concerning it.” George Bernard Shaw

S: And until next week, this is your Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

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]


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