SGU Episode 774

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SGU Episode 774
May 9th 2020
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SGU 773                      SGU 775

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


RS: Richard Saunders

Quote of the Week

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.

William Kingdon Clifford, mathematician and philosopher

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


Voice-over: 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 Wednesday, May 6th, 2020, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Good evening, folks.

S: And we have a special guest this week, our brother from down under, Richard Saunders.

RS: Crikey. Hello.

B: Holy crap.

C: Crikey.

RS: Crikey. Hi guys.

J: What's up, man?

S: He can say that because he's Australian.

B: Yes.

C: Richard, you don't actually say that, do you? Do you actually say that?

RS: About once a year when I'm on SGU. I think that's what I do.

E: Yes. Excellent. Thank you. Thank you for perpetuating the stereotypes.

S: All right. Richard, what do Australians say when they're trying to make fun of Americans?

RS: I don't know. That's a good question. What would we say?

S: I would guess. All right. Here's a guess. I'm going to guess. Forget about it.

C: No, my guess is that it's like, OMG. Oh my God.

RS: Well, the trouble-

E: I think it's yippee-ki-yay.

RS: It's yippee-ki-yay.

B: You're talking to me.

RS: The trouble is that so much of American culture and slang is in our culture here in Australia anyway that it's-

E: We infected you. That's what you're saying.

J: I heard somebody from Europe, which I know is, I just I'm going back a long ways. They were doing an American accent. And what do you think that they talked about while doing their overblown American accent?

C: French fries and hot dogs?

J: Yeah. I was like, hey, I want some coffee.

B: My God.

E: That's actually good.

J: Like old school coffee, you know?

S: So, Richard, how is the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia doing? Well, it depends on how you look at it. Generally speaking, I would have to say really good. Australia as a country, and New Zealand too, our cousins across the ditch, as they say, are doing very well. We've had, as of time of recording, about 90-something deaths, which is pretty good. And it's not good to those terrible, grieving families out there. I'm very sorry. But we take this by and large. I think New Zealand are doing better than us. And as we record, the government are about to announce further relaxation of restrictions. More people can visit. More people sporting codes are gearing up to get something underway relatively soon. The transmission in society is very low. We had a peak in March due to various reasons, like people coming off cruise ships and things like that. But I hope in the future we can look back and say Australia was a success story in this whole drama because of restrictions put down early. Maybe not early enough.

S: You guys locked down early.

RS: We locked down relatively early, you know? Cafes shut, pubs shut, clubs shut, cinemas, everything. You couldn't you really had to stay at home unless you're going out to exercise or essential services or things like that. But it looks like that policy is-

S: To get a beer, that was okay.

RS: Oh yeah, absolutely. So the report from Australia is generally pretty good.

B: What about the Australian impression on the United States in this whole mess?

RS: That's an interesting question because we rely on what we get on the news media and they like to sensationalize things like all those people storming the legislatures in various state capitals, which is horrifying to us. It's like some bizarre twisted movie that that would actually happen because it's completely inconceivable in this country that armed people would storm a government building. It's bizarre. But I hope that we know that's a minority of people. It really is.

S: Oh yeah.

RS: Although that doesn't detract from the fact that we're very sad and horrified by the sheer scale of the deaths, especially in New York, in your area not far from where you are, a lot of you. We've heard other states are doing well, some not so well. I'm not exactly sure how California is doing. Maybe Cara can fill us in. But generally speaking, it's not a really great impression because of the chaotic leadership, I think, and the mixed messages and just the sheer tragedy of so many people dying. I mean, people who survived Auschwitz or stormed the battlefields in World War Two, decorated soldiers now dying of this thing. You know, it's all very sad.

S: Yeah. The numbers, just to usually update the numbers every week. So worldwide, we have 3.8 million cases, 264,000 deaths. And in the U.S., we just topped 72,000 official deaths. And the rate is pretty stable. You know, it's plateaued, but it's pretty it's chugging along, unfortunately.

C: And that's not consistent across the country. Like that's an overall takeaway. But there are states where they're not even near plateauing.

S: So the U.S. is a little tricky because New York had a early huge peak. And if you look, so New York state is probably past its peak right now. But if you take the New York state numbers out and just look at the other 49 states, we're on the increase. We're kind of flat only because every place else is increasing and New York state is decreasing. And on average, it looks plateaued. But really, other than New York, the rest of the country is still on the upswing.

RS: Wow.

C: Is that true? The whole rest of the country?

S: No. I mean, just in the aggregate, not every state. Not if you take every state. But if you look, if you average the other 49 states, the U.S. as a whole is still going up. If you remove just New York state from the equation, because New York is a big state with a lot of cases that's peaked early and is on the other side of the curve now.

C: Oh, it's like, is it half of the U.S. cases at this point?

S: Yeah, something like that. It's a lot.

C: I mean, it accounts for like a huge percentage of the data. And you know, we have states that have like you mentioned, in Oz, Richard, we have states that lock down early, that follow the science, that are doing really well, that are sort of on the... And the funny thing is, what you're seeing is that in those states, you tend to see more caution around lifting restrictions. Like that we're talking about phasing in some essential things and being very careful about it. And in states where they've just basically completely lifted or less cautiously lifted, those are many of the states where they're nowhere near a plateau. It seems to be out of step with the science, which is really worrisome.

RS: Yeah. And again, this is reflected here in the news reports we get in Australia, that the media loves sensational stories, and for better or for worse, multiple deaths and thousands of people dying and red lines and everything in the United States is simply making the news. And I'm sure it's making the news around the world.

C: Did you guys recently, I rewatched Contagion. When is the last time you guys saw that film?

J: Two weeks ago.

C: Or have you seen it?

B: Wait, is that the one from 94 or so?

E: The Netflix one?

C: No, no, no, no, no. You're thinking of Dustin Hoffman.

B: Yeah, yeah.

RS: Oh, that's an old one.

C: Yeah, that one's really good, too, but it's a very different premise. It's much more, it's like a filo virus. It's more like based on the hot zone. Contagion is very prescient.

J: Oh, yeah.

C: Like it's incredibly-

S: Is that the one with Jude Law?

C: Yeah.

S: And he has the forsythia is his fake treatment.

C: Yes, Jude Law is Alex Jones. And yeah, it's a massive cast, like Lawrence Fishburne and Matt Damon. But it's like really, the science advisors on that film are amazing. And so like explaining what the R-naught really means, explaining how lockdown really affects things. You know, social distancing is one of the first things that they talk about in order to get things under wraps. It's incredible. And then they do all the contact tracing in the film. It's actually a very good science fiction movie.

RS: Isn't that interesting?

C: But it's also scary.

RS: But in 2016, an Australian movie called Cooped Up had the storyline of a man self-isolating from a strain of coronavirus derived from bats.

B: What?

C: Oh, interesting. Yeah. That's really cool. Yeah. In Contagion, it's not a coronavirus. They never actually talk about the class. They talk about it as if it's a novel virus, but it's a bat crossover pig virus. But they don't really call it a flu.

S: What are these bats and pigs doing?

C: I know. Well, they show you. But it's pretty, I mean, the one thing that is not the same, which makes me feel kind of good about our country, is that there's a lot of looting and like societal breakdown in Contagion that doesn't that really hasn't happened here, which is amazing to see. And they do an organized rollout with a lottery once the vaccine comes about. It shows you what life might actually be like, kind of a slightly more extreme example, sort of post-corona.

B: Guys, this makes me think that, imagine in the next two years or so, the movies and TV shows that are going to come out and documentaries that are going to come out dealing with this period of time, right? Like what life is like and how I'm trying to make, and imagine trying to make that a good movie when you've got people that are just like basically isolated. What kind of interesting things could have happened?

E: How about this, Bob? People born this year will only know a COVID or post-COVID world, they will never know a pre-COVID world.

C: That's weird.

RS: I wonder if there are filmmakers around the world taking advantage of this and getting out to film in empty city streets like Paris or Rome or even here in the city.

S: I was just thinking about that.

E: Yeah, interesting. Lots of stock footage.

J: Stock footage is going nuts, without a doubt. It's an opportunity that they'll never have again.

RS: I had the opportunity.

S: That's funny. I was just thinking about that.

RS: A couple of weeks ago, I gave blood I thought this is a good thing to do. I'll give some blood. So I went into the center of Sydney at the town hall, just where the blood bank is, and I spent half an hour before my appointment wandering around deserted downtown Sydney and I will never forget it. It was, I thought, I better, I'll have to do this. Here's a good excuse. I'll never see this again, I hope. And it was eerie, like I couldn't imagine.

C: Really? Was it actually like deserted, deserted? Because I feel like when I'm seeing a lot of these images these haunting National Geographic prize winning images of Paris with nobody on the streets, that they're actually pretty rare. Like people are grabbing those at dusk or at dawn. Like when I'm out in L.A. and I'm not going out much, there are people everywhere still. It's not as it usually is. Like the airport was strange, but it doesn't look like a ghost town by any stretch.

RS: A couple of weeks ago, this was mid-March. This is when it really hit Australia the most. I saw maybe 20 people in my wanderings around downtown Sydney. So to me, that's pretty well deserted, yeah.

C: Yeah, it's enough to digitally remove them.

B: So Cara, maybe they send one person out into that street and they have them coughing really loudly.

C: Yeah, there you go. That's the PA's job.

RS: But the downside, it's a silly thing to say, but one of the downsides about this whole situation here in Australia are all the people coming out of the woodwork with their so-called coronavirus treatments all the alternative medicine brigade. And we've had quite a few. I'm quite amazed how many people, well, these people always think that their system of medicine can work. Like homeopathy, for example, one of the major movers and shakers in homeopathy in this country, an outfit called Homeopathy Plus, have reams of things dedicated to how homeopathy can help with this pandemic. Homeopathy is a big success in India and Cuba, and it goes on and on. It's quite scary.

C: What makes it Homeopathy Plus, Richard? Is it like just more water? Plus. What's the plus?

RS: Yeah. More stirring.

E: Extra shaking.

RS: Homeopathy Plus pseudoscience, I really don't know. But the anti-vaxxers are just having a field day. You can imagine the people at the Australian Vaccination Network, which is now called the Australian Vaccination Risks Network, their former leader put out a video wondering if this pandemic was real and encouraging her followers to visit hospitals to take photographs because they thought it was part of a conspiracy. And I think that was from prompting from the U.S.

C: Yeah, that happened here too.

E: It's kind of their baseline to begin with, in which everything stems from there.

RS: The most famous, though, is a TV chef here in Australia called Pete Evans. And he won our Bent Spoon Award a couple of years ago for his promotion of paleo diets and things like that. The Bent Spoon from Australian Skeptics, which is like our annual award for bad science and pseudoscience and things like that. He was recently on his Facebook page promoting the $15,000 biocharger, which my friends tell me looks like a Dalek and a fax machine had a baby. It's a light bulb. It flashes and whirs and things like that. And you can dial up recipes, they say on it. And he said on a video which was posted to all his followers, it has recipes in there for the Wuhan coronavirus. He's been fined $25,000 by the government for making this outrageous claim. And to us, this is great and should set a great precedent for all the other quacks out there promoting their nonsense cures in the worst possible time.

S: Yeah, they're coming out of the woodwork. And also the anti-vaxxers are already gearing up to oppose a vaccine which doesn't exist yet.

RS: Of course.

C: That happens in Contagion. That's Jude Law.

B: Are you kidding, Steve? They're getting ready for that? I got to think that the enthusiasm is going to be a little bit weak, even for the true believers.

E: I hope so. But boy-

C: They'll be out marching and then secretly like waiting in the vaccine line. Like just in case.

S: You're not going to inject us with your experimental poisons and then keep us from traveling if we don't do it.

RS: Well, if they don't believe there's a pandemic and it's all a conspiracy anyway, that wouldn't surprise me.

S: No, there's nothing so stupid that there aren't lots of people who believe in it. We all know that to be true.

E: Skepticism 101.

C: Especially people who are scared.

E: Oh, fear feeds it. No doubt. Oxygen to the fire. Oh my gosh.

S: All right. Well, we're going to try to burn through some news items here.

E: Oh, clever, Steve.

News Items[edit]

Wandering Magnetic North Pole (15:30)[edit]

S: Yeah. I'm going to start with a quick one. This is just an interesting follow up. We've talked about the difference between the geographic poles, right? The geographic North Pole and the magnetic North Pole.

B: Yeah.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: And Bob, I know you know, because you've spoken about this before, there's actually two different kinds of magnetic poles. Do you guys know that?

RS: Tell us more.

E: North and South.

S: So there are three poles on the North and three poles on the South, right? So there's the, in the North, there is the geographic North Pole, which is basically the axis through which the Earth rotates, right?

E: 23.5 degrees.

S: That's easy.

J: That's easy.

S: That's easy.

RS: That's easy.

S: And then there's two different kinds of magnetic North Pole. There's the magnetic North Pole and the geomagnetic North Pole. So the geomagnetic pole is the one, is basically, if you looked at the Earth like a dipole magnet, right? With two poles a dipole, two poles of the magnet. That's the geomagnetic poles. And in fact, the North Pole is where the geomagnetic South Pole is.

C: Yeah, they're flipped right now.

S: Yeah. So, yeah. So if the Earth were a magnet, the South Pole of that magnet will be near the North Pole. They're not in the same place. You know, the geomagnetic North Pole is like just, just North of Greenland, you know. But then there's also the magnetic North Pole, which is where the magnetic lines, right? The field lines, you know what the magnetic field lines look like? Where they are perpendicular. That's the magnetic pole. The North and South ones are opposite each other. I think so.

C: No, I think that's in the geomagnetic. Like with the dipole situation, they're exactly opposite. But in the other one, they're like not perfect.

S: They're not. They're not. Because there's local factors. And so that, the news item is that, well, the follow up is the news item that the magnetic North Pole is moving that it has been moving quickly.

B: Yeah. Fast. A little scary.

S: It's moving by 50 to 60 kilometres a year. And it started out in Northern Canada. And it's been moving actually almost directly towards the geographic North Pole. And it's pretty close to the geographic North Pole now.

C: So Bob, why is that scary?

B: It just seems like something is wrong superficially. It's scary. What's going to happen? Is the magnetosphere going to collapse? Because if it collapses we think the pandemic's bad. That would I'm just saying superficially, it's scary that something fundamental to the Earth is changing in different ways. It's like, oh, wait, wait a second. That's what's scary.

E: Well, changing so rapidly. We're used to very slow changes.

C: Well, but I think that it's even – we did a story – I did a story maybe two years ago. I don't know anything about time anymore. But –

E: The big hand is on.

C: Yeah. About these wiggling poles. And I remember it was so – like, it always is shifting fast. So they do these GPS updates like every X number of months or years. And it was shifting so fast that they had to force a GPS update because, like, people were off track.

J: Yeah. Yeah, I remember that.

C: Yeah. So, I mean, I think that it's been happening and it's been happening fast and they might even – we always see – I feel like every two months there's a new story that's like, are they flipping? When are they flipping? Are they going to flip? What do we think?

S: So here's the actual news item now is that basically scientists are updating their model of how the magnetic poles are formed, the magnetic field of the earth is formed, to try to better fit this data of this meandering north magnetic pole. And because it's not like there's just one coherent magnet in the earth. There's multiple smaller magnetic fields that in the aggregate add up to the earth's magnetic field. And this all depends on the molten, mostly iron, rotating in the earth's core and the outer core. So because that's it's the flowing conductive iron that's generating the magnetic field. Where the magnetic, the north magnetic pole is, they say, is partly determined by this tug of war between two sub patterns of molten material rotating one kind of over North America, the other over like Siberia. And the one over Siberia has been strengthening and the one in North America has been weakening. And so that tug of war is pulling the north magnetic pole more towards Siberia, which is in the direction of the North Pole, like from Canada to the North Pole, it's like going over the top of the earth towards Siberia. So that's it. They're better modeling these flows of molten material in the outer core, explaining these like sort of sub magnetic fields, how they're pushing and pulling and currently responsible for this very rapid movement of the north magnetic pole.

E: Besides the technological implications of such, does this pose any danger to people or anything we should be as concerned about?

S: No. No, but as Bob said it is possible that the magnetic fields could go away for a while. And that would be bad. This is the kind of thing like an asteroid impact where it happens on very long time scales. And so we don't know if it's going to happen in any meaningful timeframe as far as we're concerned. But the better you would think that the better scientists are able to model the magnetic field of the earth, maybe the better we'll be able to predict if any changes are going to occur. But it doesn't seem like this movement of the north magnetic pole has anything to do with the every now and then sort of collapse or flipping of the magnetic poles.

E: And how about animals who migrate and use the magnetic field to guide themselves by it? That's going to mess up their world.

C: Honestly, though, probably not. I mean, less than climate change is messing them up.

S: I don't think so because the geomagnetic pole is very stable. And I think that's the one that the compasses point to because that's the dipole magnet, right?

C: Steve, I think that this is such a cool story because it like shows in a microcosmic way what science really is all about. It's like, okay, our models didn't predict this. Hmm, we should probably go back and rework our models.

S: You should tweak those models.

C: Yeah, not just like, whoa, our models didn't predict this. This is not actually happening.

S: Right, but also keep in mind that when you alter a model to fit existing data, you don't really know if you did that correctly until you predict future data, right? So models are great at predicting the past. But the thing is you don't, that is not to dismiss that because a model has to at least predict the past, right? If your model doesn't spit out data that we already know that we know there's something wrong with the model, but of course, but the ultimate test is predicting the future.

E: Sure. It has to, yeah, the ones that match both are the best ones.

S: So it's a necessary but insufficient criterion for a valid model that it predicts the data that has already occurred.

B: And that's a hallmark of science really is predicting the future. That's when you know you got something decent.

E: You mean like gravitational waves, Bob?

B: Right? Imagine?

C: I don't know, Bob. I might say that's a hallmark of physics. I don't know if it's fair to say that that's a hallmark of science.

S: No, I agree with Bob. I think it is a hallmark of science, but you have to expand it. You have to expand it though. When we say predicting the future, what we really mean as just a generic scientific criterion, we mean that you're able to make a prediction about future data, not necessarily about what's going to happen in the future. But if I do make this observation or if I do this experiment, these theories predict that this will be the result. So it's not necessarily predicting the future. It's just predicting data you don't already have.

B: Yeah, like if this model is correct, then there must be this that I could see over here. And like, oh, there it is. Like, OK, that boosts my confidence.

S: As long as it's predicting fresh data, it could even be data from the past. It could be retrospective data, as long as it's the fresh data that it's telling you should be there. Does that make sense?

C: It does. I just think that it makes sense when you talk about it in a very, very structured way. And I agree that fresh data can be a broad statement. But I think predicting trends, predicting large, complicated algorithms, it becomes less feasible when you start to introduce biological factors, when you start to introduce psychological factors like disease vectors and things like that. So I think, yes, modeling for physics is cleanly—doesn't work because it predicts what's happening in the future. But I think that when we talk about larger climate change models and things like that—

E: Things that are inherently chaotic.

C: Yeah, like your model doesn't suck because it didn't see that thing coming.

S: Yeah, but that's—you're right. But that's not what I'm talking about, right? I'm trying to distinguish that. I'm just saying it's—like, for example, you could say that your diagnostic scheme predicts response to treatment or something. It's got to tell you something that you don't already know. Otherwise, what is it? It's astrology if it's only confirming stuff you already know. If you look in that broadest sense, that is a key feature, I think, of science and that separates science from other things. Now, of course, when you start to apply science in things like medicine and psychology, it's more than science. Now there's the art of practice and individualizing our knowledge. And that's where the chaos of individuals and all that stuff comes into play as well. So anyway, let's move on.

Air Plasma Jet Propulsion (25:59)[edit]

S: So, Jay, I like this news item because it's like half cool technology and half horrible science reporting.

C: Oh, no.

S: It's like two things we like to talk about. So tell us what's going on with this plasma jet propulsion.

J: All right. First, let's talk about the part of this that's really cool. So researchers at the Institute of Technology Sciences at Wuhan University have created a prototype jet engine. And you might ask, why do we need a prototype jet engine, Evan, right? You might ask that.

E: Jay, why do we need a prototype jet engine?

J: Well, we do, Evan, if we don't want it to use fossil fuels, right? So the thing about this engine is that it doesn't use fossil fuels. It uses microwave air plasmas.

C: Oh, that sounds dangerous.

J: Oh, it's very dangerous. You do never inhale this stuff. I'm just kidding. So you might know that there are four states of matter, right? We can have solid, liquid, gas, and plasma.

B: Oh, there's so many more than that. But go ahead.

J: There's also peanut butter. Sorry, Bob.

RS: True.

J: What, are you going to build this plane in fantasy land? Anyway.

S: Jay, Jay, do not diss the Bose-Einstein condensate. I'm just saying.

J: Sorry. Sorry. I know Bob's up at one in the morning thinking about that. So out of these states of matter, plasma is the one that we don't really get in a normal day to interact with. And scientists can create plasma-

S: Unless you look at the sun.

J: Right. But are you interacting with it? Are you playing with it? No.

C: Yes. Yes.

S: Its photons are impinging me.

J: Yes, but not plasma.

C: It's the only reason I can see.

J: Not plasmas. Plasmas. Thank you. They might have a lot of plasma happening in Australia, but not here in the United States.

C: Wait, what state of matter is a photon?

J: It's a shut up and let me finish my news item, okay?

RS: What about a plasma TV? I watch that. How about that?

S: That's right. There you go. My lightsaber is plasma contained in a magnetic field.

C: Oh, poor Jay.

S: In my mind.

J: Scientists create plasma in different ways. So in this instance, scientists are compressing air and then using microwaves to ionize the pressurized stream of air. So the researchers say that they can build a large array of these plasma thrusters and if they couple that with a high powered microwave source, they can generate enough thrust that would equal a modern day jet. So let me dig into some details here now. So up until now, plasma thrusters like this one would be used solely in outer space. The real novelty of this new engine is that they created one that would operate inside the earth's atmosphere and this is really cool. So the engine works by first creating microwaves, right? So I'm just giving you the overall concept of it now. So they have a way to create microwaves. They use a magnetron that can generate high powered microwaves and these microwaves are directed down a metal tube and the tube gets narrower as it goes, right? So now before the compressed air interacts with the microwaves, because the compressed air comes from another part of the engine, electrodes strip some of the electrons off of the air molecules which create the low pressure, low temperature plasma, right? That's how they're creating the plasma. That's not really that novel either. We've been able to do that for a very long time. Now this plasma, when it's ready, passes through the metal tube where the microwaves are and what happens is the air that passes through gets bombarded with microwaves. The charged air particles begin to oscillate as they enter the microwave field. Now this of course dramatically heats them up. Now we have electrons, ions, and atoms colliding into each other and they're also spreading around that heat energy from them moving around to the other atoms that weren't affected by the electrodes and what happens? The air expands because it's heating and there you go and that plasma can be thought of kind of like a blowtorch and when they ramp it up, it can have an immense amount of thrust to it because of the hugely increase in temperature that it's on a super short amount of time. So when you think about regular, just room temperature air that's compressed getting heat up to 1,000 degrees Celsius in a quarter of a second. That air has to go somewhere, obviously thrust, so therefore thrust. We can say that this same model was used for the steam engine, right? Same idea. Even modern jet engines are all about the heating up of the air and having the air go through the blades which creates thrust. We're just using fuel to produce the heat. But now what they're saying is they want to use microwaves and electricity to actually be the origin of that heat or to create the energy. That's where the energy comes from, where the heat is created. Now of course the engine has to scale up significantly in order to actually be able to pull out the thrust of a modern day commercial jet. Now if anything kills this project, that'll be the first problem is that they can't scale it up. But there are other significant omissions that this article, and I read a bunch of them, but this study doesn't cover. It's not the article. It's the actual study. Now let me ask you a question, Steve. Where would a jet that's 40,000 feet above the ground get the electricity needed in order to operate this machine, this engine?

S: Exactly.

B: A fusion generator.

J: You can't have an electrical cable connected to the earth as this thing flies. It's not a freaking remote controlled plane on a string. It needs to carry-

C: A battery?

J: Yes. It needs to have some way of carrying electricity with it, stored electricity, in order to do half of the functioning of this engine. So where's it come from, Steve?

S: That's my problem with the whole framing of the press release and this news item, is that you didn't really create a fossil fuel free jet propulsion. You created a mechanism for generating thrust that could be used for jet propulsion. Right now it's used for more like rocket-like propulsion in outer space, but using electricity, using a power source that is not necessarily derived from fossil fuel. But here's the problem. Right now we have no way of having an aircraft carry that much electrical power with it for any significant journey.

C: And it can't use nuclear power? That's too dangerous?

S: Well, I mean, so, all right, so there's several options here, right? So batteries would be one option. You could, or you need some kind of local onboard power supply. You could use a hydrogen fuel cell. You could burn fossil fuel, which would probably, honestly, honestly, probably the earliest use of this would just burn fossil fuel to generate the power to run the plasma-

RS: There you go.

S: You know, jets. That's why it's not necessarily independent, but it certainly couldn't operate off of batteries today. So we've talked about electric airplanes before, and there's lots of problems with those, not only carrying around all the batteries you would need to have sufficient electricity, but just all the electronics that go along with that are super big and heavy. And downscaling all of those electronics is a prerequisite to really having viable electrical aircraft.

C: Yeah, otherwise it's just a drone. You can't carry anything.

S: Yeah, right. Exactly. Yeah, a small drone, fine, but a passenger jet? And they don't even talk about the feasibility of any of this, like how much electricity would it require? What would be the source of that power? What would be the feasibility of different possible sources of power? They bypass that massive problem with this entire thing, right? It's like they basically solved the smaller of the two things that would keep you from having an electric jet, right? And then proclaim victory, kind of. All we got to do is scale it up. No, all you got to do is scale it up and solve this huge problem you completely ignored to even mention in your reporting.

J: But I don't even think that they're not even concerned about that. That's the part that I don't like.

S: What do you mean? That's the headline. It's like the opener is say, humans depend on fossil fuels. Not anymore. You know, that's like a whole framing of this news item.

J: Let's start your sentence over again and swap out headline with marketing. That's the marketing. They're selling this idea.

S: Yeah, but that's the same thing.

J: But you get my point. The point is other companies globally are working on battery technology. These guys came up with a jet engine. And they're saying, yeah, this will do it. This will be great. This will be awesome. This will be a jet engine that doesn't use fuel. As long as they wink, wink, nod, nod, nod. As long as they fix that battery problem we have today.

S: So all they really had to do was eliminate the words fossil fuel free from there. If the headline was just jet propulsion with air plasmas, that would be great. That's a great technology.

C: Yeah, but nobody would read it.

S: I know. But that's what's frustrating. That's a problem. That's marketing. Exactly. And then the press office of Wuhan University is like, how are we going to sell this? You know, how are we going to get people to talk about it? And that's what they came up with and who knows how much that it does. We talked about this too. You know, a lot of the times it originates with the researchers. A lot of the times it originates in the press office and not with the researchers. But that gets carried on down the reporting all the way to the end. And it's focusing on this small aspect of what is the actual breakthrough. What was the actual science here, the results, and talking about one possible implication of the development and ignoring all the other things that would need that one possible implication to manifest. It's like saying, you're going to have an invisibility cloak. No, you're not going to have a freaking invisibility cloak with this metamaterial. But the metamaterial is interesting. Talk about the metamaterial, but don't forget about this possible implication that becomes the headline.

B: Don't talk about Harry Potter. Jesus.

C: The problem is also...

E: But I love Harry Potter.

C: It's not just about marketing like, hey, I want people to read this because who cares if people read it? For a lot of them, it's about funding. And unless they can like make it sound sexy to a Silicon Valley investor, they might not be able to get the funding that they need. So to like use these kinds of words, even if they're a stretch, I think obviously there's a reason for it. But yeah, it pisses us off. I have a little bone to pick with this idea. And I want you guys to be pedantic with me. Maybe I'm just kind of misunderstanding something.

B: Ooh, I love when you say that.

S: Ooh, be pedantic with me. Go ahead.

C: I feel like we often talk about sources of energy. We make a distinction between fuel, as if that's a physical liquid or gas or whatever, and electricity or electrons or batteries. Although isn't that just another kind of fuel?

S: Yeah. Absolutely.

C: That's always pissed me off that it's like, oh, it's a fuel-less thing. Like, no, it's not. It still needs to be powered. It just doesn't use fossils.

S: You're correct. And I have been critical of articles that, for example, would say, like, oh, this car gets 100 miles to the gallon because half of its energy is coming from a battery. And you're not counting the energy that was used to recharge the battery.

C: That's messed up.

S: Yeah. So that's very deceptive. But you're right. Fuel is stored energy. That's what fuel is. A charged battery is stored energy. Hydrogen for a hydrogen fuel cell is stored energy. So you have to think about that. Yeah. Where's the energy coming from? How's the energy being stored? How is it being converted into the usable form for whatever application? So that's why, again, this uses energy that's electrical. So it's not directly converting fossil fuel into whatever the outcome is, right? So therefore, it's neutral. It's agnostic towards the fuel source, the energy source. That's like the best you could say about it. But pretending like we're going to be having electric jets anytime soon is very misleading. My real bone to pick is with all of the downstream science journalists who didn't pick up on this and ask the right questions, and put it into context, who are just carrying forward the press release gullibly as if it's... So it's science journalism by press release. And that... Would you do that? Would you do that in politics? Would you accept some political party or candidate's press release as if it were news?

C: I think that most of the time, the scientists themselves don't... Like the scientists themselves don't accept the press release. That's the frustrating thing. They'll be like, that outlet completely misrepresented my research. And then it's like, that's what your own press office wrote.

RS: That must happen all the time.

C: Yeah, it does. It does.

RS: When I was reading this, it occurred to me, and you've probably seen the same pictures yourself from around the world, major cities, which are usually covered in smog or pollution of one kind or another, suddenly people are seeing the stars and the mountains in the distance and clean, breathable air. So come on, let's have this clean energy as soon as we can get it because we've seen a taste of the future, I think.

J: Yeah, I agree with you. I mean, totally. I mean, that's part of the starstruck nature of news items like this, is we want it so badly that kind of giving it a half unconscious pass, you know? You know, before I put my gloves on, I read this, and I'm like, cool! You know what I mean? You know, there's always that 10-year-old in me that reads this stuff and drools. But then you sit back and you're like, oh, shit, man. Those scientists know better than that. What's going on here?

B: Yeah, Jay, I read an article on Ars Technica by Chris Lee about this, and he had one great quote. He was talking about the scaling problem, and to him, that was one of the biggest problems.

S: Always a big issue.

B: He says, extrapolating linear trends over four orders of magnitude is a good way to be disappointed in life. Oh, man, I loved it.

S: Right, because when you scale up electrical systems like this, you end up with tons of electrical stuff that can't fly, you know what I mean?

E: The contraption itself becomes larger than what you're trying to fly.

S: All right. Let's move on.

Hydrogen Breathers (41:09)[edit]

S: Bob, apparently, we should be looking for hydrogen breathers as for aliens. Tell us about that.

B: Yeah, Steve. So we may see the search for exoplanetary life take new directions in the near future as a study confirms the theory that microbes can survive in atmospheres swamped with hydrogen. So this is a paper that was published recently in the journal Nature Astronomy. So my question was, so how could we possibly detect or learn anything about an atmosphere, literally dozens or hundreds of light years away? I mean, this is an atmosphere far, far away. They're tiny.

S: Spectroscopy.

B: Well, yes. But what kind of spectroscopy, Steve?

S: Don't go technical.

B: Okay. I'll try not to, Steve. But we've got megascopes coming online like James Webb, and they will absolutely have a much more refined ability to actually examine some exoplanets' atmospheres. And we've already been doing it for, say, for example, for gas giants that are close to their star. But the technique used to actually look at it is transmission spectroscopy. And essentially, it looks at stars' light filtered through a planet's atmosphere. So imagine you've got a planet that's transiting a star, and there will be an actual detectable amount of starlight that's going through the atmosphere. So now the atoms and molecules in that atmosphere will absorb specific wavelengths of starlight because that's what they do. And so then what you do is you compare the regular starlight unaffected by the planet, and then the light that went through the planet's atmosphere. You compare it, and you see what is different. And that's when you can see what the composition of the exoplanet's atmosphere is. You could also infer things like temperature, pressure, and more. So it's an amazing tool. But it still isn't what I would say, oh, yeah, that's real easy. Imagine the Earth. If the Earth were the size of an apple, our atmosphere would be as thin as apple skin. That's really thin. Now imagine pushing that out for many light years. Now an exoplanet with a significant hydrogen atmosphere wouldn't be Earth-sized, though. And it wouldn't by definition, actually. Hydrogen is much lighter than nitrogen and oxygen, right? Therefore, you would need a lot of planetary mass to hold on to the hydrogen, otherwise it would just escape right into space. So by definition, if you have a good-sized hydrogen atmosphere, you're going to be massive, much more massive. So we're talking about a super-Earth size, say 2 to 10 Earth masses, very, very big. Such a planet could potentially have an enormous hydrogen-based atmosphere. That would be much easier to spot using transmission spectroscopy. So it would just be a much – it would be just a bigger target and something much easier to deal with. So what kind of life then could live onto the planet? I mean, a lot of what I've just said is kind of background. What kind of life are we talking about here? And so this is where this most recent study comes in. So this was done by Dr. Sarah Seager and her colleagues. Sarah is a researcher in the Department of Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Sciences, the Department of Physics, and the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. How awesome is that? I feel like such a punk, like what the hell have I done? So in this study, they used two types of microbes. They used a bacterium, E. coli, which we've all heard about. That's a simple prokaryote. And they also used a yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is a complex eukaryote. So they took those. They separated them. They put them in special containers, and they added nutrients. And they evacuated all the normal air, and they replaced it with 100% hydrogen. They would take it. They would shake it up a little bit to mix the nutrients and the microbes. And then every hour or so, they would look at the microbes. And what they found was a classic growth curve. It just went up. It grew and grew and grew as they were eating the nutrients. And then it stabilized. And eventually, you'd have new ones replacing the old ones as they would die. So it's pretty classic. But that really wasn't a huge surprise, right, because hydrogen is not a poison. It's inert. So it's not a huge, like, oh my god, look what we've shown. Dr. Seeger said, regarding this, she said, the experiment was not designed to show whether microbes can depend on hydrogen as an energy source, which you might think. Rather, the point was more to demonstrate that 100% hydrogen atmosphere would not harm or kill certain forms of life. And that is something that perhaps maybe not as appreciated as widely as it should. Seeger continues by saying, I don't think it occurred to astronomers that there could be life in a hydrogen environment. I hope the study will encourage crosstalk between astronomers and biologists, particularly as the search for habitable planets and extraterrestrial life ramps up. And that's true. They really need to be talking to each other. Because I mean, you could essentially double or increase by a significant fraction the types of planets that you would really need to vet, like, oh, this planet's just got hydrogen all in the atmosphere. Let's go to the next exoplanet. No, you probably need to actually take a serious interest in that planet. Now, another benefit, some would argue even more important, another benefit of the study was to show that E. coli produces many different gases while living under hydrogen. Many of them, I hadn't heard before, dimethyl sulfide and isoprene, they can actually be viable biosignatures of life now that we know what to look for, right? And that's often half the battle. You know, like, oh, look, there's some isoprene. Big deal. But wait a second. You know, you could have – we saw some isoprene being created by E. coli when it was in the presence of hydrogen. Maybe there's some sort of microbial life on that exoplanet. So I will end with another – yet another Seeger quote. She said, there's a diversity of habitable worlds out there.

S: Habitable.

RS: Habitable.

B: Habitable.

C: Habitable.

B: Habitable.

S: Habitable.

B: And we have confirmed that earth-based life can survive in hydrogen-rich atmospheres. We should definitely add those kinds of planets to the menu of options when thinking about life on other worlds and actually trying to find it. So yeah. So pretty cool. I would say they couldn't really cover – it was out of scope to say, well, what kind of life could evolve in a hydrogen atmosphere. That really wasn't in the scope. I mean you can say general things like it probably wouldn't be as efficient as life that uses oxygen. You could say basic things like that. But that doesn't matter. You don't need maximal efficiency. Life finds a way, as somebody said one time.

S: All right. I have a comment and a question.

B: Yeah. Sure.

S: So one is that I've been reading about hydrogen breathers in science fiction for decades.

E: Yes. Bryn.

S: Is that really a new idea? Yeah, among others. Yeah.

B: No. I mean you've got it in science fiction. David Brin-

S: Uplift novels are excellent.

'B: Right. Yeah. No. They've talked about it. But it's just like Sigur was saying, that the crosstalk between the astronomers and the biologists, they may have – some of them I think would definitely have necessarily not have been too interested in a hydrogen world. Not as interested as say if they found an oxygen, an exoplanet with an atmosphere more similar to ours. But there could definitely be potentially more potential for life on these hydrogen worlds than we thought. And that's kind of –

S: Yeah. And my other question relates to a news item Cara spoke about I think one or two weeks ago. What was it? Synphagic. So if you have life breathing oxygen – breathing hydrogen, there would need to be some other form of life exhaling hydrogen, right? So any biological thought given to like what processes would replenish the hydrogen in an atmosphere? Because after millions, billions of years even a super earth with a dense hydrogen atmosphere, the hydrogen is going to get used up at some point unless there's got to be some sustainable synphagic loop process going on there.

C: Yeah. It would either have to be a biological process or I mean maybe there's like a planetary process.

S: Or chemical.

C: Yeah, exactly. There's something that's actually happening geologically.

E: Something's breaking down and emitting hydrogen.

C: That could be interesting.

B: Yeah. That was definitely out of scope for the research that I did as well. Who knows? I mean, I don't know, Steve. A super earth with an atmosphere filled with hydrogen we had more hydrogen in our atmosphere in the past until the great oxidation event, right? But we've had hydrogen in the atmosphere for maybe billions of years but it was never a lot. It was never a lot. And the mass of the earth just can't hold on to it. I don't know how long could an exoplanet that's not creating hydrogen last based just on the hydrogen that it happened to hold on to just because of its mass. I don't know how long that would last. And I'm not sure if they're looking into what kind of processes, biological processes these could create hydrogen.

S: Yeah.

B: I don't know.

RS: Somewhere in the universe there are aliens on a planet thinking, should we really spend time, waste time looking at oxygen planets? No.

S: Oxygen is poison.

E: Who would want to live there?

B: Those biases that you just take for granted because that's the only data point you have.

Murder Hornets (50:28)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, this is my favorite news item of the week, 90% because of the title. Tell us about murder hornets.

B: Oh, my God.

E: Makes you think it was murder.

C: Murder.

RS: Murder.

C: So you guys have probably been seeing this trending all over the news, these Japanese murder hornets or these Asian murder hornets. And these should not be confused, actually. The common name is the Asian giant hornet, and it should not be confused apparently with the Asian hornet. So if you live in Europe, you may deal with the invasive Asian hornet. This bad boy is worse. So the Asian giant hornet is local to East Asia. It is bigger. It's local to East Asia, South Asia, the Russian Far East. You'll see it in Japan. You'll see it in China. And it's enormous, but that's not how it got its moniker. The murder hornet, we'll talk about that in a second. But the actual species name that you may see referenced, and it can get a little bit confusing when you're reading about this, is Vespa mandarinia. Okay, so Vespa mandarinia, the Asian giant hornet. The queens can be two inches tall with a wingspan of three inches. So just hold up your hand and kind of look at what that would look like in your hand. And the reason that they're called murder hornets is because when they go into a beehive, they decapitate all the bees.

J: Nice.

C: They cut off their heads.

E: Are they trying to?

C: No, they do. They do. They're amazing. They cut off their heads, and then they carry their bodies away.

S: Well, so one reference I read, Cara, said they don't just carry the bodies away. They chew them up into little bee meatballs.

C: That's amazing.

S: And then they deliver that as food back to their nest. So yeah, they're like pre-chewed bee meatballs.

J: So what do they use for sauce and cheese, then?

C: From what I've been reading, they're really, not really, but they're going after the larva. That's kind of like the golden honey. It's the larva that are inside of the comb. That's what they want to bring back to actually-

S: The sweet sweet larva.

C: -to feed their own larva. So what they'll do is this giant Asian hornet will – not the queen, by the way, but the worker – will fly to a hive.

E: A scout, I think is what it is.

C: A scout, but they are workers. Yeah. They're also workers. So she'll – sure, the first one you could call the scout, but she'll fly to the colony, and she will mark the colony. She'll use pheromones to mark the colony.

B: Marked for death.

RS: Ooh.

C: Pretty much. And so if this is a European honeybee colony, then there are no defences. She'll go in, and she'll get her murder on. Her friends will come with, get their murder on, and it's pretty brutal. I've seen some images of apiarists who had havoc wreaked on their hives, and it's horrible. There's just like piles of bee bodies that fall down on the ground as they're decapitating them and pulling out the bodies, and so you'll see these piles of just like dead bees. That's a pretty trademark indication that they came through.

S: I see a Pixar movie in all of this.

C: Right. Well, here's the really cool part. This is my favorite part. It's not so much the giant murder hornets. It's actually the Asian honeybees that have adapted and developed a defense against the giant murder hornets.

E: Yeah, this is cool.

C: It's so cool. So if a giant murder hornet actually goes to an Asian honeybee hive and it marks it, the bees all like just hang out. They get this scent cue, and then they like hunker down, and then if a hornet actually goes in-

B: Hunker in place.

E: Just minding their own beeswax.

C: Minding their own beeswax.

RS: Oooof.

C: The hornet will go in, and unsuspectingly, he will, she, she actually, she is female, will be surrounded by hundreds of worker bees that form what they call a bee ball. And this bee ball actually starts what they call heat balling. Heat balling is when they flap their little wings, they actually use the muscles that are connected to their wings, and they start wiggling them so fast that it raises both the temperature and the CO2 level inside that ball to such high levels that the hornets cook and choke to death.

RS: Good grief.

C: It's amazing. And the temperature is like 115 degrees Fahrenheit, it's 45.9 Celsius. But researchers are more and more showing that it may not even be the temperature as much as the CO2, it's really, really toxic in this little bee ball. And so it's a really cool way that these bees have developed a defense against the hornets. The problem, and this is where I think a lot of the headlines are starting to come in, is that there's a little bit of indication that these murder hornets have shown up on American soil. On the West Coast, the Pacific Northwest, they found two bodies of hornets, dead bodies. They also found, I think, one swarm of them in Canada, and they were able to remove that. And so far, I don't think as of this telling, there has been any other evidence, but there was an entomologist who lost a hive and all of his bees were decapitated. I shouldn't laugh at that, that's horrible. And so he was like, hmm, I think I know who did this, but there's no other proof.

S: So you have a little bee detective there who's like, yep, this has all the telltale signs of a serial bee killer, ritual decapitation.

J: Was that the detective John His Beat?

C: That's not even...

J: That was an Evan-level joke, I'm sorry.

S: That was lower than Evan-level.

E: Thank you.

S: So obviously, the very serious news here is that if these make an incursion as an invasive species, they could wipe out... Because American bees, honeybees, don't make the murder balls, they don't know how to defend against these hornets. They can get wiped out.

C: Yeah, the vast majority of our honeybees are European honeybees and they have no defences against these murder balls. In Asian countries, oftentimes they use both European and Asian honeybees, and so the Asian honeybees do have a leg up there. So the big issue here is if they make their way in and they establish within an ecological niche, it's true. Our bees could be facing a massive threat. They're already facing a lot of threats with certain types of pesticides, with climate change. We're seeing that our bee populations are in decline anyway. So it's a really dangerous thing if this pest or this predator, I should say, makes its way to American soil. But from almost everything that I've read that was good science reporting, most entomologists are saying, let's not freak out, you guys. There's literally two of these things. They've been eliminated. There's no evidence whatsoever that these guys have established any sort of colonies. And we've caught them early. A lot of researchers are actively looking for more evidence of them now. Apparently some of the forests in the Pacific Northwest are ecologically quite similar to the places where they live in Asia. And so they're looking deep in these forests to see if they can find more evidence. But so far, it's like we should be cautious, but there's no reason to freak out. Also, murder hornets are named that because of what they do to bees. Now don't get me wrong. Apparently if you get stung by a murder hornet, it feels like there's a hot nail going through your skin. And there is evidence that murder hornets have killed people. I think something around 40 or 50 deaths from what I've read.

E: Anaphylactic shock?

S: Yeah.

C: Yeah. Most often it's because of an allergic reaction.

B: Guys, this is what I heard. First off, they're big and their stingers are very big.

C: Their stingers are big.

B: I think it was up to seven times the amount of poison-

C: Venom.

B: -or fluid that honeybees do. And they could sting over and over and over and over. And people have died even if they don't have any allergic reactions to the sting, so that's scared the crap out of me.

C: That part I think is more like a question. So it's recommended that if people get stung over and over that they seek medical treatment as if it's an emergency. Single stings have killed people, but usually that is because of an anaphylactic reaction. And to be clear-

S: From a single sting, yeah.

C: Single sting. And to be clear, it's still half the number of deaths in Asia, reported deaths in Asia, compared to American honeybee deaths per year.

E: Right, right.

C: So let's keep that in mind. I think the reason that it's scary is that their stingers are long enough, like you said, Bob, that they can actually puncture standard apiary gear. Our beekeepers are used to gear that was designed to keep out bee stings, not Asian giant hornet stings. But keep in mind too, people in America die of hornet stings as well, because it's not something special about the Asian giant hornet that it can sting you over and over. Hornets can sting over and over. Bees can't. And so if you do have an allergy, I mean, you probably shouldn't be hanging out with bees anyway. You probably shouldn't be keeping bees. But yes, I mean, obviously there is a risk to health and human safety, but it's like so minimal. So minimal. Like we've seen two of these things on US soil, and they kill less people in Asia than our own honeybees do here in the US. So keep that in mind for kind of a little bit of risk perspective.

S: Yeah, but the real risk is to our bee infrastructure which is important for agriculture. And this is the kind of thing where you do want to nip it in the bud. You don't want them to establish themselves. But I do have the answer to this problem is that we just import the killer bees from South America. Remember those?

C: Oh, no. Yeah.

S: And then the killer bees could fight off the murder hornets.

E: That's right. And then when they get out of control.

C: Then we'll just genetically... We'll use some gene drives and engineer some murder mantises.

E: Well, no.

S: Assassin aphids.

C: Assassin aphids. Yes.

RS: Cara, what it boils down to is you're saying we should bee careful.

B: Oh, my God.

J: That's not good.

C: Womp. Womp.

S: Right.

J: I know. I liked it.

E: But wouldn't we introduce the Asian bee into our population to try to counter it?

C: Well, we could. But remember, that's just a defense. It's not an offensive strategy. So all it's going to do is protect the bees themselves that are the source of honey. I see that. The problem is our entire apiary culture.

E: We can't send them on a mission for us.

C: No, no, no. Our entire culture is around the European honeybee. So in Asia, they use a mix. And it seems to help with some of their outcomes because this is an endemic. It's a creature that lives there all the time. So they're constantly on alert. And apparently, they're so big that oftentimes, Asian apiaries use mechanical means to stop them. So there are really smart things you can do. You can literally put mesh on the hive that has holes small enough for the bees, but not so small that these hornets can fly through because they're huge. So that's a really easy thing. Also, apparently, they sometimes just have people who manage the hives swat them with tennis rackets. That's like an actual strategy that's used.

E: You have an electric bug zapping tennis racket, Cara.

C: I do. That would be so satisfying. I mean, it's satisfying when I swat at a mosquito. I can't imagine hitting a two-inch long murder hornet. They're beautiful.

RS: What if you missed and it got angry?

C: Oh, yeah. And it got... Yeah, that would not be fun.

E: Don't miss it.

C: They are beautiful. Look up some pictures. They have some cool macro photography of their faces. You can see their big, crazy chompers that they decapitate the bees with. It's just ludicrous. It's ludicrous, and it's not new. It's only new to us here in the US. This is something that, obviously, a lot of Asian bee farmers have been dealing with for a long time. But I think the reason that it really got so much traction is because everybody's like, 2020, are you serious? Like what next do you have?

S: So he's saying, Cara, we shouldn't wax alarmist.

RS: I thought mine was bad.

C: How many are you guys writing down as I'm talking?

B: I was reading an article about these murder hornets, and someone said, God, what's next? And they had a picture of a bird, and somebody had photoshopped the mouth of a shark on it.

E: Don't give nature any new ideas, please.

S: All right.

Prayer for COVID-19 (1:03:40)[edit]

S: Well Evan, we'll just pray it all away, right?

E: Absolutely. Okay. I saw this at the National Institute of Health. It's a website called And the title of this is called the COVID-19 ICU Prayer Study. Yep. Yep. So this is taking place. The sponsor, I should say, is the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute, a legitimate heart facility. All right. I'll just read you some facts here about what they're proposing. A multi-center, double-blind, randomized control study investigating the role of remote intercessory multi-denominational prayer on clinical outcomes in COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit. All patients enrolled will be randomized to use prayer versus no prayer in a one-to-one ratio. Each patient randomized to the prayer arm will receive a universal prayer offered by five religious denominations, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, in addition to standard care. That's one group. Whereas the patients randomized to the control arm will receive standard care, care outlined by their medical teams. And that's all you get. No prayer. So during the ICU stay, patients will have serial assessments of multi-organ functions and Apache-2 SOFA scores, serial evaluation performed on a daily basis until discharge. And this is going to go on, well, it's supposed to start May 1. They must have started already. And I believe it's going to last throughout most of the year. There's going to be a thousand patients as part of this trial. And the doctor in charge of this, his name is Dounjia Lakiridi, as best as I can pronounce it. And here are some quotes he has to say about this study. He says, we all believe in science and we also believe in faith. If there is a supernatural power, which a lot of us believe, would that power of prayer and divine intervention change the outcomes in a concerted fashion? That was our question. I believe, I believe, he says this, I believe the power of all religions. I think if we believe in the wonders of God and the universal good of any religion, then we've got to combine hands and join the forces of each of these faiths together for the single cause of saving humanity from this pandemic.

S: So what if the Judaism prayer works, but the Hinduism prayer doesn't? Is he going to convert?

RS: But how would they know? How would they know?

E: Right. Are they going to be able to determine that? Is that part, is that a part, a sub layer of the study?

S: Studies, studies of intercessory prayer, which is what this is called, intercessory prayer means-

E: That you're praying for other people.

S: Yeah. It doesn't, the subject doesn't know whether or not they're being prayed for.

C: It's like a blind prayer.

S: Many of them have been done and they're negative.

E: Negative.

S: I mean, some of them are presented as positive, but it's always the horrible methodology and cherry picking some parts of the data. Like we looked at these 10 outcomes and this one on day three was superior in the intercessory prayer group. And then of course they never replicate. It's always a different random thing that they're looking at that may be different out of line by random chance alone. But in the aggregate, if you you do systematic reviews, the data is basically negative. But unsurprisingly intercessory magic doesn't work. Intercessory prayer does not work.

E: And that's my point is you're attributing this to magic. There's no other possible mechanism. It's got to be placebo because these people know that they're going to be part of this test regardless if they're being prayed for or not. So you're going to have that, I imagine a placebo effect going on here. Isn't this unethical?

S: Yeah. I mean, that's, that's an interesting ethical question because are the subjects getting informed consent? Do they know that they might be prayed for? Do they have a say in which kind of religious prayer is being done for them? Does it, are, are they stopping other people from praying for them?

C: It's a funny thing because if like us, you know that this is bullshit and it doesn't matter. But if you're looking at it from the perspective of somebody who believes it works, it should be unethical to you.

S: But here's the thing, Cara, you can't simultaneously argue ethically that it doesn't matter because this can't possibly work. You know, we're not going to give them informed consent.

C: Yeah, you're right.

S: Because the thing is, you can't ethically do a study into an intervention that can't possibly work. There has to be the potential for benefit as part of the criteria. So if there's the potential for benefit, then you have to include all of the safety valves for the subjects that you would for anything.

C: And so this must have been approved by their IRB. But that's the thing. If it's an institutional review board, and if this place is like a quacky place, then their own institutional review board is going to have like dubious ideas about what to study.

S: Honestly, from what I could tell, it's like just a regular cardiology institute.

C: What? So what's up with their IRB?

S: Yeah, but the thing is, they, but you know, oftentimes they get infiltrated by one or two people who have some religious belief or ideology or a very alternative medicine friendly. And everyone else is just a shruggy. They don't care. They don't care. Whatever. You know, it's not worth their time.

E: So dangerous.

S: So but then it hijacks the reputation of the institution.

C: And also, I feel like if I were a legitimate researcher there, I'd be like, how the hell did that guy get funding for this when I'm desperate to get funding for like a drug trial?

RS: One of the arguments about this for a long time is all around the world, 24 hours a day, there are thousands, if not millions of people, devout people praying for the sick. Do they shield all those prayers for the sick?

C: Yeah, you're right.

S: When the studies are negative, that's what they say. Well, I guess the control group is being prayed for too, you know? So then again, so it's a worthless study is what you're saying. No matter what the outcome, it's not going to change anything.

E: Like you said, Steve, a lot of studies like this have been done in the past. In fact, there was a meta-analytic review of those studies. The conclusion is such, there is no scientifically discernible effect for IP. As assessed in the control studies, given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research. And that was in 2006.

C: Ooh, so right there. Yeah, that could be argued against it ethically to show that kind of thing.

S: Yeah, it's a waste.

E: Don't waste your time with this. Yep, here we are.

S: But they're pretending like they're the first ones to think of it.

E: Of course. Of course. And desperate times, you know? I mean, these are desperate times. So taking advantage.

C: Still, you've got to review the literature. That's like step one when you're doing research.

S: Absolutely. All right. But not surprising that they're not following usual research protocol.

Special Segment: Premium Wine Cards (1:10:59)[edit]

S: Okay. Richard, you're going to tell us about some pseudoscience going on in your neck of the woods.

RS: Absolutely. Now, like I'm sure like all of SGU, many Australians enjoy a nice glass of wine from time to time.

S: I only drink Klingon blood wine.

RS: Well, you're in luck. I know you normally buy the cheaper Klingon blood wine, Steve being a frugal man that you are. There's a device here in Australia, which is the same size as a credit card. It's made out of light metal. It's called the premium wine card. And this is a great thing you put. It always makes me laugh even to think about it. As you're pouring a glass of wine, you hold this card on the outside of the glass as the wine is poured in and it changes your normal standard blood wine into premium blood wine. The sort Kahless would probably drink.

C: Wait, what's blood wine?

B: Nice touch.

S: Geek point there.

RS: Anyway, so this came to my attention. This came to my attention some years ago, actually, way back in 2014. It's been, I've been using it for years at conventions and talks and having a lot of fun with it. But I finally got around to writing a report to it. And this report will appear in the next issue of The Skeptic Magazine. Now that's the journal from Australian skeptics. Now briefly, we've done a couple of tests on this wine card, which have been a lot of fun. The skeptics in the pub here in Sydney, we had a wine card and a dummy wine card and lots of people lined up to taste wine treated with the wine card or not treated with the wine card. It also works on water, you'll be pleased to hear. This card-

S: Will it turn water into wine?

RS: You know, if you rub it long enough, you never know.

S: I would be impressed.

E: Oh, boy. Here we go.

B: That was out of scope, Steve.

E: Now that's a sign.

RS: So this card can be yours for only $65 Australian dollars. I think that's about $40 US. How does it work, I hear you ask.

E: Yeah. Yeah.

RS: How does it work? It works with embedded frequencies.

E: Of course.

J: Embedded.

RS: Embedded frequencies. Now various people here in Australia, The Choice Magazine, The Consumer Magazine have tried it out and found it didn't work. Another report published in an Australian newspaper, The Australian Newspaper, concluded it didn't work and they returned it to get their money back. But you can still buy this thing. And as I said, it's a lot of fun to do tests on. But this whole thing about embedded frequencies, this has been long since dispelled as just a nonsense term, really. Even Dr. Harriet Hall, our friend Dr. Harriet Hall, has written about it saying you can't embed frequencies. You can embed something in something which generates frequencies, but you can't embed the actual frequencies themselves.

S: Richard. Richard. You just use your quantum phase inverters which you can get at the same store that you can get your turboencabulator.

C: Oh, yeah. Got to love one of those.

RS: I stand corrected. Now, some years back on their website, they had a link to their YouTube channel and they had all sorts of very interesting videos up there about how this wine card works. The only video that still exists online is a general demonstration of the wine, which is hilarious enough. But the videos that have disappeared, one of them shows a public demonstration. It's sort of like a fair or something. There's lots of people walking by their booth to try it out. It's a trade show or something like that. They have video of – and they're all women, as it happens, doing these testing. They'll give them a glass of wine and say, this wine has been treated with a wine card. Taste the wine. They go, taste, taste. Yeah, that's okay. Now, try this identical glass of wine which hasn't been treated with a wine card. Now, the women sip the wine and Steve, you've seen this video. They immediately screw up their face, almost spitting it out, contorting their face. I said to Steve, Steve, what's going on here? Because to my way of thinking, this was an involuntary reaction to tasting something bitter or bad.

S: Yeah, it could be. You can't rule out that they're acting or that this is all a nocebo effect. It also looks indistinguishable from a legitimate disgust response which seems out of proportion to just like – this is just average wine versus premium wine. I also noticed – and I've noticed this across contexts. Whenever I see these quacky tasting demonstrations, they always do the good stuff first and the bad stuff second. I wonder if that's part of the shtick.

J: You think they're priming them? The first thing makes the second thing taste really horrible?

RS: In a way, they would be primed because this is the whole thing. This card makes the wine taste better. But their reactions are not those reactions of taste this wine. Now taste this wine which isn't quite so good but it's just out of the bottle. Their reaction is that's nice wine to this is disgusting wine. Now in all the tests we've done, we've done two rounds of tests with – oh, I don't know, in the order of a hundred people. We've never seen anything even approaching that sort of instant reaction. So either they're actors which I kind of doubt or there's something going on in the glass that we don't know about or the wine card really works and next year, they'll be lining up to get their Nobel Prize in physics. Now that – it's been a fascinating thing to study and you can read the full report in the next issue of our magazine from Australian Skeptics. So if you enjoy a good glass of wine, Klingon wine or whatever it is, maybe this is the card for you.

S: But Richard, you were saying – you would suspect that they might be spiking the control wine with something bitter like quinine or something or they just –

C: A drop of something in the glass.

E: Bitter drinks.

S: Or they just use corked or bad wine for that one.

RS: Well, I wasn't there and I would never go too far in suggesting skullduggery. But I would say if I was doing it and I wanted to get an instant reaction like that, it's something that would certainly cross my mind. Let's leave it like that.

S: It's one way to accomplish that.

RS: It's one way it could be accomplished. Absolutely.

S: Right, right, right. So Richard, while we're talking about skepticism in Australia, we should mention that you guys just passed a milestone for your podcast, 600 episodes.

B: Nice, man.

E: 600!

C: That's awesome.

RS: Thank you. Yeah.

J: How did you do it?

RS: How did I do it? Persistence. You guys know.

S: Yeah, it's just showing up every week, right?

RS: Now, being – yeah, showing up every week is doing the hard yards as you well know. Coming up to 604 episodes now and I was just having a look at the statistics at, SGU coming up to 774 combined we have 1,378 episodes. If we add our friend Brian Dunning and Skeptoid, his episodes, it's a total of 2,105 skeptical episodes out there. And it's quite remarkable to be in such company, not only fun, good, entertaining, educational podcast, but the longevity. So many podcasts come and go in a month, two months, three months and people give up and get bored or disinterested. But I'm in very fine company to know that we're all sticking in there and I'm quite pleased about that.

S: Yeah. Well, congratulations. It is a big accomplishment. And I will say that yesterday, May the 5th, was our 15-year anniversary on the SGU.

B: Holy crap. Are we done yet? Are we done?

RS: That's what I think every –

E: Bob, we're done with the first 15. We're going to measure this in 15s.

J: Bob, look at it like this and Richard, I want you to hear this. The world needs us now more than it ever did. And I don't mean that in a pat on your back way. It's just a reality. The world needs critical thinking and skepticism so much now. I thought things would get better in my old age. They're worse. It's worse.

S: Maybe they're less worse than they would have been though.

J: Yeah.

RS: We hope so. Yeah.

J: Yes, that's the hope.

S: Making the world less worse.

RS: Less worse. That's it.

'S: This is probably a good time to mention that we're always branching out and looking for new things to do. I did recently start a YouTube video series if you haven't had a chance to check that out yet, The Skeptical Consult. Just put our fourth episode up today as of recording the show.

E: Oh, I wish you told me earlier. I would have watched it.

S: So it's on homeopathy, Richard, which you mentioned just not too long ago.

RS: Yep.

S: Explaining exactly why it is complete and utter horseshit.

C: Nice.

S: I am open to ideas for future videos. There's basically a bottomless pit of things I could talk about, but I also do like to crowdsource it a little bit, see what people are interested in hearing about. They reach about 10 minutes. It's like just one little area, one question and then I riff on it for 10 minutes.

J: So you can go to and if you hover over the videos link in the main navigation, you'll see a Skeptical Consult pop up. All of Steve's videos are there. You know, you could also go to the SGU YouTube channel. I also do put them on Facebook as well, but go to the website. That's the quickest and easiest way to get to it. I really like them. I mean, it's amazing how little work, like there's almost no editing for me, which is amazing. You know, Steve hands me the raw video and I have a lot of video editing that I do, especially for Alpha Quadrant 6. With this, it's like slap this, slap that on and I'm done.

S: I do it as one take. Each one is one take.

E: And Steve, calling homeopathy horse shit is actually an insult to horse shit because we actually use horse shit. It's manure. It's very-

J: Yes, horse shit is excellent.

E: It actually does something.

J: It's utilitarian.

Who's That Noisy? (1:21:22)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: Baby hippos

S: All right, Jay, it's who's that noisy time.

J: All right, guys, last week I played one of the cutest noisies I've ever played in my entire history of the SGU. But here it is again for your enjoyment.


It's so cute. Don't you just want to run over and give whatever it is a hug? You know what I mean? Come on. What do you guys think it is?

E: I think it's Bob opening a gift and it turns out to be some kind of robot inside and that's his reaction.

S: It could be a murder kitten for all we know.

C: A murder kitten.

E: Oh, the murder kittens.

S: You hug it and then it injects you with venom.

J: So before I answer these questions that you want to know about that noisy, I actually have to make a slight correction or some comments about the hail cannon. Remember the hail cannon from last week?

S: Yeah.

C: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

J: Richard, there's a thing called a hail cannon that makes this incredibly loud, thumping, ridiculously echoey noise that people buy and they install them in like fruit orchards and stuff. So when it hails, this cannon is supposedly is supposed to break up the hailstones as they come down. Okay?

RS: Sounds like a great idea.

J: It turns out that it's not.

C: Doesn't work.

J: It turns out that it doesn't work.

RS: You mean I have to cancel my order? Damn.

J: Yes.

E: Makes the hailstones bigger?

J: I have a couple of things I'll tell you that I found out over the past week. One, I love our audience because they care so much that they emailed me to tell me, send me resources. Hey, Jay, you know what? I thought that they were legit too and I found this. So yes, companies make them. People buy them. The people who sell these things pretty much lie when they don't work.

E: Lying salesman. No way.

J: Yeah. So buyer beware. So here's what people are saying. These cannons are not strong enough to actually reach the part of the atmosphere where hailstones are formed in order to do anything to stop them from forming. Now I will tell you this, these cannons are strong. I saw a video where someone shot one horizontally and wow, it shoots this percussive wave of sound that the guy set up like a wood structure and then a brick structure and it blew the house down. It did blow the houses over. But that's 30 feet. It would need to travel hundreds of feet or more. I'm not even exactly sure how high up it would have to go, but it's nowhere near where the density, the strength is there.

RS: The law of inverse squares would just make a mockery of that.

J: You're totally right, Richard. So yeah, by the time you get up there, forget it. And they're noisy as hell and people really don't like them. But it was cool to look at the video and I really appreciate all the emails that everyone wrote in. The MythBusters talked about it. But the best information I got was from someone that worked at a place that had one. And he basically said, it hailed and the hail choked the freaking thing. It went into it because it's like a horn. So no, it didn't work. Not on the farm that he worked at. So it's bullshit. All right. Now back to that ridiculously cute noise. A listener named Visto Tutti, who is from Australia, but I thought was Roman, like an ancient Roman or something.

C: That's Italian, no? He's Italian.

J: He said, this week's noisy is definitely a mammal. I can hear a large one breathe heavy and then a tiny one babble. So I'm saying this sounds birth of a baby panda. I wrote him back and I said, no, that's incorrect. So I did tell him that he was wrong. He did call them good for nothing bamboo eating parasites. I agree with him. You know, I used to like pandas. And then it turned out after getting to know pandas from watching YouTube videos and whatnot over the last 30 years of my life-

E: They sneeze and stuff. It's awful.

J: They're useless. They're lazy. They don't do anything. Every once in a while, one of them does some falling bit out of a tree that I find humorous. But beyond that, they're useless. Anyway, next-

E: Carbon footprint's not worth it.

J: Cameron Gall, I think, G-A-L-L-E, Cameron said, Asian small-clawed otters. Now-

RS: Wow.

J: Look up a picture of the Asian small-clawed otters. They're adorable. They're incredibly cute, but they are not the creatures that made these noises. That was a good guess though. I just found the picture is so cute that they fit it, but it wasn't right. Then the winner of this week named Jim Kelly wrote in, and Jim said, Jay, and he used my name correctly. Do you see the weird coincidence? He won, and he used my name correctly. He said, I think this week's noisy is the sound of a litter of baby hippos.

C: What?

E: Why does he? Now, who thinks that?

J: Listen to this. [plays Noisy] Baby hippos? Baby hippos. Baby hippos. Are you kidding me with that sound? That is literally like a lure into death, right?

E: A siren. A siren sound.

RS: It's a siren.

J: Hippos are not safe animals to be around. They will step on you and destroy you in a heartbeat, but the baby ones-

C: Well, they won't just step on you. If they're in the water, they're really aggressive, or they can be. I've seen hippos in the wild. It's incredible. They're so amazing to sit and watch, but I've never seen a litter of babies.

J: Oh, Cara, this video. Just look up baby hippos and you'll see it. It's so freaking cute. So anyway, guys, thank you so much, and thanks Timothy Wagner for sending in this week's noisy. It was a lot of fun.

New Noisy (1:27:23)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy for you guys. This noisy was sent in by a listener named Andrew Hansford, and here it is. I would like you to identify this person.

[British man discussing a finding of David Dunning's]

All right. Who is that? And part of the reason why I chose this one is because it's just a fun reminder of something that all skeptics should know. So you can email me the answers or any cool noises you've heard this week at

S: Thank you, Jay. All right, guys, let's go on with science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:28:38)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Artificial fertilizer
Science Urine fertilizer
Haber-Bosch process
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
Artificial fertilizer
Artificial fertilizer
Artificial fertilizer
Artificial fertilizer
Artificial fertilizer

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

Theme: Agriculture
Item #1: Artificial fertilizer is responsible for 80% of current world food production.[6]
Item #2: The Haber-Bosch process, used to fix nitrogen, consumes between 1-2% of the world’s energy usage.[7]
Item #3: One adult’s urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to fertilize enough food production for 50-100% of one person’s food requirements.[8]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. There's a theme this week. The theme is agriculture. Agriculture. Are you guys ready? All right, here we go. Artificial fertilizer is responsible for 80% of current world food production. Item number two, the Haber-Bosch process used to fix nitrogen consumes between one and 2% of the world's energy usage. And item number three, one adult's urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to fertilize enough food production for 50 to 100% of one person's food requirements. All right, Richard, you get to go first.

Richard's Response[edit]

RS: I think, I hope I've got a reasonably good track record at science or fiction over the years, but I must admit these ones are pretty screwy. Wow. I'm not going to beat around the bush too much. I'm going to take more or less a stab in the dark. One adult's urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorus. That sounds to me like it might be science. I'm going to mark that as science. The second one I haven't even heard about, and the first one, artificial fertilizer is responsible for 80%. 80%? No, I don't think so. I think that's, I'm going to go with number one being the fake and the other two being the science.

S: All righty, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right, I'll skip the one that Richard went with and just look at the other two. The Haber-Bosch process used to fix nitrogen consumes between 1% to 2% of the world's energy usage. Damn. So fixing nitrogen could be incredibly energy, what would you call it? Energy wasteful?

S: Intensive.

J: Intensive?

C: Inefficient?

J: That's a shitload of energy if that's true. Damn. I don't like that at all. The last one here, one adult's urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to fertilize enough food production for 50 to 100 of one person's food requirements. I mean, I'm semi-agreeing with Richard here that 80% of the current food that we eat is artificial fertilizers are responsible for 80%. Ah, my God, I don't think that we... I mean, that would mean that we're using an incredible amount of fertilizer. I would think that number would be a lot less than that. So between the three of these, I could see that the urine can have enough of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. The one that's really bothering me is this nitrogen one. Nitrogen. You know what? Because Richard is our guest, because I love him and have personal affection for the man, I will go with Richard. G-W-R.

S: All right, Cara?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Artificial fertilizer is responsible for 80% of current world food production, Haber-Bosch process, 1 to 2% of the world's energy usage, and one adult's urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to fertilize enough food production for 50 to 100% of one person's food requirements. That one is weird to me. That one, I feel like that's the one that you picked because it doesn't seem like it would be true, but it is. I don't know what the Haber-Bosch process is. I mean, you told me what it is, it's used to fix nitrogen, but I don't know anything about it. It uses 1 to 2% of the world's energy. I mean, that doesn't seem that bizarre to me that nitrogen fixation would require so much energy. It's so fundamental. So yeah, the urine one is bizarre, but maybe then that means that we'd be fine in space. I don't know. And the artificial fertilizer one also sticks out to me because even though it is true that factory farming and like large kind of, what do you call it, corporate farms are feeding a lot more people, I still think that most of the people in the world, or huge percentages of the people in the world are subsistence farmers. And they probably aren't using artificial fertilizer. They're probably actually using farm animals to fertilize their crops. So I don't know. I'm going to say that it's not 80%, but it's closer to like 50%, like half or something like that. So I think that number is too high. I'm going to go with Richard also.

S: Okay. Evan?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I don't want to be alone here.

C: Well, Bob still hasn't gone.

E: That's true. I will kind of force Bob's hand though. I think I am going to agree with everyone else. I think, Steve, maybe this number 80%, maybe that's United States only as opposed to world. I can't imagine in Asia that they're using that ratio of artificial fertilizer. I just don't see it. Whereas fixing nitrogen on the second one, I'll just say I didn't know nitrogen was broken and needed to be fixed.

C: Oh no.

E: So that's interesting. You learn something every day. That it uses energy, no big deal. But I agree with Cara. The surprise one is the adult urine containing all the goodies it needs that you can use it for half to almost all of one person's food requirements. So I'm with the group, 80% fiction.

S: And Bob?

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Yeah. 80% definitely seems like a lot. But remember, I mean, how much, what percentage of world food production does the United States?

E: That is probably the key, right?

B: That's probably the key. You probably be using lots of artificial fertilizer. But then you got China and India, lots of food production going on there as well. Are they using it? Oh man, I don't know. Haber-Bosch process, I remember doing a talk about that a bit. Of course, I don't remember the important details. I mean, it's an industrial process to create ammonia for fertilizer, but that doesn't really help answer this question. Is it that energy intensive? One to 2%. And then the urine one, yeah, who knows? Maybe, maybe not. It could be something completely out of whack with that, but I could kind of see it. 80% using... I think there's a lot of farmers out there that are flinging a lot of real shit around as fertilizer. I'll say that's fiction as well.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right. So we're all with one. So I'll take these in reverse order, starting with number three. One adult's urine contains enough nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium to fertilize enough food production for 50 to 100% of one person's food requirements. So if the 100% is if we're close to 100%, that could mean theoretically that we could produce all of our food using our own urine as fertilizer. That's what that could mean if this was science. And this one is science. So did you guys know that using urine for fertilizer is already a thing?

J: I wouldn't doubt it.

B: Makes sense free.

S: So we do pee out a lot of nitrogen in the form of urea, and there's phosphorus and potassium in there as well, along with other things. The idea is if we could recapture those nutrients from urine, we could create a closed loop, fertilizer cycle, right, where we're recapturing nutrients rather than a linear model where we are taking nitrogen from the air mostly and then putting that into the soil. And then it goes into waste basically into the streams and causes the algae blooms and all that stuff. Rather than having that more of a linear thing, we have a closed loop where we're just putting back into the soil what came from there in the first place through food, people, urine, right?

B: Yeah. But if we put urine in as fertilizer that is involved with food and then we eat it, will that give us mad cow disease?

S: So that's deceptively a good question. The real question is, whenever you use any kind of human waste as fertilizer, it creates the possibility of pathogens getting into the stream. So the good thing is, is that unless you have a urinary tract infection, your urine should be sterile. It's also not that hard to treat the urine heat it or whatever to sterilize it further, to remove further pathogens.

B: Sterilize.

S: The real problem, the real concern about using urine as fertilizer is what? It's not so much pathogens as...

E: Social stigma.

RS: It smells.

C: Stink?

S: Pharmaceuticals.

C: Oh, right.

RS: Oh, yeah.

E: Artificial chemicals.

C: Probably birth control is a big problem.

S: We pee out a lot of hormones, a lot of pharmaceuticals.

C: Yeah, hormones.

S: So, all right, so there are some places which are collecting pee, including human pee, treat it a little bit, let it sit around for a while, the urea becomes ammonia, and then you can use it directly as fertilizer. But there are also, there was a news item about this, and then I did a little bit of research into the item more in general, but the news item was about one process for separating the nitrogen from the urine. So you don't have to use the urine. You just basically extract ammonia from the urine. And that process uses up a lot less energy than the Haber-Bosch process, right? So which has made, the Haber-Bosch process, by the way, was responsible for the Green Revolution. You ever heard that term, the Green Revolution?

C: Yes, I just watched a whole doc about the Green Revolution.

S: That's the Haber-Bosch process. That's it.

B: Huge.

S: That is what created the Green Revolution.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Okay, so let's go back to number two. The Haber-Bosch process used to fix nitrogen, which is true, consumes between one to two percent of the world's energy usage. So is that true? How much, how energy intensive is it and how much energy is it actually using compared to all the things that we're using energy for in the world? So you guys thought that was high, but all went for it. And this one is science.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: The Haber-Bosch process, the estimate is, and this relates back to number one, artificial fertilizer is responsible for 80% of current world food production. That's fiction. So the process, however, is critical. Cara, you were almost exactly right. It's 48%. It's just about half.

J: That's awesome, Cara.

C: That's amazing.

S: But it's been steadily increasing as a percentage of our food coming from artificial fertilizer. It's been steadily increasing. So 20 years ago, it was only like 30%, and then it went to 40%, and now it's closing in on 50%. And almost all of the increase in our food production is artificial fertilizer.

C: And do you think that's mostly coming from like industrial farming?

S: Yeah.

C: Using more science, basically.

S: Totally.

C: Farming. Yeah.

S: And it is a problem. So it's feeding the world. Again, imagine if our food production just was cut in half. That would be a problem. That'd be a non-trivial problem. And people would say, well, we'll just farm organically. And where the hell are you getting all of your manure from? You're going to double the manure production in the world? You know, that's not happening.

B: Maybe we could donate that along with the pee. Give it all. Give it all.

S: Well, that's the thing. If we harvest nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium from urine, that becomes another stream, if you will, of nutrients.

B: Don't cross the streams.

RS: You're in luck.

E: Hey, Richard. Well met.

S: And then that could displace a lot of the nitrogen that we're getting from the Haber-Bosch process. And because that's recycling, basically, these nutrients, rather than introducing them into the system, it would be more efficient. Absolutely. If we ever have a Mars or Moon base, you're going to be using your own pee as fertilizer. No question.

C: Cool.

S: And you're going to recycle that. And that's where all the research into separating these from the pee is important. Because first of all, if you're on the Moon, you want the water from your pee, right?

C: Oh, you're right.

S: So the question is, how do we—although you have to water the crops, so maybe it's a wash. Who knows? But the question is, if we're going to do this on any kind of significant scale, how do we separate pee from the waste stream? And we would have to do that. We would need a change to our infrastructure, where basically you capture urine separately from poop and toilet paper and anything else you might flush down. Already 80% of human waste winds up on farmland. Did you know that?

E: No.

J: Yeah.

S: Yeah. Jay, you talked about this. It's like, what happens to our poo? A lot of it ends up as fertilizer. But we could more efficiently perhaps do this with the urine if we separated it out to begin with and then had an efficient process, which is, again, there's multiple labs working on how to do this, including the recent one that I was talking about. That would go a long way to reducing the reliance on artificial fertilizer, which everyone agrees is a problem. It's a necessary problem for now. What are the ways in which we can fix this problem? One is to introduce other sources of nitrogen, like from human urine. That's one possibility. Another one is to genetically modify crops so that they can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere themselves, like legumes can. Imagine if our wheat and corn could do that too. That would be awesome. There's multiple labs working on that, and I think those will be coming online probably this century. But who knows how long that will take. Then there's other sort of low-tech ways of trying to control where the nitrogen goes after it leaves the farm so that it doesn't end up in the gulf or whatever and cause algae blooms to try to use the fertilizer better and in a more controlled way. We're kind of getting to that point that if we want to keep pushing our food production, thinking about the nitrogen cycle is huge. This is definitely a problem that we need multiple solutions to, but the research is very clear that organic farming is not the solution because it uses way too much land and because nobody has an answer for where's all the nitrogen coming from, right? They just don't have an answer for it.

B: Yeah, just don't have a black box in the middle that's labeled, and a miracle occurs here.

S: Yeah, right.

C: Exactly.

S: It's like the plasma engine where you just completely ignore where the energy is coming from.

E: Yeah. Electricity. We'll just make more.

S: Exactly. All right. Well, good job, everyone. Yeah, I had to make the number high enough that it was clearly wrong without being too obvious, and it's always hard to know where exactly to put that number.

B: Yeah. 78 would have been better.

S: 78, yes.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:44:54)[edit]

It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.
William Kingdon Clifford, mathematician and philosopher (1845-1879)

S: All right. Evan, give us a quote.

E: This week's quote was submitted by our friend, Craig Good.

S: Yeah, Craig.

J: We love Craig.

S: Formerly of Pixar, he taught us.

E: That's right.

S: He gave us a basic class in film.

J: Yeah, many moons ago. Remember that, Steve? I was like, oh, we're going back what? Eight years?

S: But it was cool. Because there's an area about which you know nothing. Getting a basic, the learning curve is really steep at the beginning, and I always find that so fun. Like when you're being introduced to these basic, powerful concepts that you were completely ignorant of before.

E: Right. Clears up 70% of the problems right off the bat.

S: I know. Like stuff is where they are two-dimensionally on the screen actually matters. OK, that's interesting.

E: It's important. So he submitted this quote. Thank you, Craig. "It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." That was written by William Kindon Clifford, who was a mathematician and philosopher. He was born in 1845, died 1879. Interesting fellow. I don't know that we've spoken about him much on this show. He introduced what is now termed geometric algebra, for those who are math aficionados out there in the SGU listening world. I'm sure you'll recognize that. And there's a special case of the Clifford algebra named in his honour. Now, Bob, he was the first to suggest that gravitation might be a manifestation of an underlying geometry.

B: Really?

E: In 1870, he actually lectured at Cambridge that the curved space concepts of Riemann, he talked about it, and he included speculation at the time on the bending of space by gravity in the year 1870.

C: Whoa.

B: Wow, man.

E: That's a full 40 years before Einstein put it all together. So that's kind of cool.

J: Wow.

E: As far as his philosophy goes, obviously the quote kind of says it all, but he would often argue in direct opposition to religious thinkers who put faith – or put stock in blind faith and considered it a virtue, they did, and he'd take them down on a regular basis. And one last note, in his philosophical writings, he coined the expression, mind stuff. So whenever you use that, you owe his estate a nickel if you're going to use the term mind stuff.

S: All right. Thanks, Evan.

S: Thanks.

Signoff/Announcements (1:47:10)[edit]

S: Well, Richard, thanks for joining us. I gave you very short notice for joining us, but you're one of the friends of the SGU that we know I could email, and 12 hours later, you're on the show.

RS: Thank you very much. Thanks very much for inviting me. And please give my podcast a listen if you haven't discovered it yet, And Jay, you'll be interested in this. Our friend Maynard now does a regular live stream from his lounge room every Friday night here in Australia.

S: Awesome.

J: I know. I stumbled on it. I'm like, what is happening here? You know what I mean? Because he's just going apeshit. It's so freaking funny. And I got to tell you, that guy, every time I see him or talk to him, he puts a smile on my face.

B: Yeah. He's awesome.

RS: If you want to check that out, just go to

S: And Richard, you have to join us for NECSS. We're doing an all digital NECSS, and we're inviting a lot of our skeptical friends to come and watch. And who knows, maybe you could even join us for some of our interludes, our green room kind of chatting about things.

RS: That sounds like a lot of fun. Count me in.

S: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.

B: And remember, you don't have to fly over.

RS: Thank goodness for that.

S: Well, stay safe down there, Richard.

RS: Thank you.

S: And thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Sure, man.

J: You got it Steve.

C: Thank you.

E: Thank you, Steven.

S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at Send your questions to And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.

Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description



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