SGU Episode 592

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SGU Episode 592
November 12th 2016
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 591                      SGU 593

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

"Man has opened the secrets of nature and mastered new powers. If he uses them wisely, he can reach new heights of civilization. If he uses them foolishly, they may destroy him. Man must create the moral and legal framework for the world which will insure that his new powers are used for good and not for evil." - Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


  • Surprising election results

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

What's the Word (1:55)[edit]

  • Xerophile

S: We're gonna start with, Cara, What's the Word.

C: The word this week is xerophile, and it was suggested by Trista from Huntington, Pennsylvania. So, just to be clear, xerophile is spelled X-E-R-O-P-H-I-L-E. And a xerophile is an organism that thrives in or is tolerant of an extremely dry environment, also known as a xeric (xiric) or xerec environment. we generally use the synonym, an arid environment. Other forms of the word xerophile are xerophilous and xerophyte. Some good examples of that would be cactii, and thumold, and yeast.

Now, it's important that we don't confuse the word xerophile with an X with its homophone, zerophile with a Z, which ultimately it's really just a misspelling of the word. There's no official definition of zerophile with a Z, but it has taken on some unofficial meanings, one of which is a person, generally within a hacker or a coding circle who's central to a chat forum, or somebody who's part of the cult following surrounding a book entitled the Zeronaughts, by John Elkington, which is about climate change, and a lot of other environmental issues, and trying to get them down to having zero impact.

But back to xerophile, the organism that lives in the desert, or in a dry environment. That term was coined in the late 1800's, and it's comprised of two roots: Xeric, from the Greek xeros, meaning dry; and, of course, philos – you know, we hear the phile suffix on a lot of words – meaning liking or loving. I think it's a fun word.

S: Yeah

C: It feels like a really good Scrabble word.

S: Xerophile? Yeah, right! (Steve and Cara laugh) You're gonna get a triple letter on that X?

E: Oh! I never get that!


C: Yeah, ya gotta go xi (pronounced chi), right? X-I, xi. That's always, that's one of your best two-letter words in Scrabble.

S: Right


S: So, what about water bears? They're actually not xerophiles, they are xero-tolerant.

C: Yes, yes.

S: They don't thrive in dry environments, but they can survive them by going into hibernation, and becoming dormant.

B: I wouldn't even call them tolerant. I would say resistant, or even proof, because they could survive, I think, for literally decades!

C: Yeah

S: The term is “tolerant.” But the term is “tolerant.”

C: The term is “tolerant,” and then the funny thing is, some definitions online actually talk about xerophiles as being just dry-tolerant organisms, and then others specifically focus on these types of extremephiles who can grow and reproduce in these arid

S: Yeah

C: environments.

S: You can't just like it, ya gotta love it.

C: Exactly.

S: You can't just survive.

C: Yeah! Ya gotta love it! Yeah!


S: Ya gotta get busy in the dry environment.

C: Uh-huh, uh-huh. And generally speaking, I mean, as the name implies, water bears live in the water.

S: Yeah, that's correct.

C: So, they're in many ways the opposite.

News Items[edit]

Wireless Brain-Spine Interface (5:05)[edit]

Arctic Ice (20:41)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, tell us about arctic ice. I wish that were a new flavor of ice cream or something.

J: Yeah, right?


J: More accurately, what ice? Oh god, you know, there are times when being up on science news could be really depressing. This is one of 'em. So, global warming, as you've probably heard, is melting the arctic sea ice. And melting sea ice is usually okay, since new ice forms, and it remelts all the time, in a cycle, which I have named The Big Melting and Unmelting of Sea Ices.

C: That's lovely. That's very catchy.

B: Ah

J: That's the cycle, yeah.

E: Is there an acronym?


J: Yes



J: (British accent) BMUMSI man! (/accent) But now, we have a lot of old sea ice – so this is the lower layers of sea ice – they're melting, and this is something that we should all be very concerned about, right? It's not just that top layer that melts and freezes and melts and freezes cyclically. And the problem is that the normal cycle has changed. And because more ice is melting than freezing, this is why we see the size of the sea ice changing, you know?

We could see this. Because NASA has been tracking the arctic sea ice since 1978, '79 – I couldn't get an exact date, but they used satellites to look at the sea ice, and they track it. They track what happens to it over time during the year, during each season. We have images of the sea, as an example, of the sea ice from back in 1984; and back then, the old ice, which is in the ice – this old ice is the ice that survives many of these melt and freeze cycles. That made up 1.9 million square kilometers of visible sea ice – 1.9 million square kilometers.

C: So you mean this is ice that doesn't melt through ...

J: The stable ice, right?

S: Right

C: All right

J: September of this year, we're seeing only a hundred and nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-eight square kilometers.

B: Oh my god! Order of magnitude.

J: Whoa, guys, bad. This is bad. So this trend is expected to continue, and it will amplify global warming. How? I didn't know. Well, check this out. So, sunlight is absorbed more easily by liquid water than by ice. The ice actually reflects quite a bit of solar radiation back into space.

S: Oh yeah!

J: So it actually is a way of reflecting back that heat energy. So as more ice disappears, more solar radiation is absorbed by the water.

E: Yep

J: And it speeds everything up! It feeds the monster!

C: And that happens as the land ice melts too, right? 'Cause as land ice melts, you get darkness from underneath it.

J: Yeah, right. Dirt absorbs, yep, more heat.

C: That also exacerbates it.

S: Yeah, ice is a positive feedback mechanism for the climate in either direction. So, if it's cooling,

C: Yeah

S: more ice, then it cools more, you get more ice. So that at one point or more in our past resulted in the snowball Earth, right? Now it's going the other way. As it melts, it will warm us up even more. So it's a positive feedback loop, unfortunately.

E: Oh boy.

J: A normal season for the ice, that we've seen historically, is that it reaches its largest mass sometime in March, and then it begins to melt as the temperatures rise. Now this continues until September. So we have a pretty continuous melt from March to September. And then in September, what's supposed to happen is it's supposed to stop, and then start collecting more ice as the weeks go by. But today, the melt season is three weeks longer on average than it used to be forty years ago.

C: Wow.

J: So we have three more weeks of melt. Now that might not sound like a lot, but that's a -

E: That is a lot.

J: That's a significant amount of the freeze season, the cold season. It's too much. And then we're losing ice every year. And then it speeds up, and it speeds up. So at the current rate of melt, we could be ice-free guys, by 2040.

C: No.

J: Yep, that's

C: That's the model?

J: the ice-free, yep.

C: 2040?

J: Yep

C: (Gasps) And that's just in the arctic, not the antarctic?

J: This is just the arctic.

S: Just the arctic.

E: Is this reversible?

J: It is

S: Sure

E: Are we destined?

J: Well, the big question is, did the scales tip too far? Can we pull 'em back yet? I think we can slow it down and stop if we had a herculean global effort. Yes, we're not at the point where I think it's absolutely too late to do anything. But I honestly don't think we really know, either. I think we just don't know how much an effect we can have.

So it's basically, do it! Do the god damn best job that we can. Mobilize globally, and have our fingers crossed, and hope that we're not hitting a breaking point. Now, the rest of what I'm about to read is all bad. You ready?

C: Oh god!

J: So, first, the ice mass decreases, it has a dramatic effect on the arctic ecosystem. So it affects everything from plankton to animals as big as polar bears, right? The smallest to the biggest. It influences everything. And of course, it's bad. It's doing damage to the ecology. We're not seeing what we should be seeing. We're seeing a lot of issues with all the animals and creatures that live there. Everything is suffering.

So, scientists also suspect that the arctic has a very strong effect on the jet stream, which is part of the weather system! So as an example, the sea ice melts, temperatures change, and let's say the jet stream isn't where it's supposed to be, or where we've all, the planet has evolved to be, or we've evolved to live inside these weather systems. The jet stream could change dramatically, and have a dramatic effect on the weather. What kinds of weather you get, where and when, you know? We're gonna see freaky weather, guys, strong weather.

C: Yeah, that's, a lot of time, what we don't realize is that these downstream effects of global warming aren't just that everything gets warmer. Some places that are cold get even colder.

J: Yeah

C: Some places that have heavy precipitation have worse heavy precipitation. And so it's, I mean, it's not all over the place. The models tell us what's probably gonna happen, but it's not monolithic. You know, it's not the same thing happening everywhere.

J: You're right, you're

S: Yeah

J: absolutely right, Cara, 'cause there's a lot of variability in there, and things will change too. You just don't know what's gonna happen. It's not like we can say, “Oh, in ten years, we're gonna have X.” Nope, we don't know. Check this out: So, by 2100, they're saying, of course, these are all speculative. Please don't write in and say my dates are wrong. This is what some of the models are saying. Scientists predict that seas will rise 2.5 to 6.5 feet, or .8 to 2


J: meters. Yes!

C: (Gasps) That's like

J: By 2100, okay? Now check this out!

S: But Jay, just to clarify, that's when we pass the tipping point, and the ice sheets, like the Greenland ice sheet slips into the Atlantic.

J: That's what I was about to say.

S: Yeah, okay.

J: But Steve, when the ice sheet melts, when it does what you and I have talked about fearfully, it could slip off and go into the ocean, that's one thing. But when it melts, we're talking about twenty three feet, or seven meters of water. As an example, London will be gone.

C: And that's after all of our coastal cities have been gone for a while.

J: Yep, most coastal cities will

C: Yeah

J: be completely toast. I mean, I would imagine, we're gonna start seeing significant water effects within our life times, without a doubt.

C: We already are!

J: Yeah

C: We just don't notice it. You know, we see it in Bangladesh. We see it in low-lying areas already.

J: Islands are disappearing. Low-level islands are disappearing. People live on it, they're starting to go away. I have to say, this is one of the things like, someone like Trump going into office just horrifies me, because he doesn't seem to be down with the science. He doesn't seem to agree with it. And it's, this is when we need the exact opposite. We need to error way on the side of making the right decisions when it comes to renewable energy, and our carbon footprint. This is no longer, “Oh yeah ...” You know? It's here. It's right now.

C: And listen, I'm a pragmatist. And it is sometimes hard not to slip into cynicism, but I do think that we have to remember that politics and government are not the only way to affect change. And so we will find times when there's opposition, we'll find times when the leadership doesn't have the political will or the insight or the smarts or the understanding of science to do what's necessary, to stick with the Paris climate agreement, to do all of these things. Those are the times when we have to be extra focused on our individual footprint, and on doing things at the level of the individual, that we sometimes get lazy about.

S: I'm good. I have solar on my roof. So I'm good.

C: That's what I'm saying though! Like, now is the time to really start thinking about those things that you've been putting off

S: Yeah

C: and putting off. You know, going solar, being more ...

S: Actually, you know what? That's a huge effect, huge! Just replace all of your incandescent bulbs with LED.

C: Yeah!

E: Done and done.

C: And go around and make sure that your windows aren't leaking. Make sure that your door doesn't leak. You know, that you're not just blasting your heat or your AC,

S: Yeah

C: and losing all of that energy. Just small things like that

S: You know what?

C: make a (gets quiet and inaudible)

S: Inflate your tires. Seriously! A little thing like inflating your tires saves millions of gallons of gas,

C: Or,

S: collectively.

C: we talked about this when we talked about cool roofs the other day, on the podcast. In LA, where we have lots of sun, there's a cool roof initiative, and you can't put on dark roofs any more. If you don't live in a city where that is mandated, you can still go – and if you can't afford to put on a new roof, they make roof paint! You can literally paint the top of your roof in order to reflect or absorb more sunlight, depending on where you live. Little things like that, they're not that expensive, and they make a massive difference. Tryin' to stay positive here.


J: A lot of employers in the United States are not progressive. They don't let people work from home. You know, doing things like that, like reducing peoples' commutes, where they're not burning fossil fuels. Or let's say you shut down the office once or twice a month, and have the heat go way down, or the air conditioning go way down. Not only saves the company money, but it could save a lot of carbon. You know, if could save a lot of resources.

We have to start doing these types of things, not because it would just be nice to work from home every once in a while, because – duh! Get past myself. There are things like this that we could be doing as a society to really try to save energy.

C: Absolutely. But if you feel like you're losing hope, because you don't see that your elected leaders are doing it, or that your employers are doing it, or that anybody who's in a position of authority or power is doing what they should do, you need to change the market pressures. You need to make the decision, and feel empowered. I know it's hard, especially in light of recent events. It's very hard to maintain that optimism, and stay in power. But the truth of the matter is: Our elected officials have to do what the constituency says. And once the will of the people is shifted in a certain direction, there are market changes that occur because of that.

J: Yeah, you're right, Cara.

C: As long as we want to buy gasoline cars, they're gonna be made available to us.

J: Right,

S: That's right

J: but we can't just look to our politicians to change the world.

C: No, but like, Exxon-Mobil is not gonna care about getting government subsidies if nobody's buying their product. We have to make that decision at the level of dollar activism. And I know it sounds like super-hippie of me. I live in a normal house, with normal light switches. I'm not on a commune. I know what it means to make trade-offs, you know? I'm not saying that we have to live incredibly spartan, but there's so many ways that we waste, that we can just make those

E: Yes

C: decisions today.

E: Yeah! There's nothing wrong with efficiency.

S: Get the low-hanging fruit at least.

C: The low-hanging fruit, yeah.

S: Yeah

C: Switch out, like you said, LED bulbs, oh my gosh! Get rid of the incandescents! Plus, it's cheaper in the long run!

S: Yeah

C: Like, a lot of these things are actually better for you as a consumer.

S: It's a win-win.

J: Look, bottom line: Yes, go out and buy the fricken' LED lightbulbs. Consider, you know, if you're redoing your roof, consider getting solar panels. Let's do it!

S: Well, actually, we have the solution to our carbon footprint, or energy production.

E: Right

Hydrinos and Cold Fusion (32:55)[edit]

(Commercial at 42:48)

Quantum Time (44:16)[edit]

Male Birth Control Study (52:28)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (59:26)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Clams

Questions and Emails[edit]

Question #1: Democratization of Science (1:02:49)[edit]

G'Day you delightful Rogues, I got into an disagreement the other evening at a party; trying to defend the fact that someone studying something for three years off their own bat and someone completing a PhD in the same field were not equivalent. I argued that one had a set of guidelines to work against and the other just their own interests. My mate said that with the 'democratization of knowledge' things like PhD's will be less valuable. I fully disagree and worry it will (and probably has already) lead to the dissemination of misinformation. What's the best line of argument to take on this issue to get my point accross. Keep up the awesome work and may The Force be with you. -Rhi

(Star Trek themed membership drive at 1:07:43)

Science or Fiction (1:09:18)[edit]

Item #1: The term, "OK," originated with the 1840 presidential campaign of Martin van Buren, whose nickname was Old Kinderhook, and whose supporters formed the "OK club." Item #2: George Washington was America’s wealthiest president, worth over half a billion dollars at today’s value, and part of his wealth was from the country’s largest whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon. Item #3: In 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the chest during a public event, but insisted on completing his 90 minute speech before being taken to the hospital.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:24:43)[edit]

"Man has opened the secrets of nature and mastered new powers. If he uses them wisely, he can reach new heights of civilization. If he uses them foolishly, they may destroy him. Man must create the moral and legal framework for the world which will insure that his new powers are used for good and not for evil." - Harry S. Truman

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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