SGU Episode 806

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SGU Episode 806
December 19th 2020
Arecibo greatest hits aerial.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 805                      SGU 807

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The need to reduce dissonance is a universal mental mechanism, but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to be controlled by it. Human beings may not be eager to change, but we have the ability to change, and the fact that many of our self-protective delusions and blind spots are built into the way the brain works is no justification for not trying.

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) by Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

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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, December 16th, 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: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, folks.

S: So what have we got, two episodes left in 2020?

C: Yeah.

S: And one regular episode, that'll be next week, and then we're doing the Year in Review. So if you haven't done it yet, please go to our website and give us your feedback on what you want us to talk about during the Year in Review your favorite segment, your favorite guest, biggest news item, skeptical hero, skeptical jackass, all of the usual stuff. Give it to us and we'll put that together for our Year in Review show. So if you want to do that, go to our homepage and then just put in slash wrap up 2020. And that'll take you to the form, which you can fill out. And we'd really appreciate it.

COVID-19 Update (1:05)[edit]

  • Vaccine and Home Testing

S: A couple of quick COVID news items or mentions before we go on to the full news items. So the vaccine's being rolled out, the Pfizer vaccine, and it didn't take long. A healthcare worker in Alaska had a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine, to the Pfizer vaccine.

J: What kind? Like what happens?

S: Anaphylaxis.

E: Oh, like a bee sting reaction?

S: Yeah. Yeah.

C: He okay though?

S: She's okay. Yep.

C: Oh, she. Yeah.

B: But shouldn't she have never gotten the vaccine because that could have been totally predicted based on previous?

C: No. No.

B: Oh.

S: Here's why. So two people in the UK who started getting the vaccine before the US.

B: That's what I'm talking about.

S: They had a history of allergic reactions, but they had a history of allergic reactions. This woman did not have a history of allergic reactions. So this was a serious allergic reaction in somebody without a prior history. So that's new. And that's not a good thing.

B: And bad.

C: How likely is that owed to a vaccine? And how likely is that owed to just like the fact that we develop allergies throughout the lifespan?

S: So any vaccine has this potential and people are allergic to components in vaccines. It's just like any drug. You basically have to think of it like a drug and you're going to give a drug to millions of people. A certain percentage of them are going to have allergic reactions. This is a new vaccine. You know, it's not like, I don't know how much overlap there is in adjuvants or whatever between this vaccine and previous ones. My understanding was not much because this is the mRNA vaccine and it's really different. You know, it's not like there's egg products or other things like that where you get an older and other vaccines. So in any case, again, this is not surprising. It's good that the patient did well, she got observed overnight. This is not going to change anything. They're still rolling out the vaccine. It's just the recommendations are that people, and this was already the recommendation, that people get observed for 15, 20 minutes after they get their shot just to make sure they're not going to be someone who gets a reaction. And then, and you just observe longer if somebody has a known allergy. But here's the other thing is that in the clinical trial, they excluded people who had known allergic reactions. And so, which is typical, you do that in clinical trial, you don't, you want to see like how are healthy subjects going to respond. And you may exclude somebody who has, would put them in a high risk group. We've talked about this in the context of clinical trials in general. Their strength of a like double blind placebo controlled trial is that you control all the variables so you could isolate the variables of interest. That goes hand in hand with a weakness, which is the more you control those variables, the less the outcome is generalizable to a general population. So this is a perfect example of that. 40,000 people got the vaccine without an allergic reaction, but none of them had any history of prior allergic reactions. Now, of course, this person did-

E: Right. You take a sample of people and you're going to have people who have allergies to things. I mean, that's just normal.

C: And also people with like really serious other medical conditions, people with-

S: Pregnant women.

C: Pregnant women. But yeah, it's often that you remove all of those people from your sample to reduce the risk. And then with COVID, it's such a tough thing, right? Because the people who need it most are the people who have certain types of sicknesses. I'm wondering how broad their clinical sample was with this vaccine.

S: So there's definitely going to be side effects cropping up again, when you go from 40,000 to millions, and then eventually to hundreds of millions, and then eventually to billions, maybe, whatever. You're going to, obviously, statistically, more things are going to crop up. But still, as I mentioned, I believe, last week, the risk of this happening, the risk of you being one of those people who gets a serious allergic reaction, is still less than the risk of you getting the coronavirus and having a serious complication. And again, she's fine. She had one night in the hospital, they treated her, and she's fine. I'm sure probably one in a million people or something is probably going to have a serious... That's about the rate of serious reactions to vaccines.

B: We could see thousands of people like her then.

C: Yeah, that's the case. That's why we have a vaccine court. That's why we have mitigation effects for this, because drugs have side effects, and sometimes people get sick. But again, this is a public health issue.

S: But I promise you, though, 300,000 people are not going to die from this vaccine, right?

C: Right, exactly.

S: That's the point that we have to emphasize, or get sick, or get hospitalized, or whatever.

C: Or anywhere near it, exactly.

S: There's also a bit of good news, although we have to see how this plays out.

B: Moderna.

S: Well, Moderna is going to get approved by the FDA this week. But the FDA approved an instant at-home test for COVID.

C: Oh, very cool.

S: Like a paper test, like the pregnancy test, like at-home test.

B: Still not where we need it to be, but it's a nice first step for the home testing, because it's $30, which is going to be too expensive for a lot of people.

E: Maybe their insurance will help cover that, you know.

B: But what we need to aim for is something so quick, and easy, and inexpensive that we could do it every day, barely even thinking about it.

E: Like a smartphone app.

B: Like when you're brushing your teeth, bam, do a test.

S: Or even once a week.

B: Every day.

J: How fast is it?

S: It's within minutes, like instantaneous kind of test.

E: And Steve, is that like a pre-test telling you if it comes up positive, you go get another test to verify?

S: Definitely. Yes.

C: Oh, for sure. You should do that with any at-home test.

S: Yeah, basically. If it's positive, then you go get the real test.

E: Okay.

C: But I mean, I agree with you, Bob, to some extent. That would be amazing, like in a perfect world. But also, if that were the case, we wouldn't be in the predicament we're in, having a rapid test at home.

B: Other countries have done it. Other countries have done massive testing beyond anything we've done.

C: So that's the difference.

B: And their numbers are much better.

C: But even before we have a test that we can keep in large stock in our own homes, it's a function of, can they use this in schools? Can they use this for public transit? Think about the cases where people are in direct contact. And in those cases, having a rapid test is going to be a game changer. But for me, sitting at home, not going into work, I don't need to use those resources.

B: No, but it certainly would have changed the way this winter is turning out to be.

C: Absolutely.

B: This should have been one of the big, big priorities months and months ago. Imagine if we had this six months ago.

C: Imagine a lot of things we could have done differently six months ago.

B: And this is just one that's in the news because the FDA okayed one for the home. So yeah, this is just another failure.

C: So it's exciting. I mean, it's an advancement for sure.

S: Hopefully, yeah, it'll be one more tool that we have that will hopefully help get this pandemic under control.

C: Yeah, especially for folks who aren't aren't front line workers, don't have pre-existing conditions like there's going to be a slog. There's a there's a time delay between when most people are going to be able to get the vaccine.

S: So yeah. But again, when you think about it, though, because generally, I think people are being very lax. If anything, the test might motivate some people not to get together when they would have otherwise done it. You know what I mean? And probably less likely to give somebody a false sense of security that they otherwise wouldn't have had.

C: Gosh, I hope so. I hope it's not seen as like a green light to just go do whatever the hell you want, because that would be really dangerous.

S: Yeah, right. That is always the the the false sense of security is always a risk, you know. All right. Let's move on to some full news items.

News Items[edit]

Arecibo Telescope (8:40)[edit]

S: Bob, you're going to start by telling us about all the wonderful things that the Arecibo telescope has done for us.

B: Yeah, Steve, the iconic Arecibo Observatory is no more after a series of events leading to its collapse early in this December. I thought it'd be a good idea just to go over what it was, what it what it has done and just interesting facts about it and some of its amazing accomplishments. The Arecibo Observatory, also known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center and AIC, is in Puerto Rico, Arecibo, Puerto Rico. And it's owned by the National Science Foundation, NSF. It was created the year that I was born, over a half a century ago. But luckily, I'm nowhere near collapsing yet. The business end of Arecibo, I'm going to refer to the Arecibo Observatory as just Arecibo. The business end of Arecibo was a 305 meter or 1,000 foot spherical reflector dish. This was created using a natural sinkhole. Actually, it was a karst sinkhole, which basically means most sinkholes are karst sinkholes. That just means that the underlying rocks are soluble and there's fissures allowing drainage often into caves and stuff. And don't look into this because it's a rabbit hole, which is a fascinating thing that I spent way too much time looking into. So making up the dish was almost 39,000 1 by 2 meter aluminum panels and they were all supported by crisscrossing steel cables. And underneath that, on the ground, was vegetation that didn't mind being in the shade so much. I guess they specifically planted that there or they just grew because if you don't care about the shade that much, then I guess you would naturally grow there anyway. But above all of that then, of course, was and hung on cables was a steerable receiver and radar transmitters. And that's about 150 meters or 500 feet above the dish. Wow, it's really way up there. I was actually I thought I knew something about Arecibo. There was a lot I didn't know and it's made even more amazing discoveries than I realized. Did you know that astronomers used to think that pulsars could be created by white dwarfs? I did not think that they that white dwarfs were in contention to explain them early on in the late 60s. That was until though Arecibo spotted a pulsar in the Crab Nebula rotating every 33 milliseconds. Now, that's important, though, because white dwarfs can't do that, which means that the argument that pulsars were actually neutron stars got a huge boost and which, of course, we soon found out that pulsars were in fact rotating neutron stars. So I guess it has to do with the mass of the white dwarf and it just can't it couldn't rotate that much mass. It's not dense enough to rotate that fast, I assume. So that was interesting. Thank you, Arecibo. Did you know that Arecibo's observations of the planet Mercury in the 90s suggested that ice might be in permanently shadowed craters at the poles? NASA's Messenger spacecraft later confirmed that. And you might be thinking of our moon right now. And if so, brava to you. This discovery on Mercury raised the possibility that such crater ice is on the moon. And as you lunafiles already know, it certainly does. It is there. IT is confirmed that ice is definitely there in permanently shadowed parts of many different types of craters. So thank you, Arecibo, for that as well. Did you know that the Arecibo Observatory sent the first message meant for aliens in 1970?

S: I did know that.

B: Right? Not surprised Steve. They sent it to globular star cluster M13 in 1974. It is said to be the most powerful signal ever sent from Earth. And it wasn't really like, oh, let's try to talk to aliens. It was more of like a techno demo of the observatory's new high power radio transmitter than anything else. But still, that's really cool. M13 contains 300,000 stars and is about 25,000 light years away. The message itself was 1679 bits of information. And it was in binary code trying to give some information about the chemicals in our DNA. It had a stick figure sketch of a human. If you put the information into a certain arrangement, you'd see the stick figure. It had a layout of our solar system, et cetera. So yeah, that signal was sent in 74, which means that it is 18 ten thousandths of the way there because we're 46 years into the 25,000 year trip. So a long way to go. But thank you for that, Arecibo. Did you know, I did not know this, that Arecibo detected the first indirect evidence of gravitational waves in 1974?

S: That I did not know.

C: The first indirect evidence.

S: What's the indirect evidence?

B: Yes, indirect evidence. Because we had nowhere near the technology needed to detect them directly back then. But they found a pulsar orbiting another star. And as the star and the dead star spiraled closer and closer to each other, the energy that was lost during their changing orbits matched what would be expected if that loss were due to gravitational waves emanating away. It matched up nicely. So that was a really, really good argument for the existence of gravitational waves without having to detect, without having to have the insane accuracy that LIGO has today. They pretty much show that, yep, it looks pretty damn good that gravitational waves actually exist. So and how about this, Steve? Did you know that this discovery of indirect evidence won the Nobel Prize in 1993 in physics? I did not remember that either. So thank you for that, Arecibo. And finally, let's see, did you know that Arecibo detected the first exoplanets? I think I knew that and then I forgot it.

C: How do you know you knew something and then forgot it?

B: Because it sounds like something that I absolutely would have known briefly and then forgotten. So of course, we've discovered many thousands, well over 4,000 exoplanets by now. But the first one was discovered accidentally in the early 90s by Arecibo. The observatory was being repaired, causing it to be kind of frozen in one position. Now generally the Arecibo dish was kind of frozen, right? But the receiver can move a little bit, so you can move it a little bit. But because it was being repaired, it was not moving a millimeter at all, except maybe by the wind. I don't know if wind would even do that. But it wasn't moving and that caused a specific pulsar to swing into view as the Earth rotated. And so they were looking at it, might as well look at what it's looking at anyway. And they saw tiny millisecond fluctuations in the radio waves coming from the pulsar, which indicated, of course, that there's probably massive bodies close to the pulsar gravitationally tugging the pulsar to and fro.

E: Is that called the wobble?

B: Yes. And that's, yep, it caused a wobble of the pulsar caused by these planets tugging it. So these were the first exoplanets tugging it. And so that made them think that, hey maybe there's exoplanets everywhere if we found them accidentally. But it's ironic though that these types of pulsar planets are pretty rare. They're not common at all. But still, the fact remains that Arecibo detected the first exoplanets, confirmed, I mean, detected and confirmed. So thank you for that as well, Arecibo. So really, the only thing left is to talk about its unfortunate and recent demise. Actually, you could track it starting kind of around 2006 when the National Science Foundation's funding for the observatory dropped was starting to drop. More and more of the funds that the National Science Foundation had earmarked for Arecibo went to newer observatories. And then making it worse after that was the fact that there were a bunch of hurricanes that damaged Arecibo. And that took away even more of the budget. So that was kind of like the beginning of the beginning of the end, I guess maybe you could say. But then, of course, stuff really got real in August 2020 and November 2020 when the cable break started happening. Those events turned out to be the last straw because in November 2020, the NSF decided that it was better to just decommission the telescope instead of repairing it. And so that's what they were going to do. From what I read, that it was just going to be too dangerous to really repair that, you know, imagine you're repairing that and somebody dies. It's like, oh boy, that wouldn't have been good, which was a real risk. And then, of course, the big collapse happened. I think it was on December 1st, yeah, December 1st, 7:56. A.M. local time. The platform fell into the dish, collapsing the telescope. So yeah, that was a big exclamation point. Yes, this is done. The observatory will remain open because there's other things going on there still. But I really kind of bummed that I never got over to Arecibo, Puerto Rico to actually see it in all its glory. It is it is such an iconic observatory. So it will it will be missed. And it's just amazing to consider all of the amazing discoveries that Arecibo made that I wasn't aware of. So that's that's great.

S: Yeah. That's always that's an iconic telescope. It really was sad to see it collapse like that. I think people don't, unless you're interested in astronomy, you may not be aware of how much you know, how we look at the universe with through the radio frequency, you know.

B: Oh, God. Yeah.

S: Because it doesn't give you the pretty pictures like the Hubble does. But the science, though, is incredible.

C: But also you can't visit Hubble.

S: But you can visit like Mauna Kea or other ground based telescopes. OK.

AI Predicting Weather (18:21)[edit]

S: Jays, is artificial intelligence going to finally be able to predict the weather?

J: Well, I mean, first off, nothing truly predicts the weather. We just get an idea of what's going on. So it's not 100 percent.

E: But yeah, people predict all the time. We just get it wrong.

J: Yeah. We need a word for like inaccurate predictions like this one word would be nice.

C: Bullshit.

J: So the yeah, we'll get into the artificial intelligence. You know, there are some researchers have been working on it and it's a different way of forecasting the weather. I took the opportunity when a weather news item came up just to talk about, like, how do we predict the weather and give you a 30,000 foot view on what takes place and how hard is it? So the first modern daily weather forecast happened when? When do you guys think we got the one more time?

C: The first modern daily?

E: Modern?

J: When did people start getting a daily update on what the weather is going to be?

E: Oh, are we not? Didn't almanacs used to predict weather for each day of the year?

J: I'm not talking about, I'm not talking about- I'm not talking about that. I'm talking more about like using some type of, some type of science, some type of legitimacy.

B: Well, the question is, are you talking, is it post-satellite or pre-satellite era?

J: Pre.

B: I would think pre. I would think pre for sure. But yeah, we've got weather stations, you can use ships to go out into the ocean and radio in what kind of weather they're experiencing.

S: That's true.

B: So that's probably how the first ones, I don't know if it was every day.

C: So when would that be? Like 40s, 30s?

J: Well, let me tell you, because it's a little complicated. First people were predicting the weather by observation for a very long time. You know, they could look at what's on the horizon just seeing clouds coming in and the ancient Chinese had weather prediction. So it wasn't really uncommon, but when I, the key word here was a modern daily forecast. It was actually published in the Times on August 1st, 1861.

C: 1861?

B: Wow.

J: I know, right?

E: New York Times? Is that what you said?

J: It said the Times.

C: It might be the Times of London.

E: Oh, Times of London.

J: I think it is London. Yeah, I think it is London because of what I'm about to tell you.

B: So how did the, how would they text that information to everybody back then?

B: Yeah, right?

S: So was it just like, it's going to be foggy today, every day, is that?

E: They used to send out tweets using pigeons, you know.

B: Oh, nice. Nice.

J: So the first weather maps were produced later in the same year, and now we click forward to 1911. So they began issuing the first marine weather forecast via radio transmission, which is cool. These include gales, storm warnings for the areas around Great Britain. So it seems like Great Britain kind of got the first weather reporting happening where people were able to gain access to it on a regular basis. The first televised weather forecast using weather maps, 1936, the BBC did a test broadcast of showing people what the weather is in 1936.

E: How many people had TVs in 1936?

J: I don't, I don't know.

C: Test broadcast for the test TVs.

S: Seven.

E: Yeah, right. Exactly.

C: They only had that one channel.

E: So six of them were at the Buckingham Palace or something.

J: So as most of you guys know, I can tell by the sass in all your voices that historically weather, weather predicting has been unreliable. It's not, it hasn't been that reliable. So as computers advanced and weather satellites deployed, weather prediction has steadily become better and better. So there's still, of course, a limit to how far into the future we can accurately predict the weather, right?

B: Yes.

J: I know Bob loves to say this. So the experts-

E: I'm waiting for Bob to say chaos.

B: It's interesting, you bastard.

J: I know, but to Bob, it's like one of those things where he'll get mad. He gets mad if you say like, it's 11 days, Bob's like, 10! It's 10 days!

C: What was he talking about? 12 PM and 12 AM?

E: Oh, that's, save it for the 12 hour show.

B: They're speaking gibberish, Cara.

E: January 23rd.

B: Gibberish, I tell you.

J: All right. So the experts are actually saying it's between 10 and 14 days. I found a news article that straight up said it's 10 days, anything past 10 days and it's just not, not going to be accurate enough, but it's, it's less than two weeks. Let's say that. So even still, as you know, predictions-

B: And that's because, do we know why though? Do you want to know why that's happening?

J: Yes, of course I know why, Bob. I'm talking about the weather.

E: He's not getting, Jay, he's not getting mad. He's passionate.

C: I love that we sometimes do this on the show, that if one person has knowledge about something, we get so excited. We're like, wait, but make sure.

J: Yeah, I know.

C: Did you know? And it's like, yeah, I did prepare this. Why don't you give me time to say it?

J: So what Bob was trying to say was weather is, is, is unpredictable because of gremlins. It's the gremlins.

B: Ah, I see. Not many people know that.

E: Cloud gremlins.

B: Excellent.

S: They're unpredictable.

J: Well, I'll get into it. I'll get into it.

E: After midnight.

J: So over the last 30 years, the accuracy of weather predictions has dramatically improved. Everyone agrees. It's a, we've seen weather forecasts go, in my lifetime, I've seen weather forecasting go from meh to pretty damn good. So today's meteorologists use incredibly powerful computers, right? They run these huge numbers of calculations to predict the weather. The weather prediction, however, is not really in real time because we have to wait for the computers to chug through the latest batch of information that they give them. So for accurate but short-term predictions, we use a technique called Nowcast.

S: You look outside the window?

J: Pretty much. I mean, that's part of it because meteorologists actually will do that and read old school barometers and gather measurements and all that stuff. And also like local newscasters know their locale, right? So they can get the data from the computer and then they can tweak it a little bit because they have a human brain that can see the big picture in a way that a physics calculation in a computer can't see. So they'll take these measurements and they can give a very highly accurate prediction that can go about two hours into the future. So this is great for like when is the, when is the hurricane going to hit? When is the snow going to start falling? You know, that's how they get these super accurate predictions because they're using very local data. They're not using national weather data. They're just getting multiple, multiple data inputs from tons of different things locally. It could be radar, it could be weather balloons, satellite imagery and what's the big weather, the big weather radar thing that they use, what do you call that?

C: Doppler.

J: Doppler radar. Yeah. That's actually really important. But longer forecasts use different ways to interpret the data because a lot more atmosphere has to be included in the model, right? So if you want to do a longer forecast, you can't just look at the weather within 10 miles of you. You have to look at the weather that is a continent away from you because that's how fast the weather moves. So that makes things a lot more complicated. And to Bob's point, we can't really predict the weather past, say, 10 days simply because of just how chaotic the atmosphere is. So the atmosphere and the movement of weather is basically the distribution of heat, right? So you get cold fronts touching warmer air and the air's shift and everything and you get to a point where you really can't forecast what the air is going to do and where the heat's coming from to such a degree that you could go past 10 days because you would start, you would need to have unbelievably small units of data, meaning you would need to know like the temperature and the wind speed and the pressure and the humidity of way too many data points. And we don't collect data on that small. If you think of like, if you split the world up into giant 3D grid, like a big Rubik's cube with tiny little cubes in it, you would need to collect data all over the surface of the earth in these tiny little cubes in order to be able to really predict farther than what we do today. And we just don't have that level of data collection or that ability to number crunch. That's a big...

C: When you go to a website where it has like the next 14 days, are they just hoping you kind of don't look at those last few? Like, where do they get those numbers from?

E: Do they really expect people to think that 14 days out, like this is a 79 or 80% chance of being accurate?

C: No, but I mean, the question though is, is it just that the accuracy goes way, way down or is that it's literally not predictable at that time?

B: Well, the error bars, the error bars go way up as you go farther in the future and Jay, it's even worse than you're saying, because it's not just a matter of like, oh, we don't have enough, say weather stations but really it's inherently impossible by its very nature to predict an arbitrary amount of distance into the future. And that's because of, like you said, it's chaotic, it's nonlinear dynamics and it exhibits the sensitive dependence to initial conditions. So every measurement that you've mentioned, Jay, is an average. So if you have an average of like the temperature and the pressure and the humidity for a parcel of the atmosphere, say a mile by a mile and over the entire atmosphere, you would have a certain level of accuracy, but that's an average. And even if you got the parcel of atmosphere down to a cubic millimeter, that would still be an average. And because it's an average, there's going to be some errors in there and those errors multiply, they get bigger and bigger. As the days progress, those errors eventually swamp out the entire signal. So you would need actually perfect accuracy of every point, of everything in the atmosphere to do the prediction as far in the future as you want, which of course is inherently impossible because of quantum mechanics, Heisenberg uncertainty and all that. It is inherently impossible. So even if you had a sextillion little nanobots in the atmosphere telling you everything about the weather, it would still error out after a couple of weeks or so. Technology is irrelevant. It's inherently impossible. Bob, if we had-

E: You can never do it. It's an impossible feat to accomplish, is what you're saying.

B: In principle.

J: But Bob, if we had all those nanobots, why wouldn't we just have them change the weather? You know what I'm saying?

B: There you go. Right. When you're talking about technology like that, then yeah, you could actually try to nudge the... But the thing is that you couldn't perfectly predict what effect you were going to have in the future anyway, but you can make short-term little adjustments. Hey, I mean, I think weather control like that is something...

C: It wasn't a joke. It wasn't a joke.

J: I know, right? Oh, my God.

B: No, that's actually an interesting point.

J: I mean, Bob, breathe. Breathe, Bob.

B: Instead of predicting two weeks, you nudge it.

C: You guys, this is our life. This is what we do every Wednesday.

B: This is fascinating. This is interesting shit. Oh, boy.

S: I knew Bob was going to have to scratch that itch before I decided to say it.

J: Oh, of course. Oh, he loves it. There is something wonderful about seeing somebody geek out on a topic that they love and they know a lot about.

C: I know. I love it. I really do.

J: I do, too.

C: I love it. I just thought that was like the extreme... Evan and I are giggling in the background. Because you're like, well, why don't you? And he's like, well, here is why.

E: But I have a general question about this. I don't know if it's a silly question or not.

B: There's no silly question.

E: Aren't some places just a lot more predictable than other places?

S: You mean like the desert?

E: Right.

S: It's going to be hot and dry.

E: So don't you have to kind of compartmentalize it into a geographic range at some point?

J: No, you're right, Evan. And that actually is a good thing to kind of segue into the next part of my news item here. So let's talk about artificial intelligence and using artificial intelligence. So the University of Washington is developing a different approach to weather forecasting. So they're collaborating with Microsoft Research to use artificial intelligence. And what they're doing is they're analysing historical weather patterns. So this is what Evan is saying. We know that San Francisco has this kind of weather and it doesn't change as often as it does in New England, which is every 15 minutes. So they take the historical weather patterns to help predict future weather events. They take 40 years. And we have a good solid 40 years of decent weather data. And it's different than using a highly detailed physics calculation to figure out what the weather is going to do. So artificial intelligence comes at the thing from a completely different angle. So the AI system at its core is doing pattern recognition. It compares current weather patterns to 40 years of weather patterns and figures out how the current pattern, like the current pattern of the weather as it is right now, typically evolves.

S: Yeah, it's a probability.

J: It's a probability engine.

S: It's not modeling the weather. It's just using past data for, as you say, pattern recognition.

J: Right. So as a really loose example. So when the air in the desert is this hot, which is 10 miles to the north, and when the high altitude winds are coming in at this angle, and this relative humidity at this time of year, typically this is what the weather does in this square 20 mile radius. And that's what the AI is doing. But it's pretty, it's pretty cool. Like, so check this out. So right now the predict, the AI's prediction ability is a little less accurate than most modern ways that we, that we use computers to predict the weather. However, the AI version uses 7,000 times less computing power to produce that forecast. So for the same number of locations around the globe, when you think about it, the AI can predict, let's say 20,000 weather locations around the world. And you know, you add up the fact that it's using 7,000 times less computational power and all of those calculations, that's an amazing amount of workload off of the computer systems that we use. And the systems that we use to calculate weather are monsters. These are not desktop computers.

S: They're generally supercomputers, right?

J: They are supercomputers. So that much less computing power means what? It means that we can get results faster from the AI because it doesn't have to do as much computation. And the researchers say that because they have so much computing, computer processing power at their fingertips, they can run more models at the same time using slight changes in the starting conditions. So you know, what that means is, isn't that cool? So what they'll do is they can, it's like a shotgun prediction of the weather. They'll say, all right, AI, here's what we got right now. Give me the predictions on the actual what's happening right now. And then give me a prediction on 200 variations, slight variations on what the weather is right now. And let's see what we get. And it's pretty cool because when you have that less of computational needs, you could do a whole suite of other things. So check this out. They call it ensemble forecasting, which is so cool. So the AI will produce a spectrum of potential weather outcomes. So unlike today's number crunching of incredible amounts of weather-related data, the AI will come up with relationships between different patterns of weather. And this kind of calculation, it just can't be done by physics-based models. A physics-based model can't do this because the artificial intelligence, because it's an artificial intelligence, it can make comparisons in a way that straight-up physics programming just can't do. So in time, the scientists believe that they'll increase the accuracy of their technique. So they'll just make it better. And also, they said, as the years go by, we'll just continue to collect more data. And it just will sharpen itself automatically because it's just getting more data. And also, when it makes mistakes, it's sharpening its data. You follow that?

B: Oh, yeah. Sure.

S: How about this though Jay, if the climate is changing, though, is the old data going to be less and less accurate?

J: Well, that's a Steve, that's a great question. I mean, think about it. You know, the rules are changing.

S: Yeah, I wonder if the time horizon for past experience predicting future behavior is going to shrink.

J: Yeah. Or it might just be-

C: Or is there just an algorithmic, like add-on to that? Like you adjust for those times.

E: It's how you compensate.

J: I'd like to know. That's a fantastic point you bring up.

S: All this kind of reminds me of the technique that was used by some of the forecasting for the recent election, presidential election in the U.S. We all know how that turned out, right? That was a couple of standard deviations off of what they were saying was going to happen. Still within the range, but-

C: But yeah, the last two were not great in terms of prediction. But I guess when you're dealing with massive anomalies, that's when things start to get really hard for an AI to predict.

S: Well, I think voters are less predictable than the weather. I think that's what that means.

E: You can't predict how they're going to vote 10 days out from an election.

S: Right. No, seriously.

C: I love that.

S: But yeah, I think this sounds like it's going to be a cool new tool. And I do like the fact that its strength is not that it's more accurate. It's just that it's 7,000 times less calculations that need to be done to get to a prediction and even if it's a little bit less accurate at the end, it could do it with-

C: It's more efficient.

S: More quickly, more efficiently. Therefore, you could do more of it.

Manipulated by Robots (35:41)[edit]

S: So guys, there's an interesting study I wrote about yesterday about being manipulated by robots.

J: Uh-oh. Are they starting to do this already?

E: Every day.

B: This sounds good so far.

S: This is a pretty straightforward psychological study. Nothing new. But just the element of the robots is interesting. So they were looking at risk-taking, like how willing people were to take risks and they used an already established, validated paradigm of risk-taking. It's a computer game in which you hit the space bar and every time you hit the space bar, a virtual balloon blows up. It gets bigger.

C: Oh, yeah. I've done this one.

S: Oh, yeah? And then at any point, you can cash in and the bigger the balloon gets, the more money you get.

C: But it's going to pop.

S: So at some random point, it will pop and you get nothing. And so the question is how-

B: Random?

S: Yeah.

C: Well, they can mess with that too, depending on the experimental paradigm.

E: I mean, if you do it several times, it will happen at different points.

C: Yeah.

S: It's totally unpredictable. So it's unpredictable.

E: You're not timing it to a certain point.

S: And it's not necessarily more likely to pop as it gets bigger. It's just that there's more opportunities for it to pop. And so eventually, it's going to pop. And so the question is, do you cash in early and take a bird in the hand or do you push it? How far do you push it? So we did this test on subjects, probably students, with three conditions. So one condition was just with nothing, just playing the game. The second was with the presence of a robot that would give them instructions on how to play the game and then remain silent. And the third was a robot that would give them instructions on how to play the game and then would give them little nudges of encouragement throughout the game. Like, keep going.

C: Don't be a wimp. Keep pushing the space bar.

S: Yeah. Basically I don't think they used shaming, but they just used like little bits of encouragement. And the students who got the encouragement from the robot took significantly more risks.

C: I'm sure.

S: So the other thing that's interesting is that the group that, the robot encouragement group that took the most risks made the most money, which indicates that the other two groups were overly risk-averse to be optimal. And what they found was that people became really risk-averse after a balloon popped. Like once a balloon popped, then they would like really chicken out and cash in early. But that wasn't optimal for moneymaking. So they were overly risk-averse. They didn't maximize their money. The robot encouraged group actually made more money because they were willing to take more risks, more chances, with a little bit of support from basically as a robot, it's like a plastic, very minimally humanoid robot with a computer screen on it.

C: Right. And that's really like not even the point. The point is that there was a figure. The point is that there was a voice.

B: Yeah. That's my question. What if it were a human or like a devil?

C: Yeah. It's the same thing.

S: I think it would be the same. Although when I wrote about it, I'm like, I really would have loved for there to be a fourth group with a human encouraging them just to see if there would be any separation between the robot and the human. So Cara's right. I mean, there's multiple layers here, right? There's the whole risk-averse thing we could talk about, like why are people so risk-averse? Why were people overly risk-averse rather than you would think evolution would optimize that, right? What I suspect is that when the stakes get higher, it makes sense to be more risk-averse. Like evolution doesn't care so much about how many pennies you make on a computer game, but they do care if you get eaten, you know? So in life or death situations, it probably makes more sense to be risk-averse and we just carry that heuristic through our lives even when-

E: Should have come with a little shock in their finger, unethical?

S: All right. So the other layer here is that our behavior is so easily manipulated by even little nudges like this, little psychological nudges.

C: We are so easy to-

S: Modifiable.

C: Yeah. I mean, it's like it reminds me of those classic studies where you were asked to bisect a line and say which side is bigger and then they would put the plants in the room and they would be like the left side when it was clearly the right side, but people would still go with whatever the plant said. That was a very, very classic psychological study. And there's even, I remember, I didn't participate in it, but back in the day when I was a guest host on Brain Games before the latest iteration, we did an episode called The God Brain. And one of the things that I did was it was like we told a story about the fact that somebody died in the room. We were in like an old university library and we told a story about the fact that somebody died in that room and their ghost still haunts it and don't sit in that chair because that's where they usually sit. And the chair happened to face where they were doing this like exercise. And like the presence of the idea of a spirit in the room tended to influence people's behavior.

S: Wow.

C: It was fascinating because it was a study about honesty. Like they did something with nobody watching and then they had to tell us how many mistakes they made. And people were like way more honest when they thought there was like a ghost watching them.

S: That's amazing.

B: Oh boy.

S: And then the other layer here is that we are social creatures as well. So that our socialization is important and it affects our behavior. We are evolved to respond to social cues very, very acutely.

C: So easily influenced by other people.

S: But then the other layer here is the fact that—

B: More layers?

S: Yeah. Well, it doesn't matter. It's like an onion, Bob. You keep peeling it away. It doesn't matter. We're so social that the agent of social cues doesn't even have to be a person and doesn't even have to be alive. And this gets back to—and I know I've mentioned this before on the show—the fact that our brains have an algorithm for determining if something has agency or not. Our brains actually aren't concerned with whether or not something in our environment is "alive". Just whether or not it has agency. And agency is the evolutionary marker for being alive. And the marker for agency is—do you guys remember what this is? How does our brain determine if something has agency?

J: If it moves on its own.

S: Yes. Practically speaking, if it moves in a non-inertial frame. So if it moves in such a way that cannot be completely accounted for by external forces such as gravity or wind or whatever.

C: I love that. So Steve, you could design a study where you had like a plant that has a lot of motor movement. You know, a plant.

S: It's already been done, though. Yeah, it's already been done.

C: Yeah, okay. And see if people respond more emotionally to it or whatever.

E: Yeah. Or you hook up an evil clown to a motor and set it loose in the room.

B: Oh my god.

S: Yeah, the research has already gone to its logical conclusion of stripping down the elements until all you have left is literally a two-dimensional shape that's moving in a non-inertial frame and we impose agency onto it. There's this famous video of like a circle, a triangle, and a square moving around the screen and people come up with a story like that's the daddy and that's threatening the child and the mother's protecting it. And it's just these shapes moving around the screen.

C: It even happens in non-human animals. I have a friend whose doctoral dissertation was with chickens and they were looking at theory of mind in chickens and they would get their chickens in their—they raised them in virtual reality cages so the walls were screens and they could get their chickens to imprint on like red dots and like follow their behavior and yeah, it's fascinating.

S: So that's why cartoons can make you cry, right? It doesn't matter if it's a two-dimensional drawing. If it's acting in a way that is—it's moving in a way that it appears to have agency, our brains process it as if it's an entity, a person. And what that means neurologically is once our brains identify what the thing is, it then connects to our emotional center and attaches emotion to it. So there's literally a connection that's being made because it's been categorized neurologically as something with agency. And it could be a rock. If that rock is moving around in a way that it looks like it's moving under its own power, our brains slot it as that's something with agency and therefore I have feelings about it, right? That then connects to your limbic system. Whereas everything else gets slotted as not agency, no emotional connection to it.

C: Right. Those feelings don't have to be positive, Evan.

S: It could be fear.

C: It can be disgust. It can be anything.

E: Fear.

C: Yeah. Or fear.

S: Well, I think just from a survival point of view, the things we need to worry about in our environment are things that could act on their own accord with their own purpose. We don't have to worry about things that are moving passively in the environment. So in any case—

B: Because they're predictable.

S: Yeah. In any case, what this means from a practical point of view, and I think what this research is highlighting is that things with agency can include robots.

C: Of course.

B: Absolutely.

S: They could also include virtual things like AI. It could be a voice. It doesn't even have to be a physical thing because there are other ways to trigger the emotions in us. And so this then let—I'm leading down this thought process of—and this is already happening, of course. So to what extent are we going to be manipulated by robots in the future as part just of the background? So I think this is already happening in that by some estimates, for example, half of Twitter accounts are bots.

J: Wow.

S: Right? That's basically AI.

C: Yeah. And those are agenda-driven bots that really do drive human behavior.

S: Yeah. Attempting to manipulate human behavior, and it's agenda-driven. There's somebody behind them. We're not even talking about general AI, like not an artificial intelligence deciding what to do, just as a tool of people who have an agenda.

C: Of social influence. Yeah.

S: Now think about corporations who want to influence your shopping behavior.

E: Well, yeah. I mean, this all comes to advertising and marketing. It's huge. Huge.

S: Or politicians, you know—

E: Sure. That's another form of it.

S: Want to influence your voting behavior. Or imagine a totalitarian government wanted to control all of your behavior, you know? And imagine the cage that can be built around people that is kind of invisible and in the background but manipulating every decision that we make.

C: Yeah. Go to North Korea.

S: Well, yeah.

E: I mean, this is the stuff of science fiction books that I used to read.

C: But it's also happening all the time.

S: Yeah. So that's the—

C: It already happens.

S: Yeah. It's already happening in totalitarian countries. So that's the maximally dystopian view of where this will lead. The maximally utopian view is that a benign government would use this to encourage pro-social behavior, positive behavior.

C: Encourage getting vaccinated, for example.

S: Discourage criminal behavior, whatever.

B: Yeah. Like if we had a real AI running our society, it could do cool stuff like that.

J: Oh, God. Bob loves that.

C: No thank you.

S: Or you might consider the ultimate utopian outcome to be this gets completely banned and nothing is influencing our behavior without our explicit knowledge and consent.

B: Yeah. That's gonna happen.

E: It's unrealistic.

S: But we have to decide, though. We have to create our own future. We have to think about this. We shouldn't just—so here's the thing. I don't think that we should just let it happen organically. Like whatever happens, happens, because that's definitely not going to be what we want to happen. I don't know what it's going to be, but it's probably not going to be anything close to what we actually want to have happen.

C: Also, Steve, there's no such thing as it happening organically. It's being driven by human decisions behind the scenes, left and right.

S: I know that, but that's what I mean by that.

B: But there's a push and pull.

C: No, but it's people with—generally speaking, people with who stand to gain monetarily who are making these kinds of decisions.

S: That's exactly what I mean, though, by organically, meaning individual corporations, entities, individual people are making decisions in their own interest, and that's—in the aggregate, that's our decision. As opposed to let's have a conversation as a society and come up with a collective decision about where we want to go with this rather than just letting people do whatever they want to do.

C: It's the only way for it to be egalitarian. I mean, otherwise, yeah, it's always going to privilege certain people and really screw other people over.

S: We're just not dystopian, right? The thing is, this is so powerful, and—you know what I mean? We're already dealing with this, again, with you go online, you're reading news online, you're reading Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. You are being manipulated by bots.

E: So how do you—how do you compensate for this?

C: Regulation.

E: Well, yeah.

S: That's the conversation we need to have, right?

E: But how do you fight the psychological aspects of this?

B: You live in a cave.

E: It's still going to happen, isn't it?

S: Well, I think individually, individually you just need to be aware that this is—and your awareness of it gives you a certain—it doesn't make you proof from it, but it gives you a certain level of control. Right? At least you're not going to be completely at the mercy of being manipulated if you're aware. That's why everyone should take a social psychology course or read a book or whatever, because if not, you're at the mercy of people who will use that social psychology technology to manipulate you. But I do think we need regulations.

C: But I do believe, like, the onus isn't on the individual either.

S: No, yeah.

C: It's just like with plastic pollution, right? It can't just be about reduce, reuse, recycle. That's not how we're going to get rid of the problem. We have to see pressure on people in power.

S: Oh, yeah. I agree. I agree. I just always think—it's like, yes, the system should be set up so that you don't have to protect yourself, but protect yourself, right?

C: Exactly.

S: It's like, yes, you're right. Somebody shouldn't be able to defraud you, but this is how you don't get defrauded because the system is not perfect and—

C: Absolutely.

B: And you've got to be a realist.

S: In many, many ways. Yeah, you've got to be a realist. So, yeah.

E: So you're saying if you give people a minimum amount of tools, that gets them—that gives them enough defense or it will help enough people to make a difference?

S: Oh, I think it will make a difference, but it won't be enough. It's just like—

C: Yeah, it's like getting hacked, right? Like, you might be as secure as possible, but there's always going to be a new hacker who's going to dupe you in a way that you're never going to be sophisticated enough to see coming.

S: Yeah, like there's good online hygiene where you can minimize the chance of you getting phished or your identity stolen or whatever, but that's not going to protect everybody and you can't guarantee that you won't get exploited. But if it's built into the system, there are protections and laws and whatever, and that minimizes the chance even further. So I wouldn't tell people, don't bother to protect yourself because it's not—it really shouldn't be on you. But I would just say, here's how you protect yourself, but we have to think about, how regulations and laws could protect the maximal amount of people. The idea that we are—I mean, the technology and society is getting so complicated. The idea that you could entirely protect yourself from any way that somebody might exploit you is just unrealistic. It's absurd, you know?

Genetically Engineered Pigs (51:06)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, what I want to know is, does Jay have 10 pounds of genetically engineered bacon in his future?

C: If he wants to. It'll probably cost a lot more than—

S: Does this go back to an inside joke that predates Cara? I think it does.

C: Yeah, I don't know this.

J: It does.

E: Oh, the bacon.

J: Yes, it does.

C: Wait, tell me about the bacon.

J: Something about meat.

S: It was the fish oil bacon.

J: Yes, omega-3 fat bacon. If they ever came out with bacon that was omega-3 fatty acids instead of horrible animal fat, then I would eat 10 pounds of it in one sitting.

C: Oh, right. Instead of having to, like, take the fish oil pills or eat all that fish.

J: No, it's eating 10 pounds of bacon that won't kill me. That's really what it's about.

C: Yeah, that sounds awesome. Now, this one won't help you with that, though. It's not going to be healthier for you, but it might not kill you if you have an allergy. And that's really the big takeaway here. We just still don't know if it'll kill you if you have an allergy, but we'll probably know soon. So, okay, two days ago, as of this recording, December 14, 2020, the FDA put out a news release that they have approved a first-of-its-kind intentional genomic alteration. That is a term that they use a lot, intentional genomic alteration. I think it's their way to say GMO without freaking people out.

E: Oh, boy.

C: In a line of domestic pigs for both human food and for potential therapeutic uses. Now, this sounds like, holy crap, wait, what? GMO pigs and we can eat them and we can make drugs out of them and it is pretty awesome. But just to err for a second, what we may not know or remember is that there are already GMO animal proteins for food and there are already GMO animal sources for therapeutic uses. Did you guys know this?

E: Oh, yeah.

S: Sure.

C: Okay. So you might not remember, but in 2015, towards the end, salmon was named the first GM animal that was safe to eat. And I think this might've been the same salmon that I studied when I worked for Al Jazeera. We did a story about, yeah, this Chinook salmon gene that went into the Atlantic salmon that made it grow really fast. I think I was looking at one with an ocean pout because it was in Canada, but similar thing. It was basically a gene that was inserted that made them grow super fast so you could, their life cycles were shortened so you had bigger turnover. We also had in 2015 a GM chicken that was approved for medical use. So we don't have any GM chicken to eat, but the egg whites from this chicken were used to make drugs. We've also seen GM goats that make a drug out of their milk that helps reduce blood clots. And actually one of the potential uses I think for this new GM pig could be that as well. So I think we often forget that although we are very biotechnologically advanced in many aspects of biomedical science, there's still a fair amount of drugs that require the utilization of animal products. You know, the fair amount of drugs where we have to do not just experimentation on animals, but we need animal reservoirs to produce the drugs themselves. And so let's talk about this GM pig, or as they're saying, this IGA pig. Steve, have you heard this? IGA? Intentional Genomic Alteration?

S: No.

C: Yeah. From what I gather, I feel like honestly this is just good marketing from the FDA.

B: Yeah, yeah. I approve.

C: I think that's exactly what this is. And I love the name of these pigs. They're called GAL-SAFE. So let's see where does that GAL-SAFE come from. It comes from alpha-gal syndrome. This also ties back to a story that I'm sure we covered on the SGU several years ago about meat allergies. Do you guys remember covering the story about, yeah, people get bit by a Lone Star tick. They have an immune reaction where they, basically there's a surface sugar. It's called galactose alpha-1,3-galactose. And for short, it's called alpha-gal. And alpha-gal, when certain people are bit by this Lone Star tick, will have like an intense immunoglobulin reaction because of that carbohydrate. It induces this reaction. And unfortunately, in some of those people, later when they try to eat meat, they'll have an allergic reaction to that because of that immune system response. Now alpha-gal is found on all mammals. The only mammals that don't have alpha-gal, weirdly, are apes, humans, and old world monkeys. So our genetic lineage doesn't have alpha-gal, but every other mammal does. And so if you want alpha-gal-safe food, it means that you can't eat mammalian meat products. So people with an alpha-gal allergy aren't completely allergic to meat. They can still eat poultry. They can still eat fish. And weirdly, in some cases, they can eat super lean meats like venison. Apparently, I guess the alpha-gal load is just very low in those meats, and it doesn't trigger a reaction. But in some people, they can't even eat those ungulates. And I mean, it sucks, right? Like can you imagine you get bit by a tick and all of a sudden you can't eat meat? I mean, maybe it's a good way to go meat-free, like for the environment and for all those other purposes.

E: I can't think of a scenario where it would ever be beneficial to be bit by a tick.

C: Right, yeah. I guess if you've like really, really were like, man, I want to go vegan or veg, it's just been a goal of mine my whole life. And every time I try that, bacon just comes to call in, and then you get bit by the tick. But honestly, like not to make light, it's a serious reaction for some people. o kind of standard allergic reaction, it runs the gamut. Everything from hives, itchy skin swelling in the mouth, wheezing, shortness of breath, all the way to anaphylaxis, right? Like potential death. Researchers at Revivacor Inc. have sought FDA approval and received it for their gal-safe pigs. So these pigs are just the same as the pigs that they came from, except that they have been genetically modified not to include this gal surface sugar. And so because they don't include alpha-gal, they can't induce alpha-gal syndrome, or at least that's the thought. So the research so far that has led to FDA approval does not have anything to do with whether or not alpha-gal syndrome is induced. It's only about whether or not these pigs are safe environmentally and safe as a food source for the general population. So obviously there's more research to be done. Kind of the downstream hope with these pigs is that they can be used as an alpha-gal safe food source, that they can also be used as an alpha-gal safe medical source. But before those types of studies need FDA approval, or before those types of studies can translate into products that are available on the market, they need to seek separate FDA approval. So this is the first step. The first step is we've done the research and we've shown that these alpha-gal safe pigs can be eaten and have no negative health consequences. For all intents and purposes, it's the exact same as eating any other pig meat. And also there are no downstream environmental effects of these alpha-gal safe pigs. If anything, they're actually much more expensive to keep, I think just because they're genetically modified pigs. So the source material costs more. So they're probably actually kept in better conditions, and you see actually environmental positives downstream. But the next steps are really interesting, right? The food source might be basically a meatless allergy meat, which is pretty cool, or a meat allergy-less meat, I said that weird. And also there's an idea for potentially using them to grow tissues and organs that could address the problems in xenotransplants. So it's not uncommon that we have to use animal tissues for transplanted products in medical intervention. And unfortunately, it does seem to be that alpha-gal sugars are one of the causes of rejection in certain patients. And so if we can utilize these pigs that don't have alpha-gal, then maybe we're going to have a potential breakthrough in the ability to do tissue transplantation with them. Finally, the FDA evaluation also showed that after multiple generations, the gal-safe pigs still don't have the alpha-gal sugars. So it's a line that can be utilized again and again and again for research and eventually perhaps for commercial uses. So you know, the headlines are always like, first of its kind, and it's like, yes, it is technically the first of its kind, because it's technically the first animal product that is both approved for therapeutic uses and as human food. But we already have human food approved GM, we already have therapeutic approved animal GM. It's the first that does both. We also still don't know yet if it is going to completely not induce an allergic reaction in alpha-gal patients. But there's good reason to believe that because there's nothing within the pig to induce the allergic reaction. And we don't know what the future holds in terms of the types of medications or the types of therapeutics that could be developed with this. But it's a really interesting new source for a lot of future research.

E: Alpha-gal sounds like a superhero name.

C: I know. Alpha-gal cracks me up every time I hear it. I'm like, whoever named that is very creative, and I love it. Alpha-gal.

S: Yeah. I know they're kind of working on... The other one I've been following is trying to develop genetically modified allergy-free peanuts.

C: Yeah. Yeah. I've been seeing a lot of that. Gosh, that would be amazing.

S: They haven't cracked that nut yet.

C: They haven't cracked that nut? But they're close, right?

S: Well, yeah. I mean, just like reading like in 2015, it's like, oh, we're close. You know, but...

C: Right.

S: It just hasn't... They haven't crossed the finish line yet. And they may have zeroed in on some proteins that are making it hypoallergenic, but you could still get an allergic reaction to it.

C: And it has so much to do with like how complicated is the allergy. Like the cool thing about the alpha-gal syndrome is that we know exactly what's inducing it.

S: Yeah. Yeah.

'C: It's this one sugar. You knock out the sugar, all of a sudden you're not going to have the allergy. So here's hoping that it actually turns out to be true. I'm so hoping that it actually turns out to really improve the lives of the people who are affected by it, both in terms of being able to receive therapeutics but also to be able to get that bacon.

S: Yep. Absolutely.

Asteroid Sample Return (1:02:07)[edit]

S: Okay, Evan, this is a quick one. You're just going to give... Tell us what happened when Hayabusa... Hayabusa or Hayabusa?

E: Hayabusa2.

S: Hayabusa2 came back. Did it have samples from the asteroid or not?

E: Yes, it did.

C: Oh, yeah.

E: There you go. News item over. All right. This past Monday, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, JAXA, JAXA, they made an extraordinary announcement. They successfully collected samples of gases and dust harvested from an asteroid and brought them safely back to Earth. This is the world's first sample return of a material in the gas state from deep space. Whoa.

S: Cool.

E: It sounds sort of basic in a way, but at the same time, it fiercely complicated and an amazing, incredible achievement that, that took place here. So it was the Hayabusa2 and it was launched December 3rd, 2014. And it met up with its target in June of 2018. That's asteroid 162173 Ryugu. R-Y-U-G-U. Ryugu?

S: Yeah. I used to love playing him in Street Fighter.

E: This is a near earth asteroid. It surveyed the asteroid for a year and a half and took the samples. Now, how did it collect the samples? Well, it fired an impactor, boom, into the asteroid. That took place in February of 2019. It created an artificial crater and that allowed the spacecraft to collect a sample from beneath the surface of the asteroid. Very, very cool. So after that, it took Lee, it collected the sample. After a little more time, it took leave of the asteroid. That was in November of 2019. But before the mission went on to continue into space, while it was doing a near earth flyby, it jettisoned the container of samples and it fell to earth on December 5th and it came to rest in the Australian desert, fully intact, thank goodness. And they collected it soon afterwards and they already started doing tests on it. And it's been tested. There are two laboratories that have done tests on it. The first laboratory on December 7th suggested that the gas differed from the atmospheric composition of the earth. That way, basically their way of saying that the gas it collected was not contaminated and they went for additional confirmation of this. It was performed on December 10th and 11th and that led to the same conclusion. So they released their press release the other day explaining that this was the result. And there's also some bits in there, little bits, little particles, which they didn't have too much to say yet about that. It's obviously all still new. They're still doing analysis, but they're saying what they have here is definitely gas from deep space. Very cool.

S: Cool. Yeah. So mission accomplished. Now they just have to do the analysis to see what it is. That could take months before we see anything published or announced.

E: Yeah, it could take a while. And they also are going to be distributing some of this material to various space organizations around the world. Yep. And they'll run tests. So we're going to be learning. It'll unfold over the next several months, I'm certain, if not years.

S: Yep. Okay.

E: And yep, it came on the heels of OSIRIS-REx. Remember we talked about that a couple months ago in which the US were going to have those samples back in 2023. And we'll be sharing some of those samples with Japan, sort of in exchange for the samples that they're going to share with NASA. So that's a nice exchange there.

S: Yeah. And China just returned samples from the moon back from the Chenge 5.

E: Sweet. Yep. So we can do it. And you know, the more you think about it, I think it lends more credence to the fact that when we start exploring places like Mars, it's really going to be robots and collectors and these sorts of technology is definitely going to lead the way. More so, I think, than humans. And now that they have these successful missions, why wouldn't you go that direction?

S: Yeah. We definitely robots are going to be leading the way anywhere we go in space. No question.

E: Absolutely.

Who's That Noisy? (1:06:22)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: _brief_description_perhaps_with_link_

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

J: All right, Steve, last week I played this noisy.


What do you guys think it is?

E: It could be the window rolled down as you're driving down the highway. Who knows?

B: Jay, it's a game we had when we were a kid where it had a helicopter attached to a, like a piece of plastic, an arm that would go around in a circle and you could pick up stuff. That's what it was.

J: Not even close. Not even close.

B: No, I'm right. I'm right.

E: I like the guess. I think it's creative.

J: All right. So we had, I got so many guesses. I got so many different guesses. Like I just can't list them all, but like, let me just cruise through some of them here. So a listener named Rob Cook wrote in and said, hi Jay, it sounds like wind. So based on your hint, I'm going to guess someone recording themselves skydiving. And I can actually see where Rob's coming from with that. It's not correct. And you know, I've heard people actually I've heard audio from that and it's a lot more like windy, you know what I mean? I don't, I don't want to, this, this is more of a crunchy noise. Or scrunching kind of compacting noise.

C: Scrunching.

S: Scrunchy. Crunchy covers it.

E: Write that down.

J: Another guess from a listener named Chris Wassmer, who is the husband of a former coworker of mine who happened to be a listener of the show and he emailed me, I thought it was really cool. He said, Jay, I think the noisy is an anemometer for measuring wind speed, spinning up in a strong gale or hurricane force wind. Love the show. Thanks for providing two hours of sane news and thought-provoking content every week. Cheers, Chris. You guys know what an anemometer is?

C: No.

B: Is that wind speed?

S: Anemometer. It's probably an anemometer.

J: Anemometer.

B: Is that wind speed, Jay?

J: It's a wind. It measures wind speed. It's one of those things that spins like it has like like cups or whatever, and they spin around and tells you how fast the wind's blowing. Typically they're paired with something that tells you the direction of the wind.

S: Like, like a rooster?

E: Yes. Oh, a weather vane.

S: Exactly.

J: That is incorrect. And I liked it because I learned something, which is always good, but that one is not correct. I actually tried to find the sound of one of these devices and I couldn't, so I can't tell Chris how right or wrong he was. But Chris, if you have a recording of one email me and so I can hear it because I want to hear what that sounds like. Another one. Here's the last one before the reveal. Visto Tutti, of course, he wrote in. Now remember Visto said that he was going to try to answer every single who's that noisy this year. And I think he did.

C: Oh, cool.

J: So far, yes.

B: Awesome.

J: Yeah, he's one away. So he's done great this year. Visto said, sounds like ice calving, calving, right? Calving from a glacier. Quite possibly from a Ford designed by Slarty Barfast. Bob, who is Slarty Barfast?

B: Come on, Douglas Adams. He designed, he designed all the coastlines. He's very good at fjords.

C: Oh my God, that name.

B: Slarty Barfast was it, I think?

J: Yeah, Slarty Barfast. If I remember correctly, didn't they find his signature in a glacier?

B: Oh, I think. Yeah. But yeah, he's won awards.

J: So anyway, that is not correct. That is not correct. Another good guess. Here is the person who did not win, but came the closest. All right. There is no winner this week, but he came the closest. Gary Record said, Ricard actually said, hi Jay. I'm quite sure someone else has probably already nailed this one, but this noisy sounds like a recording made while riding a sled down a snowy hill. How about them apples, love Gary. He came very close. This is not the sound of a sled scrunching snow underneath it. This is the sound of car tires scrunching snow while driving over fresh snow. Listen again. All of you that live in the North, you should know this. [plays Noisy] Do you hear it? Every single person that has driven in fresh snow has heard that noise. You have no excuse, Northerners.

S: Or Southerners, Jay. You're having a Northern hemisphere bias there.

J: I know. Yeah, come on. All snow comes from the North pole. Everybody knows that. So I picked this one because it's a winter related item. And because Christmas coming and all it's the holiday season. I figured people would have snow on the brain. We are getting 15 inches tonight. Some of us in more ways than one. Thank you, Bob.

S: It's snowing right now.

B: Three times.

C: Oh, weird.

S: I put the stakes around my driveway and then my dog pulled them all out and then I put them down again.

J: Well, that's why you put steak down and you don't expect a dog to go and eat the steak?

S: No, no, the stakes the markers from where the edge of the driveway is. And then he also, I got it. Whatever.

E: Of course.

S: My dog also likes to eat every package that gets dropped off in the front of the house. So we got a delivery box that nobody uses. They deliver-

C: Yeah, you told us.

E: That's a whole extra step for them.

S: So tonight they delivered something I ordered for my wife and my daughters for Christmas, a little like stocking stuffer type gift. I got them those little like rape alarms. It's like a little fob that you carry with you. And all you have to do is pull the pin and it gets like a flashy, bright light and a loud siren.

B: So how many decibels?

S: Well, it's 130. I think it's.

B: Whoa. Nice.

E: That's pretty severe.

J: We live in a world where people buy other people, rape alarms for stocking.

S: Whatever. So it was, uh, of course they didn't drop it in the mailbox or in the delivery box. They dropped it on the front, on the front step and, and my dog ripped it to shreds. But he accidentally pulled one of the pins.

B: So your dog was getting raped. What happened, man?

S: Scared the crap out of him, which is great. And then of course we're inside the house. Like, what is that noise? My wife was like, what is that noise? Is that, it sounds like an alarm. And then, uh, then it hits me. Like the whole scenario instantly hit me. It's like, I ordered them. They got delivered and Sagan ripped him, ripped him over.

J: Oh my God. When did this happen?

S: Just tonight.

J: Oh my God. Steve, did, oh, did you, did it blew the surprise, I guess?

S: Yeah, of course. I had to pick them up off the front lawn.

J: Steve, remember when I ordered something for the SGU, those plastic clips?

S: Yes.

J: And they mysteriously, the package never showed up. And then, and then we found them strewn across, across the lawn. Some of them were half eaten. I mean, Steve's dog just goes for it.

S: He, anything that gets dropped off at the front of the house, it's just his toy. That's what, the people are delivering toys to him. That's what he does.

E: Aw.

J: He loves them.

C: That's so cute.

S: Yeah, cute.

J: He is an awesome dog though. He is awesome. He, his dog and my dog are best friends.

S: Yeah, totally.

E: Steve's new camera.

S: Yeah, he destroyed a camera that I ordered.

E: Oh gosh, it really did. I didn't know that.

S: Oh, it was, it was a lens for my phone, but yeah, it was like, yeah, probably the camera on my phone.

J: Everything we name, he destroyed.

S: Yeah.

New Noisy (1:13:45)[edit]

J: All right. So I got a new noisy this week. This was sent in by a listener named Ray Ort.

E: Like Ort Cloud?

J: O-R-T, baby.

S: Oh, one O, okay.


So ignore all the other noises in the background, like the wind and the guys, there's some guy there. It's just that moaning type of noise. I want you to tell me what it is. If you heard anything cool this week, you can email me at the same address that you should email me. If you know what that sound is.

B: I know what it is. It's a guy in the wind.

E: With something else going on.

J: That is Steve's rape alarm in the front yard as Sagan rips the pin out of it. What is like, I always think of a grenade when you say rip the pin out.

S: That's what it's like. It's like a grenade pin. It pull it out and the alarm goes off.

J: It's a rape grenade. I mean, oh my God, the world.

E: Rape grenade.

J: Email me at

S: But Jay, Jay, they have multiple uses. One of the uses is you could make a trip wire in front of your door, connected to the pin, and then people trip it as they try to go through.

B: Nice. I like that.

J: That's true. As you play Fallout four, you know what trip wires are all about.

S: Totally.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:15:08)[edit]

Email #1: Historicity of Jesus[edit]

S: All right. We're going to do one, one email this week. This is a collective email. This is the most emailed topic I think we've gotten over the last couple of weeks. A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about the news item about the archaeologist who claims to have found Jesus's house. And the primary argument that it was the house of the biblical Jesus was that the stonework was pretty good and Jesus's father was supposed to have been a craftsman and there you go. So I thought that was a pretty, pretty weak, pretty thin argument. And I, and, and sort of as an aside, I said, it's hard to claim that you've discovered the house of someone that we don't even know if they actually existed or not. And I just briefly mentioned the arguments there. The reason why I was, I thought I could just very quickly touch on that topic is because we've already done a deep dive on it in the past. I don't expect everyone listening to the show to know our entire catalog. You know, we're over 800. As I said, I would mention if that we did do a deeper dive on that, but I have been doing a lot of reading on this. I've been engaged with a lot of email conversations with people emailed me, but I do want to, to sort of update this topic a bit. So the question is, what is the evidence for the historicity of the Jesus of the new Testament? I want to say a couple of things about that. First of all, if you have not done significant reading on this question, you have no idea. This is a very deep topic. It really is. And I just don't just, I'm just, I'm just advocating for a little bit of humility in that this is, you don't think you can read a quick one-off about it and you have any idea what's going on. It's also a fascinating topic from a skeptical point of view. It's really extremely interesting. And many of the scholars involved in this discussion are using a lot of logic and techniques, Bayesian analysis, a lot of things that we talk about as skeptics. There is a lot of skepticism in this topic. I recommend, if you're interested in it, to find some good sources and read about it. But let me give you some, address some of the feedback that we were getting. So the claim often is that if you look at just historians, right, so not theologians, but historians looking at the historical question, was Jesus a historical figure, that there is a strong consensus that the answer is almost definitely yes. And so we could just take that as a given. And again, the point I was making two weeks ago, which is still my position, is that we cannot take that as a given. And I'm going to explain to you a little bit more detail why that is. First of all, I will push back on the notion that there is anything approaching a solid consensus on that question. But first, you have to recognize that there are a lot of theological historians in the mix here. And so you really do have to consider them separately and, and really only need to consider, if you consider secular historians who are not coming at this from a strictly religious faith point of view, which doesn't mean that they're atheists and, and et cetera. I'll also say that this question is completely irrelevant to, to the position of atheism. It's not like atheists need for Jesus to not have been a historical figure. It doesn't matter either way, really. And you'll understand more why that's the case in a moment. But there isn't really a strong consensus. There is, in fact, a strong debate going on on this question among the secular historians. And the question comes, there's a couple of ways to frame this question. So first of all, some of the scholars have said that the question of whether or not Jesus was a historical figure is not really even the question that they're trying to answer. It's really just one sort of side question. The real question they're trying to answer with the records that we have is, what is the origin of Christianity? Where did Christianity come from, right? ne possibility is that Christianity came from a guy named Jesus who had a ministry, and he was the founder of Christianity. So the real question is, was a historical Jesus the founder of Christianity versus some—because if there wasn't a historical Jesus, then he wasn't the founder of Christianity. Therefore, it must have some other origin, right? And then if you think there are other origins of the religion of Christianity that are plausible or consistent with the historical record, then the question is, is the character of Jesus, is that a mythologized historical figure or a historicized mythological figure? So those are the two questions. What's the origin of Christianity, and did the incarnation the narrative literary incarnation of Jesus, did that start as a historical person that then got mythologized, or did it start as a mythological concept that then got historicized? Both of those things happen throughout history, so we know that both of those processes have occurred. One of the people that I've been reading—and I've read this guy a long time ago, but I just read some more of his recent writings—is Richard Carrier. Richard Carrier is on the most mythicist end of the spectrum, that Jesus started as a mythological creature and then was historicized. I really like the way this guy argues. His writing, I find, to be very humble, very skeptical, very logical. He does not overstate his claims or his case. You know, and basically he's saying we don't know. That's really what he's saying, is that if you take an honest look at the evidence we actually have and what we can say with confidence, you cannot conclude, cannot conclude, that Jesus was probably a historical figure. At best, you can conclude that we really don't know, that we're really uncertain. But there are—and he says here are the best arguments for, here are the best arguments against. He acknowledges which arguments for the historicity of Jesus are valid or legitimate, when they may be true or may not be true, etc. But there's a in sort of rereading a lot of this recently, sort of I learned some new things or reminded me of some things which are important. So to show you how much we don't know, right? So first of all, like you addressed the question, how do we know if a character from from legend is historical or not? One question that you ask is, are there any contemporary documents, right? Is there any contemporary reference to the character from the time period that they were supposed to have been alive? And do you guys know what the answer is for Jesus?

E: Probably no.

S: No, you don't know? Or the answer is no?

C: I think the answer is no.

S: The answer is no. There is not a single reference to Jesus that is contemporary. There's not a single eyewitness of Jesus that wrote contemporarily. And Jesus wrote nothing, right? We have no writings of Jesus.

B: Well, they did describe him writing in the sand in one of the gospels, I believe.

S: Yeah, but we have no writings. So one of the arguments against the historicity of Jesus is the argument from silence. We have a lot of records from that time. If this is somebody who started a religion, you would think there might have been some mention of him. It's not a slam dunk, but it is one notch on the, he probably you could argue that he may not have existed because there was no contemporary mention of him. Do any of you guys know what the first, the oldest documents referring to Jesus are? So what are the oldest Christian documents that we have?

E: Oh, gosh. I don't know.

C: Is this 200 years later?

S: So do you know what they are? So what are the writings?

C: The gospels?

S: The gospels were the second. That was basically a generation later. Before the gospels.

C: I thought those would, so there's something before that.

E: The pre-gospels.

S: Nope, they're the letters of Paul. The letters of Paul are the first the historically oldest actual references we have to Jesus. And so if you read Paul, that is perhaps the best, we could argue, the best window we have into the origins of Christianity. Again, remember, that's really the question here. How did this whole religion begin? And so Paul never met Jesus while he was alive, right? Makes no mention of it. So how does Paul portray Jesus if we look only at his writings? He entirely refers to Jesus as a spiritual being. Entirely. He makes, not only did he not know him when he was alive, he doesn't make any reference to the living Jesus. Not a single reference. Jesus is 100% a spiritual being in Paul's writings. So that's the first generation after the time period of the that where Jesus was supposed to be alive. It's not until the gospels, which is a full generation later, that there are stories which talk about Jesus as a living being. How did Paul get his, what was Paul's source of information about the spiritual Jesus?


S: Well, that's a good guess, Bob, that's a really good guess.

E: Gold plates buried in, oh, no, wrong.

S: It's entirely, it's entirely through revelation, through visions.

E: Oh, okay, so I'm not that wrong.

S: Yeah, it's entirely through visions. So that no—

B: The guy's like a medium.

S: Yeah, the guy's like a medium speaking to a mythological spiritual being, and that's it. There's no mention of him ever being alive. Now there are some sort of phrases that Paul uses that people use to argue, he wouldn't have said that if Jesus was never alive. But they're all problematic. None of them are a slam dunk. So Carrier uses a lot of logic, that's Bayesian, he says, all right, if we look at all of the people throughout history, including religions, all of the figures, right, that have the same kind of characteristics that Jesus has, they were said to be divine, they were said to have risen from the dead, blah, blah, blah, that fits sort of the narrative role that Jesus does. How many of them were mythological and how many of them were historical? And almost all of them are mythological. And so he says, just from a, out of the gate, from just a higher probability, figures like Jesus are mythological, almost always. And so that's not a bad starting point. And is there anything that reverses that, that would say there's enough evidence to conclude that he was actually a living person? And there really, really isn't. You can't rule out that there wasn't a Jesus figure that started the Christian faith, although it's not necessary, because you can make a reasonable argument it was started by Peter, James, and John. They were the ones who started Christianity. Paul then, he was basically on a mission to craft it into a certain philosophy. There were many Christian sects at the same time. Essentially, it started as a Jewish sect. Paul is the one that made it a non-Jewish sect. And then, but there were many other Christian sects at the same time. Then what happened around 200 years, like AD, right, when the Catholic Christian church was gaining power, they are the first ones to really decide that every Christian sect other than them was heresy. And they started wiping out all of the references that were not canonical. And then when the Roman Empire adopted their form of Christianity as their official religion, they had the power of law to decide that everything else was heresy and destroy it systematically. And so we basically have a very sanitized record of just this one sect of Christianity. And in fact, some scholars argue that the original sect of Christianity, which was Jewish, died out. And that this one, this Paul's version survived, while 30 other ones survived as well. But they were all then systematically eradicated. However, we have some recovered evidence from it. This is the Gnostic Gospels. Remember, we talked about that. The gospel according to, remember, the gospel according to Judas. The gospel according to Ruth is another one. And these paint completely different pictures of who Jesus was and what happened. So the versions of the person Jesus that we have are completely different and contradictory. There are completely different mythological conceptions of what Jesus was. There are some very Eastern conceptions, some very Jewish conceptions, and then the one that ended up being the canonical Christian conception. Even the very fundamental things, like was he divine? You know, all the fundamental questions. There's many different permutations were floating around at that time. We kind of have hindsight bias that we think of "Christianity" as the one sect that won survived and declared all others heresy. The other main line of argument, and I got pushback for not bringing this up, so I'll bring it up quickly here, is that there are secular references to Jesus as a person, like Josephus and Tacitus are the two big ones. But what the scholars argue is that these were completely unreliable sources. They were not contemporary. They were not eyewitness. And they were basically hearsay after Christianity already existed as a sect, and essentially they were just reporting what those Christians were saying. And so they are of zero historical value in terms of addressing this question. Yes, there are different interpretations of all this. It's horrifically complicated. Again, I'm not saying this is what we know or this is absolutely true. It's possible that that's somebody named Jesus walking around 2000 years ago, but it's also possible that there wasn't. And we really don't know. And there isn't this consensus that people refer to. It really is just a way of trying to shut down debate, in my opinion.

E: That's what it sounds like to me, yeah.

S: But guys, this is such a fascinating story.

B: It really is.

S: Just try to reconstruct this. We can analogize the formation of the Christian religion with the formation of the Mormon religion, right? And in that analogy, Paul is Joseph Smith, and Jesus is Moroni. And nobody thinks that Moroni is a historical living person. It's clearly a mythological being. But that relationship is actually almost identical to the relationship between Paul and Jesus, who saw him in visions and never referred to him as an actual living, breathing person. But it could work both ways. The point is you could make it work both ways. The other point that multiple scholars make at either end of the spectrum, whether you're at the historicist end or the mythologist end, they both say what we're talking about here has nothing to do with the gospel Jesus, right? The gospel Jesus, meaning the person who was born of virgin birth, who had a ministry, who did miracles, who was crucified, right? No secular historian is saying that that gospel Jesus existed. That's not even up for debate. That's not the question from a historical point of view. It's just more just the founder of the Christianity. Was the founder of Christianity the person Jesus who had a ministry, or was it Peter, James, and John, and then Paul? Were they the founders of this Christian sect? Again, keeping in mind there were many other Christian sects. So there is no historical, evidence-based, logical argument you could make for the gospel Jesus having existed or being a historical figure.

B: Yeah, that's an important point.

S: That's not even on the table. And again, I always like to emphasize this has nothing to do with faith, right? You could believe whatever you want to believe. We're not attacking anybody's faith. I'm addressing the premise that from a secular historical point of view, that people say there's a consensus that Jesus was a historical figure, and I'm saying that's not true. There isn't a consensus, and quite honestly, I find the arguments at the other end of the spectrum far more logical and compelling than the ones at the extreme historicist end of the spectrum. Although I'm willing to admit it's all possible, and we don't know.

B: Scratch that itch good, Steve?

S: Oh, yeah. I scratched that itch real good, real deep. All right, let's go on with science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:32:39)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Code like language
Science Older galaxies exist
Exoplanet radio signal
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Older galaxies exist
Code like language
Code like language
Code like language

Voiceover: It's time for Science or Fiction.

Item #1: Neuroscientists find that reading computer code heavily involves language processing areas of the brain, and is therefore similar to a language.[6]
Item #2: A study of the most distant known object in the universe, galaxy GN-z11, which is 13.4 billion light years from Earth, contains heavier elements, which means there are older galaxies still.[7]
Item #3: Astronomers report the first possible radio signal coming from an exoplanet. [8]

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Just three news items this week. Are you guys ready?

J: Yes.

S: All right, here we go. Item number one, neuroscientists find that reading computer code heavily involves language processing areas of the brain and is therefore similar to a language. Item number two, a study of the most distant known object in the universe, galaxy GNZ11, which is 13.4 billion light years from Earth, contains heavier elements, which means there are older galaxies still. And item number three, astronomers report the first possible radio signal coming from an exoplanet. Jay, go first.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right, Steve, this first one, neuroscientists find that reading computer code heavily involves language processing areas of the brain. So they're saying it's similar to language. The thing is, coming from a software background it's, I wish I knew other languages other than English because I could well, but I do know that the way that we string the thoughts together, even though that order can change, computer language does have a way of stringing things together. However, it's very different, I think, than language. Man, that's a tough one. I mean, it is a way of communication that has a repeat very repetitive like languages, and there's lots of similar elements. I mean, yeah, I could see that there's something to it. I'd say that one is a definite maybe, not on my hot list. Next one, a study of the most distant known object in the universe, which is galaxy GN-Z11, which is 13.4 billion light years from Earth, contains heavier elements, which means there are older galaxies still.

S: Do you understand that? So in other words, as old as this thing is, it must be things even older because this can't be the first galaxy or the stars and it cannot be the first stars because it contains heavier elements from older stars.

J: Aha, understood. Yeah, that makes sense. I thought we did find the oldest galaxy, though, and the farthest.

E: We did. This is it, GN-Z11.

J: Okay, that one's on my probably fiction list. Let's go to the last one. Astronomers report the first possible radio signal coming from an exoplanet, a radio signal. I don't think that that's that crazy. You know, for a planet, some type of thing that is sending a radio signal, it's basically just the spectrum of light. So it doesn't mean that some device created it. It could be a phenomenon that created it. That's, I think, more likely. I think the second one here about the GN-Z11, that's the fake.

S: Okay, Cara?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Oh, gosh. Okay, so. Okay, so Jay, you think that it's not weird for a radio signal to come from an exoplanet, and I have no idea, so I'm going to say okay. So it's going to be between the other two. So basically, you're saying with this, the farthest away object, which is this galaxy, based on its composition, it makes us believe there's probably things that are even older than it, even though that's the farthest away that we've detected. So there could be farther away things that are older, or there could be older things that are closer, for reasons I do not understand. But it seems possible. I feel like a lot of things are very possible with cosmology. Reading computer code involves language processing areas and is therefore similar to language. It involves them? I know you didn't write the word, but do you mean like mostly or heavily?

S: It says heavily. It says heavily involves language processing.

C: Oh, you're right. You're right. I didn't even see it. Okay, cool. It heavily involves language. I don't know, man. I think computer code is processed more like math than language. I don't know. It's like all the things we know about neurolinguistics, like everything that we learned over so long about how we process language and inherent rules of language and how we develop them and iterate them from the time we're really young. Computer code just doesn't fit any of those concepts. I know we use the word language when we talk about computer languages, but I think that's the most similar thing to it. It just doesn't have all the same syntactical rules. So I don't know. This one sits weird with me. So I think I'm going to have to say that this one's a fiction. Who freaking knows if the galaxy one is science or not? But this one's, I don't like this one. So neuroscience, the language code is the fiction for me.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Okay, Bob.

C: You're right, that'll work.

E: It was worth a shot. I guess I'll go in reverse order because, okay. The first possible radio signal coming from an exoplanet, that means what? It hasn't yet to be confirmed.

S: Yeah, there hasn't been follow-up confirmation, but yeah.

E: I think that opens this one up to being science because they're still working it out to figure out or get it validated. And yeah, I think radio signals do happen in nature. So I don't think that one's... That's cool. I'm glad they're able to detect it because we want the transmission of I love Lucy from whatever planet or the equivalent. That was a Futurama episode, by the way, about television signals and faraway planets. But I digress. I digress. The second one about the most distant known object. Okay, 13.4 billion. My last understanding is that the universe, the best guess is what? 13.73 billion years old. So that means you got about 300,000 years there between Big Bang and this object, which means that a galaxy would have had to what? Come into existence and explode to make the... And go supernova?

B: It's 300 million, right? 300 million?

E: Within... Is it 300 million? Oh, I'm sorry. You're right. Thanks, Bob. Hey, that helps a lot. That makes this a thousand times more plausible. Actually, when I do that math. And so, yeah. Okay, yeah. 300,000, I was going to say no, but 300 million, sure.

B: Shouldn't have said anything.

E: I think that one works. That means it leaves the one I know nothing about. I don't know about computer language, computer code. None of it. Processing areas of the brain. I was kind of thinking what Cara was thinking. It was math. So that was kind of all I was hanging my head on. Math more than language. I guess I'll go that route and say that the language processing areas of the brain, that one's fiction.

S: And Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: All right. Start with three. At first blush, a radio signal from an exoplanet is crazy exciting. But then I think, yeah, it could be natural. I mean, it's an exoplanet. It's not a star. But I think there's almost definitely natural ways to produce it rather than some technology from some creatures, which would be amazing. But probably not. Let's see the second one here. Yeah. The the most distant galaxy that we know of 13.4 billion years. Yeah. I just don't know why this galaxy could not be old enough to have already had multiple generations of stars that created the heavier elements and and bombarded the newer stars helped create the newer stars or help see them. I mean, after all, a supernova stars that are big enough to go supernova. They don't live that long. I mean, on the order of hundreds of millions of years. So I don't know why that wouldn't be. But yeah, I there's no way I don't think we're quite ready to say like this is the first galaxy. So I could also have be not the first galaxy at all. So so that would make sense from multiple angles. Yeah. The first one. Yeah, I agree with with Cara and Evan. This is more like a logical progression rather than a language. I mean, coding just does not you know, I've done some coding and it definitely does not strike me as a as a language language. So I'll say that one's fiction.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right. So we'll start with the third one, since you all agree on that one. Astronomers report the first possible radio signal coming from an exoplanet. You all think this one is science. And I guess the question is, is it the first?

C: Oh, shit.

S: That there's a radio signal coming from an exoplanet. But this is the first time we've discovered that?

B: I've never heard about it.

S: This one is science. This is science.

B: I never heard of that before.

S: Yeah. So this is coming from the system in Tau Bootes.

C: Oh, booties.

S: It's not booties. It's Bootes.

C: I don't know. One of my dear friends did her entire dissertation on it. She called it Tau Bootes.

E: Maybe that's an astronomer's joke.

S: It's an astronomy pronunciation guide. It's pronounced Bootes, not boots, and not booties. They specifically say it's not Bootes.

C: Interesting. She was Tau Bootes B.

B: What kind of planet, Steve? What kind of exoplanet?

S: That's a good question. What do you think? What would your guess be?

B: Well, my hope would be that it would be a rocky Earth-like planet. But it's probably like a gas giant.

E: M class 1G.

S: It's a hot Jupiter. It's a hot Jupiter.

B: Yeah.

J: Cool.

C: Ooh, he's so hot, Jupiter.

S: So it probably has its own magnetic field that's strong enough that it's generating the radio signal. It's not far away. It's like 51 light years. So it's pretty close.

B: Damn.

S: That's the first one. I was a little surprised that that was the first. But yeah, I guess it's not common for exoplanets to be radio sources themselves. And I have to say possible because they haven't fully confirmed it. And it's not that they haven't confirmed that they're picking up a radio signal. What they have to confirm is that it's not coming from the star. There's two stars in the system. That it's coming from the planet and not one of the two stars.

E: Or the microwave oven in the cafeteria.

S: Yeah, exactly.

C: Or the radio.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Let's go back to number two, a study of the most distant known object in the universe, galaxy GNZ 11, which is 13.4 billion light years from Earth. Contains heavier elements, which means there are older galaxies still. Jay, you think this one is a fiction. Everyone else thinks this one is science. So did you say how old the galaxy is?

J: Me?

S: I mean the universe. The universe is how old?

E: 13.73.

S: 13.77 is what I just read.

C: Seven.

E: Ooh, 77.

C: Ooh, upgrade.

S: So that would mean this was existing 3.7 or 370 million years after the formation of the universe. And it's the oldest thing that we've seen. So the question is, is it the oldest thing that we've seen because it is the oldest. Or is there something even older that we're not seeing?

B: Probably.

S: So what they did was they did spectrographic analysis of the light coming from this distant galaxy, and they found heavier elements. So this one is science.

B: A lot of population two stars.

S: Yeah. So it's a population two stars.

E: This was tricky.

S: This can't be the oldest thing out there. It's got to be something even a little bit old. I see about like 100 million years older or something. And so this study, the point of it was to learn more about the very, very early universe so that we know at 370 million years after the Big Bang, there already was second generation stars. That tells us something about how long it took for the very first stars to form. And this analysis was done using observations from the Keck 1 telescope in Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. Let's go back to number one. Neuroscientists find that reading computer code heavily involves language processing areas of the brain and is therefore similar to language. Jay, you thought this one was the science. You thought this one was science, but this one is the fiction. And Cara basically nailed it.

B: Math. Yeah.

C: Yes. How?

S: It's math. Yeah. It does not... In fact, what the study showed is that there was almost no activation of language areas.

C: Oh, wow.

S: It's not language processing at all, but it uses...

C: I'm surprised.

S: of the brain that are involved with math and problem solving. Math and problem solving.

C: But I'm actually surprised, like, no language, just simply for the visual of it the characters.

S: No involvement, but it was very little. You know, it wasn't involving language processing to any significant degree.

C: But that one could have been tricky because, yeah, we call them computer languages.

S: Yeah, I know. So Jay kind of went through the logic. I was sort of hoping that it's like, well, yeah, it's kind of like you're reading a language. And it was tricky when you think about it. Like, if you ask that question, is it... Are you using language processing to read computer code or using math? You know, it's an interesting question. That's why they did the study, right? They were trying to... They didn't know the answer. They were trying to figure it out. But it clearly showed that it's, yeah, it's math and problem solving, not actual language.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:45:53)[edit]

The need to reduce dissonance is a universal mental mechanism, but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to be controlled by it. Human beings may not be eager to change, but we have the ability to change, and the fact that many of our self-protective delusions and blind spots are built into the way the brain works is no justification for not trying.

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) (2007) by social psychologists Carol Tavris & Elliot Aronson

S: So Evan.

E: Yes.

S: You there?

E: Yes.

S: Hello.

E: I'm here.

S: Hi.

E: Hi.

S: Quote time.

E: Quote time. Okay, here we go. "The need to reduce dissonance is a universal mental mechanism, but that does not mean we are doomed to be controlled by it. Human beings may not be eager to change, but we have the ability to change. And the fact that many of our self-protective delusions and blind spots are built into the way the brain works is no justification for not trying." Carol Tavris from her book, Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me. Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.

S: Yep. Carol Tavris is awesome.

E: Yeah. Yeah. She writes very well.

S: So this is the last episode that will come out before Christmas.

C: What with Christmas coming and all.

E: There you go, Cara.

S: There you go. Next week's episode will come out on December 26th, the day after Christmas. That will be our year-end review episode.

E: Oh, boy.

S: And we will not be doing a Friday live stream on the 25th. Yeah, we'll be busy. We will be doing a Friday live stream on January 1st, however. So just miss that one week. All right, guys. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Sure, man.

C: Thanks Steve.

E: Thank you Steve.

J: Thank you brother.


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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