SGU Episode 852

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SGU Episode 852
November 6th 2021
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SGU 851                      SGU 853

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

We must learn to set our emotions aside and embrace what science tells us. GMOs and nuclear power are two of the most effective and most important green technologies we have. If – after looking at the data – you aren’t in favour of using them responsibly, you aren’t an environmentalist.

Ramez Naam, American technologist

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021, and this is your host, Stephen Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody...

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey, guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, everyone.

S: Bob, are you in your post-Halloween funk?

B: I'm doing okay considering the party is a few days from now, so I'm kind of just focused on that and it's going to be awesome.

S: Yeah, you extended the season by having your Halloween party after Halloween.

B: Yes, because nobody has a Halloween party after Halloween, so they're not busy.

S: There's a reason for that, you know.

B: Yes, so that they don't conflict with my Halloween party.

J: I look at it like this. Bob is pushing the bounds of Halloween past where they're supposed to be.

S: But don't you guys feel, in all seriousness, after a holiday is over, that holiday spirit evaporates almost immediately?

J: Exactly, Steve. Exactly. Oh, my God.

E: Like cotton candy on the tongue, gone.

B: That's such magical thinking, Steve. What's the matter with you?

S: I'm 100% in the Christmas spirit the day after Christmas. It's over. It's completely gone.

J: Smoke and mirrors, next.

E: Pack it up.

B: Yeah, I hear you. I hear you. There's something to that. I wouldn't deny that.

COVID-19 Update (1:31)[edit]

S: Before we go on to the news side, I just wanted to give a quick COVID update. I published an SBM article today looking at a couple of studies. So we've been talking about the boosters a lot because we're in booster fever now, everyone's got to get their shot. I'm getting mine tomorrow, actually, my third day was my booster. And there was a study that came out, it was an observational study out of Israel that has a very large and thorough data set, database of public health. So they were able to look at a massive number of people and they essentially compared two cohorts, one group of people who had two doses of either the AstraZeneca or the Pfizer vaccine with the second dose more than five months ago. And then the other cohort had a third dose at least seven days ago, right? So basically one group had two doses, but the immunity probably has waned by now. And the third group had their third dose with enough time to get an antibody reaction from it. There was 728,321 people in each arm. So big stuff, lots of data.

B: Big arms.

S: And it covered the July 30th to September 23rd during the Delta wave. This is data out of Israel, so this is during a wave dominated by the Delta variant, so it's very relevant. And what they found was that in the three dose group, their infection rate decreased by 93% compared to the two dose group.

B: Wow.

S: Hospitalizations by 95%, severe disease by 92%, and death, COVID related deaths by 81%.

J: Wow.

S: So that shows the third dose is, the booster dose is pretty damn effective compared to just two doses.

B: Wow.

S: So they did some population level data and they found that after an age group became eligible for the third dose, their infection rates decreased. And that happened with each age group as they became eligible. So it's pretty good real world data that a third dose is extremely effective.

C: Are we still talking about small numbers though? I know it's a big study and we looked at a massive portion of the Israeli population, but is, when comparing the hospitalizations of two doses versus three doses, yes, there's a significant difference and yes, it's better with the three doses, but it's still an exceedingly small number of people that are going to the hospital that are dying, that are having these really, really negative outcomes from COVID after being vaccinated, regardless, right?

S: So for example, for hospital admissions, there was 157 in the two dose versus 17 in the three dose. That's 140 hospital admissions. That's a lot of hospital admissions.

C: It is. Out of how many people though?

S: Yeah, it doesn't really matter. What's the hospital? I mean, it does matter to some extent, but if you're looking at stress on the system, that's 140 fewer hospital beds being used up or ICU beds.

C: Agree. All I'm saying is that we're looking at data within the tails right now, right? So the truth of the matter is if you are vaccinated at all, you're in a way better place than being unvaccinated.

E: Oh, absolutely.

S: Although the data is showing that for the Delta variant, the two doses, the efficacy decreased from 95% down into like the 60 to 80%. So it's still good, it's still good, but it's not great. And is it enough to get to herd immunity? Probably not. And so these numbers are big enough that they could make the difference between herd immunity and no herd immunity, assuming we get to high enough total vaccination rates. So yeah, there is still the question, which I don't think this answers, although it gives us information. It doesn't answer the question for us. Is it better to give people a third dose or to give people who haven't had any doses a first dose? And again, the US's answer at least is like, we're going to do both. It's not an either or situation. We're going to do it. Here's a billion doses to the world. There you go. That's what we're going to do, which I think is a reasonable answer. But they're facing it. And at first it was vulnerable populations, then people who are having high risk, front line workers. They're sort of rolling it out based on that, not just to everybody high risk individuals.

J: Yeah, but Steve, can we believe these bastards?

B: Nice one, Jay.

C: And the other big, big change here in the US is that just within hours, right, we now have approval. I've been seeing like all of the alerts that the Pfizer, is it just Pfizer so far or is it Pfizer and Moderna for kids? Like they have like a baby dose now, not baby, but a kid dose, can't call it baby dose. I think it's 5 to 11.

B: Yeah, 5 to 11. That's great. That was just what, yesterday? The day before? That's very recent.

C: I know. There's a lot of things coming out. So I think it was like, I think the approvals process is a multi-tiered process. So it's like, I'm not sure when it's going to be available.

B: I heard it could be available as soon as like in a week, within a week.

E: Steve, how vulnerable is the 5 to 11 population if with no shot, with no inoculation?

S: Depends on where they are and what they do. There's no one number for that. But they're less vulnerable than adults, they're less vulnerable to get it. And also they're less vulnerable to have severe illness and die from it, absolutely.

C: But if they do get it, they can spread it.

S: They can still spread it. Yeah. They can still pass it on. And again, even if the percentages are low, it's a worldwide pandemic. The absolute numbers are still pretty significant. So the thing is, it's very easy to get confused by these numbers. But if you go by like, what's the cost of doing this? What is the risk versus benefit to the individual? What's the number needed to treat, et cetera, et cetera? This is such a massively good public health program. The cost benefit is better than probably any other single thing that we do in medicine or public health, especially during a pandemic.

C: Even though the numbers feel low, for example, between ages of 5 and 11, 170 children in the US have died. Yes, only 170, but 170. That's a lot of kids have died from COVID between the ages of 5 and 11. And if you think about how often kids between the ages of 5 and 11 die, that puts COVID as a leading cause of death among that age group. Because kids don't usually die between the ages of 5 and 11. Sometimes they do. They're not at great risk of death. So I mean, the fact that COVID is a leading cause of death among that age group, yes, this is an important thing to do to vaccinate them. And not just that. Think about the interruption of their lives. I don't know about you guys, but anecdotally, I can tell you that I hear constantly from whether it be friends, whether it be patients, whether it be individuals that I know who have kids who are in school, that there are just, oh, the COVID exposure had to pull them out. Oh, there was a scare that they got exposed and had to pull. I mean, their lives are being so interrupted. Their academics are being so interrupted by COVID right now.

J: Cara, literally, my son today, this has never happened before. We've been emailed by the school, hey there was one kid in this other class and contact tracing has been done, everybody's fine. My son had to come home from school today. Every third grader in his school had to come home today because there was a major exposure and he's home for the rest of the week.

C: And you think about what does that do to families who don't have childcare? What does that do to the kids' ability to consistently learn the lessons that they're learning in school, for socialization, just for their baseline anxiety? God, what is this doing to kids? Anxiety about germs, about disease. Yeah, it's a lot.

E: It's a ton.

C: So I'm really glad that they've got like a little dose now.

S: Think about how much anxiety parents have about their children being abducted by a stranger and the precautions that are taken, et cetera. And the risk of that happening is orders of magnitude less.

C: Oh, it's exceedingly low.

S: Getting COVID, getting a severe illness or dying from COVID. I know. So people don't put risks into perspective. They worry about things that are very unlikely to happen. And then they blow off risks that are actually pretty real. It's just hard for us to think inside these massive numbers. And it's hard to put things in perspective. But physicians, health care experts public health experts, this is what they do is think of ways to put these numbers into some kind of meaningful, pragmatic perspective.

E: It helps a lot.

S: These are the people that are saying, yeah, no matter how you look at this, this is a good idea to get vaccinated. Absolutely. Again, the only thing that I think is controversial at this point is just the priority of third dose versus get everyone a first dose. And which I get, I totally get that.

C: Controversy is about the means, though. It's not about the end result. The end result is everybody should be vaccinated. Nobody is in disagreement about that.

S: Totally.

C: So it's really about how do we get to that number? What is the most equitable way and actually the most efficient way to get to that number? And yes, there's always going to be argument about implementation.

S: Yeah, exactly. That's it. But not about whether it works or not. And the other thing is, so like a few months ago, if you listen to the experts, even Fauci or the CDC, FDA, they were saying things like, well the third dose or the booster dose increases the antibodies. But we don't know necessarily that it increases your resistance, your clinical real world resistance. Now we do know. Now we have the data. Now the evidence is strong that a third dose is effective, a booster dose. The other thing is that there's a study out of Oxford. It's in pre-print, but so far it looks pretty solid. They looked at the risk of transmissions, not getting the disease, but of transmitting the disease. So they looked at the contacts of people who were diagnosed with a positive test of COVID. And they found that just that the double dose, that if you've had two doses of Pfizer or AstraZeneca, it reduced the risk of one of your contacts testing positive. So for Pfizer, the odds ratio was 0.18, which means 0.18 to one compared to one risk of becoming positive if you were a contact of somebody who tested positive. For AstraZeneca, it was 0.37. That's for the alpha variant. For the delta variant, it was 0.35 versus 0.64. So that tells you right there about half, right? So the delta variant, it's about half as effective as for the alpha variant. But also they found that the longer people were away from their second dose, the greater their risk of catching, of spreading it. So it showed clinically the risk of the waning immunity from from the double dose. So all the evidence was lining up in the same direction. Effective immunity does wane over time. The third dose does work. It does prevent transmission. All of these things where they're saying, like, we think this is true, but we haven't absolutely proven it's true. Now that we have more real world data, it's all lining up and everything we thought was true turns out is true. So again, it all points to get vaccinated. You know, just just do it. Just get vaccinated.

C: I love Israel. Thank you, Israel.

S: Yeah, well, they were a combination of having good records and also being one of the first countries to have a super high penetration of vaccination. So they were just they're the canary in the coal mine, if you will. They were just ahead of the curves that we could learn from their experience.

C: The canary in the coal mine that was willing to get vaccinated.

S: That's not a great metaphor. It's something that Bellwether picked-

C: A super, super immune canary in the coal mine.

S: All right, let's go on to some news items.

News Items[edit]

Organic Fail (13:41)[edit]

S: I'm actually going to start with a story about Sri Lanka. We don't talk about Sri Lanka a lot. I don't know that it's come up on the show ever before. Yeah, but Sri Lanka this year engaged in an experiment, if you will. In April, the president announced that they were going to convert the entire country's agricultural system to 100 percent organic.

E: Wow.

C: How?

B: What a horrible decision.

J: So how did it go Steve?

E: Well, for them, not for them, a horrible decision, not necessarily for the rest of the world.

S: Now, there's always again, what's interesting is I've done a lot of reading on this. I wrote about it on Neurologica. So I've been engaging with a lot of people in the comments, which always leads to other references. I like to write about it before I talk about it on the show, because then I get a much more rich sources of information. So there's essentially two narratives here that I found when depending on the source of information. So it's a good it's also a good story. Like the meta story here is like, how do you know what's really going on? Because the media, even like, again, no conspiracy. This the mainstream media is basically lazy. I don't think that there's a conspiracy going on here. Even remember Christopher Hitchens, we were interviewing him and that was his criticism. He said, yeah, if you read the papers, you don't learn the real information. You learn whatever the narrative is that day. You have to go digging for your own information yourself. So how do we do that? We're not full time investigative journalists. How do we find out the real information? So what you'll see is you'll see the one or multiple dueling narratives about any given item. So you have to read all sides to try to sort of triangulate to what bits of information seem to be in common or incontrovertible or non-controversial. You have to understand the editorial filters that you're reading and adjust for that. Calibrate for that. You always try to get primary sources as much as possible. And one thing that I do, I always like I base my opinions on facts rather than people's other people's opinions or analysis. So if somebody said something and they're directly quoted as a video of them saying it, then I'm not relying upon a secondary source to tell me what they said. You could see them say it on video. That is an ironclad piece of information because we have video documentation of them saying X. So that's so I see what can I build off of the bits of information that are that are objective and not there's no filter between me and that information. Anyway, when I did that with this story, I found that there were two narratives. One is the Sri Lanka totally screwed up by trying to go full organic and now it's biting them in the ass. And the other one was don't blame organic just that Sri Lanka dropped the ball on the implementation of it. But it's this is all just but, all of the anti Sri Lanka press over this is just anti is just Western media making fun of or carrying water for the big ag industry and whatever. So it was then there's a Western corporate conspiracy against Sri Lanka and against organic. I'm not saying that these narratives are equivalent. I think that one is basically right. And the other one is basically propaganda. And you could probably guess which one that is. So but digging down myself as much as I can to what are the objective pieces of information there. So the president of Sri Lanka said we're going to go full organic because we're seeing all this cancer in the country and it's probably coming from all these chemicals and and just touting straight up pro organic propaganda and unscientific tropes. He's saying it directly. So, again, I don't need anyone to interpret that for me. I'm going based upon what the guy is saying. And then what he did objectively was a hundred percent ban on all agrochemicals.

C: Wait, what? How did they grow anything?

S: Well, I mean, you could only use organic. Right. So in other words, you can use you can use manure for fertilizer. You can use compost for fertilizer, but you can't use any, "artificial fertilizer".

C: Did that crater their economy?

S: Yes, it did in fact. But of course, there's you can say, oh, it's the pandemic. It's this it's the other thing. And so, yeah, I'm not going to that's where I'm not in a position to objectively interpret the causes of their economy cratering or this dramatic reduction in their agricultural food output and their farmers, basically their crops, withering before them.

C: But all of those things did happen.

S: But all of those things did happen. And yes you can make reasonable arguments like I would have taken longer. If this were 100 percent due to this shift, it would have taken longer for the all the negative effects to come into play, whatever. OK, fine. So I'm sure there was multiple effects. Yes, their economy is bad. And then you could also blame there are lots of economic things going on here, like they can't really afford to outsource all of these chemicals from other countries and fine, whatever. That doesn't mean that their choice was a good one or that their fix was effective. And it also doesn't mean that they're not buying into unscientific organic appeal to nature, complete and utter nonsense. So but to and to me, the core lesson here is one of the fundamental things that's wrong with the pro-organic lobby who says we should do all the worldwide farming should be 100 percent organic. And Sri Lanka is showing why that can't work on a national level. And it would be, of course, even worse the more you try to scale it up. So about 50 percent, just a little bit more than 50 percent of the food that we grow is fertilized with manure and compost. And it's basically organic sources of nitrogen. The other half roughly half is with chemical fertilizer, artificial fertilizer, like industrial fertilizer. But with the the Bosch reaction, you're fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and and getting into the system that way. Yeah. And the other thing is, you have to keep in mind here, and I dinged Sri Lanka for this, is like, didn't they realize that manure is already a worldwide commodity and it's basically already spoken for? It's a it's a valuable commodity. And it's not like it's it's not being 100 percent utilized already.

J: So, Steve, are you saying like I'm trying to clarify like this, the manure situation, are they trying to get their hands on a lot more manure than is available to them?

S: Well, they they did what Germany did with with nuclear power. They shut down the nuclear first and then said, let's replace it with wind and solar. And when that didn't work out, they ended up burning more coal. So what Sri Lanka did was now, if all they said was we want to be independent of foreign sources of inputs to our agriculturists, we're going to maximize our organic sources of fertilizer that we make in the country or in the region or whatever. Fine. I don't care about that.

C: That wasn't the argument.

S: First of all, they expressly made a health argument and an environmental argument, which is not true, and then did something stupid, which was to first ban the fertilizer and then worry about how he's going to replace it. Which didn't work, of course, because you can't magically materialize twice as much fertilizer as already exists. So what they ended up doing was he he went back and he relented and imported some fertilizer from another country. And then they just labeled it organic fertilizer. But it was just chemical fertilizer. They had to. They had no choice. They had to do it. It's all propaganda. So they had no choice. They had to they had to import fertilizer.

E: And lie about it. Great.

C: So, Steve, I have a quick question to interject and I don't mean to complicate things, but basically all we're talking about so far is fertilizer. But of course, for something to be labeled, at least here in the U.S., USDA organic, it also can't use synthetic herbicides or pesticides.

S: They banned all those two, 100 percent organic. So they're all banned as well.

C: So when we talk about how 50 percent of the food supply there or globally comes from actual organic fertilizer, manure versus non-organic synthetic fertilizers, were how much of that percentage of the organic manure fertilization is also not utilizing synthetic pesticides? I mean, what percent?

S: Not much. Only about one point five or something like less than two percent of our food is grown organically. So it's very small.

C: So they're like, I want to go from 99 percent to one percent overnight.

S: Yeah, I don't know if it's one percent of Sri Lanka's agriculture before this decision. That's just worldwide. Maybe it was five or 10 percent, even like in the heavily pro-organic parts of the world. It's like eight percent. You know, that's like the that would be a large chunk of it. So, yes, it would be like they try to overnight going from a small percentage to 100 percent. And so even those multiple mismanagements here, like the farmers didn't know what they were doing that they didn't have they didn't source their fertilizer before they banned it. You know, banning herbicides and pesticides means what? You can't do no till farming. So now we need to hire a whole bunch of people to pull weeds. And you could argue, well, they have the labour. But, yeah, you really want to use all your labour now just as for farming. Is that what you're locking in that system for your country? Is that really what you want to do? And but the other thing is the land use organic farming on average. And there's been multiple studies to show this now uses about 20 percent more land than conventional farming. Where is that land going to come from? Yeah, so it would just if we tried to implement this on a large scale, it would be an absolute disaster. Half the world would starve. And, of course, which half do you think is going to starve?

E: The poorest of us.

S: The poor half. It would be an absolute disaster.

C: It takes me to like an analogy in my head of like, of course, it sounds like a good idea to just stop using fossil fuels overnight. But the reason we haven't done that is because we know that the entire world would collapse. We wouldn't have energy.

S: Right. Right. Of course. Like we're very, very much pro fixing anthropogenic global warming. But we would never say just shut down all the oil and fossil fuel sources.

C: And then we'll just figure it out.

S: Figure it out later. Of course.

C: Yeah, it's insanity.

S: You increase.

B: That would be stupid.

S: Yeah, you increase the non fossil fuel sources of energy and you render the fossil fuels obsolete and unnecessary. So again, if they wanted to maximize their native fertilizer from compost or whatever, do it. Go just do that. But banning all agricultural chemicals was just a disaster. It was an absolute disaster. Listen, organic produce is a boutique option for a reason. It's inefficient. It has lots of it's labour intensive. And the reason why people do it, the reason why most farmers do well, it's like 90 or 95 percent of farmers do some organic farming. They do it because you get to charge a premium.

B: Yeah.

C: What an important argument, because I have this, I'm constantly butting heads with a handful of my friends here in L.A, what do you expect, about this very topic. And of course, what a basic but fundamental like fundamentally obvious argument. Why do you think organic food costs more?

S: Yeah, I can't argue with economics.

C: Right. It costs more because it costs more to make it. It's not as efficient. It doesn't give us the yields that we need.

B: Probably have an answer for that, though.

S: Even when they grow organic food in Africa, they export it to Europe. Because it's it's it's food for rich white people. That's what it is.

C: And I think people confuse organic agriculture as an industry with like heirloom family farming.

S: Yes. Exactly.

C: Like they literally think that no. But what this means is just that every home in Africa has their own little patch in the backyard and they're growing all the food that that family needs. And it's like, what world do you think we live in where we can all just farm our own food all day and not have other jobs?

S: Didn't we do that in the Middle Ages?

C: That's not the same thing as industrial organic agriculture. We don't feed people with backyard farms.

S: The other thing is they deliberately confuse it with sustainable farming. That's just all organic branding. So they deliberately want it to be like it's sustainable. It's local. It's heirloom. It's all these good things.

C: No, it's just farmers market food.

S: It's just the pseudoscience. All it is is just the pseudoscience. And it's sustainable farming is its own thing. You can have sustainable farming that's not organic. And it's also this false dichotomy. So organic is this brand that has a specific list of things that you technologies you can't use, basically. No GMO, no irradiation on all these bunch of things.

J: No disintegrations.

C: Yeah. And this is why I have these dear friends who are super anti-GM. And when we really start to get to the crux of the argument, it's because they're pro-organic. It's not because they're anti-GM. There's actually nothing that they can argue. They like the idea of what's happening in the lab. So it's so frustrating that they're not seeing the forest for the trees. And I think I see this a lot with anti sort of mainstream. I hate even using that word, but medicine too, because this is a common problem in L.A., is that they're mixing up the sort of what they think of as the medical machine with managed care. So they have problems with insurance, duh. And then they're sort of like mixing up that argument. And they also are mixing up the idea of preventive care. Like, they think that they are the champions of preventive care and that mainstream medicine is just all about fixing you when you're already sick. And doctors don't really care about preventing disease.

S: The analogy is a hundred percent. You're absolutely correct.

C: It's the same.

S: And get this, get this. Do you know who one of the biggest funders of Joseph Mercola is? The Organic Consumers Lobby.

C: Of course.

S: So there's literal cross-fertilization between the pro-alternative medicine and the pro-organic lobbies. It's the same, because you're right. It's the same appeal to nature. You know, it's pseudo-scientific nonsense. It's the same. We're going to try to brand ourselves as preventive or we're going to brand ourselves as sustainable or as the other health halo. It's all branding.

C: They want to make you sick so you can pay them to fix it later. That's their argument.

S: It's all a racket. It's a con. It's a giant con. And it's amazing the success of their marketing campaign, how successful it's been. They duped this poor president of Sri Lanka into making a horrible decision. And yes, the politics are complicated. I'm sure they have lots of real things to deal with, whatever. It doesn't justify this stupid decision, which is now biting them in the ass. Absolutely does not. And again, but my hope is, and I want to amplify this message.

B: Other countries will learn.

S: This is yes, let's use this as an object lesson because the object lesson is real. You can't go a hundred percent organic, even at a national level, let alone regional or worldwide, it would be mass starvation. It would be horrible for the environment. We'd end up using up more land. It'd be like Germany scrambling and burning coal because they shut down their nuclear plants. It'd be the same kind of thing. We'd be scrambling and doing even worse things because we made these dumb decisions. And again, I'm not saying there aren't problems with mainstream agriculture. There absolutely are. We're trying to grow enough food to feed 8 billion people.

C: And that's what we're doing in the lab is trying to fix those problems.

S: Exactly. Exactly. GMOs is the most likely path out of all this.

C: I really feel like what's missing here is, and I hate to be all ooshy-gooshy about this, but there's a very lack of basic humanity when these lobbies and these different interest groups and really these, this propaganda, oftentimes when I talk to my friends about this stuff, one of the questions I'll ask them is, have you ever talked to a farmer?

S: Yeah. Please, talk to a farmer.

C: Like somebody who farms for a living. Or have you ever talked to your doctor and asked them these questions about, do they believe in preventive care? Do they want to see, like if you actually have a human conversation with these boogeymen, you'll realize that they agree with you about all of these arguments. But again, what we're talking about is how, how do we get there? And I'm sorry, but these are the people who are dialed into it, who are doing it every day. You're on the outside screaming about some solution that doesn't exist. It makes me insane. Okay. Enough of that. I'm going to stop ranting.

S: No, it's true. But the anti-agriculture, anti-GMO side, for whatever reason has gotten into, they've convinced themselves of their own ideology to such an extent, they are willing to say things that are just downright terrible. Like Vandana Shiva actually said that she would rather have millions of Indians starve to death than to feed them GMOs and Greenpeace would rather have children in poor countries go blind and die from vitamin A deficiency than eat GMO rice. They just can't bring themselves. They're so anti-GMO. They don't care what harm happens in the way.

C: And then at the same time, they say, they say, you scientists, you're the ones who are trying to kill us, kill us with all your poison. Like that's the really gross thing.

E: That's how detached they are.

S: Yeah. It's like, you know what? In medicine and agriculture and all these things, there are tough decisions to make. There are trade-offs that we have to think carefully about, like also with the energy sector as well. There are trade-offs and we are trying to chart a pathway to a better future. You can't just wave a magic wand and make these problems go away.

C: Yeah. You gotta do it pragmatically.

S: So yeah, all these things, I think, share these same logical fallacies in common. And again, literally the organic and alternative medicine worlds are totally overlapping. All right. Let's move on. That was my rant for the day.

Are Viruses Alive? (32:58)[edit]

S: Jay, are viruses alive? Go.

C: What an easy question to answer.

J: That's a good question. It has a convoluted answer. So we have to consider quite a lot in order to even make sense of the question.

E: What is alive?

J: Exactly. So scientists have discussed and debated how to classify viruses for hundreds of years, and science has described viruses very differently over the last two and a half, 200, 250 years. In the 1700s, scientists thought that viruses were poisonous. That was the way that they defined them.

C: They knew what viruses were in the 1700s?

S: Well, they didn't know. No, they did not know that viruses exist. I think you mean they thought viral illnesses were due to poisons.

C: Because all they could see under the microscope was bacteria. Viruses are too small.

S: Well, viruses were technically discovered in 1892 by Dmitry Ivanovsky. So he used a filter that would filter out anything bacteria size or larger to remove the sap from diseased tobacco plants, but it was the filtered sap was still able to transfer a disease, and he so he figured there has to be some substance left behind that's even way smaller than a bacteria, and he called that substance a virus. So that's where that's where the whole concept came from. 1892, before then, the idea that there was anything smaller than a bacteria that could transfer an infectious disease was not known.

J: So now we get to Evan's point, like we have to talk about the definition. So most definitions of life require some kind of metabolism, and this means that in order for the creature to produce energy, a chemical reaction or two or a thousand has to occur, right? Viruses, for the most part, don't metabolize anything. In fact, viruses don't have cells and they can't reproduce independently. They need a host cell in order to replicate. So you can't really can't define a virus as something that is clearly and very definitively alive. I think it's clear that you can't just say it's alive, but you also can't define viruses as inert because they're not inert because they're packed with DNA and RNA. You know what I mean?

C: And they do stuff.

J: They do stuff. Exactly. So so the virus that most of us are acquainted with, unfortunately, but is the coronavirus. We know the coronavirus. We've all seen it. You see what it can do. We know how catchy it is. So when examined, you'll find.

C: Catchy.

E: It's not a dance.

C: It's so catchy.

J: It is. It's damn catchy. So when we when you examine it, you will find that it has a tiny nanoscale sphere that actually is made up of genes that are wrapped in a fatty layer and the outside is covered with spike proteins, right? You've seen the pictures. That's what it looks like. We were aware of what the thing looks like. So even still, viruses do have some aspects, though, of living creatures, because when you look at a virus, it doesn't really look like anything that we're familiar with as far as being alive. It looks it looks like an alien and a lot of them look kind of creepy. So the thing is that viruses actually evolve and they replicate themselves. So when a virus infiltrates a cell, they make their own. It's like an own alien going to to another planet and terraforming it.

E: They take you over.

J: They do. So they tell the cell what proteins and genes they wanted to make. That's pretty interesting. For something that's not alive, it takes over a living organism and then does things. That's crazy. So like so many things on our planet, viruses come in many different forms and can sometimes step outside of the of the norms that we've set up for them. So let me tell you something that's a little strange and interesting here. There are the giant size virus and these larger ones have genes for proteins that are used in metabolism. What do you think about that? Does that make does that make you think that they're alive?

C: Giant viruses, a giant size virus.

J: Yeah.

C: A giant virus sometimes referred to as a gyrus.

E: Gyrus.

J: Gyrus. Not to be confused with a gyro, which is delicious.

S: Or a giraffe, which is an animal.

C: It's a very large virus, which is larger than a typical bacteria.

J: Yeah, they're larger than bacteria.

C: Oh, here we go. All known giant viruses belong to the phylum Nucleocytoviricota.

J: See how hard that is to pronounce?

C: Yeah, I see it because they're literally called giant virus. Wow, I had no idea.

J: But, Cara-

C: Do you know it's larger than 300 kilobases.

J: Yeah, they're huge. And they have weirdly some odd form of metabolism. Now, that's not typical among viruses, though. So again, nothing is-

E: Are we incorrect in calling those viruses?

J: No, it's a virus. It's a virus. So let me give you some more details here. So Mark H.V. Van Regenmortal, he's a virologist at the University of Strasbourg in France, he defined viruses as, and I'm quoting him, nonliving infectious entities that can be said at best to lead a kind of borrowed life. Oh, God, I love it.

C: I love that.

B: Borrowed life. Awesome.

J: So other scientists argue that viruses can exist in both a living and a nonliving state. Another cool way to look at it when they are outside of a cell, they're inactive and they're not really living. They're not doing anything. But when they enter a cell, they become metabolically active. And you could actually you could argue that they're now alive because they're there are doing something. Kind of.

S: I look at them. How about this? I look at their stripped down life. Yes, they're parasitic, parasites are are stripped down because they're reliant upon the thing that they're the host. And viruses are the extreme version of that. They are stripped down just little chunks of replicating DNA or RNA with a protein code, and that's it. And they're completely dependent on the host. But the meta thing here is that I think this is the big lesson, is that life is not a dichotomy, right? Like all the categories that we have, there's no clean dividing line. It's a messy continuum. And there's always going to be something on the fringes which stresses any definition.

J: Because that's biology, because that's how crazy biology. And the other thing to keep in mind, too, is that a virus does we don't want to say die, but it does become inactive and never to be active again. Like there is an end time for a for a virus as well.

'C: Viruses. Whether they're alive or not alive, stripped down life, inert life, whatever you want to call it, they're not a nerd, actually. So parasitic life or non life. We know that viruses are drivers of evolution. We know that viruses infect literally everything on the planet, everything, plants, animals, fungi, archaebacteria. Viruses infect archaebacteria. So do we know evolution from an evolutionary perspective, when and how viruses fit into the like abiogenesis? The viruses come first?

J: The answer is we kind of know. I mean, we know we absolutely know that in the tree of life, in the in the process of evolution, that viruses played a key role.

C: So did they have to be there at the beginning?

J: I don't know about the beginning, Cara. I don't even know if we know that.

C: I don't know if we can. I don't know if we do. I think as the more I'm looking online as we're talking about this, the more that's like a really big debate within science is like.

J: I'll cover that in a little bit.

S: My understanding of the current understanding is that viruses and bacteria evolved from a common ancestor. You can't really say that one came first.

C: But they co-evolved.

S: Yeah, they co-evolved.

E: Interesting.

J: So getting back to to what I was saying, so the reason scientists now argue over how we define a virus is because it's important, right? It's important how we define things. So the way we define a virus impacts how they're investigated, how we treat them and how we eventually do and continue to try to get rid of them. So in science, the way that we classify things actually has a dramatic impact on how we handle those things. It's very easy for humanity to talk about viruses as if they're all bad and they and they should be eradicated. But like Cara was saying, actually, the virus is we have viruses among us that don't do bad things and the viruses that have the most success, meaning the ones that persist the longest happen to be benign and they can enter a cell and stay there for a long time and mostly remain dormant or reproduce really slowly and deliberately. So they don't damage the cell. So, interestingly, benign viruses are barely studied and we sadly don't know that much about them. But these benign viruses have what scientists consider to be a very long standing impact on the on their hosts. And looking at the history of living things, it's understood that viruses have, like Cara said, significantly impacted evolution. And some scientists look at it as a symbiotic relationship. This is what I was trying to get to. We have a symbiotic relationship with viruses. Now, you can't say we have a symbiotic relationship really with the bad ones because we're aware of it and we're trying to get rid of it. And we don't want our DNA to be impacted by them. But it's already happened. We already have DNA that has been that has been impacted by viruses. And now without those changes to our DNA, we wouldn't be what we are. So we've already turned that corner where like we they're in us. They're a part of us. They're a part of our history. They're a part of our origin. And viruses, man, they're dynamic creatures. They can infect one cell. They can infect the giant, the largest organisms on the planet. They're all over living in the world's oceans. And there is a significant part about how matter gets recycled in the ocean. Here's a cool thing. Viruses destroy about 20 percent of the ocean microbes and bacteria every day. And then that that bio matter gets released back into the into the ocean. And that inserts an incredible amount of carbon which other organisms rely on to grow.

C: Why didn't you do this story the same day that Steve did that science or fiction all about viruses that we-

J: I know Cara. Isn't it funny? You look back.

S: But then I wouldn't have.

J: That's true. Yeah, that's very meta. All right. So let me cut to the chase here. Viruses leave behind genetic material. They pass on their DNA. They replicate themselves and they change their hosts. Their genetic material, without a doubt, can and does frequently does find its find its way into other species. Other scientists argue that viruses are the number one origin of genetic innovation. Check that out. What did I just say? I read that in my head almost fell off. Some scientists believe that this is really cool, guys. Some scientists actually think that viruses are the origin of genetic innovation. Think about it. That's where the-

B: Origin or they're just spurred on or?

J: No.

S: It's one origin. It's not, you can't say the origin.

C: No, but viruses are thought to be the largest driver of evolution.

S: They're constantly throwing new bits of DNA.

C: Yeah. And they work faster than mutagens do.

J: Viruses nurture biodiversity.

C: Yeah.

J: So we don't know if they're alive. We know that they've had a dramatic impact on life on our planet. We know that they're not all bad. We know that there's gray areas where sometimes they maybe they have some type of metabolism or not. You know, they're not walking, living, breathing, but they do things. And they're there and they want equal pay.

C: Question, Jay, about whether we know that they're alive. That assumes that to be alive is something that exists beyond a construct. The idea of life versus non-life is just a construct.

J: I know you're right. You're right.

C: We don't know if they fit into that bucket or not, because we haven't decided among ourselves how to define it. But not there's not some existing idea of living or non-living that we just haven't figured out.

J: It's not metaphysical. There isn't some some definition up in the stars or whatever. I mean, it is what we say it is. But go in and you'll find this interesting. Go and look up the definition of life. And you'll find that there's about 120 different definitions of life. They all kind of circle around the same stuff, but there's a lot of a lot of wiggle room in there. And you'll learn a lot about that, that definition and that concept. And you'll be able to think about this in a different way.

E: I'll look it up right now. The meaning of life.

J: Don't do that.

Memes Ease Stress (47:20)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, you're going to tell us about a different kind of virus.

C: This is a quick and dirty story. It was written up by Jessica Merrick. I hope I'm saying that right. Dr. Merrick, who is a professor of media studies at Penn State. There is a paper that was published in The Psychology of Popular Media. That's the name of the journal just recently because her forward facing write up, I think, was just published yesterday as of this recording by researchers at UC Santa Barbara and Penn State. Consuming memes during the covid pandemic, effects of memes and meme type on covid related stress and coping efficacy. What a gross title. Sorry, guys. But the title that she put of her forward facing article was go ahead, enjoy your memes. They really do help ease pandemic stress. So you got the thesis right there. They did a study where they participants recruited from Amazon's Mechanical Turk. So this was a random kind of recruitment across the Internet, around eight hundred seven hundred ninety nine, to be exact. People filled out a questionnaire and they looked at a bunch of different things. They showed them two different types of memes. They showed the memes that were covid related and memes that were just random and not covid related. And then they also, as any good study has, had a control group where they just use text like ugly text to describe the takeaway of the meme. Yet there was no humor because the the meme itself wasn't there and there was no imagery. So they define memes throughout their article as as either being humorous or cute, which they said typically humorous or cute, because obviously some memes are horrific. But they focused on cute or humorous memes. And they wanted to know if you look at memes, a does it make you feel good? Which that is kind of a more obvious question, right? Like, what do you guys think? Silence.

E: Sure.

C: Like somebody took the time to make a meme because they thought it was funny or adorable, and then they spread it all over the Internet. And then people actually passively, people took it and spread it and spread it and spread it. That happened because somebody else looked at it and goes, that's funny or how cute. Like this is this happened. So we engaged.

S: A little psychological experiment.

C: It is. And there is something to be said about this sort of hypothesis that we engage with them because they make us feel good. Like it seems kind of obvious, but they wanted to look at that scientifically. But they also were interested. And I think a bigger question, which was, is it good for you? When you when you look at memes during the day, if you're kind of scrolling through Instagram or something like that or reddit and you're looking at different memes, is it like psychologically healthy? Is it good for you? Are you getting something a benefit out of it? Or is it actually pretty detrimental? Because the narrative and we perpetuate it sometimes on the show, because sometimes it is accurate and should be perpetuated, is that the Internet can be a somewhat detrimental place. That people can find themselves doom scrolling. They can find themselves having a negative psychological outcome from obsessively looking at things on the Internet.

E: Right, Jay?

B: Yeah. But I don't think memes play a part in that.

C: Well, and that's what these researchers wanted to know. Right. So they set up this experiment with these different people. They gave them a bunch of self-report questionnaires and then they showed them a bunch of memes. And then they asked them questions about things like how they feel, about whether they're in a good mood, in a bad mood. And then they asked them questions about their ability to cope with stress, about how they feel about covid, et cetera, et cetera. And they found some pretty interesting outcomes. So they found number one, that looking at the memes versus the non memes, regardless of whether whether they were considered cute or whether they had to do with like covid, like they were like funny covid related memes, was associated with a stronger cuteness response. Yes, this was one of the domains that they measured. Higher levels of reported humor, more positive emotions and what they called lower levels of information processing. But they didn't see any sort of like anxiety coming out of them. So these negative emotions like anxiety was not associated with looking at memes. And then when they did a more sophisticated path analysis, they actually found that looking at memes as opposed to not looking at memes actually had a positive benefit on people's ability to cope with the stress from covid-19. So seeing something, yeah, that sort of conceptualized it. And they put some examples in their write up, like there's a meme here of a little baby looking tough and it says, stayed home, saved lives. And like me, when I order a pizza during the pandemic and it's like a movie still, a black and white movie still of a guy with a Tommy gun. And he's like, leave it on the doorstep and get the hell out of here. So different things like that. Just kind of dealing with or this one, us in January. This month is so long, us in March. And it's like, I think it might be even Rose from it might not. It's just very, very old looking.

S: No, I think it's Rose.

C: Oh, it is Rose. That's what I thought. And it says it's been 84 years. No, Rose from Titanic. Titanic. Yeah. So, oh, this month is so long. It's been 84 years. So, yeah, this idea, right, that it's taking something that's so traumatic and sort of lightening the mood, encapsulating it with humor. It helps people cope with it. It helps reframe their perspective around it. It doesn't mean I think that it's minimizing it or that it's making it glib, but it's helping it become manageable in people's minds. And so there is actually the psychological benefit that can be said about memefying massive trauma and making it bite sized and people spreading it around and sort of sharing a little chuckle or sharing a little smile.

S: Yeah, little humor nuggets.

C: Yeah, these littlenuggets that if you take them, day by day, can be really good for you.

E: Take two memes and call me in the morning.

C: Exactly. The idea here is go ahead. Enjoy your memes. Do it, because it might it might help you get through the day a little bit. And you shouldn't feel guilty about that at all.

E: Right. No calories, no side effects.

C: Exactly. Love it. And now we have data to back that up. So if somebody argues with you can cite this study. You can say, Miric et al. 2021 says I can look at my memes all I want.

Extragalatic Planet (54:01)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, you're going to tell us about the possible first extra galactic exoplanet.

E: Ooh, exciting news, huh? Because we've talked a lot about exoplanets, talk a lot about them on the SGU. These are the planets that orbit other stars in our galaxy. And they're very, very cool. And we've talked about how over the past, oh, a couple of decades or so, astronomers have come up with brilliant means of detecting our exoplanets. Astronomers have confirmed over 4000 such planets, and there are thousands of other candidate planets. And given that there are billions of stars in our Milky Way, boy, how many undiscovered exoplanets are there? Hundreds of billions, trillions. That's an amazing thought. So there are methods by which we are able to find the exoplanets in our galaxy. We've talked about the transit method. That's probably the most popular one, the one that has discovered the most exoplanets in which that exoplanet passes between its star and the Earth and our telescopes can measure the dip in light blocking the exoplanets star. There's the wobble method, and that's when the star and its exoplanet, they move around a common center mass and you can measure the wobble and therefore infer that there is a planet going on around that particular star. Sometimes we can directly observe the planet itself by carefully taking a look at that star so that the planet's reflected light can be seen free from glare of the sun. And then there's microlensing, which is a more recent technique, exploiting Einstein's gravity lens principle. So when the planet passes in front of a distant star, the light from that star can be briefly made brighter. That's probably the most challenging method because they are unpredictable events. But as Steve, as you said, this is the new news item for the week. Astronomers have detected what could be the first extra galactic planet, a planet in orbit around a star in a galaxy that is about 28 million light years away. Although I've read estimates that it's as much as 31 million light years away. I don't know why there's a discrepancy there. But in any case, it's the M51 galaxy, also known as what?

S: Whirlpool.

E: The Whirlpool Galaxy.

S: My third favorite galaxy.

E: Milky Way, Andromeda, M51?

S: Hey, that's personal.

E: It's called the Whirlpool Galaxy, because Whirlpool bought the branding rights to it. And it is now next to the Coca-Cola Galaxy. Just kidding. Now, when it was first observed, it was observed in the 1700s. Oh, they didn't know there were galaxies back then. But they were able to describe it basically as this swirl, which looked like kind of a Whirlpool. There you go. Whirlpool Galaxy. But the team of astronomers, they analysed X-ray data from a binary star system in M51. And a binary system is where an ordinary, using quotes, ordinary star orbits either a neutron star or a black hole. And matter from the ordinary star will feed into that companion neutron star or black hole. It creates a disc and releases gravitational potential energy in the form of X-rays. There you have it, your X-ray binary system. And they are good search targets for extragalactic planets. The observation of X-rays, much like visible light, can be blocked by another large body, such as another star or a large planet moving in front of it. So that planet in the distant galaxy may cause a dip in the observed light of that bright X-rays that it's otherwise putting out. And in this case, they were able to. Well, I think it's entirely blocked it out for a course of about three hours when they went back and they looked at the data. And they believe that this dip might indicate the first known extragalactic planet as a result. And here's a quote from the abstract of the paper. It was published in This is from the authors. We examined a range of explanations for the observed X-ray dip, including a variety of transiting objects and enhancements in the density of gas and dust. The latter are ruled out by the absence of changes in X-ray colors. Save any with sharp density gradients that cannot be probed with our data. Instead, the data are well fit by a planet transit model in which the Eclipser is most likely to be the size of Saturn. We also find that the locations of possible orbits are consistent with the survival of a planet bound to its mass transfer binary, meaning that the planet is far enough away in which it's not getting sucked in by the stars themselves. And they calculated about 70 years is the orbit of that Saturn sized planet around that binary system.

B: So it's going to be a while before we can confirm it.

E: Isn't that the point? We're not going to be able to confirm it with that one. However, they're going to start looking at the data for a lot more places out there and see if they can detect this pattern of X-ray dipping and see if they can determine more extra galactic planets. I mean, it's I think it's pretty safe to say that we can assume that there would be no reason. I don't think why wouldn't we assume that there are planets orbiting stars in other galaxies. I don't see a reason why we wouldn't make that assumption. But again, it's another thing to actually measure it and use our instruments to make those confirmations. So they were able to rule out basically all the other possible things, dust and other things getting in the way. And they said that when they put in the the planet model, it actually fit the fit the observations beautifully. And therefore, that's what they're going with.

S: So they mentioned that the there's two reasons why the X-rays work really well. One is that the source is very small. So yeah, point source. Yeah. The transiting planet can completely obscure it, which is what happened in this case. Rather than just a little dip it's like a one percent dip in the light. There's like a hundred percent dip in the X-ray.

E: Blot it out.

S: It's easier to see. The other thing is that there aren't that many X-ray sources. While there's billions of stars in a galaxy all crowding each other, there's maybe a dozen X-ray sources like this. And so it's easy to separate them out. But of course, this limits us to seeing transiting planets circling binary stars with a neutron star or a black hole feeding off of a main main sequence star. So it's got to be lined up with us and it's got to be in that configuration. So it's obviously a very limited situation that we're looking for. But there's lots of galaxies out there. So we were bound to find more of them.

B: I mean, that's 28 million light years is amazing.

Superconducting New State of Matter (1:00:40)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us about superconducting new state of matter.

B: OK, scientists report yet another new state of matter. I have lost count of the new states of matter. I was tracking it for many years and now it's just like we there's like so many. I don't even know what to think about it. This is still extra fascinating. This time it has to do with four electrons creating something akin to superconduction, but still quite different. But it's still so mysterious and new. We can't we're not sure exactly what's happening. And we're not quite sure yet what this new state of matter might mean for us. This is reported in Nature Physics recently. This was created by Professor Egor Babaev. It was a physicist at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and Vadim Grinenko of TU Dresden in Germany. And of course, many other colleagues. So now we've all heard of superconductors, right? We've said it on the show. We've read about it. We pretty much all know about it. And by that, of course, I don't mean train conductors who are super at their job. The quantum state of superconductivity is what I'm talking about. So this was discovered in 1911 by Dutch physicist Heike Kamerling-Oens. It occurs when some materials reach a critical low temperature in which all electrical resistance drops to zero. And as a bonus, magnetic fields are expelled from the material as well. Amazing properties that we've taken advantage of in many different types of technologies. Fascinating stuff. There's no energy that's being lost as heat in this process. So if you created a loop of superconducting wire, it would hold a current forever, essentially, with no external power source. Now, in a subsequent discovery. Now, this won the Nobel Prize in 1972 quite a few years later. But it took that much time. It was determined that this amazing state of superconducting occurs when pairs of electrons team up and condense into a superfluid. So of so-called electron-cooper pairs. So the two electrons pair up, they create Cooper pairs and they condense into the superfluid. And that is what superconductivity is at a very basic level. Now, why are they bound together instead of repelling each other as they normally do? That's a that's a very good question. Howare these these like charges doing this? The answer to that is because they exchange quasi particles called phonons. Look them up. I'm not giving you any more details on that one. So now I could talk for three point one five hours about superconductivity, but that's not what this topic is about. This is about something that's closely related, but very different, it seems. So now 20 years ago, Professor Egor Babaev predicted that four electrons could also team up, creating what he calls electron quadruplets. So the Cooper pairs are only part of the story. You can have four of these electrons joining forces. And in 2013, he predicted that that you would that we should be able to see this in a special iron based super superconducting material. And that's exactly what he and his team have now accomplished. This guy is on a 20 year roll. So now this material is a compound of barium, potassium, iron and arsenic doped with negative charges. Now, their observations point to a pairing of not two electrons, as I said, but four of them. It's called fermionic quadrupling, creating a new state of matter that's never been seen before. Some people are describing it as two sets of Cooper pairs joining forces. You can think of it that way, although that might be a little bit problematic. This feat was thought to be likely impossible because they had to create they had to prevent the creation of the typical Cooper pairs and it had to prevent them from condensing into a superfluid. They had to prevent all that from happening. But somehow they got four of them to get together and create this new state of matter. So in some ways or in a lot of ways, actually, this appears to be the opposite of superconduction, because when they reach this state in their experiments, frictionless flow is destroyed. So the friction is still there. You don't have that kind of superconducting state where you've got the free flowing Cooper pairs. So that states gone and spontaneous magnetic fields appeared out of nowhere. So in some ways it is the opposite of superconductivity. Now, the other bizarre aspect of this experiment that needs mentioning is that the material breaks time reversal symmetry. I don't think we've ever talked about this, maybe only a couple of times on the show. So this is the observation that many laws of physics often apply, whether time is going forward or backward. Right. So if you look at some formulas or equations that have expressions of time in them and you just slap a negative onto that, you are what you're essentially doing is running time backwards or you're reversing motions. So Jay, for example, if you saw this reverse, you would see Jay would grab the meatball with a fork from his mouth and put it back on the pasta, for example. But that's clearly but looking at that, that's clearly going backwards in time because that never even happens in real life, because why would that happen? A better example that's often used is billiard balls hitting each other. If you run that forwards or backwards, it makes sense. You can't tell if it's done correctly. You can't tell which which way time is actually flowing. So that's kind of one example that you will hear most often when it comes to this time reversal symmetry. So when time is negative, the basic, as I said, the basic laws of physics still often hold. This works for normal superconductivity as well. Essentially, if you run time in reverse, all the laws that apply to super superconducting will still be in a superconducting state, which is kind of expected. But this electron for some is different. Time reversal puts the system into a different state. So this does not this breaks the time reversal symmetry, which happens. It's not common, but it happens. And it's a very interesting effect to happen with something that seems to be based on Cooper pairs or some type of superfluid activity happening with this new state of matter. So Babaev says it will probably take many years of research to fully understand the state. The experiments open up a number of new questions revealing a number of unusual properties associated with this reaction to thermal gradients, magnetic fields and ultrasound that still have to be better understood. So that all means that there's still so much going on here and there's so many possibilities that they just need to do a lot more research to really get a better handle on what's happening here and what can be done with this new state of matter, if anything, in the future. So regarding the future, the researchers plan to look into other superconductors that could support this type of four electron relationships. And also they can also exhibit broken symmetries as well. And who knows what perhaps even other states of matter or other other types of superconductivity will be found. And so many of these options that they that they want to explore will occur at very high pressures in hydrogen, deuterium and hydrides, for example, and then another rich vein they believe could be thin films of superconductors that do not break the time reversal symmetry. So those are just some of the things that they're going to start looking at into the future. So I'm really excited about this field and this new state of matter. I can't wait to see what we might be able to do with it, because, I mean, just looking at superconductivity it's all over. You look at MRIs, quantum computers, maglevs, tokamaks, particle accelerators and on and on. They all take advantage of superconductivity and they're critical to those technologies. You couldn't do them without those technologies. So even though this new state of matter seems very different, who knows what kind of technologies we can use or develop because of that new state of matter. So let's see what happens.

S: Yeah, pretty cool. I got pairs of Cooper pairs.

B: Yeah, right.

S: That's pretty neat. And superconductivity is that thing that we've been talking about for decades now. And of course, we hope we'll crack it to the point where we have-

B: Room temperature. That's a holy grail, of course.

S: Temperature and and one atmosphere, one atmosphere of room temperature.

B: Yeah, right. Yeah, we learned our lesson with that one. Yeah, room temperature at a million, at a billion peskets or whatever.

S: Yeah. But just having it above the temperature of liquid nitrogen is still massively useful.

B: Yeah, but that happened in the 80s, man. What have you done for me lately?

S: Just just basic science.

Who's That Noisy? (1:08:50)[edit]

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

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

[crackling whir in background, with animal-like squeaks and squawks, then higher-pitched whirring and hissing with pattering drops/beats]

All right, guys, so let me get this out of the way. Lots of people thought that rubber ducks were involved. There are no rubber ducks in this in this noisy.

E: Rubber chicken?

J: And we cleared the- thank you, Evan. I was waiting for you to say that. So Visto Tutti wrote in. You guys have heard this this man before. He said "This week's noisy is so gruesome and sad. He's being serious. I recognize this sound as that of a penguin harvester. Governor Macquarie, who Macquarie Island is named after, made his fortune hurting millions of tuxedo clad little dudes into the maw of his sinister penguin oil processing apparatus." Yeah, so evil. So sad. I checked it out. Apparently there was a penguin oil industry. So that is not correct, though, which I'm happy to say I would never play that noisy. I got another listener here, Lenka Kuglerova. Lenka, I am so sorry about what I just did to your last name. "Hey, Jay, what I am hearing is that in this who's that noisy is a baby or kid taking a bath and occasionally squeezing a rubber duck." Now, I included this even though I disqualified ducks already. I included this because of her next sentence. "There's also water running. I don't have kids on my own, but the noisy is something I can only imagine the horror of washing kids must be." You are correct about the trouble with washing kids. Parents will know what I'm talking about. There is good experiences and there is very bad experiences washing children. And I've had them both.

E: I just put them in the gentle cycle and a little fabric.

J: Never thought about that. Give them a little scuba mask and they're good. Ashley Pratt wrote in, "Hi, Jay, this is my first time guessing who's that noisy because I recently started listening." And then she goes on to say a bunch of nice things. And we chit chat, talk about COVID. But I got to get to the to her answer. "This week's who's that noisy sounds like some kind of release valve. The honking noise is the release valve. And then the hissing at the end is the full pressure release. I don't know what is under pressure, but I will guess it is some form of industrial pressure cooker in the food industry." Not correct.

B: Good guess.

J: I'm going to stop right there because that's pretty much it. I got a few other guesses. There was lots of joking guesses. A lot of people were amused by this one and wrote in all manner of different funny things that they thought they were hearing. Some of them were vulgar in a good way. Thank you. You know who you are. Nobody guessed it. There's a pattern forming here, guys. I haven't had a winner in quite a while.

B: Either you're getting very hard or nobody cares anymore.

J: I think there's a third option. I'm going to blame Steve.

B: OK, I like this.

J: And I promise all everyone that I will this week should be a little bit easier. So let me give you the reveal just so you know what we were listening to. This was originally sent in by Samuel Walker. He said, "Hello, this is Samuel Atticus Walker. I'm from UT", which I think is Utah, right? He's 22 and he enjoys all the content that we create. So then he says, "these are bees that are bumping into each other." And he included the MP3 with the YouTube video so I could see it. It's called Bees Whoop. Let's listen to it again. [plays Noisy] I think that's that might be the handler, the beekeeper, like doing something. Now, listen, there's clearly I thought this one was going to be so easy. There's clearly a swarm of bees, like right there in the audio. I hear it so clearly. I guess it's not.

C: But what is squeaking?

J: That's the bee. Those are bees going, ouch.

C: That's why it's not obvious.

E: Bees squeak?

B: Yeah, bees don't squeak.

C: Who knew bees did that?

J: That's the point of who's that noisy to discover the world that we live in. I thought this was so cool. I don't know. I thought it was going to be easy.

New Noisy (1:13:15)[edit]

J: I have a new one for you this week. I really think that somebody is going to guess this one. This was sent in by John Carabake. Steve, I need to warn everybody this thing is going to come out hot out of the gate. So you might want to lower the volume, take one pull your headset off a little bit or stand back from the device that's emitting the noise.

E: Stand back from your ear buds.

J: OK, ready? I'm going to do it in three seconds. Three, two, one.

[air horn-like squeaks/squawks of different lengths and pitches]

E: Bob's chair.

J: Totally Bob's chair.

B: Yeah. All right. So if you think you know what this week's noisy is, or if you heard any noises, please do send those in to me at

Announcements (1:14:07)[edit]

J: Steve, in two weeks from right now, we will all be in debt for most of us. Cara will be flying in in two weeks in one day.

C: OMG, how exciting. I don't know why you keep saying that. I'm flying in the same day as you.

J: You are. I forgot George is flying in the next day. I don't know why, Cara. Come on I get these things in my head.

C: George and I are very easy to confuse for one another. I get it. We both wear glasses.

J: In one week, everybody who is on this show will be in Denver preparing for the extravaganza, which will be happening two weeks from tomorrow as we record this. So please consider if you're in the Denver or Fort Collins area in Colorado, United States, join us because there's seats left. We're going to have a ton of fun. We will be bringing SGU swag with us. So if you want to buy something, you want to buy a signed book, we're going to bring a certain number of them. And we still have this is remarkable, but we still have hardcover books.

C: It's true.

J: So we will bring some hardcover books with us and we will be signing them and personalizing them for whoever would like. But you have to attend the show or one of these two shows. So go to And you'll see links to both of these private shows. It's a live recording. It's a lot of fun and we get silly. We'll see you then.

S: All right. Thanks, Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:15:23)[edit]

Email #1: Elizabeth Bathory - Serial Killer?[edit]

S: We're going to do one email this week. This actually we got a ton of emails because so the science or fiction last week, I mentioned Elizabeth Bathory in passing because we were talking about the serial killer was the fiction. And it was the the guy I said was worked under Washington when actually he was he worked with Joan of Arc. And that's what made it the fiction. And then it said, oh, in my research, I came across these other serial killers like Elizabeth Bathory. A lot of people emailed to say that actually the story is is probably not true. The whole thing is probably not true.

C: Or at least got blown out of proportion.

S: Well, that's that's a third possibility. Yeah. So it's again, it's a good meta lesson on how do you know something is true from your research on the Internet. And this is one of these cases this comes up every now and then. Again, this wasn't a science or fiction. It was it was incidental. So I didn't do a deep dive on it. I didn't use do my usual vetting. But I read six, seven different sources about this, some pretty reasonable. I don't use something like cracked or whatever as a as a source. But if it was like Britannica or or whatever, like some somewhat reasonable sources were all telling a range of stories. And the most skeptical of which was that the accusations against Elizabeth Bathory are exaggerated and there are certain aspects of it which are almost certainly not true, like the whole bathing in blood thing. That part of the story didn't come out until 100 years after she died. And it was almost certainly part of the legend and had nothing to do with reality. But the main story is that she and her husband were cruel to their servants and the peasants that worked for them. And after her husband died, she went on a murderous rampage, basically luring young women to her castle where she would kill them.

C: And not bathe in their blood.

S: Yeah. But well, yeah, the whole bathing in the blood is not only just impractical, there's no evidence it actually happened. And then so digging deeper into the story it took me a while to get beyond that story, I just found more details essentially about that story, such as when she was accused of murdering young women, the magistrate went to her castle and apparently caught her in the act. You know, so in 1610, she was accused of these gruesome acts. The magistrate went there and apparently caught her in the act of torturing a young girl. She wasn't actually ever put on trial. It was just an investigation, an inquest. She wasn't put on trial because she was a noble, powerful noble family in Hungary at the time. But there was something like three hundred and eighty witnesses who were brought, although the vast majority of them only had hearsay to report. But even if you filter those out, there was still 30 or so direct eyewitnesses that her three servants all confessed to the whole thing and they were all executed.

C: Oh, God.

S: So it sounds like a pretty good story. And but what the email is referring to was again, it took me a long time to find this independently, one paper that was written a few years ago by historians who basically asked the question, is this really true and what do we actually know and what are the facts? And of course, being in the sixteen hundreds, legal cases were not too modern standards in terms of rules of evidence and testimony and documentation, et cetera. And there wasn't a lot of historical documents to go by. It's not like she kept a diary where she reported what she did, right?

B: Or she was blogging about it.

S: Right. Seriously.

C: Didn't have an Instagram with pictures of deead bodies. So what these researchers found is that you can get you can get the paper online. I'll link to it. They found essentially there's no hard evidence that any of it is true. It's not like they dug up a hundred bodies around the castle or something like there was there was no hard evidence. They also say that if the specific claims that you can resolve with historical records don't stand up. She was accused of killing one girl when it's documented that she was in Vienna at the time. So she wasn't even in country when it happened. They also say that a lot of the deaths, a lot of women did die at the castle. A lot of the servants did die. But those deaths all happened during epidemics. And so it's actually not unusual. People were dying there when they were dying everywhere. You know, it wasn't like it didn't stand out. Also, very interesting. I find this fascinating. These historians said again, they're basically saying here's the evidence. It's pretty thin and you can interpret it a number of ways. You know, one way is that, yeah, she was cruel. She did some horrible things, but then a legend built up around her. And then a lot of stuff got added to it. And then everything bad that happened was blamed on her even when it was just dying of natural causes or an epidemic or whatever. And then the legend grew like the vampire legend grew out of that. But there is a core of but she did probably murder some girls. That's one interpretation. And even the authors admit we can't rule that out. We don't have enough evidence to say 100 percent. But they say, well, there's this other interpretation where it's perfectly consistent with all the facts that that she's completely innocent. So one of the angles was the fact that epidemics were killing people and that explains a lot of the deaths. People died. It was sixteen hundreds. But the other thing is that she was into herbal medicine and the medicine of the day, which when you think about it the 17th century medicine was pretty much poison and torture. They would use hot pokers to treat blisters and and boils and stuff. So then there are stories of her poking people with hot pokers, yeah, because she was treating a boil or people dying of mercury poisoning, which was the treatment of choice for venereal disease at the time, and died of mercury poisoning. But then that becomes a story of her poisoning somebody.

C: So some of these people might have been going to her of their own accord because she was a healer.

S: That's what they were saying. She was a healer and she was into herbalism and she was into the healing of the time and she had people come to her court who were also if you were teaching her this and were doing this, et cetera, she was it was a big interest of hers. And so a lot of the stories may have evolved out of the medicine of the time, which is funny to think how easy it is to interpret that as the sadistic torture, right? That was essentially the medicine of the day.

E: Oh, my gosh, you were better off not going to the doctor.

S: Totally, totally. She was theodoric of York, absolutely. So the other thing is that the historians bring up is that you could make a good historical case for all of this being a conspiracy against her because her family was wealthy. The royal family actually owed her a lot of money and they wanted her her lands. Her cousin died and left her a castle that was in a strategic position militarily. And then they were supposed to buy it from her, but they never gave her the money. And they order a lot of money. So there were essentially lots of reasons why they said, let's just take her out of the picture. Hf her husband's dead. We can get rid of her and then we get all her stuff.

C: Because she was she was a woman with a lot of power. And that is very threatening.

S: Yeah, exactly. That's absolutely part of it. And so then they just trumped up this whole thing.

C: Because back in the day, you could be like-

S: Because you could do it back then.

C: Yeah, you could be like a woman, uterus, witch.

S: Yeah, she was a witch. She was brewing potion.

J: (laughs) She was brewing potions.

S: Totally. She was.

C: And all the men are like, I buy it, witch, succubus, killer.

S: So that's basically what happened is that that's actually the most parsimonious interpretation of the whole scenario. And it was basically just an invented conspiracy against her to take to take her land. But she did something very clever, like a week before she died. She left everything to her kids, she transferred all of her wealth to her kids. And since she was never actually convicted of anything because they didn't want to put her on trial, that's the other thing. No trial.

J: They just convicted her without a trial?

S: So no actual conviction. They didn't convict her. That's why she wasn't executed because she was a noble woman. The peasants, they executed, they executed her servants because you could do that. You don't need to give a trial. It's just a noble person says you're guilty and kills you. That was it. But but as a noble woman, they would have had to go through an elaborate trial and they didn't want to do that. So why didn't they want to do that? Maybe because it was all bullshit. And this way, they just said, we're just going to do an inquest and inquiry. They besmirched her reputation. They accused her of all these horrible things. They confined her to her castle. And then they didn't send her to prison or execute or anything. They just said, you got to stay in your castle. And they were just planning on taking all of her stuff when she died. But she she gave it all to her kids before she died and screwed them over. So she was actually clever. So you could almost like reimagine the whole story with her as a hero, as a smart woman who was a healer, even though the medicine of her time is horrific, but who was trying to do well by people and who was the victim of this conspiracy. And now, 400 years later, people still equate her with this horrible vampiric blood loss.

B: So in a way, the relatives won.

S: Yeah. Yeah. So it's really interesting.

C: Why isn't there a great movie about this?

S: I know. I was thinking that myself. This would be a great movie. It's so tragic.

B: Yeah. But how do you show the real nasty, awesome stuff that everyone wants to see, but probably didn't happen? You got to still show it.

S: You do it in like you do it as people imagine, right?

E: Telling the story of those stories.

B: You have to do that.

C: And then you mirror it with what was actually happening.

E: Anyone from Netflix listening, we can talk to you about writing a story.

S: Totally. We'll co-write it with you. So anyway, the bottom line is we don't really know which of these three narratives that it was all true, that it was only partly true, but most of it was fake or that it was all a conspiracy. We don't know which one of those is true, but there's no evidence for all the horrible things she was accused of. She definitely wasn't guilty of all the things she was accused of. And the whole thing is very suspicious. And so these historians, I think, had a good case to make for the fact that this probably was just a conspiracy. But the other skeptical lesson here is it took me a long time to get to this level of the story and only after people pointed me in that direction. And a pretty moderate, fair level of honest research, a half an hour of poking around, but trying to find reasonably reliable sources didn't dig down to that level and all told what is probably a fake story about what happened. So just keep in mind, unless you really get to some good scholarly primary sources, you just don't know. You don't know even something that seems like a reasonable source like or whatever. May not be telling the real story.

B: Wonder what they're going to be saying about us in 2421.

S: Yeah, I wonder.

B: Bob who? What? Not even there, except for the ancient Internet archives.

E: Supposed podcasts that they allegedly recorded.

S: We are we are leaving behind quite the digital record if it survives.

E: Yeah.

B: True.

E: Yeah.

J: Survives what?

E: Talked about that before.

J: You don't think it'll persist?

S: I don't know.

E: Information is not permanent that way.

C: We may not have the means to read this data.

B: Will it be migrated over to the quantum Internet?

C: Exactly.

S: Or the metaverse?

C: Will we wither wither as the the Betamax?

E: Oh, gosh, here we go.

S: We've backed up all of our episodes on Betamax. All right, guys, let's move on to science fiction.

Science or Fiction (1:28:34)[edit]

Answer Item
Fiction Government didn't poison booze
Science Cowboy's derby hat
Tall medieval Europeans
Host Result
Steve clever
Rogue Guess
Tall medieval Europeans
Tall medieval Europeans
Cowboy's derby hat
Government didn't poison booze

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

Item #1: The iconic cowboy hat was introduced in 1865 and did not become popular until the 20th century. The most popular hat for cowboys in the 19th century was the derby.[7]
Item #2: The US government never actually poisoned alcohol during prohibition. Poisonings were due to contamination from poor quality stills.[8]
Item #3: The average height of Europeans in the Middle Ages was actually greater than in the 16th-19th centuries, with average height not returning to Middle Age average until the late 20th century, and still only slightly less (about 1 inch) than modern Europeans.[9]

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

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, one fake. And then I challenge my panel of skeptics on which one is the fake. You have a theme this week. What do you think the theme is?

E: Blood.

J: Vampires.

S: No, but close. It does relate to that news item, history myths, things that you may think are real about history, but are not true. But what I'm saying, but the statements that are making are either true or false. Like one of them is false. And that's the fiction.

C: Yeah, thank you for I'm going to need you to remind me of this as we go.

S: I will, I'll remind you.

C: Thank you.

S: Yeah. So what you are voting on is which one of these three, as stated, is wrong. It'll become more obvious when I say them. All right, here we go. Item number one, the iconic cowboy hat was introduced in 1865 and not become popular until the 20th century. The most popular hat for cowboys in the 19th century was the Derby. Item number two, the U.S. government never actually poisoned alcohol during prohibition. Poisonings were due to contamination from poor quality stills. And item number three, the average height of Europeans in the Middle Ages was actually greater than in the 16th to 19th centuries, with average height not returning to middle age average until the late 20th century and still only slightly less about one inch than modern Europeans. All right, Bob, go first.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Cowboy hat. Yeah, I totally believe that. So, yeah, I don't have a problem with that one. The government poisoning alcohol. I've never heard that before. And it seems in my mind to be, I mean, the government poisoning alcohol. Nope, never heard of it. It seems much more likely that that if there were poisonings, it was due to poor quality stills, but now, of course, Cara's what has me thinking. So let's see, the European one, I mean, whatever. I'll say that one's fiction. Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.

C: See, it's confusing.

E: I was confused too.

B: That seems reasonable to me, too, but maybe not. So that one's fiction.

E: Wait...

S: European height is fiction?

B: Yeah, whatever.

S: OK, Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: So two of these, I think I've kind of heard before. The US government never actually poisoned alcohol during prohibition. Poisonings were due to contamination from poor quality stills. And I have that. That's true. Isn't that true? What is it? Instead of alcohol, it was methanol. Is that what was being made instead of the stuff that makes you go blind and poisons you. So that's I believe that that one is correct. This one about the average height of Europeans in the Middle Ages is actually greater average height of Europeans, greater than in the 16th to 19th, in the Middle Ages, greater than the 16th to 19th century. I might be conflating this with another sort of time period that I'm thinking about, maybe more modern times with average height not returning to the Middle Age until the late 20th century and still only slightly less. Why is this one striking me as science as well? The one I don't. Again, I don't know if we've touched on this or if I've just touched on it, not on the show, but this has been discussed. I know I've been part of a discussion on that. The one about the cowboy hat, I have no idea. I have no idea when it was introduced. And the most popular hat for cowboys in the 19th century was the Derby. You do see Westerns in which there were people in those times in the Westerns wearing Derbies, definitely. Bob, you chose the last one, the European one, right, as the fiction?

B: Yeah.

E: Oh, gosh. All right.

B: After I chose it, I said whatever.

E: Yeah, it's either that one or the hats. I think I'm leaning towards that one as well. I'm misremembering something about this. It's throwing me off, whereas I have no idea if I'm, I don't know anything about the cowboy hat history. So I guess I'll go with the fact that I think I'm misremembering the European one. I go with Bob, say that one's fiction.

S: OK, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: OK, so I agree with the guys that the US government didn't poison the alcohol. I do think that poisoning happened. And I think that the government was aware of the poisoning and didn't do anything about it. But I don't think that they actually actively put methanol into and, yeah, Evan, I think you're right, it's methanol. That was like one of the big causes of toxicity at the time. So it's really between it's between the damn hat and the height, the hat and height. OK, so I just one more time I have to reread this. The average height of Europeans in the Middle Ages was actually greater than in the 16th and 19th centuries, with average height not returning to Middle Age average until the late 20th century and still only slightly less than modern Europeans. That is so-

E: A bit convoluted.

S: I know, that's why, I know that. And so there was a lot of information I was trying to pack into one paragraph.

C: Because I think most of us go to Napoleon, right? We say, oh, Napoleon wasn't actually short. He was the average height for his time. And that's like a myth that we've busted and we're comfortable with that.

S: But what I'm saying here is that if you map out the average height of Europeans, it was in the Middle Ages, it was only a little bit less than the average height today. It then dipped for 300 years and then recovered, but not really getting back to Middle Age height until the late 20th century and then slightly exceeding the Middle Age average height in now in the 21st century. Does that make sense? As opposed to the myth, then, therefore, is that people in the Middle Ages were shorter than people today.

C: Right. I'm wondering if that one isn't true because of drought and serious events, historical events that have caused, like nutritional events that have caused dips, but that like humans are humans. And unless there's an external cue, we haven't evolved that much in 400 years. There hasn't been a big change in our DNA. It's really like these are epiphenomena. And so was the diet in the Middle Ages so poor? Did it gradually improve or have we had had these dips where there were these global food shortages and people just dramatically shrunk because of these effects, like these grandfather effects of that or grandmother effects, and then came back around? That one could be true. So the cowboy hat thing, it was introduced in 1865. It did not become popular until the 20th century. Most popular hat for cowboys in the... And to be clear, OK, so I grew up in Texas and I think of the cowboy hat as a very Mexican thing, like Vaquero, like Caballero, like like these bros wore these hats during all these wars and during like I thought that the Mexican farmers and like cattle herders brought us the cowboy hat and that would fly in the face of this. So maybe I'll say that that one is the fiction, but I don't know if I'm right. I think that, yeah, I think we got it from Mexico.

S: OK, and Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Yo, so OK, the iconic cowboy hat seems to be counterintuitive because of movies. But I agree that the I mean, was it the Derby? And I'm pretty sure that they wore. I'm not sure if it was a Derby or not, but I'm pretty sure I'm pretty sure that cowboys weren't wearing like what we consider to be cowboy hats at the time, the last one about the average height. I think that makes perfect sense. And I think Steve is I think what Steve wrote is actually correct. And I'm pretty sure that the U.S. government poisoned alcohol in one way or another.

C: Oh.

J: Pretty sure. So I'm going to say that one is the fiction. Two is the fiction.

C: Whoa, so we're spread out.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All spread out, which I love. So I guess there's no reason not to take these in order. So we'll start the first one. The iconic cowboy hat was introduced in 1865 and did not become popular until the 20th century. The most popular hat for cowboys in the 19th century was the Derby. Cara, you think this one is the fiction. Everyone else thinks this one is science. And this one is science. This is true.

C: Who introduced it? Was it Mexico?

S: Stetson.

E: Right. Stetson hat. Know that name.

J: Denbury, Connecticut.

S: Danbury, Connecticut. And yeah, that's an introduced a hat in 1865 that they called the boss of the plains. That was their brand of the hat, the boss of the plains. But it was the sort of prototype of what we now think of as a cowboy hat. It then evolved-

B: What year?

S: 1865, but it was it didn't have like the dimple at the top and it had a flat brim. And then over the years, it evolved so that you'd had like that dimples at the top so that you could hold the hat easier. And the brims were curved up at the side so that you could swing a rope around without getting caught on the brim.

B: Ah, cool.

S: Yeah. So it evolved into now what we consider to although there was some variation, obviously, there's like a range of styles. But what we consider within the scope of a "cowboy hat" didn't really come out until the 1890s and didn't really become popular until the early 1900s. The the most popular hat for cowboys throughout the 19th century was the Derby, also called the bowler hat. But they did wear other hats. Sombreros were on the short list. They were up there a lot.

C: I thought the sombrero maybe was like the precursor. I wonder if Stetson wasn't influenced by the sombrero because of that wide brim to block the sun.

S: Yeah, there probably was. So the 10 galon hat was Spanish. And it's actually not a G-A-L-L-O-N. It's a G-A-L-O-N meaning braid. Galón was a braid and a hat with 10 braids was a 10 galon hat. It interpreted a 10 gallon hat, but it had nothing to do with the volume.

C: Oh, you could have done a whole science or fiction about hats.

J: That explains so much like my God, there's been so many times in my life where I didn't understand that and wonder why I never looked it up.

C: Yeah. Like, could it hold 10 gallons of water?

S: Look at all these old pictures of cowboys in the 19th century. None of them are wearing a cowboy hat. And again, the most common one is the Derby or bowler hat. But there's other ones. There's these flat rimmed hats or other little types of different times had sometimes top hats were worn, but, yeah, no cowboy hats. They were that was a that was a late invention. Pretty much everything you think you know about cowboys is a late as a 20th century myth.

B: Yeah, like pirates.

S: Yeah, exactly. So that's a fun one.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: I'll go to number two. The U.S. government never actually poisoned alcohol during prohibition. Poisonings were due to contamination from poor quality stills. Jay, you think this one is the fiction. Everyone else thinks this one is science. And this one is the fiction. The government, the U.S. government deliberately poisoned alcohol.

C: Bastards.

S: And they resulting in about 10,000 people dying.

E: Holy moly.

S: Their direct actions.

C: Wow. And they meant to do it. This was one of their strategies for prohibition, for disincentivizing people, for making illegal alcohol. Now, the word alcohol in that sentence is unmodified, and that's critical because there are essentially two different kinds of alcohol that are made. There's drinking alcohol and industrial alcohol. The U.S. government didn't directly poison drinking alcohol. What they did was poison the industrial alcohol that use the moonshiners were using to make into moonshine, and so they knew it was going to get into drinking alcohol. And that was their intention. But they did it through the back door. They didn't like go to stills and pour poison in. And they just at the industrial level, they introduced poisons that would then contaminate the moonshine that was made from.

B: But it would still be usable for its industrials.

S: Yes, wouldn't hurt its industrial use, but if you tried to make moonshine out of it, it would be poisoned and would kill you.

C: That's effed up.

S: That was a deliberate policy of the U.S. government during Prohibition.

J: That's disgusting.

E: And with no warning to basically say, hey, we're poisoning this. You can't use it.

S: Well I didn't read that specifically one way or the other. I'd have to do some more research to know because you would think if it was a disincentive, they would so they would tell people or either that. But then, of course, they would be admitting to what they were doing.

C: Yeah, but it also helps if you say it out loud and out front, then all the sudden you're probably less liable if you're like, we told you if you drank that you would die.

S: Yes, yes.

B: Yeah, but then a good lawyer could say you knew people were going to going to die because of that, regardless of what you said.

S: But we warned them. Yeah, it's like Evan. You remember the scene in Dr. Strangelove? It's like, what's the point of having a doomsday machine if you don't tell anybody about it?

E: The concept of the doomsday device is lost. You keep it a secret.

S: All right.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All this means that the average height of Europeans in Middle Ages was actually greater than in the 16th and 19th centuries, with average height not returning to Middle Age average until the late 20th century and still only slightly less about one inch than modern Europeans is science if complicated and verbose. So, yeah, so basically what I said previously is to say, yeah, Middle Age people were not short, they were just they were slightly less on average than than modern Europeans, about only about one inch shorter. There's two reasons for that. And so you guys mentioned, especially Cara, talked a lot about nutrition and that definitely was a big factor. And the speculation is that during the Middle Ages or there was a Middle Age, there was a warming period during the Middle Ages. It was also the mini ice age. But during the warming period, they would have had on average more crops available. And so they might have had a longer growing season. They would have had better nutrition to get them through the winter. And therefore they would be healthier and they would be taller. So that's one factor that they think might have played a role. But the bigger factor may be that during the Middle Ages, people weren't very mobile and they because of that, there wasn't a lot of infectious diseases spreading around.

C: Other than the big one.

S: But even that that spread from from like Port City to Port City, you know?

C: And there were actually multiple plagues.

S: Yeah, but the 16th to 19th century were plagued by plagues. And that probably had a huge impact on the declining height over that period of time during the 16th and 17th century, even 18th century. Average height actually declined probably because of the just the really significant increase in infectious diseases. Not that it didn't exist in the Middle Ages. It was just orders of magnitude worse once there was much more global travel later on. And then when essentially sanitation kicked in around 1900, that's when things started to recover. But not really even getting back to the Middle Age average to the late to the second half of the 20th century. And it's only slightly greater now than it was in Middle Age time. So the myth of the that all people in the Middle Ages were really short is a myth. That's not true. You mentioned, Cara, you mentioned Napoleon. Napoleon was slightly above average height for a French male at that time. Five foot seven. Five foot seven is almost average height today.

C: Yeah, that's that's why I that's why that one sat in my head is probably science because for that reason that like we all the myth is that Napoleon was tiny and had a Napoleonic complex, but he actually wasn't. He was like a normal sized dude.

S: He was slightly above average height. So that was another myth. I thought that was too well known to you.

C: Yeah, I think so.

S: Yeah, yeah. It's in George's song, right? I mean, George's song on things that aren't true.

C: Now he's going to have to add some stuff about the cowboy hat and the prohibition.

S: All right. Good job, Jay. Solo win for you.

J: I think that was the first one this year and it probably will be the last one.

E: There's a Thanksgiving one coming up, maybe.

S: They're hard. We'll see.

E: You'll have a big advantage on that one.

J: Thank you.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:45:22)[edit]

We must learn to set our emotions aside and embrace what science tells us. GMOs and nuclear power are two of the most effective and most important green technologies we have. If – after looking at the data – you aren’t in favour of using them responsibly, you aren’t an environmentalist.
Ramez Naam, American technologist and science fiction writer

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

E: "We must learn to set our emotions aside and embrace what science tells us. GMOs and nuclear power are two of the most effective and most important green technologies we have. If after looking at the data, you aren't in favor of using them responsibly, you aren't an environmentalist." Ramiz Nam. And he is an American technologist and science fiction writer best known as the author of the Nexus trilogy, which, Bob, I don't know, have you read that?

B: I have not. Is that about our annual conference?

C: Different nexus.

E: N-E-X-U-S. Award winning.

C: Evan.

E: Yes?

C: So I'm wondering I don't usually have something to say about the quote. At the end of the show, we're all very tired. We want to go to bed or eat dinner. But sentences two and three of this quote I heavily agree with. But I worry about the dichotomization that we see a lot in skepticism, that it's like we have to just look at the facts and not let our emotions come into it. And emotions and facts are two different things. We have to trust the thinky part of our brain, but not the feely part of our brain. I sometimes feel like, A, that's a false dichotomy and B, it's a dangerous preposition because it doesn't take into account the fact that we cannot set our emotions to the side, our emotions, our cognitions and our feelings are are our thoughts.

E: However, he puts it in this particular quote, compare comparing the emotions to what the experts and what the scientists and what the science itself is saying. So that's the comparison that he's making.

C: It's aspirational to say that science is completely devoid of these things. But I think it actually is to some extent saying that science shouldn't be humanistic if we take the conversation about emotion out of it. I actually think it's a dangerous proposition because, A, it's impossible and it sets up a false kind of goal. But B, I don't think it's representative of a way that we should be thinking about how we do science. I don't think we should be making emotion the enemy. That's not the enemy. Irrationality might be the enemy, but not emotion.

E: That's interesting. Yeah, I didn't see it that way.

S: That's it. Yeah, I think that's valid. But at the same time, I do think it's a good exercise to say if we do look objectively at the hard facts and try to remove all filters, what does it say? What are the hard, objective, pure facts as close as we can get to them? Not to say that we're done with the process, but just as a thought experiment to help inform the process.

C: Totally agree. I think the emotion like we shouldn't make emotions the boogeyman. They're not the thing that is getting in the way of objectivity. But we so often blame them.

S: But getting back to this quote, though, I like this quote because I think what it's saying to me is that ideology is the problem here.

E: That's what I came away with.

C: Agree. I wish you would have said that.

S: Yeah, I know what he's saying. He's saying that if people who are environmentalists, who are anti-GMO and reflexively anti-nuclear are actually putting ideology and not allowing science to inform what they're trying to accomplish. And when you do that, like Sri Lanka or Germany, whatever, when you do that, you're going to end up accomplishing the opposite of what you're trying to. You're going to end up being worse for the environment, being worse for public health, increasing our carbon footprint, etc., because you didn't follow the science because you were following your narrow ideology. And that is rife within environmentalists. You know, unfortunately, look at Greenpeace. Greenpeace is the poster child for that. Their anti-GMO stance is unscientific and it's hurting their reputation. It's hurting their cause. It's achieving the opposite. I think they're all good people who want good things, but they're doing it wrong and they're and they're they're actually bringing about the opposite of what they're hurting. It's tragic. It's tragic. But if we don't learn that lesson, we're going to keep doing it. We're going to just keep doing it. And this is the big problem with the world today. You know, from my perspective, it's that we keep we keep getting in our own way. You know, just if we need to shift the balance more towards again, I'm not one of those people who thinks that science answers all questions or that we could run the world based entirely on objective science. You can't. Judgment calls come in. Value judgments come in.

C: And morality matter. Yeah, and it matters.

S: It all matters. But science should inform it as best as we can. And but if you're willing to cherry pick and distort the science to fit your ideology, then you might as well throw it all out. Then you're unscientific. At some point you can just you distort science to the point that you are now just anti-science, even if you think you're even if you think you're following it.

C: Agree wholeheartedly. I think that the boogeyman here really is tribalism. It's ideology. It's in-group out-group mentality. It's not having-

S: Following a narrative instead of evidence.

C: Yeah, but it's not having feelings or having emotions. I think that emotions are actually important and we shouldn't. You know, we shouldn't be striving to be emotionless automatons. That's actually absolutely dangerous proposition.

S: I've often said, embrace your humanity, embrace the human condition, embrace the emotions, all of that. But keep it in in context of facts and logic and reason. You can you can have a balance of these two things each to its own.

C: They're not two sides of the same spectrum.

S: We don't have to be Vulcans to be rational. Absolutely.

C: Completely agree. And it's such a narrative. It bums me out that that's like such a narrative.

E: Almost a meme.

B: Screw the Vulcans.

S: There is a personal angle of this for me, which I will I will say because people because I tend to be so hyper rational, people assume I don't have emotions and like even people close to me who should know freaking it's so compelling the notion that this this narrative, that the more rational you are, the less emotionally you are, is so overwhelming that people ignore the evidence in front of their face of what an emotional mush I am at my core. Because of the ways that I show it and the and the ways I don't show it. And you know what I mean? It's just anyway.

B: So it's not paying attention.

S: Yeah, I know you guys know because you're the closest people in the world to me, but people who are close enough to me that they really should know still get blinded by this narrative that, oh, Steve's being rational, he's not an emotional robot.

C: He's unfeeling.

S: Unfeeling.

C: How sad.

S: No, it's the opposite of what's true.

J: And Steve, that can that can be one hundred and eighty degrees turned around.

S: Yes, you're right. If someone is emotional, they're not rational.

C: Yeah, you're right.

J: You and I are. Yeah, we are like opposite kind of in that way because I feel like I'm being judged so much just on the emotions that pour out of me because that's the first thing that happens. You know, so I know exactly how you feel like kind of like Obi-Wan did from a particular point of view.

S: Yeah.

B: And sometimes I think I'm in this in the spectrum between these two punks.

C: And that's a good place to be because I think the idea here is to not fall victim to the false narrative that feelings are on one side of the of the spectrum and and thoughts are on the other. They're two separate entities that interact. Yeah, they work well together, of course.

S: And they're both part of the human condition, which we can't get away from. We are human. All right.

J: If you're frustrated, make some homemade meatballs, slow down, have some pasta, homemade sauce.

B: Eat the meatball, reverse the time equation and then eat it again.

J: I promise you that if you do what I say, you will feel better. I promise you.

S: This is not a guarantee. All right.

Signoff (1:52:14)[edit]

S: Thank you all for joining me this week.

C: Thanks Steve.

E: Well said, sir.

S: We'll see you on the on the live stream and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[10]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description




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