SGU Episode 591

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SGU Episode 591
November 5th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 590                      SGU 592

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

"I'm a scientific expert; that means I know nothing about absolutely everything." Dr. Heywood Floyd, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clark

Dr. Heywood Floyd, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clark

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

  • Broadhead high school texting death hoax – dumbest thing of the week
  • Scared-straight pseudoscience

What's the Word (8:35)[edit]

  • Relict

S: Cara, you're gonna start us off with What's the Word?

C: Yes! So the word this week is relict – R-E-L-I-C-T. About a week ago, maybe a little more than that, I tweeted an article with the headline, “After Pluto: New Horizons Target is a Relict of Creation.” It's about the space craft's flyby of a Kuiper Belt object called 2014MU69, which is thought to be among the oldest remnants of our solar system, relatively untouched, like a lot of other primordial objects. Like, comets are generally changed over time, but this seems to be a remnant that's relatively untouched.

So, some folks on Twitter asked me why the word “relict” in the headline had a T on the end. And so I thought it would be a good idea to define it on the show, because I think we're so used to seeing the word relic, that I think they actually thought that it was a typo. So I wanted to define relict, and also talk about the difference between the two. Have you guys all seen this word, with a T at the end, relict?

J: No

C: No, yeah

E: I don't think I have.

S: I've heard it in the context of a relict species.

C: Yeah, there you go.

S: Yeah

C: So there's a few different definitions in different areas of science. And it is related to relic, so let's try and parse the two out. So, generally speaking, a relict is something that's been left unchanged, something that survived from an earlier period of time, or primitive time, but it has more specific meanings in different branches.

So before we get into those branches of science, there's also kind of a one-off definition. It's an antiquated term for a widow, which is kind of messed up. It's like, unchanged over time. But luckily, nobody uses it that way any more. If you look that up, as a widow, you'll see it in old English writings and things like that, but it's not in modern dialect.

So, in biology and ecology, like you mentioned Steve, a relict is an organism or species that persists when all others have gone extinct, or it's a pocket of individuals that has persisted, even though, historically, they were widespread.

S: Yeah

C: So, one, you know, sometimes we think of living fossils as being relict. I know some people don't like that term, but think ceelocant. You could totally call ceelocant a relict,

S: Right

C: because it's lasted so long, when a lot of its contemporary species have gone extinct. In geology, relicts are features that stand out as having not undergone metamorphosis when surrounding areas have. So they have special significance, 'cause they're like a window into a previous time. And in anthropology, relict people previously dominated the region, but they've been pushed out or minimized by another group. So if we think of certain tribes in the Amazon, for example, they might be a relict tribe, because they're now in a very small space, when they used to be more spread out.

Relict can also be used in its adjective form, referring to the quality of being a relict. So, if I said “That relict Kuiper Belt object,” that is also a proper use of it.

Now, relic, of course, has religious connotations. It generally refers to a memento related to a saint or a martyr. Although it can also refer to something that has survived the test of time, it generally refers only to man made objects that have unique, historical significance, or practices (it's not always a tangible thing), or in fact, parts or fragments of people themselves.

So like, a bone fragment might be called a relic. A piece of pottery that somebody made might be called a relic. And especially, if it refers to sort of a religious importance of a specific people, then you would use the term relic. But you would rarely use the term relic to refer to a dwarf planet, because that wasn't man made.

S: Yeah, Cara, also, relic refers specifically to a magic item that is especially powerful.

C: (Laughing) Good to know.

S: Especially one that was made by a god.

C: Oh! There you go!

S: Yeah

C: That makes sense. Yeah, it does have this religious overtone,

S: Right

C: but it doesn't always have to. So the etymology here: Relict has roots in the Latin relinquere, which means to leave behind. It was used in the fifteenth century, like I said, to describe widows as they were women left behind by the death of their husbands. But it then evolved to mean what we now think of as relic, so that's confusing. It evolved to become a religiously venerated object, but then relic (with no T) took over that meaning. And now the term relict (very strong emphasis on the T), which is actually older than the word relic, persists as a term related to a surviving remnant of an earlier time. So relict itself is actually a relict term.

S: Cool!

B: Hah! I love when that happens.

C: Yeah. So Bob, you can start using that in your discussions of these old objects in the solar system.

B: Ah, I don't like it.


C: It's so poetic though!

S: I like the word. I like relict species.

C: Yeah, it's cool!

S: The problem with the word is that everyone's gonna think you're saying relic. That's the -

C: Yeah, everyone thinks it's

S: Yeah

C: a typo.

B: Yep, yep.

C: (Laughs) I literally got multiple tweets that were like, “Why's there a T on the end of relic?” And I was like, “Google is your friend.” (Laughs)

S: Yeah

News Items[edit]

Expanding Universe Follow up (13:26)[edit]

Mystery Human Ancestor (18:53)[edit]

Alaskan Lake Monster (27:36)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (32:33)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Dwarf Minke Whale, The Thing

(Commercial at 37:27)

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Memory (39:00)[edit]

If we ever find a way to solve aging, or otherwise greatly extend human lifespans, could we run up against limits to the storage capacity of our brains? Do you think an otherwise healthy brain could get 'full' of memories, memes, and TV theme song lyrics? Could we find that at a certain age, new experiences fully overwrite old ones? Or are our brains less like computers than I tend to assume? Thank you all for doing such great work, even Jay, Mike McPhaden Toronto, Canada

Question #2: Halloween Candy Tampering (44:40)[edit]

Hi all. You've mentioned that razor blades in candy is a bit of a Halloween myth. Not really, apparently: Your fan, Christos

Interview with Brian Wecht (49:49)[edit]

Science or Fiction (1:11:36)[edit]

Item #1: New studies find that diamond nanothreads, which are even thinner than carbon nanotubes, are much more flexible, and therefore have more potential applications, including possible use in building a space elevator. Item #2: #2) Scientists have created 3-D printed permanent magnets that are over 100 times more powerful than traditionally made magnets of the same material. Item #3: Chemists have created low cost, non-toxic paper that can be printed, completely erased, and reused up to 40 times.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:29:17)[edit]

"I'm a scientific expert; that means I know nothing about absolutely everything." Dr. Heywood Floyd, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clark

Election Day is Coming Up (1:30:18)[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.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Steve says that Brian Wecht is often a behind-the-scenes consultant for Bob's physics news items


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