SGU Episode 818

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SGU Episode 818
March 13th 2021
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SGU 817                      SGU 819

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

Understand well, as I may. My comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand.


Show Notes
SGU Forum


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, March 10th, 2021, and this is your host, Stephen 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, and welcome back, Cara.

S: Yes, welcome back.

C: Yeah, did you miss me?

S: We're back to normal. We're back to the Wednesday slot with the full crew, first time in a while.

C: Yeah.

J: So, Steve, guess what?

S: What?

J: I made a mistake last week when I was covering Perseverance and the Moxie unit.

S: Yes, I know. Do you want to do that up front?

J: Yeah, I'd like to correct that if you don't mind. I was wrong. Now, what I did find out was that they had been developing these gerbils that are like mega athletes and they said, no, follow me on this. They sent them over and all they do is eat and run. They don't need sleep. They do have sweat bands on around their foreheads.

E: Of course.

J: I mistakenly said that Perseverance was using solar power solar arrays, solar panels, whatever you want to call them, Cara, to collect energy, and I was wrong. There is actually a radioisotope power system in that, bad boy, and it just-

S: Suckers nuclear?

J: Yeah. It's Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator, MMRTG.

B: They're awesome.

E: What the heck do you think powered Cassini with all of its wonder and-

B: Matter, anti-matter analysis?

S: That's radioactive decay of plutonium, which is the advantage there is it works all the time. You don't need sunlight. It doesn't get covered with dust. It doesn't power down when the sun goes down, so yeah.

J: When they launched it, it had 110 watts of power, and then it slowly declines a few percent per year, so it's not that bad. You know, that MOXIE unit, though, I mean, that thing sucks so much power out of it, I wonder if they're going to try to only use it early in the mission or if that doesn't matter.

S: I don't think it would matter. They also have two lithium-ion batteries just for some extra juice for peak demand.

B: Does the RTG charge the batteries?

S: Yeah, yeah.

B: I guess it would have to.

S: It's a good design.

J: I wonder how integrated it is, I wonder if they could just send a new power supply and then it could just go and pick it up and click it in like a battery, more like a traditional battery system.

S: I doubt it. I seriously doubt it, but that would be maybe for a future mission.

J: Yeah, that'd be cool.

S: But it might be that when the rover's done, there's probably still some good life in that battery. You could plug it into the habitat when the astronauts get there, you know?

B: They're not as dangerous as you may think. I remember the movie The Martian. They made it seem like they were dangerous, but they're not that dangerous to be near for extended periods of time.

S: I mean, I'm sure they're shielded.

C: Were they trying to say in The Martian that it was just dangerous for him to be near it?

B: Well, wasn't it buried deep and far away? That was definitely movie overkill.

C: I see. Okay. I just thought it was because it was like hot.

E: Putting out radiation.

J: I thought it was a radiation issue.

C: But he was like in the car with it, remember? He was using it as a heat.

J: Yeah. I'm sure it gives off heat as well.

C: Like they think it was physically hot. Yeah. And when it's the car, I mean the rover. He was in the car on Mars.

E: The Prius.

C: Whatever that thing was, yeah.

J: The MMRTG can last up to 14 years. It said that it gives the rover a greater mobility over a larger range of latitudes and altitudes. It also allows scientists to maximize the function of the science instruments, I guess, because it gives plenty of electricity. And the other cool thing is that they're saying it gives a lot of flexibility to the operating the missions that they can do because it can run 24-7. There is no need to wait. Doesn't matter if it's winter, the season and day or night cycle have no bearing on power, which is important because they want to get as much out of it as they can for the first year and a half or so. But it is cool to think that thing's going to be sitting there. And then, like you said, Steve, like maybe 14 years, like we could have people there in 14 years. They might be pulling this thing apart, you know?

S: Yeah. Yeah, I got it. Probably it's useful. Like, maybe that's its useful life expectancy, but it still will be producing power after 14 years, right? Because it's got a half life. Just probably not that much.

J: 14.4 years.

S: 14.4 years. Yeah. 14.4 years. It depends on the isotope. Plutonium-241's half life is 14.4 years, so yeah, so it'll be producing half as much energy in 14 years. It won't be useless.

COVID-19 Update (4:44)[edit]

S: So let's, we're not going to give a COVID update every week anymore, but there's a lot going on. So I thought we would definitely give one this week, and then the first news item is going to also be COVID related, so we'll just sort of blend one into the other. There's a lot going on with the variants of COVID-19. There's three that are critical right now. We'll call them the UK variant, the South African variant, and the Brazil variant. And the preliminary evidence coming out so far is that while antibodies from previous infection and the vaccines cover the UK variant, the Brazil variant and the South African variant are partially resistant to those antibodies, so they're not covered as well. So that's a real...

C: But only an extreme disease, right?

S: Well, it just, it depends on how you look at it. One study said that it takes up to 10 times as much antibody to neutralize the Brazil variant. And so if it's a minor disease, you still might have enough antibody to, I guess, to get ahead of it. But it's still, it gives you partial protection, but it's not as good as against the older variants.

C: Oh, so the idea here is because they were doing a lot of these studies in vitro, it's all about, like, actual physical viral loads. But we don't, it hasn't translated yet to human beings.

S: We know that people can get reinfected with the Brazil variant, even if they were already infected with older variants.

C: Right. And do we know yet if people who are vaccinated and then get the Brazil variant have died?

S: That I haven't seen.

C: Yeah, I don't think we know that.

S: Yeah.

C: Because we hear the guidance all the time in the news that they're still effective at preventing serious disease and death. But I'm wondering if that's just based on laboratory knowledge or if we actually have human trials knowledge around that.

S: So it depends on the vaccine. I know the companies that are putting out each vaccine are testing it against the new variants. And so some of them are starting to come up with some preliminary data saying, yeah, it's still effective, but it's not quite as effective. So there's some mixed data out there. I think that these variants are kind of a warning sign. They're not going to completely obviate the vaccines and they're not going to be, hopefully a significant game changer in this pandemic. We'll see. I mean, in the US, they were predicting, for example, that the UK variant is going to become dominant by the end of this month, end of March.

C: Yeah, right.

S: We will see if that produces a new surge or not. You know, it's more infectious. It's still covered by the vaccine. So it's still this race against time, right? What's going to happen first? Are we going to get herd immunity first or the new variants going to cause more surges? And then the big concern here is that there'll be a variant of a variant that these more infectious variants will cause more mutations that will fully evade the vaccine, for example.

C: Right. Because as long as there are reservoirs, as long as people are walking around, unvaccinated and developing sickness and passing it on to other people, variants are going to develop.

S: Yeah.

C: We know this.

S: Every time the virus replicates, it's an opportunity to have a mutation that could make it more deadly or more resistant or more infectious or whatever. And so that's one of the dangers of allowing a pandemic to simmer along.

C: Yeah. It's the armour. They get a heads up in the arms race.

S: Yeah. Yeah.

C: They, it gets a heads up in the arms race.

S: It's all evolution.

J: Are we going to be chasing this thing, Steve, forever or what's your...

S: That is a distinct possibility that's the thing. At this point, it's possible that there's multiple scenarios. One is we achieve herd immunity and the pandemic is basically over and we won, you know. So that's one scenario. The other scenario is that these variants delay getting the pandemic under control. They cause new surges, they may require another round of vaccination to cover new variants and maybe the pandemic is extended for a year or so because of the emergence of new variants. And the third possibility is that it becomes endemic. It's like the flu. It's going to be here. It's going to be 30,000 deaths every year or whatever. We're going to have to get our annual COVID vaccine. It'll be maybe to be mixed with the flu vaccine, who knows. And then...

C: That'd be cool.

S: Yeah, I don't know if they're compatible. Especially if it's still the two shot one, I don't know. But in any case, it'll be we just have to live with it.

C: And I think one of the major pieces of that calculus, of that algorithm, that sort of... It's being talked about, but it's often being talked about as like a separate conversation is anti-vax and vaccine hesitancy. Is that there are people across the country who have access to the vaccine, who are eligible for the vaccine, who are refusing to get the vaccine. And it's not an insignificant number of people.

B: And we know people.

C: Yeah, I do, too. My sister works in a health care facility in Texas. It's like a residential treatment facility. And as far as she knows, she's the only employee that elected to get vaccinated.

J: Oh, my God.

S: So vaccine hesitancy is on the wane, though. I mean, more people are saying they will get vaccinated. I think some of the initial hesitancy was, oh, there's these new mRNA vaccines and blah, blah, blah. But now that like 50 million people got it and we're not seeing third arms growing out of the back or something, they're feeling that it's OK. Yes, I think more people were on the fence are coming over and I think once we start to see the... If you're vaccinated, life gets a little bit back to normal. You know, that's a big carrot, too. And that's the other sort of news item about COVID is that the CDC finally came out with their recommendations, their guidance for if you're fully vaccinated, what does that mean? Yeah.

C: That means you and I can hang out, Steve.

S: That's right.

B: More of a guideline.

S: So yeah, basically, if you're fully vaccinated, you can hang out with somebody else who's fully vaccinated without having to wear a mask or socially distance. If you're fully vaccinated, which is two weeks after your second dose, is what that means. You can visit with like one family unit who is unvaccinated or people who are unvaccinated, up to like one family unit, one household, as long as there's no one there who's high risk. Right?

C: Right.

S: So the two caveats are they're they're low risk and you're fully vaccinated. And then if but if you know, if it's for bigger groups, they still think you should you should wear a mask if obviously if there are people from two different households together and any of them are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, they have to wear a mask.

C: And of course, you have to wear a mask in public. Don't just like take your mask off and start walking around the grocery store.

S: And they'll also nonhealthcare settings. They said nonhealthcare settings. Although I just read a study that said that it is interesting. They looked at people, health care workers who and they found that they were at high. We said this on the show. They were at higher risk out in the public than they were in the hospital.

C: Yeah. Not surprised.

B: Oh, my God. Yeah, that makes sense.

E: Because the hospital is controlled.

C: Yeah. Probably not early in the pandemic.

S: Well, this was recent. This was recent. This is now basically.

C: Yeah.

B: Wow.

C: The other thing. There was another piece of guidance there, Steve, that was about you don't need to self quarantine anymore.

S: Yes, that's true. You need to quarantine if you're exposed.

C: Yeah. Which is like huge. I mean, that's a big part of for a lot of people who are back at work, they've been having to take two weeks off every time there's a potential exposure.

S: Including teachers, which is a big reason why schools are having a hard time. They didn't have the staff to cover for all the quarantining that was happening.

B: So, Steve, what are your thoughts on double masking? I've been doing that for weeks and it just seems like such an awesome idea.

S: Yeah, it's a good idea. You wear like a hospital mask under your cloth mask, for example, that that yeah, it's more protection. It's good.

E: The hospital. What is it?

News Items[edit]

Vaccines Prevent Spread (12:54)[edit]

S: The final question is, do vaccines prevent the spread of illness, which you might think isn't a question, but it is. And this is going to be my news item. So this is going to be the first news item for the show because I did a deep dive on this question.

B: So are you starting it now?

S: Yeah.

B: OK. News item starting now. OK. Go ahead. I want to make sure you know the demarcation. Go ahead.

C: Listen up people.

E: Are you saying that was unclear? OK.

S: So initially, the official word was we don't know if the vaccines prevent spread. And that's because the primary endpoints of the trials that we compared vaccinated versus unvaccinated in the double blind placebo controlled trials where like the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccine got their FDA emergency use authorization, not approval. They were the endpoint was was illness. So people reported when they got sick, they got symptoms. Which means it was not based on data about viral load, viral infection, the presence of virus testing positive for the test. It was you were clinically ill. And so the vaccines were shown to prevent illness. They also followed secondarily, like hospitalization and death. So they reduce your chance of getting sick. They reduce your chance of getting hospitalized if you do get sick, and they reduce your chance of dying if you get sick. But the question remained, what if people who are vaccinated can still have the virus? It still is shedding from their their nasopharynx and they can pass it along asymptomatically. So they could be still be a vector for asymptomatic viral spread. That's why the CDC was so reluctant to make these recommendations. They were waiting for some data to come in that they could use as a scientific basis for relaxing the recommendations for people who are fully vaccinated.

C: So Steve, to be clear, like what you're saying is, I'm fully vaccinated, been fully vaccinated for a while. I go on a hike with a friend and even though we're staying six feet apart, she sneezes and turns out she had COVID and now it's all up in my nose. And I don't ever really get sick from it. But maybe it's still hanging out in my nose and then later if I sneeze, I can pass it on to somebody else.

S: Yeah. Or even just talking. Spraying stuff out, droplets out just from talking.

E: Say it, don't spray it.

S: So yeah, that's exactly it. You pass it, it passes through you from one person to the other without you ever getting sick because your vaccinated antibodies, fight it off too quickly to produce actual symptoms.

C: But there's that time period where I'm still carrying it.

S: Yes.

C: Okay.

S: So that's the theory. So now, so how should we think about that? If we look at it from just a plausibility point of view, it's highly plausible that effective vaccines, especially these highly effective vaccines, remember these are like approaching 95% effectiveness, that they would reduce viral load, right? That's how they work. You're making antibodies that will attach to and destroy the viruses. So yeah, there should be less virus, fewer viruses in your body and therefore you're shedding fewer viruses, you should be less contagious and there's almost no question that that's happening, right? But the real question is just how much. It's got to reduce the probability of asymptomatic spread, but we didn't really have any data on how much and so that's why the CDC wanted to keep the full social distancing mask wearing recommendations in place until we had some data. But everyone who knows how vaccines work was hopeful that they would and this, of course, impacts herd immunity. The more effective they are in preventing asymptomatic spread, the quicker we'll get to herd immunity with maybe the fewer percentage of the population needing to be vaccinated before we'll achieve it.

C: And it's also kind of only, I don't want to say only, but the reason it's a big concern right now is because we're in a mixed milieu. Some people are vaccinated and some aren't. So it's kind of like driverless cars on the road next to cars with drivers. That's when things start to get complicated. When it's all one or all the other, it makes a little bit more sense because once everybody or at least we get to a place where enough people are vaccinated for herd immunity, that's less of a concern because the risk is plummeted.

S: So now we have some data. So what is that data? So there was a UK study. This was looking at the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. This was in a hospital workers because they were doing a nasal swab testing on everybody. So we have data on people who are vaccinated, people who are not vaccinated, and the probability of them testing positive in a screening test, right? So this is not only looking at people who are exposed or only looking at people who are symptomatic. This is just that everybody in the hospital is getting tested. So it's a good opportunity to see if the vaccine reduces the probability of getting an asymptomatic positive test, right? And it did. So 21 days after, and this was, so everyone was tested before their second dose. So this is right before their second dose or 21 days after the first dose. The reduction in the risk of being COVID positive was 86%.

B: After three weeks.

S: Yeah, three weeks after the first dose.

B: Nice, man.

S: That's really good, especially-

B: Two more weeks ago.

S: Yeah, it's going to be even better after the second dose. But because everyone was getting tested before the second dose, that was an opportunity to gather that data. So that's good evidence of efficacy in terms of reducing asymptomatic carrier status of the virus, which directly relates to the ability to pass it along. Also, there was an Israeli study. This has been reported but not published. So it's not peer-reviewed yet, but so consider this preliminary. And they found that asymptomatic infections were reduced by the vaccine in 89.4%. And also, asymptomatic infections were reduced by 89.4%. Symptomatic infections were reduced by 93.7%, and that's replicating the results from the previous studies. 89.4% are almost as good at preventing asymptomatic infections. That's really good. And Moderna did gather some data during their trial, which they reported to the FDA. They also did the swab antibody tests for virus. They did the swab viral tests for in-subjects during the trial. And in the vaccine group, they were in the cohort where they were testing, as it wasn't everybody. There were 14 participants in the vaccine group who were asymptomatic positive and 38 in the placebo group. So it seems to reduce it by two-thirds, the risk of getting it by two-thirds in that one data pool that they had from the original studies. So there's three different studies, pools of data showing pretty significant reduction in asymptomatic carrier status from getting one of the two mRNA vaccines. Very good. That's very encouraging. It still should be considered a little preliminary, and obviously, we want to continue to get more data and follow this very closely. We want real-world experience as much as possible, say, is it really decreasing the risk of passing it along? We want to know if there's any documented cases of vaccinated people clearly being a vector passing it along. So that's going to be tracked. I'm sure the CDC is following that closely. They'll update their recommendations if necessary, but it's looking good. So the plausibility is very good, and the data we have so far is looking good. In medicine, we're always making decisions with incomplete and imperfect evidence, and this is no different. But I think that the CDC was correct in saying, with all the evidence we have, I think it's a good science-based decision to say that, yeah, the risk of somebody who's vaccinated passing it along is low enough that we could start to relax the social distancing and mask wearing. But they still didn't do that in a hospital setting or for those who are high risks. That's where they drew the line in terms of risk versus benefit. And I do think part of this is to hold out that carrot of, see, if you get vaccinated, you don't have to wear a mask in front of other small groups.

J: So Steve, is there anything that people listening to this show can do other than aggressively get themselves vaccinated?

C: Aggressively, they get themselves vaccinated with anger.

J: No, I just mean don't even delay.

C: Wear a sword.

J: Be the first person.

S: Be proactive.

J: Yeah, be proactive. I mean, I know everybody is trying to talk to their family members if there's anybody on the fence. We've gotten a ton of emails from listeners asking for advice.

S: There's just so much misinformation out there. So yeah, I think that's a good question, Jay. I think that as skeptics, not just the five of us, but everyone listening to this show, it is helpful to be as informed as you can about how the vaccines work, how effective they are, how safe they are. And again, these other sub-questions of they probably do prevent spread, et cetera, so to get that information out there as much as possible so that when in your social group and your work environment, whatever, when it comes up, you could be the voice of reason, armed with facts and references, authoritative information, and shutting down misinformation and rumors. And that's really important. That kind of science communication just sort of out there in the real world is really critical at this point.

C: Yeah. I think the gamut, like you said, the misinformation, it's easy often for us to sit here and kind of laugh or to roll our eyes when we hear about people saying, don't get vaccinated because there's a tracker there's a GPS chip in there and then now they're going to know all your whereabouts. But a lot of times it's more insidious. I was talking to a dear friend of mine and she said somebody at work came up to her and was like I really don't think you should get vaccinated because there's some real risk. I've been reading a lot that there's a real risk that within the first five years, you might go sterile. And she was like, where did you read that? She was like, I don't know. I mean, I just saw it somewhere. And she was like, you're part of the problem.

E: Five years.

C: You can't just read something like that somewhere random, not remember and then go verbally spread it to other people because this is how misinformation catches fire. You hear it once under somebody's breath. Then you see it in some sort of like Facebook post that nobody thought to double check. And now you've heard it two, three times. It becomes real to you.

B: She's a carrier. She was shedding information.

C: Exactly.

E: She's a vector.

C: Exactly. And this is the problem. It's sometimes these more insidious, almost believable lies.

S: Right. Right. I know I had a patient who was vaccine hesitant and they said, I heard someone died after getting the vaccine. It's like, well, almost 50 million people got the vaccine. So I'm sure some people did die after the vaccine. That's going to happen by chance. But you know, the CDC has been following it very carefully and there's no correlation. There's no increased risk of anything bad happening. It's very, very safe. I hope I made a difference for that one patient. But yeah, like there's that's kind of people are risk averse. You know, it's hard to reassure them that that's just our the way our brains work. You hear things like that. People are reluctant to take an active risk. They'd rather take a passive risk than an active risk. The risk of not getting the vaccine versus the risk of doing direct harm by getting the vaccine and rather than playing moneyball and doing what forget about the emotion, just do what statistically is the best risk versus benefit. That's where the medical profession comes in. We have to make those those cold calculated recommendations because people are fundamentally irrational when it comes to things like that or only semi rational. I think it's the way it's often described.

C: Well, we think about ourselves only and we don't think about public health.

S: And that's not even taking that into consideration. This is just from a purely selfish point of view.

C: Right. Yeah. But I see this a lot with the people who are like, oh we're talking about so and so is jumping the queue. Oh, these people are getting vaccinated when they shouldn't yet. Blah, blah, blah. And it's like the goal is not to get vaccinated two weeks faster than somebody else. The goal is to get everybody vaccinated in as methodical in as timely a manner as possible, which means we have to have we have to have levels. It's not about you're better or your life is going to be better faster. We're all living in this still. It's really about how do we go about it?

S: That's true. And also comes around again, because, like, if if other people get sick, you get sick, too. That's the whole point. We are all in the same boat with this pandemic. What happens in China affects us. What happens in Brazil affects us. What happens in down the street with people is going to is going to affect you. So jumping the line is maybe not even in your own self-interest when you really look at the big picture. What's in everyone's best interest is that we do this as efficiently and quickly as possible. And you know what I mean? There was also a recent study which showed, just as an aside, that people who think of that they're their tribe as all of humanity, like people who, like, feel like humanity is their tribe rather than a smaller group, like just their country or their party or whatever.

B: Patriots fans?

S: Yeah. We're more likely to engage in pro-social pandemic behavior, like to wear masks and to and to do things like that, which is interesting.

E: Makes sense.

S: Yeah, makes sense. You think we're-

B: [inaudible] to discriminate.

S: And we're all in the same boat here. Yeah, it's actually a very pragmatic perspective, not just, I think, an ethical perspective.

E: Earth is one Petri dish.

S: Yeah, right.

C: And that's why you see sometimes different countries taking different tax, because I think there's the moral question. And here in the United States, we took the moral question, which was who is most likely to die from this disease? Let's vaccinate them first. In other countries, you saw them take a much more pragmatic question, which is who is most likely to spread this disease? Let's vaccinate them first.

S: Which is an interesting dilemma.

B: Oh, interesting.

C: Yeah. But at the end of the day, the goal of both approaches is to reach herd immunity. How we go about it, yes, you can argue how we go about it, but ultimately it's just about getting there and all getting there together.

Cave of Dog Evolution (28:07)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, tell us about this cave with all the dogs. What's going on?

C: Yep. All the doggos and some wolfos and apparently even some foxos.

J: Wolfos and foxos.

S: So when I first came across this paper and I read it really quickly, or this article, I should say, I didn't read the paper really quickly. When I came across the article, I was like, that's fascinating. And then the more I dug into it, I was like, that's not exactly what I thought it was going to be. And that's OK, because it's still really fascinating. So the headline of the Science Alert article, which is basically a wire surface, so you're seeing this starting to get picked up by other by other areas, is a single cave in Germany is one possible origin of early wolf domestication. And I actually really like that headline. I think that headline is is a skeptical headline. A single cave in Germany. And yes, we are talking about one single cage is one. Sorry, you're right. Not cage. Oh, no. The wolf was domesticated in his early little puppy cage. One single cave in Germany is one possible origin of early wolf domestication. Possible and also only one. And these things are important to remember. But when we look at the study that this was taken from, that the title of the study, which is going to be even obviously more skeptical and caveated because these are the scientists who wrote it, a refined proposal for the origin of dogs, the case study of Niersholm, a Magdalene cave site. And I want to ask all of you really quickly because I tried. I think this story is still too new. So I could not find anywhere in the interwebs somebody saying this word out loud. So I want everybody to chime in, look at the chat and tell me how the hell would you pronounce that?

J: You want me to answer this?

S: I would say Nerschle.

E: Ners-hur-lee.

C: Ners-hur-lee?

E: Ners-hur-lee. That's how I think the G is silent. Unless you pronounce the G, Gners-hur-lee.

C: But you think it's hur-lee at the end?

E: Yeah. Well, the O with umlauts over it is an uh sound.

C: Uh, but there's no R. So it's like Ners-hur-lee.

E: Ners-hur-lee.

J: I think it's Ners-hur-lee.

C: Gners-hur-lee.

S: Why would it be Swedish?

C: Oh, what we're going to call it from now on is the cave.

J: Okay. Okay.

S: Okay.

C: You guys good with that?

E: The cave.

B: It's a Nerschle.

C: This cave is in the boundary between Southwestern Germany and Switzerland, which is another thing I can't pronounce, but I think it's like the Hegau-Jura region. And during a period called the Magdalenian period. So this is a just one of the ways that we define time in Europe. And this would have been between 16 and 14,000 years ago was, was the Magdalenian period. And this cave was active during this period. It's often referred to as like a hotbed of activity within Europe. This cave, it turns out these researchers have been studying this cave for a while. And that's the other thing that I think we have to remember when we look at these studies, usually it's not the case that it's like the headlines make us think scientists discover cave, never before seen cave full of fossils. It's like, no, this cave has been studied for a long time. They're just now sorting through some of this evidence. They're just now figuring out what exactly is in there and what they've got their hands on. And what happened, what is the case is that there are a lot of fossil fragments within this cave that represent, this is a really cool thing. And for me, this was the coolest part of this that seemed to represent the genetic diversity of like all of Europe's dogs, like that's cool.

J: That is really cool.

C: And at least some of Europe's or most of Europe's wolves, there are foxes in there as well, but so the idea is, oh my gosh, there's so much diversity within this cave. Maybe this could give us some insight into how dogs were first domesticated. And that's really, I think, where the question started and where some of the hypotheses that were that were drafted out of this research became developed. So not only do we see that there are a ton of different species within the cave, we also see that it's really, really old and that that gives us some interesting insights as well. Super old cave, lots of different species. Now, what the researchers really push in their published study, which is not really pushed in the right up, is that they have a somewhat novel approach because they looked at three different parameters when most of this type of research only looks at one or two of those parameters. So they looked at not only the morphology of the specimens. So what did they look like and how could that represent? Is it dog? Is it wolf? How old is it? They also, of course, looked at the genetics because that gives us even more information about how much is this dog? How much is this wolf? What can we actually call this species that we have?

B: How old was it?

C: There's a big range within this cave, and that's why it's so interesting. It's not one specific date. It's a wide range of dates.

B: Yeah, between what and what?

C: Okay. So the actual cave itself is between.

B: I'm just thinking the genetics, the DNA.

C: 3,000 and 14,000 years ago, the cave is part of a bunch of caverns where people lived between 12,000 and 17,000 years ago. So it's a pretty big span of time considering that the best agreed upon time of dog domestication is about 16,000 years ago. That's not to say that there aren't studies and hypotheses purporting that dog domestication occurred as long ago as 30,000 years, but they're somewhat controversial and it doesn't mean they're not true. It doesn't mean that the evidence isn't strong. It just means that it's not yet entered into what we call theory. The best available theory right now is 16,000 years ago. Those are still hypotheses. They're not completely accepted within the field that it would be 30,000. What these researchers were interested in is how do we, can we look at this information and determine number one, where would be the kind of the common ancestor, the latest common ancestor for all these different species? And number two what can our specific methods tell us about these different species that we're finding within this cave? So as I mentioned, they took a three-pronged approach. Not only did they look at the morphology, but they also looked at the genetics and they looked at isotopes to try and determine what the, what the animals would have eaten, because if we understand what the animals would have eaten, we have a better understanding of their trophic level. Were they eating a wide and varied diet or were they eating a restricted diet? And there are two different ways to approach that. They might've been eating a restricted diet because they were forced into a niche by evolution, or they might've been eating a restricted diet because they were being domesticated, right? Does that make sense? So some animals naturally, wild animals, naturally eat a restricted diet as a function of their evolution. But we do know that, for example, the gray wolf, yeah, the Panda, very restricted diet, you're right, or koalas. The gray wolf has a really varied diet. And we know this across continents. We know this across different niches. It's adaptable, it's varied, it's capable of eating a lot of different stuff. Whereas my dog eats kibble. That's his whole diet is just kibble. Probably 16,000 years ago, dogs didn't eat kibble. Pretty sure. But the idea would be that they would probably have eaten what the humans ate.

E: Yeah, their scraps, their waste.

C: Exactly. And of course, there's also still debate about this garbage dump hypothesis or an active domestication hypothesis. We still don't fully know whether dogs domesticated themselves or whether there was a drive to domesticate them early on. Or when did that domesticating themselves switch over to the active drive to domesticate them? So there's a lot of unanswered questions. And when you read the study, you leave with a lot of unanswered questions. But there are a couple of things that the researchers do try to support. The first thing is that they believe that it's very likely that one of two things was happening within dog domestication within this cave. They believe that either the dogs were being actively domesticated or that the dogs were forced into a sort of morphological similarity. When you find specific individuals that all seem similar from a similar region in time, that came from common ancestors that were very diverse. You either could be forcing domestication, its human guided evolution, or you could find that all of these animals were existing at a similar trophic niche. They were all eating the same kind of food because of evolution. And in doing so, that that would lead them to similarity across the other species. So they call that the egomorph hypothesis versus the domestication hypothesis. They also looked at a refugium hypothesis and they rejected that hypothesis. So they were able to say, I cannot tell you with no doubt that this is the source of early dog domestication, because this could have still happened naturally. But it seems likely that dogs were domesticated here because so many of the animals that they looked at were eating a very restricted diet compared to older animals or different animals that were more wolf-like within the same cage. So we've got wolf-like species that seem to have a varied diet. We have dog-like species that seem to have a restricted diet. What does that tell us? Well, one option is that these dogs were domesticated here.

B: How did they know what they were eating?

C: That's that isotope analysis that they were able to do, which is pretty cool. So they were able to say this is varied protein or this is restricted protein, which is, I don't, fascinated. And I guess that they didn't establish, I don't think, that method. It's just, it's very rare, apparently, in these kind of studies that they use all three of those methods together and look at the multiple lines of inquiry, which is cool. So they were able to come up with these broad hypotheses and then say this is what we think happened within this cave. It's likely that what we're seeing here is evolution before our eyes and specifically evolution as a function of human guidance, as a function of domestication. When they compared all the different haplotypes of the dogs and the wolves that were there, they set, based on their analyses, a date for what they think could be their last common ancestor, which would have been one hundred and thirty five thousand years ago, putting it in the late Pleistocene. They were very clear that this doesn't represent the actual split between dog and wolf. It also doesn't represent a time. Well, I guess that's the best way to put it. It doesn't represent a specific split. And and because of that, it doesn't mean that this is when dogs were domesticated. But what they are saying is that we might be able to say that if we were looking at fossils that date to this era, they could represent the last common ancestor of dogs and wolves. Does that make sense?

B: Yeah. Wow.

C: We don't know. The split could have happened later or sorry, earlier.

J: Cara, can't you tell-

C: I'm so confused by the backward time.

J: The genetics help them figure out exactly when?

C: That is what they did. That's what they why they pointed to that day. It looks like it's about one hundred thirty five thousand years ago in the late Pleistocene. Remember, the species from this cave are not that old. So they were backward calculating based on their genetic diversity, because here's the complicated part. We still have wolves and there were plenty of wolves twelve thousand years ago. There were plenty of wolves three thousand years ago, but there were also plenty of dogs. And I think the other wrench in this that we don't often think about is at what point is wolf dog? It's not that clear.

S: It's always going to be fuzzy. The other thing, I think complexity here, it kind of reminds me of that cool horse story where paleontologists discovered a sequence of horse fossils in North America that represented the evolution of horses. But it turns out horses evolved in Europe and Asia. And what they were seeing was successive migrations into North America, not the evolution in North America. And so like this cave might just be a really good place to hang out and live. You know what I mean? And just over time, different populations would settle in this cave, but they weren't necessarily evolving in the cave. You know what I mean? They just at different times, different populations occupied the cave. And that represents maybe with a pretty high resolution the evolution of domestic dogs and wolves.

C: And so the big question here is and this has been a controversial question for a long time in dog domestication, was there a single domestication event where all dogs subsequently evolved from that or were there multiple domestication events? Did this happen simultaneously or at different times in Europe and Asia? And there seems to be good evidence for both hypotheses. But what's interesting about this case specifically is that when you compare the genomes of the species that were found in the cave, they seem to be representative of all European genomes. So that does at least tell you that it's an early source of a lot of genetic diversity. It doesn't tell you that it's the only source. It also doesn't tell you that it's the domestication event, but it tells you that if it were representative of a domestication event, it could have led to most all of the dogs in Europe. And that's pretty cool.

S: Yeah, that is cool. All right. Thanks, Cara.

Batteries on the Rise (42:25)[edit]

S: Jay, I understand that batteries are on the rise. We talk about batteries a lot and obviously they're critical to the green energy future that we're trying to get to. But what's going on here?

J: So we all know that even though battery technology has been, as we say every time, it's slowly and steadily improving. There has been a lot of proliferation of battery. And think about all the batteries we use. It's in every device now. You know, there's almost everything has a battery in it. It wasn't this way 20 years ago. And the fact that batteries last longer and they charge faster today, of course, they become more and more useful. Now, we've talked many times on the show about we want to see a major upgrade in batteries right away. It's not going to happen. It's going to continue to slowly and steadily percolate forward. But what we can do is use them smarter and better. And one thing we need to do is start integrating them into our electrical grids. And many countries need to do it. And there's upgrades that come with it. So this means a few different things when you say, like, let's upgrade the electrical grids. What does that mean? It means a lot of things. But one of them, I'll tell you, is that we need to to put in more aggressive power transfer lines, high intensity lines that can carry a ton of voltage, because that's how we're going to be able to definitely move electricity across the grids so people can gain access to power. Let's say California happens to have more power than Connecticut. And we want to get power from California to Connecticut today. We can't really do it. You know, it just doesn't physically. We can't do it. So we need greater-

S: There are two different grids.

J: Yeah.

S: Yeah. So that's one of the ways that you compensate for intermittent power sources like wind and solar is with overproduction and a massive grid. The idea is the wind is always blowing somewhere. And if you average it all out, you get more of a steady, predictable supply. But that requires like the continent wide grid.

J: We don't have like incredibly large energy storage capacity. So we have to be reliant on power sources like gas and oil. This is like the the emergency style stuff like quick turn on the the oil power plant or the coal power plant, whatever whatever is out there, which there's tons of them. Fire it up quick. We're having an energy shortage and they can turn those suckers on and get them up and humming really quickly. But what do we do when there's a surplus of power? What can we do with a surplus of power? Not much. Today we don't really have much. But as renewable technologies continue to improve now we have to start to shift away from oil based and gas based energy sources. The time is right now on multiple fronts. The good news is that there's an energy storage industry and it's doing very well, which I find to be very encouraging. I didn't even know that there was like a sizeable energy storage industry out there. So what they're doing is this industry is continuously beating previous records of battery deployment. So as an example, the last quarter of 2020, the last three months of the year, 2020, 2.2 gigawatt hours of energy storage was put into operation. That was the last three months of 2020, 2.2 gigawatts. That's a hundred and eighty two percent increase from the previous quarter. So to give you a little perspective, I said there it was 2.2 gigawatts. Let's talk about what is one gigawatt hour. What is a one gigawatt hour? I'm not going to go into anything other than what can it do. So as an example, a one gigawatt hour is generated by three point one two five million photovoltaic panels, solar panels. It would take four hundred and twelve utility scale wind turbines to generate a one gigawatt hour. So one gigawatt hour could light up one hundred and ten million LEDs at the same time. A one gigawatt hour could power nine thousand and ninety Nissan Leafs, which are electric cars, right? You know, midsize electric car.

S: Is it Leafs or Leaves?

J: Leaves.

C: I think it's still Leafs.

E: I don't know. When they all drive away, do you say Leaves leaves?

C: Those Leafs are leaving.

E: Leaving.

J: All right.

C: Love you, Jay.

J: I love you, too. I don't know. Believe me, if I wasn't the person doing the news item, I'd be just like you guys running down everything I can think of. But if you think of the fact that the storage that they added in the last three months of 2020 could continuously power over nine thousand cars, that's amazing. And this is really this battery thing that we're adding to our grids is just beginning. So for 2020, the total year of 2020, there was three point five gigawatt hours added. Now, pay attention to this. That is three point one gigawatt hours more than what they installed the previous six years. So think about what we did in 2020 is incredibly more than what they did the previous six years. That's how much the technology has changed. And that's how much that countries and states inside the United States are buying more of this battery storage for grid to grid level battery storage. So what are we seeing? We're seeing an explosion of battery grid storage and energy experts are saying that this rapid pace will even increase. So it's going to just continue to to get faster and faster. And as it does, the prices will go down. The technology will get better. So most of this growth was due to utility companies purchasing large scale battery installations like the state of California was the top person purchaser in 2020. You know, they had a really bad power situation there very recently. And they just said, you know what, we need more instantaneous electrical response to when we have shortages or power outages or if we have a reason why the factories that we use to generate electricity are having problems, we want a way to store energy very quickly and neatly. So a study that was by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, why they cover everything in that joint, don't they? They took a deep look at how the United States could bring its incredibly high carbon emissions down to net zero by 2050. Right. I've heard this a million times by 2050, we're going to be at net zero. How are we going to do that? Let's talk about how it's going to happen. Now, this study outlined how energy storage was vital in order to reach that goal. And specifically, to be fair, it's not just battery storage. There's other like there's compressed air storage. There's the the rock salt melting energy storage. Even the thing that I had been talking about for years, kinetic energy, energy storage. They spin up large disks. I didn't realize that this was happening. It's happening. So I find that fascinating. And of course battery storage is huge in this collection of ways to store energy. So by 2030, it's predicted that battery energy storage will increase in order of magnitude, which I'm surprised it was was just an order of magnitude. I'd like it to be a lot more than an order of magnitude in the next 20 years. But that's what the experts are saying. And it's estimated that it will be at that time. And I know Bob's going to love this. It's going to be approximately two terawatt hours of total battery capacity in 20 years in the United States. So that's pretty interesting. Now, that's if things continue on the trajectory that they're going. There might be a massive uptick in these estimates because of A, B and C happening. You know, like it might just become one of those things that even more and more money is invested into it. You know, the federal government might get way more involved and drop a ton of money on the states and say, yes do it. And maybe it'll be a lot more than that. But it's cool because you think there's going to be installations largely a lot of these installations are like underground or they're hidden away. But we need to have these battery storage facilities and other kind of energy storage facilities sprinkled around the country, all around the world, everywhere around the world, just like coal and gas fired plants are like they're everywhere. Look, go look at a map of where they all exist in every country on the world. You'll see, like, it's just unbelievable number of places that we're burning fossil fuel based product for energy that's got to go away. It's got to go away. This is the way to do it. And there is one thing I want to say, Steve. A lot of people email us and say, yeah, you guys love batteries. But there's a lot of negative environmental consequences to batteries, like getting the material for batteries. And I agree. I agree with that. I'm not going to close my eyes just because I think batteries are great. You know, we have to be careful about our environment when it comes to the materials that we need. But the good news is that people that are working on battery science and technology are finding materials that don't ruin the environment. And we're shifting towards better materials. That's really the only thing we can do because we can't function without batteries anymore. It's just like electricity. It's just like the web. We can't function. The world will not function without batteries anymore. They are here to stay probably forever, which is 100 years as far as lifespans go. It's going to be that long that we're going to be dealing with battery technology. We just have to make it cleaner and better on the environment. And it's something I think that we should lean into heavily.

S: So I think that from my understanding, I'm reading about this not too long ago, maybe a year ago. I read an interesting, interesting article that basically said the reason battery technology is now going to take off in terms of grid storage is because it's now cheaper for a utility company to install a battery grid storage facility than it is to install, say, a natural gas plant to manage their peak demand or as needed demand when they have the needs of extra. So once it became the cheapest option for utility companies, that's why we're seeing it take off. It's really all about the money. It's not about it's a good idea. It's better for the environment, whatever. It's the moment it became cheaper. That's when that's when it became adopted. And so once we've crossed we've crossed that line, basically, and it's only going to get better from here. Like we said, we crossed the line with wind and solar. It's only going to get better. I just read today more than one article about, oh, yeah the Russians figured out a way to increase the life expectancy of lithium ion batteries by fivefold. You know, great. Now, we know that not all these are going to work out, but that is all contributing to this incremental improvement in battery tech. Their costs are coming down. Their energy density is getting greater. And you're right, Jay, I think one of the big things it's not sexy to talk about, but it's huge, is that even if we can keep the batteries the same, but use more environmentally friendly components, that is a huge advantage. Because some of the stuff that's in there is is not good.

J: And they strip mine to get to certain minerals that we need.

S: I know, and they don't recycle well. You know, so, yeah, there's a lot of challenges with it. So yeah, there's so many researchers working on that. Now, you don't know which one of these things is going to hit. But the incremental progress is pretty steady. So, yeah, I agree. And also, I think the other big thing about battery as grid storage, we've talked about lots of different grid storage options on the show. But at the end of the day, batteries are the most energy round trip efficient. So again, that's going to that's another factor that's going to affect the bottom line and therefore really promote batteries as a grid storage option.

J: It seems like it's virtually universal that when we invest in science, science pays back, right? Look at what happened with the vaccine. We went for it. We opened up every floodgate that we could to just get out of the way so we can get this vaccine done. That was a lot of consideration. It took a lot of money. It took a lot of hours of scientists trying to to get this job done. But look at what they did. You know, three, four companies pulled pulled it off.

C: Science and education have the best R.O.I.

J: I totally Cara. That's what I was trying to say.

C: By far.

AI Tech Gap (54:42)[edit]

S: Bob, I understand we cannot have an AI gap.

E: Heck no.

B: Yeah. This this news really caught my attention. It did not get the broad attention I had hoped. But we shall see if the people that really matter pay attention. So after two years, the United States National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence submitted its full report to the president and Congress. In a nutshell, it says that we are on track to lose our technological lead in artificial intelligence and other key technologies to China, which could impact national security and privacy in such a way that it constitutes a national emergency. What is that all about? So this is about the N.S.C.A.I. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. I hadn't heard about that. Maybe you haven't either. It was a commission, bipartisan commission of 15 technologists. And also there's national security professionals, business executives, academic leaders, a lot of smart people led by the current chair is Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO. Yes. Worth about, I think, around 18 billion dollars. Guy's got a lot of money. Also on the commission were other other high tech heavy hitters like incoming Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, Oracle CEO Safra Katz, Microsoft Chief Scientific Officer Eric Horvitz and head of Google Cloud A.I., Andrew Moore. So now some people see those names and they think that oh, they are probably biased because if there's any extra funding for A.I. that the government starts handing out because of the report that would really help their bottom line. And and sure, I understand why you would go there. But I kind of lean more towards the interpretation that these people are on the cutting edge of A.I. and they're well placed to know what it might be capable of and what exposure that democracies of the world might have by not staying on the cutting edge of A.I., which is potentially disruptive new technology. All right. So now I'm going to throw a bunch of quotes at you more than usual. So sit back and relax. So Eric Schmidt had a lot has a lot to say about this. Of course, he's the lead of this of this commission, the 700 plus page commission report. So he says stuff like the following, the big the big take home quote, "America is not prepared to defend or compete in the A.I. era." Big bold underlined. So now Schmidt definitely has a focus on China and he paints a kind of a scary picture. So Schmidt said "China possesses the might, talent and ambition to surpass the United States as the world's leader in A.I. in the next decade if current trends do not change. Simultaneously, A.I. is deepening the threat posed by cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns that Russia, China and others are using to infiltrate our society, steal our data and interfere in our democracy." No big surprises there, except maybe perhaps that A.I. is really a tool that they are using. He says that if these technologies are built in China, for example, they are not necessarily going to follow our privacy rules or our ethics. We have to be careful to win this battle. And sure, I mean, you could have plenty plenty of countries have plenty of problems with the United States and how we handle things in our military. There's a lot of things that I would change. But when you compare us to kind of the things that China has been accused of and shown to do, I think it's clearly far worse. So Schmidt goes into greater detail about that. This is from a letter he submitted with the commission report, and he's had a lot of great stuff to say in that letter. He says that "China's domestic use of A.I. is a chilling precedent for anyone around the world who cherishes individual liberty, its employment of A.I. as a tool of repression and surveillance at home and increasingly abroad is a powerful counterpoint to how we believe A.I. should be used. He continues, the A.I. future can be democratic, but we've learned enough about the power of technology to strengthen authoritarianism abroad and fuel extreme extremism at home to know that we must not take for granted that future technology trends will reinforce rather than erode democracy." So that's a that's a real big point here. It seems like, oh, look what technology can do. Look what technology can accomplish. But in the wrong hands, it's we've seen it it can be used. It's double edged sword, classic double edged sword. It can be really used for some pretty nasty stuff. And and he stresses that this isn't just an America first policy when he said the following. "We must work with fellow democracies in the in the private sector to build privacy protecting standards into A.I. technologies and advanced democratic norms to guide A.I. uses so that the democracies can responsibly use A.I. tools for national security purposes." So, yeah, I mean, it seems obvious that this powerful tool of artificial intelligence and all the industries that it touches, it isn't inherently it's not inherently bad. And you can use it properly with with transparency and oversight, something that you will not see in countries like China. I mean, transparency and oversight in China. I mean, those words just don't even belong in that sentence.

C: I think there's a lot of oversight but transparency, maybe not.

S: Not the one you're talking about, though.

B: Yeah, not the oversight. Yeah, not the good oversight. So now the business end of this commission report was to make recommendations. And the huge report has hundreds, hundreds of recommendations. And I'm just going to go over a few. Now, to even attempt Schmidt claims that to even attempt to be competitive with the likes of China and the money that they have at their disposal. He recommends that we increase our budget for research and development in A.I. from one point five billion this year to two billion in 2022. And from there, we should double it every year until we reach thirty two billion in twenty twenty six. So when I read that, I'm going, hmm, massively increasing our R&D and artificial intelligence. Either he listens to me on this show or well, that's my only takeaway, really. He must listen to the show. But yeah, I mean, it seems it seems obvious. And this is for me. I know maybe our reasoning was a little bit divergent a bit. But yeah, it's it's it's I think it's clear that that A.I. we just need more research because it's such a disruptive technology that you know, you don't want to be the only one on the block that that has some facility with a new technology like this. Now, Schmidt made an interesting comparison. I think of this sometimes, he equates this level of spending to the creation of the national highway system. It's funny, I was just talking about that just like a couple of days ago. He said "This is not a time for abstract criticism of industrial policy or fears of deficit spending to stand in the way of progress. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower, a fiscally conservative Republican, worked with the Democratic Congress to commit 10 billion dollars to build the interstate highway system. That's 96 billion in today's world." A ton of money, no matter how you slice it. He says "Surely we can make a similar investment in the nation's future." And of course, I totally agree. I mean, A.I. is just becoming completely embedded in every facet of our world. And this is something that money's going into it right now at an amazing pace. And it's just really not enough. But let me let me just conclude here with another recommendation that caught my eye. This one was interesting. They're recommending establishing a digital service academy, which would be similar to America's military service academies. The goal, though, would be to produce people not trained for war, but to be experts on high technology issues. And that just seems like a wonderful idea, because I've thought about that in terms of like cybersecurity and how we should have like cybersecurity academies spitting out people that are just like, geniuses at cybersecurity, because that is to me, that's just it's a it's a related example to the A.I. It's something that you need to be among the best in the world at cybersecurity, because if you're not, then you are so wide open. You're so wide open. We're only scratching the surface. You know, the whole thing with solar winds, we're just scratching the surface of the damage that can be done with with lax cybersecurity. And I think investment in that as well as in A.I. and other technologies that the commission report talks about, like additive manufacturing. It's another one has such an amazing it's going to have such an amazing impact. It's clear that the impact is going to be staggeringly huge. And that's the problem with these disruptive technologies that are coming, like artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, cybersecurity, robotics, those are the things that they're important today. And the power that they're going to have in the future and the impact they're going to have is so big, it's going to be game changing.

S: Yeah, Bob, I think the two critical points that stuck out for me is one. Yeah, this should not be like an America first policy. This has got to be something that the international order of liberal democracy looks at as critical infrastructure.

B: Yeah, like I thought of like NATO, Steve it's like a group of of countries united around the world who to develop A.I. technologies and make it ethical and and transparent and make it so that it can't be used for surveillance. I mean, look what China is doing with facial recognition. I mean the privacy is like out the window and it's extending beyond the borders of China. You know, those are things that we could develop in a way that that is, ethical to use that that they're not doing. And that that's what should proliferate. Not what not the kind of technology that they're proliferating.

S: Yeah.

B: And what's the other one? You had you had a second one?

S: Well, those are the two things that should be considered critical infrastructure. Just in general, not optional or not being about technology. This has got to be considered something that is like roads it's just a part of the future of our country of the world. It's like the Internet is no longer like a luxury. It's critical infrastructure. Just yeah like electricity was 100 years ago.

Nearby SuperEarth (1:04:48)[edit]

S: Evan, Evan, why should I get excited about one more exoplanet?

E: I know.

B: We have four thousand now?

E: What's one more in the in the pot? Astronomers of the Carmenes C.A.R.M.E.N.E.S. Consortium. They recently reported the discovery of a hot rocky super earth operating its parent star, which is a red dwarf star. And the red dwarf is only 26 light years away.

B: Wow. Right around the corner.

E: Yeah, I know. Just like Vega, 26 light years away. Remember that from?

B: Yeah, Contact.

E: Yep. The new world is called Gliese 486 b, and it's referred to as a super earth. Yep. Because it's-

B: I've heard of them

E: Yep. Solid and rocky like our own world. But it's bigger. It's 30 percent bigger than Earth and about three times heavier. And it orbits two point five million kilometers around its parent star. So guess how long it takes to complete one orbit around its sun.

B: It's pretty damn fast, isn't it?

E: It's one and a half Earth days.

B: OK, so it's years.

E: One and a half days. Yep. Day and a half. That's close. That thing's whipping around.

B: Yeah. Probably tidally locked pretty quickly.

E: Yes, Bob. Very good. I even put a note in there and yes, Bob, it is tidally locked. I wrote that down. I kid you not. I'll share the note with you. But this is the third closest such transiting alien world that we've discovered and the closest one that orbits a red dwarf. And Bob, get this, though. It maintains an atmosphere.

B: It's not burnt off? Jeez.

E: No, no.

B: It's not like a lava atmosphere?

E: Well, you're getting we're getting to the point of exactly what what is there on this planet. Lava is the key. It's hot, too hot for humans to inhabit. Four hundred thirty degrees Celsius. Steve, for you, that's eight hundred six degrees Fahrenheit. So, yeah, that would cook us to a crisp, really quickly. Yep. So hot at the surface.

S: How hot is it?

E: Melts lead, like Bob said. Bob, did you read this news?

B: No, I did not.

E: And it has rivers of lava that cover its surface. At least that's what they anticipate based on the data. They said it would look kind of like Venus with a hot and dry landscape crisscrossed by those glowing rivers of lava. So, Jay, if you if you looked at it using a very, very, very sophisticated instrument-

B: Obi-Wan and Anakin Skywalker. Gotcha, man. Gotcha.

E: Bob, are you are you looking at my notes here? What are you talking about?

B: It just comes to me man, I don't know how it happens.

E: You know me so well. Well, I was thinking the exact same thing, obviously. So absolutely the Char planet where they fought. But in any case, these planets, which they orbit relatively close to their parent star, and they're very hard to detect, let alone to learn information about their features, such as the composition of its atmosphere and how many of these have atmospheres that close to their parent sun that it hasn't all blown away. The nice thing about Gliese 486 b is that it's a transiting planet. So that means we are in a relative position to it where we can see it as it passes in front of the host star. So that's a plus. But an added bonus, astronomers are also able to observe it using radio velocity measurements. And that's known as Doppler spectroscopy. And that method relies on observing the star for signs of the wobble effect. And the movement is caused by the presence of planets, which exert a gravitational influence on the sun. So those are the two most effective methods of exoplanet discovery and analysis. And when combined, they were able to confirm the existence of Gliese 486 b. Trifon Trifonov, that's a great name, who is a planetary scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. He was the lead author on the study. And he said that the proximity of this exoplanet is exciting because, and Steve, this answers your original question, because it will be possible to study it in more detail with powerful telescopes such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which we've been talking about forever and other extremely large telescopes. We can hardly wait for the new telescopes to become available. The results will help us to understand how well rocky planets can hold their atmospheres, and what they're made of and how they influence the energy distributions on the planets. One of the other researchers in the study, his name is Ben Montette. He said this is the kind of planet we've been dreaming about for decades. We've known for a long time that rocky super earths must exist around their nearby stars. But we haven't had the technology to search for them until very recently. So that's the new news on exoplanets. Latest and greatest.

B: Cool.

S: Yeah, it's neat. It's always disappointing, though, when you read a super earth or you just an earth size planet and and then you realize it's lava.

E: Yeah.

B: But if it's tidally locked, I mean, the far side, it's not getting direct hit. So there might be some zone that's not as crazy, right?

E: Perhaps. Right. Perhaps. Hard to overcome that temperature, though, a little bit.

S: But the estimates are that there are billions of earth-like habitable planets in the galaxy.

C: How much do you love that word? Habitable.

S: Habitable.

J: Habitable.

E: Habitable.

B: Yeah, it is. It is appealing.

C: My favorite word, but I remember taking like middle school Spanish and everybody loved the word hablabamos.

E: Onomatopoeia was also a very popular fun word.

J: I read an article that was talking about, like, the prettiest words in the world around in different languages and non-English speaking people think that the word diarrhoea is very pretty.

B: Oh, my God.

J: You know, it is lyric.

B: It is. Oh, my God. That's right.

C: Yeah. Weird. Until they know what it means.

J: Yeah. Yeah, it's really. It was a bad choice of word for the thing, for the event.

Sea Slug Self-Decapitation (1:10:58)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, you're going to do a quick. This is sort of the runner up news item of the ones you picked. This is but I just had to talk about this and it will become immediately apparent why. So tell us about this, is a sea slug or just a slug? What is it?

C: So a sea slug, which is sort of a common name. And it's a little confusing because it refers to a lot of different things. So this specific sea slug, which is an Elysia species, Elysia marginata, which, to be clear, and an Elysia marginata is a gastropod mollusk. But it's in the family. I think you would pronounce this placo brancadet. So not to be confused with a nudibranch because they look like nudibranchs. Do you guys know nudibranchs going off topic? It's OK. They're really fun. They're like the funnest things in tide pools. But anyway, not to be confused with it, but kind of looks like a nudibranch. This is a sea slug, Elysia. And what can Elysia do? Self decapitate.

B: Oh, boy.

C: Self is really interesting here. Self decapitate and then grow a whole new body.

S: Yeah, so anyone who's ever watched the movie The Thing will immediately think of it. Yeah, the head pulls away from the body, crawls away and then grows a new body.

E: That's a good adaptation.

B: It grows legs like spider legs and eye stalks. It doesn't last long.

S: Oh, yeah, in the Thing, in the Thing it does. Yeah, but the slug, it does, literally does that. The head comes off and grows a new body.

J: Wait, wait, wait. The head comes off and that head piece grows a new body. What does the body do?

C: The body dies.

'J: OK, good. So the head, you see, there's continuity there.

C: Mm hmm. Yeah, it's the head that regrows the body. So you guys remember, you may remember my seventh grade science fair project for which we won regionals in which we took planaria, which are little flat worms and cut them and showed the mazes, then cut them in half. And then both halves knew the maze.

B: That's cool.

C: You didn't read about this in your local paper? And a lot of kids study regeneration and they study kind of RNA and they study planaria because they can do this. You can cut a planarium in half and both halves will regrow. But planaria have really simple body plans. Of course, we know that complex vertebrates like certain herps, they can regrow tails if they lose them. But this is amazing about Elysia, because not only once its head is disconnected from its body, will it regrow a body. But it has a complex body plan and it regrows its own heart.

B: So how does it last before the heart gets grown again?

C: Yeah, I think it actually takes a couple of days before it even starts to regrow. It takes hours to remove its head from its body. Hours.

B: Hours. That sounds nasty.

C: Yeah. And then I think it takes it takes a while to regrow the body. Here's the cool thing. Researchers looked really closely. So basically what happened is they noticed that in this sample of the sea slugs, that some of them were doing this. They were like, whoa, what's that head doing? And then they're like, holy crap, it has a body now. And they were like, what is happening? And when they oh, 20 days, 20 days it took for them to grow their body back, including their heart. So it's pretty slow. But then they were like, OK, what is happening? This is super weird. They looked up close and there's apparently a little ridge in between the head and the body. That seems like the cut your point.

B: The zipper.

C: Yeah, it's a little like a point like on the cheese package. So there's the little ridge there. And they're like, OK, this must be the place where they can actually do that ripping. The other really interesting thing is that they were like, why the hell is it doing this? Like, we know, for example, that if a salamander's tail gets hurt, do salamanders regrow their tails? I think so. Or let's say a lizard's tail gets hurt and it can. Or if it's doing it in order to run away from predators, it can drop the tail. And then it'll regrow it.

S: Although not all lizards who drop their tails regrow them. Some don't regrow.

C: Oh, yeah. Interesting. But we know that there's some of them have the capability to do that.

S: Yes.

B: So this is just twice as good. It's like twice as long as dropping a tail. Just drop your back too.

C: Yeah, it's whole body, even its blood supply. So there's questions here, right? A, why the hell would they do this? Right. B, how are they staying alive during those from day one to day 20? And so the researchers still have to answer some of those questions. But there's a couple of interesting takeaways here. One, and this is again, I don't think it was a controlled study. So the control study needs to be done now. But they noticed after the fact that when they looked at the dropped bodies, they were infested with parasites. So they're wondering, is this a way?

E: You say infested as if it's a bad thing.

C: Party in the parasite dead body. They're wondering, is this a way once a parasite load gets too high for these sea slugs, that they can drop their parasite load and then grow a fresh new body that that's parasite free and then continue to live on their lives in a healthy way? So that's fascinating. And the second thing is the researchers are hypothesizing, but they don't know that the reason that these specific alesia are green and have these little spots is because they absorb chloroplasts from algae. And they're wondering if they're able to actually use those chloroplasts as a fuel.

B: Oh, they're solar. Holy crap.

C: Right. Until they are able to regrow, because they can apparently keep the chloroplasts alive within their bodies for for weeks to months. And very young alesia don't have the chloroplasts yet. They have to get them through feeding. And then once they feed on them, they start to populate the body. So they're wondering there's long been a debate as to what these chloroplasts do beyond just make them look green. And now they're wondering, hey, could this actually help with the energy that they need to be able to regrow the body, especially while it doesn't have a heart and a main blood supply?

B: I didn't think it could get any cooler than they go photosynthetic on us. That's awesome.

C: I know. Right. Yeah. Yeah. And I love the name of the article Extreme Autonomy and Whole Body Regeneration in Photosynthetic Sea Slugs.

B: Wow.

J: I'm all in on this. This is all [inaudible].

C: This is so cool. And you guys got to watch the videos. There's all there's videos online. They're going to be GIFs or GIFs or whatever you want to call them. Anyway, I still call them GIFs deal with it. It's just and they're beautiful. They're actually really beautiful.

S: Yeah, that is just so cool.

C: Yeah.

Who's That Noisy? (1:17:45)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: Lungs

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

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


All right, guys, any guesses before I begin?

B: Sounds aquatic.

J: For some people there was a lot of grouping of guesses here, and I will unveil those as we go. So our first guesser is Jasper Henton and Jasper says, "Dear, Jay, my name is Jasper. I'm 11 years old and I live in England. My guess is a beluga whale. Love the show, Jasper." Jasper, first of all there are people that start their lives and they don't even think about learning about science and technology at your age and critical thinking. And like the fact that you're an 11 year old listening to a science podcast, this is probably one of the best types of information you can put into your head. You know, being a co-host on this show, of course, I believe that. But I'm very proud of you. Thank you for writing in. Continue to listen, because this education is valuable as beyond belief. Right, Steve?

S: Yeah, Jasper, we're proud of you.

J: It is very cool, though. So you're not correct, but you are not alone. Tons of people wrote in with all different kinds of whale and dolphin guesses. There is absolutely something about this sound that has that vibe. I think it's because it's muffled a little bit. You have like a muffled sound. It sounds like it's underwater, but he's not correct. All right. Here's another guest. This was sent in by Jimmy Johansson. "Hello, Jay. I think this is what babies hear inside their mother's belly. Felt like I heard a voice through something fleshy and squishy, so it felt right." And then he goes on to thank us and that we changed his life. And that's why we're here, because we want to help people and teach them about science and critical thinking. And, Jimmy, I'm sorry you're wrong. But again, you're not alone because, I don't know, 30 or 40 people guess the same thing that you're writing. You just happen to be the first person. So now I'm getting quickly going on to the winner. So the winner for last week, Andrea Shuck. And Andrea said "This week's noisy sounds like lungs. Sounds like lungs of a patient with asthma or otherwise narrowed small airways. I have a few horses in my practice with equine asthma syndrome that sound just like that. Thanks and keep up the good work." So let me play this back to you now that you know that it's pulmonary. [plays Noisy] So what's going on here? Let me just read to you what the person who sent it in said. They gave a good explanation. This is from Marcus Johansson. Marcus says, "I thought I'd give you some background info. I work for a medical tech company that uses AI for analysis of osculatory sounds from digital stethoscopes. We're working on detecting pulmonary illness before symptoms occur. For development of our algorithms, we have to feed the AI a bunch of data, which means we have to manually annotate thousands of audio files. While doing this work, I've noticed something strange. Most of the audio files are from people with severely reduced pulmonary function. And after listening to their struggled breathing, I start feeling out of breath myself, some sort of empathic breathlessness." I had the same experience and I wrote him back and said, when I heard it, I read the email, then I listened to the sound. And it does. If you listen to the sound again and you think about the person is struggling to breathe, it might make you feel a little bit of that tension. I don't know. It must be some type of sympathetic thing going on. But so this was recorded with an electronic stethoscope. Again, he's feeding algorithms to to the AI. So it can pick up all of these different nuances in the sounds so that before somebody shows heavy symptoms, the AI will eventually be able to pick up early, early on in a sickness or disease that there's something going on, right? That human ears can't hear. And that the instrumentation that doctors are using might not be crystal clear or whatever, but if an AI listens to it, it would be able to pick it up. So fascinating, right? AI is going to tell you, hey you have like the amazingly small beginnings of blah, blah, blah. And we're going to be able to help you very easily with that because we detected it so early, right? Like lots of diseases that way. Very curable early on, very deadly late in the game. So, Marcus, thanks. That was really cool. It does sound to me like another guess that I had your thing that it reminded me of was definitely like suffocating, right? Which definitely is related to this, because that is the sound of of suffocation. You know, a person is struggling to breathe and and their their lungs are literally clogged and damaged from the disease. So I got it is a scary little sound. But anyway, don't let it bother you because you don't have that problem, hopefully.

New Noisy (1:22:44)[edit]

J: All right, Steve, I have a new Noisy.

S: Let's hear it.

J: I'm going to play it for you.


All right. It's a little bit of a long Noisy.

B: I got an idea.

J: Go ahead, Bob.

B: Red blood cells banging into each other.

J: That's pretty interesting, Bob. That's not correct, though.

E: They all sound like that.

J: So when you give me the answer for this noisy, just be as accurate as you possibly can. And of course, if you heard something cool or you want to send in a guess, you can email me at

S: All right. Thanks, brother.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:24:21)[edit]

Email #1: Mechanical Turk[edit]

S: All right. We're going to do one email this week, although I got about a bazillion emails about this. This is a sort of correction to my reference to the mechanical Turk last week. So actually, Evan, you in your note news item, you brought up the mechanical Turk.

E: I did.

S: I made a kind of a tangential reference, which I see now was very obscure and confusing. But I want to I think the explanation of where my head was at is really interesting. So you were talking about Amazon's mechanical Turk, right?

E: Yes. And I expressed that I did not know what it was. Also-

S: Amazon's mechanical Turk is a crowdsourcing app where they they use a system to get people to do specific tasks. They hire you to do do like, oh, you need to label these thousand things. You know, whatever. They they match people with these, ad hoc tasks that need to be done. Let me tell you explain why it's called a mechanical Turk. Let's go back in time to the 1860s. This is a really fascinating story. If you guys don't know the story of the mechanical Turk, it's very fascinating. 1860s, a showman was was going around Europe with a chess playing essentially robot, like a wooden mannequin that would play chess and and beat all comers. And the idea was the idea. The idea was that this was a machine programmed to play chess mechanically. You know, this is like 1860s. This is before they even knew what a computer was. And this is this was a time when it was very popular to make a lot of these mechanical animals like a bird that would chirp. Yeah. Clockwork very steampunky. Yeah. Very clockwork stuff. And so people were kind of prepared to believe, well, this is just in a really elaborate clockwork man that plays chess. Of course, people who had their crap together figured out this is impossible. This level of creativity is way beyond like a bird that sings the same chirp over and over again, the same song over and over again. So the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Turns out there was a guy in the table that was operating the mechanical Turk, and he was a human being was playing chess. And it was just it was all a deception.

E: A person in a box.

S: Yeah, it was a person in a box. It was that simple. So people there was some magic illusion going on, how the box was designed so that people would underestimate how much room there was inside of it. They would think, no, was there a tiny person there, a child? No, actually, a full grown human being could fit in there.

C: Like the boxes where you carve a lady in half?

S: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. There's kind of optical illusions.

B: Steve, he was a dwarf, wasn't he?

S: First of all, it wasn't one person. No, he wasn't a dwarf. And no, it wasn't a single person. The guy would just pick up local chess players in the city he went to. And that person would work for them for a few weeks. And then he'd go on to the next guy. So that was the other thing is that another lesson here is that people did not realize that there are they were master chess players everywhere, and it was not hard for him to find a local master chess player to be the mechanical Turk for that month, for that city or that gig, whatever. So it was a it was not one person. It was a bunch of people. And this was a sensation. And the wooden statue that was moving around was dressed in a turban. He was a Turk.

E: It looked like Zoltan.

S: And that cultural thing still exists. The idea that the magic person is has a turban is like a genie kind of character. Just like in Asia, I understand like Jesus is the magic man, in Asian culture, like our magic man is a genie or whatever or one of them anyway. So the concept of a mechanical Turk then came to represent whenever you had a human being pretending to be a machine. Or the idea that you think a machine, this is automated. You think this is an auto and something that is mechanical or automated. Really, there's a person behind the machine-

E: Pulling the levers.

S: Doing the complicated stuff.

C: Which makes sense for Amazon's mechanical Turk what they're doing. You pay them money. You say, I want answers to these surveys. You think it like magic. A machine gave it to you, but really, they're distributing it out to a bunch of people.

S: Yes. That's exactly why it's called a mechanical Turk.

C: Yeah. And they're in tiny boxes.

S: A lot of people think think mechanical Turk refers entirely to Amazon's mechanical Turk. They don't even realize that this concept has a deeper history and a broader meaning.

C: And that they took that name.

S: Yeah. But now people know that that refers to Amazon's mechanical. Well, no, it originally refers to this mechanical Turk from the 1860s. And that was the name was just used by Amazon. But also, when I was researching this, just to fill in the gaps, when you search for mechanical Turk, all of the articles are about Amazon mechanical Turk now. And I had to get really creative to bypass all of the the hits to Amazon.

C: Oh, I just was looking to, apparently on Wikipedia. Like if you look up mechanical Turk, it takes you to Amazon's page. But if you look up the Turk, the Turk, that's how you get it. Wow. Also known as mechanical Turk.

S: But here's where it gets a little bit more nuanced, though. And this is where my brain went. So there is also a more subtle and broader meaning. And this is the one that I'm very interested in, which is why I'm biased towards this. It's not just a human pretending to be artificial intelligence. You could also use it in a more general sense. And I have used it this way to refer to narrow AI pretending to be general AI. In other words, like if you have a chatbot pretending to be an actual person or pretending to be an artificial intelligence, it's that's what I was talking about when I was referring to the website, which is actually called the Akinator, the specific website I was talking about, where you think of a person and it will guess it. The Akinator is a character. And in fact, it's a Turk. It has a turban. It's like a genie. And so it's still cultural. That connection is still there. And the thing is, it's acting as if it's like a sentient artificial intelligence when it's really just using this AI algorithm. That's what I was referring to, which I guess it's very obscure connection to what Evan was talking about. But that's where my head went. But that to me, that's what I encounter a lot. In fact, I just by coincidence, recently wrote about this, the idea of taking a very narrow effect and pretending like it's something much deeper and more profound than it is. And I think most specifically, like pretending that you're dealing with or thinking that you're dealing with a fully sentient AI when it's just a chatbot or some equivalent in a very, very narrow AI. But I do think it most accurately refers to whenever you have a human pretending to be an AI or whether narrow or general. So, yeah, there isn't this automation doing this. It's actually just being outsourced to people who are doing it in the background. So it's complicated. But the history of it is fascinating. The Mechanical Turk story itself is fascinating. There's a lot of wrinkles to a lot of interesting aspects to it. And how the term has sort of come full circle to like the Amazon Mechanical Turk. And now, unfortunately, everyone thinks that's the only thing that it refers to. But there's actually a much more rich story behind it.

E: Neat.

S: Right. But, Evan, you were specifically referring to Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

E: Correct. That was what the article was referring to. Yes.

S: Right.

E: That's right.

J: It's mechanical?

S: Well, yeah, the Mechanical Turk is people. Right. That's the thing.

E: One day I want us to revisit the story about as long as Mechanical Turk in the history of it, which is amazing, Steve. I also want to one day revisit the story about how the heck does that chicken play tic tac toe?

S: Yeah, that's also a cheat, right? It's the same thing.

C: And also the horse who would stomp his foot. What was his name?

E: Clever Hans.

C: Clever Hans. Yeah.

S: Which you can read about in our book, by the way. All right. Let's go on with science or fiction.

Science or Fiction ()[edit]

Item #1: Psychologists find that people who habitually engage in impressive-sounding BS are better able to detect BS in others.[7]
Item #2: A new study finds that people with aphantasia show no fear reaction to scary stories, while showing typical fear reactions to scary images.[8]
Item #3: Physicists have measured the smallest gravitational field to date, produced by an object of only 90 mg.[9]

Answer Item
Fiction BS
Science Aphantasia
Smallest gravitational field
Host Result
Rogue Guess

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. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Three regular news items this week. Are you guys ready?

J: Let's do it.

E: OK.

S: Here we go. Listen carefully. Item number one, psychologists find that people who habitually engage in impressive sounding BS are better able to detect BS in others. Item number two, a new study finds that people with aphantasia show no fear reaction to scary stories while showing typical fear reactions to scary images. And item number three, physicists have measured the smallest gravitational field to date produced by an object of only 90 milligrams. Evan, go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: People who habitually engage in impressive sounding BS are better able to detect the BS in others. Seems reasonable, I think. My father used to say you can't BS a BSer. So I think that has a little something to do with this in a certain sense. And perhaps they do have the means to flesh out the intricacies, the small details, the small clues that give away that sort of information. So maybe that that one seems reasonable. The next one about aphantasia, which I've not heard before.

E: I'll explain that to you.

C: Yes, you have. We've talked about it on the show.

E: Have we?

S: We've talked about it on the show.

B: We talk about a lot of stuff on the show.

S: It's the people who have an inability to have an internal mental image of something. They can't control mental images.

C: We refer to it as having no mind's eye.

E: So if that were the case, then why would they show typical fear to scary images?

B: Well, there's visual images, right?

S: You have to show them scary picture.

E: I see.

S: They react with fear. If they're told a scary story, that doesn't affect them.

E: Well, this one's the challenging because it's hard. It's hard to put yourself sort of in that mindset and be that person who might be experiencing that to try to get a glimpse as to if this one might be true or not. Really, really tricky. So I don't know that that one's a problem per se. But the measurement of the smallest gravitational field to date, an object only 90 milligrams. What's an object that would be 90 milligrams?

B: Flea poop.

S: I'll just tell you that the 90 milligrams, the example of that is a ladybug. That was the go to example for what's 90 milligrams.

E: And they were able to detect it in something this small. Hmm. Well, I guess I got to guess. I will say that the aphantasia one, I'll say that one's the fiction. I have kind of the least amount of feeling for this one in that I cannot put myself in those shoes to figure this one out per se. So I'm going to guess that that one's going to wind up being the fake.

S: OK, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: OK, let's go down the line here. So psychologists find that people who habitually engage in impressive sounding B.S. are better able to detect B.S. and others right out of the gate with this one I feel like I don't see why someone that is a B.S. or would be able to innately detect other people's lies. I mean, I think it is the person that is a liar, a good liar. You know what I mean? They effective at it. What if they're just not good at it? You know, and they're looking for bad lying skills. You know what I mean? I know that doesn't sound I'm not being I'm not using really fancy language there, but I just don't see any reason why B.S. or would be able to be better at picking it up just because they concoct lies in their head. But let's go down here. Now, let's go to the one about the aphantasia. They're not showing a fear reaction to scary stories, but they're showing normal fear reaction to scary images. That makes perfect sense to me, because if they're hearing a story, they're not being able to visualize the story. So that makes sense. So I say that one is definitely science. And then this last one about the physicist detecting a gravitational field in a small object. To me, it's not the size of the object-

C: But the motion of the ocean.

J: It's not the size of the object. I think everything that has the tiniest bit of mass creates gravity. I think the real interesting part of this, if it's true, is that they're able to detect such light amounts or tiny amounts of gravity. That's the thing that's being discussed here. Yeah. And I'm like, OK, sure. They came up with an instrument that can pick out a tiny, tiny little bit of gravitational fluctuation. That's not as impressive as a B.S. or being able to detect B.S. I think that's what's B.S.

E: Wow.

S: OK, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah, I'm kind of feeling like I want to go to go with Jay on this. I definitely see the aphantasia one being science, of course. Part of scary movies, part of haunted houses is sound is smell. But the vast majority of majority of it is visual imagery. So I think that if you couldn't visualize the story, it would lose some of that fear component. I agree with Jay on the gravitational field, too. It's just how how minimally can we detect it? I think it's still there. So the question is, do we have the tools and the tricks to be able to detect it? But the B.S. detector one, it just reminds me, I feel like recently we talked about how it's hard to tell when somebody's lying. It's just really, really hard to tell when somebody's lying. And so if somebody is good at lying, I don't see why that would make them better at being able to tell if somebody else is lying. It doesn't seem like it would be sufficient because fundamentally detecting B.S. is difficult. So for that reason, I think I'm going to go with Jay and say that that one's a fiction.

S: OK, and Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Yeah, I mean, I don't have a lot to add since I'm last here. Number three, the the gravitational field impressive for something that's only 90 milligrams, that's that's impressive. Two, the no fear reaction. Yeah, it seems kind of obvious if you can't picture it in your mind. So that means that a lot of our fear to scary stories is the is the mental component and not just what's happening, but being actually to visualize it happening. So that's actually interesting and it makes a lot of sense. And so that means that the the bullshit detector one, the B.S. is is probably that seems like the least likely. So I'll say that's fiction.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right. So Evans out on his own with the aphantasia, but you all agree that physicists have measured the smallest gravitational field to date produced by an object of only 90 milligrams or the the mass of a ladybug. You all think this one is science and this one is science.

C: Yay!

S: So how did they do it? So do you know how classically, like hundreds of years ago, they measured gravitational force of of objects?

J: How long ago, Steve?

S: Seventeen ninety seven. This technique was first.

J: Oh, my God. I mean, I would I didn't even know how like on a small scale. I have no idea.

S: So in 1797, a researcher by the name of Cavendish, using a method called the Cavendish method. Named after him, was able to measure the was able to record the effect of the gravity of a lead ball that weighed one hundred and sixty kilograms, hundred sixty kilograms, which at the time was thought that was amazing that you could measure the gravitational field of something that this was 30 centimeter chunk of lead, not like an asteroid or a planet. And so what he did was he used a torsion pendulum. So imagine you have a rod with balls at each end, right? Kind of like a baton and then that is suspended from the middle by a very thin wire. So it's like the bar is horizontal, suspended from a third from a vertical wire. So the the rod can twist, right? You could freely spin.

C: Like a mobile.

S: Yeah, right. Exactly. And then you put the mass next to one end and see if it twists just a tiny little bit. That's the Cavendish experiment. So the so researchers in Vienna replicated the Cavendish experiment, but they did it on the micro scale, two millimeter gold spheres. So that's weighing 90 milligrams. So they had these gold spheres at the end of the rods suspended by a wire that was a glass fiber, a few thousands of a millimeter in diameter. So that would be the ideas that would be free to free to rotate. And then they used another gold sphere of two millimeters, 90 milligrams as the as the mass, which they had swinging back and forth so that like a pendulum, right, so that it would go to one end of the rod and then the other end of the rod. And that would create so its gravitational attraction, would swing back and forth from one end of the rod to the other end of the rod. And this would cause the rod to rotate with the same frequency to torsion one way and the other by a few millionths of a millimeter.

C: Oh, my God.

S: A few millions of a millimeter.

C: How did they know that it wasn't just like wind?

S: Hang on. And this was detected by a laser, right? So that that tiny movement. So that was kind of the key is like, how could they detect this tiny movement? Now, Cara, you ask a perfectly cromulant question. You know, this has got to be an incredibly sensitive experimental set up. And how do they?

C: Yeah, they put it in the vacuum tube.

S: So it's obviously inside. So they make sure there's no air movement whatsoever. They had to use a barrier to block electrostatic forces, because that would be enough to overwhelm gravitational forces. And they had to do it like in the wee hours of the morning and on holidays, because traffic on the street outside would be enough to screw it up. So, yeah, they had to like minimize environmental noise. And they were able to detect it because they had to they would they were able to pull the signal out of the background noise because it would have a very specific frequency. Right. They were they knew what they were looking for.

B: Not as sensitive as LIGO, but still pretty sensitive.

S: Right. Still pretty sensitive. So yeah, so 90 milligram gravitation. Now they plan this is ambitious, but they say they're planning on progressing this experiment and they want to be able to measure the gravitational field of objects thousands of times lighter. So we'll see.

C: Wow.

B: Wow. Thousands.

C: Yeah. I feel like they're going to have to do that in a in a chamber.

S: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. Like in somewhere special in a vacuum-

C: Where they remove the air. Yeah, it seems like the only way to. Yeah.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. Let's go back to number one. Psychologists find that people who habitually engage in impressive sounding BS are better able to detect BS in others. Evan, you believe your father, who famously told you that you can't BS a BSer. Funny enough, our father told us that all the time as well. The implication being that he was a BSer. So don't try to fool him. Right?

E: Right.

S: So is that correct? Or is is is everyone else correct that it gives you no ability to do that? So this one is the fiction. Sorry, Evan. In fact-

E: I blame my father.

S: In fact, in this study, there were some people, they were worse. They were actually worse at detecting.

J: Was it because they were ballsy about what they thought they could do?

S: Well the study wasn't designed to to answer that question. But not only were they worse, but there was a dose response curve, right? Meaning that the more of a BSer they were, the worse they were at detecting BS in others. And also they had fake news headlines. They were worse at identifying which headlines were fake as well. And they tried to control for reflective thinking, metacognitive skills and cognitive ability, and those did not explain the differences. So they did. Yeah, they did try to. This is always a difficulty in situations like this where there's confounding factors. They tried to control for as many as they could think of.

C: What did they hypothesize in the discussion? Did they take its confidence?

S: No, they think that they're there because they are very impressed with pseudo profound bullshit. So the thing that makes them susceptible to it is the same thing that makes them do it.

B: Vulnerable to it. Yeah. So what you do is make friends with like an extreme bullshitter. And then so so have him say, what do you think of that guy? Is he telling the truth? And then you go with the opposite of what he says?

C: Oh, yeah. It's like George Costanza, like just-

E: Canary in a coal mine.

C: -do everything exactly opposite what your intuition says you should do. You guys remember that episode?

B: Yes, I loved it. It's good to see him successful for a little while.

S: So they're thinking is that their their key malfunction is that they mistake superficial profoundness for actual profoundness. So they use superficial profoundness themselves, but they're also vulnerable to it. But that's the core.

B: Makes sense. Makes sense.

C: There must be a psychological instrument that has been developed over the past decade, like the Chopra test that you can give to.

S: There is.

C: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S: There is. There's a standard. We've talked about this before. There's a standardized test. It's the superficial bullshit test.

C: Yes.

S: This is not the first study to use that they're building off of that earlier research.

C: Oh, I love that. So, yeah, we could we could take this sample and test them with that and see what happens.

S: There is also a technical definition of bullshit in the psychological literature. Bullshitting is not lying. It's saying things with a complete indifference to whether or not it's true. So that may seem like a subtle difference.

C: So like trump. Well, it's like his foundational character trait.

S: It could be true. You don't know if it's true or not. You don't care if it's true or not. You not deliberately lying. It's just that you're saying something because it sounds good, not because you think it's true or not. It doesn't matter. All right.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All of this means that a new study finds that people with aphantasia show no fear reaction to scary stories while showing typical fear reactions to scary images is science. And I think you guys pretty much nailed this one. This one, I thought, was was was the easier of the three. And because it makes perfect sense. And it's true. This was the hypothesis that the researchers were studying. The idea is that when you're hearing a scary story is imagining what's happening in the story necessary to really have an emotional fear reaction. So they they measured fear physiologically. They basically did a sweat test. And as a control, they had people without without aphantasia hear the same story and their sweat increased as the story built and to its scary climactic ending. And the people with aphantasia did not sweat. Then they did that both groups where they showed them scary images like a viper with fangs exposed and whatever other things. And they had similar fear reactions to these scary images. So the inability to imagine what's happening in a story blunted, at least to the point where it didn't show up physiologically in this study, the emotional reaction to the story itself. So that's interesting.

B: I wonder what other kind of stories or audible information is blunted for them. I mean just like when you're talking to them. How else is that manifested?

C: Yeah, but it's hard. It's hard to know. Right. Because like when you say blunted, it's like compared to what compared to you or compared to their other experiences.

B: Compared to normal people.

S: I would like to see this study replicated with erotic stimuli, because not for pervy reasons, just because I think that that's a really powerful stimuli. Just imagine-

C: It's an easy study to do.

S: It's easy. And there's and there's obvious physiological responses as well.

C: But I wonder if there'd be some crossover effects because so with fear based stories, usually the things that are scary in a scary movie, like the what are they called?

S: The jump scare?

C: Like the the things where the music changes really fast.

B/S: Yeah.

C: I know there's a phenomenon. There's a word for that.

S: The jump scare?

C: Yeah. So those things usually get us. And those would still get somebody who's scared or who has a fantasia, of course. But those don't exist in ghost stories. And so we're really having to build up a scary imagery. But with porn versus, let's say, erotica, like an erotica novel, I wonder if they can tap into a sensory memory, feeling sex as opposed to just seeing sex within their mind's eye.

S: Yeah, that's why it'd be fascinating.

C: It would be. And you know, what's really cool about the study, too, is that not only does it give us insight into how a fantasics process, but it also gives us insight into potential screening tools for this, because afantasia, from what I understand, is very similar to synesthesia in that a lot of people don't know they have it. Until it's pointed out to them.

S: Yeah. It's normal for them. Right.

C: It's totally normal for them. Right. So and it's an internal experience. So you have no reference point. But like with I remember a really cool story about a researcher who was looking at synesthesia and he put a sign out in front of the laboratory that said, does this sign look wrong to you? And all the letters were different bright colors and textures. And synesthetes were like, I hate this. Like that G should not be green. And why is that R fuzzy? So I wonder if telling somebody a story and measuring their response would be a cool kind of baseline screening tool.

S: No, I think there's a lot of potential here.

B: What about the other end of the spectrum, though? What about people that are super imaginers?

S: That's the fantasy prone personality. They are better storytellers.

B: Yes, but-

S: People who are fantasy prone.

B: But I'm talking more of the the detail and of the mental imagery.

S: Bob, that's what I'm talking about, too. That's what fantasy prone is. Yes.

C: They're better storytellers.

S: They are better able to imagine things. They're much more imaginative and creative. They're better storytellers. Things they hallucinate even they see things. They have imaginary friends to all there. It's at the other end of the spectrum.

B: But I remember talking to a guy-

E: That was imaginary Bob.

B: Doesn't strike me as fantasy prone necessarily. But he said that when he would imagine something, he can like literally see it, like almost literally see is.

S: Maybe that is.

C: Yeah, but also, again, there's a subjective component there to say like, that is your red, my red. Well, we know what the wavelength of a red. So there is an objective, right? Quantitative. Sure. And then there's the qualia, like you said. And so this guy's saying, I can see so much detail like anybody could say that. I see a lot of detail in my imagination. At what level is that hyper? At what level is that?

S: Yeah, it's hard to compare because you don't know what other what other people are experiencing. But if you try to measure it in some way, then they do. The fantasy prone people do score higher on those measures. Fascinating.

Skeptical Quote of the Week ()[edit]

Understand well, as I may. My comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand.
– Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), an English mathematician and writer.

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

E: "Understand well, as I may. My comprehension can only be an infinitesimal fraction of all I want to understand." Ada Lovelace.

S: Yeah.

B: She was awesome.

C: She was. Also, I love the word infinitesimal.

B: Yes, me too.

S: Is it better than habitable?

C: No.

E: It's close.

C: I think it's a more useful word. It's a better word fundamentally. But does it sound better than hablabamos? Habitable, I don't know.

S: Yeah, I know that's always a profound realization. Or just like when I think about as much as any individual person knows, there's just a massive amount of stuff you don't know. It is a tiny slice. You will only ever know a tiny slice of all there is to know. And humanity only currently understands a tiny slice of all there is to know.

E: Remember when Carl Sagan and Cosmos talked about it in about a lifetime, you could read about maybe 10,000 books. I mean, that is so small compared to the sum of knowledge that is out there.

S: So choose wisely. All right, guys. Well, thank you for joining me this week.

B: Sure man.

C: Thank you.

E: Thanks Steve.

J: Any week you're asked to come I'm there, brother.

Signoff/Announcements ()[edit]

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[10]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description



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