SGU Episode 841

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SGU Episode 841
August 21st 2021
841 Brain-organoids-eyes.jpg
(brief caption for the episode icon)

SGU 840                      SGU 842

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The goal of science is to make the wonderful and complex understandable and simple – but not less wonderful.

Herbert A. Simon, American economist, political scientist and cognitive psychologist 

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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, August 18th, 2021, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, folks.

S: So, we have some news about the SGU going to DragonCon. The news is we're not going to DragonCon. Unfortunately, I know, it's bad. We've been tracking this very, very closely. You know, we had a meeting and we sort of talked about is there any way we can go? Like, what could we do? We could put plexiglass and we have double masking. I bought some N95s. But at the end of the day…

B: Even N96s.

E: N100s.

S: Yeah, you could do the N99s. But at the end of the day, it's just going to be too risky. Like, we have too many vulnerable people in our bubbles. And I can't afford to be quarantined and miss two weeks of work. And I work in a hospital. So, of course, first and foremost, everyone needs to be safe. And we have to also practice what we preach in terms of COVID safety. It was a painful decision. It really was because we have two paid events. We have a whole bunch of stuff scheduled. We were looking forward to getting together and doing it. But we just couldn't, in good faith, do it this year. So, we're coordinating with Derek from The Skeptic Track about what we're going to do. We're happy to stream something, stream a live show. We may be doing something for – Obviously, people will get refunded if you bought any kind of ticket. And we may do something special for you as well. We haven't had time yet to schedule out exactly what we're going to do. But we'll do what we can. Just everything will be streaming rather than live. And we're really hoping that this spike that we're seeing, which is– To put things into perspective, there are more cases now than there were at DragonCon last year when we didn't go.

E: Oh, my gosh.

S: It's worse.

C: Oh, my gosh. Really?

S: Oh, yeah.

C: Like nationwide or just in Atlanta?

S: No, nationwide. In terms of new cases per day, absolutely. If you look at the seven-day average, we're higher than at any point other than the winter spike that we just had. But we're heading there. Things are going up.

C: But what feels so different this time versus back then is that it's so heterogeneous. Like before, it was kind of like across the country. I mean, we're probably talking about country averages right now. But across the United States, on average, that was a good approximation of anywhere people live. But now it's like there are hot spots.

J: What scared me was when we were talking about this and Steve said, it's not like we're coming over the hump and it's starting to go down. It's still going up at a very steep trajectory. So the scary thing is in two weeks, it could be a lot worse than it is right now.

S: Yeah, unfortunately. We need a certain amount of lead time to make the decision. I was waiting for it to turn around and it just kept going up. So we got to that point where we had to make a decision. So we're sorry to anyone who's inconvenienced by this. And as we always said, we may have to react to events on the ground. And that's what we had to do. And you're right, Cara, it is very heterogeneous. It's because the hot spots are where people are not vaccinated or where governors are taking an anti-masking stance or are fighting against public common sense public health measures. It's all about the public health measures now. It's very clear that that's happening. And the bottom line, too, is that the Delta variant, which, by the way, the Delta variant is 99.8% of new cases. It's basically that that's it, that COVID is now the Delta variant.

E: Oh, boy.

S: It's more infectious. And we're getting to waning immunity on our vaccines. I was vaccinated early. So even if, I mean, the vaccines are great at preventing people from getting really sick and getting into the hospital and dying, but it may not be doing as good a job with the Delta variant of preventing spread. And the Delta variant is much more contagious.

C: Yeah, and you and I, Steve, for example, I feel like I have to be even more vigilant than I was two months ago because I got my second dose in January.

S: Yeah, so we're six going on to seven months into getting vaccinated.

C: And boosters aren't available yet. You know, there's new guidance about that that I think we're going to talk about. But, like, I can't go get one tomorrow, so I need to be careful if my own immunity is waning.

COVID-19 Update (4:54)[edit]

S: So we can slide into that. So the COVID update for this week, we're not giving one every week. I know people are sick of talking about COVID. We're sick of talking about COVID. But this is an important update I thought we'd give. We talked about the open question of if and when boosters are going to be recommended for the vaccines. And so the Biden administration recently announced that they were going to recommend vaccines, boosters, at the, like, eight-month period for people who got the mRNA vaccines. The J&J vaccine started later, so they're still tracking that data. And now today, as we record this, a joint statement from pretty much everybody, Centers for Disease Control, the FDA, National Institutes of Health Fauci, David Kessler, who's the chief science officer for COVID-19 response, et cetera, et cetera, announced that everyone basically is recommending boosters for the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines. Starting in September and starting with vulnerable populations, but then opening it up to everybody. So they're still also, they're very clear about the fact that we're still pushing everyone to get their first vaccine. Like we need to get as many people as vaccinated as possible. But because of evidence of waning immunity, and because the Delta variant is more contagious, we think that the best way to, like, really our best chance of shutting down this pandemic is if we give boosters, to people who had those two vaccines. And they'll continue to track the J&J to see if that requires boosters as well.

C: I don't think this is something that I'm saying we here on the SGU need to have some sort of conversation about, because this is more of a moral question than anything else, that the WHO has come out and said, I don't think these rich countries should be talking about boosters while so many countries across the globe don't even have access to first doses.

J: I know that's a big deal.

C: Yeah. So it's like there's this issue where in the U.S. the mentality has grown among people who are looking at the evidence. The mentality has been, this is a a human induced disaster. COVID is not human induced, but the fact that we are seeing people still dying right now is because people are not getting vaccinated when they have ample access to vaccine. Whereas in other countries, it's not. People are dying because they can't get vaccinated because they can't get their hands on the vaccine. And so sort of what is the interplay there? It's something to think about. I don't think it should prevent any of us from if I go get my booster shot tomorrow, I don't think I'm in, unfortunately, a position where I could have taken that vax, put it in an envelope and mailed it across the globe and said, somebody else take this.

S: Take it if you can get it.

C: Exactly.

S: That's why in the same statement that they closed by saying, we will also continue to expand our efforts to increase the supply of vaccines for other countries, building further on the more than 600 million doses we have already committed to donate globally. So they recognize that and that's sort of their answer to the who. Don't worry. We're going to continue to give a lot of vaccines globally. We're going to donate them, but we also, it's like when you're on the plane, they say, parents put your own mask on before you put the one on yourself. Put your own mask on before you put the one on your child. It's like, we have to sort of take care of our economy and our country and our people. And yes, we will also give we will donate hundreds of millions, hopefully billions of vaccines to poor countries as well. And there's Russia, China, they can do that too.

C: And they are.

S: It's not like it's only the US vaccines.

C: Oh, for sure. For sure. And also even our vaccines are Pfizer is not, or Moderna, or are they both? They're combined with other countries. They were co-developed across nations. These are multinational companies. I think the frustrating part is that, yeah, we have the doses ready. They're in the pharmacy. Like as soon as we decided to get our act together, we got our act together here in the US and you can literally walk to the pharmacy and get your jab for free in most jurisdictions or in many jurisdictions. Yet people go, no, I'm not gonna.

B: Oh yeah. I mean, I went to, I went to the mall. They had an amazing setup there. There's seven, eight lines of, of traffic of areas where you can go in your car. You don't even get out of your car. It was so convenient in and out, like in 40 minutes. So easy and free.

C: And free. Yeah. I have to say my favorite messages are the ones that are coming in. I just got a direct message on Instagram. I'm not going to obviously list any names to protect privacy, but they wrote, hi, I'm about to get vaccinated. I've listened to you in the SGU talk about them, but have had, but have been all mixed up. I'm getting one now. Thank you so much.

B: Oh, that's wonderful.

C: It's like, those are the, those are the messages. Yeah.

S: We also talked over the last year and a half about what is the level of herd immunity for COVID? And of course we didn't, we don't know until we know, but the thing is, it seems pretty clear that the level of, of herd immunity, which is the number, the percentage of the population that needs to be vaccinated or resistant. So that the virus can't spread basically. And that number is different for different strains. And the fear is that for the Delta variant, it might be 95%. Like until we get 95% of the people vaccinated, we're not shutting this down.

E: This not going to happen. No.

S: Well, I mean, it can't happen if we do mandates.

E: Of course it can.

C: Yeah, we do mandates.

S: 95%. We have a 95% vaccination rate for school kids because it's mandated.

B: Right. Right.

C: Do you feel Steve, I mean, and this is like, it's, it's almost impossible for us to know. So we're prognosticating a little bit, but do you have a pretty sinking gut suspicion that this is just going to be our life now? COVID is going to be around, we're going to have variant, like a seasonal flu vaccine. Yeah. And there's going to be this weird thing where people either get sick, they die or they gain immunity. The people who choose not to get vaccinated and they're just walking around at risk because eventually we have to get back to being able to drink a coffee in public. We have to get back to being able to live a life that doesn't feel so restricted, but we're never going to get there until we get over this hump.

S: I mean, I've been tracking this question very closely. Again, I wrote earlier in the year that we probably have until this summer to shut own the the pandemic by get by having really high vaccination rates and we didn't do it. We just, we just flat out didn't do it. The variants beat us in the race. And now I think I'm not going to say there's no chance, but the now I'm reading more and more experts are saying, yeah, we probably missed our window. And I think this is going to be endemic now. It might be endemic largely among children because of school, et cetera. And we're just going to get like every year we get the flu vaccine, we're probably going to be getting a booster every year or whatever. And it's just going to be one more disease that we got to deal with.

C: Yep. Yeah.

S: So-called endemic.

J: You know, it's a really unknown situation because we don't know what the long-term effects are of a child getting COVID that's unvaccinated.

S: Yeah.

C: It's true. But we do know that a lot of the mRNA vaccines at least, and maybe the others as well are actively in trials on young children right now.

S: I know, we got to get kids vaccinated.

C: Yeah. Like this, we dragged our heels for way too long on the question of whether or not kids can get vaccinated. And so like we need the answer and we need to get that going. Scary.

S: Absolutely.

C: Kids are getting sick. And not just that kids are getting sick, but they're spreading this thing like wildfire.

E: Of course, like kids do.

C: Yeah, exactly. Like kids do.

E: That's what they do.

J: One of my friends lives in Texas and his son went to school like day one, first day he went to school, he got a message from the school saying your child was exposed to someone that has COVID.

C: Oh, of course. Yeah.

B: Oh my God.

E: They probably had that message ready to fire off, ready to go. And just, they just had to confirm one case and they knew it was coming and boom, that was it.

C: Oh, we've seen jurisdictions have to shut down their track and trace efforts here in the state. We see they work so well in, in like Australia, New Zealand, you hear these amazing things on the story where there's like a case. And so we're, we're going into red alert and blah, blah, blah. And now we've tracked 11 people from that one case. So guys, we're back to not wearing or to not leaving our houses. But here you've seen jurisdictions be like, we can't track, like we have to shut down track and trace because literally everybody in the community is getting the alerts. Everybody's exposed all the time to someone who's had COVID because it's so rampant.

S: All right, let's move on to the news items.

News Items[edit]

Philippines Approves Golden Rice (13:21)[edit]

S: And actually I'm going to start off with a news item that is very similar to what we were just talking about in that we have a science-based answer to a public health crisis that we're just, we don't have the political will to implement. And I'm talking in this case about golden rice. And we've talked about this on the show before. The good news is that the Philippines just gave approval for farmers to plant golden rice. So last year, January of 2020, the Philippines gave a regulatory approval to golden rice as safe. They said, okay, it's safe. People can eat it, but they didn't give the approval for farmers to plant it. So now they have, although it's a generic approval for golden rice, they still then have to give approval to specific cultivars with the golden rice GR2 gene, so there's still some steps before farmers are going to actually be planting it.

B: Red tape, you mean?

S: Yeah, it's all regulatory red tape at this point. I mean, the other thing that's not red tape is that someone has to actually produce the seed to give to farmers, but, and they may want to continue to develop local cultivars. Like, cause you can breed it with, with any, with lots of types of rice and breed the golden rice trait into other strains. And so we're going to want to like have it into as many local strains as possible because farmers are going to want to plant the best rice for their region and their market. And if golden rice is a cultivar, that's not the best for their region, then they might not want to plant it. It's got, we have to breed it with the ones they want to plant. I'm a little distant, in terms of my information network. And so it is one of those issues where there's a bit of a dichotomy, you're reading two different camps about like how good golden rice is and how, and how likely it is to get planted. But let me back up a little bit and just to give a quick, quick, quick review about what golden rice is. So golden rice was first developed in 1999 as a proof of concept. You know, we said, hey, these are the genes that would, we would have to put into rice in order to give them beta carotene, which is a precursor to vitamin A. And theoretically we can do this, get beta carotene into a staple crop as a way of treating vitamin A deficiency. Vitamin A deficiency is responsible for about a half of a million children a year going blind, 500,000 children a year. And half of them will be dead within a year of developing blindness from vitamin A deficiency.

C: So it's worse than just blindness.

S: Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah. So blindness is the big thing, but it also compromises the immune system so that they're more susceptible to other diseases. It's bad in a lot of ways. And then again, half of them actually die, within a year. Now there are already efforts underway to treat vitamin A deficiency with many methods. Probably the biggest effort is just direct supplementation, just distribute vitamin A supplements. And that has cut rates in half from what they were previously. Also trying to get farmers in different locations to plant crops that naturally have vitamin A in them. Plant sweet potatoes, so that's happening as well. But the numbers I gave you are with all of these efforts already fully underway, right? So the idea that we'll just keep doing that, it's like we aren't doing it and it's still a problem. It always reminds me, like there's so many analogies to other things, people who are anti-fluoridation will say, just brush with fluoride toothpaste. Like, well, we kind of already are doing that and that's already part of it.

B: Yeah, that's saturated.

S: It's not as if people can't brush with fluoride toothpaste.

B: With vitamin A.

S: So it's like, yeah, we're doing it. We're doing it. And it's not an, they always try to make it into an either or, but I'm getting a little bit ahead of myself. So for 20 years, what's been happening? Now, neither of the simplistic narratives are true. So some scientists, I think overstated the case by saying like golden rice was ready to go in 2002. And it's been a 20 year delay because of anti GMO nonsense. It's like, okay, that's only partly true. It's not the whole picture. It really wasn't ready to go in 2002. It was only version one was there. It wasn't really, didn't have enough beta carotene in it. They needed to develop version two. They needed to breed it with local cultivars, et cetera. There's a lot of stuff that had to happen. They had to go through the regulatory process. The question was like, how slowed was this whole process, which had to happen by all of the anti GMO activism. And that's a hard number to put, but from everything that I've read, I think it was significant. I don't think I can't put a number of years on it, but it's certainly significant. Significantly delayed the whole process. So like, you can't do things like trash field trials of golden rice as part of your anti GMO activism, and then say that that has nothing to do with the slow pace of progress. They slowed it at every turn. They possibly could tying it up in regulatory nonsense, opposing the research you're fighting, doing everything they can to, to move public opinion against it. Getting a band wherever they can. They did everything they could to frustrate the process. So it absolutely had an effect. If we were like full core press for this without all this nonsense, where would we be now? It's hard to say, but there's no reason scientifically why we couldn't be growing it right now. Let me just say that. Reading the backlash against the Philippines decision is like reading an anti-vaxxer, kind of a pushback. It is really all either logical fallacy, written spin, or it's factual lying, or even if they're not directly lying, they're giving a very specific implication that's not true. So for example, and most famously Greenpeace remains vehemently opposed to golden rice. This has been very controversial for them. Even like former members of Greenpeace have accused them of murdering children. You know, like it gets really bad. Not that there isn't some truth to that in my opinion. I think Greenpeace is just ideologically opposed and they make every bad argument there is against it.

C: Which is a bummer because it undoes good work that Greenpeace does.

S: It totally does.

C: It really muddies the waters.

S: Yeah. Yeah. All right. So for example, they say that, that approving this GMO crop, right, they have to always-

E: Of course.

S: -emphasize that. Drag farmers down. Okay. Why is that going to happen? Yeah, how?

C: Just give them more opportunities to grow something.

S: Yeah. Yeah. Because this is the, so one of the logical fallacies they commit is the false choice combined with the Nirvana fallacy. You guys familiar with the Nirvana fallacy? It's like this option isn't perfect. So it sucks. Right. It's terrible. We can't do it.

C: I literally just said that when I submitted my dissertation to my committee. I was like, usually I would say the perfect is the enemy of the good. In this case, I'm going to say the perfect is the enemy of the submitted.

S: Right.

C: That's where I'm at right now.

S: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So yeah, it's exactly, it's the perfect is the enemy of the good enough or the good or say, oh, vaccines aren't a hundred percent effective. So? So what? So they say that, well, really the problem is that, a lot of populations are over-relying on staple crops and they're not getting enough of a diversified, fruits and vegetables, et cetera. Like the purpose of rice is, has always been as a staple calorie source. It's never been the purpose of rice to be a source of micronutrients, be fruits and vegetables for that. It's like, okay, so we're going to fix poverty and transform the farming communities around developing worlds.

C: Food culture that has established over thousands of years.

S: So are so you work on that. Let's do that. But in the meantime, we're going to save millions of kids from blindness and that. Is that okay? Can we do that? In the meantime? It's like, and they always use it. You know, when the term band-aid comes up that somebody is making a bad argument, it's just a bandaid on the problem. And what's your problem with band-aids?

C: That's right. It's gonna help until we can...

S: You know, it's like, oh, these kids like they fall off their bike and they get, they scrape their knee and you just put a band-aid on it. It's like, yeah, that's right. Cause they scraped their freaking knee. And now if your problem is with bike safety, you go right ahead and address that. But while kids are scraping their knees, while kids are going blind and dying from vitamin A deficiency, we should try to fix it. And and using every method that we have at our disposal. Not pick, not these false choices. Like, no, we have to do this perfect solution of fixing everything and...

E: Or nothing.

S: And it's not like-

B: Which happens all the time.

S: Right, but those are the empty.

B: Perfect solutions are easy.

S: Unstated major premise there is that if we like, if we reduce the level of vitamin A deficiency, that's gonna somehow keep us from improving poverty or farming infrastructure. Why is that gonna happen? Are you saying that we're removing an incentive? No, we have to keep these kids blind and dying so that we have an incentive to fix the farming infrastructure. What's your point?

C: I know, and if that's the case, that is disgusting.

S: I mean, they don't say that outright, but that's like the logical implication of what they're saying. Otherwise, it's like-

C: Exactly, because if we can fix this problem, trust me, there's another one that's linked to poverty that we need to move on to as well. Like, this is not, yeah, this is multi-tiered and multi-layered.

S: So another thing they go for is the anti-corporate rhetoric. Right, so they say, for example, this is from Greenpeace. This latest development has once again exposed the DA's rubber stamp approval process. Really, years of slow approval of rubber stamps? For corporate-controlled GM crops, please. So the implication, they're not saying that green rice is corporate-controlled, but certainly that's the implication by putting it in a letter about, a statement about why you oppose golden rice.

C: Oh, but interesting, is golden rice, like, patented?

S: So, there is a nuanced story, which I am about to tell you. But the thing is, the thing is, even more nuanced conversations about it almost always get the facts wrong, especially when they're opposed to golden rice. So here was an article, now in The Conversation, which is generally good, but it takes a pretty anti-golden rice stance. And in one statement, they say that the promise was that golden rice would be given free to farmers, which isn't true because no one's growing the rice to give free to farmers, so that kind of misses the point. And they said that the rights, the commercialization rights were acquired by Syngenta. So again, trying to create this sense that a big corporation owns it and is gonna commercialize it. And that statement is subtly wrong, but in an important way that puts a completely different paint job on it, right? So, this is what actually happened. Like many scientific breakthroughs, golden rice was developed by researchers in universities. It was Ingo Petraeus who developed this technology to begin with. And so universities are good at doing research breakthroughs in labs. They're not good at developing commercialized products, it's not what they do. So there is frequently a collaboration between universities and corporations. That's how it works, folks, right?

C: Yeah, they all have offices. What are they called, like the offices of resource development or something like that?

S: Oh my God, there's, yeah, yeah.

C: They have like a whole structure that's all about helping individual researchers find the support that they need to patent the ideas that were born out of the university.

E: Right, researchers doing what they're doing and then the corporations take it and do what they need to do for distribution and other things.

C: But also, the researchers want their credit and they should get paid for some of this stuff.

S: And they do.

C: So it's all about, yeah, so it's all about-

S: They get it, they're big, the university gets their big and the corporation makes, yeah, they make their money. And sometimes the researchers will like make a startup, go out on their own. Go, good for you. But sometimes they say, we can't do this, we need a corporation to do this for us. So what happened was Syngenta didn't acquire the commercialization rights for Golden Rice. It was given to them so that they could develop it into a product. They were helping out, essentially. So what, and what Syngenta did, because it has corporate infrastructure, is it acquired, or it put together, it acquired the licenses for all of the patents, with many, many GMO patents involved here, all of the ones that were necessary for a Golden Rice product to exist. They also developed it into the GR2, which is now the current version, which is actually I think, the viable version that has enough of the beta carotene in it. However, here's the thing, and you have to know this to understand the story. Well, so Syngenta now either owns or has a license to all of the necessary patents for Golden Rice, for GR2. And if they wanted to, they're the only company who can commercialize it, meaning make money off of it, but they have chosen not to. They have no plans to commercialize Golden Rice. What they did do with it was completely give a license to all of the necessary patents to any humanitarian outlet that wants to use it. And that's, which is now like, yeah, the International Rice Research Institute, right? So they said, all right, you guys, here's all the patents, you have them completely free, and you can but for humanitarian use. You can't commercialize, you can't turn around and sell this for profit.

C: Right, it's like the polio vaccine.

S: Yeah.

C: Like that's kind of, I don't know what the red tape was, but that's kind of what was decided with the polio vaccine.

S: This destroys every narrative that Greenpeace and the anti-GMO people have. So basically, Syngenta retains the commercial rights with no plans to ever use it, and they've given over all of the patent licensing for free for humanitarian use. And humanitarian use means, I'll tell you exactly what that means, use in developing countries, resource-poor farmer use, technology must be introduced into public germplasm, so the seed only, so public, you can't, again, you can't sell it. No surcharge can be charged for the technologies. In other words, if you sell the seeds, you can only sell them for what the rice costs. You can't charge it premium for the golden rice trait, right? So whatever that cultivar costs on the open market, that's what you can charge for it, no more. National sales are allowed by farmers, so they can sell within their own country. That's how you get the seed into urban areas, right? And farmers can reuse the seed. They own the seed. They totally own whatever seed that they create. What you can't do is export it for profit, because they want it to be grown and availablev and used in the developing countries where people need the nutrition.

C: That makes sense.

S: Sounds pretty good, right?

C: Yeah, it's basically like saying, we made a thing. The thing could help people. You can use it to help people, but the minute that you greedily start to make money off of the thing I made that I technically own, you can't do that anymore.

S: So Greenpeace characterizes that as corporate-controlled GM crop. Come on.

B: Oh my God.

S: And even saying that Syngenta acquired the rights to it makes it sound predatory. Like it's all a big con game. It's all bullshit. So anyway, it's available freely for humanitarian use.

C: That goes even farther than I expected, Steven. It also, like it makes me very happy, first of all. Like I feel good in my moral core, but at the same time, it sort of reminds me of some of these same arguments that you hear from anti-vaxxers, which are like, oh, I don't like how these pharmaceutical companies that funded all the research and development, by the way, of these vaccines, "own them". I don't think that's fair. And it's like, first of all, you can have that argument and you can get into the weeds with that, but do you think that should prevent us from vaccinating people right now? Hell no. How about we talk about that after-

E: It's like two different arguments, really.

C: we nip this global pandemic in the bud.

B: Right, and let's talk about destroying their motivation to do the research. Let's take the fruits of your research away so that in the future, you don't spend scores of millions of dollars to develop anything like it again. Let's do that, shall we?

S: That's a longer argument, but the other thing is that anything that develops from, like if you use the golden rice seed that you're given for humanitarian uses, you develop a new cultivar out of it or something new from it. Syngenta still owns the rights, but those are automatically available for humanitarian use, too. So this covers anything that might even derive from it automatically falls under the humanitarian use agreement. What more do you want? What more do you want, right? Now, the other thing that Greenpeace does is they, and where have we seen this before, right? So after spending decades fear-mongering and turning as many people as they can against golden rice based upon lies and misconceptions and distortions, they then say, all these people don't want it. They don't want it because you've been fear-mongering about it. It's like-

B: All these people aren't sure who won the election.

S: Yeah, that's what I was alluding to, Bob. It's like, yeah, well, people want to feel secure about the election that we've been spreading lies about. So anyway, it's exactly the same thing. It's like an organic farming does that, too. Like you sort of fear-monger about GMOs, then you go, and they literally said, farmers will be harmed if the GMO contaminates their other products and people want to buy them because they're GMO. Right? So it's like, so yeah, there's sort of some justify-

C: It's like, and whose fault is that?

S: Yeah, it's like, they're justifying fear-mongering about GMOs because they've been fear-mongering about GMOs.

E: See, we were right.

C: Because they're doing a good job at their smear campaign.

S: But the thing is, I still don't know what's going to happen. Bangladesh is also on the verge of kind of approving it, which is good. And a lot of objections also come from, well, we haven't proven this safe yet. It's the precautionary principle. It's safe. It's been demonstrated adequately enough to be safe. Yes, we haven't given it to millions of people yet because we haven't done it yet. It's like saying the vaccine's not proven safe when based upon the trials until we give it to 100 million people. We can't give it to 100 million people until we give it to 100 million people, you know?

C: True. But there's also no face validity in that.

S: None.

C: It's a completely different argument to say I'm worried about this vaccine, which as we know, vaccines can have safety issues. We've seen it before and we know about Epstein-Barr and we know about all these issues. Yet, we have done all the work to render this safe. It's rice. I mean, rice with vitamin A?

E: What do they think the risk is versus the benefit?

S: They don't, they can't even say. It's just the precautionary principle. We don't know for 100% sure that it's safe. So let's just forget about it.

C: But it's not a drug. We don't have to do double blind, randomized controlled trials on rice. Nobody in the history of humanity has had to do that. It's just rice.

E: Not when we're enriching it with vitamins.

C: It's food.

J: I know, but Cara.

E: It's not like we're putting steroids into the-

C: I know.

B: It's frankenfood.

J: They didn't use any kind of logic to put themselves in the position that they're in. The whole thing is illogical from the get-go.

S: The thing to keep in mind is that not a single animal or human being has ever been harmed by a GMO ever. There's no evidence for a single organism being harmed by a GMO.

B: Right, right. Do you know how many times I hurt myself eating Doritos?

E: Oh, like when you need to get the cut in the corner of your mouth and the salt.

C: Is that when you're eating them alone in a tent, Bob? No, shit, a hammock. A hammock, damn it. I screwed up my callback.

S: So I hope this works out well because it's not gonna solve all the problems in the world. It's not gonna even solve all of the vitamin A deficiency, but the estimates are that one cup of golden rice has about enough vitamin A for half of what a child needs, which that's good, half is better than none. Maybe they'll eat two cups of rice, who knows?

E: Two cups, there you go.

S: But I think anything we can do to chip away at such a horrible problem that affects poor kids in developing countries. That's the thing, the narrative is so bad for Greenpeace. It's so bad. It's like they're really struggling here and I think they're gonna lose this PR battle. I think they're gonna totally lose.

C: Yeah, because the only difference here is that the food, it's pre-fortified. It doesn't require a factory to fortify it the way that we do with many grains and cereals that are packaged. This actually allows us to cut out all of the expense of fortifying something after the fact, which clearly we haven't been able to do sufficiently in these countries. We're just pre-fortifying the seeds. Why is that not a good thing?

S: And there's research to fortify rice with zinc and iron and they could stack those. So now you're gonna have multi-nutritionally enhanced crop. See that? So again, every standard narrative that they use, like oh, this is only about profits or pesticides. Nope, this is not about profits. It's not about pesticides. It's not about big giant seed companies. No one's gonna make any money off of this. This is totally humanitarian. It's to help poor people. It's nutritional enhancement. No one is charging for the patents. There's no evil corporation involved. None of your narrative BS applies. And you know what I mean? And there's no safety issue. It's just nothing. They have nothing.

B: Right, but even though they have nothing, Steve, they have still fought and delayed this. The hope is that once this is successful, that the next time you step it up and you have something that's not the poster boy for GMO, like golden rice, it'll be a little bit easier, even though if it'll be easier for these people to decry it and say no, this is horrible. So I just hope.

S: I think this story will have a happy ending. I really do. And there's also, I wanna end on another bit of good news, which is tangentially related, because this is something we learned at NECSS. We had our researcher who's developing genetically modified bananas in Africa. Because of CRISPR and other technology, genetic altering technology, there is a separate category of gene-edited crops. Gene-edited crops have had their genes altered, but no new genes inserted, right? So genetic modification means you had a gene inserted.

C: Yeah, it's actually transgenics. Yeah, that's why genetic modification.

S: Well, it could be cis or trans. It could be a cisgenic or transgenic, but it's all still genetic modification. But there's a separate category of genetic editing where you're just editing the genes that are already there. In many countries, the United States, and I think Australia and some other countries, gene-edited crops are not considered GMO and are not regulated like GMO.

E: Good, they're not gonna have that label.

S: They are regulated like just any other food.

B: Wow.

S: The big region that chose, unfortunately, I don't know if we talked about this on the show, they chose to categorize gene-edited crops as gene genetically modified, is the European Union. They're really anti-GMO there. And there's some other countries that haven't decided yet. So I hope that most of the undecided countries decide not to regulate gene-edited crops like genetically modified. And that could be a really good end run around the whole anti-GMO thing, because if all the regulations they've been fighting for don't apply, then it kind of scuttles it.

B: And Steve, let me amend one thing you said. You said you think this is gonna have a happy ending. I wanna say that this is gonna have a partly happy ending, because of their delays and anti-science attitudes, kids have died and gone blind. That wouldn't have. That wouldn't have. So it can't be a real happy ending.

S: That's almost certainly true. Hard to put a number on it, but it's almost certainly true. And they're still doing it. They're still trying to encourage farmers not to grow it. And then if they don't grow it, they say, well, it failed. People didn't want it. Yeah, because you fear-mongered about it. Just terrible. Okay, we're gonna move on to a completely different news item.

Moore’s Law Beyond Silicon (38:51)[edit]

S: Jay, you're gonna tell us about Moore's Law. Is it finally coming to an end? What do you think?

J: Well, I'm sure you guys have heard of Moore's Law. Gordon Moore, who created Moore's Law, is a co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, a company you may have heard of. He predicted from observation that the number of transistors on a microchip, and you can call this the transistor density, will double every two years. Right, you've heard this. And his prediction has been consistently correct since 1975, or has it? Or has it?

E: I was told it was correct.

J: Right, because it just became-

S: On average.

B: Roughly correct, yeah, on average.

J: But it did certainly sound like every two years, very predictable that the density would double, and then the cost would, they say it halves, meaning that you're getting more for less money. Because consistently, the prices kind of stay the same, but you're getting more for that same amount of money. So anyway, researchers at the Rockefeller University published a paper in a journal called PLOS One, P-L-O-S One, that clarifies the actual reality of the transistor increase over the years. So now we're going back to 1959. The researchers discovered that there were six waves of microchip improvements. Each wave lasted for about six years, and during each six-year wave, the transistor density increased at a minimum by 10, right? So it went up an order of magnitude. So then after the six years of growth during that wave, there was about three years of mostly no improvement.

E: A plateau, sort of.

J: Yeah, it was like roughly a nine-year cycle. Somebody, an engineer comes up, group of engineers come up with some type of insight, and they say, hey, we can modify it this way and that way, increase the density, and by the time they bring it to market and everything, it takes a lot of time to do that. They don't just come up with it and they're pumping these things out. Like they literally have to retool factories and stuff to be able to do these types of things. And then as that new improvement becomes common and they proliferate the chips out, there's a period of time where there's a cool down and there isn't so much innovation going on. So it makes a lot of sense from an engineering perspective. According to this trend, we're currently now overdue for the next wave of improvements. And I'm ready, let's do it. All right, come on, don't make me wait.

C: Jay's ready.

J: So we have an incredible demand for smaller and more powerful processors. As this proliferation of computers continues, everything has got a computer chip in it, right? It's remarkable how many computers, if you want to like label something as a computer because it has a processor, we have computers all around our house. They're everywhere.

B: Even vaccines have chips in them.

E: Wow, come on.

J: Come on, come on.

B: Oh wait, that's a secret, sorry.

J: So I don't know if you guys know this, but there happens to be a global chip shortage right now. Now the chip shortage has been accelerated by the COVID pandemic, both because, why? Demand went up during the pandemic and manufacturing took a hit at the same time. So the beginning of the chip shortage can be blamed back on the automotive industry. When car sales dropped, the automotive industry buyers canceled a lot of chip orders. We go, hey, we don't need as much as we were gonna order because we think that sales are gonna be bad over the next couple of years. But the car sales didn't really go down that much. And as they anticipated, so they ended up placing back these huge orders for more chips. And the chip manufacturers were actually affected by this yo-yo because they're trying to scale their manufacturing to meet demand. You don't want to have more manufacturing than demand, and you surely don't want to have more demand than manufacturing. So every company is trying to balance these two things at the same time. So that had an effect. Now, other factors that affected chip production, as an example, like the power outages in Texas, right? Samsung's semiconductor manufacturing operations are in Austin, Texas. And when the power went out, hey, the factories got shut down because, hey, that's the way electricity works. So another major chip manufacturer called TSMC in Taiwan was having manufacturing interruptions due to a severe drought. And yet another factor is the US-China trade war. So some companies in China have been stockpiling chips and other needed components since 2020. So you add all these things up and the really scary truth here is that we have Samsung and TSMC, these two different manufacturers, they make the bulk of the processors that the world uses. And these two companies are literally, right now, they're maxed out as far as production goes. Big companies like Microsoft, Sony Nvidia that makes the graphics cards for computers, AMD and Apple rely on these chips from these suppliers to build their products. They don't make the chips themselves. People who needed to work from home, as an example, led to more computer sales because of the pandemic and more game consoles were being sold over the pandemic. And graphics cards are now, and even cell phone, the chips that go in cell phones, all of these different manufacturers in all of these products are feeling the chip shortage. And let's not forget, of course I have to mention that cryptocurrency miners who now are largely using PC graphics cards to mine new cryptocurrency, right? So they use these GPU processors because they're super powerful and they happen to be very good at running the calculations that need to be done to do crypto mining. So if you go on Amazon and look up the price of a typical graphics card for a PC, the cost could be three times that of MSRP, right? The manufacturer suggested retail price, let's say, as an example, a good high-end graphics card should cost about a thousand dollars. That's what the manufacturer says. Well, guess what? It's about three grand right now. And the SGU needs a couple right now for the studio. And Ian and I have been like, nope, we are not paying three grand for a graphics card. No way. That thing would have to like do the lawn, wash my car and do the laundry while it's running the computer, you know? So a lot of different sectors and consumers are feeling the CPU, or I'm sorry, the chip shortage. Now, building new factories seems like an obvious fix to the problem. Well, you know what? Yeah, of course, that's what they're trying to do, but this costs billions of dollars and it takes many years to create a brand new factory. Like, it's not like, hey, let's just throw up a building here. Like, we're talking about incredibly precise machinery that has to go in. It takes a long time to put one of these types of facilities together. You have to staff it. It's like these people are, it's not like there's these people falling out of the woodwork. You gotta train people to be able to even just run the machinery and do all the heavy lifting. It's a big freaking deal to build another plant that can make more chips. And they're doing it because they wanna meet the demand, but it's not gonna be a quick change in the short term. Like, we're gonna be stuck in this zone probably a couple more years. So on top of the shortage, experts are saying that the chip advancements themselves, so let's go back to talking about just the chips increasing their transistor density, right? The advancements that we want to have happen, they're saying that historically, we got about two more waves left before we hit the physical limits of miniaturization for silicon-based chips. So it'll begin to cost exponentially more money to make gains, and the gains will start to significantly decrease. So right now, they're moving at a pace and everything seems to be as normal, but we could tell by the physics of what's happening on the silicon chip that we just can't keep doing it, that it's gonna be an unfixable physical limit. There's nothing that we can do to get past it other than developing new technology. So what is that technology? Here we go. Now we're getting into technologies that don't really exist yet, but we are working on. Companies are working on it. Probably billions of dollars are being dumped into these ideas, like nanotransistors, right? Nano means at a certain microscopic scale. Nanotransistor is incredibly small. I also read about atom transistors, atomic transistors, which are probably using the bare minimum number of atoms to create a transistor, like an electrical transistor, amazing. And then we have quantum computing. Now don't get me freaking started. Bob, Steve, and I have done an incredibly deep dive on quantum computing for our book that's coming out.

S: Which, by the way, is completely written and sent off to my agent.

J: Wo-hoo!

C: No way.

E: All right.

S: Very soon, the first draft is totally done, coming out probably first quarter in 2023.

J: Quantum computing isn't gonna be like this thing that replaces your PC. A quantum computer is gonna be like a super, super, super, super computer that you rent a very small amount of time to use to do your processing. And then another company will rent it for another short amount of time. But there's not gonna be like millions of these quantum computers all over the world. They have to actually have almost absolute zero in a component inside of it just to, whatever, don't even. I can't even. I could say everything that they say about it. I don't understand it. That's how complicated it is.

B: Your OS is not gonna be on a quantum computer. It's not just, certain things it's very, very good at that you don't do normally. So researchers will love it.

J: We might have nanotransistors in some future CPU. But right now, we don't know what's gonna happen. We literally don't know. Like we have, again, we have a certain number of years that we could predict that we're gonna be able to continue the same progress. But Moore's law is gonna end when we hit the physical limit and it's gonna be in most of our lifetimes, we're gonna see that limit get hit. And then luckily, hopefully, there'll be this elegant transition to a new technology to keep the pace. But you know what? It might not happen.

B: At some point, the physics has limits. You can only get so hot and so fast until you create a computer that's so dense and hot that you create a black hole. I mean, there's limits. There are limits, but I think we're pretty far away from limits. But I mean, I think if memory serves, I think some of the fastest computations that could potentially be done, I mean, they're talking like 10 to the 50 computations, calculations per second, something like that. I could be off by a little bit, but that's, so there are limits, but we're not near there. But eventually, we will hit the limits. And knowing what those limits are, I think is fascinating.

J: Well, Bob, when they say there's two more waves, just following the pattern that we've had in the past, the waves there's six years of progress and growth and three years of kind of stagnation. So that's we're talking 18 years. We're due for a wave right now, following the pattern. So we right now, and then go forward nine years, and then we have another wave, and then we're kind of at the end.

S: But here's the thing though, Jay, is that while technological advancements is not linear, problems are also not linear. And I think we were talking about this before. You were pointing out the fact that getting more and more transistors onto a computer chip is harder and harder to do. It's a nonlinear problem. That means it takes an incredible amount of more work and research and development to make the same amount of advance as you go forward. And we're just getting to the sort of steep part of the curve where it's really hard to push forward. And also that nonlinear aspect of the problems themselves is also not evenly distributed because you reach bottlenecks or hurdles that you need to get over. And so what you're saying is we're getting to a hurdle where it's just linear advancements, incremental advancements, not going to do it. We need a new paradigm. And nobody knows what that is until we know what it is. And sometimes it doesn't happen, you know? The coming hydrogen economy never came because we never got over the hurdles. And will we do it in the future? Who knows? You can't predict those things.

E: Does this invalidate Moore's law because we're running up against this hurdle?

B: No, I mean, Moore's law is works with-

E: It's more of a guideline.

B: You know, yeah, it is a guideline and it was never meant to be infallible forever. And the transition from one paradigm to the next, who knows what the next paradigm is? We've been lucky to relatively easily go from one paradigm to the next. But at some point, who knows, after silicon, we could potentially go for a couple of decades or more without something that really allows us to pace again and keep going. I mean, we're really approaching some fundamental limits with silicon and it can't tweak that forever. And some people thought that it would have ended, even before today, but we're getting near to the end and hopefully there's another paradigm coming.

J: Well, the good news is that human ingenuity is incredibly powerful. You know, we have people all over the world. And again, these companies are spending billions of dollars doing R&D and that's what we need. That's why a healthy economy is so powerful because it allows companies to invest money into these technologies, like the mRNA platform. Like we were lucky that the money was there for these companies to put the time and energy into developing that platform because we needed it. You know what I mean? Like there came a time when we really needed it. Computer processing, the more powerful computers we have, the more we can do and the more incredible things that we can get hardware and software to do for us in our lives. So the need is there, the money is there. It's just, we just got to hope that the ingenuity is there to make it happen.

S: We just need the nerds.

J: Yep.

Brain Organoids with Eyes ()[edit]

S: Cara, so you sent me this news on it, but I had already seen it. It's very cool. I mean, I couldn't resist brain organoids with little eye cups.

C: Yeah.

S: Tell them what's going on.

C: It's really cool. Okay, they really look like, let me describe what they look like first. They look like little egg yolks. Yeah. They're not egg yolks, because they're clumps of cells, they're brain organoids. And they've got these little brownish, blackish, almost like a snowman with coal eyes. That's what it looks like, except it's under the microscope. So now that you can envision that, hold that image in your head while we talk about this. This is based on a study that was published in Cell Stem Cell. The name of the study, which kind of has a lot of weight to it, is human brain organoids assemble functionally integrated bilateral optic vesicles. What does that mean? Let's break that down. We've talked before about organoids, right? They're these little brain-like things that can be grown in vitro, outside of the animal, from induced pluripotent stem cells. So let's break that down. We know what stem cells are. They're cells that can become things. They're precursor cells that aren't the things that they're going to become yet. Pluripotent means they can become lots of different things. They're not dedicated to becoming one thing. Induced pluripotent stem cells mean that we've backward engineered adult, or not adult, but older cells to be able to go back to that kind of primordial form to then be able to become whatever we induce them to become. So these are induced pluripotent stem cells that were utilized to derive human brain organoids. Okay, so this is not new, brain organoids, but it's really cool. And so any study where they did something cool with brain organoids is already interesting, but this one has eye spots. You know, sometimes they refer to them as optic cups. Sometimes they're calling them optic vesicles. I think the issue here is that this isn't a real brain. It's a blob outside of the organism that was grown into brain-like tissue. So because it is an organoid, they're also not eyes. They're eye-like things.

B: They're eyeoids.

C: Yeah, they're eyeoids, opticoids. So in the study, they refer to them over and over again as optic vesicles, but in all the write-ups, they refer to them as optic cups. And I think that's because when you look at the actual anatomics of what an optic cup is, it's the little disc-like shape where the retina would eventually sit in and grow from. So-

B: Is it concave?

C: Yeah, yeah, it's like a little cup.

B: It's like a primitive, it's like a very primitive eye, then, that's what primitive eyes were like that.

C: A good way to put this is that it is kind of like a primitive eye. I mean, it's sort of that ontogeny and phylogeny, you know, question, right? We're here talking about development. We're not talking about evolutionary change, but you do see that it's not a perfect metaphor, but that some of the things that happen developmentally also happen when we talk about evolutionary development. And you're right, there are organisms, or historically, there were organisms that had very simple eye spots. These brain organoids grew these very simple eye spots. But here's the coolest thing about it. This is the first time it's ever been done out of the brain organoid. So other researchers have grown primitive eye-like things, optic vesicles. Other researchers have grown brain organoids. These researchers grew brain organoids, and then they were like, hmm, I wonder what would happen if we add some of the factors that are necessary for these eye spot things to grow. I wonder how they would grow in conjunction with these cells. And so they tried it out, and it worked. And it worked in something like 73% of the 300-some-odd attempts that they made. So it's reproducible.

B: I don't find that surprising at all, because, I mean, aren't your eyes essentially like pieces of your brain?

E: Extensions of your brain.

C: Yeah, so eyes-

B: It's really what they are.

C: I wouldn't call it brain, but it is definitely central nervous system.

S: It's central nervous system.

C: Yeah, so because your eyes do have nerve cells in them, right, and they're central nervous system cells, so there's a lot of different types of cells in your retina. In this case, they were looking a lot at retinal, thought they were looking at retinal ganglion cells, but they're also looking a lot at the pigment epithelia. And the cool thing about these eye spots is as they started to learn more about them, they started to see a lot of things that are reminiscent or that tap into more mature, organized eyes. So first things first, around day 30 of these little brain organoids growing, they started to see the optic vesicles being assembled. And then by day 60, they were visible structures. So they could see them kind of at the cellular level by day 30. By day 60, they were like, holy crap, that looks kind of like an eye, which is really cool. And when they looked at these kind of the structures and what was going on cellularly within these optic vesicle containing brain organoids, they found corneal epithelial cells. They found cells that look like lens cells. They found retinal pigment epithelia. They found progenitor cells. So things that would eventually grow into retina. They found little projections that look like the axons of these neurons. They even found that they were electrically active. So here's a cool thing. If they turned on the lights or turn them off, they would respond. So they were photosensitive. They were able to photo bleach them and reset their photosensitivity. So it wasn't just a one-time thing. They were continuously working and able to detect light. And all of this happened in a self-organized way. Like that's the really cool thing. So they're putting off certain factors that you only will see in eyes. Like they're putting off myelinated neurons. They even developed microglia, like things that are always gonna be developing within brain and within these eye structures. And it did it in a kind of self-assembling way. So I always find that's a really cool thing. It's like if you give it all the ingredients, it starts to do what it has learned to do throughout human evolution.

B: Self-organization. Cara, when I talked about organoids, I mentioned that the stem cells were reprogrammed. Was there any?

C: Yeah, these are too. That's the difference between induced pluripotent and pluripotent cells that are maybe taken out of embryonic tissue early enough on in development. So they're induced to go back to their pluripotent stem cell state. So they haven't been organized into anything.

B: Oh, so that's what they meant by reprogrammed.

C: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think that's probably what they referred to when they said they were reprogrammed.

B: Yeah, it makes sense.

C: Yeah, so of course they can become anything. They're inducing them to become brain-like by giving them the types of factors, the types of like proteins and different signals to grow into brain. And so in this case, they said let's do the same thing but with eye, but let's do it in the brain or the organoid of the brain and see what happens. And it was like, sure, we'll make eyes. And the other cool thing is the eyes were bilateral and they were symmetrical.

E: Yeah, that's interesting. Why not one? Why didn't it develop just one eye or eyeoid?

C: It must be that these instructions, these ingredients are, I mean, because remember, these have DNA. These are pluripotent stem cells, but they still have all of the blueprints to make life. And so even though in the lab, researchers can say, you guys can become whatever you're gonna become. Let's give you a couple little indicators of to what you should become based on like the food that we give you, based on the molecules that we're putting within your cellular environment. And then they start to grow into brain or they start to grow into liver or they start to grow into whatever they're inducing them to grow into. In this case, brain/eye or first brain, then eye. But our DNA tells our eyes how to develop. Our DNA tells our body. It is a blueprint for what "should happen". And when I say should, I mean, what is viable. Our DNA has done a lot of trial and error. And our DNA says, let's make two eyes. The interesting thing is, do we know exactly how that works? I don't know.

S: Just to put a 64,000 foot view on this. When you think about it from one perspective, the brain itself, a fully developed brain contains orders of magnitude more information than the genes that code for the brain.

C: Right, yeah.

S: So where does all that extra information come from? That's because the genes are not a blueprint. The genes don't say put a neuron here, connect it to this neuron with these. It doesn't do that. It's just a set of rules for this self-organization. And then the brain self-organizes it based upon its environment, its connections, and its feedback. So part of it is what we call-

C: And all that happens chemically and electrically.

S: Yeah.

C: So it's putting off these different factors. It's firing in certain patterns. And the cells around it are going, that's interesting. I might go to there. Or I want to now fire just like you fired. And eventually, yeah, we do start to see structures form. And we start to see pathways, like actual circuits being formed. Yeah, anatomy and physiology.

S: Yeah, and that's where all this extra information comes from, the developmental process itself. So with the organoid, you're just getting a clump of cells that's not in the right environment. It's not connected to the rest of the body. It's not getting the sensory feedback and all that stuff that it would normally get. Survive longer, because normally they would-

C: Yeah, these are tiny. But you don't really need a blood supply if you can give it everything that it needs. Like if it's small enough-

B: Yeah, it'd have to be very small.

C: That you can feed it medium. So if you're growing stuff in vitro, usually you're growing it in a dish that has liquid around it. And you're-

E: That's its energy source.

C: Well, you're feeding it medium, yeah. So like when I used to grow monolayer nerve cell networks, that was all of my research at my master's level. They weren't organoids. There was no such thing as an organoid back then. But they were flat nerve cell networks that would self-organize. You would just kind of stick some cells in the middle, and they would start to grow into a network on their own, because they had everything they needed to do that. But they lived in dishes, in incubators. And every two days, I would have to take off liquid and put in fresh liquid. And that liquid had all sorts of things, growth factors, it had sugars, it had vitamin C, it had all the nutritional components to keep the cells alive.

B: Right, that's great for flat cells. But when you've got like a million cell clump of organoid tissue, the ones that I talked about a couple of years ago, they would die after just three days without a blood supply.

C: I could see that if they were big, I mean, these are still microscopic. They're small. So if they're floating in this liquid, I think that they're getting what they need. But you're right. It's probably gonna limit the size until you can start to deliver vasculature, or some sort of, what would you call it? Like a PICC line, or some sort of a stint, a shunt? A tube to get to the innermost layers. Otherwise, you're right, it would die because the middle wouldn't be fed.

E: You'd feed them golden rice.

C: Yeah, but these are small. So yeah, I think that's an interesting question, Bob. Like eventually, if you want to start modeling like different areas of the brain or different structure, this is so simple. I don't wanna say it's homogenous because it's probably not homogenous. I have no idea if there's any kind of self-organization happening within this glob of cells, but it seems to be the fact that they sort of developed the way they were gonna develop, and then they didn't want to, they used the same protocols they had been using to make organoids before. It looks like it's a four-brain organoid. And then they added retinol acetate to the medium after it had started to develop in order to aid eye development.

Fusion Advance (1:04:58)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us about the latest advance in fusion energy.

B: Yeah, fusion news this week. The United States National Ignition Facility, which we've talked about, claims an important milestone recently in fusion power research that one researcher dared to call a Wright Brothers moment. So what happened? Is it really a Wright Brothers moment? Yeah, I totally get it, Steve. We will talk about that. I may have to slightly disagree, but all right. So fusion power research is, of course, considered one of the holy grails of energy research. You know, the fuel is essentially limitless, virtually zero carbon emissions without most of the downsides of fission. This is just such an amazing thing that I've been waiting most of my life for. So fusion very simply, very, very simply combines elements to create a new element plus a little bit of energy. That's probably the simplest explanation of fusion I could think of. So in my opinion, though, there's four types of fusion that people should know about. Assuming that the word fusion doesn't make your eyes glaze over, much the way the words DragonCon and NCC-1701 makes Cara's eyes glaze over. So number one, there's stellar fusion, which occurs in our sun and all stars for that matter, all stars, and it's kind of important. It's the main reason why there's such a massive local decrease in entropy around us, allowing our life to exist. Next, there's thermonuclear fusion. That's a fusion that occurs at the heart of a thermonuclear or a so-called hydrogen bomb explosion, right? Did you know that fusion actually is happening there? Of course, we need fission to make that fusion happen, but you know, it doesn't matter. The next two types of fusion, though, are mediated by technology, and we've been researching them as power sources for decades. There's two primary branches of fusion energy research, magnetic confinement fusion, which essentially uses magnetic fields to combine the fusion fuel in the form of a plasma. Tokamaks are magnetic confinement. There's also a stellarator, and there's also a z-pinch options as well, and you may have heard of ITER and SPARC, MIT SPARC. Those are tokamaks, those are toruses, donut-shaped. So today's news item is about the second branch of mainstream fusion energy research, and this is inertial confinement fusion. This technique is laser-based, which makes it very cool, and it essentially uses many converging laser beams to force a symmetrical implosion that can compress isotopes of hydrogen that can force, then, fusion to occur. So this is the technique that NIF uses, and they hit a dramatic milestone this past August 8th, a few days before Jay's birthday. So imagine a pea-sized capsule filled with hydrogen isotopes, and that's suspended in a small container. That container is called a horcrux. No, sorry, it's called a holdrum. It's a holdrum.

C: I don't get it. It's okay.

B: Harry Potter.

C: Go ahead, go ahead.

B: So they hit it with 192 separate ultraviolet laser beams, packing a wallop of 1.9 million joules, megajoules. This bombards the capsule with X-rays that compresses the fuel to something like, get this, 100 times the density of lead, making it hotter than the center of the sun, 100 million degrees. So this creates a tiny piece of plasma. When I say tiny, I mean, this little hotspot is so tiny. Imagine a sphere with the width of a human hair. Within that area, we're talking within 100 trillionths of a second, they ignited, essentially, 10 quadrillion watts of fusion power. Amazing. Now, of course, it's for a very, very, very tiny speck of time, but it's still, that's a lot of fusion power and very encouraging. So now this record-

C: Can they capture it?

B: I mean, they, it's, well, they captured it for 100 trillionths of a second. It was there.

S: But I think what Cara's asking, Bob, is were they able to use that heat constructively?

E: Yeah, what can we do?

C: Yeah, can we harness it?

B: No, I mean, it's not-

S: No, they haven't figured out how to do that yet.

B: They used it to measure it. Like, how much, how much is there? Okay, got it. That's all that matters at this point. So now, this is dramatic. This is very impressive. It's actually impressing pretty much everyone, even diehard skeptics. Now, keep in mind, before I go any further, these results have not been peer reviewed, but the researchers claim that their experiment released 1.3 megajoules of energy, which is about five times the 250 kilojoules that were absorbed by the capsule. That's, if you think about that, that's pretty solid. So let's go, let's look at it this way. So in terms of improvement, one year ago, their best yield was 52,000 joules. Six months ago, it was 170,000 joules. Last week, it was 1.35 million joules. So this is where they've gone in one year. So that's eight times more than six months ago, and 25 times more yield than last year.

E: How far can we go, or they go?

B: Well, yeah, well, you shall find out. So that's 70% of the energy delivered to the hydrogen capsule, and that's important because it shows two things. All right, pay attention. One, the NIF scientists believe they've reached a milestone called burning plasma. Wasn't, I really hadn't heard about this one before. So this means that the fusion reactions are providing enough heat for more fusion to happen. Think about that. There was enough heat so that more fusion was happening. Burning plasma means that the reactions themselves provide the heat for more fusion to happen. And it also means that for the first time, we are now seeing the beginnings of a self-sustaining reaction, fusion reaction, the very beginnings of that happening. So now reaching that milestone is important, not only because you could do new types of research on this type of plasma, but it also means that we are on the cusp of the holy grail of fusion power, one of the holy grails, the ignition point, ignition. Now, ignition point means that a nuclear fusion reaction has become truly self-sustaining. It doesn't just quickly peter out. It just keeps going and going. Well, I mean, whatever fuel's there is gonna burn, so make sure your fuel is kept away from the kids. So now, ignition happens when the heat from fusion overwhelms any of the cooling mechanisms that are trying to spoil our fun. And I was gonna-

C: God, that sounds really scary.

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: It's a controlled hydrogen bomb, yeah.

B: Right, exactly. And there's a real nice tangent I can go on into here, but that would take too much time. So now external heat, external energy is no longer needed to bring the fuel to fusion temperatures so that you could turn off the lasers and let the fusion do its thing. So now once we've reached that point, that's a Nobel Prize right there, and there'll be a lot of drunk scientists when you see in the paper that ignition point has been reached. So we haven't reached break-even or ignition yet at the NIF, but the dramatic improvements of the past year are not only encouraging, but have brought us to the cusp of ignition, to the ignition point. In fact, Stephen Bodner, who's a retired plasma physicist and critic of NIF, said, I'm surprised they have come close enough to their goal of ignition and break-even to call it a success. He's basically saying that this is essentially a success of their mission, which was to hit ignition. They're so close to ignition, in his opinion, that they may as well call it a success. Stephen Bodner also said that this demonstrates to the world that there's no fundamental reason why laser fusion can't work. And if anything, that might be the big takeaway here, that this really shows that we're so close that it essentially proves that laser fusion works. So let's go to the quote, and this is the quote from Omar A. Hurricane. He's Chief Scientist for the Inertial Confinement Fusion Program at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He said, our result is a significant step forward in understanding what's required for it to work. To me, this is a Wright Brothers moment. So, okay, Wright Brothers moment. So yeah, this is definitely a statement designed to make headlines and get clicks. If we had reached the ignition point, I'd have no qualms at all about that statement. But yeah, so it's a little bit much, but I will say this. The comparison he's making is not complete horse hockey, as Colonel Sherman T. Potter used to say. It's not. The Wright Brothers showed that powered flight is possible, right? That's basically what the Wright Brothers did. Look it, powered flight is a thing.

S: Yeah, but they actually flew, though. This is like saying that their plane design worked in an air tunnel.

C: Yeah, but didn't they only fly at the beginning for like three seconds?

B: No, Steve, I'm conceding that they did not hit ignition. But my point is, I believe you can certainly argue that these results, if verified, show that inertial confinement is very likely a viable method of fusion. Like I said, they are so close to ignition that you could, at this point, and some scientists are agreeing, they're saying that we're basically there at this point. There's really nothing in our way to get to ignition. Now, it doesn't mean that this will be a practical power source on a large scale. Not at all. It just means that we could hit the ignition point. Just like Kitty Hawk didn't necessarily prove that hypersonic jet fighters were inevitable. They did not prove that. This may not be a viable method. It may turn out that this type of inertial confinement won't work, and that the more direct method of inertial confinement, which I didn't get into, maybe that's the one that will work, and some scientists believe that. Or maybe inertial confinement will never be practical, and we need to use a tokamak. So nothing's inevitable here, but they are so close to that goal of ignition that it basically proves, because a lot of people were skeptical about inertial confinement, that they would never get there. And I think this kind of shows that no, they are so close. They are pretty much there in some sense. But, so I'll end with Professor Jeremy Chittenden, who is co-director of the Center for Inertial Confusion Studies at Imperial College London, who said it best, I think, with literally no exaggeration. He said, the pace of improvement in energy output has been rapid, suggesting we may soon reach more energy milestones, such as exceeding the energy input from the lasers used to kickstart the process, essentially ignition. So yeah, he put it in the most realistic way, that their progress has been so rapid that it suggests that we can, we may soon reach that other, that next milestone of ignition for inertial confinement. So here's to the potential death of that 50-year-old joke, which is a dig at fusion, that fusion is 50 years away and always will be. I think that joke is gonna have to die or be severely modified at some point. Because the progress we've been making, even with other methods of fusion, I think they're making such, I mean, it's incremental, for sure, it's incremental, but at some point you have enough incrementals where you're you could say that this looks like it's gonna happen, for sure, at some point in the near future. And they're essentially at the cusp. I wouldn't be surprised if they hit ignition in two or three years.

S: So I will, I think that's all reasonable, Bob. Again, my one caution-

B: Good, I've achieved my goal, then.

S: Is that, and this has been true of the-

B: Yes, that last little bit, right? That last 5%, right?

S: It's problems are nonlinear. It takes more and more and more energy to get the plasma contained at higher temperatures and densities. And it's not a linear problem. It's like every incremental improvement is twice as hard as the previous incremental improvement. And that's why 70 years ago, they thought it was right around the corner because they were extrapolating from linear progress that they were making early on. Then they were like, oh no, this is getting, every little step we take is getting twice as hard. And so it took a lot longer than they thought. So while we might be technically close, we don't know how difficult that next step is gonna be. And that's why until we make it, I'm not ready to pop the quarks.

B: Yeah, I'm not popping them either. I hear you.

C: Bob, am I to take from this, because I understood 30% of the words you used, is am I to take from this that we may not even be close, but we now know it's actually possible?

B: No, I mean, we are close. I mean, they're basically 70% of the energy was returned.

C: Okay, so we're close, but we also know now we have a very solid proof of concept that we didn't have before.

S: Yes, a very solid proof of concept.

C: Okay, which is a big deal.

B: Right, yeah. So basically they went from 3% to 70% in a couple years. I mean, this is such a dramatic increase. They're clearly on the right path here. But Steve, yeah, Steve, you're right. Typically in a lot of these situations, that last 5% takes 1,000 times the effort it took you to get to 95%, right? And that can certainly happen. They may find that that sphere needs to be so perfect that they can't get it perfect enough to make the implosion perfectly symmetrical. And there's always gonna be like plasma squeaking out somewhere because of an asymmetry, like I was talking about with the neutron stars. That's certainly possible. But a lot of these scientists are so happy and they think that they're so close that it's almost a proof of concept of inertial fusion itself, inertial confinement.

E: You forgot the fifth fusion, cold fusion.

B: Yeah, that has entered my mind a couple times this afternoon, so I'm not gonna talk about it.

S: Yeah, the fifth fusion, the one that doesn't exist.

Who's That Noisy? (1:18:25)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
Wood carving

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

J: All right, guys, last week I played this noisy. [plays Noisy] Man, I was so sure that somebody was gonna guess this one, but nobody guessed it, so let's look at what we got sent. I don't know, you guys have any guesses about this?

S: Sounds like something rotating.

C: I'm so bad at this game. Sounds like something screaming.

E: Something trying to start up, like a crank.

J: Well, we had a guest from Shane Hillier, and he said, hi, Jay, for today's who's that noisy, I definitely hear ice cracking. That makes me think it's a guy ice skating on thin ice, but the noisy sounds too aggressive for the sound of skates, so I'm going to guess a guy sawing through ice on a lake. So this is kind of like the beginning of the movie Frozen, but that's not-

E: No, I didn't see it.

C: I've never seen that movie.

J: Oh, God, it's so cute. I have kids.

C: I don't have children.

J: So that's not correct. I've never heard anybody saw ice, so I have to go on YouTube and check that out, so I don't know how close you are, but I still don't think it's a bad guess. I think that there's something icy about that, without a doubt. I have another guest from a listener named Greg, who says this week's noisy sounds like a liquid pump, possibly on a high-pressure liquid chromatography instrument. I work for a company that manufactures them and travel around Western Canada performing installs, repairs, and qualifications on them. Interesting, so a liquid pump. I totally can hear like an air pressure type of thing, or like some type of pressurized thing in that sound. You're not correct, but again, I still think that there are some telltale sounds in there that would sound like that. I have another guess from a listener named Susanna Erickson. She says, hi, I was just adding photos from a 2002 Australia Great Barrier Reef boat trip to my teenage photo album when you played this week's noisy. It's definitely the sound you hear when you're snorkeling and using a snorkel tube to breathe underwater while floating. Now, a lot of people guessed snorkeling on this one, and it's not correct. And again, though, not a bad guess. I've done quite a bit of snorkeling in my time, and I've done some scuba diving, and it does have almost like an underwater air sound. I'm not disagreeing with the guess at all. All right, so I have one more guess. This was the closest that I got. This is from Lydia Parsons, and she says, hello, my guess for this week's who's that noisy is a metal blade of some sort, machete? being ground sharpened on a rotating stone. Thanks, wonderful episode. Okay, so this is what she got correct. My guess for this week's who's that noisy is a metal blade of some sort. Yes, this is a metal blade. A metal blade is involved with this. What's actually happening is that this is a curved metal blade being used to do what? Being used to shave wood.

S: Sounds like a lathe.

J: No, no, imagine if the piece of wood was facing away from you, like let's say it's a long piece of wood, and it's pointing away from you, and you take this curved blade, you extend your arms, you put it down on the wood, then you pull the blade towards you.

S: Okay.

J: Right? So here, listen to it again. [plays Noisy] See that? So it's like a wood carving, wood shaving type of deal. Really interesting because again, I say this from time to time, there's just so many sounds without the context of seeing what's going on. You just don't know what the hell it is. Like everything is so contextual.

C: It's why foley works in movies.

B: Yeah, yeah.

C: It's why when somebody punches somebody in the face, you can literally crack celery, and it sounds the same.

J: Yeah. Do you ever see that one where, I forget the name of it, it's an audio pareidolia type thing where the person is saying, there's the same exact mouth movement, but they overdub different words, and it looks like he's saying the two different words. It just depends on what word you're reading.

C: Oh yeah, it's the McGurk effect.

J: McGurk effect.

C: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's really cool.

J: Man, I mean, talk about reality being created in your brain right before your eyes.

C: Yeah, that's why we hear like Satan when we play Led Zeppelin backwards and stuff.

J: Is that what you hear? Satan, oh my God.

E: I like the cookie monster one. That's a good one, look it up.

J: You know which one I love? Do you ever see the one with the count from-

C: Yes, with all the bleeps.

J: Yeah, and they bleep them out, and they bleep it out at the right time, and it sounds like he's swearing like crazy.

E: Yeah, that's the cookie monster one.

C: They bleep out every time he says the word count, so he's like, I like to beep.

J: I like to beep on the wall and beep on the camera.

C: That's amazing.

J: It's awesome.

E: Yep, use your brain, fill in the blank.

New Noisy (1:23:22)[edit]

J: All right, I have a new noisy for you guys this week, and this noisy was sent in by a listener named Dennis Kiefer.


So, this isn't the same action being done three times.

E: I know what that is.

J: Do you, wanna tell me?

E: It's that carnival game where you have the gun, and you're shooting the red star. You know those little pellets come out.

J: Oh, I used to love doing that.

E: Yeah, those are fun.

J: I remember reading a website that tells you how to beat that game, but that game is almost impossible to beat.

E: Yeah, very tough. The star is just big enough that, and they don't give you just enough pellets to knock the whole star out. It's rude.

C: I thought it was the pinball thingy-

B: The boing.

C: -like the little thing that you pull back when you play the pinball.

E: Oh, the plunger, what do they call it?

J: Well, whatever your guess is, if you have one, email it to me at, and also, please do, send me in your noisies. I need to hear them.

S: All right, thanks, Jay.

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

_consider_using_block_quotes_for_emails_read_aloud_in_this_segment_ with_reduced_spacing_for_long_chunks –

Email #1: Animals that Cook[edit]

S: One quick email, this comes from, well, actually, this comes from a bunch of people. So at the Science Fiction last week, one of them was that humans are the only animal that cooks, and as I mentioned at the time, it's hard to prove a negative, right, that there's no animal out there that cooks their food. So all I could do is either search for examples or listen to what I consider to be reliable sources who make that positive statement, humans are the only animals that cook. So several listeners emailed what they thought were counterexamples, but I don't think any of them are legitimate. So a couple of people emailed me, for example, about Kanzi, who's a bonobo, and Kanzi will start a fire and roast marshmallows. That's pretty cool.

B: Start a fire with a cigarette lighter or with, like, two sticks?

S: No, with matches that were supplied to him.

B: Matches, all right.

E: The marshmallow's not its food, though. It was given that food.

C: So are the matches, yeah, the whole thing. Of course you can teach a great ape to cook over fire. You could teach a great ape to do a lot of cool shit.

B: I can have him use my computer, too.

C: Yeah.

S: Right, but it doesn't count. He was given the matches, he was taught the behavior. It doesn't occur in nature. It's not a behavior that they engage in. There was another experiment, though, when I was researching about that, that I came across, which is interesting. They did a study. They wanted to know if you could teach chimps to cook food, right? So they created a magic box, which was like an oven. But the way it was, because they didn't want to give the chimps actual fire, just for safety reasons. So they created this setup that, like, if the chimpanzees put food in a box for a few minutes, then they would replace it with cooked food, so then they would take cooked food out of the box. And so the chimps eventually learned.

C: That's mean.

S: Well, they learned that if they put food in that box, then it cooks the food, right? Because the food then comes out cooked. It was a black box to them, right? So literally, they didn't know what was happening. And they wanted to see if the behavior would generalize, you know? And it did. So they were able to, when acquiring other food that they weren't trained on, at some point, like, hey, what if I put this food in the box? Will they get cooked, quote-unquote, cooked? And also, they definitely preferred the cooked food. Like, they liked to eat the cooked food. Because why not? It's cooked, yeah. But again, this doesn't mean that chimps cook their food. They don't. It was just, yeah, experimental paradigm. Someone suggested there are macaques in, I think it's Japan, that will wash their potatoes in the salt water, and they may like the salty taste that it gives them, but that's not really cooking. But there was an article about it.

E: It's seasoning.

S: Yeah, they called it seasoning. They called it cooking in quotes. Like, yeah, the cooking in quotes, I'm not buying that. They weren't applying heat in order to denature proteins. Right? Like, they weren't cooking the food.

E: Changing the chemicals.

S: Yeah, they just maybe like the way it tastes when you get the salt water on it.

E: It's like a condiment, yeah.

S: Yeah, yeah, whatever. And another one gave example of birds that, like, if a fire occurs naturally, they will use the, they will, like, pick up a stick on fire and do something with it. But again, it was an example of cooking. So there are, I like crowdsourcing these kinds of things because some people might have some, like, have come across some very obscure, fact somewhere that didn't come up with my internet searching that happens every now and then. But not in this case. I think at least so far, no example, no counter examples of non-human animals actually cooking their food.

E: That chimp with the box that they gave to cook the food, they opened a restaurant called the Chimperiani's.

B: What's in the box?

E: Well, that made me laugh.

S: Let's go on with science or fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:29:37)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Saturn has a rocky core
Science Auditory cortex's process
Covid college drinking
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Saturn has a rocky core
Auditory cortex's process
Saturn has a rocky core
Saturn has a rocky core

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

Item #1: Neuroscientists find that the auditory cortex processes linguistic and non-linguistic sound in parallel, rather than serial hierarchical processing as previously believed.[5]
Item #2: A study of seismic activity within Saturn that ripples through its gas layers indicates that Saturn has a large, mostly solid rocky core.[6]
Item #3: A new survey finds that alcohol drinking among college students actually decreased during the COVID pandemic.[7]

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, one fake, and then I challenge my panelists to tell me which one is the fake. You guys ready for just three regular news items? Okay, here we go. Item number one, neuroscientists find that the auditory cortex processes linguistic and non-linguistic sound in parallel rather than serial hierarchical processing as previously believed. I'll explain that one to you, don't panic. Item number two, a study of seismic activity within Saturn that ripples through its gas layers indicates that Saturn has a large, mostly solid rocky core. And item number three, a new survey finds that alcohol drinking among college students actually decreased during the COVID pandemic. Jay, go first.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right, this first one here, neuroscientists, Steve, you know about these guys, right? A little bit? They find that auditory cortex processes linguistic and non-linguistic sounds in parallel rather than serial hierarchical processing as previously believed.

S: I'm happy to explain that to you.

J: I think I got it.

S: Okay.

J: So basically the auditory cortex, which is the part of your brain that processes incoming sound, whether it's language or non-language sounds, it can interpret them at the same time rather than having to interpret them one at a time. So if you have multiple sounds hitting your ears, your brain can hear them and dissect what they are at the same time, is that it?

S: Sort of, you're kind of missing the key point here. So that's why it was hard for me to explain this in one sentence. I just wanted to back up a little bit. So the classic view was that when your auditory information went from your ears to your auditory cortex, first it would decide if it was language or not. And then if it decided this is language, it would then go to a deeper level of processing of just language, right? So that's a serial hierarchical processing. You have these like multiple steps. First you decide if it's language or not, then you decide like if it is language, what words are being said. But what the new study found was that's not what happens, that linguistic sound is just parallel, is processed on its own pathway and not in a serial pathway. And it's-

C: And so is non-linguistic sound?

S: And non-linguistic sound is on a separate parallel pathway.

C: Right, but they're not parallel. They're on their own parallel pathways.

S: Yes, right.

B: Where's the determination though, whether it's linguistic or not?

S: That's a separate question. We won't get into that.

J: I see no reason why that isn't science. I mean a neuroscience. I would love to hear what your guess would have been if you heard this question, Steve, but I have no reason to doubt that. The second one here about the study of seismic activity within Saturn that ripples through its gas layers indicate that Saturn has a large, mostly solid rocky core. Saturn has a large, mostly solid rocky core. I don't know. I'm not sure about that one. I have something tickling the back of my brain that says that there's like ice and slushy shit mixed inside there too. Let me move on to the last one. A new survey finds that alcohol drinking among college students actually decreased during the COVID pandemic. I mean, Jesus Christ. Can that possibly be true? All right, well, maybe it is because they were home alone. That makes perfect sense. If they were remote learning, they weren't hanging out with their friends. So that one's definitely science. I think the one about the hierarchical processing is science. So the Saturn one is the fake.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Now, when you say solid rocky core, what do you mean? Does that mean non, like what? Could it be metallic hydrogen? Or do you mean like rock or what? What do you mean?

S: When I say rock, I mean rock. I mean, I'm not sure what you're asking.

E: He doesn't mean paper or scissors.

B: I just think throwing the word rocky in there is just-

J: Yeah, rock.

B: Not right.

S: Like the earth, you know?

B: We don't have a rocky core either. But it's just an annoying term for the center. Yeah, I guess I do. I do. It's just like the implication of it being rocky and not. I mean, can you imagine the pressure and density? I mean, whatever it is, it's got- I mean, last I heard they're thinking Jupiter had like a metallic hydrogen or some form of metallic hydrogen or something like that. I haven't looked at that in a while. I'm not sure what the latest thinking is, but it's something like that incredibly dense. So Saturn is not nearly as massive, pretty damn massive though. I just think it's just so ambiguous. I mean, whatever's there, it's gonna be solid because of all the pressure. Well, sometimes the heat is so extreme. Oh, there's so many possibilities here, Jesus. All right, let's see. Flummoxed. All right, let's go to the COVID one. Yeah, like Jade, my first thought is you gotta be kidding. Second thought, well, wait, they're not with their bad influence friends. Like let's go drinking for the eighth night in a row, no. My two college buddies, my two roommates in college, their record was 21 days in a row, by the way. That sticks in my head. Of course, I did not partake in that. 21 days, that's nuts. So that kind of makes sense. I can have that make sense in my head. The serial hierarchical processing. Sure, I mean, but like I said, how does it know, right? How does it know whether it's a linguistic or not? To me, that's step one. And then depending on where it is, it goes to the proper pathway. So I'm not sure how that would be any different than what you're saying here or what they used to think. Screw it, I'm going with hierarchical processing is fiction.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

B: See, you didn't sound happy when I said that. I think I got it.

E: Oh, Bob.

B: I know, I know.

E: You're convincing me. All these little subtle hints and things. I have no idea about the auditory cortex processes whatsoever. So I did not know it was believed to be one way and then according to this turned out to be something else. No idea, I have no frame of reference for this. So I'm lost. Saturn, a large, mostly solid rocky core. Yeah, what would that solid matter be? What, I mean, iron, liquid iron, iron?

C: Rock.

E: Well, rocky, yeah, rocky core. Right, but wouldn't, how could that be? Wouldn't rock get crushed down into something?

S: It says, yo, Adrian.

E: Yeah.

B: I never use them.

E: Yeah, I don't know about that one. The alcohol one with COVID. Yeah, so no drinking buddies, less alcohol consumed, less of that peer pressure effect on alcohol. I totally believe that. The auditory cortex one sounds very impressive. I think that one's gonna wind up being the science. I'll have to go with the Saturn one is the fiction. I'm not left with any other choice.

S: And Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: I think I'm gonna go with Evan and Jay. I think that we all have the same response to the college one. Honestly, I think that if a kid is drinking regularly all by themselves, like somebody who's in that age range, that's probably a bad sign of alcohol abuse or substance abuse. I think when kids are young and they're over drinking, it usually is a social pressure, not pressure, but it's a social experience. I think that historically, I thought that this processing was both, like that it's not binary, that there is parallel processing, but then there is some hierarchical processing also. But the way that this is written sort of like, it's this rather than what we used to think it was makes it a bit binary. And perhaps it's more this than what we thought. So that one kind of works for me too. But Saturn being based on exactly what, but this makes me nervous is Bob didn't pick this one. And Bob is Mr. Spice. He loves spice.

B: Outer spice.

C: Talk about that Saturn spice. Okay. But I don't know. Yeah, I kind of agree. This is a gas giant. It's really, really, really, really, really, really, really dense. That there would be something liquid because of that, that it wouldn't be able to maintain its solid structure. So I'm gonna go with the two guys and hope that Bob didn't just sweep us.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay. So let's start with number three, since you all agree on that one. A new survey finds that alcohol drinking among college students actually decreased during the COVID pandemic. You guys all think this one is science. And this one is.

B: Say it.

S: Science.

B: Yeah.

S: Science.

E: I'll drink to that.

S: And the researchers went into this not knowing because there was two trends that were in opposite directions. Was the increased stress of the pandemic lead to more drinking? Or was the decreased socialization leading to less drinking? So it really could have gone either way. But what they found was that while there may have been an increase in stress drinking, it was more than offset by the decrease in socialization. So this is a survey data, the data based on college students in North Carolina. And this was first year college students. So the drinking went from 54.2% before the pandemic to 46% mid pandemic. The prevalence of binge drinking dropped from 35.5% to 24.6%. Not dramatic.

B: Not a huge drop.

S: Not a huge drop. 20% of students reported using alcohol or other drugs to cope with the pandemic. So there was some stress drinking, but that probably masked the effect a little bit. But yeah, but it went down and that was not necessarily predicted.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Let's go back to number one. Neuroscientists find that the auditory cortex processes linguistic and non-linguistic sound in parallel rather than serial hierarchical processing as previously believed. Bob, you think this one is the fiction. Everyone else thinks this one is science. And this one is science. Sorry, Bob.

B: Whatever. Answer my question. When is the determination made?

S: This study doesn't necessarily answer that question, but what the study did show-

B: Great.

S: So it was based upon like 20 year study, looking at patients who were having brain surgery that needed to have electrodes placed over the auditory cortex, over that part of the brain. So we had a series of subjects with very high resolution brain surface, EEG. And they agreed to participate in the study where they were given different sounds and we looked at how their brain processed it. And the expectation was that they would be, like with the visual cortex, it's absolutely serial hierarchical processing. There's the primary visual cortex and there's layers of secondary processing. And then it gets divided into two streams based on whether or not you're looking at something that's alive or not, et cetera. So they thought, well, the auditory cortex probably operates the same way. And a little bit harder to study because it's deeper. It's a little bit harder to get to than the occipital cortex where the visual processing is. So it really had to wait for this like opportunistic study like this where we had very high resolution data because they were surgical patients. And they found that, oh, look at that. It's just not operating the way that we thought. These streams seem to be operating in parallel and to be completely independent of each other. Also, they were able to demonstrate, Cara, that it's not just that it's not both, at least in the way they looked at it in the study because they actually tried to interfere with language processing by using auditory stimulation or interfering with that pathway. And it didn't. It did not interfere with the speech at all.

C: Oh, interesting.

S: Yeah, so what they say is like the functional dissociation was also observed where stimulation of the primary auditory cortex evokes auditory hallucination but does not distort or interfere with speech perception. So they were able to continue their speech processing even when the other the non-linguistic auditory cortex was being totally effed with with stimulation. You know, and they were having auditory hallucinations because they were shocking that part of the brain, but they were still able to do language processing. But as soon as you stimulated the language pathway, they stopped, they couldn't speak. Yeah, there were sort of several different lines of evidence, both positive and negative, all pointing towards these sort of independent parallel networks rather than one network sort of operating in series, which is interesting that's organized that way. It's not what I would have expected either, but that's sort of biased by what we know about other parts of the brain, but they don't have to operate the same way. But yes, Bob, that does open a good question. So there must be some other way, or at what point in this pathway does the brain decide this is speech, versus not speech? Yeah, that's a good question.

C: Yeah, it'd be interesting to see if other language, you know, if there's no meaning encoded in the speech, because it's symbolic to you only, like it's a language you don't understand at all, if that is processed the same way.

S: And interestingly, when they were effing with the language cortex, what the subjects reported was that they could hear that somebody was speaking, they knew it was speech, which is very interesting, but it was all garbled up, like all the phonemes and everything was mixed up. So they couldn't make any sense of it, but they still knew it was speech, which is interesting.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right, all this means that a study of seismic activity within Saturn that ripples through its gas layers indicates that Saturn has a largely, mostly solid rocky core, that is the fiction. So this was a recent study, what they found was a couple of interesting things. One is that these ripples actually extended to the ring system, which is fascinating, must be because it was causing-

C: Oh, the seismic ripples.

S: Yeah, these ripples were not only going through the gas layers, but also through the ring system.

B: Well, how does that happen? It's like vacuum between-

S: It must have been causing fluctuations, must have been causing fluctuations in the gravity, I guess.

C: Yeah, that's crazy.

S: But what they found was that the core is a mix of ice, rock, and metallic fluids, and it's very fuzzy, it's not solid at all.

B: Well, it's like Jupiter's core then.

S: But it's lighter, but remember, the thing I thought nobody brought up, and this is the thing that probably I would have used to say this is a fiction, Saturn's the only planet that would float in water, you guys remember that? It's lighter than water.

E: Oh, I didn't remember that.

B: So what?

S: Yeah, which kind of goes against it, having a dense rocky core.

B: A dense core compared to the vast expanse of Saturn itself, I mean, that could still bring it below.

S: That's why I said large, I said a large, solid rocky core.

B: That would have done it.

S: I did say large, I said large.

B: No, I know, but so what, that's what I'm saying. I mean, a large core is still a core, and Saturn's gargantuan. I mean, my point is that wouldn't put me over that it couldn't float.

S: I know, it was a suggestion, it was a hint, it was like I figured somebody might say, would it still be the lightest planet if it had a large, solid rocky core? It would have made you at least think about that, but anyway.

B: But I'm sure it's still dense. I'm sure it's still dense, Steve. Just because it's liquid doesn't mean it's not like liquid metallic hydrogen down there.

S: Well, yeah, it's metallic fluids.

B: Yeah, like metallic hydrogen.

S: Yeah, I know.

B: So that's, yeah, it's some dense stuff.

S: Yeah, but they described it as fuzzy, the core is fuzzy.

B: Fuzzy.

S: It's a diffuse soup of ice, rock, and metallic fluids.

E: Yum.

S: I almost made that one the science about the rippling through the rings, but whatever.

B: Yeah, no, that would have been cool, too.

S: Yeah, all right, well, good job, everyone.

J: Thank you.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:44:41)[edit]

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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[8]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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