SGU Episode 826

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SGU Episode 826
May 8th 2021
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SGU 825                      SGU 827

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

AW: Andy Weir

Quote of the Week



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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, May 5th, 2021, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Where were you 16 years ago?

S: Yes. Happy 16th birthday to the SGU and to all of my fellow hosts.

B: Oh, wow.

C: Wow.

E: 16. We can drive a car.

S: 16 years.

C: That's bananas.

S: So this is episode number 826.

E: Whoa.

S: Yeah. Less than three and a half years or so, we'll be at up to 20 years and 1,000 episodes right around the same time.

J: When you think about it, would you guys say that there are a lot of things in life where you can say like who would have thought type of sentiment like you meet someone, you get married, you thought, yeah, I'm going to get married I should be married to this person my whole life. But this is a milestone I look at and I'm like, for real, I never thought that this project would have taken off, that we would have kept going like five years, I remember and I'm like, wow, we did it for five years. I wonder how much longer we're going to go. And I was always thinking back then, yeah, probably get three more years out of it, four more years out of it, whatever.

S: I don't know. I never had any doubt.

C: Really? You would just-

J: It's not the doubt. It's more just about the staying power. Like we keep going. It's more important.

S: I kind of figured I was in for the long haul. No, I mean obviously, we didn't have any idea. I just didn't know like what the scope of podcasting was going to be and how just the industry was going to sort itself out. But once we decided to do this, I figured we were just going to keep doing it forever. You know, as long as it wasn't a complete failure. Anything other than just like a complete flop and like going nowhere, which I wasn't counting on. I figured it would be at least reasonably successful. I'm not surprised that we're still going 16 years later. But not to minimize it or to say that it isn't cool. It does take a tremendous amount of staying power. Putting the show out every week, obviously.

E: Every week. Come whatever.

S: It's been a huge chunk of our life for the last 16 years of our lives, you know.

E: Absolutely. Rachel turns 18 this month.

C: Wow. Our whole life almost was –

E: And so she was one going on two.

C: Oh, my gosh.

E: When this happened.

S: Yeah. It's been my daughter's entire lives, basically.

C: That's amazing.

J: Since you joined, Cara, we've had a – you know, we've had a lot of growth and we've had a lot of cool things happen, right? You know, like we started the extravaganza, which I think is a ton of fun. You know, our listenership is doing very well. Our Patreon is doing very well. You know, everybody – every one of us contributes but I also want you to know, Cara, like I really love having you on this show and co-hosting with you. You're a great friend.

C: Oh, thanks. I think I've now been then – I'm right around a third of the lifespan. Does that sound about right? Right around a third.

E: Yep. 2015.

C: That's amazing.

E: Yeah.

B: Wow.

E: It's been great.

J: And Evan, God. I met Evan playing a LARP.

E: OK. Now we're delving into antiquity.

J: Yes. It was so long ago. But I mean when you think about like where you meet people in your life and what becomes of certain friendships it's just funny. You know, look at the pathway. We met Perry. We met Evan. You know, and then Cara, we met you at a conference and like I just tucked you away in the back of my mind. I like her. I like her a lot. I want to –

B: Yeah, we all thought the same thing. Yep.

C: That's so sweet. That conference is now defunct of course and we've lost James Randi too.

E: I know. Well, so many people have been lost.

C: So much has changed.

E: We really started in 1996 is when the Connecticut Skeptical Society was founded.

S: Yes. It's been 25 years. We've been doing this for a quarter of a century.

E: Twenty-five years. We've been skeptical activists for a quarter of a century now.

C: Wow.

J: How old were you back then, Cara?

C: Twenty-five years ago?

J: Yeah.

E: Yep.

C: I was 12.

J: She was a 12-year-old.

C: Going on 13. Yeah.

E: Oh, gosh.

B: Probably would have done well on the show back then.

J: That's a real – that will screw with your head though when you think when we started doing this, someone that we would co-host the show with was 12. Like what? Oh my god.

C: That's weird. And when you started doing the podcast, like Steve, was your daughter even born?

S: Well, yes. Yeah. Both my daughters were born.

C: They were just born, right?

S: Yeah.

C: That's amazing.

S: They would have been like three – four and one.

C: Wow.

S: Yeah. When we started podcasting. So they've known it their whole life. They just grew up with it.

J: I was a completely different person in a completely different life. I was still in a band. I was still in a band where we were playing twice a week. That is just a complete life changer.

E: Jay, it was almost half of your life ago. Think of it that way.

C: Wow.

B: I got you all beat. I was the kind of person who would say for the first time ever, hello. What kind of person does that?

J: Who do you have to be to vocalize that, right, Bob?

E: That has legs. I can't believe, you know. We still refer to that –

B: Not really.

J: Don't even say – Bob, I have not fully exploited that yet. There's the hello sticker. There's the hello T-shirt. It's all coming, people. Just wait.

E: All those tags people wear at those conferences, say it right on – hello, my name.

B: I like to think I contributed a lot more than just one stupid, weirdly pronounced word.

J: You have, Bob, no doubt, but nothing was as funny. Nothing was-

C: You peaked at hello.

B: How come nobody laughed when I said hello back then, huh?

J/E: Because nobody was listening to you.

E: We had an audience of five.

S: Actually, our audience that first year was about 200 people.

C: Wow. That's amazing. And just that's the – it's the activation energy. That's the hard part. It's just keeping going when you know that it's such a small group because I've known a lot of people to start podcasts. They were like, I did a podcast for like a year. Nobody really listened, so I gave up.

E: Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

B: Well, we were happy. I don't remember ever being disappointed by the amount of listeners because we had-

S: Never.

B: -before that we had the Skeptical Society, we'd spend a lot of time crafting a newsletter and we'd mail it out. What did we mail out, Steve? A few hundred? A couple hundred of them?

S: Yeah. It was a lot more work for a lot fewer people, so we were used to it. The podcast was an upgrade even though it was relatively small by our current standards. We were happy. When we hit 1,000, we were ecstatic. That was like off the hook for us in terms of reach.

B: Oh, yeah.

S: But yeah, it's been a wild ride. I think perhaps what's the most surprising part of it I think is just all the cool people that we've been able to meet and interview and everything.

E: The learning never stops. It's been a fantastic, fantastic learning vehicle. I consider it my continuing education.

S: It is. I mean, it's true that there's no better way to learn than to teach. So having to be able to explain even just a science news item every week or a topic or anything like that is just the best way to learn new information.

E: Absolutely.

S: And of course, having it be crowdsourced by 150,000 people doesn't hurt either. We're always pointing out and learning new stuff from our listeners. It's fantastic.

B: I remember early on, we were covering mainly those skeptically oriented items because it was a skeptical podcast. So I remember thinking, damn, it's going to be tough to find a new and unique item to cover after a while because how deep is it? And in terms of having a news item, like a skeptical news item come out, that was also not very common. And then I remember that aha moment when I was like, screw that, I'm going to cover science. I mean, that's what I love talking about anyway. And I remember making that transition in my head. I mean, it's still a skeptical podcast, but it's a science communication thing. And I remember that made me very happy because that's an unending pit of awesomeness.

E: Absolutely.

S: Yeah, but we did science news from the beginning. That was more of a change in your head.

B: So be it.

C: Did you become more like space nerdy as the years went on, Bob?

B: Oh, God, no. I've always been. I remember talking to a girl 40 years ago, talking to her about colliding galaxies. And I was like, I just love that shit. I mean, I loved it since before high school. So I always loved talking about it.

E: And she said, oh, I love that band.

B: So I've always loved doing communicating science. So that was just such a natural fit for me.

J: And of all the hobbies that I've had in my life my love for science at this point just so profoundly dwarfs everything else. And it's luckily I got my podcast got to be about something so important, right? So science and critical thinking really are like a freaking cornerstone in my life. Critical thinking is so in the in my absolute core of who I am. You think about that, guys think about just how much critical thinking is your bedrock.

S: Mm hmm.

C: Oh, yeah.

E: Oh, gosh.

S: Completely.

J: But imagine, like, what would it have been if we didn't do the podcast? Like, where? How deeply would it have been seated? I think it wouldn't be anywhere near where it is.

S: You mean, the skeptical activists in general?

J: But just the overall skills of just skills of being a critical thinker. I have to thank this podcast for making it be so alive in my mind.

S: Oh, certainly. I mean, yeah, we learned a tremendous amount in terms of critical thinking. I mean unfortunately, you can be a physician without being a critical thinker. You know.

E: True.

S: Just my profession by itself wouldn't have done it. I'm definitely a better physician. I think a better clinician because of critical thinking. I think that part of it, it's just hard. I can't imagine living my life without critical thinking. It's like I would feel so vulnerable. I believe so much stupid shit, you know. How can you exist without the ability to sort out what to believe in and what not to believe in? That would be scary to me.

E: You would need a supernatural power or something to fill those gaps, Steve.

S: There you go.

E: Yeah.

S: Well we don't want to spend too much time reminiscing about 16 years of the SGU, but thanks for indulging us a little bit. It has been a fantastic thing to be part of our lives. We're happy to keep doing it, keep putting the show out. I'm really glad we got to write our first book. That was quite a milestone. That's the thing that took longer than I thought it was going to take, honestly. But it's hard. Writing a whole book is freaking hard.

B: Yeah.

S: It's a lot of words. But I think the timing was good. I think in terms of where we were in our education, it was good. You know what I mean? I think we had a lot to say at that point. And who knows? Maybe there'll be another one coming out at some point. We'll see.

E: You never know.

B: Don't be silly.

S: All right. Let's move on with some news items.

News Items[edit]

Experimental Electric Plane (11:37)[edit]

S: Jay, you're going to start us off by telling us about an experimental electric plane.

J: So we might have electric cars on the road, but electric planes are a completely different thing. It's not just adding in that third dimension, but the danger levels go way up and the complexity of just building aircraft that are based on electricity and not on jet fuel. It's a paradigm shift. Did you guys know that electric planes have been around since the 1970s?

C: I did not.

B: I didn't know.

J: Yeah. So that's when the first one was created and flown. And in 2015, do you guys remember the Solar Impulse 2?

S/C: Yeah.

E: Yes, that I remember.

J: Now, that was collecting energy from the sun and powering its motors, and it flew solely on electric power. So there's two major problems with electric airplanes. I'm sure everyone can easily think of the first one, that's batteries, right? The weight of batteries, the energy density of batteries, because both of those two issues are a very big problem with batteries alone. And there's this cyclical thing like we've talked about with sending things into outer space. In order to send more cargo into outer space, you need more jet fuel, but adding jet fuel requires more jet fuel, right? And you get to a point of diminishing returns where you can't... You keep adding, adding. The same with batteries. If you keep adding a bigger battery, you need a bigger battery to support the bigger battery. So we clearly need batteries to have more energy density, and it's slowly happening. Again, no sudden breakthroughs. Also though, electric planes, and here's the big one, they have to be certified in the United States by the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA. And this is largely due to they have to be safe for passengers. This is a huge undertaking because every freaking component has to be tested and proven airworthy. And specifically, the batteries, they're an issue because they're a safety issue because they can catch on fire, legit. It does happen. You can watch videos on YouTube of people, their battery in their phone just catches on fire, something happens. So they have to mitigate these problems, but things are getting better. So in 2016, the FAA approved electric airplanes for up to 19 passengers. So and it's not a coincidence that in the same year, NASA has been developing an electric plane called the X-57 Maxwell. So right now, the number of commercial electric airplanes is incredibly low, like incredibly low. And I think we're talking about very small airplanes. I don't think there is a 19, I couldn't find an example of a 19 passenger electric airplane. I think they simply just don't exist yet. And part of this is that the incredibly long and difficult process of getting the FAA to say, yes, this aircraft is approved for commercial flight. So let's go back to the X-57 Maxwell. So the plane will make use of NASA's research in electric powered flight that goes back to 2014. So back in 2014, they started something called LEAP Tech, the LEAP Tech project. And this stands for a leading edge asynchronous propeller technology. So in essence, this is what this means is that they're figuring out different ways in places to put engines on aircraft because it's not going to follow the same ways that we create jet fuel based aircraft. As an example, this plane has 14 engines and the engines are on the wing, on the wings. That's it.

E: It's on the wing.

J: Yeah. So, all right. So it's an experimental plane. It's centered out of Edwards Air Force Base in California. And the basic premise here is that it's 100% electric powered. Its first flight is actually scheduled this year, and you might recognize the name of the plane, right? It's the X-plane, right? There's been lots of X-planes with NASA. They use that to name their experimental aircraft. And typically those experimental aircraft either turn into real planes or at least parts of it become something that turns into real aircraft. So this plane comes, like I said, with 14 motors. Now, the cool thing about it is that not only does it have the engines on the tip of the wings, meaning there's a big engine on each side of the plane, on the very tip, the very end of the wing, but there's six engines on each side, smaller ones. And I was trying to find out details, like why they put the big ones on the outside, what does that mean versus the small ones. Why wouldn't you just have a lot of smaller engines? But apparently that as they were experimenting, doing the LeapTech project, they figured out that they can get the most bang for the buck if they have the bigger engines on the far outside of the wings. They call this distributed electric propulsion. And apparently this is going to be something that is very common with electric airplanes. The fuselage that they're using comes from an existing plane called the TECNAM P2006T. And they've repurposed it for the X-57. Now you might ask, why are they repurposing a fuselage? Can any of you guys guess?

B: It's already certified fuselage.

J: Exactly. Because of how unbelievably difficult it is to get these components and new designs approved, they had to start with something that has already been made flight worthy. It's interesting to note that in the history of aircraft, we've only had one real major shift in propulsion. So what is that? What was our major shift in propulsion?

B: Oh, propeller to jet, right?

J: Yeah, so piston to jet.

B: But what about rocket?

J: Well, I'm talking about aircraft, like passenger aircraft. So yeah, they started out with piston engines. You think of the old fighter planes and the bi-wings, all that stuff. Those are running kind of like a car engine, just a piston-based engine in the front of the plane. Then they went to jet engines, which is a completely different design, completely different way of functioning. And now we have electric motors. And this is coming soon. So now we're at the third major shift in propulsion. So a big consideration is that electric planes have to be designed specifically to be electric planes. So even though they repurposed the X-57 fuselage, it's a prototype. That's not the way it's going to be. They're definitely going to be building planes from the ground up because of certain things like fundamental changes, like where is the energy source going to be stored? And so on. And a jet airplane, the fuel is stored in certain places, and it's based off of weight, and it's based off of-

B: The wing.

J: Right. But think about it. Like when a jet is flying for a long time and that fuel goes away, if the fuel wasn't put in the exact right place, the balance of the plane would change dramatically, right? Imagine if you had all that fuel in the tail of the plane, and then you burn up three quarters of it. The plane, the weight distribution completely fluctuates.

B: That's true.

J: So it's the same with batteries, and batteries are really heavy. What they're doing is they're distributing the batteries evenly throughout the plane, or at least one company is working on that right now, and it's looking like this is going to be something that they do. It's not going to be like the batteries only exist here. They're going to put them in many different places. The X-57 now will be tested with a crew later this year, which is really cool because it's going to be flight worthy to actually put people on it. The one thing to think about here is that electric motors are much, much lighter than jet fuel-based motors. So this whole thing is now coming into being, and there's many companies that are working on it. Right now, we have a lot of companies that are out there that are retrofitting, using old fuselages to get their technology to the point where they can get some approval and get more experience in the air. I did find a company that's actually building a plane from the ground up, but it's sitting there waiting to get all the testing done through the FAA. So again, even if these planes are built and they're ready to go right now, the approval process could take five years, 10 years. It could be an incredibly long amount of time.

S: So do you think that this will replace prop planes that do like short distance travel? You know what I mean? Like for cities that are not that far apart.

B: Puddle jumpers, yeah.

E: Puddle jumpers, right.

S: I don't know how often you guys have had to fly on those. It's not a pleasant experience.

B: Yeah, it's a white knuckle.

S: They're incredibly noisy.

J: Yeah, there's a lot of things about those small planes that are no good. Like remember when we flew from the South Island of New Zealand to the North Island and the wind shear was so bad, the plane wasn't completely flying sideways, but it was turned to an angle that made you go, what is happening? I don't like that. I don't think that electric planes are going to solve that type of experience, Steve. It's all about weight and distance right now. How far can an electric plane fly? So they could fly, I think the max distance they're getting right now is somewhere around 500 miles.

S: That's pretty low for that niche.

J: But one interesting thing I found out was that when you look at the amount of power output, this is really where the tires hit the pavement here. Right now, batteries just flat out are not even close to being able to put out the energy that they need to. That's it. You know, we're very much below what a jet engine can do. We need the energy.

S: Yeah, jet fuel has a specific energy of about 12,000 watt hours per kilogram, 12,000. The current batteries are like 250.

B: In fact, Steve, I don't think a battery technology will ever match that energy density. I think it might be physically impossible.

J: Bob, do you realize what show you're on?

S: What about supercapacitors?

E: Battery powered jets.

B: That's just an old memory from something I read years ago. So yeah, we could get emails on this.

J: I don't agree with that. I think we will steadily increase and at some point I'm hoping that we have a couple of heavy hitter innovations that leap us forward. But even if we don't, I mean, we're making steady and good progress with batteries. You know, Bob, and also don't forget, they might be able to come up with more efficient engines and there's all sorts of ways to make the energy demands go down other than just make the plane light. But we'll see. Look, we're not going anywhere. This is just an update to this particular test this X-57, the ongoing test, but they're flying people in it. It's made good progress over the last year. And I'm really excited to see how far that they can take this.

Website Diversity (22:22)[edit]

S: All right, Cara. This is kind of a different news item talking about the diversity of the World Wide Web.

C: Yeah. So some computer scientists and computer engineers from different Australian institutions just published a research article in PLOS One called The Evolution of Diversity and Dominance of Companies in Online Activity. And you know, a little bit of it, I have to admit, is a little over my head because it's a really cool multidisciplinary article. So these computer scientists really pulled a lot of information from economics to try and make sense of some of the data that they were able to amass. I think just, what was it, multiple terabytes of data looking across 10 billion posts spanning more than a decade. And what they were trying to do is kind of use this data that they pulled mostly from Reddit and from Twitter, but also from a common crawl data set to serve as a proxy for how much attention different sites receive on the Internet. So they basically said, we're going to pick a data set. We're going to look at what people are posting on Reddit. We're going to look at what people are posting on Twitter. And we're also going to look across this common crawler. And we're going to try and make some sense of where are they pointing to? What are they linking to? And to answer these big picture questions, which is, is the Internet becoming more diverse? Is it expanding or is it shrinking? So I have a quick question for you guys. How many .com domain names do you think there are as of today? We're recording this on Wednesday, May 5th, 2021, on the Internet.

S: 100.

C: Just about 100.

S: About 100.

E: .com.

C: I own three of those. Yeah. How many .coms do you think there are?

E: 1.8 billion.

B: No.

E: 1.8 billion.

B: Was it 120 million?

C: Yeah. Bob's a lot closer. It's 155 446 212.

S: That's a lot.

C: Yeah. Or 155,446,212. That's a better number.

E: My number was bigger.

C: Your number was bigger. And so price is right rules. You lose. Bob wins all the laundry detergent. Yeah. So there are a lot of .coms. There are fewer .nets. This also pulls for some reason. VeriSign tells you there are only 13 million .nets, 13 and a half million .nets. And these are active domain names. And so these resources are available on the Internet. And we want to see how things are changing over time. And really we want to look at the economics of who owns this Internet real estate. And where are people spending their time online. So a couple of interesting things that they found. I mentioned before how much data. 5.6 terabytes of data that they dug through. And so Reddit data went back to 2006. And their Twitter data went back to 2011. So they ended up with 5.6 terabytes of data. 6 billion user comments on Reddit. 11.8 billion Twitter posts. I love this, they said that this data set is more than 4 times the size of the original data from the HUbble space telescope. That's pretty cool. So what they did is they looked at all of the links to other sites to other online services. That ended up being about more than a billion in total. And what they wanted to know is how unique is this link. So they did a scale here where we've got maximum diversity, meaning that all links have their all domain versus minimum diversity meaning all of this links go to the same domain. So when we're talking about domains we're talking like, So minimum diversity means that all of the links would have been from the same place. Maximum that they're all from different places. And they found something really interesting. Ten years ago there was a lot more diversity across Reddit. So for every 100 random links that users posted there were about 20 different domains. Now, for every 100 links users post on Reddit, there're only about 5 different domains. So we're seeing that these big websites are carrying a lot more of the traffic that people are spending time at. Here's an interesting fact, between 60 and 70% of all attention on key social media platforms—I'm pulling this straight from the write-up that the authors wrote in the conversation—between 60 and 70% of all attention on key social media platforms is focused towards only 10 popular domains. And we know, based on their publication—I'm just switching back to the actual article—that the vast majority of internet data in the West is split between Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon, and in the East, their counterparts Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent. So we're seeing that the vast majority of this kind of internet traffic is in these specific areas. They also looked at linkage patterns, building these different linkage trees, and what they found was similar. The kind of richer getting richer, the idea that the big kind of mega sites are carrying more and more. But an interesting thing is that this doesn't necessarily mean that innovation has gone down per se. They're actually finding that still at this point, the web is an increasing source of innovation, that technology is ratcheting up, that there are more apps than ever, they're more diverse than ever, but it's also making it harder for people to get ahead and it's making it harder. There's like an activation energy that's required that a lot of individual programmers, individual users aren't able to overcome because the big players are dominating the field. So we're seeing that even though the diversity of sources is in decline, there's an actual continually increasing functionality within new services. So we're talking about new niche things that we didn't have before, like being able to stream music, like being able to pull from RSS feeds, but actually we've had that for a really long time. But just think about all of the innovation that's occurring on websites day by day. We're able to stream more terabytes of data. We're able to have more functionality within these different websites that we couldn't have before. Like Spotify couldn't exist back in the day. We didn't have the technology for Spotify to work the way it works now. WhatsApp, Snapchat, these are things that are built on the backs of technology increases and vice versa. They also talk a little bit about, the researchers talk about these three kind of like ages. So they do a lot. It's interesting because these are computer scientists, but they must have like backgrounds in ecology and biology because they're constantly comparing or using metaphors for evolution. So they're always talking about kind of species and diversity and ability to overcome selection pressures. Yeah, it's kind of an interesting metaphor that they use. But then they talk a little bit about what we think of as like infancy development and maturity. So think about an organism, for example, in its infancy during development and then at maturity. And when we think about the health of nations, we often talk about things like infant mortality. And so they sort of reclaim that term infant mortality. And they found that there's been a dramatic increase over the last couple of decades of the infant mortality rate of websites. So for example, across their data set, while 40%, almost 40% of the domains that were made in 2006 were still active five years later, only 3% of those created in 2015 were active in 2020.

E: 3%? That's all that has survived?

C: Yeah. So we know that there's a heavy staying power of early adoption, probably back when there was less competition, when the web was less diverse, and once people could get their foots in the door. And you see this a lot with like YouTubers. You see it even with the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, right? These early adopters are able to bring a lot of eyes, they're able to have that time scale to innovate. And if you stick with it, and you're able to overcome certain odds and certain hurdles, we see that the staying power is there, whereas now the field is really, really diluted. And it's become harder. The online competition is obviously really intense. But because of that, unfortunately, there's a loss of diversity. So they talk about the implications for this. They talk about how this plays nicely with what we understand about basic economics and basic kind of capitalism, right? That we know that competition leads to innovation. But we also know that when monopolies come into play, oftentimes that actually can block innovation. And so we're sort of at this interesting precipice, where online companies have a lot of opportunity, right? We no longer have some of the traditional rules of capitalist economics, like go into an area that's been lesser served, like a physical geographical area, because the web reaches all corners of the earth. But we do have, we can tap into some economic principles, like tap into niche needs. There's increasingly more and more needs for individuals that are small and specific. And so companies that are trying to get a foot in the door, whereas you may not be able to compete with a Facebook or an Amazon right now, if you can address a problem that those companies don't address, or you can reach a consumer base in a way that they don't, you may be able to get your foot in the door and actually find your area within this kind of interesting global competition.

B: Yeah. And then they'll just buy you out.

C: Yeah, unfortunately. I mean, that is sort of, right, the end stage here. So there is something, I don't know, this kind of research, I think, is fascinating, because of course, these individuals are coming at it from a computer science perspective, and they did some really interesting computer science juju to try and understand, like, what is the state of the internet today in terms of both its diversity, but also its homogeneity. But I do think it has so many implications for economic scholars, for neuroeconomics, for psychologists, for business interests, that this is just a fascinating study. And because it's on PLOS One, that's the Public Library of Science, it's an open access journal. Anybody listening right now, you can go and read it. Again, it's called The Evolution of Diversity and Dominance of Companies in Online Activity. It's fascinating.

S: All right. Thanks, Cara.

Evolution of Multicellularity (32:40)[edit]

S: All right, guys, let me ask you a question. When do you think the first multicellular creature evolved?

B: Multi?

E: Right before the second one did.

C: It was that day that one...

E: It was a Sunday, I think.

B: Like Thursday, a billion years ago?

C: One unicellular engulfed another.

S: About how long ago do you think it was?

C: Billions.

E: Billions? I don't know about that.

B: Is it like a billion?

E: I was thinking one billion.

C: One billion?

B: I think less than a billion.

C: Maybe one billion years ago.

B: 700 to 800 million years?

S: A billion is a really good guess. That's really good.

E: Excellent.

J: So what is it?

S: So it's probably a billion years ago. So 3.77 billion years is the oldest evidence we have for a single-celled organism, 3.7. So it may have existed before then, but it's at least 3.7 billion years old. So for about 3 billion years, life on Earth was all single-celled creatures.

B: What happened?

S: Although there was a lot of evolution going on at that time. Modern extant single-celled creatures and the cells in multicellular creatures are really complicated because it took 3 billion years to evolve that complexity. But at what point did they start... Did they evolve into a multicellular creature? So we know when the Cambrian explosion happened, there was, again, this massive adaptive radiation of all different kinds of multicellular creatures and different body plans, etc. But that's not when multicellular creatures appeared. That's when they first developed hard structures that fossilized. That was when the light turned on. That wasn't when the creatures came into existence. The creatures came into existence. And there was the previous period, the Ediacaran period, right? You have the Ediacaran fauna, which we don't know what their relationship is to the Cambrian creatures. There's some evidence. We talked not too long ago about the fact that there was some evidence that indicates that at least some of the Ediacaran fauna evolved into some of the Cambrian fauna. But it's still not clear. But we don't have a lot of fossil windows into this period of time. And we don't have any documentation of the evolution of multicellularity itself. Because this is when there were no hard parts. There's nothing to fossilize. There's very rare conditions. But there is one place, and there's a few places around the world where we do have the right conditions. There's one Lough Torridon in Scotland. The so-called Torridonian Sequence. It's a large array of microfossils from about a billion years ago. So it's right at that point of time when multicellular creatures may have been first appearing. And there's a particular fossil that they've been studying called Bicellum brassieri. This is basically a sphere of cells, right? It's just a blob, a spherical blob of cells. But a recent examination of this spherical blob of cells from a billion years ago indicated that there are two different kinds of cells in there. There's one kind of cell on the outside and one kind of cell on the inside. So that means it's a candidate for a multicellular creature. But it doesn't have to be because it could just be a colony creature. And this is one of those things...

B: Or it could have been eating, the sphere could have been eating the interior.

S: The cells on the outside are eating the cells on the inside?

B: Engulf and devour, yeah.

S: Yeah, that's another question. Did multicellular creatures evolve out of colony creatures or not? But in order to be a multicellular creature, you need one cell to develop into at least two different kinds of cells, right? It can't just be different kinds of cells getting together. That would be more of a colony. But how do we know if these two different types of cells developed from the same progenitor cell? And that's what the new study shows. Because we basically catch the cells in the act migrating from the center to the outside and changing their shape as they do.

B: That's incredible.

S: The cells in the middle are more spherical. They're more rod-like on the outside. And so we see these transitional cells that are migrating to the outside and becoming more rod-like. So it looks pretty good that this is two different populations of cells developing from a single progenitor cell type which would make it a genuinely multicellular critter.

B: Wow.

S: And pretty much the simplest one that you could possibly imagine, it's a sphere with a center and a shell and it's like two different kinds of cells. But that's all it takes. Once you have that bifurcation, once you have the mechanism of taking different pathways in development turning some genes on and other genes on versus off, that's it. Once you have that, then evolution can run with that.

B: Oh boy, run baby, run.

C: Yeah, because then you have that diversity.

S: Then everything else is just a tweak on that process. And of course we don't know if this creature is an actual ancestor to any multicellular creature. It doesn't matter. It's related to it. Yeah, it's at that time when it's plausible and it's part of a population of things living at that time that were evolving multicellularity. So the question is, you have single-celled creatures replicate but they don't necessarily go on their own way. You could have a population like bacteria exist in colonies and collaborate and cooperate.

B: Biofilms, yeah.

S: Yeah, exactly. So at some point, some clump of cells figured out a way to specialize. You go to the outside and you do your thing and we'll be on the inside. Multicellularity has its own machinery separate from the machinery necessary for a single cell to go about its business. And that includes things like they have to stick together. Like there's cell adhesion, right? So that's a huge part of multicellularity.

B: And they found that too, didn't they?

S: Yes, they did. They did find that as well.

B: That's big.

S: So there is evidence for the mechanism by which so these cells have cellular adhesion mechanisms which means that goes along with multicellularity as well. They're not just clumped together. They're stuck together. And also that the path of development that they take depends upon where they are three-dimensionally in the organism. So they're sensing chemical gradients, for example. They're sensing the cells around them. And based upon what cells are around them will determine what genes they turn on and off and what kind of cell they become. This is just sort of the basics of multicellularity. So we're seeing this being evolved in a very primitive form.

C: Yeah, because this is way back at the beginning of that process.

S: Yeah, exactly.

C: That's cool.

S: Yeah, it's very, very cool. But we're just getting a glimpse. We're getting a glimpse of a very complicated evolutionary process.

B: Could this really be one cell that like at the end of its life migrates from the interior to the exterior of the sphere but it's still one cell but it just kind of like just goes there to die type of thing? Like dead skin cells?

C: Are you saying could the cell have morphed itself as it extended outward?

S: All right, so I think what you're saying is do you mean like this isn't two populations of cells, it's one population of cells of different ages?

B: Yes.

S: Like looking at young cells in the middle and old cells on the outside?

B: Yes.

C: Yeah, the way we do with paleontology.

S: Yeah, that's an interesting idea. I don't know how they would distinguish those two things with the data that they have.

B: I hope I'm wrong.

C: Yeah, it took a long time to figure out about two different T. rexes or a young T. rex and an old T. rex.

S: Yeah, exactly.

B: Either way, does this sound like a Nobel Prize to you? This sounds pretty big.

S: I don't know. Yeah, it's pretty big. I mean, but it needs a lot of confirmation.

B: First multicellular life?

S: Yeah.

B: It's huge.

S: But keep in mind, it's not like they found a fossil. This is a huge bed of fossils. There's tons of fossils in this location that they have to go through.

B: Oh, wow. They must be so excited.

S: It's been for years. This is not new. I mean, we've known about this for years. But this is just a treasure trove of this soft-bodied fossils from a billion years ago.

B: How was it preserved?

S: It's just the environmental conditions were such that-

B: Superfine?

S: Yeah, they preserved these fine, soft structures.

B: Wow. We've got to vet the whole planet for stuff like that.

S: There's a few of these around the world of different ages where there's soft fossils are preserved. And every time we find ones, a whole new window opens up into this part of evolution. And again, we're just getting these very brief glimpses at a very long, complicated process. It's just amazing to think there was 3 billion years of evolution that is like a blip to us.

B: Yeah.

C: Right. But it was so important. It doesn't seem like it because we think of it as being so simple. But it was so important to lay those foundations for the explosion later.

S: Yeah, exactly. That's why I like when creationists say, oh, what's the probability of a single cell coming together at random? It's zero because that didn't happen.

C: Yeah, it's not random.

S: Yeah, that was 3 billion years of evolution to get to a modern cell. Nobody believes a modern cell popped up into existence spontaneously. 3 billion years of evolution.

B: 3,000 million years.

E: Which a lot could have happened differently over the course of that 3 billion years. That's for sure.

S: Right.

C: That's cool. But then you also think that it probably would have independently happened multiple times. Like you said, we don't know if this is actually any direct ancestor.

S: Oh, yeah. I mean, think about all the side branches that we'll never know about.

B: It kills me, man.

C: So cool.

B: I still hope there's an alien probe out there that documented everything.

E: That's right. Put it up on YouTube.

NASA Solar Probe (42:56)[edit]

S: Bob, talking about probes, you're going to tell us about NASA's solar probe, the fastest human object ever.

B: The Parker Solar Probe. Yes, Steve, as you say, it's a record-breaking machine, having just broken its previous records for fastest man-made object and closest ever approach to the sun. And it's not done breaking these records. And there's other juicy bits of science related to this news item that I'd love to go into. So yes, the NASA Parker Solar Probe. What is it? Why is it? Who is it? It was launched August 12, 2018, a day after Jay's birthday. It's the weight of a grown man, say, 160 pounds, but it's as big as a small car or a very, very, very large meatball, depending on how you look at it. So it's the first NASA craft actually named after a living person, astrophysicist Eugene Parker. He was the first guy who theorized the solar wind, so he very, very much deserves this honour. The mission is part of NASA's LWS, or Living With a Star program, which I just love that program name so much. Living With a Star, because that's what we're kind of doing. LWS investigates those aspects of the sun-earth system that have a direct link to life and society, basically. And why do we want to do this? Why do we care about this relationship? I mean, it's pretty obvious. I mean, just the science is fascinating. But it potentially could do wonderful things. Like, here's for an example, we could potentially predict the next gargantuan CMB geostorm, like the Carrington event from the late 1800s, that the Carrington event was a coronal mass ejection that came out of the sun and was barely noticed on Earth. But if it happened today, it would be a travesty. Basically, imagine almost every circuit on the planet getting fried. Satellites not literally dropping out of the sky, but completely burned out. I mean, it could be horrific. This type of research could potentially help us predict events like that, which would be nice because it's going to happen, kids. Actually, that event could be the most dangerous event in our near future. More likely over short time frames than almost anything you can imagine from a super volcano to an asteroid hit. It needs a lot of attention. And this is the kind of research that can do it. Okay, so Parker was made to study the corona and solar wind of the sun so we can learn more about space weather. So to accomplish this, Parker has some very cool instruments, four of them on board. It's got a wide field imager called Whisper. Cool name. And it's got three distinct instruments to study particles in the solar wind. They're mostly electrons and protons, by the way. Plus, they can also inspect the powerful electric and magnetic fields around the sun. So very cool, very precise, very advanced instrumentation for all of that. But to discover what it needs to discover and really break new ground, it's going to have to get really, really close to the sun because we've been fairly close to the sun before. But we need to get really close with this instrumentation to really get some good detail. So close that some say that this will be the first time a craft actually touches another star, which really isn't that much of a hyperbole since the corona is part of the sun's atmosphere and it will be, eventually, it will be in the corona. Now, the tech and the science that makes this happen is where some of those real juicy bits I refer to of science are. And I'd like to talk about those. The first challenge, which is just fascinating, is getting close to the sun. What do you do? What does it take to get close to the sun? It's actually really, really hard, harder than you might imagine. So who knew this? Did you know that it takes 55 times the energy to go to the sun compared to Mars? 55 times.

J: Why?

C: Because it's farther away? Because it's hotter?

B: No.

C: Because it's more radiation?

B: None of that.

C: The solar wind?

B: It's all about orbital mechanics. So everyone...

S: You've got to lose all the velocity of the Earth.

B: Yeah. Everyone, put on your orbital mechanics hat. Jay, not that hat. Put the other one on, Jay. I like that one. It's really cool. Thank you, Jay. So the sun has a lot of gravity. I mean, it's like, what is it, 98.9 or 99 point blah blah of the mass of the solar system.

E: Solar system, yeah. It's all of that.

B: It's an amazing, it's a huge gravity well just pulling everything in. So it seems like if you just leave the Earth, just fling yourself off of the Earth in the general direction of the sun, it'll just suck you in. No. Like Steve said, you are, we are in orbit. The Earth is moving at 67,000 miles an hour, about 108,000 kilometres per hour around the sun, which is basically sideways to the sun, right? You're basically going sideways to the sun. So if you launch straight to the sun, you're going to miss it. Totally miss it because of all of that sideways motion. So what you have to do is you have to cancel all of that orbital velocity that Earth gives you if you want to actually hit the sun. And actually, from what one researcher was saying, right now we do not have the technology to hit the sun. It would, we would have to take away all of that sideways motion, which we said we really can't do right now. The Parker probe, though luckily, only wants to get very close to the sun. So it only needs to remove about 80% of that 108,000 kilometres per hour speed. And that's incredibly hard as well. So now going to the outer planets is a lot easier because instead of canceling almost all of the velocity that the Earth gives you, you just need to add a little bit to it that you already have. So if you escape the Earth at the usual 40,000 kilometres per hour, right, you leave the Earth, escape velocity, you've got 40,000, you're going 40,000 kilometres per hour because, just because the sun, the Earth is, in orbit around the sun, all you need to do is go from 40 kph to 46.6 kph.

E: Just the acceleration.

B: That's it. Just go a little bit faster. Just increase your speed by 6,000 kilometers per hour and bam, you go to Mars. And then, or, hey, you want to go to Pluto? Go from 40, go from 40 to 58,000 kph. That's it. 18,000 kph and you're at Pluto. But you want to go near the sun? You've got to wipe out 86,000 kilometres of velocity from the sun, from the Earth that the Earth gives you and that's what's really, really hard. That's why it's so hard to get to the sun. Now, of course, God forbid we just build a nice nuclear engine to do most of that hard work for us with just pure brute force but I suspect it would still be hard but it would be a lot of course. It's a nuclear engine. It would be awesome. But instead, we have to work with what we currently have. So what they do is they're sending the Parker Solar Probe to Venus for a gravity assist maneuver and that gravity assist eats away at that sideways motion. Every time it goes around Venus, it takes away some of that sideways motion. It just reduces it incrementally every time it goes around. So as a result, you have less and less of that sideways motion every time you get that gravity assist from Venus and that tightens the probe's elliptical orbit each time letting it get closer and closer to the sun as the probe's perihelion or closest approach to the sun. But not only that, not only do these gravity assists of Venus help you get closer to eat away at that sideways motion but it also you have the sun pulling you in every time you go back towards the sun and that just adds to your speed. So two things are happening. You're getting closer and closer to the sun and you're going faster and faster and faster faster than anything we have ever launched. And knitting and knitting.

E: So the vehicle has to be able to take the stress of that.

B: Oh yeah, not only that, I mean, talk about the heat which I will be talking about. So months after its lunch, so 2018, a day after Jay's birthday, just a few months later, and Parker's already breaking records. The records were held by the Helios 2 spacecraft. I think that was in the 70s. That spacecraft also went very close to the sun and it went very fast but Parker blew those records away just after a few months. It was already going faster and closer and I don't even want to tell you the records back then because who cares? They've already been broken multiple times. But I'll tell you the record that was just broken. and that's why this was in the news this week. Right now the Parker Solar Probe is the fastest human-made object, 330,000 miles per hour, 532,000 kilometres per hour. We've made nothing that's gone faster than that. No material objects. And then the closest a spacecraft has ever gotten to the sun, it was just recently 6.5 million miles or 10.4 million kilometres at perihelion. So it's the closest and fastest ever. But of course, if you've been paying attention, those records are ephemeral as well because there's more Venus gravity assists in the future and ultimately, it's going to get even closer and even faster. So how close and how fast is it going to get? Okay, Christmas Eve, Christmas Eve 2024, it will achieve its, or around that time, it will achieve its fastest and closest. So it will achieve 430,000 miles per hour, which is 692,000 kilometres per hour. That is fast. Nothing, of course, nothing has gone faster. That is 0.064% the speed of light, which actually is pretty awesome. It's 192 kilometres per second. That means it could go around the planet. If you could travel at that speed around the planet, very close to the surface, you could go around the planet in three and a half minutes. Bam, three and a half minutes around the world. That is fast. And then, in terms of proximity to the sun, that Christmas Eve in 2024, it's going to be 7 million kilometres or 4.3 million miles from the sun. Mercury is 46 million kilometres away. And this is going to be 7 million kilometres away. Super close. Within, it will be within the corona for sure, I think, at that distance. That will be amazing. Okay. So one other thing that really piqued my interest when reading about this, the Parker Solar Probe has the most sophisticated heat shield that I've ever heard about, I've ever devised.

E: I would hope so.

B: Super cutting edge. Yeah, right? It's got to be, right? It's called the TPS, Thermal Protection System. Not very creative there, but kind of very, very descriptive. It's eight feet. It's an eight, got an eight-foot diameter heat shield and it protects everything within its umbra from the intense heat, of course, the intense heat, but also the hyper-velocity dust particles that's in the sun's corona. So it does dual job of protecting that and radiation too, as well. The shield itself is a carbon foam sandwiched between two layers of superheated carbon-carbon composite. Really cool. And it also, of course, has a special white outer coating, right? That makes perfect sense. You want to reflect as much as you possibly can. So it's got a very special white outer coating. I couldn't find out any details of what makes it so special besides being white and of course, that will reflect the sun's energy and imagine, I couldn't help but thinking, it's going to be black on that side of the heat shield. Not a smart idea. And then, when the probe eventually has its closest encounter that Christmas Eve, it will be exposed to 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 1370 degrees Celsius. Crazy, crazy hot. But, NASA thinks, while it's 1370 degrees Celsius on one side, the happy side of the shield is going to be 85 degrees Fahrenheit or 29.4 degrees Celsius on the other side. It's going to be very nice. In fact, it's going to be so cool on the instrument side of th heat shield that the scientists put heaters, they put some heaters on some of the instruments. Can you imagine that? That's to me that was hilarious because they're so good at making that shield that they actually had to put some heaters on some of the instruments because it wasn't quite hot enough. I guess for maximum efficiency. So I'll just close with my final perception of this heat shield was that this would make, what? A perfect dragon shield. Right? You're going up against a dragon I wanna carry the carbon foam sandwich between two layers of superheated carbon-carbon composite. That's what I'm going to be carrying.

J: Is it heavy Bob?

B: I don't know, I don't care. I'll just stay put. Wait till the dragon goes away. Then I'll make it a sphere of that stuff so I just can stay in there. Then the dragon will probably kick me. But whatever. I won't get burned. That's all I got kids.

Chinese Space Program (55:36)[edit]

S: All right, Evan we've got one more space related news item. This one is about Chinese space program.

E: Yeah, it is. You know the old Chinese proverb. What goes up, must come down.

B: Yeah, this one kind of pissed me off.

E: Yeah, in the case of China's Long March 5B rocket we're witnessing that proverb come to fruition. This is the fifth iteration of the long march rocket family named for the Chinese red army 1934-1945 long march during the Chinese civil war. The letter "b" is used there, I'm not 100% but the "b" appears to be designating it as a single stage rocket whereas the non-b has a second stage. And I think a third stage as well. Also, the "b" slightly lighter and slightly shorter than the non-b the the 5B is LEO-specific. Low Earth Orbit. The rocket's coming down, I think a lot of people have been following this on the news. It's been big news all this week. So they launched it because the Chinese are putting a space station together. And this rocket put up one of the key pieces of the space station. However it unfortunately was not equipped with equipment to control its descent. And it actually reached orbit and now you can't control it. So it's going to come crashing down. But when is it going to hit? That is the $29 million question. So these rockets, there haven't been many launches. There's been seven launches of these types of rockets in the past. And the first one occurred in 2016 so fairly new. The 5B variant, this is only the second time the 5B has launched. That space station that they're construction is scheduled to be completed in late 2022. It'll be a scientific research outpost that China will use for the next decade and perhaps beyond. But the rocket itself that got it up there, well, this is a big thing. Big, because it's over 30 meters long. It has a 5 meter diameter. And because it reached orbital velocity like I said, it's going to come crashing down because they can't control it. This will be one of the, if not the largest man-made object to hit the Earth or come back in as an uncontrolled re-entry. It is, well, it's not quite Bob up to the speed of Parker probe but it's travelling around the Earth once every 90 minutes which is respectable. 4 kilometres every second. So that sound pretty impressive. It passes just north of New York and Madrid, also Beijing and as far south as Chile and New Zealand. They say that it's going around the Earth between the latitudes of 42 degrees north and 42 degrees south. By the way, do you know where Connecticut is on that? We are 41 degrees north. So we are inside the zone.

B: It could land on our heads.

E: It could, but you know what the chances of that happening Bob?

B: Nice job. I don't care.

E: Statistically?

B: I don't care.

E: Pretty darn low.

C: But higher than my chances.

B: Sure, the odds are low, but what is it? A one in three chance it could land on land? Sure, it'll probably land in the water the thing is, they don't know.

E: They don't know.

J: How did they not build this in?

B: This is 90 feet by 15 feet. I mean, this thing is huge. I've heard they've had some stuff for, in previous launches, like on villages. Like, were they in China or whatever?

E: Ivory Coast had a, yeah, some debris came down the last time.

B: I mean, this is bad. This is irresponsible.

E: Yeah, and that is the point, Bob. And Jay touched on it as well, is that China's, well, as one person put it, they're taking shortcuts that they're not supposed to be taking. You're supposed to take responsibility for the things that you're putting up in space, and you try to mitigate these kinds of things from happening to the best of your ability. But they're just not equipping the rockets with the technology needed in order to bring these things in so that they burn up in the atmosphere, as opposed to come crashing down onto the planet.

B: So this isn't even just like a mistake. This is like intentional, like, yeah, we're not gonna do this.

E: Yeah, China, unfortunately.

B: That's even worse.

E: Yeah, and they're pretty tight-lipped about kind of what's going on. They really haven't even had much in the form of details to say and inform the rest of the planet about kind of what's going on here. But I guess, fortunately, other space agencies around the planet are keeping an eye on this and trying to come up with the best determinations as to exactly when it will happen. Now, when you're listening to this, this podcast is going to launch on Saturday, the 8th of May.

C: You said it's gonna launch. I love that.

E: Yeah, yeah, yeah, thank you.

C: Sorry.

E: So it's possible that by the time you're listening to this, it has already come down and, well, may have to do a follow-up next week on it. But it could still be up there because it's a moving target. I've seen estimates anywhere from May 7th. The calculations by Russian experts are saying as early as May 7th, but I'm also seeing other agencies say as late as May 10th. I've seen some estimates for May 10th.

Who's That Noisy? (1:00:52)[edit]

  • Answer to last week’s Noisy: _brief_description_perhaps_with_link_

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

J: Okay, guys, last week, I played this noisy.


All right, you get the idea.

C: Smooth jazz.

J: Smooth jazz, baby. You guys have any ideas?

E: I don't know, but it got faster as it progressed.

J: That actually is very relevant.

C: Oh, interesting.

S: I mean, it sounds like, I would guess, it's some kind of phenomenon translated into drumming.

J: All right, well, I mean, that's not that smart of an answer because obviously you're hearing drums.

S: But yeah, so what's making the drumming sounds? It doesn't sound totally random either, so I'm thinking there's some kind of phenomenon.

J: Yeah, yes, you're correct. I'll give you that, you're correct. All right, let's get into what the people said. So Phil Sumo, he said, "Hi there, love the show. Is this week's noise the Thai Elephant Orchestra?" And I was really surprised to find out about this Thai Elephant Orchestra. What is it? It's an elephant orchestra. Check this out. [plays Noisy] The orchestra is a whole bunch of elephants playing different kinds of percussive musical instruments, drums, clackers, hitting steel pipes and whatnot. It's fascinating, so just look it up. It's a fun watch, and it's really funny that these elephants are standing there and they're doing it, which I think is just so freaking cool. But Phil, it's not the Elephant Orchestra, although I have to thank you for that. We will move on to Ostrich Man, and he says, "Hey Jay, I think this noisy is a monkey playing the drums. Best wishes from Lithuania." No, this is not correct. It is not a monkey playing the drums, but it might as well be, and you'll find out why, because it's pretty nutty. You're not as far off as you think. This next one's from a listener named Antonius Deboer, and he says, "Hi Jay, long time, first time. This sounded like a drum kit left out in a hail storm."

C: That's funny.

E: Clever.

J: Lots of people guessed that, like weather-related, the hail. That could be it's not a bad guess at all, but Evan did say something very key here, and it's that it seems to get more louder as it goes. I'm gonna go down to a new listener wrote in, and this is another clue. Abigail Lubin-Weismer, and she said, "Hi Jay, my name is Abigail. I'm a nurse working in Jerusalem, Israel. Been listening to the show since the early days, and I still get excited every Saturday for a new episode. I actually have a guess this week. Yay me. Is it very slow popcorn?" It's not slow popcorn. It is popcorn. It's popcorn that when it pops, it keys a drum kit. The winner for this week, Christian Barrage. "Hi Jay, long time listener, first time guesser. I think I have heard this week's noisy. It's a drum set connected to a frying pan filled with popping popcorn. Thanks for the great show." So yeah, so they hooked up this rig to a frying pan that has popcorn in it with oil, and it's cooking, and as the popcorn pops, it hits different pressure plates above the pot, right? So like a popcorn hits this one, and it hits the kick drum. A popcorn hits this one, and the cymbal gets hit, right? So every single thing about the drum kit can get triggered, and then as Evan said, as it goes on and on, it gets faster and faster. Now I didn't want to play the whole thing because it's actually quite a long sound file, but I will play this popcorn jazz for you. I will play it later on in the file. [plays Noisy] It kind of does sound like popcorn, right?

E: Sure, it has that cadence.

J: And I love this noisy because when you listen to it knowing what it is, your brain instantly maps the drum sounds to popcorn kernels popping. But anyway, thank you very much. This original one was sent in by Miklos Bolza. I really appreciate it. That was a lot of fun.

New Noisy (1:05:46)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy for you guys this week, and this noisy was sent in by a listener named Simon King.


So I'd like you to identify the person speaking and any other relative information that you think goes along with that. Some of you will know instantly. Some of you will have no clue. Some of you will not make my meatballs this week, which is wrong. Right, Evan?

C: Wrong answer.

J: Wrong answer. All right, so if you think you know what this noisy is, you can email me at, and don't forget to send me any cool sounds that you heard as well. I have a few announcements. I made a mistake last week. I said the Apollo 11 mission had the astronauts on the moon for eight days. The entire mission was approximately eight days. How much time did they spend on the moon? Does anybody know?

S: A little over a day.

J: 21 hours.

E: 23 hours.

J: 21.

S: 21 hours?

J: We have a series of SGU events. We actually have some really cool stuff happening right now, but there's more than one extravaganza, and there's more than one private show, so go to to see all the details, and that's it.

S: All right, guys. We have a great interview coming up with Andy Weir, so let's go to that interview now.

Interview with Andy Weir (1:07:20)[edit]

S: Joining us now is Andy Weir. Andy, welcome back to the Skeptics Guide.

AW: Hey, thanks. It's great to be back.

S: If you recall, we interviewed you a few years ago about your first book, The Martian, which was awesome of course. Somehow, we missed you for Artemis, your second book, but we managed to get you back on the show for now your third book, Project Hail Mary.

AW: That's right.

S: Which is going to be released very soon, I understand. I got an advanced copy and read the whole thing. Let me just say, it was awesome. I think it's fair to say that if you liked The Martian or if you love The Martian, you'll love this book as well.

AW: How often do you talk to a writer and say, like, hey, I read your book, it sucked?

J: Yeah, that's true.

S: Occasionally we do interviews with people who are not aligned with our skeptical philosophy. But that's not the case here. So let me just open up with, I'm sure this is like a very common question that you're getting. So how, like, consciously is Project Hail Mary in your mind, like, in the same genre as The Martian? How much were you trying to recapture the same sort of feel of The Martian?

AW: Well, I mean, I wasn't going out of my way to do it. I guess that's just the kind of story I turn out. But it shares the concept of, like, an isolated scientist, right? And a lot of problem solving. And of course, there's space and stuff. But really, I mean, it deviates from that and not isolated for long, and it deviates from that and becomes basically a buddy comedy, sort of.

S: Yeah.

J: Yeah, I could see that.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

J: So it's very different in a lot of ways, especially no spoilers right now. But yeah, it ends up in a different place than The Martian by far, which I thought was really cool. And I did not expect that at all.

AW: Cool. Well, I'm glad you were caught off guard.

S: So yeah, for our listener, the first part of this interview, we're going to remain relatively spoiler free. But we have to talk about the book, of course. And then we'll let you know when there are big spoilers coming. So it's no surprise just looking at the cover of the book, you have an astronaut, so you know that this is going to be some kind of a space saga. And there are other characters involved. So let me ask you about what was the original concept for this book? How did you sort of conceptualize, like, where you wanted to go with this story?

AW: It was actually pulled largely out of the junkyard of my mind. Basically, I have a mental list of a bunch of ideas for stories or plot twists and stuff like that, that either aren't good enough to be an entire story, an entire novel on their own. Or in a couple of cases, when I tried to write a novel, I got about 70,000 words in, and then had to back burner it, and then put it in the fridge, and then put the fridge underground. And basically, I gave up on that book. It was called Jacques, and I wrote it between The Martian and Artemis. And it didn't work out, but it had some nuggets of good plot and character ideas. So although it seems like a single cohesive story, Project Hail Mary was actually made of a collection of unrelated story ideas that I had that kind of really fit well together. So Jacques had the concept of a mass conversion-based spacecraft fuel, and then Jacques also had a character that was very much like the character of Strat in Project Hail Mary. That's where Strat's personality came from. Then I had another story idea where a guy wakes up with amnesia and finds out he's aboard a spaceship. And then I had another story idea about – there's just a bunch of stuff that were kind of unrelated. So it wasn't this linear, like, I'm going to figure this out and make this story. It was like, oh, I had this idea, oh, but I need an explanation for that, oh, this other idea would explain that, oh, okay, wait, wait and so on. And it came together really well, but it was a series of shower epiphanies of hooking up tubes to other tubes of ideas I'd already had.

S: At the very beginning of the book, obviously, this is not a spoiler because this is like page one. You know the story starts with someone who wakes up with complete autobiographical amnesia, although retaining their procedural memory. They still know stuff. They just have no idea who they are, where they are, how they got there, what's going on. That's a great literary device because then you get to simultaneously-

B: Yeah, Next Generation did that in the 90s. But it was a great episode.

S: Obviously, nothing's new. Forget that idea. There's nothing new. But as devices go, it worked well for this story because the character is a scientist. So you have a scientist starting from nothing trying to figure out what's going on. So it allowed for that to unfold, which was fun. And then it also, as his memory comes back, we get flashbacks, right, which is also, yes, of course, that's a super old literary technique. But it works. It kind of made it all came together well.

AW: Those two were required. The reason he had memory loss – well, we find out the actual plot-related reason he had memory loss toward the end of the book. But the reason I did it that way with memory loss and then flashbacks is because if I told the story linearly, it would be really weird. The first third of the book or so would be all about them building the ship, and then they'd launch it, and you would never see any of those characters again. And then a fairly critical character wouldn't be introduced until after that. And then it would just be this really – and also the first part, the parts on Earth would be like skimming through time, like, okay, here's a scene, and the next scene is two years later. And then we have – it would just be this really – it would be like a five-year-old telling you a story. And I just – I didn't want to spend a huge amount of time on the Earth segment, so flashbacks was a really convenient way for me to just give the interesting tidbits.

S: Yeah. It worked really well. And again, you always want to start in the middle of your story, right? You don't want to – like, oh, here's the day one and lead up – yeah, the linear model would not have worked for the story.

AW: Born in 1972.

S: Yeah, right, exactly. So yeah, the best stories always start, like, in the middle of the action where you don't know what's going on. You kind of have to figure it out as you go along. All right, so let's transition to the more spoiler section of the interview. So if you don't-

B: Please.

AW: We are at spoiler level two.

S: Yeah, we're at spoiler level two. So if you don't – for the listener, if you really don't want to hear any spoilers beyond what we've already said, I highly recommend the book. Just get it and read it, and then you can listen to this at a later time. It's a quick read, too. I mean, it's very breezy once you get into it. I think I read it in, like, three or four days.

B: Or alternatively, you can listen to this entire interview, but then erase your memory.

S: Yeah, you could do that.

J: So Andy, your protagonist is very different than your protagonist in The Martian. So this is someone who really didn't even want to be there. Like, the attitude is very different.

AW: Yeah. He was not anyone's first choice for this mission, especially not his own. He would rather not be there, and the powers that be would rather he weren't there. But he was really – it ended up – events conspired that he had to go. He was the one who had to be on it, mainly because – since we're in pseudo-spoiler. So basically, it's an interstellar mission. I guess, go back a little bit further. Since we're in spoiler, I can lay out the premise. An alien microbe that human scientists end up naming astrophage enters our solar system and starts breeding on the sun. This is how astrophage works. It lives on a star, the surface of a star, and it collects energy. There's a lot of energy.

B: What part of the star? Like, within, like, the chromosphere, or closer?

AW: Near the surface. So, kind of in the corona. I guess you could say it's a coronal virus.

B: Nice. No. That's a –

AW: I'm pretty damn funny.

B: No, I like that.

AW: By the way, I wrote this whole book before COVID happened. Like, I was done before the virus – before the pandemic happened. Anyway. So, it lives on the surface of the sun, and it's a microbe. It's like the size of a bacteria. And it gathers a lot of energy and stores it, actually, as mass internally. So, it's converting heat into mass. And then it turns that mass energy into light that it uses as propulsion, because light actually – you know, light has momentum. If you shine light out the back of your butt, if you're a microbe, then you will be pushed forward, although not very fast. But they are doing mass conversion, and that turns out to be a good amount of force. And so, where do they go? Well, they go to a planet nearby that'll have carbon dioxide, whatever the nearest major source of carbon dioxide is. And they go there, and then that's how they reproduce. They do mitosis, because the star itself will just have hydrogen and helium. It needs heavier atoms to be able to make a copy of itself. So, it does that, and then the parent cell and the daughter cell both go back to the star, and that's the cycle of life. Also, frequently, the astrophage will just shoot out away from the star instead of doing the normal breeding, it'll just shoot out in a random direction and just go. And this is how it spores, and it'll spread from star to star this way. It can actually survive an interstellar trip. So, it's basically like algae in the ocean. It just breeds. It's not intelligent. It doesn't have an agenda. It's just doing its thing. So, astrophage ends up growing on our sun, and this causes a very significant problem, because it's growing out of control. It's just doubling its population every whatever time period, and the sun is starting to get dimmer. Scientists notice, initially, that the sun's getting dimmer, and then they realize that astrophage is doing it. I mean, I'm skimming over a lot of stuff here, but then they realize that, okay, all the stars in our local area of stars are getting dimmer, except Tau Ceti. Why isn't Tau Ceti getting dimmer? Well, they decide to make an interstellar mission to find out why, because they hope to be able to reproduce that here to save all of humanity, because if the sun gets too dim, life on Earth is going to die. So, astrophage is the cause and solution to this problem, because they can harvest astrophage, farm it, and use it as a propulsion for an interstellar ship. So, that's what they do, and our hero, Ryland Grace, is aboard the Hail Mary. That's the name of the ship, because this is a desperate attempt to save humanity. Where he wakes up, he's in the Tau Ceti system. For anybody who decided, hey, I want to ruin this book, I'm going to blow through the spoiler warning, well, that's the premise. There's a lot more that happens. It's not too late to fuck off and go read the book.

S: But I do need to introduce one more spoiler, because we didn't want to talk about this.

J: I have like five. I don't know how far you guys can go.

S: The one I really want to talk to you about is Rocky.

AW: We are entering spoiler level three.

S: It's definitely spoiler level three. So, in Tau Ceti, our hero, Ryland Grace, encounters an alien who is from another nearby star, Epsilon Eridani, who's also dying. Was that the right one, Epsilon Eridani?

AW: Not Epsilon Eridani. It's 40 Eridani.

S: Oh, 40 Eridani. Oh, yeah, sorry. But it's Eridani. They're also sending their own Hail Mary to the same system to figure out the same problem, and then the two of them end up working together. So, I have to tell you what I love about Rocky is that he's an actual alien alien, right, which is a big-

E: Like not a humanoid with two arms, two legs.

S: He's not a humanoid alien. Yeah, so you must have set out to create like as different an entity as you possibly could. I mean, how deliberate was that?

AW: Deliberate. Yeah, totally. I'm sick of like, oh, hey, what do you know, this alien life form that evolved on another planet with no correlation with Earth happens to be perfectly comfortable in Earth's atmosphere, atmospheric pressure, temperature, radiation levels.

B: You should have just made him exactly human except for a weird thing on his nose and maybe his forehead.

E: And a moustache.

B: Good enough.

AW: I was thinking female, blue skin, not a lot of clothing, needs to learn more about this thing you call lovemaking.

S: That's the 1950s version of your book.

J: Yeah, and it also happens to be my current fantasy, but go on.

AW: Here we go.

S: So, we got two life forms within, two space-faring life forms within 17 light years of each other. That's pretty good.

AW: Yeah, well, that is pretty unlikely. And so, I do explain that somewhat in the book in that we find out that life, all of the life, they actually find three biological worlds, for lack of a better term. Three life worlds. There's Earth, and then there's Rocky's home world of which the, Rocky's language is not pronounceable by humans. And so, our protagonist Ryland has to name everything. And so, Rocky's home world, he names it Erid because it's in Eridani. And he calls the species Iridian. And so, also, there's a planet in orbit around Tau Ceti that they name Adrian. And Adrian, Earth, and Arid are all each have their own complex, full biosphere that are incompatible with each other's biospheres. But they were all…

B: Defeated each other?

AW: Well, Tau Ceti, the planet Adrian is where life evolved originally. And a progenitor species to astrophage, an ancestor, like four billion years ago, was spreading out similar to how astrophage does, but not nearly as effectively. And it ended up seeding a bunch of planets with life. It wasn't like it had an objective. It was just, it would fan out and try to breed on stars and stuff like that.

E: Panspermia.

AW: And it was a panspermia. So, it's nice for me, the writer, because I didn't have to invent life because I'm not God. So, I could just say like, oh, yeah, they astrophage and Rocky, if you look at their cells, they have mitochondria, ribosomes, DNA all the same building blocks. And so, in terms of their being life so close together, that's why the life is so close together. There was only one genesis. And they also say, like, Rocky and Ryland at one point are talking, and they speculate on, like, why is it that we're both here? Like, how come both of our species are at almost the exact same level of development? Like, if you think about it, we had like a couple billion years, or several billion years with no contact, and now here we are. And we have very, very similar levels of technology. In fact, the Iridians are significantly behind. They're a couple of centuries behind us in terms of technology, really. It's just they have some spiky bits of technology in terms of material science. And Rocky answers with his own theory, which I won't try to say it with his accent, but he basically says, well, there could be lots of intelligent species encountering astrophage. And the ones who are a few centuries behind us technologically don't have the technology to address it this way. They're just going to stay on their planet and probably die, right? And the ones who are a few centuries ahead of us in technology would probably be able to, yeah, solve the problem without having to come here. So it's sort of a filter. The only people who would come to Tau Ceti are the species that have this narrow range of technological advancement.

B: No, it makes sense.

AW: So there.

S: It's as good an explanation as anything, yeah. But that's what I like about the book. It's like obviously you have to make some concessions to the narrative. Like Jay and I were talking about that. I think why Rocky is extremely alien, he has to be relatable enough. You know what I mean? He's got to think enough like a person that he can be a character. The hardest thing to do is to make aliens that think alien, you know? And it's hard to tell stories about them because they're kind of inaccessible.

AW: Yeah. And so what I decided was I just kind of when designing iridians in general, I had to design their physiology, which was a lot of fun because I actually started that. I'll tell you about that in a minute. But that was really cool. But then I also needed to design their kind of what their personalities are like. Exactly like you said. It's like what are their alien thought processes? How do they think? What is their society like? So I start off by in terms of social stuff, I start off by making a list of everything that is required for a life form to develop space travel. I'm like, okay, well, first off, they need a certain minimum intelligence, right? They need to be able to understand things, look at things, build on that understanding. They also need language because no one or unless they're unbelievably intelligent, it's not possible for a single entity to work all this stuff out, right? And they also need to have some sort of pack instinct so that they can have a civilization so they can't be like bears who just avoid each other all year except for when mating, right? And so I started working on stuff like that. And you end up with the idea of like just having a pack instinct at all, you get an awful lot of the behaviors that you think of as being human. And you see that in the animal kingdom everywhere. You see like dogs will have kind of their best friend dog, you know? And primates, of course, are the primates because we're primates, so no surprise there. But everything that has packs, they'll hang out so they have a pack, that's their little civilization. And then they will have favorites within the pack and so on. And it's the same pattern over and over again each time individually evolved. So I think it's reasonable to say, all right, the aliens do it too.

J: Andy, did you crowdsource at all for this like The Martian?

AW: I didn't. And also it's kind of overstated how much I crowdsourced The Martian. I didn't like – it's not like we played a big game of round robin. As I wrote The Martian, I was posting my chapters to my website, and my readers would tell me where my science errors were. So I guess you could say I crowdsourced the fact checking.

J: Yeah, that's great. I think that was really smart of you to do it because you have 100 people look at it with different expertise, and that made a lot of sense.

S: We do that with every episode of our show.

AW: 100 nerds.

E: You must have had more latitude with a book like this because it obviously has thing, whereas The Martian could be more of a contemporary piece, but this one obviously takes place in a more distant future.

'AW: No, this one takes place modern day.

E: Oh, it is. It's contemporary as well?

AW: Yeah. Well, this is a thing that happened to Earth.

B: So what was the toughest thing to research? What bit of the science to you was the most interesting but also what was hard?

AW: It's funny because the thing that was hardest to research and most interesting, the answer to your question is quantum physics, which I had to study a lot of because I went way down the rabbit hole going all the way down as to design inside of the astrophage. And so I decided how they store energy is they turn kinetic energy of protons colliding into each other. That kinetic energy is turned into neutrinos. So they basically turn heat into neutrinos. Then they have the ability to contain the neutrinos, which requires their cell membrane to be something that can't be quantum tunneled through. So it experiences something called super cross-sectionality. And so here I am like all the way down in the quantum realm, and this is all for like what ends up being like one sentence in the book.

B: It's worth it. It's worth it. I mean, containing neutrinos that could travel through light years of lead without hitting anything. That's a feat.

E: That's impressive.

AW: Super cross-sectionality.

B: I got to look that one up.

AW: All right. No, I made it up.

B: I won't find it anywhere then. That's good.

E: You'll win the Nobel prize for that.

AW: I'm sure I would.

B: Invent your own branch of quantum mechanics. I love it. But the astrophages, I'm just so fascinated. I mean, the whole industries would be built up around those damn things. That's your power source. What other power sources do you need?

AW: Right. Exactly.

B: Screw fusion. Screw fusion.

AW: Exactly.

B: Oh my God. It's epic.

AW: I was, yeah, there's a character in there who's just this kind of crazy Canadian space probe designer. And the character's name is Steve Hatch. I usually have a tough time remembering my minor character's names, but I remembered him. And he's this bubbling optimist in the book. I mean, he's only in one scene, but he's like, astrophage is the greatest thing ever. And people are like, it might kill all of humanity. He's like, well, sure, that. But this is like, if we get a handle on this, it's like, that's it. We have basically an unlimited supply of clean energy.

B: Yeah, it's super efficient. How efficient were they?

AW: They do mass conversion.

B: Yeah, I mean, but I remember reading about mass conversion and how people say, oh, it's 100% conversion. It's not, it's not 100% efficient. It's from what my research was. So we could never use it to really get super, super close to the speed of light, but it's just still incredibly efficient.

AW: Well, if you're saying efficiency in terms of what percentage of the mass is turned into energy.

B: Right.

AW: For astrophage, it's way up in the nineties because they're storing the energy as neutrinos. Neutrinos are much arena particles, which means they are their own antimatter.

B: Yes.

AW: If two neutrinos collide, which doesn't happen often, they'll annihilate. And so just by storing it as neutrinos and then forcing them to collide because of super cross-sectionality, shut up. They annihilate and turn into two photons because you have to turn into two photons to keep the momentum balance correct on the equation. And then, and what's cool is I even went like, oh, okay. If they're going to annihilate and turn into photons and those photons of the propulsion, what wavelength are those photons? Well, that's based on the amount of energy in a neutrino. That's based on the mass of a neutrino. And so I called my friend Chuck Duba who is Dr. Charles Duba, who was on a team that won the Nobel prize for dramatically narrowing down the known weight of a neutrino.

B: Yeah. But what does he know? Go ahead.

AW: He's a high school buddy of mine, which is-

B: Oh my God. Awesome.

S: So that's where the Petrova frequency came from. That was a real number?

AW: That is a real number. That is, if you were able to mass convert a neutrino into a photon, well, two neutrinos into two photons, then you would get that frequency of light. It's in the infrared band.

S: Cool.

B: Andy, what if you had like a jet pack with a trillion of those damn things in the jet pack? Could you, how much lift would you get?

AW: Well, you'd die because.

B: Yeah, but before you died, what kind of lift would you get?

AW: It depends on, it's just how many of them do you want to activate at once?

B: All of them.

AW: But their propulsion is light. So in order to get any sort of reasonable amount of force, you've got to be throwing a lot of light out the back. And if you do that in an atmosphere, you're just going to make a big fireball that vaporizes everything. Well, everything except the astrophage. It likes heat.

B: So it'd make a really good weapon then.

AW: Again, if you like the idea of, I mean, it could make a pretty good bomb, but it wouldn't make a very good gun because if you're shooting really, really incredibly huge amounts of infrared light out the front of your gun, you're just going to ionize the air right there and vaporize yourself.

B: Yeah, I hate when that happens.

AW: Yeah, no, it's, I mean, last Thursday I did that. It sucked.

J: Andy, do you remember, what was your first inspiration for the book? Like where did the idea of the whole thing start in your head?

AW: So the book that I was working on between The Martian and Artemis was Jacques, as I mentioned earlier. And in Jacques, there was, I mean, Jacques was a soft sci-fi space opera style story, and there were aliens all over the place and stuff. And there was this alien technology called black matter, and black matter would do that. It would mass convert, and it would actually propel a ship with, like, cosmic rays or gamma rays or whatever. So the propulsion itself, the photons that it used, would just pass harmlessly through you and stuff. But it had a feature of any electromagnetic radiation that hit it, it would convert into mass. And so they would farm up. If you had any black matter, you could farm more black matter and stuff like that. So when I was working on Project Hail Mary, I was like, well, that's a cool technology, but humans would never invent it. However, what if they found it? Well, they could find it, but then, like, why does it exist? Was it made by aliens? Oh, no. You know what? It sounds a lot like life. It uses energy to make more of itself. That's the same thing we do indirectly. And so, yeah, so it'll be a life form, and that's kind of where that came from.

J: Yeah, I thought it was really cool of you to take the risk of having your protagonist not necessarily be an incredible boy scout, right? It was a very different person that you put up in front of us, but I thought that was a really good and ballsy thing of you to do.

AW: Thanks. I'm always trying to get better as a writer, and my characters are where I'm weakest, I think. So I'm trying to make them deeper, more complicated, more flawed, complex, et cetera.

B: All right, now, two words, audio book and movie.

AW: Audio book, it's already been recorded. It releases the same time as the main book, May 4th.

B: Who narrated it?

AW: I don't know when this is going to get aired, so May 4th may have already happened.

S: Yeah, it'll be next week, yeah.

AW: Okay. And the narrator is Ray Porter.

B: Oh, my God, oh, my God.

AW: Oh yeah. Yeah, a little bit came out, didn't it?

B: I'm so there. He is a god of narration. I wasn't daring to hope that it was going to be Porter. I'm just so psyched.

AW: That's right, Darkseid will be narrating.

J: Awesome.

S: And it's been optioned for a movie?

AW: Not just optioned, but bought, which means they put more money into it. And so it means they're probably taking it more seriously, I hope. But anyway, it was bought by MGM, and we have Ryan Gosling attached to play the lead.

J: Oh, my God, that's so cool.

AW: It is cool, because he has the same initials as Ryland Grace. He could bring his own cufflinks to the set.

B: Oh, my God.

AW: We have Phil Lord and Chris Miller set to direct.

S: That sounds awesome.

J: That is awesome. Andy, this is…

S: The whole time I was reading this book, I'm thinking, I can't wait to see this rendered in a movie, because it's going to be awesome.

J: Andy, you didn't fly out to the set for The Martian, right, because it was too far away, but I hope you go this time.

B: Mars is far away, man.

AW: I will for sure this time. I have not conquered my fear of flying. I was very much afraid of flying, but now I have pills that make it okay.

J: Yes, that's what I do. Medicate yourself into oblivion, and you're good.

AW: I become a non-entity.

B: We had MGM interested in our book, but then Ryan Gosling dropped out and, like, the whole thing…

J: Well, Andy, good luck. We will go see the movie a couple of times to show our support. I'm sure it's going to be awesome, and we are looking forward to your next project.

AW: Thanks so much.

Science or Fiction (1:36:03)[edit]

Item #1: Recent research finds that bats are born with an innate sense of the speed of sound, and judge distance entirely by time.[6]
Item #2: A new study in mice finds that the mammalian brain is able to process olfactory information much faster than previously thought, with mice able to detect a 10ms odour pulse.[7]
Item #3: While previously thought to be colourblind, octopuses have recently been found to have six distinct photoreceptors for colour vision.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Octopuses
Science Bats
Host Result
Steve win
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 and one fake, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week, although these are all news items. The theme is animal senses. Happen to be multiple news items dealing with animal senses. All right, here we go. Item number one, recent research finds that bats are born with an innate sense of the speed of sound and judge distance entirely by time. Item number two, a new study in mice finds that the mammalian brain is able to process olfactory information much faster than previously thought, with mice able to detect a 10-millisecond odour pulse. Item number three, while previously thought to be colourblind, octopuses have recently been found to have six distinct photoreceptors for colour vision. Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: So bats with an innate sense of the speed of sound. Makes sense, I think. I could buy that one. Then we got the, let's see, I don't really hear this full thing. New study of mice finds that the 10-millisecond odour pulse. Yeah, I mean, humans' olfactory is crap, but other mammals, I mean, I remember reading once, 70% of the genes that encode the sense of smell have like been mutated beyond function for humans. It's just like pathetic. So yeah, so that one, I can 10 milliseconds? Sure. This one though, the next one though, the octopus is colourblind. I mean, they found how many? Six distinct photoreceptors. I mean, I would have think they would have found that by now. So I'm going to call bullshit on that one. Say that's fiction.

S: Okay, Jay?

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Nuts. Okay, let's go to the first one. Research finds that bats are born with an innate sense of the speed of sound. I think that makes perfect sense, right? That they factor that in to their movements and being able they have to eat insects that are super tiny. Like, yeah, they need that kind of precision. That makes total sense. That's science. The mammalian brain is able to process the olfactory information much faster. All right, this is cool. So if I paint the picture of this in my head, like they would change the odour and they can register it in 10 milliseconds. They feed them an odour and in 10 milliseconds their brain deciphered it.

S: No, that's not how long it takes. It's the odour itself only lasts for 10 milliseconds and they can detect it.

J: Whoa, that's even cooler. Super brief odour.

S: That also means that the odour could be changing that quickly and they'll be able to detect it.

J: Yeah. Okay. All right. That's very cool. That's fast, man. I could totally see the advantage to that. So makes kind of makes sense. Okay, to move on to the last one. This is octopuses have recently been found to have six distinct photoreceptors for colour vision, which means that they have amazing colour vision. Now, I'm thinking of things like the depth that they exist at and the fact that colors get muted when you are at depth underwater. I'm going to say that that one is science and that the mice mammalian photoreceptor, I mean, smell receptor one is fiction.

S: Okay, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I think I'm going to maybe go with Bob on this. I think I agree with both of the guys that bats need from the time that they're very young and ability. I just don't see how that could be a learned thing to be able to echolocate. You know, you need to know speed and sound and learning something like that seems really complex. And so it's really between the mice. And so the 10 millisecond pulse, that is interesting, this idea that they can switch. I don't think people could do that. I do know that olfaction is relatively fast because it doesn't go through the thalamus the same way or doesn't always go through the thalamus the same way that almost every other sense does. But this idea of like fast switching is interesting. And then I'm like, ah, that wouldn't work for people. I don't think. But then I'm like, whatever. Mice are awesome. And people suck when it comes to smelling. Like half of a mouse's brain is their olfactory bulbs. So not quite half, but it's a huge chunk of it. So that one kind of seems reasonable. The thing that bugs me is like, why would an octopus need to be able to see colour? Like a ton of colour. They're like deep under the water. That doesn't like grok for me in terms of an evolutionary trait. I would think being able to have really awesome rods would be important to see motion, hugely important to see shades of gray, hugely important. But like lots of just retinal space dedicated to cones seems wasteful from an evolutionary perspective. So I'm going to say that one's the fiction.

S: And Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Plus, how do you go from you thought it was colorblind to suddenly six distinct photoreceptors? That's a leap. That's a huge leap. I mean, how could they have gotten that so possibly wrong? But for all the reasons Cara said, right you don't need it under the water like that. So octopus one is fiction.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: So let's start with number one since you all agree on this. Recent research finds that bats are born with an innate sense of speed, of sound, and judge distance entirely by time. You all think this one is science. And this one is science. Yeah, this is pretty cool. So again, they judge distance by time, meaning that the bat's brain is saying that bug is 0.2 seconds away. It's not 10 feet away. It's this number amount of time away. They think in terms of time, because they're just thinking in terms of echolocation, if that makes sense. Which means that they need to have, as a standard, they need to know how fast the sound is moving at baseline. So, yeah. And it makes sense. Yeah, echolocation is extremely important for them. So, yeah, they demonstrated that definitively.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay, let's go on to number three. Well, previously thought to be colourblind, octopuses have recently been found to have six distinct photoreceptors for colour vision. So, a little surprised at some of the comments you guys are making about that. So, you're aware, right, that a lot of octopuses can actually change their skin colors.

J: Yes, of course.

S: For signaling, and they use it for mating. So, there's a lot of reasons why they would need to have colour vision.

C: They don't have to be able to see what colour they're changing to.

S: Well, they do if they're using it to signal for mates.

C: I don't think, I don't know, colour can actually present as different shades, though.

J: Why don't you just tell us?

C: Like shades of gray.

B: Right.

C: Yeah, just tell us what's going on.

E: And under the water, too.

J: What's happening?

E: In the dark.

S: This one.

B: We got it.

S: Is the fiction, but not for the reason you think it is.

C: I love it when they get it right for the wrong reason.

S: It is true.

B: I was writing about the polarized light sensitivity.

S: Yeah, there are critters under the water that can see polarized light.

B: Mantis shrimp.

S: The mantis shrimp.

C: Right, but the question is, is it in their lens, or is it an actual photoreceptor?

B: It's cone, cone photoreceptors. I'm looking at it right now.

C: Cool. That's nice.

S: Do you know how many different kinds of photoreceptors mantis shrimp have?

B: 15, 14 to 16.

S: Yeah.

C: That's cool.

S: They're underwater.

B: They rock. They're awesome.

S: That's the other thing, why would you think it's unusual for the octopus to have six when the mantis shrimp has 16.

C: I don't know. I didn't know the mantis shrimp had 16.

B: I thought it was unusual, because I thought we would have known. They have a huge eye. No one took it apart and looked at the photoreceptors. It's the first thing I'd do.

E: Then why do you think they were colourblind?

S: We did think they were colourblind, and we did figure out that they do see in colour.

C: Oh.

S: But they see in colour completely differently than we do.

C: How? How?

S: How do you think?

B: There's the rub.

S: They have one type of photoreceptor, but they're able to see colour with one photoreceptor.

B: What?

J: What can it do?

C: Blue-yellow?

S: I wonder if I can figure it out.

C: Well, you said it was completely different, so I don't know.

S: It's a completely different way than we do. You remember what their pupils look like? They have these W-shaped pupils.

J: U-shaped pupils.

S: Or U-shaped pupils, so it's related to that.

E: Weird.

B: But you say here six distinct photoreceptors. That's the lie. They don't. That's what makes it the fiction.

C: [inaudible] they only have one.

S: They have one photoreceptor which is why we thought they were colourblind. But then we're like, oh, wait. But it didn't make sense, because they definitely behaviourally see colour. They behaviourally absolutely see colour. So we had to figure out how they were seeing colour, and then we did. And it has to do with the shape of their pupil. What do you think the pupil's doing to the light?

C: It's bending it.

S: It's splitting it into different coloured light.

E: Oh, a prism.

C: It's a prism?

B: It's got a prism in there.

C: That's cool.

S: So they only need one photoreceptor because they can split the light into red, green, blue.

E: Yeah, if you've got a prism in your eye.

C: That's way cooler [inaudible].

J: I'm now convinced that octopi are aliens. They're aliens.

S: But here's the thing. Here's the thing. They can choose to see in colour or black and white by the way they reshape their lens and their cornea, right? Their pupil. And so when they do split the light in different colours it does make it a little blurry. So they could see a wide field in colour but a little blurry, or they could focus in a narrow field in black and white and be really sharp.

B: Super sharp.

E: For hunting or whatever.

S: That's how they can adjust their vision. But that's cool, they evolve a way to see colour in a completely different way than vertebrates.

B: That's wicked.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: So all that means that a new study in mice finds that the mammalian brain is able to process olfactory information much faster than previously thought, with mice able to detect a 10ms odor pulse is science. And that was surprising because that's a lot faster than we had previously thought. They also say that, so they were looking at the brain reaction of the mice. It was 10ms. But when they were looking at conditioning they could respond to 40Hz changes in odour. So it's 40 times per second. So it's down in the milliseconds. And so this would give them the ability, being able to process odour that quickly means they could have a very complicated odour map of their environment. They could actually map out three-dimensionally where different odours are coming from. And would give them very complicated three-dimensional map of their smell environment. What they call very fast temporal features in the odour stimuli.

J: That is awesome.

B: Yeah, that's fascinating. But back to octopusses. You said that we got it right for the wrong reasons and that's incorrect.

C: Well I said I don't see why they would need to be able to see under the water at all.

B: My point was there's no way that they have multiple photoreceptors and we didn't know it. So I was right for the right reasons. Just throwing that out there.

S: That part was correct, Cara was completely wrong. What I found surprising was your whole discussion why would they need to see colour which is wrong, they do need to see colour. Why are all the fish so brightly coloured in the first place?

C: Now that I think bout it, in tropical reefs and in shallower waters. Deep see fish will look like horrible skeleton monsters. But of course, octopuses are usually like you go tide pooling for octopus. Like that's where you're gonna see them.

S: Yeah, they're shallow.

C: Well, come on, it's late, and I'm tired. I'm feeling very achromatopsic today.

S: Yeah, but octopuses are cool. They are-

E: Octopi?

S: They're the most intelligent invertebrates.

C: Yeah. They're fascinating.

B: Primates of the sea, they call them.

S: Yeah, basically.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:48:14)[edit]

‘Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.’ – William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

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

E: Okay, so tonight's quote needs a little bit of context. So 16 years, guys, right? 16 years. You know what I did? I looked up 16-year anniversary online. You know that there are gifts that a spouse will give to each other, right, depending on the year? You know, we've probably read about it.

S: It's all scam, but yeah.

E: Exactly, right. It's an excuse to sell product.

B: What'd you get me, Evan?

E: All right, well, what do you think the 16-year anniversary gift is?

C: Well, Bob said cardboard. What was that, Jay?

E: Not cardboard.

C: Carpet. Vacuum cleaner. Oh, no. It's usually some sort of material, right? Copper.

B: Packing bubbles.

C: 16 is copper.

E: Well, Bob is kind of getting on with it.

B: What?

C: Packing bubbles? Plastic? Is 16 a plastic?

S: Unobtainium.

E: Jay, any guesses?

J: I said wood pulp.

E: Wood pulp. Not bad, not bad. The answer is wax.

C: What?

B: Oh, wax.

C: I guess, like, see it as a candle.

J: But why?

E: Exactly, right. Or go polish your car.

C: Why? Jay, because they're all made up.

E: Exactly, right. Who knows?

S: Why? There is no why. There's only buy.

C: That's so good. That's our next T-shirt.

E: So I scoured the internet for quotes having to deal with wax. And that came up very short. Because it's slim pickings out there for things having to do. OK, but if I expanded my search a little bit to include how the word wax is used. So not just the material, but like a waxing moon, right? The waxing moon.

C: Yeah, I like that.

E: So I expanded it. And I came across a few other things. But so here's a quote with wax in it. And it's just for the four of you from me. "Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind." That's from Hamlet. Act three, scene one. Ophelia talking to Hamlet.

J: I really like that.

E: Yeah. So a little bit of waxing poetic, as it were, for you.

S: Ophelia was a snarky wench.

B: All righty, then.

E: She was. I like the quote because it reminds you that it's about, look, you have to be kind. The quality of the person is what's important. If you get a gift from someone who's a jerk, OK, they're still a jerk. And you shouldn't judge them by the gift they're giving you. It's about the person, the quality of the person. That's what that quote means to me. And to me, you are, the four of you are some of the most quality people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing in my entire life.

J: Thank you, brother.

E: Thank you.

B: Thanks, bro.

S: Thank you, Evan. It has been a lot of fun going on this skeptical journey with all of you guys.

E: Absolutely. Wouldn't have traded for anything else in the world. And I'm so looking forward to the next 16 years and beyond.

S: I think so. Why not? Yeah, we'll keep going. Sure.

E: Sign me up. As long as my brain still works, I'll be here.

S: Absolutely.

E: And that's key.

S: All right, guys. So thank you all for joining me for the last 16 years and this week.

B: Sure, man.

J: You got it brother.

E: Thank you, Steve and everyone.

C: Thanks, Steve.


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]

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