SGU Episode 70

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SGU Episode 70
November 21st 2006

Einstein, in a 1946 letter, may have mentioned a certain pseudoscience...

SGU 69                      SGU 71

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

R: Rebecca Watson

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

A Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the universe evokes far more awe for creation than light streaming through a stained glass window in a cathedral.

Michael Shermer, American science writer

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Tuesday, November 21st, 2006, and this is your host, Steven Novella, President of the New England Skeptical Society. And joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hello 9000 people!

S: Rebecca Watson...

R: Hey, hey.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Hi everybody.

S: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Good evening guys, what's up?

R: So 9000, is that a...

S: You did break 9k.

R: Is that our number now? That's not enough. Why aren't you people telling your friends?

S: 10k is looming on the horizon though.

E: See, Steve, you're saying 9000 people have downloaded any one of our podcasts.

S: That's correct.

B: That's pretty awesome.

J: You know, I think I was talking to Steve earlier in the week. I was listening to some earlier shows and I think it was episode number 38. We made an announcement that we were ranked 67.

S: On iTunes, on the science category.

R: That's kind of cute.

S: 67.

B: Yeah, we sucked.

S: We've been as high as 8.

E: Yeah, thanks to you.

S: Yeah, well thanks to all our listeners out there.

J: Yeah, definitely.

E: Thank you all.

J: Thank you very much, listeners.

S: We do appreciate it.

E: Keep listening.

News Items[edit]

Global Orgasm Day (1:16)[edit]

S: So, the first day of winter this year is going to be a very special day.

R: I can't wait.

S: You guys heard about this?

R: Heard about it. It's on my calendar.

S: It's going to be Global Orgasm Day.

J: Oh, I like to say sexy times.

S: Which has, of course, the great acronym of God. I don't know if that was intentional or not. Probably.

R: I'm very excited by this.

J: Steve, what do they do? They have like a, at 9.30 everybody get it on. You know, like what happens?

R: They actually don't even specify a specific time. Apparently, it's come as you will. I didn't even plan to say that.

B: So is that kind of like the analog to World Jump Day? Was it World Hump Day?

S: Basically, it's a couple of ageing hippies who think that if everyone has an orgasm on the same day that it will actually promote world peace.

R: I think they're onto something there.

B: It's worth a try.

R: If everybody in the world had an orgasm on the same day, I think it'd be a pretty good day.

J: You know, most people do have an orgasm on the same day.

E: Yeah, but the problem is that they probably won't achieve the actual peace because there will be so many fake orgasms going on that day that it will bring down the total.

R: Well, speak for yourself.

E: It will bring down the total.

J: Evan, do you know a lot about fake orgasms?

E: I know nothing of them.

S: As far as you know.

B: Just what you're telling, Jay.

J: What I'm worried about is that if everybody has an orgasm at the same time, it might push the earth off of its orbit around the sun. You have to be careful.

R: I'm not sure that's the way it works, Jay.

S: These two peace activists, Donna Sheehan, no relation to the other Sheehan, and Paul Reffel, whose goal is for everyone in the world to have an orgasm on December 22nd. While focusing, here's the key though. While having the orgasm, this is the challenging part. You have to focus on world peace.

R: Because really nothing gets me off like Gandhi.

E: World peace.

S: They think that this mental energy, the positive energy will actually bring more peace around the world. They say mass meditations have been shown to make a change.

B: Well that's the key right there. There you go.

R: Well yeah, they kind of haven't. They're referring to that Princeton group of crazies that are the egg people. Didn't we talk about them before? They study a random number of generators to look for anomalies around major world events. All of it's extremely subjective, pointlessly subjective. Because it's funded by Princeton though, it's always kind of been seen as something that's got some sort of credibility, which it really doesn't, and I think actually that they just closed down the program.

S: But it's one of those things, it is no real scientific validity there, but it gets into the public consciousness that people are like, oh meditation works, scientists have proven it, but that's actually not the case.

R: And so that's where global orgasm today is hitching their wagon to, which is kind of pathetic. I say we forget about that, and a month later after that shows to have no result, we have Screw for Science Day.

S: Screw for Science Day? You get to work on that Rebecca.

R: Oh I will.

E: I think you can. If any one of us can put that together, it's you Rebecca.

R: I think so.

S: That is your mojo.

B: Pick Masters and Johnson, we'd be into that.

J: So basically the theme is grab a piece for world peace.

S: Basically.

The Science of Deception (5:03)[edit]

S: Onto some serious science, some scientists have been investigating the actual mechanism by which magicians deceive their audience, and this is actually some cool research. This is coming out of the University of Durham in the UK, Gustav Kuhn, who's a neuroscientist and also a magician. What he did was he showed 38 students the vanishing ball illusion. This is where a magician pretends to throw a ball up into the air. 68% of the people watching a competent magician doing this illusion believed that they perceived that they actually saw a ball leave the magician's hand and then vanish in air. Now of course the magician never lets go of the ball. So how is it that two thirds of people roughly are so fooled into believing this illusion? One of the things that they discovered was that people tend to not only focus on the hand gesture, and there's also of course the expectation of what is supposed to happen. You expect that the ball will fly up, but of course there is no ball so it must have disappeared, but also that the audience looks at the magician's eyes and takes sort of social cues from the magician, and what magicians do is they pretend to follow the predicted path of the ball with their eyes, and that enhances the illusion. So if you see someone reacting to the trajectory of the ball, it's more believable and it's more effective illusion. So I thought that was very, very interesting, deconstructing and figuring out how that works.

R: Yeah, interesting for you and annoying for us magicians who would prefer that you people not know that. It's kind of nice when we can just do that stuff and everybody doesn't care.

E: I'll tell you what, even though sometimes I know things are obviously a trick and an illusion and I'll still look at it, I'll still be deceived by it. So don't...

R: It's a really powerful thing. Actually we had Richard Wiseman on the show a few weeks ago and I went and saw his show in New York, and part of his show is doing a simple vanish and doing it again and again. And even though you know that the coin is really still in his right hand, say, instead of his left, you still find yourself looking at his left hand because of his actions. And he actually goes through that step by step and he shows, I'm looking here, my hand is moving here, that is why you're looking here. It's a really nice little breakdown of it.

S: But a lot of magicians have sort of given away the really basic secrets, and even Penn and Teller sort of do that a little bit, and Randi has done that a little bit, just a little tidbit of how magic works as part of the show. Of course they always save the more sophisticated stuff for performing magicians.

R: Mostly when you find a magician who's showing an audience how something works, normally the method that they're showing is something that's outdated. The actual gimmick that they're using is either outdated or it's just not something anybody uses at all.

E: But there's always new people coming along, kids they have no idea, that's why kids are just fascinated with these tricks, even the old classic ones, they'll keep going forever.

J: I still love to see tricks I've seen done a hundred times.

E: Me too.

J: I still am fascinated by the the artistry is amazing, and I still don't know how they're all done either.

R: Right. That's what I'm saying, like the classic tricks are still around that have a great trick could be a hundred years old and people don't know how it's done, it's just, it's all about the magician who's doing it, who's performing it.

B: Yeah, there's so many different ways to pull it off.

J: You ever see that sleight of hand trick where the magician is throwing, like, tissues over the person's head?

E: Close up magic.

J: It's really cool, very, very cool to see someone being duped just by their perspective is different, obviously, from where you're standing, and you see the tissue obviously going over their head, but they're like, where are they going? It's a really cool illusion.

R: David Copperfield used to do a nice version of that with eggs, and he would have somebody scrambling around behind the person catching the eggs before they hit the ground. Good stuff.

S: Of course, the lesson for skeptics and all of us is that we can never forget how easy it is for all of us to be fooled. You can never use as a premise of an argument, well, I can't be fooled, it's impossible to fool me, so therefore I know that this is true. That is a type of argument from authority that magic nicely destroys.

MoD warns of Aliens (9:44)[edit]

S: One more news item. The former Minister of Defense in the UK, this is Nick Pope, has warned that aliens could attack us at any time. His concern is, well, while he was Minister of Defense, he became convinced that aliens are visiting the Earth and that we need to be on the ready, on the lookout, and he is concerned that the governments of the world are not taking the UFO phenomenon seriously. They're not following up credible eyewitness reports. He says, frankly, we are wide open. If something does not behave like the conventional aircraft now, it will be ignored.

R: Maybe he was privy to certain secret information that we don't know.

S: Well he's not the MOD anymore, now he can tell us, right?

B: I think he's still under restrictions.

R: Right, he could get vaporized by the men in black.

S: Well, if that were true, if that were true, would he be saying what he is saying? I mean, would he come out with these statements about...

E: Does he have a book coming out or something?

B: Actually he does.

E: Yeah, I wonder why he's saying these things.

B: But I think he's still couching it in ambiguous terms.

R: I look forward to seeing his evidence.

S: Right, he has no evidence. If he had evidence, he would come out with it. And if he... You can't be causal. I have the secret evidence that I can't show you. Okay, well we can't believe you either then.

R: I have data that's going to completely change the world, and I have evidence that shows that we are in imminent danger of attack from aliens, but you're going to have to wait until HarperCollins is releasing it in September. Sorry.

B: And really, I mean, you've got these aliens coming how many light years to the earth. If they want to be aggressive and do something against us, there's really nothing we could do.

S: Exactly. That's his weakest premise.

B: I mean, we're just like bacteria.

S: Like it matters if we're ready or not ready.

R: He's got a board with a nail in it.

S: We would be at the tender mercies of any alien to arrive at our planet. That's the bottom line.

J: At absolute best, we might be able to allow ourselves to know a tiny bit ahead of time that they're about to destroy us.

E: Like in Hitchhiker's Guide.

S: It would be like the Hitchhiker's Guide. We would be blissfully ignorant of what was happening. We would know what they would want us to know, basically.

B: He throws out some old standbys, like a lot of these UFO guys, regarding the triangular shaped craft that was flying over the RAF base, as he said. Most of the witnesses were police and military personnel. Like they're more authoritative in their observations than anybody. I don't care what you do. Anybody could be fooled by an optical illusion.

S: Absolutely. And that's exactly what I was referring to with the magician piece. It's a staple of the UFO shtick. There are credible witnesses out there. Credible military, airline pilots. No one's a credible witness.

B: Right. If they're human, they're not credible.

S: That's right. No one is beyond illusion. We all have the same brains, the same optical systems, we're susceptible to the same deception, the same optical illusions. No one's a credible witness. And also, being a police officer in the military or a pilot doesn't mean you're skeptical. It doesn't mean you know how to think logically about evidence. It doesn't mean you don't have a strong desire to believe something and could fool yourself. Look at this guy. I mean, he again, the article about him and his claims often cite that he's credible because he has credentials because of who he was and because he spent, he was the head of the UFO project between 1991 and 1994. It doesn't mean that he's being logical or that he's being scientific or skeptical at all. It doesn't mean that he should be believed.

B: Now, if Randi was saying that stuff, I'd sit up and take notice. You know, somebody who's schooled in that who knows how we're deceived.

R: Well, no, no, be fair. You just said that there's no such thing as a credible witness.

S: If it depends on what he's talking about, you're saying if Randi says or if I saw a UFO if I had an experience where I saw a UFO, that wouldn't be any more credible than anybody else because I could be it could have been a hypocrite. Hypnagogical hallucination or right. I could have just misperceived something that was.

R: He could have just gone nuts.

B: But I would tend all else being equal. I would tend to believe somebody who's familiar with how people see themselves within somebody who wasn't.

S: If someone who has pretty good credentials as a skeptic says, hey, I have evidence that there are aliens or UFOs, then I would take that seriously. At least I look at the evidence. They still have to show me the evidence. They're worth for anything. You still have to come forward ultimately with the evidence that the credibility is not never, ever, ever enough.

B: Right. And it's like the Bigfoot professor the past couple of weeks and this guy, they said they have the evidence. You know, put it out there. Come on. Let's take a look at it. And for whatever reason, they don't or they can't or whatever, you know. It's like, come on. They don't even mention the evidence if you can't even really present it.

S: So in the end, that's what it comes down to, and he doesn't have any new evidence to put forward. Well, let's go on to your emails.

Questions and E-mails[edit]

Wonders of the World (15:10)[edit]

First, I want to compliment the panel on the consistent high quality of your podcast. I've been listening to back episodes so quickly that I'll soon run out, and short of re-listening to your show was wondering what podcast your panelists listen to regularly.

Second, I would like your input on what I think in an interesting question. ABC News Good Morning America has been running a series called the "New Wonders of the World." Their list is interesting, but seems a bit tired (the internet and the great migration in Africa were bold choices, but Jerusalem?). Aside from giving Robin Roberts the opportunity to make really asinine statements such as "The Mayans invented the calendar we use today," they didn't really explore much that is really wondrous and mind-expanding.

I'd like to put to your panel: what do you consider the greatest wonders of the world (and "world" can be interpreted in its larger context, not just Earth)? As this is a skeptical show, the wonders should be limited to the physical universe, and those things that - if speculative - have at least a decent chance of being explained by science someday. To get the ball rolling, to me the greatest wonder of the world is the mystery of consciousness itself. How does the gravitationally-aggregated ash of star explosions organize itself to the point where it can understand what it is made of? It's a controversial question, even among scientists, but one that I do think can be addressed.

How about it, guys? What gives you goosebumps?

Brad Reed, Botkins, Ohio

S: First one comes from our message board. This one comes from Brad Reed in Bodkins, Ohio. And he writes, "First, I want to compliment the panel on the consistent high quality of your podcast. I've been listening to the back episode so quickly that I'll soon run out and short of relistening to your show was wondering what podcast your panelists listen to regularly." That's not his question. I do listen to the Are We Alone? We interviewed Seth Shostak last week. I do like his podcast. I listened to the Scientific American podcast. Those are also excellent ones. And the other skeptical podcasts, of course, like Point of Inquiry and Skepticality. So if you're looking for more of a skeptical fix, those are good ones.

R: Ricky Gervais and Penn Jillette both have podcasts that are classed as comedy, but they are obviously really skeptical people.

B: Now Gervais, he's the guy in the British version of The Office?

R: Yeah, yeah. He's a comedian. And they did a really successful podcast through The Guardian a while back. And it was so great that they brought it back for a few more episodes. They've already got one out. And I think they've got two more coming out in the next few weeks. And they are hysterical and extremely skeptical and very funny. So check those out.

B: Good combination.

S: He writes, "Second, I would like your input on what I think is an interesting question. ABC News Good Morning America has been running a series called The New Wonders of the World. Their list is interesting, but a bit tired. Aside from giving Robin Roberts the opportunity to make really asinine statements such as the Mayans invented the calendar we use today, they didn't really explore much that is really wondrous and mind-expanding. I'd like to put it to your panel. What do you consider the greatest wonders of the world? And by world, can be interpreted in the larger context, not just the Earth. As this is a skeptical show, the wonders should be limited to the physical universe." Of course they will be. "And those things that, if speculative, have at least a decent chance of being explained by science someday." How about it guys, what gives you goosebumps?

J: Elves and Eskimos.

R: Eskimos are actually real. I hate to break that to you.

J: Sorry, that was a Simpsons quote. Get up to speed please.

R: Oh, sorry. I missed it. Oh, the technically Eskimos aren't real because they're not, never mind, come on.

S: They're Inuit, right?

B: All right, so we'll do the first one, Steve. Greatest scientific wonders of the universe?

S: Yes.

B: For me, the greatest scientific wonder of the universe is the reality that quantum mechanics describes. I mean, when you start looking at quantum mechanics and you read about things like the wave-particle duality light is definitely a particle, but it's also definitely a wave depending on the experiment, both at the same time, superposition quantum scale phenomena are actually in all possible orientations until interacting with the environment or decoherence, entanglement, particles sharing particular histories together are instantaneously correlated, even if separated by light years. Tunneling. Particles tunneling through seemingly impossible barriers. You look at this stuff, I mean, that's what fills me with awe and wonderment, and a lot of people think that science and reductionism and even skepticism they boil the world down to dry, uninteresting facts they diminish nature's beauty, whereas Richard Dawkins puts it unweave the rainbow, but, I mean, if you think there's no magic and awe and wonderment in science, I mean, just look at quantum mechanics, it's totally amazing.

S: You don't know science.

B: Right. Yeah, you don't know science and you definitely don't know quantum mechanics.

S: At its fundamental level, nature is a probability wave. That is an incredible concept.

R: Technically Dawkins wasn't the one who said unweaving the rainbow.

B: No, he didn't really. I mean, didn't he? He wrote the book, Unweaving the Rainbow, didn't he?

R: Yeah, but the quote is from a poet. It's from a poem from somebody criticizing Newton, I think, for overly explaining things.

B: Well, I was basically referring to his book, but yes, I sit corrected.

R: Sorry. I agree with you, though. Quantum mechanics. Awesome.

S: Anyone else want to contribute something?

B: Beat that.

R: It's tough to beat that, and it's hard to pick just one thing but given it just a little bit of thought, I'd say one thing that regularly gives me goosebumps is just the thought of nebulae. I just really love, first of all, we get beautiful, amazing images of these distant nebulae that they're just gorgeous just to look at and then to imagine that that's where new worlds are being birthed. I think that's just a beautiful idea, and it's just a beautiful, violent kind of imagery that always manages to kind of catch my breath.

B: Well, Rebecca, I hope I don't burst your bubble a little bit with this, but you know, if you were actually standing next to a nebula, it really wouldn't look that way?

R: Oh, really?

S: Well, the color is all computer generated.

J: Bob, you're a dream killer, man.

R: Excuse me while I go slip my wrist, thank you.

B: Just unweaving that damn rainbow.

E: Nice.

J: Well, Steve, I thought about this a little bit. If it's terrestrial, I would say the aurora borealis. Just for the...

S: Just for beauty.

B: They're pretty cool.

J: Yeah, it's almost deific, you know? It's just huge. It makes a very eerie noise. It changes all the time. It's just beautiful. It's amazing. But I think the coolest thing, one of the coolest things that I try to wrap my head around is the Big Bang. That's so strange to me, and it kind of gives me anxiety when I think about it. Like, oh my God, that event happened. What was the universe before that happened?

S: Maybe.

B: It was nothing.

R: Damn skeptic.

B: Jay, the thing about the Big Bang, a lot of people, I think, a lot of people still think of it as like an explosion in space, and they don't really understand that. It was an explosion of space and time, so there's no way you could look outside and see the Big Bang.

J: I know. I know that.

B: Yeah, I know you know that, Jay, but it's just something that, I don't know, people... I don't know, it just seems like a lot of people don't really... They just think of it as a firecracker going off in space.

J: I read a thing about the Big Bang, and it was really interesting, I guess a scientist was talking about the physics of the Big Bang, and he was saying at 0.05 seconds, this is where matter these pieces of matter were forming, and they broke it down, like in the first five seconds of the Big Bang, like all these things in physics that were happening.

S: They break it down by billions, trillions of seconds. I mean, it's really just tiny, tiny fractions of seconds. They could break it down.

R: Simon Singh wrote an entire book called The Big Bang, which is highly recommended.

B: My favorite part of the Big Bang is what's called photon decoupling, when it was dispersed enough such that light could actually start zipping around in straight lines, and that's really as far back as we may be able to look at that point when photons electromagnetic radiation was able to not just careen off everything, but just kind of go in straight lines. At least in visible light, that's the farthest we can go.

R: That's kind of a sexy term, photon decoupling.

B: I like it.

R: I like that.

B: But even better than that, the Big Bang, I think that Global Orgasm Day should be renamed Big Bang.

R: Best bang since the big one.

J: I was tripping out on this thought. I think about it every once in a while. Imagine if you were in a spaceship, or let's say you didn't need a spaceship, let's say you occupied the space where the Big Bang occurred, and you were there three or four seconds after the Big Bang happened.

B: And you could withstand the temperatures.

J: Yeah, you could just visually see what was going on. I mean, would it appear to you as if you were in just like a globe of incredibly white light? Or what did that look like when all that matter and energy was pushing outwards from the same point? Or what did it look like a year after it happened? Was all the matter still like in a balloon form?

B: Well, I mean, how would human eyes interpret that kind of information? I mean, you couldn't directly see it. You'd have to...

J: I'm romanticizing it, Bob.

R: I hate to burst your bubble, but if you were actually there, it wouldn't look that cool.

B: Yeah, you'd be sad.

R: That's what they're trying to say. Hey, they did it to me.

S: Now, one cool thing about the Big Bang is that Stephen Hawking speculated that it's possible that the Big Bang never actually happened because just as the physical universe is finite, right? The universe is not infinitely big. It's finite, but it's unbound.

B: Like the Earth.

S: Yeah, like the surface of a sphere. There's no beginning or ending, but it's finite. It's not infinite. So the age of the universe, time, may also be finite but unbound. Unbound meaning there's no beginning or end. No beginning meaning there's no actual point in time when the Big Bang happened, even though it looks that way to us because we're within this finite but unbound stream of time.

B: Steve, I can never wrap my head around that. So what happened 13.7 billion years ago when all space and matter was close together?

S: I don't know. (laughter)

B: I feel better now because I still can't fully appreciate that.

S: I don't think it's possible to wrap our mind around it. I think it's something you could really only understand mathematically and any attempt at putting it into words is really not doing it justice.

J: I don't know, Steve.

S: We're not capable of conceiving it.

J: If you get really, really drunk, you get it, man.

S: Yeah, you get deluded into thinking that you understand it.

J: That's good enough for me, right, Rebecca?

R: Yeah, you also spend like 20 minutes staring at your own hands.

J: Right.

S: Then when your brain functions again, you realize that that made no sense whatsoever. It's like remembering a dream.

R: I've turned in a lot of term papers like that.

S: Evan, you got something?

E: Steve, did you ask about the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

S: That's next. That's next.

R: Why did you say that?

E: Well, because as far as scientific wonders, I was going to mention the Big Bang. Certainly quantum mechanics is up there. Another thing I try to wrap my mind around, and I only learned this recently, is that hydrogen comprises 90% of the known universe. The lightest element out there attributes for 90% of it. That means there's so much hydrogen, so much more hydrogen than anything else, that that's pretty mind-boggling.

S: Now, actually, there's a funny quote about hydrogen from Duane Gish, who is the creationist.

R: This is such a random start to a quote, okay?

S: Gish meant this to be critical of science, but actually it's true. Because it's true, it's actually an incredible observation. And Gish said that hydrogen is an odorless, invisible gas that, given enough time, turns into people. And that's...

R: That's the only true thing.

S: It's actually true, although he meant it as an argument from incredulity. That's impossible. But actually, it is an incredible but true thing. Of course, there are processes that can explain how that could happen over time, but that's funny. All right, so I have two things for this.

R: You would.

S: Just one very quickly, which is related to a lot of things we've been talking about so far, is black holes. I mean, you have matter squashed into an infinitesimal point, literally no dimensions. So it has, essentially, infinite curvature of spacetime at that point, and the gravity is so strong that it can actually suck in light. That's a pretty mind-blowing concept. I wanted to give something from biology as well, since we've been doing a lot of cosmology. It's always amazed me that a single cell with this long, curled-up molecule of DNA can, just following its own internal rules, can grow into an entire person with billions of cells all in the right place doing the right thing. That is absolutely mind-blowing that life can create that much complexity from a little tiny little cell.

R: From a mustard seed.

B: That is cool.

J: You know, and the human brain is only one piece of that too, because I would say the human brain is one of those things, you know.

S: Yeah, consciousness is up there too. That's part of the whole life gig.

E: Just think of what other life forms are sprouting up all over the universe. Almost incomprehensible.

J: And buffalo wings, you know.

E: Buffaloes don't have wings, Jay. We've been over this.

S: What's the Hitchhiker's Guide quote about the whole mishmash?

B: Yeah, the whole general sort of mishmash.

S: The WGSMM or something?

B: Yeah, that's how we just describe the whole all of existence, the whole general sort of mishmash or something like that. Rebecca, help us out here.

R: I don't know that one off the top of my head.

S: The whole general sort of mishmash.

R: Although I do find it humorous that I've become the expert of Hitchhiker's Guide.

B: No, I wouldn't say expert.

R: I'm queen nerd here.

B: Fellow expert.

E: My wife bought the book last week. She just started it, so I'll be re-familiarizing myself with it.

B: Tell her not to read it. Tell her not to read it.

S: You have to listen to Douglas Adams read it himself.

B: Yes. He brings it to life. I've got like 200 books on tape. I listen to books on tape all the time, so I'm familiar with narrators and their style. He is one of the best. He is incredible. I'm not taking anything away from reading it. I've actually never sat down and read The Hitchhiker's Guide, but I've listened to every book like 10 times. This guy, he's utterly amazing. Obviously, he knows the material and he knows how he wants to get it across. He's got that advantage that he actually wrote it, but he is just such an awesome narrator. I recommend it to anybody who's even sat down and read it 100 times, listen to him once and you will fall in love with it all over again.

S: The other thing that was asked of us on the forums was to name our votes for the most significant scientific discoveries of human history. This is tough. It's also tough to come up with a short list, but it's interesting to think about what makes a scientific discovery better than the others, what makes it an incredible and worthy of note.

R: I'm going to go with fire.

S: Fire, I think there's a lot of very important civilization altering technological innovations. The wheel, fire, the basic machines and agriculture, et cetera. Let's talk about scientific discovery, something that actually changed the way we think about ourselves, about the world, about reality. One of the criteria that I would use would be a scientific discovery that didn't just teach us something new about the universe, but it actually gave us a new way of explaining reality, a new intellectual tool by which we could even think about the universe. Those to me are the most influential and impactful scientific discoveries.

E: Like Kepler.

S: Explain.

E: Kepler's laws. Well Johannes Kepler was the first to figure out that planets go around the sun in elliptical patterns, not perfect circles, and also that they vary in their speed as they get faster as they're closer to the sun and slower as they're further away from the sun. He was the first one to figure it out, and it holds true throughout the universe as astronomers view planets everywhere, that those laws are obeyed everywhere.

S: Yeah, he figured out something very basic about the geometry of solar systems, of how gravity affects how objects orbit around each other.

E: Despite his strict religious upbringing, of course, and God creating the perfect universe and so forth he had to throw away his personal belief system to embrace the truth.

S: So what was the paradigm shift that he made, I guess, is the question. I think it's that he had to give up this paradigm that the universe was constructed on aesthetic principles, like there would be these regular solids, who would regulate the orbits of the planets around the sun, and rather than following some abstract aesthetic design, it followed just simple mechanical geometric rules. So that was a very important paradigm shift. I think that's a really good example.

E: I would say the evolution.

R: Yeah, that's what I was going to go with, too.

S: That's absolutely on my short list, absolutely. What do you think is a huge paradigm shift that occurred?

R: Well, I mean, it basically, it took us from, it completely changed the way we view humans.

B: Humans are animals now. We're not some special.

R: Being something holy and separate and moving that into us being a part of something larger, of showing us where we came from and where we may be going. It's just huge. It's incomprehensible, I think, to people today to imagine how it would be to try to accept something like that back then, to wrap your mind around just a complete change in the way you think of yourself. We're not even talking about the way you think about the world around you, but the way you view yourself, your family, where you are in the world.

S: I like T.H. Huxley's reaction. His reaction was basically, duh, which he was a little bit more eloquent. He said something to the effect of how silly am I that I did not think of that? But very eloquent. T.H. Huxley, of course, was Darwin's bulldog. He immediately was won over by Darwin's theory and he became his most vociferous and eloquent proponent. But the thing about evolution is also that it gave us a new way of explaining nature. It was not just that it explained the origin of life. Suddenly, everything was evolutionary. Geology was evolutionary. We began to look at everything as sort of evolving. And that, again, just became a new, to the point, in fact, where it almost became overapplied. It actually became like our default explanation for things, even when it was not completely appropriate. So it was a very significant change in how we approach problems in nature and explaining nature.

E: Steve, what about the germ theory of disease?

R: It's a good one.

S: Of course, that was a tremendous breakthrough. But you know, it's, and this is, again, one of the things on my short list. A lot of people actually don't realize that, and this is why I think it's so incredible to try to put yourself into the mind of sort of earlier times, especially pre-scientific societies and how they thought about the world. And the paradigm shift there was, and this was, I think, solidified by the germ theory. Before that they didn't even really have a concept of a disease. Now we think of, well, people get diseases, and a disease is some specific part of your down or not working, or you have some genetic defect, or you have, again, your body's being attacked by some outside infection. And then that has a certain disease, and diseases have a natural history. They have a certain list of symptoms and findings on exam and test results, and they have certain treatments that may or may not affect them for symptoms or to alter the course of the disease, right? That's basically the paradigm of modern medicine. Well, there was a time when that concept didn't exist. People didn't have diseases. People had their own individual illness. One of the things that the germ theory did was really usher in the age of just disease. Forget about that this was a huge new category of diseases. It also helped solidify that paradigm shift. There were other things that did it as well, but I think that that was the biggest, that is what brought medicine into the scientific age, not to be underestimated.

J: I have another one. Well, computers and the internet. I know that's not on, I don't know, to me, it's one of the most defining things of humanity is the freedom the internet gives us for an exchange of information, but computers are going to be the tool that we use to reach, dare I say, infinity, you know? Computers are going to allow us to create things that are going to let us hit the absolute peak of the physical universe, nanotechnology as an example.

B: Jay, you made a good point, and it is a tool, but it's not just a tool, it's also one of its defining characteristics, I think, is that it is the most versatile tool that's ever been developed. I mean, think of the applications of computers, I mean, it's not like a wrench that can do a handful of things. You can literally have a computer pull off any task you want to automate, it's applicable to so many different things, and that's one of the things that I think is so interesting about it, it's so universal. And Jay, of course, you mentioned nanotechnology, but Steve, now, depending on how, I wasn't really thinking about it the way you mentioned about changing the way we think about reality and new tools to think about the universe, but off the top of my head, a new tool, something like Newton developing calculus, I mean, what a tool that was. Another way to think about reality, and this ties into quantum mechanics, is the discovery of the dual nature of light back in the early 1900s. At that time, people were thinking, this is the end of physics, I mean, we've only got a few i's to dot and a few t's to cross, and we pretty much got it all. And of course, it turned out that those few i's and those two t's turned into quantum mechanics and relativity and things like that, so it just opened up huge new vistas that are still ongoing. In terms about changing how we think about reality and things, that discovery in the early 1900s, Max Planck and all that, that was pretty defining. The other one, of course, you could say antibiotics, that was pretty huge, but these are in terms of the impact on lives and economies, like antibiotics is one, J.J. Thompson's discovery of the electron and Faraday's work that laid the foundations of electro technology with the electric motors. Think of how huge that is, where the hell would we be without electricity? Come on. Forget it.

R: I think your brain is starting to overload.

B: Imagine that, but my number one choice, and Jay hit upon it, hey, calm down here, is nanotechnology now.

R: That's what we're hoping you do.

J: What technology really is cooler than nanotechnology?

E: Nanotech, we're at the beginnings of it now, but I think the discovery that molecular engineering and manufacturing is worth pursuing, I think it's going to be one of the most important discoveries ever. We're seeing the fringes of it now, but in 40, 50, 60 years, everything is going to be nanotech. Everything, you name it, our entire economy, 90% of our GNP will be based on some sort on nanotech. It will literally change, it'll change everything, and it's going to make the industrial revolution look like a firecracker going off.

E: So we can all enjoy this nanotechnology.

B: Right. We're going to see a lot of incredible stuff in the next few decades, and so for me, that is one of the-

J: Bob and I have been speaking about nanotechnology virtually about 10 minutes after it was created in Drexler's mind.

E: And you haven't stopped since.

J: No, we-

B: And Jay, remember in 85, I was talking about it to you, and nobody knew about it, and slowly it comes out in the news, and now it's all over the place.

S: It's hard to pick something, though, that we're at the beginning of.

B: It is. It's very hard.

S: Of course, to assess the impact and importance of things from the benefit of historical hindsight. So nanotechnology certainly may turn out to be revolutionary in terms of manufacturing.

B: Oh, come on. May? Can't you be a little more positive than may?

J: Steve, get a clue, pal.

S: I think eventually, I think it probably will be, although it may be supplanted by something else.

J: We're not talking timeframes here. I'm just talking feasibility.

S: It's hard to say. People have a tendency to overestimate short-term progress and extrapolating from current trends.

B: I'm not even talking about timeframes here. I'm talking whether it's 30 years or 500 years, the impact is going to be incredible.

S: Yeah, but the problem is when you start to get out beyond 50 or 100 years, then you don't know what the impact other technologies we haven't even envisioned yet might be, and that may, in fact, make nanotechnology obsolete before it really even hits its stride.

B: I admit that at some point we could all just jack into the internet and just totally waste away. That's a possibility right there.

J: That's my goal.

B: Create your own reality. Who needs nanotech when you could be having sex virtually?

J: Wait a second, Bob. Are you saying that everything revolves around porn on the internet?

B: At least initially.

S: Every new medium is first conquered by porn.

R: They just figured out that porn consists of 1% of the internet. Did you see that study?

B: Really?

E: I did see that study.

B: Was that it? In terms of what?

R: I think they missed a decimal place here or there.

E: In terms of content.

S: Maybe now, but 20 years ago, it was 50% or 60%. It was. Initially, it was a much huger chunk.

R: I think the first message ever sent over the internet was, show me your boobs.

J: Steve, I have a quick question before we change the topic. You mentioned before about creating trigonometry. How does someone go about creating a school of math? I don't understand math well enough to understand how someone would actually say it.

S: It's an internal system of logic. It's just a manner of building on itself and figuring out how to solve problems.

J: So what is it? Is it a series of equations?

S: Yeah, basically.

R: That's what math is.

J: I understand that, but when you say something like, this person created trigonometry.

S: Ways of describing concepts within mathematics and manipulating them by developing relationships and equasions.

B: I would think it would start with some insight. You're not just going to be pushing around numbers and say, oh wow, I discovered calculus. I think it would start with an insight that you explore and eventually...

S: I think it starts with a problem to be solved. We need a way of solving this problem, and the math we have now can't do it. So I need to invent a new math, like Newton needed to figure out a way to figure out...

B: Changing rates of change.

S: Yeah, how to describe the new mechanics that was being developed. They didn't have the equations to describe acceleration and things like that. So it's born out of necessity. So let me give you my choice. You guys covered a lot of things that I was going to mention, like Darwin and diseases and things like that, but I do have to give a nod to Einstein specifically. It's so obvious it's cliché.

E: Ah, the photosynthesis effect.

B: Photoelectric effect.

E: Oh, photoelectric effect, sorry.

J: You are so stupid, man.

R: It's not quite it.

S: But here's the thing that impresses me about Einstein and why I think he deserves his reputation of being a true genius. For two decades, there was an unsolvable problem within physics. Maxwell basically came up with the equations which said that electromagnetic waves propagate at C, at this speed. But nobody could figure out what they traveled at C relative to. They figured out that maybe there was an ether, but then they realized through experimentation that we are not stationary with respect to the ether and we are not moving with respect to the ether. And therefore, there has to be no ether. But if there's no ether, what is light propagating through? What's it moving at C with respect to? Nobody could figure that out because it just didn't make any sense. And Einstein, and actually there was also this Scottish guy whose name I can't remember who came up with these equations.

B: Lorenz? Lorenz contractions?

S: Was it Lorenz? Yeah. Who figured out basically the mathematics that you would have to go through in order to make it all work out. But even though he had the answer in front of him, he couldn't make that intellectual leap. And Einstein was the first person to consider the possibility that light moves at C with respect to everything, all the time, everywhere at the same time.

B: And then everything came from that, everything after that, time dilation, all that stuff of ramifications.

S: The only way it's possible for that to be true is if space and time were variables, if they were not absolutes. And that was the leap that he made to think that the universe could actually be constructed in such a way that space and time could flex, but the speed of light was the absolute constant. And that was absolute genius. That was thinking outside of anything that any human before him had ever conceived.

J: It's such a profound thought that sometimes I wonder, was he really capable of wrapping his mind around it or did he feel as mystified by it as we do? Was he so intelligent that he actually was able to feel comfortable with that idea and

B: understand it? Eventually, sure. Initially, he was like, holy crap.

S: I think initially, it was mathematical.

B: It all started though.

S: These equations work. What if space and time actually are the variables here? The speed of light is the constant.

B: And Steve, what kicked it off? Now, I don't know if maybe this might be an apocryphal story, but it's been said that it all started with him envisioning riding along with a light beam, what it would be like if he could keep up with light and what would happen. And he realized that if you can't, you can't possibly keep up with it. So therefore, and then everything you said, that speed of light is absolute and everything else is malleable.

Randi Speaks (46:54)[edit]

  • The Uncompromising Observations of a Veteran Skeptic

    Each week James Randi gives a skeptical commentary in his own unique style.

    This week's topic: Courage

JR: Hello, this is James Randi. Our good friend Daniel Dennett in one of his recent books, Breaking the Spell, has expressed himself as usual, very forcibly and very frankly. In quite the same way and in quite the same tone, Richard Dawkins has also done this in his latest book, The God Delusion. Several critics, in reviewing both these books, have said that the authors are, and I quote, insulting and unnecessarily belittling. What these two gentlemen are being accused of, frankly, is calling their shots. They're speaking their minds, as they have a perfect right to do in any book that they write and publish. They're saying what they honestly believe to be true in perfectly plain language. Frankly, I find that refreshing. A recent edition of "South Park", the very popular TV cartoon series, portrayed Richard Dawkins as some sort of strident hateful character. That's not Richard at all. It appears that truth and candor are being mistaken for bad temper and for cruelty. Now, in the day of Jonathan Swift, an author who was one of my very favourites, methods of authors were obviously much more subtle. In Gulliver's Travels, Swift managed to create a suitably fictional country, or series of countries actually, in which he could express himself much more freely, but not being obviously rude. I frankly think, folks, that it's time for us to get realistic. To continue to pussyfoot around and pretend that our feelings and our emotions are somewhat different from the way they actually are is, I think, a big mistake. Frankly, I don't give a damn whether people are offended by what I write or not. I admit that my association with Richard Dawkins and my exposure to his works has made me much bolder than I used to be. I now embrace any opportunity to express myself frankly and strongly. I have always been an atheist and I've always been very proud of it. But inspired by Dawkins, and perhaps by my advanced age as well, I must admit, I now speak much more loudly and openly. I'd like to see more of us doing exactly that. Hopefully, the faith-based administration won't be with us for very long, and we are of course limited by what we can say. In order to be politically correct we have to be very careful. I suggest to you that it's time that we're able to subject the sacred to scrutiny, to criticism, to examination. Now, to some people, that's unthinkable. Religion, they try to tell us, is something you must not question, and you must not ask others to question either. To borrow a phrase from my good friends Penn & Teller, bullshit! Any idea or philosophy should be subject and must be subject to questioning. Why is religion and superstition given a special category? Folks, I can't figure that out at all. It's an idea; it's a way of living; it's a way of thinking. And if it tends to have any impact whatsoever on my life, and the lives of my loved ones, I most certainly have the right to question it. When I give my talks at schools, universities, colleges around the world, almost always the first question that I get asked after my one-and-a-half-hour tirade, is "Mr. Randi, do you believe in God?" Well, I've been at this business for many decades now, and I have what I think is a pretty good answer. I respond by saying "oh, yes. Oh, yes, Minerva is one of my favorite goddesses." From some in the audience that'll get a slight laugh, but from the questioner, I usually see a great deal of flustering, saying, "no, no; I mean God." I respond, "oh, you mean Loki or Thor, do you?" Of course, that generates a discussion on just how many gods there are, and hopefully somebody in my audience will get the message. Yes, it takes a certain amount of nerve, but then I've got that amount of nerve. This is James Randi.


Science or Fiction (51:54)[edit]

Item #1: Astrobiologist Paul Davies - We may find life on earth that is the product of a separate origin and evolution.[4]
Item #2: Neurobiologist Steven Pinker - We will use a combination of genetic engineering and breeding to 'evolve' dolphins, chimps, and other intelligent animals to a human level of intelligence.[5]
Item #3: Biologist Daniel Pauly - We will learn how to read animals minds, and then everyone will become a vegetarian.[6]
Item #4: Simon Conway Morris - The brain alone is not the seat of consciousness. Rather, it is an 'antenna' embedded in a hyperdimensional matrix.[7]

Answer Item
Fiction Evolved chimps and dolphins
Science Separate origin and evolution
Reading animal's minds
Hyperdimensional matrix
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Evolved chimps and dolphins
Hyperdimensional matrix
Reading animal's minds
Hyperdimensional matrix

Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts. Two are genuine and one is fictitious, and then I challenge my esteemed panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake, and you, of course, can play along at home. Now, I have another alternate version this week, so I have a theme for this week, and I'm also going to do four items. A science magazine, I'm not going to tell you which one yet, asked top scientists, top scientists to make predictions for 50 years from now, and below are four of the predictions, but of course, only three of them are true predictions and one I made up, so you have to tell me which of these four predictions is the one that I made up is fake. The other three are predictions that were actually made by top scientists, and I'll tell you who they were. Are you guys ready?

B: Yeah.

E: Ready, Doc.

S: Number one, astrobiologist Paul Davies made the following prediction. I'm paraphrasing here, not quoting, because I'm just trying to condense about a paragraph or two. We may find life on earth that is the product of a separate origin and evolution, what he calls aliens on earth. Neurobiologist Steven Pinker predicted, and again, this is a paraphrase, we will use a combination of genetic engineering and breeding to evolve, in quotes, dolphins, chimps, and other intelligent animals to human-level intelligence. Item number three, biologist Daniel Pauly predicted, we will learn how to read animals' minds and then everyone will become a vegetarian. And item number four, Simon Conway Morris predicted, the brain alone is not the seat of consciousness and that we'll discover that rather, it is an antenna embedded in a hyperdimensional matrix.

R: What? You're going to have to read those again.

S: All right, so very quickly, astrobiologist Paul Davies will find that life on earth is the product of a separate origin and evolution. Steven Pinker, we're going to uplift dolphins and chimps to be as intelligent as humans. Daniel Pauly, we're going to learn how to read the minds of animals and then everyone will have to become a vegetarian. And Simon Conway Morris will discover that the brain is not the sole seat of consciousness but is just an antenna embedded in a hyperdimensional matrix. Rebecca, why don't you go first?

Rebecca's Response[edit]

R: Oh, God. This is insane. The only person that I'm really familiar with in that group is Steven Pinker. And that doesn't sound like the sort of thing that he would say for some reason. That just doesn't sound right to me. So I'm going to go with that one, I guess.

S: Okay.

R: Something about chimps and dolphins. I don't know.

S: Evolve chimps and dolphins to become as intelligent as humans, right? All right, Bob, why don't you go next?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Okay. Okay, let's see. Astrobiologist, he says that life on earth, there could be life on earth that's from a separate origin. I'm going to agree with that one. Genetic engineering, dolphins and chimps to human. You know, it reminds me, of course, of the Uplift series written by David Brin. Great series of books. That's totally feasible, I think. Especially much more so than 3 and 4. So let's go to 3 and 4. ead animal's minds and everyone will be a vegetarian. I mean, I thought that was my choice until you came up with 4. The brain is not the seat of consciousness. It's an antenna in a hyperdimensional matrix. So then how come drugs can affect your consciousness then? I guess that messes with the antenna.

R: Just pick one.

B: I'm thinking, I'm stalling here. What, you got something to add?

S: I'm just pointing out that these things don't have to actually be true. You're just telling me which one were the actual predictions. So some guy predicted that this was going to come true. You don't have to believe that it's going to come true.

B: No. No, I just can't think anyone would be stupid enough to make these suggestions.

J: Oh, yes you can, Bob.

B: Especially in a magazine. Well, these guys, well, all right.

J: Because everybody knows that if it's written down, it's more true.

B: Brain, the brain, Steve.

S: Okay, hyperdimensional matrix. Jay, go.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: I'll take the one where chimps evolved the life on earth, so it's actually alien life.

S: That's 2, Jay.

J: I'm just kidding. (laughter) I'm definitely going to take the brain in your spine and ass or an antenna.

S: Okay.

J: I'll take that one.

S: All right, Evan.

B: So what's the knob then, Jay?

J: I'll show you that later, Bob.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I would love to say that I even understand the last one regarding the brain and the antenna and this matrix and so forth. It's likely that that one is the made up one. However, I'm going to guess for the sake of this game that being able to read animals' minds when we all become vegetarians is the fiction, is the one you made up, Steve.

R: Oh, come on. That's totally within the realm of possibility.

J: There we go.

R: I'm sure that's why I'm a vegetarian.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Let's start with number one, astrobiologist Paul Davies, who, he's an astrobiologist who thinks about alien life. And he says that it's possible that there was more than one origin of life on earth. And that by looking at bacteria, you can't really tell that they're related to all other bacteria just by looking at them. You actually have to look at their biochemistry. And we've only really begun to explore the biochemistry of all the little microscopic organisms that exist on earth. We may find, he says in the next 50 years, that some of these microscopic organisms are actually the product of a completely separate origin and evolutionary tree of life. And that we therefore might find that there is "alien life" right here on earth. He also says that if we do, that that would increase the number of times that life arose that we have evidence for and would vastly increase the probability that the universe is teeming with life.

B: Right. Steve, I actually came across this article online today. I read about seven or eight of the 70 entries. And of course, this was the only one I read, unfortunately. But yeah, I think that's pretty interesting, especially some of the extremophile bacteria oh my god, they are just so, they are more different than to any other life form. They're utterly unique.

S: But when we look at this, they still have DNA.

B: Right. But I would think that if we do find something like that, like he's suggesting here, that it would be some sort of extremophile bacteria that has this incredible metabolism. It's just so different from anything else.

S: It would be absolutely fascinating if that actually turns out to be the case. Of course, he also mentions that there are good candidates, such as other bodies in our solar system, like Europa and even maybe possibly Mars. And if we find life on those bodies, the probability that there are different evolutionary branches is much greater, although it's not 100%. It's possible that life could have been cross seeded in the solar system.

B: Pan-spermia.

R: What?

Steve Explains Item #4[edit]

S: Let's go on to number four. I'm going to bounce around a little bit.

B: You bastard.

S: So who said the hyperdimensional ray matrix? That was Bob and Jay.

J: Yes.

B: Some guy really thinks this?

S: This is Simon Conway Morris, who is a paleo biologist. He is the one who made an extensive study of the Burgess shale fauna, which was written about by Stephen Jay Gould. His prediction was written in the guise of a Nobel Prize being handed out in 2056 for discovering that our brains are actually embedded in a hyperdimensional matrix and that this is an explanation for such things as precognition.

E: Wow. Precogs.

B: This guy's a scientist.

S: Apparently.

E: He's a Spielbergian.

R: For some definition of the word scientist.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Let's go on to number three.

J: It's only a game.

S: By Daniel Pauley. We will learn how to read animals' minds and then everyone will have to become a vegetarian because we can't eat animals when we can feel what they're feeling and know what they're thinking. And that is true. That was a prediction made by Daniel Pauley.

E: We already know what some animals think and feel in general terms. We still eat them. How would that stop us from eating the animals?

S: Right. So there's sort of two claims and one there. One is that we'll be able to develop the ability to tap into the fleeting sort of emotions and proto thoughts that animals are having and they'll be able to resonate with our sort of ideas and emotions in a way that we can sort of empathize with the animals. And then he further predicts that if we did do that, that it would make sense for us to make everybody a vegetarian because nobody would want to eat an animal if you could feel what it's feeling.

R: On the contrary. I think we'd find out what a bunch of assholes' animals are and we'd all eat them.

E: Perry is outraged right now, by the way.

J: If I find out that my dog is deliberately shitting in the house, I'm going to kill him.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Now, which means that the prediction I attributed to Steven Pinker is fake. I made that one up.

R: I think that means I win.

S: You got it, Rebecca. You did. Would you like to know what Steven Pinker actually predicted? He wrote, I absolutely refuse even to pretend to guess about how I might speculate about what hypothetically could be the biggest breakthrough in the next 50 years.

R: That's my Steven Pinker.

S: This is an invitation to look foolish, as with the predictions of domed cities and nuclear powered vacuum cleaners that were made 50 years ago.

R: For telepathic animals.

S: He refused to make a prediction, but he did say, I'll stick my neck out five to ten years, because that's as far as you can in science. He talked about breakthroughs in understanding evolutionary psychology, which is a big thing that he's a proponent of. I was struck by that, and that's why I wanted to use him as my fake one.

J: All he could say was there's going to be a breakthrough?

R: Basically, yeah.

J: A new serial will come out in three years.

S: No, in evolutionary psychology. Understanding the evolution of... When I read through most of these predictions, a couple of things struck me. One was that there really were very few... I mean, I had to dig. I really had to read deeply to find the two ones that sounded kind of nutty. Most of them were really very humble extrapolations of current research. Nobody really did stick their neck out too far. When you read them, and it's stuff that we've all thought about and talked about...

R: Yeah, like telepathic animals.

S: I said those are the only two. I really had to dig deep to find those two. Most of them were like, there will be machine brain interfaces. Sure, there are. There already are now. The best is yet to come for psychology, says Philip Zambardo. Oh, Ray Kurzweil, Bob. I'm sure you read Ray Kurzweil.

B: No, I actually didn't get to him. I'm sure he... Usual stuff for him.

S: Ray, who spends a lot of time thinking about the future, says, By 2020, computational power sufficient to simulate the human brain, about 10 million billion calculations per second, will be available for $1,000. And basically says that by 20... At some point, by this time, a computer will pass the Turing test. By 2029, he predicts that. The Turing test is the test where you have an evaluator who's blinded to the entity that they're interrogating and that they won't be able to distinguish a human being from a computer by interrogating them and asking them questions. That's the Turing test. He's saying a computer will be able to pass the Turing test by 2029.

B: Man, I hope I see that. Because once you have a computer that is artificial intelligence, that's as intelligent as a person, nothing's going to stop you from making one that's a thousand times more intelligent.

S: Right, right.

B: How awesome would that be? Imagine, I'll do a century of research in the next week. I mean, things are just going to change so fast.

S: It's true. To some extent, that's going to be true. So I was actually pleased that the scientists, true to the way scientists should be, were trying to be respectable and not speculate wildly beyond the evidence.

B: Except for the antenna hyperdimensional matrix guy.

S: Yeah, those are the ones that stuck out. Read the other 70 because most of them are very, very mundane.

B: Did you read all of them?

S: Pretty much. But it stands in stark contrast to psychic predictions for the next year, which everyone is world-altering. These were responsible. Well, good job, Rebecca.

R: Thank you.

Skeptical Puzzle (1:05:11)[edit]

This Week's puzzle
Albert Einstein
John Locke (philosopher)
Herbert Hoover (31st US president)
Robert Boyle (father of modern chemistry)
Gen. George S. Patton

Each of these famous people have had a hand in this pseudoscience.

Name the pseudoscience.

Last Week's puzzle

He began in Lebanon, and ended in Belfast.
He tinkered in clocks, and invented saws.
His consumption almost got the best of him, until he used the healing
power of his own mind.
He would often have new thoughts pertaining to the health of mind,
body, and spirit.
His main friends would go to the park to seek his advice.
He had a great distrust of doctors and the disease theory.
He believed disease was only a disturbance of the mind.
He believed everything in the natural world had an origin in the
spiritual world.
He called himself a doctor, though he had no formal education or
He peddled the wares, to show the world his methods were sound.
He is still revered today, and his theories continue to influence New
Age thinking.

Who was he?

Phineas Parkhurst Quimby

S: Evan, you have a new puzzle for us. But first, let's give the answer to last week's puzzle.

E: There we go. Last week's puzzle. He began in Lebanon and ended in Belfast. He tinkered in clocks and invented saws. His consumption almost got the best of him until he used the healing power of his own mind. He would often have new thoughts pertaining to the health of mind, body, and spirit. His main friends would go to the park to seek his advice. He had a great distrust of doctors and disease theory. He believed disease was only a disturbance of the mind. He believed everything in the natural world had an origin in the spiritual world. He called himself a doctor, though he had no formal education or training. He peddled the wares to show the world his methods were sound. He is still revered today, and his theories continue to influence New Age thinking. And he was?

S: Dr. Seuss?

E: Close. Phineas Parkhurst Quimby.

S: Of course, Phineas Quimby.

E: Yes. And we all know who Phineas Quimby was.

S: Well, for those who may not, we enlighten us.

E: Sure. He was one of the advocates of mesmerism and new thought in the 19th century. And he influenced people such as Mary Baker Eddy and the founding of her Christian science movement among some others. But that was the most prominent, most well-known. And just once again a well-intended but unfortunately wrong.

S: Was he well-intended? Was he well-intended? I don't know. With a name like Phineas.

E: You could probably argue. With a name like Phineas. I do love that name. Phineas Quimby is a great name.

R: It's a trustworthy name. We should mention that Cosmic Vagabond on our forum once again got the answer right.

S: The first one to get the correct answer, yes. Congratulations again, Cosmic.

R: I think he has promised to wait to save the answer to the next one. But you people need to hurry. As soon as you download this, you need to send the answer either email it to us on the website or go on the forum. And post it.

S: If you want to get your mention on the podcast, we're getting it right first.

E: But here is this week's puzzle. And I think it'll be a stumper. Ready? All right. Albert Einstein. John Locke. Herbert Hoover. Robert Boyle. General George S. Patton. Each of these famous people had a hand in this pseudoscience. Name the pseudoscience.

S: Interesting.

E: Good luck.

S: Well, thanks. Thanks for that, Evan.

E: Sure.

S: You're getting to be quite a good puzzle master. Off to a little bit of a rocky start.

R: You stopped rhyming, which I think we can all agree is good for humanity.

E: I will not be dissuaded.

S: But when you do rhyme, your rhymes have actually gotten better.

E: Yes, thank you. Well, I've made two attempts at that, a bit of poetry.

R: Steve, don't encourage him.

E: And there will, god willing, be more poetry in the future for you all. But we'll save it for a while.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:08:29)[edit]

A Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the universe evokes far more awe for creation than light streaming through a stained glass window in a cathedral.

 – Michael Shermer (1954-present), American science writer, historian of science, executive director of The Skeptics Society, and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine 

S: Well, that is our show for this week. Bob, you're going to give us a quote to close out the show?

B: Sure. This one is from Michael Schermer.

S: Who's that again?

R: I think I've heard of him.

S: I think I've heard of him. A skeptic guy, right?

B: A Hubble Space Telescope photograph of the universe evokes far more awe for creation than light streaming through a stained glass window in a cathedral.

S: That's the awe of science, something that we should never forget. Well, thank you again, everyone, for joining me. It was a hoot.

R: Thank you, Steve. A hoot and a holler.

B: Good episode.

S: I had fun this week. I think the discussions were very interesting.

E: It was. Lively.

S: As always, I appreciate all the email and all the feedback. I do read every single email that we get. I don't have the time to answer every email, but I promise you, I do actually read all of them, and we do discuss the feedback, and it is very helpful for us to continue to bring you a great show.

R: Also, I'd like to send a shout out to JD, our forum moderator, who's doing a great job.

S: Yes, thank you, JD. We appreciate it.

E: Thank you, JD.

S: And we also wanted to mention before we end, actually, that the five of us, the ones who were on this week's podcast, are all going to be at TAM5 this year. So if you haven't signed up yet, this is The Amazing Meeting five in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 18th to the 21st. You could sign up for it on the JREF website. And the Skeptics Guide, Rogues and myself, will be there, and you'll have a chance to meet with us. We'll have some events. Obviously, there's going to be a lot going on, but we'll definitely be having a get-together for our loyal listeners while we're there.


S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation. For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at Please send us your questions, suggestions, and other feedback; you can use the "Contact Us" page on our website, or you can send us an email to'. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto and is used with permission.


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