SGU Episode 850
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|SGU Episode 850|
|October 23rd 2021|
|(brief caption for the episode icon)|
|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
RW: Richard Wiseman
|Quote of the Week|
Science knows no country because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.
Louis Pasteur, French chemist and microbiologist
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. (applause) Today is Wednesday, October 20th, 2021, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...
B: Hey, everybody!
S: Cara Santa Maria...
S: Jay Novella...
J: Hey guys.
S: ...and Evan Bernstein.
E: Good evening, everyone.
S: We have a full boat for the first time in a few weeks.
E: Oh, yeah.
E: Everyone's here.
E: All present.
S: We have a fantastic interview coming up later in the show with Richard Wiseman and David Copperfield.
S: Yes, the David Copperfield.
S: And I do want to use the bulk of that interview.
S: So we're going to keep the pace up in the rest of the show.
S: Yeah, we're going to go.
S: We're going to dive right into the news items. How about that?
(laughs) (laughter) (applause) [inaudible]
Pig Kidneys (00:48)
S: Cara, tell me about putting pig kidneys into humans.
C: Well, this is obviously something that I think has been on the back of people's minds and the forefront of some experts' minds for quite a long time. Some people may not know that this is not something we've done before. But I think most of us, at least here on the show, know that this has been a real goal of modern biomedicine for a very long time. And now a genetically engineered pig that was engineered by a company called Revivacor.
C: Yeah, no lie.
C: That sounds like a company's name out of like a Terminator franchise.
S: Or out of The Simpsons or something.
C: Yeah, exactly.
C: Yeah, right?
C: They actually genetically engineered a pig that is missing the protein that codes for the alpha-gal sugar.
C: And I don't know if you guys remember, but we covered this quite a while ago on the show.
C: The alpha-gal sugar is a sugar that some people are allergic to in pigs. So some people have a meat allergy when they try to eat pork. This company got FDA approval to genetically engineer pigs to not produce this sugar to try and prevent this very severe allergy. And hey, it has another use. How about growing organs that may not be rejected by human recipients?
J: Wow, that's huge.
C: Yeah. So here's a really cool thing that happened. And it's big. It's very big. And pretty much everybody interviewed said it's very big. I don't think we should get too far out in front of ourselves, but it is still very big. A woman who died, who had been a certified organ donor, couldn't donate her organs. For whatever reason, her organs weren't fit for donation. And so her family gave consent to do this interesting experiment. So she was put onto a ventilator. So she was a...
S: She was brain dead?
C: A beating heart to cadaver. Yeah, a brain dead woman. And they took a kidney that had been grown in a genetically engineered pig that didn't produce this alpha-gal protein, and they actually attached it to a blood supply in the woman's leg. So they didn't put it inside her body, but they did attach it to her on the... using her own vasculature. They attached it so that they could observe it on the outside of her body. And they kept it attached for just over two days, something like 54 hours, I think. Yeah. And guess what happened? The kidney started making urine.
J: Oh my God.
C: It started making creatinine.
C: It started working like a normal kidney. To be safe, they also transplanted the thymus along with it, just to kind of improve the potential immune function of the organ, like to prevent rejection right at the beginning. Nobody knew if this would work. They've seen it work before in primates. And when I say they've seen it work in primates, I don't mean we've been able to use primate kidneys in humans. We haven't been able to do that. There's actually a lot of problems with that, which is why pigs seem to be the best option. But we have been able to transplant organs grown in pigs into primates, but that leap to human beings hasn't happened yet. We've seen heart valves from pigs. We've seen corneas from pigs, even skin grafts from pigs utilized for burns. But this is the first time that a whole organ has been transplanted again to a brain... Unfortunately, a brain dead patient, and only we saw the functioning for the first two days, and then they removed everything. But 54 hours and no immediate rejection, no immediate cause for concern at all. There's really no way to know if rejection would occur after the fact. There's no way to know if rejection would occur when put into the body, or if it would occur in somebody who's up and moving around. But that said, this is a huge step forward for what they call xenotransplantation. So that's a cross-species transplantation, especially given that 23,401 people last year in the US got kidney donations, and thousands more didn't. I think something like 12 people a day die on the transplant list, because there just aren't enough.
C: And so there are some ethical questions around growing pigs for organ transplantation, kind of like farming pigs for that. But a lot of people think that the ethics are not as nebulous as historical concerns around primates, simply because we already grow pigs for food.
S: Exactly. Now, it's common to do this kind of research where the question is, will the patient immediately drop dead? You just want to know that there's not going to be some catastrophic immediate complication so that you can do the next step in the research. So this is just setting us up.
C: Will they drop dead?
C: Will all their blood clot?
C: Will there be some sort of massive reaction to setting up this organ?
C: And the patient didn't.
S: So it doesn't mean it won't work.
S: It just means now we could actually do the real research on it.
S: We could put it into a living patient, for example.
C: And it may provide more sort of evidence to jump through the regulatory hurdles that really are in the way, right? This is a massive ethical question. It's a massive regulatory question. But having this sort of first, this is why I think the more measured headline, scientists took the first steps toward pig to human kidney transplants, as opposed to headlines like, people now have pig organs. Like, that's not true. But we are now a step closer. And it's a big step.
S: Yeah, absolutely.
Scientists Abused for Discussing COVID (6:33)
S: All right, Jay. This is an interesting Nature survey, so Nature magazine, about scientists being abused and attacked simply for talking in public about the pandemic, about COVID.
S: What's going on here?
C: Not surprised.
J: Yeah, I've been saying for years that scientists are no longer respected.
J: And then also that experts are no longer trusted, as they should be.
J: You know, it's funny, like, the less we trust the experts, the more we need to, you know, those two things go hand in hand. So the glut of anti-intellectualism seemed to reach its zenith over the last four years here in the US. And it's now at the point where scientists around the world are unfortunately receiving death threats and sexual assault threats after they speak to the media, particularly about COVID-19. So this information came from a survey, like Steve said, run by Nature magazine. Of the 321 scientists they surveyed, 15% said they received some form of death threat. Two thirds of those 321 scientists reported that they had a negative experience after immediate appearance. So they're not saying that they received death threats. Two thirds of them said they just had a negative experience. They said that they were scared or distressed, and some even stopped speaking publicly about their COVID views after being intimidated or harassed. The topic that solicited the most abusive behavior had to do with COVID, like I said. The vaccine, you know, wearing face masks, where COVID came from, what drugs were effective, these are all triggers for scientists to get some type of threat. Most of the scientists who reported the abusive behavior are from Germany and the UK and the United States. They received threatening emails, phone calls, messages on social media. They stated that their loved ones would be killed. These are some of the threats that they were getting. You know, we're going to kill you and your family. Some of the scientists had their home address published publicly, and six scientists reported that they were the victims of a physical attack because of them speaking to the media.
J: We personally know a scientist who had coordinated social media campaigns to threaten him and to make him lose his job. I don't want to say who it is, but we absolutely know someone who went through that for quite a long time. And we also know that this kind of behavior is not uncommon online, particularly on social media. Dr. Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Southampton University, said the following, there's been a huge amount of abuse directed at everyone contributing to the pandemic response. The intensity of such harassment has gone up significantly across the pandemic, including becoming more organized and frightening than simple mindless comments on social media.
J: So of course this led some scientists to do what?
J: To stop appearing on social media.
B: Stop communicating.
C: Of course.
J: And the media did a chilling effect.
J: Of course it does.
J: It's exactly what I wrote.
J: There was a chilling effect.
J: You know, think about that.
J: This chilling effect that is happening now is stopping the public discussion about COVID in a way. Like the information is not getting out there as nearly as much as it needs to right now. It's not being communicated enough in all the places that it needs to, or at least we're not being able to convince the people that need convincing. But having scientists close their mouths and turn away from appearances on social media is to me, it's horrifying. So let me give you a little bit more insight into the study. 60% of the respondents said that they had attacks on their credibility. About 42% of the respondents said that they had emotional or psychological distress. 30% of the respondents said that they had a damage to their reputation. About 23% of them said they had threats of physical or sexual violence. And now we get into 15% of them death threats. And then a physical threats were about 3%. And then there's another category here, other that was 15% that I don't know what that is. But when you look at the things that I listed here, there's quite a lot of bad things going on. So we have the 42% and the roughly 60% attacks on credibility and emotional or psychological distress. That's horrible. We have people that are working to not only help the COVID pandemic effort, they're working to solve it, right? And these scientists are becoming psychologically distressed because of how they're being treated. Now, do we want to psychologically distress the people who are there as frontline workers and people who are there to come up with ways to solve this problem? I mean, it's pathetic, right? It's pathetic more than, you know, in recent history, to me, this whole attack on credibility and expertise and the fact that these people are being personally attacked is it's horrifying that this is happening in our world.
C: Like, there's a reason that the Geneva Convention prevents you from bombing a medic. Because they're there to save people, they're there to help people. It's a humanitarian issue. And when you think about frontline workers, scientists, public health officials, who are working to try to protect you and help you being attacked by the very people that they're trying to prevent from dying. It's dark. It's dark.
S: So this is a symptom of a lot of deeper underlying problems, right? Things that we talk about on the show all the time, the death of expertise, you know, the fact that there's alternative facts, alternative information ecosystems out there, alternative narratives, and people who are buying into you or, you know, or with operating from within one of these other narratives, they really believe that, you know, COVID is fake, or that the vaccines are killing people or whatever, they believe these, you know, demonstrably absurd things. And so in that worldview, within that narrative, scientists who are speaking, you know, factually about the scientific evidence are part of some deep, dark, evil conspiracy.
S: So this is what happens when you have a world where there are lots of people who believe demonstrably absurd things.
S: Some of them are going to do crazy shit.
S: They're a real threat.
S: And it makes it impossible.
S: They're like, you know, trolls, where they just make it impossible to carry on normal business.
S: So now we can't have scientists go on, you know, on a news program to give factual information about, you know, scientific studies that are relevant to the pandemic, because there are nut jobs out there who will threaten their lives and their family for it.
J: And Steve, there's other cases that are even worse than, you know, what I said, there was a German virologist, Christian Drosten, he was sent a parcel in the mail, and it had a vial of liquid in it that was labeled, labeled positive, and a note telling him to drink it, which, you know, that's creepy as hell.
J: But the worst example I found, this one is just disgusting, was against a Belgian virologist, Mark Van Ranst, and his family.
J: They had to be brought to a safe house.
J: Because a freaking military sniper left a note detailing his intentions to kill them.
J: That's scary.
J: I mean, a military trained sniper.
S: It's really...
S: That's a credible threat.
C: And it's one that should never happen.
Synthetic Biology (14:01)
S: All right, Bob, let's switch gears here and talk about some cool science.
S: Tell us about how synthetic biology is going to change how we make stuff.
B: This was a really interesting advance for synthetic biology.
B: It's all about a modified E. coli bacterium that can now make a chemical that no life on Earth has ever made before.
B: So this advance comes from a super friend's team up of synthetic biologists and synthetic chemists at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
B: So now you can read about this in the Journal of Nature Chemistry.
B: Lots of techno jargon in there.
B: Oh, boy.
B: So let's describe now what is synthetic biology.
B: This is kind of like the meat of this entire discussion.
B: I think we've kind of touched on it in the past.
B: It's essentially...
B: It's hard to define, and there's no real...
B: Like here is the official description or definition of synthetic biology.
B: There's lots of ways to look at it.
B: It involves lots of different disciplines of science.
B: So essentially it's a field focused on redesigning organisms to have new abilities.
B: Bam, that's kind of like very high level definition of that discipline.
B: Typically the organisms are like bacteria or yeast, and they are modified to produce things like medicines or fuel, or they can alert us about something new in the environment that we need to know about.
B: That's what it's been used for up till now. Synthetic biology is often subdivided into a top-down and bottom-up approach. Top-down essentially uses genetic or metabolic engineering to give cells these new superpowers. The bottom-up approach creates artificial cells with genomes that are created from scratch. So they start with non-living components and create a living cell. The best example of this was in 2008 with the creation of the genome for mycoplasm genitalium. Look it up. So as much amazing potential and promise there is in such a technology, up until now there's been a real fundamental limitation for this, and it was nature itself. Because if you insert genes into a microorganism that you took from plants or other organisms, they can now of course make molecules by using chemical reactions already evolved by those other organisms. You take a flower's genes and you could make some of the things that the flower could make. So this is like Rogue from the X-Men who could absorb other superheroes' powers, but she can't create fundamental new ones, except of course for absorbing powers, which themselves are pretty kick-ass.
B: So there's my analogy.
B: So the worldwide chemical industries, though, think about this, they've spent decades and billions of dollars inventing and tweaking chemical reactions to make very, very helpful chemicals.
B: But these molecules have never been seen in nature.
B: So they're spending all this time and money, and no biology is making these chemicals that they are churning out.
B: This is because the laboratory process, though, is often expensive, inefficient, and damaging to our environment.
B: So as good as it is, as good as it can be, ideally, in terms of helping people and helping our environment, it's also the downsides are kind of big.
B: Like I said, expensive, inefficient, and damaging to our environment.
B: So now using synthetic biology to create these so-called unnatural chemicals, it's kind of like a win-win-win on all those lab disadvantages, and the first step on that road has recently been taken.
B: So now these researchers essentially modified natural enzymes.
B: Most of us know, I think, what enzymes are, right?
B: They're critical proteins that make chemical reactions occur faster.
B: It's so important.
B: Life as we know it would not exist without enzymes.
B: Some of these chemical reactions that we depend on every day would take far too long to be of any use at all.
B: Everything alive has enzymes, and we produce them, and we make them naturally ourselves all the time.
B: Now the researchers took a common enzyme, and they embedded a metal catalyst inside to make what they called artificial metalloenzymes.
B: I suspect you will be hearing the word metalloenzymes in the future, perhaps quite often.
B: These enzymes can synthesize special molecules that are difficult to make, and it's only ever been done in the lab, until now, of course.
B: So they created this bare metalloenzyme, but that's not enough.
B: So what?
B: Oh, wow, look, I've got one enzyme, or I've got 100 enzymes.
B: That's really nothing.
B: Ideally, you want to incorporate it or them into the metabolism of an organism, and that's exactly what they did.
B: That's the whole point of this, right?
B: To take advantage of all the efficiencies and other advantages of using real biology to create these chemicals and substances.
B: So that's what they did.
B: They developed a method to get this specific metalloenzyme that they created into an E.
B: coli bacterium, and now these bacteria can produce this molecule that nothing alive has ever done before on Earth.
B: Well, as far as we know, I suppose.
B: Perhaps elsewhere in the universe, but not on the Earth.
B: So some great quotes here from co-author Andrila Mukhopadhyay.
B: She's a Berkeley Lab senior scientist.
B: She said, there's just so much need in our lives right now for sustainable materials, materials that won't impact the environment.
B: This technology opens up possibilities for fuels with desirable properties that can be produced renewably, as well as new antibiotics, new nutraceuticals, new compounds that would be exceedingly challenging to make using only biology or only chemistry.
B: I think that's the real power of this.
B: It expands the range of molecules we can address.
B: We really need disruptive new technologies, and this most definitely is one of them.
B: And if you listen to the show, often you know that I'm a huge fan of disruptive new technologies.
B: She continues.
B: She had so many great quotes.
B: She said, so this applies to making not just medicines, but precursors to polymers, renewable plastics, biofuels, building materials, the whole gamut of things that we use today, from detergents to lubricants to paints to pigments to fabric, everything can be made biologically.
B: But the challenge lies in developing sustainable, renewable pathways to it. And so here we've taken a pretty substantial step toward that. So yes, so I've been excited about the potential of synthetic biology for quite a long time. Now I think it may take even longer for people to really internalize what this advance really could mean, to kind of distill that into one quote. I'll reread you what Mukhopadhyay said. She said, everything can be made biologically. And if you just extrapolate that, that's pretty amazing. What I think we could potentially see, who knows how long it's going to take. It could take a generation or two or three before this really becomes a really mature technology. But I think within the next 10, 20 years, I think we may see some very, very interesting advances with this.
S: Yeah, but we do have to point out that this is only making tiny amounts of substance at this point.
B: It's not at an industrial scale.
B: Yes, it's making a little and it's really not even that expensive, but it's a proof of concept.
B: It's a proof of concept.
B: This is the first real metalloenzyme to do this.
B: From what I've read, I don't see any major stumbling blocks to really increasing the scale of this and doing lots of different things.
B: Of course, that doesn't mean that there won't be problems, but as usual, I'm pretty optimistic that this proof of concept will be seen as a milestone in the future.
S: Hopefully, but as we know, scaling up is not a trivial thing and is the death of many an exciting technology, the inability to scale up.
S: So I've gotten more cautious about getting too excited until I know that can happen because the proof of concept is great.
S: It's necessary, but insufficient.
S: There's other things that have to happen.
B: Steve, my question was, what was the process of incorporating this metalloenzyme into the bacteria?
B: Was it labor intensive to do it to one bacterium?
B: Was that difficult? And will that bacterium, when it divides in the future, will they all have it?
S: Well, I think that's the idea.
S: If it's one cell, that's meaningless.
S: You have to be able to then replicate the bacteria in a vat and then make a bunch of
B: it. Exactly.
B: And if that works, then there's your scaling, right, Steve?
B: I mean, that's it.
S: Well, I think it's not just that.
S: It's not just that you need to reproduce the bacteria.
S: Each bacterium needs to put out a significant amount of it, too.
S: Otherwise, you wouldn't have these giant, expensive bioreactors dribbling out tiny amounts of substance.
S: That kind of defeats the purpose.
S: The whole point is to do this more efficiently and cost effective.
S: And so how it scales will matter.
B: And I mean, from what I've read, all they had to do was put the bacteria in a special medium that had the metal that they need, and they absorbed it.
B: They absorbed it and it incorporated it into their biology, and then that was it.
B: It looks very promising.
B: But yeah, there's always interesting things, but I'm really excited about this.
S: All right. Thanks, Bob.
AGW Consensus (22:59)
S: Very quickly, I'm going to give an update on the consensus regarding anthropogenic global warming, which is amazing that this is such an issue.
S: The idea is that the vast majority of working scientists in relevant fields accept that the evidence supports the conclusion that, first of all, the earth is warming, and second of all, that it's most likely due to human activity, anthropogenic global warming.
S: That is not controversial.
S: Most people believe it.
S: But for the industry of fear, uncertainty, denial, those who are for tribal, political, ideological reasons, or just sometimes just cynical financial reasons if you're in the fossil fuel industry, they don't want to believe that conclusion.
S: And so they push back against the scientific consensus.
S: And one of the ways in which they do that is to deny that the consensus itself exists.
S: And you might seem like it's obvious, but how do you know?
S: How would any one person know what most scientists in a particular field believe about something, right?
S: Unless you're in the field yourself.
S: And then even then, I mean, what are you going to do, talk to thousands of people about it?
S: There have been a number of studies looking at, trying to figure out some way to quantify how many scientists do actually accept the conclusion of anthropogenic global warming.
S: You guys know the name John Cook.
S: Does that name in this context mean anything to you?
S: So 10 years ago, Cook published the first real big study on the scientific consensus.
S: This is where the 97% thing comes from.
S: And he became the target, the huge target.
S: We were talking again about scientists being abused.
S: He was one of them.
S: Just like Michael Mann, you know, there are some people who just, their head peaks above the herd and they get a target on their back by the science deniers.
S: And so, you know, one of the strategies they use is to try to, if you could pick one person to represent an entire field, like Fauci has become or Mann and his hockey stick has become, and then all you have to do then is discredit that person and then you could discredit the field by proxy.
S: So that's the strategy they used.
S: Attach it to a person and attack the person rather than, this is, no, this is the evidence.
S: This is a field of study.
S: Around the whole field, right.
S: Cook became that person for the scientific consensus on AGW.
S: But of course there have been multiple studies.
S: So the idea that it all hinges on Cook's one study is itself a fiction.
S: There have been multiple studies.
S: When I wrote about it just a year or so ago, there were 10 major studies on this area showing that using slightly different methods, sometimes entirely different methods to try to estimate what percentage of climate scientists believe in global warming, and the results hover, converge on 97%.
S: So that 97% is a real figure that results from that evidence.
S: Well, the news is that Cook and other researchers, it's actually Krista Myers is the first author, did a follow-up study.
S: They used similar methods.
S: It's 10 years later and essentially asking the question, has the consensus changed over time?
B: End of story.
B: Well, actually, it actually has.
S: It's gone even stronger.
S: Even stronger.
S: That's what I would say.
S: So this is a good general point to make about science is that how it changes over time tells you a lot more than how it is in any one snapshot.
S: Like the evidence for evolution at any one point in time, like how many gaps there are in the fossil record, that's not as important as how has it been evolving over time.
S: You know?
S: Is it strengthening?
S: It's strengthening, yeah.
S: It's closing those gaps.
S: Is it making progress?
S: Is it a useful theory?
S: In this case, if you believe that AGW is real, then you would predict that the consensus, it was already so high that it would be reasonable to say it remained that high or would get stronger if the evidence were getting stronger.
S: And if there were weaknesses in the global warming theory, then people would start to fall away as the evidence is not holding up and questions are being answered and more detailed studies are being done, et cetera, et cetera.
S: That's what we see in the history of science.
S: Theories either grow or wither based upon the evidence.
S: And evidence tends to get more detailed over time.
S: In fact, there's something that we've talked about called the decline effect.
S: You guys remember this?
S: Where in pretty much any research endeavor, effect sizes tend to shrink over time because our methodologies get better and tighter.
S: You know, we know how to weed out error more thoroughly.
S: And so those effect sizes tighten up as well.
S: And so you really need to see how that's evolving over time to know if you are left with a real phenomenon or if it declines to nothing, right?
S: If it just vanishes.
S: Which is what happens.
S: Like pseudoscience does.
S: Yeah, with pseudoscience.
S: All right.
S: So what Cook and I should say, you know, Myers et al. found was that the consensus has increased over time. Now what number you put on it depends upon what subset of scientists you look at. So using the same methods that they used 10 years ago, just, they basically, they sent out a survey to 10,929 verified academics in the geosciences faculty, right? And at publishing institutions. They got 2,780 responses. That's not a great percentage, but that's still a lot of responses. And using those same methods in 2011, 80% of those who responded essentially endorsed.
S: Yeah, this is of everybody.
S: The opinion that global warming is happening and humans are causing it.
S: And this time around, it's 91%.
S: So it went from 80% to 91%.
S: That's a healthy jump.
S: Yeah, that's taking everyone.
S: It's a big jump.
S: It's huge.
S: 80 to 91.
S: You can think about the holdouts decreased from 20 to 9, right?
S: Less than half.
S: However, if you look at just the most publishing scientists, like if you take, let's look at just those scientists who have published about 20 plus peer reviewed papers on climate change between 2015 and 2019, their agreement that the earth is warming, mostly caused by human activity was 100%.
S: So the most active researchers were at 100%.
S: And then, but you could look across the board and there's a trend of the more scientifically active the researcher is, and the more, the greater level of expertise, the more closely relate their work is related to global warming, the greater the percentage of them that believe in global warming.
S: So there was a positive relationship between expertise and accepting the consensus opinion.
S: So that's pretty convincing evidence that there is actually a consensus.
B: Yeah, but it couldn't get higher than 100%, huh?
B: Yeah, it couldn't get higher.
S: The deniers are going to push back on this.
S: They'll find some way to dismiss the paper.
S: Because no study is perfect, right?
S: No research is perfect.
S: You can always find something to complain about if you don't like the findings and you want to dismiss it.
S: That's sort of the difference between skepticism and denial.
S: Skepticism, you have to put things into context and be reasonable and fair and try to make try to come up with what will be a decision, what we actually can say with what confidence intervals and deniers will just find an excuse to deny what they don't want to accept, whatever, whether it's out of proportion or reasonable or not.
S: So anyway, I wanted to, that's the update on the John Cook consensus study.
S: Ten years later, this consensus on global warming is even stronger.
Dark Skies (31:22)
S: All right, Evan, tell us about recent efforts to pass Dark Skies Ordinance.
E: Yes, we're going to talk about Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is a pretty cool city, I think, in its own right for many reasons.
E: But it got even cooler because now it's the first major city in the United States to adopt a dark skies policy regarding public light illumination. They're going to wait.
B: Are they going to do what they did for them with the Matrix when they put the dark, the dark smoke throughout the earth so that all the robots die?
B: I mean, that's crazy.
C: Some kind of dark sky.
C: Oh, all right.
B: Good, good.
B: And yeah, the robots aren't revolting it either.
E: OK, all right.
E: Never mind.
E: The robots are revolved.
E: The Pittsburgh City Council, unlike what Bob said, they passed a new dark sky ordinance for all of the city's parks, facilities and streetlights.
E: The Office of Mobility and Infrastructure prepared the ordinance with support from two Carnegie Mellon University dark sky experts, Diane Turnshack, who is a faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Physics, along with Stephen Quick, who is part of the faculty at their School of Architecture.
E: The two of them helped draft the ordinance.
E: This is the first ordinance of its kind in the country as far as major cities go, and it aims to replace the city's thirty five thousand streetlights and install up to eight thousand new ones. We've talked before about dark skies, various projects.
E: Cara, I know you've talked a lot about it in the past.
E: There is the International Astronomical Union Dark and Quiet Skies Project, who raises awareness about the need to preserve dark skies and quiet skies. There's also the International Dark Skies Association itself, who has a lot of helpful information about what are exactly dark and quiet skies. So we have a problem with what we've done to the night sky with all of our artificial light and it has real world impacts on health, on environment, on energy consumption, so many different things. Nocturnal animals have to sleep during the day. They're active at night, but light pollution will radically alter their nighttime environment by turning night basically into day. So the ecosystems are all affected. It's a huge waste of energy when it comes right down to it. For example, in an average year in the United States alone, outdoor lighting uses about 120 terawatts hours of energy, mostly to illuminate streets and parking lots. That has much energy that New York City goes through over the course of two years. And they can measure this wastefulness to the tune of over three billion dollars and the release of 21 million tons of carbon dioxide per year. That is not a trivial amount. Street lights, for those who say that it prevents accidents and crimes, there's a lot of research into that and they're saying no, that does not prevent accidents and crime. In fact, in some ways it can be worse. Glare from nighttime lighting can create hazards ranging from discomfort to visual disability. So there's no argument to be made there. Artificial light at night can negatively affect human health. It increases risks of obesity, depression, sleep disorders, definitely diabetes and breast cancer. Although I didn't read specifically on that one, but they say that there's research into that. Our circadian rhythm is governed by the day-night cycle and that has certainly taken a hit with all of the nighttime lighting that we've done. Melatonin production also becomes suppressed as a result of all the lighting we've been doing. Plus, just the natural beauty of the night sky, we've lost it. Think about the generations of people who are now being born, who have recently been born, never known the night sky as so many generations of people before had known it. So all sorts of issues and reasons to try to prevent this artificial illumination of our night sky, so many practical and frankly beautiful reasons. So what Pittsburgh is going to do is they're going to implement technology to help. Motion sensors, dimmers and timers, cooler temperature bulbs, proper shielding, which directs the light down instead of up. All this reduces the light pollution and still provides all of the need for the nighttime light that we do rely on. So they're going to get rid of their 5,000 Kelvin glow blue-white glare bulbs in all of the lamps. They're going with the new LED lights, which are of course the lower temperature. And they are conforming to the standards that the International Dark Sky Association have outlined as to what Pittsburgh is doing and what other cities frankly should be doing to move us in this direction. So thank you, Pittsburgh, for being the first one. And hopefully you're the first of many more cities to adopt these measures.
S: Yeah, it really is amazing.
S: I mean, of course, I'm partly going on memory, but even just like in the part of Connecticut where we live, when we were kids, you definitely could like clearly see the Milky Way.
S: The night sky was just completely different than what it is today.
S: There is so much light pollution, even in the suburbs.
S: Like we're not in a big city.
S: You can see the stars, but like you can't really see like the Milky Way anymore or the level of detail that we could even 20, 30 years ago.
S: I also remember like when we were in Australia.
S: Or in Christchurch, New Zealand.
S: Yeah, or in New Zealand.
S: We were down under.
S: We wanted to look at the southern sky.
S: It was hard.
S: It was hard.
S: We had to go out of our way to find some place where we could kind of see the nighttime sky.
S: The light pollution was so bad from any, near any large town or city, you couldn't see it.
E: Yeah, we drove a half hour, 40 minutes away from where we were just to escape the light pollution enough to be able to see what was frankly the greatest sky I've ever seen in my life.
C: Yeah. Here in LA, I drive to, it's like a two hour drive in order to do any sort of observing. Most people in LA, well, most big like star stargazing fans kind of know this spot in Fraser Park, which is like two hours. And it's really only because the mountains sort of block all the cities. But yeah, I know a lot of people, a lot of people. And I'd be interested, I bet you if we were to survey our audience, how many of you have actually seen the Milky Way, the numbers would be pretty surprising.
E: Depressingly low.
S: All right.
S: Thank you, Evan.
Who's That Noisy? (38:08)
J: Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.
J: All right, guys. Last week I played this noisy.
J: There's a lot going on there.
J: All right.
J: What is it, guys?
C: Sounds like an alarm really far away.
C: Not like, you know, like a building alarm.
C: Like something bad happened in a big industrial building.
J: Yeah, like some type of demented klaxon.
E: Oh, gosh.
E: Like when Chernobyl had a problem.
C: Like that's what it sounds like, but we're like really far down the hall.
B: Jay reminded me of those static electricity spark sounds from the Matrix when they showed him waking up from the dream of the Matrix.
B: You know, traveling up and seeing all the people in their little pods.
E: Well, Bob's all about the Matrix.
J: Yeah, right.
J: That sound has a sense of enormity.
J: I totally agree.
J: It is similar to that.
J: So a listener named Kirk Akaden wrote in and said, hello, Jay.
J: Never guessed before despite listening since 2010, but my sons would like to submit theirs this week.
J: So we have Cameron, who's nine, and he said a conveyor belt failing because something got caught in it.
J: And Darren, who's age seven, and he said building a building.
E: I like those guesses.
J: I think it's adorable.
J: So he's going to take a stab at it.
J: So Kirk says it certainly sounds like a metallic rotary machine vibrating under stress outdoors at night.
J: Is it one of those helicopter mounted saw apparatuses for trimming branches?
J: Damn, I still cannot find a good sound online of what that is.
J: These are not correct, guys.
J: Good guesses, though.
J: They were fun.
J: I got another listener named John Geiss, who wrote in, said this week's noisy sounds like a large circular saw spun up, then cutting through a log lengthwise, industrial scale type of stuff.
J: So there I can hear that.
J: I can hear a little bit of like that type of band saw type of deal going on there.
J: Not correct.
J: But again, you know, there's a theme that people were guessing in, and this was one of them.
J: Another listener named Michael Blaney wrote in, said, hi, Jay.
J: Definitely getting some War of the Worlds vibes from that.
J: Now that is-
E: Oh, that, yeah.
J: Good guess. Absolutely.
J: The second War of the Worlds, this was when?
J: In the 90s, guys?
J: The Tom Cruise-
E: What, the Steven Spielberg one? Yeah, Tom Cruise.
E: 2005, I believe.
J: So yes, there is a little bit of that in there.
J: I hear that as well, but that is not correct.
J: That is not correct.
J: But that wasn't his actual guess.
J: That was just him saying that's what it sounds like.
J: His guess was, I'd say it's a vibrating feeder.
J: He said, definitely brings me back to my past job on a mine site.
J: Mineral comes through from a conveyor belt and through a hopper and sits on the feeder, which vibrates at various speeds, allowing you to control the rate at which the minerals is fed into the next part of the process.
J: So I've seen these- That's right, hopper.
J: It's like a rubber belt, a wide rubber belt that brings the material out.
E: Yeah, if you watch Gold Rush, I love that show.
E: They show devices like that.
J: I have another guest here, Derek Reethans, and he says, hi, I think this week's noisy is the sound of a chair or pole, ski lift or similar going up to the disembark point and around the big wheel at the top.
J: I've heard that noise and there is a vibration that is somewhat similar to this sound, but that is also not correct.
J: Guys, no winner this week.
J: Wah, wah, wah.
J: Nobody guessed it.
J: This is a pretty cool thing here.
J: All right, so this was sent in by a listener named Cappy Collins and Cappy wrote, when a friend shared this, I immediately thought that sounds like a who's that noisy.
J: So from what I understand, the artist, it's an artist creation.
J: The artist uses very low bass frequencies to turn buildings into instruments.
J: These are buildings that have been turned into instruments that make noise.
J: So let me give you a little bit more about the artist's description to help you understand this.
J: So since 2006, the collective art of failure has been staging a series of performances that induce a heightened perception of architecture by setting unusual buildings into a state of vibration.
C: So they use.
C: Oh, I feel like I've heard of this of like the Golden Gate Bridge.
J: Yeah, but that's that is happening on its own from the wind.
J: This is deliberate.
J: They use infrabase vibrations that reveal the resonance, the resonance frequencies, physicality and acoustic qualities of the building chosen.
J: So let me play you that again.
J: This is a building vibrating.
J: Pretty cool, huh?
E: If you're not in the building, yes.
J: Yeah, of course.
J: You got to think like what building and when and would you is this dangerous?
J: All those questions and more you can find on the Internet, I'm sure.
J: But I didn't look them up.
J: So you could do that in your own time because I'm busy because Steve says I am.
New Noisy (43:37)
[Morse code-like buzzing with a revolving machine whir in the background]
J: I have a new noisy for you guys this week.
J: This noisy was sent in by a listener named Matt Kemp.
J: Electric Razor Morse Code.
J: So guys, if you think you know what this week's noisy is or if you heard something cool, please, please email me at WTN at the skeptics guide.org.
J: Steve, a couple of things.
J: It is not too late to buy seats for the Denver private show, which is happening on November 19th and on November 20th will be at Fort Collins, which is in Colorado, about an hour or so away from Denver.
J: The extravaganza is still sold out and it will not become unsold out.
J: The only thing that could happen would be if they release more tickets because they are lightening their covid protocols, which I talked to them and they said they won't be doing that.
J: But it's not impossible.
J: But you know, it's always a hard no until it's a yes.
J: But I don't think that more seats are going to open up.
J: So that show sold out.
J: So come see us at the other two.
J: We are listen to this.
J: We were invited to get a tour of Red Rocks.
E: Red Rocks, the amphitheater?
C: We were.
C: Not like a geology tour, like a geology of the actual tour of the actual Red Rocks.
J: We're going to go.
J: We're going to go to the Red Rocks amphitheater.
J: And then we got to learn about the geology.
J: And then we're going to learn about the geology.
J: Super cool.
J: Who's the opening act?
J: I will be emailing back the person who invited us and try to set it up so we can do this.
J: I think we'll have we'll probably have time.
J: It's not that far away from where we're going to be staying.
J: But I'm really excited, guys.
J: We are back on the road.
J: We are back talking to people, performing in front of people.
J: So happy about that.
J: I can't wait to see Cara.
J: Cara, I haven't laid eyes on you in way too long.
C: Jay, I still have this plastic piece from our backdrop that was mailed to me.
J: I need those.
J: You can't, you cannot come to Denver without that.
J: I need it.
C: I'm going to bring that plastic piece so that our backdrop doesn't fall apart.
C: I know.
C: Without that.
J: We've been sitting on it for like three years.
J: I know.
J: It's been a long time that we got together.
J: Yeah, that plastic piece.
J: I had to hunt that down like crazy.
J: That was like a hard to find item.
J: But that is the exact fit for our particular stand.
J: So anyway, that's it, Steve.
J: Take it away, my friend.
J: All right.
Email #1: Russia Today News Outlet
I listened to your most recent podcast, #848, October 16, 2021. In the segment where you discussed nutrition with your friend Craig Good, Dr. Steve made some offhand comments about RT. I've listened to these comments several times and I hear RT described and dismissed as a Russian propaganda source that is "anti-corporate" and that "stirs the pot." (Isn't that how the strawman fallacy works?... You set 'em up easy and you knock 'em down hard.) As a part of my news consumption, I take in information from a variety of sources, including occasionally RT. I'm not particularly fond of RT, although I'll listen with interest and agreement to almost anything that Chris Hedges has to say when he appears on the RT segment called "On Contact." Regardless of which news source I am consuming, I will always try to take into account the ownership of the source and any political or economic agenda that might be in play. That includes RT.
Dr. Steve, I'm curious as to how you decide whether a news source simply has a bias/agenda versus when it becomes "propaganda." I realize that the comments you made were tangential, but at the same time they involve issues of critical thinking and skepticism. I would comment that when I read my hometown newspaper, the Saint Pete Times (owned by Poytner Institute) or when I listen to the CBS Evening News, I frequently identify comments or whole segments which are remarkably propagandistic. Does the same thing happened to you when you consume mainstream media? Or does that only happen to you with news coming from RT, Caitlin Johnstone, Aaron Mate, Matt Taibbi, Max Blumenthal, Glenn Greenwald, et al.? For the record, politically I am very far left, yet at the same time, I am very pro-vaccination, pro-science and see nothing worrisome about (regulated) GMO technology. As I see it, our US government, many of the international corporations (and their controlling oligarchs), and the handful of corporations that control the dominant US media are "AS ONE" and as such, more than a fair amount of skeptical criticism is in order.
Dr. Steve, do you see it differently? Once you see clearly that the United States is an empire (with an agenda to unilaterally control the nations of the world); has currently, illegally and unilaterally, placed 1/4 to 1/3 of the world’s population under sanctions (creating a kind of siege warfare, which directly harms the health and well-being of populations); through overt wars (or covertly, through the CIA), interferes in any government with a socialist bent or which will otherwise not bend to the will of US foreign policy; promotes domestic policies, which range only from Neoliberalism to fascism, and never to humanism, much becomes clear. The simple act of "consuming the news" can never be the same thereafter.
Dr. Steve, how do you determine what is propaganda?
S: One quick email before we go on to the interview.
S: This email comes from Patrick.
S: And Patrick is asking about a comment that we made on the last episode about the Russia Today news outlet, which I characterized as propaganda.
S: And he says, regardless of which news source I am consuming, I will always try to take into account the ownership of the source in any political or economic agenda that might be in play.
S: That includes RT.
S: Dr. Steve, I'm curious as to how you decide whether a news source simply has a bias agenda versus when it becomes, in quotes, propaganda.
S: Email's much longer.
S: That's the nub of the question.
S: What's the difference between bias or an editorial perspective and propaganda?
S: You guys have any thoughts on that?
C: Well, I mean, I do remember when we were talking and you did mention RT, which is the English language.
C: Again, it's an English language sort of Russian outlet, but it's made for global broadcast.
C: And I had thoughts of my own.
C: I used to work, for example, for Al Jazeera America, which doesn't exist anymore, but it had purchased Current.
C: And I did a TV show for them.
C: It was a science TV show.
C: It was very unbiased, but it was still owned by the Qatari government because all of the Al Jazeera branches were owned by the Qatari government.
C: And I think there are similar questions there.
C: People watch Al Jazeera English and they say this is a very good news outlet.
C: It's fair and biased, but there are some Arabic Al Jazeera outlets that are full propaganda machines.
C: So it is a complicated question.
S: It is.
S: It's a deceptively complicated question.
S: So I think the key phrase here is the quote unquote demarcation problem, right?
S: There's always a continuum with a fuzzy line between categories.
S: What's the difference between science and pseudoscience?
S: Well, it's fuzzy in the middle.
S: Skepticism and denial, religion and cult, these things all exist along a spectrum and there's no sharp demarcation line in between the two ends.
S: That doesn't mean the two ends of the spectrum don't exist, right?
S: Those are sort of two different logical, informal logical fallacies there.
S: So the difference between bias and propaganda is a matter of degree, but I do think there are some milestones along the way.
S: So you know, in general, like the dictionary type definition of propaganda is any kind of information source or news outlet that is used to promote a specific agenda or ideology or purpose, right?
S: It's not just giving unbiased information.
S: The information is serving some purpose.
C: So by that definition, I mean, and I'm not saying this to like ruffle anybody's feathers, but Fox News is definitely a propaganda outlet, right?
S: I mean, I would categorize it as propaganda.
C: Its whole purpose is to promote, yeah, an agenda, a particular ideology.
S: But again, you get to say, well, is that just, that's just their editorial stance, right?
S: And there are...
C: But that's not news.
C: So, but yeah, so...
C: News by definition is not editorially to deliver an ideology.
C: That's the opposite of news.
S: Well, I understand, but almost all news outlets have a demonstrable bias in the way they present news.
C: And this...
C: Yeah, there's actually, what is it, Steve?
C: There's an organization, a nonprofit organization that has plotted them all against us.
C: I see news by...
C: Yeah, they quantify it.
S: They quantify how many times they mention, you know, one side or the other, how balanced they are, et cetera.
S: NPR, in the US, NPR always comes out the best as like the least biased, the most down the middle of the road.
S: And then there are some that skew left and some that skew right.
S: I wouldn't call skewing left or right propaganda, though.
S: But the farther you get to one side or the other, I think the more features you have of an actual propaganda outlet.
S: And I think for me, that milestone where like, yeah, if you get beyond this point, you're definitely in the propaganda zone, is when you evaluate a news story, what's the most important thing?
S: Is it how reliable, how well sourced, how newsworthy this is?
S: Or is the most important thing, does this serve our narrative?
S: And a propaganda outlet, the number one criterion is, does this serve our narrative?
S: The narrative comes first.
S: Then you get even worse where you're like making up news items or like really distorting news items beyond recognition.
S: That's even more extreme propaganda.
S: But I think at any point, even if each individual piece of information by itself is legitimate, but you're curating news specifically to promote a certain agenda, that's propaganda in my opinion.
S: And I think RT fits that.
S: They have a very specific narrative and they're presenting—I've listened to it enough to say, yeah, this all is serving an underlying purpose.
S: And they never seem to take the other point of view with particular news items.
S: They're trying to undermine Americans' faith in their government, in the system, in capitalism, etc.
S: And all the news items they tell are slanted in that direction and serve that narrative.
C: Yeah, I'm seeing like media bias, fact check, like a bunch of different outlets are listing RT as very low on their confidence list.
C: And they're saying it's a questionable source.
C: It promotes government propaganda, Russian propaganda, conspiracy, lack of transparency in some fake news.
E: It has a low credibility.
E: There's better places to go.
S: But it's an interesting question.
S: And it is something to—once you start thinking about it, because we should always be thinking about the reliability of the sources that we use.
Interview with Richard Wiseman and David Copperfield (52:10)
S: Okay, guys, let's go on with our interview.
S: We are joined now by Richard Wiseman.
S: Richard, welcome back to The Skeptic's Guide.
RW: A pleasure to be here.
S: And along with you, we are also joined by fellow magician, the most famous and successful magician in the world, the actual David Copperfield.
E: In the history of the world.
S: The goat of magic, David Copperfield.
S: David, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.
DC: Nice to be here.
S: We really appreciate you joining us.
S: So we are here to talk about your new book that the two of you co-authored with another David actually, David Britland.
S: And it's an illustrated guide to the history of magic.
S: We obviously don't have to ask you how you got into this, but tell us about the book.
S: What inspired you to write it?
RW: Well, David Copperfield, as well as being a legendary magician, also has a secret museum of magic in Las Vegas. And I was lucky enough to get a tour of this museum. It is unbelievable. It is unbelievable. It's like the Smithsonian of magic. It goes on forever. Thousands of incredibly important pieces of posters and books and apparatus. Because the museum has got magic in it, it's got a lot of secrets in it. And so David isn't able to show the public around in perhaps the way that he'd like to. And so we came up with this idea of a big glossy book that would give you the experience of a personal tour by the world's greatest magician of the world's greatest collection of magic. And that is essentially the beginnings of the book. Three years ago, three years been working on this book.
S: So I have a couple of questions right away about the museum. The first one is reading the description. It says that it's filled with ephemera.
DC: What exactly is ephemera? Ephemera I think is objects that letters and, you know, pieces of paper, usually things that are part of our lives that help tell our story. Actual objects that were touched by people, that they used to ticket stub, a receipt from something, something that helps tell the story. And this whole museum is not about stuff. It's about stories. I once was offered to have one quarter of this, the Mulholland Library. Mulholland Library was John Mulholland's collection of books. Mulholland worked for the CIA to use magic as kind of clandestine spyware. He was also Houdini's friend. Houdini gave half of his library to him. The other half went to the Library of Congress. So I have half of Houdini's library in that thing. And he had posters and tons of books, obviously. Amazing stuff. And, you know, when I got it, I really didn't pay attention that much to magic history. When I was starting, I was always working on new illusions and inventing things and trying to craft new technology. But I didn't get it, but I bought it to preserve it. And then I started reading about these individuals whose lives are the same lives I lead, right? It's the same thing, same problems that I have, these guys had. And these same women have. Women magicians are a part of this, too. So I really acquired this big collection and fell in love with it after I got it. And then it's now five times the size. Trying to find a way to tell these stories way before the book, make them interesting, to put these people on whose shoulders I stand upon, put their stories, bring them to life. And that's what we do.
RW: And we should say it's a research center as well. So David has this colossal library there, but also pretty much every magician of importance, there's a file on that person. You can take that file down, and there are posters, the letters, their notebooks. So it's really trying to bring the history of magic into one location and care for it carefully and preserve it for future generations. So it may seem obvious, but just to make it explicit, why does it have to be secret?
S: Is it just that it wouldn't be safe to have people traipsing through there, or is there something that needs to be kept from the public eye?
RW: Well, how many people are on a tour normally, David? Is it five or six, something like that?
DC: We try to max it at eight people. We've been doing 15 people tours also. We broke the rule a little bit. But the thing is, everything, there's two reasons. What happened was, there's two things. One thing is obviously the secret stuff here. It's all secret. So how, you know, if you kind of look around the side, you're going to get an angle of something that you wouldn't have on stage. You know, you're going to see how things work. So it can't be for the public for that statement. And also everything is, unlike this room, which we'll talk about later, everything is out in the open. It's all behind ropes, but totally touchable. You know, eventually if I do open it for people, I have to build a lot of, some glass company is going to be very happy. You know, it's going to be a lot of glass dollars being spent to make cases. Everything's out in the open. So for those two reasons, it's not a public thing. And we do small tours. I do share with the public in another way besides the book, which is I will do exhibitions outside of this museum. I'll take a large amount of it and bring it to a museum and we'll do a whole presentation in New York, LA. We've done it a number of times to kind of share it in that way. And when the stuff is out of here, this place doesn't look like anything's missing because there's hundreds of that, of objects, hundreds of thousands of objects here. It's really immense.
S: One thing you could do is like other museums, natural history museums, they have a public facing section with only a tiny percentage of the stuff that they have behind glass and as you say, protected for public tours. Then the vast majority of their collection is in the back rooms where the research is done and things are kept in climate controlled conditions or whatever, far away from the sticky hands of the public. So it sounds like that would be kind of an ideal setup for a museum of that size.
DC: Yeah, I think that definitely is logical. The math of that is good, good math. The thing is I'm a storyteller. I like telling stories with my magic and right now I really enjoy having the things out like they are because I watch people get emotional here. They start crying, they start shaking, they get really, you know, they're inspired by it. So everything is really lit in a very special way. So I enjoy that process of not doing what you just said, which is probably the logical thing to do. I think there's a way of doing both.
J: So David and Richard, when you guys started the project, did you catalog everything that's there and quantify everything? Was that part of the goal?
DC: Well, it's going to be right now we're in the process of doing exactly that. Our FileMaker Pro, we have people literally here 24 hours a day. Literally somebody here cataloging things 24 hours a day. Oh wow. Maybe 10 years from now we might just maybe get close.
E: So we're talking about items in the hundreds of thousands of individual pieces?
DC: Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pieces.
RW: I mean, it is colossal. I mean, so my first introduction was actually via a skeptics conference. I was at a skeptics conference in Vegas and David kindly invited me to his show and then we went on a tour of the museum. And to answer your question about how we approached the book, it was really finding the key exhibits that would allow us to then tell people about this secret world of magic that magicians know about and skeptics know about to some degree, but the public don't. And so for example, David has one of the very early versions of the soaring in half, an absolute key kind of pivotal piece of apparatus that takes us from the very first version, which was quite gruesome into the more kind of sanitized version that you'll see today. And also we can use that piece to talk about the evolution of magic, how it changes and so on. And so for each piece, we're trying to tell an interesting story that gives people an insight into this secret world.
DC: You always have to have some kind of key reason for being a point of things or something that's going to capture an imagination, capture the interest in a simple form. And that was important to me when I give a tour of this, I have key things that I say to me, but go, Oh, I understand that. Oh, this is another world. I don't know the world, but I can really relate to that. That makes me go, wow. We had no problem finding stories and things for each of these people to find the real, whether it's the name Houdini, of course, but just people that came before Houdini and after Houdini, really amazing artists throughout many, many centuries that have informed this art form and inspired a lot of people.
J: Guys, was there an object or an artifact that was in the room that you stumbled on that you both were blown away by? Like maybe something, you know, because, you know, of course, everybody knows who Houdini is.
J: Like I would think, you know, there must have been something that came over that you were blown away by.
DC: Oh, a lot.
DC: I mean, you know, what did we discover?
DC: There's a story in the book about me discovering this one vanishing birdcage of Channing Pollock.
DC: Channing Pollock was this extremely handsome, gigantic, you know, almost seven foot guy that produced doves.
DC: And it was really the role in the book, we talk about him as an example of making something really perfect.
DC: A 10, 15, seven minute, 12 minute act, whatever it was of him doing stuff.
DC: You know, I started to go back and look at videos of the films of these people and I watched him do to vanish a birdcage.
DC: And he did it in a very specific way.
DC: He would hold the cage, cover the cage of birds and hold the cage like this and he'd pick it up and he'd walk forward and he knew it was there because you could see him pushing on the side of it.
DC: And it would vanish and he put the cloth through his hand.
DC: And it's similar to an illusion that I did in the 50s routine, a vanishing radio in kind of a happy days, fonzie thing that I did in the beginning of my career.
DC: It was similar to that, but he did it in a very unique way.
DC: And that was by holding the sides of the cage like that.
DC: And one night I was walking through here and I said, I really didn't know how it worked.
DC: I didn't know exactly how it worked, but I'm walking through the museum in the middle of the night, 1 a.m. and I said, should I do this?
DC: Should I look at it?
DC: Because I really never, never pay attention to it.
DC: And I pulled it out of the showcase.
DC: This is actually in a case of glass, pull it out like that.
DC: And I copied exactly what he did.
DC: I covered the cage.
DC: I picked it up just like he did and it vanished in my hands.
DC: And it was the most amazing feeling to have something like a miracle happen in my hands, not studying it, just copying his actions made it work.
DC: And it was a glorious, glorious moment because his genius was how it was made.
DC: And just by not even knowing how it worked exactly, but actually doing the gestures that I copied from the film and it just happened to work perfectly.
DC: You know, those are very special moments when that happens.
J: Do you have any information about how these historical magicians created these objects?
J: Do you ever have notebooks and things like that?
DC: What do you want to know?
DC: Yes, we have everything.
DC: Notebooks and sketches and failures and successes.
DC: It's my life.
DC: It's the way I live my life now.
DC: Everything has to look effortless.
DC: But beside it is failure after failure and finally you achieve the goal.
DC: It is as effortless as Fred Astaire dances.
DC: You don't know about the broken toes and the bloody, bloody toes and the hard work.
DC: I have to make it look effortless.
DC: And behind it is, I call it glorious torture.
DC: The end result is worth it.
DC: It's worth it.
DC: But the process is, you know, a lot of failure.
DC: And you know, music, you have a piano and you write music on the piano or a guitar or a flute.
DC: But you have those objects.
DC: In magic, if you're moving forward, if you're not copying everybody else, if you're moving forward, every time you have to invent the piano.
DC: I have to invent the technology each time.
DC: And on top of that comes story, music, presentation, costuming, lighting, all that stuff.
DC: So magic is a little bit harder, you know.
DC: And you make a movie, you still have a camera, right?
DC: And then you can either screw up the movie or not.
DC: But at least you have the camera.
DC: In magic, if you're doing something new, you're inventing the camera every time.
DC: So that's why it takes so long to create each illusion that I do personally.
C: We should say it's not unlike science.
C: I mean, magicians have to do these experiments and the outcome has to be that the audience are amazed.
C: And that has to be the outcome every single night, no matter who's sitting in the audience, what angle they're looking at it, what they say, what they think, whatever.
C: And in the same way as science, you do many failed experiments before you can reliably demonstrate the particular phenomenon.
C: That's what it's like in magic.
C: And when you go and see a magic show, you're only seeing that end point.
C: What you've got in the museum is all the thinking, is all the working out.
C: And magicians really do preserve that stuff in the same way that scientists do.
C: So it feels to me there's a lot of parallels there.
B: Related to that, guys, is my question about the future of magic.
B: Jay, I'm sure you probably saw this question coming.
B: So magical techniques, you mentioned they're moving forward and they're evolving.
B: Is there a story that you would like to tell through your magic that you just can't quite do right now because either the techniques or the technology or something's not there yet that you think will be there at some point in 10 years, 50 years?
B: Is there anything like that that you've thought of that you just can't quite do yet?
DC: For me, I'm very fortunate to have lots of technology brought to me very early, before it's out, before you go to see it at CES, before you see it at any of the things.
DC: People come to me and show me, isn't this cool?
DC: What do you think?
DC: I'm lucky enough to be able to use some of those things before the public knows about them.
DC: And when the public starts to know about them, I can disguise them.
DC: And then eventually, I can't use them at all because it becomes too common.
DC: But in the process of that, I've invented lots of technology that doesn't exist.
DC: It comes from me.
DC: I get to use it for a while and then eventually, the public gets to use it in everyday life.
DC: In the book, we talk about Robert Houdin.
DC: Robert Houdin, Houdini got his name from him, Houdin was a great inventor.
DC: The first smart home to exist was from Houdin.
DC: His house would say, Entree.
DC: He'd know how many people came through the door.
DC: The door would open by itself like any grocery store today.
DC: It was a magic effect.
DC: It was a magic trick at the time.
DC: Then it becomes kind of common.
DC: But he got to use it for that.
DC: Alexander the man who knows, had a talking Buddha.
DC: No one knew what a speaker was, a speaker.
DC: Now look at what we're doing now.
DC: It's like crazy.
DC: It's like it is indistinguishable from magic what we're doing.
DC: If it wasn't common.
DC: A talking Buddha, a speaker is like, that's it.
DC: Pick a card.
DC: Here's a card.
DC: Go back in time.
DC: Pick a card.
DC: You look at it, put your ear in front of the Buddha's mouth, seven of hearts, whatever the card was.
DC: You'd freak out.
DC: Imagine it, not knowing about that.
DC: That's the world.
DC: Everything that's moving forward and forward and forward is all based on inspiring impossible things using science, using in Richard's case, psychology and how people think, how to misdirect, how to use every single skill that's possible to make an experience that can involve the audience, hopefully inspire the audience.
RW: But the flip side of that is that magicians also have to rule out technology as method. Nowadays audiences come along thinking about holograms, for example. David Cho, a spaceship appears, you've got to rule out the possibility that that's a hologram. It becomes a double-edged sword. It isn't only just about secret method, it's ruling out potential alternatives in the audience minds that weren't there 50, 100 years ago.
J: With all the things that exist in that room and all the history that's there, you guys had to figure out how to condense it down into the book and have it make sense and tell the stories that you wanted to tell.
J: Is that what took the three years?
J: Is that what you spent during those three years doing?
RW: Yes. There was a lot of back and forth about not only what the stories were, but how you tell them because this is a book for the general public. So there's no method in here. It's about, as I say, there's this whole secret world of magic. It's about giving audiences and the public an appreciation of that. So when they come to a magic show, they understand a little bit more about it in the same way as if you go to dance or music or whatever, you understand something about the genre. It's celebrating that world. It's a peek behind the curtain. And it's a way of, I think the challenge was to really hold their attention in this world and yet still explain our love of the art form. And so it's a tricky thing to do because I say there's no method in the book.
E: My question has to do with controversy.
E: And I'm sure the history of magic has plenty of controversy in it throughout its recorded history.
E: How much of that is incorporated in the museum, realized in both the museum and the book?
E: And what do you think the most controversial item, article, story there is that you can talk about?
DC: A lot of it has to do with theft, theft of ideas.
DC: Sawing in half.
DC: The Magic Circle in London did a six-hour presentation of all the history of sawing in half, which this year is 100 years old.
DC: A guy named P.T. Selbert invented the idea of sawing somebody in half. But it really wasn't in two pieces. It was just a penetration basically. But the idea of sawing somebody in half was adopted in America by Horace Golden. He had a big buzz saw that did it. Then it went to Dante, many people in between, where the boxes would be separated. Then it was exposed. Then it was done with blood and guts, all kinds of different stories of the sawing in half idea.
DC: I took that and I made it my own thing to do it as an escape.
DC: So the sawing in half part was a surprise.
DC: The audience would be very upset because they thought I'd be escaping, but I get sawed in half.
DC: So it wasn't somebody, you know, another victim.
DC: I was the victim.
DC: Surprise, surprise.
DC: And time turns back and I put myself back together.
DC: But there was so much theft with sawing in half that Horace Golden spent his time just trying to fight for the rights of it because people just stole it.
DC: So lots of controversy in that.
DC: You know, Houdini's time, I've got posters of magicians doing Houdini's whole act, you know, proudly just doing his act, you know, doing milk can escapes.
DC: But giant posters, they weren't trying to hide it.
DC: They were like celebrating it.
DC: It didn't exist without Houdini doing that idea.
DC: In my life, people have stolen all my stuff.
DC: It's incredible.
DC: There's people doing my shows, my stuff I slaved over for years, seven years work on illusions, and they just steal it.
DC: And I'm lucky enough to be able to move forward and keep going.
DC: But it's no fun.
DC: Let me tell you, it's no fun.
S: It's a lot like any technology.
S: Like who invented the light bulb?
S: Well, let me tell you.
S: It's like a huge, long, controversial story.
S: I guess it's just pulling that intellectual thread is always going to be complicated.
S: The chapter in the book that most caught my attention was the one on the 16th century book of conjuring and the connection to the witch hunts of the time.
S: So even like at the beginning, magicians were having to explain like, no, there's no witchcraft.
S: This is magic.
S: Let me show you, right?
S: I mean, this is goes that that history goes all the way back that far.
S: Tell us a little bit more about that.
RW: That's the Scott's discovery of witchcraft, which is a very skeptical text. At the time, you had a lot of belief, high belief in witchcraft, particularly in Europe. And what's interesting about that, first of all, he gives normal explanations for apparently paranormal phenomena. So it's very early kind of skeptic. In the same book, he also gives explanations of magic tricks. But he's not doing that in order to argue that the people being accused of being witches are using magic tricks. What he's saying is, we can get things wrong, we can misperceive the world. And look, magicians do that to us all the time. And here's their tricks. So the kind of meta point he's making is we can be very certain and very wrong, which of course is a key point in skepticism as well. In doing so, he presents the first English language text that gives proper descriptions of magic tricks. And it's phenomenal. They're really good. I mean, you could still perform them today. So it's astonishing that you have this book, hundreds of years old, but it's got these allusions in it, which you could still perform. And the point being made is, look, we trip ourselves up, which is exactly what skeptics say.
S: And it's amazing.
S: Like, it never changes.
S: We're fighting the same intellectual battle that they were doing.
S: Every time I come across something like that, like I learned about a 200-year-old book debunking, debunking magnet cure snake oil devices.
S: It's like, really?
S: Like all the shit that we're debunking today was some guy had to debunk it 200 years ago.
S: And now it's like all of the same thing that we're doing today, magicians were doing 500 years ago, you know, during the witch hunts of Europe, no less. I mean, it's amazing. I mean, it probably goes back much farther than that. That's just the first time somebody wrote it down.
DC: We do advance, you know, we do advance, look at what we're doing now. We do advance. But as humans, we keep repeating our same mistakes over and over again. It's like really incredible that we don't, you know, we don't listen to ourselves, you know, we don't. But there is progress, obviously. We're now we can take a spaceship, make it go off and then land like that.
J: Yeah. Retro rockets, man.
RW: Can I just say, here's my take on that. So I'm not quite as pessimistic. So the fact that we can believe impossible things like whatever it is, you know, sort of magical stuff, people doing amazing things, the fact we have the ability to believe something that's impossible means that once in a while, one of those seemingly impossible things we can actually do like getting to the moon or inventing a new type of rocket or whatever it is. So I think it's almost the price you pay for doing amazing stuff is that you believe a lot of stuff that isn't true, but you have this capability because once in a while, you actually believe something that seems to be impossible, that is true. So I kind of have a slightly different side, more optimistic take on it.
S: Oh, don't make no mistake. And you know, I wouldn't be doing this fight and have some level of optimism about the whole skeptical endeavor.
B: I lost all my optimism.
S: Bob's the cynic in the group, not me.
S: But we're doomed. Imagination is a double edged sword is what you're saying. It cuts both ways. That's why you have to combine it with analytical thinking, which I think is a really good description of the magical arts. It's this combination of imagination, creativity, showmanship, and like hardcore skeptical analytical thinking behind it all.
S: Do you agree with that?
RW: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's phenomenal. Speaking to David, it's one thing to create an effect, as magicians would call it, say, oh, tonight we're going to have a dinosaur, giant dinosaur appear in the show. Well, that's great. But you've got to figure out a way of doing it. And that requires a lot of hard work. I mean, David, I don't want to speak to how much hard work goes into the sorts of illusions that you perform.
DC: A lot.
RW: Thank you.
J: Guys, have you have you as magicians, have you guys experienced somebody thinking that you do wield magic? How do you handle that? Like, other than smack yourself in the head with your palm? Like, how do you how do you how do you handle that? How do you dissuade someone of that?
DC: You know, as we've seen in the world, sometimes people cannot be convinced. They want to believe in somebody or something, or they won't do something. We're not going to get political now, but you know what I'm talking about. And no matter what science you give them, what proof you give them, they just won't see it. They need to believe. I'll tell you a story. James Brown, love James Brown, came to my show and he believed it was real. And I did my job and my job was to say it's not real. That's my job as a human being. That's my job. He didn't want to hear about that. He said, I know, I know. I said, when you do this, I mean, he like, look at me. We know.
DC: And I said, well, I'm so flattered. I'm so flattered. And I'm a big fan of yours and your music inspires me. But a lot of hard work and technology goes into what I'm doing. He goes, I know.
J: That's kind of frustrating because it takes it takes away your hard work in a sense.
DC: You know, I guess that's the way of looking at it. You're right. But it also I used to fly in my show. You can Google it. I fly. I fly really good. He really believed it.
DC: He really believed it. And there's no he couldn't convince no matter how there was another guy. I'll tell you another story is I was at the pool. I used to live I used to live at the hotel. We go out in the pool, right? Public pool. And a guy came up to me and he was dressed in Armani suit. Not overly done, but you could tell he had money. This is a money guy. He said to me, my son has a problem. He has headaches. And I said, well, you know, I am a magician. I'm an illusionist. It's not, you know, it's not real what I'm doing. I want to look real. So I want you to help my son with my headaches with his his headaches. I said, he says, I've gone to every doctor in the world. I have money's no object for me. Money's no object. Please help him. I said, why do you think that I can help you? He said, well, I saw you. This is illusion in my show. I used to do my version of a classic thing where you take a chicken and a duck and I take the head off of the chicken and I put it on the duck's body. I take the other head, switching their heads on the bodies and they walk around living things. It was done, don't know much about history. It was done as a light thing. Goofy. It's pretty, you know, it's a kind of a gruesome idea. No blood. But I did this as kind of a happy, you know, what a wonderful world this could be. I did this whole thing. I didn't sing. But I did this illusion and he said, you know that you flew and I said, it's not real though. And saying the words, it's not real. You just see him kind of this one bit of hope, you know, I was a hope and hope, you know, despite your guys profile being skeptical, hope also does save lives and does, you know, lift people and give lengthen lives. Actually, you know, your brain is allowed to do, does do good things. Anyway, I couldn't obviously say what I did was real. I just explained to him, I'm so flattered by this. Please keep searching. You know, I'll say one thing I can teach you. I can't teach you this, that everything I do is hard and I don't give up. I don't give up everything that you reason you saw a show like that, or I have this little kid from New Jersey, Jewish kid from Jersey as a career. I didn't give up. That's why, you know, so do the same thing. You know, don't give up. Just keep going. What else can you say? But it just have this really educated guy, lots of money, had no hope and with a suffering child at home. And I was his last thing. So what do you do? I don't know.
S: But I think you hit upon the key difference there. And we're a little bit sensitive about this being skeptics because everyone thinks we're cynics when we're not cynics. We're very, very hopeful. But the difference is you have the plausible, rational hope, as slim as it might be of, say, an Elon Musk who wants to go to Mars, where it's possible within the realm of physics, the laws of physics, and he could do it with enough work and persistence and whatever, versus the magical false hope of the guru, the quick fix or whatever, that inevitably leads to exploitation and disappointment. And I don't know if you know, but I'm a physician. So I see patients all the time. Yes, latch on to any legitimate, pragmatic hope. But when patients latch on to magic as their hope, that always leads to tears. That is not a good thing. It's worse. Because they're bound to have the carpet pulled out from under them in a very cruel way at some point. And it also leads them to make really bad decisions, really bad decisions. And again, hope plus reality, I think, is a good thing. Hope plus belief in magic is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
DC: If you can carry hope with some kind of plausible possibility of hope plus rest, hope plus positive experiences or interactions with people that lift you up, hope plus that. And also, using medical principles is very important, not to discard what you've learned. But it's just, you realize the need. I do shows. I do 15 shows a week. And I look at the audience. And there's like three kinds. Usually they say two kinds. One kind is an audience like this. I'm sitting there like this, probably like you guys.
J: I know what he's doing.
J: This guy, yeah.
DC: I'm doing this.
DC: And they're trying to do that.
DC: That's one section, right?
DC: Then, and then there's another section where the magic washes over them.
DC: They just release and they go.
DC: My goal is to have you guys watch my show and go, after this, they go, okay, I'm going to relax now.
DC: Okay, let's just watch it.
DC: Let's just enjoy this thing.
DC: That's my goal.
DC: I do my job well.
DC: And if I can get you to do that, that's a good thing.
S: You can practice on us if you want.
J: You know, but David, I look at, I think a lot of skeptics and people who are science enthusiasts would tend to agree with this, that I look at what you and Richard do as a vehicle of joy.
J: It brings me absolute joy when I see magic done very well.
J: It's thrilling.
J: And I'm not trying to figure out, I know I'm really enjoying it when I no longer am trying to figure it out.
J: When it's done effortlessly, I can almost believe the magic.
J: So I think as a skeptic, to me, it is one of the most absolutely entertaining things I can see to actually be fooled.
J: I've been training my brain not to be fooled for a long time.
J: That to me is so awesome.
J: So you guys, and you both have done it to me on several occasions.
S: Well, I think what you're saying is at some point the magic is so good, you're like, I'm not even going to bother to try to figure it out.
S: It's just not even going to bother, just going to enjoy it.
RW: Sorry, David, yes, the third group.
S: The third group, yeah, we're waiting for the third group.
DC: The third group, if you can make it happen, if you can take, if you can prototype human future achievements, prototype that.
DC: And if there's a small, very small group of people that can see something on stage and be inspired to replicate it for real.
DC: George Melies did a trip to the moon, the moon face and the rocket going up.
DC: Yeah, yeah.
DC: Seven years later, less than seven years, we landed on the moon.
DC: I think seeing it, visualizing it brings us closer from the dream to the reality.
DC: So there's a third section of the audience seeing me do really impossible things where it's real.
DC: I'm doing real stuff except for one part.
DC: One part is the illusion part that I'm doing, right?
DC: If I can, if there's a couple of kids in the audience who are smarter than all six of us, definitely smarter than me, they can go, hmm, okay.
DC: And be inspired to really fix something or move us forward.
DC: Then my job is really good, you know, and I'm hoping that's going to happen.
RW: Yeah. And you're being very kind putting David and I in the same category in terms of being magicians. You really shouldn't. David is a legend.
J: I know, but what I'm saying is, you know, I've been to your house.
J: I've seen you perform many times.
J: I've watched your videos on YouTube.
S: You said Jay's threshold is really low is what he said.
J: Wait, wait, hold on a second.
J: So let me quantify it because there's no way am I putting David down and you up.
J: I'm saying though, I've seen you both execute magic expertly and do it in a way that brought me joy.
J: And that was my point.
J: Yeah, that is a good point.
RW: You've never seen me do anything expertly, believe me. You've seen David do it expertly. That's not true. I'm a modest British guy. Modest British guy. How is that possible? The only way, when I used to perform, the only way I gave people hope, people could look at my performances and say, if you can make a living doing that, I've got hope.
E: But it goes from the very close up simple magic tricks to the big stage performances. You can find the satisfaction on all levels from that and in between. There's something there to be fascinated by. I think that's Jay's point.
J: Yeah, it is.
J: It's an inspiring craft that I deeply respect because it's challenging and at the same time there is something so thrilling about being fooled that...
J: It makes you a kid again.
J: Yeah, it makes you...
RW: That's it, Steve.
J: You said it.
J: It makes you a kid again.
J: That and watching a Star Wars movie for those are the only two things in my reality now that can make me feel like a kid again.
DC: And they're the same, but they have a similarity to it. You know, Da Vinci, you know Da Vinci, right? You like him, right? He's good. I love him, yeah. He helped to co-write one of the first magic books. He cared about this stuff.
J: So guys, where can people buy the book? Obviously it's on Amazon. Do you have a website or anything?
RW: It's published by Simon & Schuster. It's out there everywhere. With Barnes & Noble, I think there's a special edition with an extra chapter about Orson Wells. And yeah, it comes out 26th, I think, of October. We should say, I mean, it's a big glossy book. It's about 300 pages. Homer and Liwag did an amazing job with the photography. It's all double page spreads and so on. So yeah, we hope folks enjoy it. Huge overlap between magic and skepticism for all the reasons we've been speaking about. So yeah.
DC: Great Christmas gift, by the way. Buy 10 of them. Give them to your friends. I solved your Christmas problems.
S: I am Bulk.
S: And the name of the book, we should say, is David Copperfield's History of Magic.
S: And again, I've been looking through it because you guys sent me the PDF.
S: The pictures are wonderful.
S: Just really amazing, amazing.
S: All right.
E: Thank you guys.
E: Thanks, guys.
E: Thank you.
RW: Thank you.
Science or Fiction (1:28:33)
Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.
Theme: Materials Science
Item #1: Researchers have created a hardened wood that is 23 times as hard as the natural wood it is made from, can be sharpened into a blade three times sharper than a commercial table knife, and even made into nails.
Item #2: Engineers have created a plasma-infused plastic with the highest melting point of any plastic at close to 1,500 degrees Celsius.
Item #3: Scientists have created nanotwinned titanium, that is both stronger and more ductile than titanium, properties that are usually inversely related, and even at ultra-low temperatures.
S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake.
S: And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake.
S: And you all could play along from home too, if you wish.
S: We have a theme this week.
S: The theme is material science.
E: I know who's going last.
S: So just I happen to come across a bunch of material science news items.
S: So I made it into a theme.
S: OK, here we go.
S: Item number one, researchers have created a hardened wood that is 23 times as hard as the natural wood it is made from, can be sharpened into a blade three times sharper than a commercial table knife, and even made into nails.
S: Item number two, engineers have created a plasma-infused plastic with the highest melting point of any plastic at close to 1500 degrees Celsius.
S: Item number three, scientists have created nanotwinned titanium that is both stronger and more ductile than titanium, properties that are usually inversely related, and even at ultra low temperatures.
S: Evan, go first.
E: Well, I might as well go first because I don't know about any of these.
E: The hardened wood 23 times as hard as the natural wood it's made from, that's interesting, and sharpened into a blade three times sharper than a commercial table knife, and made into nails.
E: Creating a hardened wood 23 times natural wood, so it's made from wood.
E: That's fascinating.
E: The next one about plasma-infused plastic with the highest melting point of any plastic, 1500 degrees Celsius.
E: That's hot.
B: Since everyone's going first, Steve, what kind of plasma?
C: I don't think he means blood plasma.
S: Oh, yeah, yeah.
S: The state of matter.
S: The state of matter plasma.
C: The super hot.
C: Oh, like the sun.
C: Yeah, like the sun.
C: Like what's happening in the sun.
C: They just infuse the plastic with the sun, Evan.
E: Well, 1500 degrees Celsius, I mean, there are parts of the sun, I'm sure, that is there. But that engineers created this? Doing things the sun can do? I suppose so. Maybe. I don't know. I don't have anything really much to say on that one. But the last one about the nanotwined titanium.
E: Oh, sorry.
E: Nanotwinned titanium.
E: Nanotwinned, okay.
E: Titanium, I know about that.
E: Stronger and more ductile than titanium.
E: That makes sense.
E: Properties that are usually inversely related.
E: Oh, really?
E: Inversely related.
S: Yeah, so if you make it stronger, it gets less ductile.
S: If you make it more ductile, it gets less strong.
S: Those properties are usually in opposition to each other.
E: And even at ultra low temperatures.
E: I'm sorry, guys.
E: I don't have much to say about really any of these.
E: Material science obviously is just not something I'm up on normally.
E: And these specific ones, even less so.
E: So I'll just have to make a straight up guess.
E: I'll say the 1500 degrees Celsius number seems high to me. When you start talking about temperatures and you're relating it to, I don't know, if it is sun plasma that we're talking about or anything close to it. And that it's been created. And that's the melting point. That seems more far-fetched than the other two to me for some reason.
S: Okay, Cara.
C: Yeah, I mean, as I'm going through them, super hard wood, okay. That seems reasonable. Especially because it's like hardened wood using material science. It could have other materials in it that make it harder. I don't see any reason that wood itself couldn't be hardened through the use of some sort of mechanism or through adding a polymer or something. nd then the nanotwins titanium, I'm assuming that word means that at the nano level, these titanium atoms, these titanium molecules are doubled. They're sistered. Is that what you mean by nanotwins? Maybe. Okay. So by sistering these molecules somehow, they are... Sistering. Yeah, like the way you sister boards in your house. You put two next to each other, now it's stronger. I don't know. It seems reasonable. But this idea of... I don't even know how you could infuse plastic with plasma. I'm trying to remember even back to what plasma is. I know it's really hot. I think it's like a gas, but it's not a gas because it's the fourth state of matter. But it's like a liquid that somehow been ionized or... I don't know, something's happened to it at the... I don't know. It just seems weird that you would infuse... I don't understand how this one would work. Therefore it seems the most far-fetched to me. Therefore I'm going to say it's a fiction.
S: Okay, Bob.
B: Well, about that, Kara.
B: Yeah, you pretty much nailed it.
B: It's an ionized gas. It's so hot that it strips away the electrons and that's the fourth state of matter. You pretty much said it all. Yeah.
E: We're very proud of you.
E: No way.
E: That they might be giants song I learned about.
B: But yeah, how would they...
B: Infusing that into a plastic, how would that work?
B: I'm not sure.
B: And then how would it protect you from...
B: Oh man.
B: But the other ones seem more plausible.
B: I mean, I remember reading about a story where they hardened wood by an order of magnitude.
B: So it was 10 times harder.
B: This is 23 times.
B: I think Steve though is going to try to trick us with this plasma infused plastic.
B: Of course.
B: He tries to trick us every week. Or maybe that's what he wants us to think. I clearly cannot choose the cup in front of me. The nano twin titanium, sure. Those characteristics are usually inversely related. So that's pretty cool that I want that to be real. Actually, I want all of them to be real. So let's say... All right. I'll say that the wood is fiction.
S: And Jay.
J: So the first one here, the wood 23 times hard is natural wood.
J: I agree with Cara and Evan.
J: I think that's science. They do something to it. They play a little trickery there with the molecules and they make it stronger. Like the bionic man, the bionic wood.
J: I like it.
J: And I like it.
J: And I want a knife in the kitchen that's made out of wood that can kill. The second one though, you know, Steve, this 1500 degrees Celsius, I don't like it. I think that one is the fiction because I just simply don't think that they could pull it off, make a plastic that can withstand that heat.
S: That's it.
S: All right.
Steve Explains Item #3
S: So let's start with number three.
S: Since you all agree on that one, scientists have created nano twin titanium that is both stronger and more ductile than titanium properties that are usually inversely related.
S: And even at ultra low temperatures, you guys all think this one is science and this one is science.
S: It is science.
S: This is super cool, literally and figuratively.
S: You're right, Cara.
S: The nano twin is pretty much what it sounds like at the nano scale.
S: The grains, not the molecules of titanium, it's not that small, not the molecular level.
S: The grains are aligned.
S: They're twins.
S: So when you're dealing with metals, you know, the properties, the strength, you know, ductile, hardness, all that stuff, it's all about the grains, right?
S: The grain size and how they're aligned and everything.
S: You know, generally speaking, when you have a lot of small grains, it's hard.
S: You have bigger ones, it's strong, but not as hard.
S: It's more ductile, etc.
S: But how do you get both at the same time?
S: So what they did was they put the titanium, they cooled it in liquid nitrogen and then forged it, they cryo forged it.
S: And at that, they basically put it under extreme pressure.
S: And at that temperature, what happens is the grains align themselves in pairs.
S: And that enables the titanium to have very small grain size, which makes it strong.
S: But because of the alignment of the grains, it allows it to be more ductile, because now they can rearrange themselves under stress and without breaking.
S: That's what ductile means.
S: Like how much like taffy is it?
S: Can you pull it?
S: How far can you pull it apart before it breaks?
S: You know, metals tend to be, you know, if they're hard, they're not very ductile, they'll snap, right?
S: And if you make it ductile, like you could pull it like taffy, then it's clearly not going to be that hard or strong, which are two different things, by the way.
S: But there's different kinds of strength.
S: But here we're just talking about ductile strength and versus like compressive strength.
S: So this basically you get the best of both worlds, you get titanium that's both strong and more ductile, and also can tolerate a greater range of temperature from very cold to very hot.
S: Wow, that's big.
S: Titanium is already the strongest material for its weight that we have, element, I should say.
S: I wonder if this would be, again, if it scales up, if you could make it cheaply enough, if you could make rockets out of titanium, you can, but I mean, would this make nano twin titanium into like an ideal rocket material?
B: I mean, typically, I've heard of titanium, Steve, in the nose cones of rockets.
B: I've heard that before.
S: Yeah, because they're light and strong.
S: But like Musk used stainless steel to make a starship, and primarily because I found out that it's because that they can tolerate the huge temperature swings, you know, from plowing through the atmosphere and having the rockets going to being in the cold.
S: So maybe this would be better.
S: And you'd be able to knock some pounds off of them.
S: I don't know if it's going to ultimately be practical.
S: But you know, it all starts with the material science, right?
S: Let's we'll just keep going in reverse order.
Steve Explains Item #2
S: Number two, engineers have created a plasma infused plastic with the highest melting point of any plastic at close to 1500 degrees Celsius.
S: Bob, you think this one is science.
S: Jay, Karen, Evan, you think this one is the fiction.
S: And this one is the fiction.
B: Too obvious, man.
S: You didn't try the plasma infused plastic?
S: What do you think is the hottest temperature melting point of any plastic?
S: What's the highest melting point?
J: I would say like, no, like 500 degrees or something.
C: Celsius or Fahrenheit?
C: Well, Celsius.
S: You could translate that.
C: I don't know, like not even like 200.
S: Which is about 620 Fahrenheit.
S: That's still pretty good.
S: That's good.
S: But but yeah, but I just had to go high enough that I made sure I was out of range of any incremental advances or anything.
S: But yeah, so that's yeah, it was way too high.
S: I just made up.
S: Wait, did you just make this up?
S: Yeah, I just made it up.
S: I just made it up.
S: I just made it up.
S: I just made it up.
S: You guys.
S: You know, it's just a turbo and calculator, you know, plasma.
B: It was too damn obvious, man.
B: I can't believe it.
Steve Explains Item #1
S: Which means that researchers have created a hardened wood that is 23 times as hard as the natural wood is made from can be sharpened into a blade three times sharper than a commercial table knife and even made into usable nails, right?
S: Into nails that you could hammer wood with.
S: So that is science.
S: And that's pretty cool.
S: We have talked about hardening wood previously.
S: Now to review the basic science of this wood has three basic components cellulose, lignin and hemicellulose.
S: So the strongest component in the wood is the cellulose.
S: The cellulose cellulose is super strong.
S: It's stronger than steel, right?
S: Lignin is a binding agent without the lignin.
S: Wood would be like rope, you know, it'd be very, again, that'd be very strong, but it would be flexible.
S: It wouldn't be stiff.
S: What they do is they partially remove the lignin and the hemicellulose so that you're left with a higher percentage of cellulose, which makes it very strong, but you still have enough lignin to make it stiff, right?
S: So it's not floppy.
S: And they do that with a specific process.
S: Part of the advance here is that the process is much more feasible and less expensive.
S: You don't have to use as much as, you know, you don't have to use temperatures that are that high.
S: Just the temperature of boiling water is all you need in the process.
S: So it doesn't use that much energy in the process.
S: Do you guys know, by the way, basically the three substances we make or the two now, the most common materials that we make high-end knives out of?
J: It's a...
S: What kind of steel is it?
S: It's steel.
S: Just steel is one.
E: You use different kinds of steel that you can use.
S: Stainless steel.
S: No, I'm talking about...
S: Oh, ceramic.
S: Steel or ceramic.
S: Ceramic has to be heated to thousands of degrees.
S: So this would be a third material that you could make a usable knife.
S: The video attached to the news item showing somebody cutting a steak with a wood knife.
S: You know, when they say a table knife, they're talking about like a butter knife, not a steak knife.
S: But that's still sharp enough that you can use it, you know, to cut steak.
S: And it worked.
S: You know, they kind of imply that it needs a lot of maintenance.
S: So I don't know how well it...
S:...hold that edge.
S: So the good thing about steel is, hardenable steel, is not only that you can give it an edge but that it holds an edge really well.
S: I mean, still you sharpen your knives.
S: They will dull over time.
S: Your razors dull, your blades, any blade is going to dull.
S: But it will hold it for a long time and hold it well.
B: Yeah, but what if you make a chair out of it?
B: How strong would that chair be and how long would that last?
S: It would be super strong.
S: Or your house.
S: Yeah, absolutely.
S: So you could get a lot greater strength to weight, you know, by getting rid of all the stuff in the wood that's not contributing to the strength.
B: You use a much, much thinner wood.
B: Much less wood, it would be an equally strong house.
S: And then, you know, the making nails out of this stuff could have an advantage because wooden nails don't rust.
S: Yes, steel nails will rust or you need to get the galvanized nails or whatever.
S: But there you just get...
S: So, you know, if you could make, cost-effectively make, you know, these nails out of wood, you just be hammering wood through other wood and then there wouldn't be anything rustable in there.
S: Do they rot?
S: Well, they're probably...
S: Because they're so dense, they're so dense, they would probably be very resistant to rot and water.
S: Yeah, sounds like it.
S: And you think also to like carpenter ants and termites and things.
S: Yeah, and termite.
S: So it would probably be very...
S: It's treated wood, right?
S: It would be considered treated wood.
S: It would be much better than natural wood.
S: So yeah, it's going to come down to scalability and cost.
S: But the...
S: As usual.
S: But for some applications, it may be...
S: Worth the expense.
S: It may be ideal.
S: Yeah, totally.
B: You can make a rocket out of it.
B: You can make a rocket out of it.
S: I'll do that.
S: So, yeah, again, you know we're big fans of material science because it actually changes the game.
B: Yeah, absolutely.
S: It gives you new abilities.
S: I don't know if the nano-twin to titanium or this process for hardening wood, if we're going to see these in the future, we might...
S: We're always waiting for that next material that's going to be like the plastic of our generation.
S: Still holding out for versions of graphene to be that, and it really is looking good.
S: But the hurdle at this point is being able to mass produce graphene in great enough lengths and quality with very few defects.
B: Metamaterials, baby.
S: Yeah, metamaterials.
S: That's really going to be the stuff of the future, you know, is the advances in material science.
B: Chef of the future.
B: Smart materials and then foglets.
S: Then programmable matter will be the ultimate.
E: Oh, yes.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:44:45)
Science knows no country because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.
– Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), French chemist and microbiologist
S: Evan, do you have a quote for us?
E: I do.
E: Science knows no country because knowledge belongs to humanity and is the torch which illuminates the world.
E: Louis Pasteur.
E: That's a good quote.
E: That's a very good quote.
E: Science knows no country, and it's very poetic.
S: I mean, I've seen it so many times before.
S: I actually had to ask Evan, are you sure we haven't used it as a quote before?
E: We have quoted Pasteur before, but not this particular one.
S: It was just so familiar.
E: I'm surprised it took us this long sort of to rediscover it in a sense.
E: But it's a great quote.
S: Well, thanks, Evan.
S: And thank you all for joining me this week.
B: Sure, man.
S: Thank you, guys.
S: You got it, Steve.
S: We'll see you during the Friday live stream.
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 theskepticsguide.org. Send your questions to email@example.com. And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to patreon.com/SkepticsGuide and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.
Today I Learned
- Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference
- NYT: In a First, Surgeons Attached a Pig Kidney to a Human, and It Worked
- The Guardian: Scientists abused and threatened for discussing Covid, global survey finds
- Phys.org, form UC Berkeley: Synthetic biology moves into the realm of the unnatural
- ScTechDaily, from Environmental Research Letters: Consensus Revisited: Do Scientists Still Believe in Anthropogenic (Human-Caused) Climate Change?
- Carnegie Mellon University: Dark Skies Ordinance To Dim Pittsburgh's Light Pollution
- "Playing the Building" Sound Installation by David Byrne
- Cell.com Matter: Hardened wood as a renewable alternative to steel and plastic
- Berkeley Lab: Stronger, Lighter, Better: Nanotwinned Titanium Forges Path to Sustainable Manufacturing
- [url_for_TIL publication: title]