SGU Episode 585

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SGU Episode 585
September 24th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 584                      SGU 586

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.

Nicolaus Copernicus

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Summer equinox
  • SGU needs listeners' help

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (5:09)[edit]

  • Mary Elizabeth Barber: Mary Elizabeth Barber was a pioneering amateur scientist who, without formal education, became a noted plant collector and a natural historian and even conferred with eminent english biologists of the day, including Darwin

S: All right, Bob, you haven't done a Forgotten Superhero in a few weeks, so hit us with one.

B: Yeah! We are due. And this week, I am discussing Mary Elizabeth Barber, 1818 – 1899 – ah, just missed the new century. She was a pioneering amateur scientist who, without formal education, became a noted plant collector and natural historian, and even conferred with eminent English biologists of the day, including Charles Darwin.

Barber moved at age two, with her family, to Cape Colony, South Africa, and spent her life there. Her and her brothers all love natural history, since they were little. But when she saw and read the book, The Genera of South African Plants: Arranged According to the Natural System by botanist William Henry Harvey, her life's career was pretty much set. She just fell in love with it. She loved observing flora and fauna, and was constantly contributing to the botanical sciences, and sending unknown species that no one had seen before to naturalists all over the world.

She even had plants named after her, like the allobarbare, which is an owl tree. But she also loved entymology as well, specifically moths and butterflies. And her observations were so keen, in fact, that she actually influenced some of Darwin's thoughts on moths and orchid pollination. But she not only communicated with him, she was totally plugged in to the network of leading naturalists all over, and was fairly influential.

Her efforts and talents got her invited to become a member of the South African Philosophical Society, which was, at that time, in 1800's, an incredible honor for a woman to be invited. I think she was the first. She had a great quote, regarding this limitation. She said,

“I have no objection, and I don't see any reason why a lady should, in a quiet way, be a member of any scientific society. I do not, by any means approve of ladies coming publicly forward and usurping the places of men by preaching, making speeches, et cetera, but I don't see why they should not belong to any society that they are qualified for, and in a quiet way, enjoy the privileges too.”

So, all of this, not too bad for a woman in the 1800's with no formal training in her chosen scientific career. So, remember Mary Elizabeth Barber; mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing photoautotrophs, chemotrophs, and heterotrophs.

C: Like you do!

S: Yeah

C: So, Bob, did you like that quote because you don't like being usurped?

B: Hah! I do love that word, but I do like what she said about, if they're qualified, that's all that really should matter. Nothing else should really matter. So, that was …

C: And, yeah …

B: In the 1800's, even a little daring.

C: Yeah, you can still see that it echoed of the times, right? She's like “be lady-like about it, but take your place.” You know, like, don't piss the guys off, but show them that you deserve to be there, which I get, you know. It was necessary.

News Items[edit]

Tardigrade Radiation Resistance (8:08)[edit]

Resistant Lice (16:22)[edit]

Evolving Bacteria (26:21)[edit]

(Commercial at 45:16)

Moon Formation (46:21)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (53:44)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Hydrogel beads

What's the Word (57:10)[edit]

  • Superfecundation

S: Cara, What's the Word?

C: The word this week was recommended by Louis Goldberg, who is a listener, and sent an email saying that he works in TV, and was working on a show that involved multiples during pregnancy. And they started to research some of the crazier examples of that, and came up with the term “superfecundation.”

So, superfecundation is a very interesting concept. This is the successive fertilization of two or more ova from the same ovulation, especially by different sires and / or fathers. Obviously, this is something that can happen more often in animals that have litters. We see examples of dogs or cats having multiples, and / or a litter, and having individuals within that litter being genetically distinct, meaning that some of them had one father, and some of them had a different father.

It can happen in human beings. It's incredibly, incredibly rare, but it can happen. And that is when there are twins that are fertilized by different sperm donors. It think it's happened once with a mix up in an IVF clinic.

S: Whoops!! A mix up – you ever hear that? A mix up in an IVF clinic.

(Laughter, mostly Cara)

C: Um, yeah. So that was probably not too fun for them. Actually, might have been pretty cool, 'cause I'm sure that they get a lot of media attention.

S: Yeah, “Well, there's been a little mix up

C: Yeah!


S: with the sperm.”

(Laughter continues)

C: Whoops!

J: We've accidentally impregnated you with tardigrades!


C: And so a related term to superfecundation is superfetation. And superfetation is specifically when there's a second conception during pregnancy (which is incredibly, incredibly rare), so that you actually end up with two embryos within the uterus that are two different ages.

S: Whoa

C: And there are

E: Whoa

C: Yeah, there are a lot of checks and balances in place to prevent this, but of course, some of those systems do fail. And rarely, you will see superfetation. So, superfecundation was a very tough one for me to find etymology on. Obviously, I can talk about the word fecund, which is the root word – or feck-ind. Dammit! I did it! I knew I was gonna do that. Okay. And so, in my mind, I always wanted to say fe-cund, because that's what it looks like to me.

S: Yeah

C: C-U-N-D, yeah. Fecund is a word that refers to fertility. And it comes from an early Latin term from the middle ages, which means fruitful, fertile, productive, rich, and abundant. And it does look like its root word, which is kind of interesting, goes back to suck, or suckle. And that gives rise to a lot of words that are similar, like falare is to suck, femine is woman, felix is happy or fruitful, fetus of course is offspring, fenum is hay, and maybe even filia or filias in early Latin, which are daughter and son. They all seem to come back to similar root words having to do with reproduction, which is kind of interesting.

I was trying to find the first usage of the actual kind of clinical or zoological term, superfecundation. And the earliest thing that I could find was in the reference section of a British medical journal article. There is a reference. H. E. Raddish wrote an article in 1921 in the Surgical Gynological Obstetrics Journal called Superfetation or Superfecundation? And that's the earliest reference I could find in print. That's not to say that this person coined the term. But that was, in my digging, where the trail got cold. If anybody has anything from before 1921, I'd definitely be interested in hearing about it.

S: Cool, very interesting.

C: Yeah, fun word. Super-weird.

S: Yeah. All right, thanks Cara.

(Cara laughs)

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Lightning Strikes (1:01:26)[edit]

Do rubber soles protect you from lightning?

(Commercial at 1:08:43)

Science or Fiction (1:09:21)[edit]

Item #1: There is evidence that Otzi was infected with Borrelia burgdorferi and is therefore the oldest known case of Lyme disease. Item #2: Otzi had surprisingly healthy teeth, which researchers ascribe to his diet which was high in fiber and low in sugars. Item #3: The Iceman has at least 19 living relatives in the Tyrol region of Austria.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:27:11)[edit]

'To know that we know what we know, and to know that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.' Nicolaus Copernicus

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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