SGU Episode 595

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SGU Episode 595
December 3rd 2016
SGU 594 SGU 596
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
C: Cara Santa Maria

Quote of the Week
This job is a great scientific adventure. But it's also a great human adventure. Mankind has made giant steps forward. However, what we know is really very, very little compared to what we still have to know.
Fabiola Gianotti, Higgs Boson physicist
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Show Notes
Forum Topic


  • Star Wars: Rogue One

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

Forgotten Superheroes of Science (5:28)[edit]

  • Maria Telkes: Maria Telkes 1900-1995 was a solar energy pioneer. She invented the solar distiller and designed the first modern home heated by solar energy

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

B: Yes, this week, I'm going to talk about Maria Telkes, 1900 – 1995 – that's a good run! She was a physical chemist, and biophysicist, and a solar energy pioneer. Steve, you may be extra-interested in this. She invented the solar distiller, and designed the first modern home heated by solar energy.

Telkes was raised in Budapest, where she got her B.A. and PhD. Then after moving to the United States, she worked for Westing House Electric, M.I.T., and she was even assigned to the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. And it was in the thirties and forties that her focus was solar energy, thermoelectric devices, pretty much her entire career.

She created a solar distiller, probably one of her best inventions, that was used, basically used the sun to evaporate sea water, and then recondense it into water that you could drink. And that device was used in many, many life rafts during the war, probably saved a lot of lives, and was even made much larger than to handle water production of the Virgin Islands for a period of time when they really needed some extra help.

Let's see, she also, Telkes, also with architect Elanor Raymond designed and created the first modern solar heated home in 1948 – '48! Now this wasn't, you know, fancy photovoltaics. I don't even think they really existed back then. This is basically, the solar energy heated the air, and then the hot air was then pumped throughout the house.

And get this: She even had a design that would transfer the heat to special salts, to store the heat, to use later. That is a fascinating solution to the problem that we have to this day. What do we do with stored solar energy? Where are we gonna keep it, for night time or whatever.

S: What's interesting that using the sun to directly heat water, for example, is actually really efficient, and for a long time was more efficient than photovoltaics. I don't know if photovoltaics

B: Wow!

S: crossed over. They may still be more efficient than photovoltaics. I'm not sure, but I know last time I heard the comparison, it was actually more efficient, if all you're doing is heating, you know what I mean?

B: Right. So, yeah, so it's no wonder she was known as the Sun Queen or the mother of the solar home. So, remember Maria Telkes, mention her to your friends, perhaps when discussing the modial interaction of magneto-reluctance, and capacitive directance.

E: Magneto-reluctance?

S: 1900 to 1995, a few years shy of spanning three centuries.

B: Ah! Yes!

E: Damn

S: My daughter, my older daughter, was born in 1999.

E: She has a shot!

B: Yeah, Ashley was in '98, so she could ...

E: They have good shots.

S: Yeah!

B: Absolutely. They'd probably span millenia.


News Items[edit]

Fake News and Online Reasoning (8:16)[edit]

Santa Myth (25:39)[edit]

Farmer Ants (39:52)[edit]

(Commercial at 43:52)

Diamond Batteries (45:30)[edit]

Who's That Noisy (55:00)[edit]

  • Answer to last week: Number station

What's The Word (58:54)[edit]

  • Endemic

S: Cara que est la parabla?

C: Hmm, la parabla est endemic! Actually, it's funny that you ask that in Spanish, because I thought of this word a couple years ago when I went to the Galapagos for Christmas vacation. And it was awesome! And I realize that while we were in Galapagos, the guides, the naturalists who would take us to the different islands, kept using the term endemic over and over. And at one point, I stopped her, and was like, or “I should say native,” and then she would say “endemic” or introduced. And at one point, I was like, “Can you explain what all of these terms mean?”

So, a simple definition, and there's a few different ones. Something is endemic if it belongs, or is native to a particular people or country. It is a characteristic of, or it's prevalent in a particular field, area, or environment. And the definition that I was more focused on is, restricted or peculiar to a locality or region. So if we talk about an endemic disease, or an endemic species, it is specific to a region.

So it's important to kind of differentiate between some of those terms that I mentioned, like endemic, native, and introduced, especially when we're talking about ecology. An organism is endemic if it evolved, and occurs, and breeds naturally only in that one area. So something might be endemic to the Galapagos if it only exists in the Galapagos.

It's native if it exists in that place, but it might also exist in other places. But what makes it native is that it got there on its own, meaning that maybe a bird or a plant species, like a seed, was drifted over to an island, or was brought to that island naturally by an animal. It's introduced if human brings brought it to that area.

So, something can be both native and endemic, but, like things that are endemic are also native. But things that are native are not also necessarily endemic, if that makes sense.

S: Yeah, they could be, but not necessarily.

C: They could be, yeah. So something that's native could also exist in another region. So it is kind of important to tell those different words apart, especially if you are interested in ecology, because they're used quite a lot. Now I looked up the etymology of endemic, and as a full term, actually, endemical, it first came about in the 1650's. And its roots words are Greek.

The endemos, or “en” portion – actually, the full portion means native or dwelling, as we kind of talked to, or of belonging to a people. But when you break it down, en, which is the prefix “in,” I-N / E-N. You see it across the board. Means in. And demos, actually refers to people, or to a district. So, it's interesting that kind of the original definition actually seems to be the one that's more about something being endemic to a particular people. But then evolved to become a stronger term in ecology, referring to actual organisms.

S: Is that the same root as in the word democracy?

C: Yeah, demos, like, for the common people, in common use, yeah.

S: Yeah

C: And district too. So common people and district was kind of interchangeable. So more like society, or the general people that lived in that region.

S: Yeah, of course, I'm mostly familiar with the term endemic with respect to diseases. And endemic disease does not have to be specific to a location. It just means that it's self-sustaining in that location.

C: Gotcha, interesting.

S: Yeah, measles is endemic to the United States if the measles is self-sustaining within the US. If it's no longer endemic, it could still be introduced from the outside, right? So it could be outbreaks

C: Gotcha

S: It could be outbreaks of measles, but it's not endemic unless it's self sustaining here. So I

C: So I thought measles was actually not endemic.

S: It's not. It's not endemic

C: Yeah, okay.

S: in the US. I'm just saying

C: Not any more.

S: it used to be. It used to be endemic, and then that's also the difference between eradicating a disease and eliminating a disease. So measles has been eliminated in the United States, because it's no longer endemic.

C: Gotcha

S: But it hasn't been eradicated from the world.

C: Yeah

S: Which is what eradicating means. Now, in addition, there's also epidemics, right, which is

C: Yeah

S: an epidemic is a disease – so you have an outbreak, and then an epidemic is basically an outbreak that extends over a large area. And then a pandemic, which is

B: Multiple countries

S: All over the world. Yeah, it's intercontinental, or whatever. So like, the 1918 flu was a pandemic. That basically went everywhere.

C: Yeah, and so the etymology of the epi prefix, also Greek, epi meaning upon, or near to, or in addition to. And then pan is actually started Latin, yeah, and that is – actually, that's weird. Dish. (Laughs) 'Cause they're in different pans. Maybe I should put, yeah, all, everything, whole.

S: Yeah

C: But also pan, refers to a dish. You see it in some words. That's interesting. But yeah, so, upon, near to, in addition to, or every, all, whole, inclusive.

Name That Logical Fallacy (1:04:19)[edit]

Yesterday, I posted an article ( to Facebook that argued that Trump's win had more to do with xenophobia than economic disenfranchisement. I posted it with a chart showing that a greater proportion of high-income earners voted for him than low-income earners. An old American friend responded that he wishes 'uniformed Canadians would stop having baseless opinions on my country's election.' That one is at least ad hominem, but my question regards his next comment. In response to people defending my right to express an opinion, he argued that my choice of that one chart was 'confirmation bias,' because it supported my point, whereas other charts paint a different picture. For example, slightly more low-income people voted for Republicans this year than in 2012, and slightly fewer high-income earners did. I'd argue the chart I posted is more instructive, but in any case, here's my question: Is there a term for when someone accuses you of employing a logical fallacy without sufficient reason to make that claim? Is there not a principle of 'innocent until proven guilty' in debate? That we should assume that evidence was chosen with due diligence until given reason to think otherwise? That our opponent is of right mind and weighing multiple considerations until he or she fails to? Intellectual generosity maybe? Saunders' article actually changed my mind on the issue, so clearly it was not a matter of confirmation bias. But either way, he couldn't know from one post whether it fell into a pattern of confirmation bias.

Science or Fiction (1:11:18)[edit]

Item #1: Physicists studying solar cells may have discovered why most plants on Earth are green. Item #2: Researchers have published the first estimate of the mass of the technosphere, 30 trillion tons, or 50 kilograms per square meter of Earth surface. Item #3: Astronomers have identified the tiniest known asteroid, measuring about 200 millimeters in average diameter.

Announcement (1:27:46)[edit]

  • Reminder about the year end special coming up

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:28:53)[edit]

'This job is a great scientific adventure. But it's also a great human adventure. Mankind has made giant steps forward. However, what we know is really very, very little compared to what we still have to know.' - Fabiola Gianotti, Higgs Boson physicist

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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