SGU Episode 810

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SGU Episode 810
January 16th 2021
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SGU 809                      SGU 811

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.

Winston Churchill

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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, January 13th, 2021, 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: I just love saying 2021 every time we introduce.

J: Right?

E: Yeah.

B: 2021.

S: It's a new year. I don't forget to write that. Usually when you click over to a new year, it takes you a month to remember to write the new date, you know.

J: Not this year. Not this year.

S: Not at all. No problem. 21.

B: Because he's writing the date all the time like we used to.

S: Yeah. Well, I have to do it all the time because of work.

B: Well, that's you.

S: Yeah. There's never a slow news week, anymore just general news, but something about a second impeachment today. Who knows? It's hard to keep track of all that.

C: What are people are tweeting like he's now officially been impeached twice as many times as he was elected.

B: Oh, wow.

E: Snap.

S: And there's still some kind of pandemic going on.

C: Oh, that thing.

E: Oh, boy.

S: I did get my first dose of vaccine.

C: Samesies.

E: Did you have a reaction, a negative reaction of any kind?

S: My arm hurt for a couple of days. That was it.

C: Right. It was weird to me. And I know we got two different vaccines. I got Pfizer and you got Moderna. Right? And they jabbed me. I didn't feel it at all. It was a really easy jab. And then like hours later, it just got increasingly sore and sore and I couldn't sleep on it.

S: There's clearly a local inflammatory response to the vaccine, which is appropriate, right? It's probably supposed to work. I couldn't sleep on it either. That was the big thing. But nothing else. I've talked to a couple of people who had some systemic reaction, and apparently the second dose is worse. But again, it's all anecdotal. I don't know. We'll see.

C: Some of the people I talked to said the second dose gave them some flu-like symptoms, low-grade fever, joint pain, things like that. But usually it was enough that an NSAID took care of it and they were fine the next day.

S: It makes sense because you're supposed to have a bigger inflammatory reaction the second time. That's the whole point of the second dose is it's supposed to be a bigger immune reaction, right? And that's the timing is designed to maximize that second reaction. So it makes sense. So whatever. But it feels good. I mentioned now I only have like 50% protection. I still like that. And I'm very anxious to get up to my 95% protection.

J: Me too.

C: Heck yeah.

J: I'm a half a year away from that though.

C: Maybe. You know what? In California, I shouldn't say in LA. In California, as of today, January 13th, they just announced that they're opening vaccination up to people 65 or older.

S: Yeah, that's basically happening all around the country now.

C: Yeah, it's moving fast, faster than kind of... It's slower than we had hoped, but faster I think at this point than we sort of anticipated. So I don't know. We'll see. We'll see how it nuts out.

S: Yeah, there's a lot of talk too about maybe prioritizing school teachers, college teachers. Those are definitely super spreader locations, the colleges. So anything we could do to keep that from happening. All right. Let's move.

What’s the Word? (3:11)[edit]


S: We're going to go right to our first segment of the show, which is a what's the word segment we haven't had for a while. I just want to mention that later in the show, we have a great interview with a representative from NASA to talk about commercializing spaceflight. Really great interview. But we're going to start with Cara and what's the word.

C: Yeah. So we got a recommendation for a what's the word from Christopher from Virginia. And he said he wanted to suggest the word degeneracy because this term is used in astrophysics to describe what keeps certain stellar bodies from collapsing when they speak of "electron degeneracy pressure". But he also recently came across the same term in neurology having to do with something with brain cells swapping out while maintaining the network patterns in the brain. And he was like, what is going on? And let me tell you, Chris, thanks, but no thanks. This was a rough one, brother. Degeneracy is complicated. So we know degeneracy is another form of the word degenerate or degenerate or degenerative. We've heard all these different forms of the word. I think at first we should look at the etymology, then we should look at the colloquial definition, and then we can go into some of the more specified scientific definitions. So degenerate can either be an adjective or a verb, but usually we pronounce them differently, at least here in the States. So a degenerate something would be an adjective, to degenerate would be a verb. And actually, in many cases, it's used as a noun, although not a very nice one. And so this comes from the roots for de and genus. And so when we really break down those core roots of genus or gene or genesis, genetic, that really is all about, what do you guys think?

S: Hereditary?

C: Yeah, the beginning.

E: Genesis.

C: Genesis. Yeah. It all comes down to this kind of early root that refers to birth, descent, beginning, forming, beginning. And then de-, usually we see that at the beginning to mean like away from or off. So when we think about the colloquial definition of like a degenerate or to degenerate, the earliest definition really meant like to be inferior to one's ancestors, to become unlike one's race or kind. So it's like you were, they saw it as a value judgement that you were falling away from ancestral quality, that is to degenerate. And I think that that's in some ways has had staying power in our language, because when we think of things degenerating, we think of them falling apart or getting worse, right? And we might talk about that in terms of a degenerative disease, we might talk about it in terms of a person who is a degenerate which is like not a very nice thing to say that that person's immoral, or they've somehow fallen from a previous stature. But interestingly, it has very, very different definitions in different types of the sciences. And so that's where things start to get complicated. In math, in physics, and even in biology, it has a different meaning, all of which I do believe are a little bit related, but I've had to draw some real inferences and make some assumptions based on that. So when we look at, for example, there are degenerate codons, there is something called degeneracy within biology, there's degeneracy within mathematics, and then and that can be broken into all sorts of different terminologies. And then there's degenerate energy levels in physics or degenerate matter. So when I first brought this up, Bob was like, oh, I know degenerate matter. And I think that Chris was writing about electron degeneracy pressure. So that's more about degenerate energy levels, but it relates to matter. And so it seems like the core definition across these is that there are different physical systems that are arranged differently, but they have the same amount of energy. So Bob, when you were talking about degenerate matter specifically, this is a really compressed phase of matter that can't be compressed any further because quantum mechanics gets in the way. But it's very highly compressed.

B: Yeah, highly compressed, but it takes something like amazing amounts of mass to go from, say, a white dwarf to a neutron star. You can blow through it, but it takes a lot to do that. And then the next step would be, of course, from the neutron star to the black hole, which takes even more even more mass to compress it to blow past that degeneracy pressure.

C: Right. And when we talk about, let's say, degeneracy in biology, what we're often talking about, this is a really interesting one, is different pathways or different components that have similar functions to one another, but in other conditions can have different functions from one another. It's like redundancy within biological systems could be degenerate systems where they might do the same thing, but under different circumstances, they might do something different. So okay, this is really complicated. What does that have to do with being a degenerate? Or what does it have to do with degenerating? And I want to give a massive props and shout out to my dear friend James in Hong Kong, because he's a linguist. And I was like, you need to help me with this, I'm so confused. From what we kind of determined is that when we're looking at these different roots, the first one meaning to be born, we often think, okay, so he was looking at that, like the basic root, I don't even know if that's a Greek, he wrote it in some weird notation, this being born or coming into existence, we often extend it to this Latin where we add the de- and we see it as moving away from, down worse than this kind. But really, if we think about it as being deviated from the kind, then it starts to make a little bit more sense. So if we're saying that degenerate energy states, which have equivalent mass, are deviated from their original form, then it starts to make sense that it uses the same roots, that the way that it was born is one way, and now there are two distinct ways that something can exist, that have, for example, the same mass, or the same function, or the same outcome, like in biology. You even see it, for example, the term codon degeneracy, where we're looking at actual codons portions of the genetic code, where there are multiplying. So there are these codon combinations that are redundant, they go over and over and over. And that's really what accounts for a lot of mutations in the genetic code. So it's these redundancies, these areas where the thing is the same but in different forms. And that is also a degeneracy. So it seems like it still works with the root, but we have to reconceptualize the way we think of de-. Instead of less than or down from, we have to think of it as away from, which is not necessarily a negative valence.

S: Yeah, cool. That's a good word. All right, let's move on to some news items.

News Items[edit]

Graphene Supercapacitors (10:27)[edit]

S: Cara, do you know what a capacitor is?

C: Okay, so a capacitor is the thing in a circuit that—I always mix these up—it's not a resistor. Yeah, it's the thing that holds the energy, that like stores it for a little bit.

S: Yeah, exactly. Do you know how they work?

C: No.

S: Yeah. So the basic concept is pretty simple, but again, it's one of those things—yeah, if you have two conductors very close together, separated by a dialectic non-conductor. So essentially, electrons, like negative charge will build up on one plate, positive charge on the other plate, and that's how the energy is stored in the produced electric field, right?

C: And then I guess it just kind of bounces out automatically over time.

S: Well, it doesn't necessarily leak over time. It does a little bit, but not a lot leak over time. You can tap into that energy, though. If you connect the two, then you get a current, right? So it's storing like the potential electrical energy in the electrical field, and then you could close the circuit, and then you could get the energy out when you need it.

C: Isn't that what a battery is?

B: That's one of the keys, right?

S: Very quickly.

B: Yeah, very quickly. You can feed it or pull it out very fast, which is one of the big advantages over a regular battery.

C: Oh, I see. Okay. A battery is a type of—

S: No.

C: Is it not? Okay.

S: So, Bob, you were kind of bleeding into a supercapacitor. What's the difference between a capacitor and a supercapacitor?

B: Yeah. I guess I tend to just go right to the supercapacitor because it's so short.

C: If super is a prefix, I'm already there.

S: So, I mean, they're functionally similar, right? But they're a little bit different in how they're constructed, and there are many ways to make a capacitor, and there's many different types of capacitors. We don't need to get into all that detail. A supercapacitor essentially holds a lot more energy than a basic capacitor. They're designed to hold maximal amount of energy, and they may hold between 10 and 100 times as much energy as a regular capacitor does, but they still don't hold as much energy as a battery does.

B: The density is not there.

S: Yes.

C: Okay. Okay.

S: But—

B: But?

S: But supercapacitors, as energy storage devices, have some really interesting advantages. Bob already mentioned that they can store and release energy very quickly, much more quickly than any battery. And so for certain applications, like regenerative braking—not degenerative braking, but regenerative braking, they— Or it's like if you're trying to use regenerative braking for a train, let's say, where that's a lot of potential energy you want to convert into electrical energy very quickly. And so you really need a supercapacitor to store that. You're not going to be able to store it in batteries. And then likewise, when you want to get that train moving, you need a burst of a lot of energy, if it's an electric train, of course. And so then the supercapacitor could release all that energy very quickly as well. For those kinds of applications, they are—they're better than batteries where you need a quick storage and discharge. The other advantage is that they do not really have any significant limitation on charge-discharge cycles, whereas chemical batteries, the chemicals will crystallize or they'll change. And so—

B: Or catch fire.

S: Well, that's a separate issue. They tend to be more stable. But even meaning they're thermally stable they don't catch fire as easily as high-energy density batteries do. But even apart from that, they don't lose their power, their potential over time, whereas batteries—actually, I think it's more—rather than thinking of batteries in terms of their lifespan, you should think of them in terms of their degradation. So like after—over time, how much of their potential do they lose? So like after a year, maybe they only have 90% of the capacity they had at start. After two years or three years.

B: Think of your cell phone. That's—everyone can relate to that. You know, over time, your phone is just not lasting as long as it used to on day one, right?

C: And I think in iPhones, you can even look that up now. It's like a setting where you can look up how—what is the—I don't want to say capacity because that confuses, but like how much does my battery have left?

B/S: Degradation.

C: Yeah, what's the degradation of my battery?

S: And I learned in studying for this particular news item that there's degradation as another aspect to it as well. It's not just the total amount of energy that it can store, it's also how quickly it can charge. It actually gets slower and slower at recharging over time as well. Super capacitors don't have that problem. That's just not a limitation. But the big disadvantage—so capacitors have a much lower energy density than batteries by an order of magnitude. So for example—

B: 20 times though. Probably, right?

S: Yeah. 10 to 20 times. Even 20 times, depending on the battery, depending on the capacitor. But yeah, somewhere between 10 and 20 times. So the battery pack in a Tesla Model 3 weighs 1,200 pounds. So even taking the lower end of that comparison of a tenfold increase, that would be 12,000 pounds. But it could be 24,000 pounds, right? If you take the 20 time figure, factor of 20.

B: Deal breaker.

S: So it's a deal breaker. So you can't use it as your only energy storage for cars. Okay, so now here's the news item, right? So with all that in mind. The news item is graphene supercapacitors.

B: Graphene. Love you, baby.

S: So you got two things that taste great, taste even better together. So supercapacitors, awesome. Graphene, super awesome. Put them together, you have graphene supercapacitors. And so obviously researchers are working on this. So a team working with TUM chemist Roland Fisher developed a graphene hybrid material for supercapacitors. And guess what their energy density that they've so far achieved is?

B: In terms of what?

C: Yeah, what's the metric?

S: It's only about, rather than being 20 times less we will say than the best lithium ion battery, it's only 3.6 times.

B: Nice. Not bad.

S: So it actually has the energy density of a nickel metal hydride battery.

B: Yeah. Like a bad battery.

S: Yeah. Well, the state of the art-

C: It's getting there.

S: -in the 1990s, yeah.

B: But still, man, that's, I mean, what's the cutoff? When is it worth it to switch over, right?

S: That's a good question. Right. When, what's the crossover point? So, and the thing is, I don't know if they will ever cross because batteries are getting better too. But it could. If the pace at which the energy density of supercapacitors increases more quickly than those for batteries, they're making a point where-

B: And assuming there's no other deal breakers, right? That's always the case. Yeah. Like scaling it up, is that possible? Depends on the details of the new technology, of course.

S: The generic sort of details of, is it mass-producible? Is it cost-effective? All that stuff. Assuming there aren't any other manufacturing deal breakers, and we're just talking about the properties of the thing itself. And I also think that it doesn't have to have the same energy density as batteries before you get the crossover because there are, the advantages of a supercapacitor will mean that, okay, I'll go for 20% or 30% or whatever more weight. Maybe even 50% more weight. You know, who knows? At some point, it's going to be worth the extra weight to have the benefits of the supercapacitor. But in the meantime, Bob, and this is already happening, but you can have, Jay, right? A hybrid.

B: Yes.

S: You have a supercapacitor and a battery. And you get the best of both worlds. So imagine, for example, an electric car that has a supercapacitor, even with a 20 or 30-mile range. Let's say there's a 30-mile range. And now that would be a reasonable amount of weight to add to a car if it's at this level. Most commuting driving is 30 miles or less, right? So for 90-plus percent of your driving, you never have to dip into the battery. You can go entirely off the supercapacitor. Therefore, you're not using up your battery's lifespan. You're not getting any of that degradation.

C: Yeah, that's pretty cool.

E: Longer life.

S: And it charges up super fast.

E: Yeah.

S: Right? So this is, like, even faster than filling up the tank kind of charging. So if you, like, get up in the morning and realize, oh, I forgot to plug my car in last night, whatever, a minute, one minute, you got your 30 miles on your car. And then that will get you to work. So it definitely will increase the performance profile of an electric car to incorporate this kind of fast-charging, really, really long lifespan power supply that will really spare the battery. So you know, the battery will not have any significant degradation over the course of your ownership of that car. The average age of a car on the road, you guys remember this statistic? I threw this out there before. The average age of cars on the road.

B: Oh, crap. Is it either a lot or a little?

E: I don't remember.

C: I know. 10?

S: 11 years.

E: Seven or?

S: 11. Yeah, 11 years. That's interesting. Really, on average, people are driving cars that are 11 years old. That's amazing. I know that's probably not the mean, not the median, rather, it's the mean, but not the median. I think probably there are some people who are keeping cars a really long time that are maybe probably increasing that, I suppose. I don't know. So yeah, people might be driving their electric cars for 200,000 miles, and there'd be significant battery degradation at that point, but having even a modest supercapacitor could dramatically reduce that. And then, of course, as this technology improves, it may just progressively displace the battery. Who knows? They may be cheaper, and if they don't degrade, they may last longer than the battery itself. They may last longer than the car itself. We talked about this kind of issue before, even with batteries. When the car is done, you pull the battery out of there, and you do something else with it, right? You could put it into another car. You could put it onto the grid for grid storage, use it in your home, whatever. I think that supercapacitors, we haven't talked about them as much as batteries, but they have some really interesting advantages.

B: Oh, my God, yeah. I've loved them for years.

S: Yeah, the energy density has been just sort of the killer for these kind of applications, but we've really, this isn't a breakthrough, but it's a significant improvement that kind of puts it into the low end of the battery realm.

B: And increases confidence that we can up it even more.

S: Yeah, always we like to think that, yeah, this is only the first iteration of a new approach, and if this works out. But again, there's always those things of, is it going to be cost-effective and scalable to manufacture?

B: But talk about a game changer, right? Steve, have you ever? Have you gotten a sense of- Say we've got like real full-blown supercapacitor in your car, could you fully charge it in what, 10 seconds type of thing? Or as fast as you can?

S: Yeah, it'd be very, very fast, yeah.

B: A minute then.

S: Now, when I wrote about this, someone argued that you could supercharge your battery and get 30 miles into it in a minute.

B: Right, yeah.

S: But I countered that you shouldn't do that, though, because when you supercharge your battery, that is the number one source of degradation of your electric car's battery, is using the supercharge, the fast-charging feature. You really should not use a fast charger.

C: Don't Tesla owners do that all the time?

S: I know, they do, but you really- It should be an emergency only. You shouldn't build it into. You shouldn't be relying upon fast charging as the way you get by day to day. It really destroys the life of your battery, and we have good data on this now. We have very good data on this. It's the number one problem.

C: When you say fast charge, you're not talking about 240 versus 110. You're talking about the or versus 120. You're talking about the supercharging.

S: Yeah, well, the specifically- Like the DC fast charge. The DC fast charger is the absolute worst.

C: I've only done that with my car once, and it was an emergency.

S: Yeah, that's fine. If you do it once in an emergency that the effect is minimal, what they considered "often" was three times a month.

B: Three times a month.

C: That's a lot.

S: It's not that much in my opinion, but that was enough to cause significant degradation. Instead of being 10%, it was 40% after a few years. Oh, wow. Yeah, so don't use the DC supercharger on a regular basis, the DC fast charging. That's the bad one. I don't think the- What is it? 220?

C: 240.

S: 240, whatever it takes. 240 versus 120, that is as big a negative effect?

C: That's good, because I plug it in every night to my 240 volt charger. The good news is it stops charging once it's full, so it stays plugged in, but it's not actually doing anything. I treat it like my cell phone. I plug it in every night.

S: Apparently, if you want to eke out really minimized degradation, you should not charge to 100%. You charge it to 80%, it's better for battery life.

C: Yeah, and you can actually, my car luckily has that setting. It's like all these cool charging settings.

S: Right, but imagine if you just were charging a supercapacitor for 30 miles. What's your commute every day, Cara?

C: Not far, not 30 miles.

S: Yeah, so you would never even use your battery.

C: Yeah, that's really cool, and you think about it too, so much is that regenerative braking, so much is all that.

S: Yeah, is it better for that? It's better in low temperatures. Low temperatures, batteries suck. So here in Connecticut in the winter, the regenerative braking thing is almost useless and your battery life isn't nearly as good. It doesn't really affect a supercapacitor though, so that's another situation in which it has superior characteristics, but I'm a big fan of taking the hybrid approach where you have competing technologies and you can get the best of both worlds by combining them together in an intelligent way, and I think that maybe we're getting to the point now with supercapacitors and electric vehicles that they're getting at that point. So far, they've been used really only for the regenerative braking and the fast burst thing, like if you need that burst of power, but they're now the energy density, if this pans out commercially, would be at the point where it could actually be used to store energy, not just for regenerative braking type applications.

C: That fast burst thing, I got to tell you, Steve, it's the best part of driving electric. Electric cars have so much torque and off the line you beat everyone.

B: It is nuts.

S: It's amazing.

B: I've experienced it a few times. Unforgettable. I've never been pinned to the back of a seat like I have in a Tesla. I was like, what the hell is happening?

C: It's so badass.

S: And this is one more reason why I think that the hydrogen fuel cell is toast. I just think that electric-

E: But the hydrogen economy-

C: Yeah, it just didn't catch on.

S: I just think that the batteries and now supercapacitors, some combination of that, which of course, you can use supercapacitors with hydrogen too, don't get me wrong, but I just think the batteries have beat out hydrogen. They're just more efficient. They're more energy efficient than hydrogen. I think that's going to ultimately be the thing that keeps them ahead of the pack. And hydrogen-

E: Hydrogen is the new Betamax.

S: It is. I think, though, it might find a niche. I wrote not too long ago about the fact that it might be perfect for trains or for commercial trucks where you have a predefined route. You don't have to have filling stations everywhere. You just need to have them along a predefined route. It could actually make a lot of sense. And maybe they might make more sense in something like an airplane, because we talked about how challenging the electronic equipment is for- it's heavy for a plane. So there may still be places where it works. I don't think it's going to be- I don't think most people are going to be driving hydrogen fuel cell cars rather than battery supercapacitor cars.

C: Because isn't hydrogen storage too? It's just so dangerous.

S: They've never cracked that nut. They're just compressing hydrogen. They never really- they were supposed to. If you go back to the early 2000s-

B: Slush.

S: Everyone was anticipating the hydrogen economy, which is like- that's probably the biggest head fake of our lives, technology-wise. Right? Think about it.

E: It wasn't a bad idea, though.

S: No.

C: It's just they couldn't figure it out.

S: But the whole thing was- all we got to do is figure out this storage issue, how to store lots of hydrogen safely and in a small, light, compact-

B: Safe.

S: And this will be it. This will take over. It'll displace electric. It'll be- this is the way to go. But they never figured it out. We were like 20 years later, and they just never came up with that magical material that could store hydrogen the way we would really need it to be. And so that's part of the problem as well.

C: I'm not willing to bury, basically, a potential bomb in my backyard just so I can charge my car. That doesn't sound like it would serve me very well.

S: Yeah. Well, you don't have to. I mean, you could just go to a filling station.

C: But I love that I don't have to go to a station anymore.

S: I know. That's true.

C: I'm so free.

E: Yes.

S: That's true.

C: I haven't been to a gas station in like eight years.

S: Just fill up at home if you plan it out right.

Controlling Superintelligent Machines (28:17)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us how we are going to keep super intelligent machines from taking over the world.

B: Yeah. Good luck.

E: That's a great question.

B: So, yeah, researchers claim that calculations show that it would not be possible, even in principle, to control the super intelligent artificial intelligence. So my first knee-jerk superficial reaction to that was, duh, it's super intelligent. I mean the whole premise is we're stupid and it's crazy smart. Yeah. This is from a study called Super Intelligence Cannot Be Contained, Lessons from Computability Theory, and published in the Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research. And this comes from an international team of researchers, including scientists from the Center for Humans and Machines at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Now—

E: Soon to be just the institution for machines only.

B: That's right.

E: No humans.

B: A super intelligent AGI, of course, is exactly what it says. It's an artificial general intelligence that's smarter than a human. But what's not so obvious, perhaps, is the reasonable—what I think is a reasonable belief that if we do create an artificial intelligence that's on par or slightly superior to humans, that it would likely soon attain super intelligence far superior to even the smartest natural human could ever attain. I mean it should be relatively easy to amp it up. Even if you overclock it 10, 20, 50 times, it's going to be then 50 times smarter than a person. I mean, pretty soon, if we can get close to a human, we'll get way past it. We'll get way past a human. So the implication is that it would soon then be 10, 100—imagine a million times smarter than any of us, even Steve.

J: But you really can't imagine that, Bob, you realize.

S: You can't almost by definition imagine.

B: Yeah, right. So talking about other things that we can't imagine, so that level of smarts should be able to solve most, if not all, of the grandest and most pressing challenges that face humanity, right?

E: Hey, Bob, is this unlike Next Generation when Barclay becomes like a super intelligent creature and like—

B: Dude.

E: —starts imagining—

B: That's Next Generation, The Nth Degree, my favorite Next Gen episode ever. I saw it just last month and I love it to death. Watch it.

E: So if I'm thinking of that episode, am I thinking—

B: There you go.

E: —about like how we cannot predict what the super intelligence will come up with?

B: Now, of course, I'm extrapolating AIs to the Nth Degree, so to speak. Artificial intelligence will be extremely helpful even before it even approaches human level intelligence. There's just so many ways that it's useful. Look what we've done with it already, with deep learning and all these things, beating people in chess and Go and in so many ways. But I'm talking the far end of that spectrum. But we all know the downside, right? It's even a cliché now that it elicits groans from people when they refer yet again to the Terminator taking over the world. When somebody talks about robots or artificial intelligence, somebody makes a reference to Terminator.

S: Because it's a trope.

B: Right. Because it's a trope. It's such a cliché at this point. But, I mean, it's there for a reason and we would definitely be quite irresponsible not to consider what such an intelligence, what a superintelligence could do to humanity. And so because of that, because of that, scientists and armchair scientists, people have been talking for years about how do you control this? How do we make sure that we're kind of okay with this thing in our midst? And one common idea is to make sure that the AI has no access to the outside internet or other computers, right? You just air gap it. And if it can't get out, then it's safer, right? It's safer. But, of course, that could limit the AI. If you've got these certain goals, you might be crippling it by walling it out and not having any way for it to soak up all the information that it needs and having control of things. But that's one way that people have mentioned. And this, of course, reminds me of Daniel Wilson's book, Robopocalypse. We actually interviewed him on episode 241, if you want to check that out. But in that, I'll never forget, in Robopocalypse, he has this guy, the scientist is testing these new superintelligent AIs and he's conversing with it, trying to decide is it worthy? Is it safe to have this thing with us? And he realizes that he has to kill it and he tries to kill it and he can't. And the thing says to him, it says to him that I sent infrared commands through the computer monitor, through the Faraday cage that it was surrounded by, and used the receivers on his laptop because he left the laptop open and facing him. So the guy, it's superintelligent. Of course, it's going to find some sneaky way to get past us dumb humans. So this would be so funny and ironic.

E: Right. If Hal can read our lips that's pretty much it.

B: That's another, that's another example of of something that's really smart outsmarting people.

S: Yeah, but Bob, if we really get into trouble, we'll just have Captain Kirk out with it and pull the Norman coordinate maneuver on it.

B: Norman coordinate. Yeah, he'd be, we definitely have to call him in. And then the other way that people have very commonly talked about how to control an AI is to basically what? Instill the laws of robotics a la Isaac Asimov, right? Somehow instilling these ethical principles in it so that it doesn't want to kill us. And I, and I've said that for years that if if we could make it ethical in some way, then, then when it goes into its own, like this self recursive loop with this black box of iterating itself to become really, really intelligent, what comes out of that box could be pretty unpredictable, but hopefully hopefully maybe it would still be ethical in some sense that would save us.

E: And harking back to the next generation again, isn't that the whole data versus Lore plot line? Basically, Lore was made first, but didn't have the right program chips to kind of control them and he went out of control.

B: I think, yeah, it's been a while since I've actually seen any Lore episodes, but I think, I think that's right. So yeah, so there's so many examples of this. With all that in mind, as Steve said in his talk, the researchers claim that both of these options and other options and methods that people have discussed over the years have limits. Now, this is what Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom called the control problem. How can we make sure that a super intelligent machine acts in our interest? So it's a, yeah, it's kind of a classic problem and examining that what kind of control we could have is what these researchers in this news item address in what they call a theoretical containment algorithm. And this is the new bit, this theoretical containment algorithms, they came up with it. And what that algorithm would do was essentially simulate the behavior of the AI before the AI does anything and stopping everything if something goes awry, like, oh boy. So it would have the power to stop it.

C: But wait, how does it stop it? I thought that's the whole question.

B: Well, it would be kind of an an integral integrated component of the AI that's kind of like running simulations about what the AI would do. So that's kind of the idea. They claim, though, that after analysing this idea, they believe that this algorithm cannot be built using conventional computer science principles like kind of like impossible. So in their paper, they say this. We argue that total containment is in principle impossible due to the fundamental limits inherent to computing itself. So I tried to find out to really understand what they're talking about. And so I got another quote. This is from Ayad Rawan. He's a director of the Center for Humans and Machines. He said, if you break the problem down to basic rules from theoretical computer science, it turns out that an algorithm that would command an AI not to destroy the world could inadvertently halt its own operations. If this happened, you would not know whether the containment algorithm is still analysing the threat or whether it has stopped to contain the harmful AI. In effect, this makes the containment algorithm unusable. So let's see. Let's see if we maybe look at this from a different angle then.

C: It's like a weird paradox.

B: Yeah. Well, they believe that the containment problem is basically incomputable. And we obviously can't predict what the super AI would do. So we can't do this work. You know, it'd be like your pet lizard predicting what you do on vacation. You know, it's just not going to happen, right? Ever. Ever.

E: We can ask the super AI what it takes to get the job done.

B: There you go. And that's kind of like what this sounds like to me. It sounds to me like you need another identical AI to predict the first super AI. But then you'd need another one to predict that second one. And then so on, add absurdum. So there's that. And then finally, the researchers contend that we may not even know when a super intelligent AI exists because figuring that out is similar to the containment problem itself, which is like what? So I don't know about that because I understand what they're saying, but I'm not sure I believe it. Because if my research AI resolves, for example, all the holy grails in all of science in a weekend, I think it's safe to conclude that it's smarter than any other human. And you could say that, yeah, it's a super intelligence. But it's frustrating, though, that even computer science, the principles of computer science, according to these researchers, cannot be used to contain the super intelligent AI.

C: Yeah, but I mean it kind of makes sense that that paradox would exist, right? It's foundational to what it is to do computer science.

B: Right. So either we need to come up with new methods or I think we're just going to wing it. I mean we're not going to stop this train. This train is going. The benefits, the short-term and mid-term benefits, are just way too impressive. The first country or company that really makes those first breakthroughs in near human level artificial general intelligence or super intelligence, the first ones to do that, that's it. They're in control. They've got the goods and nobody will be able to match them in so many different endeavours. So it's too compelling of a field to not pursue. And it's almost like cybersecurity. You've got to pursue this because you want to be among the first to have the big breakthroughs because if you don't, then you're in a world of hurt. So we're heading there. So like I say about so many other different types of transformative technologies is we have to talk about it now. We have to think about it, think about ways we can do to attenuate any potential damage because the benefits can be mind-boggling. But the other side of the double-edged sword, it could be bad too. So we've got to think about it, talk about it, and try to head off some of the downsides. We have to. I mean it could mean these are existential threats potentially, and we've got to talk about it and try to deal with it now while we can.

S: I agree with all that, although I think we're going to have to just carefully track it as it goes along. I do think that whatever we do figure out now will probably be obsolete by the time we get to the point that we're concerned about. You know what I mean? I don't know that we could absolutely predict the course that AI development is going to take.

B: No. I mean like I said, I think when it goes into this when the AI is smart enough and autonomous enough to go into this kind of self-recursive improvement where it kind of basically dives into a black box. And it's like, okay, guys, I'll see you in a little while when I'm about a billion times smarter and it comes out. I mean you've got to just flip a coin or flip a million coins. We don't know what's going to come out if and when that happens. And we've just got to put – make sure what's going in is as good as we can make it and then cross your fingers. I mean I think there's no avoiding it. There's no avoiding it. And maybe this is part of the great filter where biological life always wipes itself out because they create a super intelligence that thinks of it as a carbon infestation that needs to be wiped out. Who knows?

S But shouldn't machine civilization be running the universe?

C: Maybe it is.

B: You can make that argument.

E: Wouldn't there be more evidence of that though?

Scalar Energy Scam (40:30)[edit]

S: Okay. Evan, however, you have the secret, right? Scalar energy is going to cure everything.

E: Before we get to that, let's talk about what led to that comment. So actually a lot of listeners contacted us about this particular news item. BBC News reported a few days ago that one of their technology correspondents, his name is Rory Killen-Jones, acquired a product called SmartDot. SmartDot comes from a company called EnergyDots. Now SmartDot in particular is a sticker that you put on your cell phone or your tablet or any other electronic device that emits an electromagnetic frequency. What does the SmartDot do? Well, here is the claim directly from the EnergyDots website. SmartDot is a magnetic disk programmed with Phi, PHI, Phi energy, which interacts with this form of radiation. Acting as a filter, SmartDot retunes electromagnetic frequencies directly at their source so that they are no longer harmful for the human body to absorb. The EMF protection device is programmed to harmonize EMFs from our much-loved gadgets using the process of entrainment. Ooh, okay, that's quite a statement or a set of statements.

C: Turboencabulator maybe?

E: A little bit, yeah, but it's three sentences and I'll go over each one and scalar energy is going to come up shortly.

J: I'm already lost. I don't even know what you're talking about.

E: All right, well, here's the first sentence. SmartDot is a magnetic disk programmed with Phi energy, which interacts with this form of radiation. Despite that's a terrible sentence, but despite that, all right, Phi energy. I had to look this up, obviously. PHI. So it's not, it's a Greek letter, obviously, but in this context, they're talking about Phi is programmed harmonic interface. And as I did a deeper dive into what they mean by that, here's what they say. This activation is similar to homeopathic medicine or other vibrational remedies where an energy signature is stored in a solid substance. How exactly this interacts with radiation is, what, beyond our understanding? Steve, if I'm not mistaken, in the BBC report, which included some back and forth between the BBC and the representative from EnergyDots, the EnergyDot people brought up scalar energy. I think that was the first time I've come across that term. Have you seen that term before?

S: Nope. I know what a scalar field is.

E: What is a scalar field?

S: Let's say temperature is a scalar field because you have a value at every point in space, right? And then there are vector fields, which have a value and a direction in every point of space. So like gravity is a vector field, temperature is a scalar field. So it's sort of a science-y term, scalar energy, but it doesn't really mean anything in and of itself other than that very, very basic thing. It's not a type of energy specifically. It's just a way of putting a science-y sounding word in front of energy so people who are scientifically illiterate are impressed. But I agree, though. It is exactly like homeopathy. It is exactly like homeopathy in that it's a complete 100% scam.

E: Right. Yeah. Programmed harmonic interface? I mean, what the heck?

C: I don't like that word. When I see that word harmonic, it always perks my ears up.

J: It's always bad. When does it ever mean anything good?

C: Except in music, you know.

E: Well, they mention it again in the third sentence of their description, but let me read the second sentence to you and we'll dive into this just a little bit. Acting as a filter, SmartDot retunes electromagnetic frequencies directly at their source so that they are no longer harmful for the human body to absorb.

C: Yeah, there's a lot of assumptions there that are already harmful for the human body to absorb, which they're not.

E: That's right, yeah.

C: And how do you retune a field?

S: Depends on the energy, right? Gamma rays, yeah, they're pretty harmful.

C: Right, but not your cell phone.

S: Right.

B: But they're awesome.

E: So, yeah, we've spoken about this many times before about non-ionizing radiation, which is the type of radiation that our cell phones and so many other things in our lives emit. They don't damage our tissue or our cells or our DNA, as they are fond of wanting to say and claim. And the energy dot people would have us believe that that's the truth. Now, also in regards to retuning electromagnetic frequencies, what the BBC did smartly is that they sent the stickers to be tested at the University of Surrey. And they found, guess what?

C: It's just a sticker?

E: Correct.

C: Is it one of those hologram-y stickers?

E: It's kind of what it looks like, those stickers that they used to put on the power bands that people would wear on their wrists. It looks exactly the same, maybe a little bit bigger.

C: Why are they always hologram stickers?

S: Yeah, it's another sticker-based, magical energy, gobbledygook nonsense product. That's what it is.

C: Yeah, how can we produce something that's as cheap as possible and make as much money on it as possible?

E: Well, here's how, Cara, because of the claims that they're making about what this sticker actually can do. Because it benefits you by boosting your energy, your mood, and your concentration. They claim it reduces headaches, anxiety, and fatigue. I'm reading this from their website. This is what they are saying.

C: These are all things that placebo has such a strong power over. These are all subjective things that you can say. Oh, man, I do feel less fatigued now.

E: Right. How about this one, Cara? You're going to love this. They write that using a mobile phone can lead to misshaped cells similar to those suffering illness.

C: What illness? Wait, illness causes misshaped? Just generic illness causes generic misshaped cells?

E: But fear not, Cara, because if you use a smart dot on your mobile phone, it will give relief to red blood cells, allowing them to continue the vital transportation of oxygen around the body, keeping you at optimum health.

C: Oh, that's the only thing that keeps you at optimum health? I can cure all my diseases if my red blood cells are healthy?

E: Here comes the word harmonize again, the last sentence. The device is programmed to harmonize EMFs from our much-loved gadgets using the process of entrainment. So here we go. Like Steve said, they're using science terminology to help brand their products as scientific, but it's actually a red flag of pseudoscience. When they use the word, say, entrainment, for example, that's a legitimate scientific term, but the context is actually what's key there because, for example, entrainment in the terms of engineering means the entrapment of one substance by another substance. And then there's entrainment in physics, which is described as the process whereby two interacting, oscillating systems assume the same period. Now, how the heck are the people at EnergyDots are using the definition? Who knows? And they probably don't even know it themselves.

C: No, it sounds to me like somebody took a basic physics class that's on their team because it sounds to me like what they're trying to say is that their sticker tunes itself to the radiation's period and actually oscillates in unison with the radiation. And somehow that cancels it out and makes all your cells have their normal shape and your red blood cells be healthy and healthy and no more disease. So it's like that thing where you're right, it sounds almost realistic. And if you read up on it, you might find superficially things that feel confirming about it.

E: Absolutely. Steve, you know I mentioned the homeopathic term before. Well, it came up again when I was doing research into this because they have independent reports on their website about the effects of these products. There are Electrodot products of which there are several, but the SmartDot among them. And the research was conducted by a woman named Pam Layfield. And when you do a search on Pam Layfield, well, guess what? She works with homeopathy. And she apparently is a student of Robert Oldham Young. Have we talked about him before? American naturopathic practitioner and author of alternative medicine books like Promoting the Alkaline Diet, PH Miracle is his series of books. Well, Robert Young, I looked up him. Oh, 2017, charged and sentenced. Arrested by U.S. Marshals, accused of practising medicine without a license.

J: Oh, that's not true. Come on, cut the guy a break.

C: That's amazing. Oh, my God.

E: I'll leave you with this, though. The researchers at Surrey did find one effect that these stickers had. Remember the old scratch and sniffs from the 1970s? You'd scratch the blueberry stickers and smell something like blueberry.

C: I love those.

E: Well, if you scratch these SmartDots, it smells like bullshit. So there is that. At least it has that going for it.

S: Now, Evan when I wrote about this as well, I pointed out the fact that when they were challenged about the fact that there's no energy detectable from their stickers and no effect on the cell phone. They said, well scientists can't detect the energy. But what you can detect is the subjective clinical effect it has on people. So this is a typical maneuver of this kind of con where, like, they try to whitewash over the basic physics problem with what they're saying. And they want to live entirely in the realm of the squishiest subjective outcomes possible. So they could do their in-house study showing placebo effects and claims that it works. So this is just like acupuncture, right? It's the same thing. Don't worry about chi, whatever. It's just about people feel better. Or homeopathy with the micro-dosing or the non-existent dosing. You know, it's all, it's just, it's whatever. It's energy fields. Don't worry about it. You know, Reiki, therapy. It's all the same thing. Forget about the glaring basic science physics problems with their claiming. Let's just talk about the subjective crappy clinical studies that we do.

C: And, yeah, let's only ask about really, really subjective measures. Like, oh, do you feel as tired? Do you feel as much vague pain?

S: Right, right.

C: Oh, God.

E: We see these throughout all the pseudoscientific products that we come across and report on. They all say the same thing.

S: Yeah, this is boilerplate nonsense.

Who's That Noisy? (51:21)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: Ice

S: Okay, Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.

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


All right, so what do you think this guy, what's going on here, guys?

E: Sounds like something's rolling away.

C: Yeah, or rolling down. You know those big, in museums when you want to donate coins? And they're like in those really big spirally funnel things, so they just go on forever?

S: Yeah.

J: Absolutely.

C: Until they get to the middle. That's kind of what it sounds like, but a bunch of coins in it, like a Plinko machine.

E: Plinko.

C: Yeah.

J: All right, these are not bad guesses at all. So Greg Rogalski, it's R-O-G.

E: Rogalski.

J: Rogalski, thank you. Greg, hi, Greg. He said, my guess based on my distant days in organic chemistry lab is a magnetic stirrer in a beaker spinning up to mix a solution. Not bad.

C: It does kind of sound like that.

E: Oh, yeah. It does.

C: Yeah, that clinky, spinny sound.

J: Because it's the metal on the glass. That's the clinky noise, and then it's going faster. That's not it, but that's a cool one. I'd like to hear that. Michael Janikowski, he wrote and said, I think January 9th, who's that noisy, is a rain stick. Now, if you don't know what a rain stick is, it's like a hollowed out kind of like imagine if you hollowed out bamboo, which is pretty much already hollow. And then you put in a bunch of things that when you tip the bamboo, if you seal it, when you tip it, it makes like a clinkily noise, and this is what a rain stick sounds like. [plays rain stick noise] Right, so there's a lot of stuff inside of this hollow wooden thing that are kind of falling down. They might have things in there that they hit. That is a very good guess. It's not a rain stick, but damn, that's pretty damn close to the sound, which is every once in a while someone will pick something. I'm like those two sounds are very similar, very, very similar, but not the correct guess I was looking for. Aaron Field said, hi, I think it's a marble drop or kinetic sculpture with a bunch of marbles funneling and filtering through.

C: Oh, like Plinko.

J: Right, exactly. That's why I said it was a good guess, because you're not the only one. So, also not a correct guess, but yes, that is there. I've heard those things, and they do have that kind of waterfall-y, Plinko-ly sound happening, sure. But isn't it interesting? That's not the correct answer either. And then we have another guess from a guy named Daniel. He said, hi, Jay, I think this week's noisy is ice cubes in a blender. And it's not correct, because what is missing is the blender noise itself.

C: Oh, yeah, that.

J: But if you could magically only hear the part that's happening inside the blender, yeah, I could see that, because the key word here is actually ice. Now, there was no winner for this week, but imagine if you will. Somebody takes a chunk of I'm not thinking like super solid ice. I'm thinking kind of like crunchy ice that's kind of froze and refroze. And they throw it on a frozen lake, and it hits the ice. Yes, it hits the ice.

B: I've heard that before. It's an amazing sound.

J: And it explodes into tens of thousands of pieces of ice that now, with a lack of friction, slide across this frozen lake and make that incredible noise. So now listen again. [plays Noisy] What's so cool about that sound is you hear the reverberation of the sounds like the water in the lake and the ice sheet are changing that sound. It's like almost, it's making the sound louder, and it's giving it shape. It has a huge, it's like a vast kind of sound, because you're dealing with a ton of ice and a ton of water. So I think that was such a cool sound. You could actually look this up on YouTube if you want to see it happen. Very cool, very, very relaxing sound, especially as it gets past that initial shock. It's really great. And I thought it was just really cool looking as well. So thank you so much for sending that in. That was sent in by Scott Bringlow.

New Noisy (55:52)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy for you guys. Okay, so I am looking for, in this noisy, I'm looking for specifics. You must be specific when you answer this one, or else you will not even have a chance to guess correctly. Are you ready to hear it?

E: Yes.

J: And here we go.


Very interesting, no?

E: Yes.

B: No?

J: So guys, if you think you know what that is, if you think you might know what it is, if you heard something cool, if you'd like to say anything to Evan, you email me at

S: Thank you, Jay.

J: You're welcome.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (56:43)[edit]

Email #1: Learning Styles[edit]

S: Quick email before we go on to the interview. We had a number of emails, a ton, ton of emails responding to our discussion of the learning styles in education, which I thought was fascinating. A lot of the feedback was that it's worse than we even think, right? A lot from teachers. And in fact, I was a little concerned about our discussion last week that we were coming off too harsh. And I edited out some of the harsher things that we said about the lack of the application of science to education. But then a bunch of teachers said, dude, it's a lot worse than you think. Essentially, what's happening is you get a number of things. One is that people just come up with these ideas, these systems whatever. And they're not based on science, but they just come and go like a revolving door. The other thing is that teachers get a lot of this fatigue over all the things they're supposed to be doing, but none of it's based on science. Some teachers pointed out that it's not as bad as we've said, specifically because, the argument wasn't very good. They basically said, teachers don't have time to do that anyway. They don't have the time to individualize the teaching, the learning style to the student, you know. So—

C: Right. Like what am I going to do with 45 kids in my class?

S: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And in fact, they argued that what many teachers will do is just do a multimedia presentation, which is good anyway. And so they might be for the wrong reason, but in practice, it's not like they're actually wasting all of their time tailoring teaching methods to individual students. And I get that. I'm not really implying that. It was more about what they're not doing. They're not optimizing the teaching method to the material. And also, students are then getting pigeonholed, and then they may use this sort of self-label, like I'm an auditory learner, whatever, as a way to avoid certain kinds of content, maybe as an excuse in terms of their performance. But it's not—it's all relying on pseudoscience is never a good thing, and it just becomes a huge distraction and maybe a negative influence. But it was interesting how many people, how many teachers wrote I was worried we were going to get, oh, you're being a little harsh, aren't you? And it was the exact opposite. You know, I don't know if you looked through a lot of them, Cara. It was the—

C: Yeah, it was a lot of like, you guys don't even know.

S: You don't know half of it. Kind of thing. So I thought we would pass that along. A lot of—I appreciate all the feedback we got from people in the field, but kind of jives with what I experienced as well is that they're just just people think that they can come up with some kind of idea, a notion about how to do it, and then that sort of gets implemented rather than being strictly evidence-based. So there's a disconnect there. All right. Well, we have a fascinating interview for you, so let's go on to that interview now.

Interview with Phil McAlister (59:43)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Phil McAllister. Phil, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

PM: Thank you. Great to be here.

S: And you are the Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development at NASA Headquarters, correct?

PM: Yes.

S: I got that right. Awesome. Give us a quick overview to get us started. Tell us what you do at NASA.

PM: So I work at NASA Headquarters here in Washington, D.C., and I oversee the Commercial Crew Program, which is a partnership with Boeing and SpaceX to get our astronauts up and down to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station. I also oversee the Commercial LEO Development Program, which is a collection of initiatives that NASA is engaged in trying to transition space activities in low Earth orbit over to the private sector. We, NASA, are heavily involved in low Earth orbit, both in operating and maintaining the International Space Station, as well as doing a lot of experimentation for crew accommodations and human research. And NASA and the government is really the dominant figure in most of that activity. And what we'd like to do in the Commercial LEO Development Program is, over the next five or ten years, to transition the majority of that work over to the private sector so that NASA can then focus our efforts on our deep space exploration, Moon and Mars. We feel like the time is sort of ripe for entrepreneurs to come in behind NASA now that we've sort of knocked down some of the technological and financial barriers to operating and working and living in low Earth orbit, and we can set our sights deeper where there's not necessarily an entrepreneurial or profit motive. That's as a parent. So, those are the two big programs. I've got some cats and dogs that I also oversee, but those are the two biggies.

S: So, right now, SpaceX, for example, is a commercial company. They're making their money by NASA paying them to bring astronauts to the space station and to do resupply. Is that correct?

PM: Yes.

S: So, what's going to be the profit, do you think, for commercial low Earth orbit activities that doesn't involve getting paid by NASA?

PM: Right. So, we see a variety of different markets for low Earth orbit operations and activity. I can't give you a definitive market study that says exactly how big these markets are going to be. We've done a bunch of studies, and some say they're going to be small, some say that they're going to be big. So, I'll give you some examples of the ones we think are going to be big, but I'm not promising these, and I don't think it's NASA's job necessarily to create those markets and make them happen. We're trying to enable them, trying to create the conditions by which entrepreneurs and business people can do what they do best, which is figuring out how to satisfy demand and make money at it. And so, for example, in my personal opinion, the big one that I see is tourism, space tourism. So, today, I think for the first time in human history, a private individual can buy a ticket to space and low Earth orbit from a commercial company. Fifteen years ago, you would have had to have been a NASA astronaut to fly to space on the space shuttle, but today, you can buy a ticket from SpaceX or somebody else, like a broker, and fly to space. You're going to have to be financially well off because it's pretty expensive right now, but we hope the prices will come down over time, and you're going to have to be relatively healthy. It does stress the body to fly to space, but if you can satisfy those two criteria, you can go to space. And there is a very, very large demand for people wanting to do that. And so, I think space tourism is going to be a big market, and I think it's going to be transformative, to be honest with you. Once more people go to space and experience what it's going to be like, and come back and tell their story, other people are going to want to go to space. And they're not going to be satisfied just floating around. They're going to want to do things. And then, when you do things, that's going to attract more people to want to go, and then more people wanting to do more things. And I just see it's sort of a virtuous cycle of increasing demand and increasing that market segment fairly dramatically, I hope, and fairly quickly, I also think. So, that's one that we've got our sights set on, is hopefully being a real strong market in the near term. And then, every day, somebody is coming up with something interesting to do in microgravity. You know, everything that we do on Earth is influenced by gravity. And when you take gravity out of the equation, all sorts of interesting things happen. And we've got scientists proposing and performing experiments to see what it's like to grow a protein, or develop a pharmaceutical, or to study the bodies and the effects of microgravity on the body in order to counteract some of the negative effects that we see in the body and being in space. All these things, every day, I tell you, there's something new and innovative from these smart scientists and researchers who want to do things in microgravity. So, I think there's a number of markets manufacturing things in space, doing pharmaceutical research in space. We've heard some biomedical advances. One very interesting one that's come up recently is producing artificial retinas in space. In the absence of gravity, you can have a very even process that doesn't get influenced by gravity, where it pulls things down low. You can get a very equal product when you try and grow something in space. I could just go on and on and on about some of these things. They're really cool. Some of them are going to pan out. Most of them probably aren't and won't become profitable. But what we're going to see with Commercial Crew is the ability for more people to go up there and do cool things and see what works.

J: So, Phil, there's going to be people then that are like space jockeys, right? There are going to be people that are piloting these private endeavours. And where's the line between private and the designation of astronaut? How does that work?

PM: Well, I think it's pretty straightforward right now. We've got a designation and a definition of government astronaut and spaceflight participant. That's in some legislation that Congress passed a couple of years ago. If you're a government employee working on a government project, you are a government astronaut. And there's some rules and regulations associated with that. Other than that, you're a private astronaut, spaceflight participant. There's been lots of names people call it. But that's pretty much the designation. What you do is not necessarily the distinction. It's kind of who you are. And if you are working on a government project and you are a civil servant, you're a government person or a government astronaut. If you're not, you are a private astronaut, spaceflight participant.

B: We're going to have to change that name from the name of spaceflight participant. It's just not cool enough. You got astronaut on one side. You really want to attract the maximum amount of people. You got to give it a cool name to make it even more enticing, right?

PM: Oh, you have no idea the arguments and debates that we've had in the space community as to what to call those people. At first, we were calling them space tourists. And people didn't like that because not all of them are going up there just to be tourists. Some of them are actually doing real work. And so then spaceflight participant came on the scene. Private astronauts, I think a lot of people have kind of settled on that. But I agree with you. You got to have a name to match the coolness of what you're doing. And I can't think of anything cooler than flying to space.

J: Well, if it's got to do with the economy, they should call them economots or whatever, econonauts.

S: No, it's not going to work.

J: All right. Look, we have time. It's going to be a while before this gets here. We'll have time to come up with something. I'm talking about the International Space Station now. So that is considered to be – that's in low Earth orbit. But is that going to be something that's involved with anything to do with the economy or is that strictly for NASA and future missions and scientific endeavour?

PM: Yeah, that's a great question. It is predominantly for NASA and our international partners and our government requirements and our government research. That is predominantly why we have the International Space Station. We have designated it the International Space Station National Lab. So you can think of it like a lab. We have many of these research labs across the country. This one just happens to be 200 miles in space. And so that's predominantly why we built the ISS. But as we are looking forward to this transition that I talked about where we're sort of disengaging from low Earth orbit and letting entrepreneurs and business people come in, we are looking towards the ISS to sort of be a gap filler or a pathfinder to help stimulate some of these commercial markets. Right now, the International Space Station is the only destination that you can go to. The Chinese also have a space station up there. But for the International Space Station, there are no private destinations to go to space. So we want to use the International Space Station kind of as an incubator for some of these markets. And so that's why we have announced we have carved out some of the resources associated with the ISS for companies to just do commercial activity, things that they can see where they might be able to make a profit. It's only a small amount. It's 5%. And you have to reimburse NASA for a portion of the cost to go up there. But prior to June 2019, we didn't have an allocation for that. So we are recognizing that this transition is going to occur, and we're trying to, like I said, enable it. We can't promise it. We can't make it happen. But we can help enable it by carving out some research, carving out some resources and astronaut time for them to perform some of these experiments that can hopefully demonstrate some of these markets, the early sort of incubation phase, to see what works and what doesn't. And we think that's a good use of the ISS as long as we can still meet our requirements. So we do see the ISS as being a key sort of early enabler of this transition.

S: So from what I understand, the first commercial module on the ISS is going to be the Axiom module, right, from Axiom Space, a Houston company. Still on schedule for 2024. Is that correct?

PM: Well, we actually have a module that's currently up there called the BEAM. That stands for the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module. Several years ago, we partnered with Bigelow Aerospace, and we put their BEAM module, and it is currently attached to the ISS, and we're using it for storage and some other functions. So that was really the first commercial module on the ISS. We do have a contract to partner with Axiom Space, and they are working towards getting their module attached to the space station sometime in the middle part of this decade, and they are working diligently on that, and we are hopeful that Axiom is successful. And then Axiom has some very grand plans to operate that module that's attached to the space station for several years, but then prior to the ISS retiring, their plan is to detach that module and then operate it as a free flyer. And so that's a very ambitious project, and we are partnering with Axiom, trying to do everything we can to make them successful. We also plan to announce a solicitation or procurement, hopefully this year, for free flyers, companies that want to go directly to some altitude in low Earth orbit, but not necessarily attached to the space station. And so we call those sort of free flyers. They're going directly to orbit and operate as an independent spacecraft. And so we hope to be able to facilitate the development of a few of those also in the early stages, and then see how that progresses, make decisions downstream as to which ones we're going to partner with to actually purchase services from. That's the plan.

J: So, Phil, you've got to help me. We have tried to find out what happens to modules that are decommissioned or if the entire space station is decommissioned. What do we do with that monstrosity if it has to come down? Do we deorbit and let it burn up? Do we try to land it in the ocean? Would we just let it float out there?

PM: Yeah. So we've done a number of analyses on what to do post-ISS how we were going to sort of retire the space station. And there are a number of different scenarios, and it will depend on sort of the situation that exists, sort of the ground truth at that time. But I think our plan now is to deorbit the ISS as a complete entity, meaning we wouldn't detach certain modules and bring them down separately. I think the safest and the current plan right now is to bring the space station down all at once in one piece where we can control it and make sure that we are safely deorbiting it over one of the oceans and obviously a not populated area so that we don't have any injuries or fatalities. So that is the plan. It takes some propulsive capability to deorbit the ISS. We think we understand what that takes. And I think that's the plan. If somebody comes up, like I said, we've got the number of private sector companies that are interested in developing and deploying private space stations. If one of them wants to maybe use one of the modules, I think we would consider that. But the plan is, I think the baseline plan or default plan is to bring it down all at once.

S: So is there any talk of just continuing to add modules to the ISS to indefinitely extend its lifespan, just retire old modules, replace them with new modules? Is that even technically viable? Or is it just that NASA wants to completely cede low-Earth orbit to private sector?

PM: Yeah, I think we could probably maintain the ISS for an extended period of time by doing what you said, sort of replacing the modules. But yeah, that is not the plan. We think, like I said, it's in everybody's interest for NASA to kind of step back from low-Earth orbit and let the private sector come in and do that. Generally, when sort of the entrepreneurs come into this market, they kind of like a clean sheet of paper. We didn't develop the ISS with a primary goal of cost effectiveness. We didn't develop it to close a business case. It had certain requirements that it had to meet, and we developed the ISS to meet those requirements in a very somewhat complicated international partnership, which has been super effective and very successful and beneficial, I think, to everybody. And all these different countries provided modules that we sort of assembled on orbit. I think if you were to operate a commercial destination where you needed to make money and so the operations needed to be very cost effective, I think the most efficient thing and effective thing would be to start with a clean sheet, use new technology, and develop all your systems all at once, and just bring a new space station. We think that is probably the best way to go. Like I said, we know and love the ISS, but just like your car, there gets to be a time where you just need a new car. It just doesn't make sense for you to keep fixing the old one. Right now, the maintenance bill on the ISS is sort of climbing as we find some obsolescence, and it just gets to the point where you could do it. It just doesn't make financial sense.

J: Phil, are you guys going to strip it and move all the hardware that would cost so much money per pound to get things into space? Do you have a way of preserving the little things, like a clipboard and whatever, like stuff that other people could use?

PM: Yeah, so that's a great question. And what it goes into is basically our strategy for doing these commercial ventures. And the way we have done them, and I'm particularly talking about commercial cargo and commercial crew, we let the private sector companies define how they're going to do things. They come up with a design. It's not up to NASA. We don't dictate to them. So I think we would make available certain subsystems of the ISS or even a module if a company wanted those, but we wouldn't dictate that. It would be up to the private sector to come up with these designs that they think is most effective. If they think using a clean sheet of paper and developing all new systems is the way to go, that's up to them. If they want to use a piece of the ISS, we are open to having those discussions after ISS retires and coming up with some sort of way to potentially use some of the piece parts or subsystems. I think we'd be open to that. But we, NASA, are not going to dictate the design for these private sector companies. It's going to be up to them, letting them use their entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. And what we found is when we partner with the private sector this way, they come up with all kinds of cool things, things that we, NASA, never even envisioned and maybe even thought wouldn't work. Reusability is something that was very difficult for a lot of us to envision 10, 15 years ago on how that would really work. We did it with the space shuttle, obviously. We reused the orbiter and we reused the solid rocket boosters. They required a significant amount of maintenance. And I think SpaceX, when they introduced reusability, there was some skeptics on the part of the aerospace industry and some in NASA, and they've really proven that it can be done, and it can be done profitably and cost-effectively and reliably. And so that's just one example that when you open the trade space up for private industry, they really come up with innovative and state-of-the-art solutions, and that's what we're looking for. So we really want to kind of step back and let them come forward with their design ideas.

S: So, Phil, I think they have a pretty good sense now of what the plans are for the ISS, and we've been following very closely SpaceX, and we're very excited when they became the first commercial company to bring people up to low-Earth orbit. How do you see their future with NASA and as leaders now in the commercial space industry?

PM: I can tell you I've been working commercial crew for almost a decade. It's about a third of my career, and it was so gratifying to see that SpaceX Demo-2 mission where we launched Bob and Doug to the International Space Station and brought them back safely to Earth. I do not believe it's an exaggeration to say that we have changed the arc of human space transportation. For the first time in human history, you can purchase a ticket to space from a private sector organization and fly to space. First time in human history. I think that is just an amazing accomplishment, and I think we are going to see 2020 as an inflection point in the evolution of human space transportation. But let's not forget Boeing is not far behind. We are hopefully going to certify them very soon to also carry passengers to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station, and then we'll have another milestone. We will have redundant capability in the United States to fly people to space, something we've never had. We had Apollo. That was a single system. Then we had Shuttle, single string. When we have both SpaceX and Boeing flying commercially to the low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station, we'll have a redundant capability, and we will hopefully never be grounded again, as we saw twice in our history with the Shuttle.

J: The day that two spacecraft leave Earth on two different missions in two completely separate systems, that to me is going to be profound when you have just traffic going on. We're really on the horizon of having low-Earth orbit be kind of like, okay, this is just an extension now of what we can do, and only the deep space stuff is novel.

PM: I couldn't have said it better myself.

S: It sounds like, Phil, that this whole notion, the big picture of NASA bootstrapping commercial spaceflight has worked out well. Has it been financially a good deal for NASA?

PM: Yes, it has been an excellent deal financially. Not only do we see the capability as being advantageous to NASA, but it has also been very cost-effective for us to do commercial crew the way we did it. Our price per seat is significantly lower than what we pay Soyuz for the same capability to launch our astronauts to the International Space Station, so we're saving money every time we take an astronaut to low-Earth orbit, which is really just amazing because the Soyuz has been around a long time, and these are new systems, and it just speaks to the entrepreneurial capability of the United States aerospace industry. Just amazing. Then we also did an analysis that said if we had done commercial crew sort of in a traditional way where NASA was in charge and we made all the decisions and this was government-owned and operated hardware, that we saved between $20 and $30 billion by doing commercial crew the way we did it. So not only did we save a lot of money up front, but we're going to continue to reap the benefits of that cost savings every time we take an astronaut to the International Space Station. It's just been an amazing ride. It was a very unique combination. We had the right partners, and we had the right mission, and everything kind of came together well. I'm not saying it's always going to work out this well for anything that we do commercially, but certainly with commercial crew, I think we can check the box and say that was very successful. It doesn't mean it always will be and that we're never going to have an anomaly. Every mode of human transportation has fatalities. I hope to avoid that, and our teams are working as diligently as possible to avoid that. So I'm not promising that we'll never have a mishap in the future, but so far we feel like this was really the way to go and has been very successful not only for NASA, but also for the nation because we've saved NASA a lot of money, and also for all of humanity. Again, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that because if you're a person in India or Japan or South Africa, you can buy a ticket to space as long as you have the money and are healthy enough.

S: Well, Phil, thank you so much for giving us your time. We really appreciate it. Obviously, we're big fans of NASA and spaceflight. We grew up under Apollo. This is a sort of lifelong romantic love affair for us, so we always love to talk to people from NASA. Thanks for joining us.

PM: Yeah, it was my pleasure, and I just want to thank you guys for following it and being interested. We're always trying to engage the public, and podcasts like yours are definitely making an impact, so thank you.

S: Great. Thank you, Phil. Take care.

Science or Fiction (1:24:15)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists have imaged quadruple-helix DNA in living human cells.[4]
Item #2: New research finds that watching horror movies correlates with better psychological resilience to the stresses of the pandemic, even when personality factors are controlled for.[5]
Item #3: Engineers at Osaka University have built the most powerful pulse laser to date, at 500 petawatts, beating the previous record of 10 petawatts.[6]

Answer Item
Fiction Pulse laser
Science Quadruple-helix DNA
Horror movies
Host Result
Steve swept
Rogue Guess
Pulse laser
Pulse laser
Pulse laser
Pulse laser

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, one fake, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. No theme this week, just three news items. First one I think of the year with no theme. Are you ready?

J: Yes.

E: Ready.

S: All right. Item number one, scientists have imaged quadruple helix DNA in living human cells. Item number two, new research finds that watching horror movies correlates with better psychological resilience to the stresses of the pandemic, even when personality factors are controlled for. Item number three, engineers at Osaka University have built the most powerful pulse laser to date at 500 petawatts, beating the previous record of 10 petawatts. Evan, go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: All right. The quadruple helix DNA. Forgive me. Is this out of a Star Trek episode? Did I see that? Where have I seen this before? Maybe it was Futurama.

S: You may be thinking of the triple helix.

E: Oh, fifth element?

S: Fifth element, yeah.

E: Oh, my gosh. But a quadruple. So you have to fly right over that and go to quadruple helix DNA in living human cells. So how could that be? Something's not right in that. Is that a mutation of human cells? And is that even possible? That's incredible. Something tells me it is incredibly true, though, and that might be the one that's trying to throw us off because it's just so beyond what we know. All right. Next one, about watching horror movies correlating with better psychological resilience, especially in the stresses of the pandemic, even when personality factors are controlled for. So we've talked before about the psychological either benefits or experiences of horror movies in that I remember us speaking about how it becomes a sensation that we have of danger yet no harm. Like the equivalent would be a roller coaster ride for the most part. Most people survive their roller coaster rides. You go through this mostly. You go through this harrowing sort of experience, but you come out alive on the other end. And sort of I think in that correlation we were talking about maybe horror movies having a similar sort of effect in the brain. So I have a feeling that that one is science. Now, it's this last one that I'm thinking is the fiction because the most powerful pulse laser to date, 500 petawatts, beating the previous record of 10 petawatts. So the reason I think this one is fiction is because if you hearken back or hearken forward to our 2035 podcast that we recorded while we were in New Zealand or was it in Australia? No, we did it in New Zealand.

S: It was Australia.

E: Was it? Okay. During our trip in Australia. We had our 2035 episode. One of the fake news item I spoke about was a laser used to redirect a comet and other things that were going to threaten the Earth or asteroids that were going to threaten the Earth. And we were going to launch vehicles out there that had these lasers on them to change the trajectory, but you needed several of them to do it, almost an array. And I said that they had 50 petawatts of power, and that was 2035. And I also remember getting some feedback on that from someone saying that's probably a little too optimistic even for 2035. So I think maybe they did come up with a 50 petawatt laser that they're testing now, which would be incredible. But I think 500 petawatts, too high, order of magnitude too high. That's why I think that one's the fiction.

S: Okay. Cara?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I think I know that the quad helix DNA, which is, I think, from what I remember, that this is normal, not necessarily healthy, or maybe it is healthy in certain parts of the body, but relatively, I should say, common in cancer cells where the DNA like folds over on itself. And so instead of a double, it's a quad. If you had said triple, I might have been like, meh, or like five, I might have been like, meh, how would that work? Maybe there would be some zipping, unzipping problems, and then doubling over. So I could see that if that actually happens in people that they, or in other organisms, that they'd be able to image it. Oh, you did say human there, though. And then the horror movies correlating with psychological reasons. These always get me, Steve. I hate it when you get me on psych questions. Because I'm like, yep, that computes, and then it's like, meh, nope. But yeah, of course, I think that we can develop resilience in safe spaces where we have perceived threats. I think this is how exposure therapy works for a lot of people who have anxiety disorders. This is how VR therapy works for like fear of heights and things like that. That approximates real threat, but that we know is not a threat, so that we can be better prepared when we're an actual threat. And then I was going to say this one was probably the fiction, too, only because I feel like anytime we say PETA before something, that's because Bob is getting really techno-optimistic. And he like throws PETA.

E: Petaflops.

C: He'll throw PETA before something, and it's like, oh, yep, that's a fantasy. So I'm going to go with Evan because that just reinforced my view on this one.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Yeah, the quadruple helix. Initially, my knee jerk was like, what? But yeah, listening to those guys, and I could see there's some quirky thing that makes that happen. And the horror movies, yeah, I buy that as well. I love horror movies. I think the last time I briefly covered my eyes in a horror movie, I think I was like 12. And, of course, now that reminds me of Jay. We went to a horror movie, and Jay was a little shit. He was like, I don't know, 10, 12, or whatever. And he literally looked at his foot for the entire movie.

E: Oh, boy.

J: I did.

B: I'll never forget that.

J: It's because you guys brought me to stuff I should not have been anywhere near when I was too young to see that stuff.

E: I hated being young. Yeah. I had moments like that in my youth, too.

C: Oh.

E: Definitely.

B: I hear you. But you were a little extra scared, too, Jay. It's hard because, I mean, I love the stuff so much that it's like, oh, yeah, it's nothing. It's like an amusement park ride. Yeah. Or a spicy dish. Yeah, this is no problem. And then people run out of the room screaming.

C: Hey, Bob, you like spice?

B: Spice. Oh, God.

E: Spice.

B: Spice. That was hilarious. So I could totally see that. That one makes sense. Yeah. So now to the laser. And, yeah, to me, 500 petawatts is fantastic. I mean, that's actually a half an exawatt, which is amazing.

J: Shut up at this point.

E: I love it.

B: Hey, look it up, dude. Peta-exa. But, yeah, I think a leap from 10 petawatts to half an exawatt is too much. I think that's quite a big leap. Now, maybe since it's a pulse laser, maybe they're pulsing it for really ever brief. And we've got attosecond lasers that are so brief that, yeah, you can get incredible energy in such a tiny amount of time. I guess maybe that's part of it.

S: So you're saying you would believe an attosecond exawatt laser?

B: Half an exawatt. So, yeah, there's lots of ways to look at it. But I assume that the 10 petawatt was a pulse laser going to the 500. I think that still would be quite an increase in how brief that pulse is. So, yes, I'll say that one's fiction. Go with the other crew.

S: And Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right. The first one about imaging the quadruple helix, the thing about that one is that it's quadruple.

B: That's the thing.

J: Yeah. I mean, sure, I believe that. Whatever. There's so many variations of things out there. There really isn't any reason to not believe that. Watching horror movies correlates with psychological resilience. Yeah, I think this is like having small, controllable sources of something that scares you, like being the virtual reality spider thing that helps people. Yeah, I could see that. If you're not going to go straight to Evil Dead, something that's maybe too over the top for a lot of people.

C: Evil Dead is the funniest and least scary horror movie in existence.

E: Don't tell 8-year-old Jay that.

B: That's goofy. That's goofy. But there's one scene, I remember watching that, and I think it was in like 83 or 84. I have a distinct memory watching that in the theatre. And there's a scene, and they show it mostly in shadow, where this guy is literally taking an axe and hacking his friend to pieces. Everyone except me in the theatre was screaming at the same time. I have never experienced everyone except one person.

C: Seriously? It's so campy.

B: It is. It's campy and goofy and fun and creepy.

C: It is a fun movie.

B: It is, but there's that one scene.

C: To the extent that his sequels were intentionally campy and ridiculous.

E: Oh, yeah, Army of Darkness and stuff, yeah.

C: Oh, so good.

S: They definitely double down on the campy part.

C: Yeah, because he knew. He knew.

J: My response to it was the way that Bob said it, like when people saw it in the theater, they were losing it. Like, yeah, I guess today—

C: It's because, yeah, Evil Dead was full of, what are they called, like Pratt scares? Yeah, like the little whoo, those kind of moments. And that's why people scream in movie theaters, because the music's tense and then something happens.

B: Yeah, the jump out scares are—

C: Join us.

B: Yeah, the jump scares are the lowest quality of jump scares.

J: But I do think the voices were scary, though. The demonic voices that they did in post-production were just awesome.

B: Phantom parts, Jack of clubs.

J: All right, so getting back to the game, because I can feel, Steve, his temperature starting to rise. I do think that watching some types of horror movies could kind of detune you from stress. It also is a release of tension. Did you know that horror movies release tension when you watch them?

C: They do? I thought they build tension.

B: Right, fear minus death equals fun.

J: Yeah, but after you get off a roller coaster, you feel relief, right? The roller coaster ends, you're like, oh, it's over, and you get like a success kind of feeling almost. Anyway, let's see what Steve says. The last one here, I mean, yeah, I think 500 petawatts is way too big. That's basically it.

S: That's too effing much. That's an obscure movie reference.

E: Used Cars.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Used Cars, yeah. All right, so you guys all agree? You all agree? So someone got swept this week. Let's see who. Let's start with number two, since you seem to have the easiest time with that one. Research finds that watching horror movies correlates with better psychological resilience during the pandemic, even when personality factors are controlled for. You all think that one is science, and that one is science.

C: Yay!

S: Yeah, you guys pretty much nailed it. This is kind of the thinking is this is like you're mentally preparing for these kinds of scenarios, and the hypothesis was that this would build some kind of psychological, emotional resilience. They basically surveyed people on their horror movie, apocalypse zombie movie, watching habits, and they then used a standardized test of emotional resilience, and they correlated the two, and they found that there was, in fact, a correlation. They also controlled for personality factors, which they said were very strong.

C: Yeah, I wouldn't be surprised.

S: Yeah, the personality thing might be overwhelming, the movie-watching factor, but it still emerged as an independent factor. And I only said correlated because this kind of study doesn't tell you about cause and effect, so that was kind of a low bar. That was kind of my throwaway for this week.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right, well, let's get to this laser. Let's see what you guys did. Engineers at Osaka University have built the most powerful pulse laser to date at 500 petawatts, beating the previous record of 10 petawatts. I want to read you from the article. Listen to this. This is awesome. In this newly improved design by using a two-beam pumped—get this—wide-angle non-collinear optical parametric chirped pulse amplification and carefully optimized phase-matching pump interference is completely avoided and an ultra-broadband bandwidth with two broad spectra is accomplished, resulting in a less than 10 fs high-energy laser amplification.

B: Femtosecond.

S: And they believe that this could be pushed into the exawatt class.

B: Yeah, halfway there.

E: Could be.

S: But this is a simulation they haven't built yet. So this is the fiction.

C: Oh, okay. No way. So it is 500 petawatts simulated.

S: No, I just cut it in half because I thought the exawatt would be too much. They simulated an exawatt laser using that turboencabulator stuff I just talked about.

C: Yeah, that was some gobbledygook right there.

E: Boy, you gotta be in the field to understand half of that.

S: Yeah. I understand all the words. I just, you know...

C: I don't know how they quite go together.

S: Yeah, but that's a lot of jargon.

B: Yeah, some of the words like chirped I've heard before, but some of them are like, wait, that's a lot of gobbledygook.

S: Wide-angle non-collinear optical parametric chirped pulse amplification, Bob.

B: Yeah, chirped pulse I've heard before, but not some of that other stuff. So wait, so what is the record now, then?

S: It's 10 petawatts.

E: It's 10, and that's what I reported, yeah. When I did my news item and I looked it up, that's what I was basing it on. 10, okay, and by the time 2035 comes along, we'll get to maybe 50. I thought that was reasonable.

S: But they're jumping right over that to one exabyte, but that's assuming exawatt, but that assumes that this all works out. This is in simulation. This is like the theoretical limit of using this approach, I think, is what they're talking about.

B: Exawatt, man. That would do some damage.

C: I was about to say, like, how dangerous is this thing going to be?

E: Hey, forget pushing asteroids. You could put moons out of the way probably with those things.

S: You can fill an entire house with popcorn.

B: Remember, though, it's pulse, so it's crazy brief.

C: Yeah, but a brief pulse can still, like, cut a person in half.

S: You worry about a person with an exawatt laser? No. That would cut buildings in half.

C: Exactly. It cut through all the people in the building.

B: If you do one pulse, then you're not. You're going to put a nice hole into anything. But you won't have time to swing it.

C: No, you got to do a bunch of pulses in a line.

S: If you had a super capacitor made of graphene that could store the energy necessary, then you could do multiple pulses. There you go.

B: Being fed from a fusion reactor, yep, would be good.

E: Controlled by a super smart AI. Oh, yeah.

B: Nice. Bringing it all together.

C: Don't give them lasers. No lasers for the AI.

B: Give that laser to a super intelligent AI, and you'd get a Yottawatt class laser.

E: Yottawatt. Term of the day.

S: Then you get something like, this is the voice of Colossus. Okay. You got that reference, right, Cara? Sure.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Okay, so scientists have imaged quadruple helix DNA in a living human cell. Is science. This is rare. It is, though, naturally occurring. And, Cara, your vague memory is pretty much accurate.

C: Cancer?

S: Yeah, it has been identified in cancer cells, and you're right, four is actually not as impressive as three or five would be, because it is just transitive DNA that manages to helix together. It does happen. It's sort of a transient thing, but what they showed, the new bit, they actually knew about this, but the new bit was really that they were able to image it in living human cells and that they showed that it's actually functional, that the DNA is functional in this form.

C: Oh, wow. Is it functional at being cancerous?

S: Well, that's what they're trying to figure out, but it could become a new drug target for cancer therapy if it is something that is more important to cancer cells than non-cancer cells, for example. It's a little curiosity, but definitely the idea of this quadruple helix DNA is kind of interesting.

C: Totally.

S: You think about it, the way DNA winds up, you have individual strands, two of those strands can bind together and wind into a double helix. You can have them binding together and curling themselves up into a quadruple helix. There's no reason chemically why that can't happen. It's just rare.

C: If it can happen, it probably does happen at some point.

S: It doesn't matter how common it is. I don't know if it's going to lead anywhere. It's just a very interesting basic science finding. All right. Good job, guys. Couldn't get you with the 500 petawatt laser.

C: Thanks, Evan.

E: You're welcome.

C: You set a good tone there.

E: Glad I went first this week.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:42:18)[edit]

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British statesman

S: Evan, give us a quote.

E: "Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things." Winston Churchill said that. Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. Yes, yes, and more yes.

J: Without a doubt.

E: It's so important. It's how we're able to make corrections.

S: Yeah, as long as it's constructive and not personal or biased or whatever, not ad hominem. Constructive criticism is absolutely critical.

J: A fatal flaw that any adult can have is definitely not being able to hear, digest, and acknowledge criticism. If you can't edit yourself, then you don't evolve. It's remarkable. I know so many people at all age ranges who just can't hear it. They can't take any criticism whatsoever. It's a really difficult thing to acknowledge if you've never worked on it, and it's a very, very difficult thing to get rid of or work on when you're an adult. Witness your own behavior and make sure that you admit when you're wrong. It's part of being human.

E: Cara, have you looked into the psychology of criticism? How people are impacted by criticism?

C: Yeah. There's obviously a lot of really interesting research on flexibility, cognitive flexibility, growth, and change. There's a lot of really interesting research on how personality traits would play into this, openness to opportunity. We talk a lot about personality on the show, and pretty much the only personality metric that seems to hold a lot of good research water is OCEAN. It's the big five. We talked about that. Openness, conscientiousness, extroversion versus introversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. And definitely openness is highly correlated with mind changing, with being able to utilize criticism. Yeah. I think as a construct, it's a really interesting one because so many psychological facets or ways of thinking about things can track back to how people deal with criticism. Also, a lot of it has to do with how it's given.

S: We talk about the compliment sandwich. That's a very popular phrase in the education world now. Because we have to, I've mentioned before, we have to give residents, who are physicians, we have to give them very deep specific criticism if they're not practising medicine optimally. The implications are so huge.

C: They could kill someone.

S: No kid gloves. But you also need to deal with the psychology. You can't just lay on something. You're a terrible clinician. Whatever. Obviously, you've got to be constructive. The other paradigm that is being suggested to us to help make it go down is the compliment sandwich where you open up with a compliment and then you slip in a constructive criticism and then you close with a compliment. It's like sandwiched in between two compliments. You're very diligent. You work really hard. I wish you could work on this a little bit more, but I really appreciate all the hard work that you do.

C: It works, especially if they are authentic compliments. If they match to reality.

S: They will see right through it. Totally.

C: If they're like, you look good today. Hey, you're about to kill this patient.

B: That's a really good point, but your hair looks like shit today, but your shirt's good.

E: It looks good on you, though.

J: No, you start with a compliment.

B: I did. I said it was a good point. I know how to make a sandwich.

C: That's not an open-faced sandwich.

S: What about a compliment taco?

Signoff/Announcements (1:46:20)[edit]

J: A 12-hour live stream for our patrons.

E: Oh, that's right.

C: Full of compliments.

J: Let me throw some details on you guys. You can go to, 12-hour show. That's one, two, hour show.

C: That's hour with an H, not hours.

J: That's one, two. H-O-U-R-S-H-O-W. On that page, you will find of course the date, time, and all that stuff. There'll be a placeholder where we'll put the link once we create it, because we can't create the live stream link until I think a day before. You'll have the recipes. If you're interested in cooking along with us on the show, there'll be a number of recipes on there that we'll be doing during the show. You'll see us cooking, and it'll be fun if you did it with us. There will also be George's taste test, which we did at NECSS a year and a half ago. This is where we tested, can you tell the difference between regular Coke and Diet Coke, skim milk, whole milk, blah, blah, blah. So you can go buy all that stuff. Maybe somebody at home can help you to randomize it so you don't know what you're drinking. We can all see who guesses what. Trust me, you'll be amazed at some of the answers that we get out of these experiments. The other information on there will be, if you're a patron, I will be sending you over Patreon, I'll be sending you a link or you already received the link to submit your pictures. If you are an SGU patron, you will be allowed to upload up to five pictures and we will be displaying those in the background during the live stream, pretty much throughout the entire live stream. Of course it depends on how many pictures we get and keep it clean, please just make it easy on us. Steve doesn't want to go to jail for nudity on the SGU live stream.

S: That is correct. That is a true statement.

J: We'll see you on January 23rd, 11am Eastern Time. The show runs for 12 hours. We have a huge array of different things happening. We have several guests that are coming along. George Hrab will be with us and it's just going to be a ton of fun. We've been working on this a long time. Lots of fun and new content for you guys and we really hope you enjoy it. Thank you so much to all of our patrons.

C: Jay, I have a question.

J: Go ahead, Cara.

C: Do I need my lightsaber?

J: Cara, if your lightsaber is ever, if you're in your house and it's...

C: I'm looking at it right now.

J: Good, because it should never be more than like 15 feet away from you.

S: It should never be out of force summoning range.

B: Or Osseo spell range.

S: Don't mix genres. Come on.

E: Or if you believe in episode 9, you can pass your lightsaber through time and space to another place. Oh, don't get me started on episode 9. Oh my gosh. Don't get me started.

S: Don't get me started.

E: That'll be for the 12 hour show, maybe.

S: Alright. We're looking forward to it. It's just next week. When this show comes out, it's just a week later that the 12 hour show.

C: Oh my god.

S: That's right.

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[7]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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