SGU Episode 883
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|SGU Episode 883|
|June 11th 2022|
|(brief caption for the episode icon)|
|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
|Quote of the Week|
What I love about experts, the best of them anyway, is that they get to their humility early. They have to. It's part of who they are; it's necessary for what they're doing. They set out to get to the bottom of something that has no bottom, and so they're reminded constantly of what they don't know. They move through the world focused not on what they know, but on what they might find out.
Michael Lewis, American author
Introduction, What are the Rogues watching?
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, June 8th 2022, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...
B: Hey, everybody!
S: Cara Santa Maria...
S: Jay Novella...
J: Hey guys.
S: ...and Evan Bernstein.
E: Good evening folks!
S: So guys what are you all watching on TV recently? Anything good?
B: There's so much on right now. I gotta say the thing that got me pretty much the most excited is The Offer which is the making behind the scenes all the drama that went into the creation of The Godfather. I mean if half of this stuff is true. It's like kind of like a docudrama. I mean it's definitely not a documentary but a lot of the stuff a lot of the stuff that's happening really happened. And it's just the acting is great, the writing is fantastic, the characters just love them. Can't wait for every episode. So if you liked the Godfather definitely check out The Offer what's it on is that on?
S: Paramount+ because it was produced by Paramount. That's how you remember.
E: That would make sense.
C: I'm watching a few things on HBO and Showtime. Like some comedies. I'm watching First Lady and I Love That for You and a couple like fun things. But I think the thing that I saw most recently that like had me gripped and I could not wait until it would come out each week was Under the Banner of Heaven.
S: Yeah I hear really good things about them.
C: Ugh it's so good. So that's based on, it's on Hulu, it's based on John Krakauer's book that came out I think in the early 2000s. Like quite a famous book. Got a lot of buzz. Made the Mormon church none too pleased.
C: And of course, yeah, for me personally having been raised Mormon it hits in all the right places and it's a very deep dive into the misogyny of the religion. It's the story basically of a detective and he's played by Andrew Garfield we love him, right? Do you guys love him? I love him.
B: Oh yeah.
C: He's so good in this role too. I don't know there's just something about like he plays a Mormon guy so well. But yeah it's a story of a detective who is investigating, actually a true crime, a murder that took place in Utah more than a couple now. We're old. And it parallels him sort of learning about the foundings of the Mormon church. And seeing inconsistencies and questioning the morality of it and really questioning his own faith. So it's this really cool parallel story where they've got pioneer town scenes and then they've got modern day scenes. And then it's also a murder story. It's like all the good things.
S: I just binged my way through the first two seasons of The Umbrella Academy.
B: Oh how was that? I've been meaning to see that.
S: You haven't seen that? You haven't seen that at all?
B: No no. It's been on my list.
S: Oh my god. It's awesome. It's one of the best written shows on television.
C: Is it a comic book show?
S: It's a comic book.
E: It's based on Gerard Ways comic. Gerard Way was the lead singer for My Chemical Romance.
S: Yeah dark horse comics.
B: Oh man.
S: So it has good source material but just this the script writing is so tight and it does that thing where it anticipates like questions the audience might have and it deals with them, you know what I mean? Like everything has a is foreshadowed or explained somehow. It ties back together without necessarily hitting you over the head with it. Just so that the characters are are all wonderful. So the third season's coming out June 22nd so I re-watched the first two seasons to remind myself of everything that happened. It's a good thing that I did because you forget so much. There's so much detail in there. But just so enjoyable. If you haven't seen it I highly recommend it.
J: Well I watched, we're reviewing a lot of science fiction shows for Alpha Quadrant 6 and I have two little kids and it's it's been really hard for me between work and my kids to find time for TV. But my wife went away this week and I had a little free time and I was able to watch the what is it five episodes of Stranger Things oh man and I really, going into it I just felt like third season I'm not really expecting much because the─
B: Wait, fourth.
J: ─oh, I'm sorry you're right. The fourth season. Not expecting really anything. All the actors are pretty much grown up now. They're not the same people.
B: [inaudible recognizable.
J: I gotta tell you I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it and how great they all were. They all connect, you know what I mean? Like it's funny you a lot of times with children actors like you think but what are they going to be like when they grow up? Because there's lots of examples of actors not being able to do it anymore. But that is not the case and I love this show. I'm just into it. I really really like how complex the story is. It's not a light story. It's definitely, like there's a lot of darkness and seriousness and it's really good horror. It's just really really good.
S: I was worried about it because the first season was magic. It was just so different. Very very enjoyable. The whole 80s vibe was really fun. Everything about it was was really enjoyable. And then second and third seasons we're good but you can't capture that magic again but the fourth season I think is better than two and three. Nothing's gonna be as good as the first one.
C: Do I need to have seen three?
S: Sort of. Yeah.
C: Because I kind of gave up. I loved season one also but season two just became like overly fantasy and like not... It didn't have enough other stuff to hook me. It was a little just bit just like too fantastic and so I kind of gave up in season two.
E: I watched it at two times speed. Half the time.
'C: (laughs) It'll be chipmunks.
S: Yeah I mean season three was good but four I think is the best season since one.
B: I mean just from a pure consistency point of view I mean this is the fourth season and they have maintained. They did not have a big drop off where you're like oh what happened. Cara's comments not outstanding of course but they kept it up. They kept it up and kept most of our interests and enjoyed that. But now four is actually even better. It's the best one since the first and if you enjoyed the first season definitely jump back in. Because it's good stuff. Those Duffer brothers I want to research them because they're kind of killing it. Good for them.
S: What about you Evan?
E: Well it was June 6th recently which was of course the anniversary of D-Day and always around this that time of year there's all sorts of shows on television. War stories, war movies, documentaries, interviews, all having to do with a lot of World War II stuff obviously. So something that popped up recently on my Netflix account was what? Operation Mincemeat.
E: Which is a movie I had not seen before.
S: Saw that. Really good.
E: And the reason I, yeah and I bring it up because I'm familiar with the background of the story what the operation was by. A spy operation or to throw the Germans off. But there were certain things I learned about the operation that I learned through the movie that apparently are true that I hadn't learned before in other books that I've read or shows that I've watched. So I was very satisf--I'm always satisfied to learn more after having seen something and I walk away with something a little extra.
S: I love watching stuff about World War II. I don't know why. And there's like so many different stories to tell. So much happened in those four years. Yeah it's endless. But there's just something fascinating about. I guess because you're dealing with like the Nazis are just great villains, you know I mean?
S: They're iconic villains.
C: And there's a moral like we all agreed morally. I mean it took us a while to get there sadly but once we did we all agreed morally it wasn't like a divisive war the way that pretty much every war since then has been.
S: It was militarily very complicated. Every time I watched something about it I learned something new you. Really was just fascinating from so many different levels.
J: I don't think I could ever truly wrap my head around that entire war and all the little jigs and jags that happened. I mean so many people were involved and so many different big things happened that I never seemed to really understand like the big brush strokes of that war.
C: Right and on two completely different fronts.
E: Two theaters.
C: Yeah two theaters with multiple countries involved in both and yeah it was you're right very complicated.
J: But think about like there is an endless supply of drama that could be linked to that war. I've seen horror movies about World War II. I've seen thrillers about World War II.
C: Comedies, yeah. Video games.
J: Everything is in there. Like it literally encompasses like the spectrum of a human experience. You know what I mean?
E: Yeah it is overwhelming. It's a lifetime of consumption of information that you could have. And you can and walk away wanting more. Wanting to learn more.
S: All right well talking about learning more we're going to move on with our news items. We got some interesting stuff lined up for you today.
Infantile Amnesia (9:25)
- Why can't you remember being born, learning to walk or saying your first words? What scientists know about 'infantile amnesia'
S: Cara you're going to start us off with a discussion of infantile amnesia. Why don't we remember things from when we were like one year old.
C: Yeah. And I think this is a it's a fun story that I came across that was published in the Conversation by a psychologist at Rutgers named Vanessa LoBue or Lobu. I'm not sure. Yeah this isn't really based on any new big discovery. No big new publication but sort of a compilation of what she knows because this is her I guess area of expertise and she teaches child development. And so let's pose that question to you all because it's, as you might guess, a multifaceted answer. Why do you think we don't remember things from when we're babies?
J: I would say that parts of our brain aren't developed enough.
E: Yeah the recorder part of our brain isn't fully functioning at that point.
C: We're missing some hardware, yeah. Okay
B: Something about the hippocampus?
C: Something about the hippocampus, yeah.
S: I don't think it's anything like that because we learn, right? When you're one or two years old. You're not like you haven't learned stuff. It's really─
B: But that's different memory though.
S: ─ I always thought it was mainly due to the fact that we don't have a language. We don't have something to anchor those memories. But it could just be also that just it is a brain development thing.
C: And so researchers think it's kind of all of the above and then some additional stuff that we'll talk about. But I think you brought up something important Steve that Bob you questioned which I think is also an important conversation to be had here which is what's the difference between learning and memory? I think in some ways I come from psychology but by way of neuroscience. And it's also it's always been really interesting to me having one foot in kind of each pool to see how neurobiologists and how psychologists describe similar concepts using their own sort of constructions. And so very often you'll see that in cognitive psychology there are descriptions of things like memory that are somewhat different than the way neuroscientists might describe memory. For me personally learning and memory are sort of flavors of the same thing. And I'm curious Steve if is it safe for me to assume that based on your statement that you kind of see them the same way. They're sort of interpretations and different utilizations of very similar neural processes.
S: But we know that there are different kinds of memory. There is operational memory learning stuff. And then there's autobiographical memory learning, remembering your life. And it's what infants lack is the autobiographical memory. But they're still learning about the world. They're learning language, they're learning to recognize people etc.
C: Absolutely so when we think about memory we can kind of divide it into two main types. We often divide it into long term and short term or working memory. Long term memory is all the stuff that actually is retrievable. And short term memory, working memory is sort of it's the very short time that you're keeping something in mind before encoding it or before transferring it into this long-term memory. Short time memory is seconds. It's like active attention. Maybe 20-30s or less. Then working memory is the memory that we're implicitly deciding to utilize or not. We're comparing it to other things matching it up with our experience and we're starting to figure out whether or not it gets encoded. If it doesn't get encoded then it's lost. Long term memory is anything that's encoded but I think there are briefer engagements with long term memory. You can encode something and then never access it again. Or you can encode something and then rehearse it all the time and access it a lot. Which as we know, we've talked about this a lot on the show, we're not tape recorders. Every time we rehearse something it changes a little bit. So short term the shortest. Then working. Then long term. But regardless, Bob you're right, when we talk about these big those are the big distinctions. But when we really talking about today is types of long term memory. And as you mentioned Steve there's autobiographical memory. There's also declarative memory sometimes we call it explicit memory. Then there's implicit memory. So think about it this way: autobiographical is parts of our life. It's our relationship to our memory. It's sort of our narrative. Our chronology. Explicit memory is like in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It's things that are conscious that you can declare. That you can say out loud. And then implicit memory is think about things like rote repetition it's sort of like remembering how to get somewhere─
B: Yeah, unconscious.
C: Yeah like a procedural memory. Things like that. There's so many different labels for this stuff. But sort of implicit, unconscious and very often you would relate that to sort of rote learning.
B: So I think for this task for this specific topic we're definitely gonna we need to focus on explicit memory which is conscious. Not implicit. We're talking about conscious explicit memories from when we were really young.
C: Really we're talking about autobiographical memory like Steve said.
B: But I think that's a labeling thing because my understanding when you talk about long term you use explicit and implicit─
B: ─as you said. But then explicit is something that I think where you need to go down that road And there you see things like declarative memory which is facts and events. And then they further brake that down into these are the two that I think are the crooks. Episodic which is events and experiences which is what we forget. then there's semantic which is facts and concepts. So facts and concepts are retained it seems from that young age. But the episodic events and experiences that's what really that we don't remember. At least according to this labeling system. Episodic and semantic.
C: And some people my argue that the episodic is only even that that it's not explicit. That really you're not retaining much of that but you really only retaining explicit memory because of the age and because some of the factors that we've described. There are million different ways to, we talk about this constantly actually. This is a larger conversation but about taxonomy. About categorization. And there's again, I always recommend this book when we get on this topic, by Lulu Miller called Why Fish Don't Exist. And it's really about this concept. How do label things. How do we make meaningful distinctions. And sometimes they're meaningful depending on the field you're in. Depending on the specific topic you're talking about. But let's use a term which is not a perfect term. It has fuzzy boundaries. But this term autobiographical memory. This sort of self-referential memory. This memory for our own lives. Because that seems to be what a lot of researchers do sort of home in on when we talk about infantile amnesia. Infantile, I don't know why that word makes me laugh. Sounds like a rectile.
E: Describes an adult over [inaudible].
B: Oh my gosh.
C: Infantile dysfunction. That's like, I don't know why that's funny to me.
B: I'll always link those words.
C: (laughs) Sorry. So but basically if we were to say tell me a memory from where you were young very often people recall memories from like starting around 3-4-5 years old. Very rarely if at all─
E: And who knows how accurate.
C: ─and who knows how accurate, right.
E: It'd be totally contaminated.
C: But very rarely do we hear much about something that happened when somebody was one. And researchers think that we may not be able to develop these autobiographical memories at that age. But it is very true as Steve mentioned as we were just grappling with Bob but of course we're learning when we're young. And learning requires that you hold things in your memory. So there are super early examples of experiments that show kind of without a shadow of a doubt that infants know their own mother's face. They can recall it. They can distinguish it from strangers. The longer that they're exposed to faces the more they can recognize them and we have different ways of measuring this that aren't always perfect. There are gaze tests that are often used with with infants. Some people argue that these aren't appropriate because kids will look at things for longer periods for lots of reasons. Sometimes it's about novelty. Sometimes it's about memory. But there is a study that was detailed in this article that I'm referencing that, well not a study, a series of studies that were done by Carolyn Rovee-Collier and she was a Rutgers psychologist who unfortunately died in I think 2014 but she was kind of really instrumental in helping us understand learning and memory in infants. And she did these really cool experiments where she would put babies in cribs and they would watch a mobile and they would they would see how often. So babies would watch a mobile because it was interesting to them. And babies also kick because that's what babies do. They kick their legs. And then what they did after they got baseline measurements of gaze and of kick activity. Is they tied a string between the baby's leg and the mobile. This is very low tech and I love it. And very quickly the baby learns hey if I kick the mobile moves. That's fun. And so babies often will kick significantly more often once they learn that. And so there is a certain amount of learning that you're seeing there because they change their behavior based on this feedback. And they did they adapt it for older children as well. But what we don't see for example. And this is I think an important aspect of autobiographical memory is we don't see children passing the mirror test when they're really really young. Takes them a while. I think not until they're about 18 to 24 months will babies when they're looking at a mirror notice a mark on their face. Recognize that it is their own face and start to try and wipe it off. Prior to that they don't seem to recognize themselves in the mirror. They see a baby. Like their eyes are fine but they don't have that concept of self. And so then that raises the question. Can we form memories about ourselves if we don't even have a concept of what selfness is. That's I think it's somewhat philosophical. I don't know if we could ever answer it neurologically but I think it's an important question. And then of course we add to that the fact that until like later in the second year we don't develop language and of course how much is memory tied to language as you mentioned Steve. We've all we've often talked about embodied cognition that language helps us label things and we label them in a way that they relate to to our person. If you think about the way that the words that we often use prepositionally speaking they're very much geometrically relational. Above, beneath, under, within. They have to do with this concept of space and of where we fit within space. And as we develop language we're also developing, or actually a little bit later, first we're developing this kind of sense of self. Then we're developing language. And then as you mentioned I think Bob mentioned it and Jay did as well. The hippocampus simply isn't developed in infancy. So there probably are some purely neurological limitations as well. And really what are we talking about? We may be talking about emergent properties here. All of these things aren't it's not a sense of self and language, and hippocampal development, and frontal lobe development. I mean these things all play off of each other. And in some ways are the same thing. They rely on one another and they're just different ways that we conceptualize them. So it does seem to be that there are some fundamental limitations for developing autobiographical memory. But! I'm catching myself even in that statement. Maybe we do develop them. Maybe we do encode them. We just can't retrieve them. And there's really no way to know.
B: They're there waiting for us to [inaudible]
E: We need AI.
J: What like you like Cara are you saying that these things are encoded in like a baby brain format that we no longer can access?
C: Could be. I mean there's really no I mean I don't know. That's a gross hypothesis but there's really no way to know i mean the thing about memory is that we don't know it's there unless we can evoke it. And so we are capable of retrieving through will. There are also examples where we can prime memories and then there are examples, there are some really cool examples, and Steve you've probably been just as fascinated by these studies as I have through the years where during deep brain stimulation surgeries memories are evoked simply through neurology. Like they're actually evoked. And that's kind of cool too because very often this is more of a cognitive process than a physiological process. But really it's hard to know because memory isn't a memory or it's not a memory that we can discuss unless we have both aspects. First we have to encode it but then we have to access it. We have to retrieve it.
E: Is there, what would be the advantage for a person, a small, young, an infant to be able to store the memory in such a way that it could be retrieved later in life? Is there an advantage or are we or is the brain wasting resources at that point?
C: I don't think I think in some ways that it might be a bias to think of it that way. Similar to like when we think about evolution as being advantageous. Like this is advantageous over that. Like that it's there's a goal at the end of it. I mean it just is a process that we develop with life. That's like kind of like saying what's the advantage of having memory as an adult. I mean there's a million reasons for it and it has to develop somehow and at some point in time. So I think I don't know. I mean correct me if you disagree with this but I think that this is just a function of we can point to the sort of developmental era at which this becomes codified. At which this becomes functional. But I don't think it's there's a why. There's a how but I don't know if there's a why.
E: I mean how busy is the six month old brain sort of just doing what it is.
C: Banana's busy. (laughs)
C: Well baby brains are so taxed. But we're they also sleep so so much because of that. But if you think about the amount of metabolism that's necessary for just starting to develop associations. Starting to learn. Pruning. So much of this neurological pruning is happening at this point. Neurons are firing. We're developing these hebbian synapses. So neurons are firing together and associations are being made. And we're actually laying down architecture and sort of losing other associations. There's a lot going on in those first few months. A lot. So yeah I mean that is an interesting question Evan and now now I guess I'm kind of seeing it for what I'm, correct me if I'm wrong, for what I'm thinking maybe you were pointing to which is from a purely efficiency. Like a metabolic efficiency perspective.
C: Why waste resources. Gotcha, gotcha.
E: Right, right. Yeah if it's running full capacity doing what it needs to do.
E: Why spend time doing something else that is, what, superfluous.
C: And it could be as simple as again not a why but a how. It not that there's any sort of choice in this but that it just isn't as important. It's taking a backseat to some of the more important processes and eventually it becomes more important.
E: It's low priority.
C: Yeah but it's a fascinating. I think we all sort of take for granted that babies don't remember stuff. It's like he won't remember it anyway but they are actively learning all the time. And we know little kids are total sponges the older they get too. But when they are infants, one and two years old, they are one and one and a half years old they're actively learning all the time but switch over to being able to tell stories about themselves. Understand who they are how they fit into the world. Develop language all of these things do seem to have a role. And it's clearly like most of the things we talk about on SGU, it's complicated. (laughs)
E: It's very complicated.
S: Cara what's your youngest autobiographical memory?
C: I can tell you that I have a like what I like to think of as a flashbulb memory. My first sort of evocative emotional memory. And I have no idea how old I was. I was maybe three or four. But we used to go to, what was it called? It was a burger place. Fuddruckers in Texas.
E: Yeah. We had one in Connecticut.
C: And the reason I think we went there is because kids under a certain age ate free with every adult. And I grew up when I was really really young it's still my mom and my dad. It was just me and my sister. So two free kid meals. But so we went there and I don't remember being there. I don't remember anything except having the balloon. They used to give you a balloon when you were a kid and you would eat there. And I came home, and I had the balloon wrapped around my wrist, and I was so excited. And we had these prickly bushes in front of our house.
E: Oh no.
C: And the balloon popped on the prickly bush. And it's, it's so funny but it's like my first feeling─
E: Of loss?
C: ─memory feeling of loss. And it's actually evokes like a lot of sadness in me when I think about it.
E: Oh gosh.
C: Isn't that funny? Like it's fundamental to later much more complicated and sophisticated experience of loss but I felt inconsolable. I had lost this thing that I loved. As in so far as a two or three year old or four-year-old can form those kinds of attachments. And I remember that feeling. What about you Steve? What's your first?
S: Yeah I was three. I have a couple of again those flash memories from being in daycare. One, probably the strongest is I was like in the kitchen area. Remember I was standing up but the table was over my head. So the room is huge in my memory. And I guess we were getting soup. It was beef and barley soup. And I remember that because I remember the smell and the smell always brings back that memory.
C: Oh right.
C: I love smell associations with memory.
S: A very strong odor-related memory.
The Age of Giants (27:23)
S: All right Jay. This is an interesting question that I think many people may have asked themselves at one point or another. How come there aren't any giant animals anymore like the dinosaurs?
J: Yeah why were they able to grow so big and then what happened to the big animals?
E: So big.
J: (laughs) So you guys have all been to a museum of natural history. I mean I'm sure most of the people─
S: Oh yeah.
J: ─listening to this podcast. You've seen the bones, right? They're huge.
B: Look at the bones.
E: Look at the bones.
J: You stand at the base of a of some dinosaur displays and the thing is what 3040 feet tall? There's dinosaurs that were just absolutely strikingly enormous. And as a side note there was a lot of other animals that were huge too. Which you might not be aware of. There were giant ground sloths. There was a giant penguin that was six and a half feet or two meters tall and it weighed 250 pounds or 115 kilograms. That's a lot bigger than me. Dragonflies that used to have a wingspan of about 12 inches or 30 centimeters. And there is a 4.5 times the size. I'm sorry . Ad that is 4.5 times the size of a modern dragonfly. That's big. And of course a creature that can only be described as a monster: the Megalodon. It's a monster. It makes Jaws look like a joke. And these things were real.
E: I know I saw that.
J: And everybody seems to be okay with this. I just don't get it. (laughter) Anyway. So dinosaurs existed during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. And one of those words had a movie named after it. And at the time the climate was a lot warmer as you guys know. CO2 levels were over four times higher than they are today. So dinosaur remains have been found as far back. I mean this goes way back to the sixth century BC. When paleontology took off in the 19th century, since then scientists have been trying to explain why are these animals so big. Why were these freaking dinosaurs so big? What was it? What was it about the distant past that was different. And why aren't they anything like that here today. And the answer is... it's complicated. (laughter)
B: Got me again.
E: Oh gosh.
J: There are potentially a lot of answers. It's not one thing. It's not like oh because of blah they were big. It's like because of tons of things. First off let's talk about teeth. So let's say you're a baby dinosaur who is one day going to be huge. You're not huge yet but you're just a little tiny little critter there. Well you'd start out eating small prey. If you were that kind of animal that eats other animals. And you were lucky because you had these tiny little sharp teeth. They're perfect for killing small prey. And as you lost your teeth new ones would replace them like a shark, right? Now you're getting bigger and so do your teeth. Your teeth are getting bigger as well. And on top of that your teeth not only got bigger but they would change in type to suit the new prey that you were hunting.
J: Yeah. like it was already programmed of course into them. At this age the teeth are like this. And at this age they're bigger and they're like this. So they evolved to have different sets of teeth for different types of prey at different times in their lifespan. That's freaking amazing. Now let's go to bones. Dinosaurs could be as big as 100 feet long and weighing upwards of 45 tons. They were big so their bones had to be strong but their bones had to also be light. So some dinosaur bones had channels for air sacs that came from their circulatory system. This is like modern birds. They have extensive air sac systems. And this gives the bones the ability to be extraordinarily light but gives them strength as well. And this means that since dinosaurs had a lighter skeleton. They needed less muscle to power their movement. And this in turn reduce the amount of body heat that they produce. And this is the case this is not the case with modern mammals. Land mammals can only get to the size of roughly about an elephant maybe a little bit bigger but that's the limit. And warm-blooded animals require a lot more food as you know. If anyone has had a meal with me recently we require lots and lots of food. So a huge cold-blooded dinosaur would eat one-fifth of food of a modern elephant. Think about that.
S: Yeah but Jay I was reading that article and it struck me that it was a little out of sync with the news item from last week. Because the largest dinosaurs, the sauropods, were warm-blooded.
J: No we talked about it. I know I mean these are all, these are generalities you know what I mean?
S: This article was sort of like didn't update itself to that information yet. So they were partly speculating. Maybe they were only on the low end of the warm blooded sides. Like no actually they were fully warm blooded. So that wasn't really a factor in the size. Remember the whole gigantothermic thing was just not true.
B: [inaudible] consensus now?
S: This is news item from last week.
B: Yeah. I mean it's still percolating through.
S: Yeah, right. It just hadn't get it wasn't updated yet. So I think that one piece that doesn't jive with the most recent evidence on dinosaur warm bloodedness.
J: Well if they were cold-blooded they would have eaten one-fifth of food of a modern elephant. But yeah there is more recent information. The environment. So let's talk about what was their environment like. So another factor that allowed dinosaurs to be as big had to be their environment. There had to be plenty of oxygen and food to cover their needs. Their habitat in particular. It had to be just right. It had to be the perfect mix of things in order for these giant creatures to come into being. They required ecologies that were at the beginning of when the dinosaurs first started to appear the environment was already there. Like it was waiting for them. So since CO2 levels were higher like I said this gave plant life this huge boost of making. It was a great time to be an herbivore let me put it to you that way. Plants of all varieties were everywhere. And we're talking about like everywhere. Like north and south pole as well. Wherever there was land and dinosaurs were living there was plants and they were in it and there was tons of herbivores eating through these plants and they had a seemingly endless supply of food. Now as we know more carbon dioxide is directly correlated with increased global temperature. So I've read that the daytime average temperature was 90 to 100°F or 32 to 38°C.
E: That's average.
J: Yeah. Yep.
B: That's nuts.
J: That's f--ing hot. That's really hot. (Cara laughs)
E: That is balmy. That is humid. So more oxygen also likely played a big role in allowing for giant insects as well.
B: So insects were critical. I think that you could say that the oxygen was probably overwhelmingly critical. More so perhaps than dinosaurs. This increase in oxygen. How high did it get? Was it like 20%? Yeah. Compared to that was like the main reason. The main reason. Otherwise insects just couldn't get that big without that much oxygen.
S: Do you know why that is, why that's so important for insects? Because they don't really have circulatory systems. The oxygen diffuses through their tissue so there's just a limit on the distance that the oxygen can diffuse. So you increase the oxygen tension even by a few percent─
B: More diffusion.
S: ─more diffusion. They can get bigger. They can have basically they could have parts of their body farther from their skin.
J: All right let now let's click over to size. So once large bodies did evolve, which took a very long time, it gave those dinosaurs more protection from predators. If the dinosaurs grew big enough like for instance the hadrosaur even a pack of tyrannosaurus couldn't bring it down because it was just too big. Now let's talk about skull size. Some dinosaurs had large head ornamentation. You've seen tons of pictures of really weird shaped dinosaur heads and all this stuff. So they used these heads to fight. They were very very very likely to attract mates and the sheer size of the head itself could have given dinosaurs more protection. Think about this. The skull is bigger, thicker, heavier. One study showed that dinosaurs with large head features evolved to larger sizes 20 times faster than those without. So there was a huge boon to having a large bulky head. Not so much today but back then it was really in. Now time was another factor. Another thing that we have to consider here is that it took the dinosaurs an incredible amount of time to evolve to be this huge. There's so many things that had to change in order for the dinosaurs to get up to these sizes. During that time the habitats had to be very stable and consistent. Which it happened to be. So that's why they were able to live for so long and be so prosperous. Now as the environment slowly changed again. So millions of years going by and the environment is now getting cooler. It's possible, right? Like that an asteroid impact hit and if that did it probably very quickly killed off all the largest creatures out there because their food supply and environment and habitats were significantly disrupted. Now we have this big dying off of these large creatures. So now it comes in the smaller animals. And smaller animals were also during these times learning to have their social structures were starting to develop. And they were learning to hunt in packs which enabled them to take down larger prey. That was another thing that even reduced the size of the remaining largest animals, however large they were, all the way up into modern times where we killed off the closest thing to an elephant at the time. Because we were hunting them into extinction. So like I said. Tons of factors. All mish-mashed together. There's probably dozens and dozens more that we don't even know about of course because we don't have live specimens, we don't really know what the environment was exactly like. A lot of things are speculation. But these are very likely things that had an impact on why they could get that big and then the dying off and the larger animals kept getting killed and taken down and the environment kept changing. Until we get to the point where the largest creatures today live in the ocean. We have whales as the largest creatures and they're supported by the their body weight is supported by water. Of course they couldn't live on land. So land animals really have come way down in size to where we're looking at modern day elephants.
S: And average sizes. I mean they increased for a while among the mammals. There was the age of gigantism. Not anything close to dinosaur size but everything was big. Mainly because of competition. So the prey gets bigger so they're protected from predators so predators get bigger to eat the bigger prey. So there's like an─
B: Arms race.
S: ─arms race of size. So but then that takes time to play out. But then the trend reversed which a lot of researchers attribute to human hunting. We basically kill off the biggest animals because they're the most meat. And so the average size of mammals has been decreasing over the last twenty-thirty thousand years. One argument I didn't buy was the there just hasn't been enough evolutionary time to get that big. Because the biggest creatures to ever live are alive now. The whales. As you said. And they evolved in the last 60 million years. There has been enough time for creatures to get bigger than the biggest dinosaurs. I think the it's just that mammals can't get that big. Reptiles are just different. Reptiles continue to grow throughout their life unlike mammals. They have the lighter bone structure. They replace their teeth more often so they can adapt to larger stages in feeding strategies etc. So there's like a lot of features that reptiles have that mammals simply don't have.
B: Yeah plus how fair is it to compare land dwelling reptiles to sea going mammals? In terms of size. It's probably it might be just easier to to grow big in the water because you got all the water supporting you so it's not it's difficult.
S: Yeah you don't need to evolve as many adaptations. That's true.
B: Just stay streamlined.
S: But tells you how complicated a question it is. There's so many factors involved.
AI and Traffic Jams (40:05)
S: All right guys I'm going to tell you about something else that is also complicated. (Evan laughs) Not as as the previous two topics and I'm going to take a page from Cara and start by asking you a question. The question is: what do you think causes traffic jams? What's the most common causes of traffic congestion.
J: I think it's a lack of attention.
C: It's inefficiency in driving.
E: Any vehicle on the highway.
S: Evan is very is correct. It is cars. Vehicles. (Evan laughs)
C: But isn't it the people's behavior behind the wheel of the vehicle?
S: It's also that. (laughter)
B: I know it's not the lack of lanes.
E: Vehicle didn't get there by itself.
S: Well it could be lack of lanes. It's not as it's not a simple linear relationship. And you can inadvertently worsen traffic by increasing lanes by altering the flow of traffic by altering behavior. So you guys are hitting on the big things but let me clarify it all a little bit for you. So there are hard causes and soft causes. So there is the infrastructure material causes. This is just how many cars and vehicles are there on the roads. How many lanes are there. What's the carrying capacity of those roads and if the number of vehicles begins to exceed the carrying capacity that tremendously reduces the speed, the average speed at which vehicles can go. So that is a major cause of traffic. So bottlenecks because of infrastructure account for about 40% of traffic congestion. And construction ironically, attempts at improving that infrastructure causes 10%. So 10% of traffic is just caused by they're fixing the roads at that time. 40% are just congestion. There's too many cars for the roadway itself. So that's about half. But half of congestion is caused by those sort of infrastructure hard causes. Then there are or those are called are long-term or recurring causes of traffic. Because they're there all the time. Then there are temporary causes. These are things that─
S: ─are due to temporary conditions. So weather is a big one. The environment. Just as a more general category. That's about 15%. Bad weather causes about 15% of traffic according to the Department of Transportation. And then there is accidents, breakdowns, mechanical failure, things like that. That causes another chunk. And then finally we come to human causes. Just driving behavior. This primarily results from what's called a phantom traffic jam. Have you guys ever heard that term? A phantom traffic jam?
E: No. No.
S: So that's entirely caused by driving behavior. It's called the phantom traffic jam because there's no apparent physical cause. Has that ever happened to you where traffic just slows down.
C: Oh it happens all the time. That's what I was referring to when you said what is the.
E: Yeah I always think it's like an echo of something that happened prior to that and it's catching up to the point of going back to some state of normalcy.
C: Oh see I always just think it's because people suck at merging. And people suck at paying attention to the car in front of them and they don't pace them. I also think brake lights on the freeway are the bane of my existence. Don't break─
E: It's a trigger?
C: ─unless you have to. Yeah because one person breaks every person behind brakes and often for no reason.
B: Yeah it's domino effect there.
E: Take our cues from the cars in front of them.
:S That's exactly what a phantom traffic jam is. So if someone slows down for whatever reason.
E: Rubber necking.
S: It could be rubber necking. It could be they're coming to a steep turn and they want to really slow down or they weren't paying attention. They got a little too close to the car in front of them or whatever.
C: Or just they're bad drivers and they don't understand how to slow down without breaking.
S: Exactly. So they when one car slows down the car behind it needs to slow down a little more. And then the car behind that slows down a little more. And that keeps propagating back until you come to a stop. And there's no reason. Like there's nothing in the road that would explain it. So it just propagates through until traffic comes to a halt. So that's a phantom traffic jam. The other driving behavior thing which is actually external is traffic lights. Because the traffic lights are trying to are programmed in order to manage the flow of traffic. So let's talk about these two soft causes. Phantom traffic jams and traffic lights. Because those are the most immediately modifiable kind of variables. Obviously it takes time to build roads. A lot of investment. The construction itself slows down traffic so that takes a long time to fix. You can't do much about the weather. You could try to minimize accidents but it's going to happen etc. But these two are just like the two variables that should be the most modifiable. And what's triggering this whole discussion is a study looking at artificial intelligence in order to be better at managing the traffic lights. Well let's talk about that first. Today in the developed parts of the world traffic lights can be controlled by computer and they follow an algorithm to design to optimize flow. But they're sub-optimal. They're not necessarily fully optimized because it's a very complicated problem. It's not like there's a simple mathematical equation that you can apply to a complicated intersection or set of traffic. And it also has to be somewhat dynamic. I mean it's moment to moment changing to the the flow of traffic through an intersection for example. So you know a dynamic intelligent control that requires artificial intelligence. So what researchers did they were really basically trying to answer a very specific question. They developed a deep learning reward-based algorithm called deep reinforcement learning. Have you heard of that one Bob?
S: DRL. Deep reinforcement learning. So basically the AI gets a virtual reward whenever a car goes through an intersection.
J: Wait what but I mean wouldn't there have to be like programming in place to make that reward actually meaningful to an AI?
S: Yeah of course. That's assumed. Yeah. The reward is in air quotes that you can't see because it's positive reinforcement for the AI. Like in some software programming mechanism it this reinforces the AI's behavior. I want to do that. I want to get more of those. So and then also they get negative outcome negative reward for unwanted outcomes like traffic slowing down. So that's how the the deep reinforcement learning is programmed. And in this model they used video cameras to monitor the intersection. The other potential method and there are lots of places that have this is you can put there's like sensors in the road that will detect every time a car goes past so you could literally count the number of cars got past that way. But in the model they use they just use video because they're just it's more common. They trained the AI on a simulation. So not in a real world scenario. And their primary question was if we train our AI on purely on a simulation will that work? Will that improve their ability to then manage an actual real world intersection.
B: That's a question.
S: Yeah because if it can that's huge. Because it's a lot easier to train software on software. On a simulation. You don't have to train it in a real world scenario. And they the bottom line is they found that it worked really well. They were able to train their software on a simulation and then apply it to the real world and it worked. So that's great. So now they just need to you know implement it more in real world situations and see how it does. But it was able to significantly increase the throughput through these intersections by using this deep learning algorithm that helped them optimize the timing of the traffic lights. So that could have a significant decrease in traffic jams and traffic congestion. Just by improving the control of traffic lights. The interesting thing was the other end was the phantom traffic jam. So how could we reduce phantom traffic jams. Cara you're kind of hitting on it but if there was one method that worked turned out to be the most effective in terms of reducing phantom traffic jams and they were able to reduce it by 50%. Reduce phantom traffic jams by 50% by doing one thing.
S: No. Although carpooling is good for overall traffic congestion.
C: I guess I feel like this is like an open menu. Like I feel like I need some constraints to be able to guess the answer to this.
S: The answer relates to what the primary cause of phantom traffic jams is. And again it's. You didn't say the magic word. It is driving behavior, people not knowing how to drive whatever. But the number one cause is tailgating.
C: Uh yes! Because if you weren't tailgating when they tapped their break you wouldn't have to.
S: You wouldn't have to tap your brakes. Exactly. Tailgating dramatically increases phantom traffic jams. So reducing tailgating dramatically reduces phantom traffic jams. But what's the driver? What is the actual best method to use? And it's something that the researchers are calling bilateral control. And so it's not just managing the distance between you and the car in front of you. It's also between you and the car behind you. And the optimal behavior seems to be to evenly space yourself out between the car in front of you and the car behind you. And when you do this that─
E: That's constantly changing.
S: ─reduces phantom traffic jams by the largest amount.
C: But we really have little control over how close the car behind us gets to us.
E: That's a three-car equation.
S: I know everyone needs to be doing this. Everyone needs to be doing this.
C: Well and tech can really improve this. Like my car has a follow behind signal.
C: So when it recognizes there's a car in front of me it's a little green car. When I'm getting too close to it's a red car and then if I get way too close to it goes bep-bep-bep.
S: And this is where AI comes in again.
E: Mine will actually engage my brake if it senses for some reason I'm accelerating and the car ahead of me is not moving at a fast enough speed─
C: Yeah it can tell.
E: ─it'll initiate my break.
B: Yeah mine too it's cool.
S: Exactly. So obviously driver education can help but that would have to be pretty thorough. And some people are calling for that and in fact people who do get more extensive driving coaching do better. The outcomes were better. But in any case something that would be very easy to implement would be simply a software update for any driver cars with driver assist. So if you--what you guys are talking about is driver assist. It's not a total self-driving car but it tells you you're getting a little bit too close to the car in front of you. Now if we update the algorithm of the driver assist to do bilateral control where it's managing it's trying to position you halfway between the car in front of you and the car behind you. Especially if a lot of the cars on the road have that. That could significantly reduce phantom traffic jams.
C: I still feel like psychologically all you need, and tell me if I'm wrong here mathematically, but all you need is the forward assist if most cars have it. Because that automatically spaces. And psychologically I think it would fuck with drivers heads if their car was constantly telling them that a car was getting too close on the back end.
B: And to speed up.
C: Yeah I think it would make them speed up and do bad things and get anxious when they drive.
S: Yeah at this point we're talking about like in a computer simulation. Mathematically that's what works. Now you have to factor human behavior into the equation. So you may be right sometimes and we get we encounter this in medicine all the time. There's something called an intention to treat analysis where you're looking at not just what would be the optimal outcome but what's the best outcome you're going to get out of people. And when you implement it in the real world. So what you're talking about is an intention to treat kind of approach to driving control. Sometimes it's better to give people a sub-optimal but simple rule they can follow than an optimal complex rule that they can't follow. But this would need to be tested in the real world. But again if cars are doing it because of just on their own. If like just automated driving is doing it self-driving cars are doing it we don't who cares. We can ever be as complicated as possible. So of course in 10-20 years or whatever when we get to that point where we're where most cars on the road are are self-driving. It's all going to be AI controlled. But the good news is that this should significantly reduce traffic. Because in addition to managing things like avoiding traffic jams for example, like not tailgating and spacing themselves out optimally and timing with the lights optimally etc. It could also root your pathway to adjust the overall flow of traffic to avoid congestion. This is again this actually gets back to Bob's point. Where people are attracted to the more lanes which actually can cause more congestions. It actually shifts traffic in a negative way sometimes. You have to actually, it doesn't always Bob it's not every single time. Sometimes adding lanes does help. But you have to simulate it and figure out if adding a lane will be a positive or a negative thing. Because if you're not careful you could actually have the opposite effect by negatively affecting traffic patterns. But if we have networked self-driving cars algorithms will run at all we don't need to worry about. The human behavior like the flocking behavior thing where people are like why do people tailgate. It's interesting. When you're in traffic you're like anxious and you're right up on the guy in front of you. Why does everybody do that? It makes absolutely no sense. It doesn't get you there any sooner. It actually just makes traffic flow slower. If everybody just relaxed and backed off a little bit. Tried to keep a steady pace rather than constantly accelerating to get to the car in front of them. Traffic would move smoothly but most people behave in a counterproductive way.
C: Yeah. There's also this interesting phenomenon Steve where it's maybe an unintended or I'm hoping it's an unintended but positive outcome of a future where we have networked self-driving cars. Is I think there will simply be fewer cars on the road. Because I think fewer people will own cars. It will be much easier to have more of a car hailing economy when all the cars are self-driving anyway. And there's a system by which they just pick you up and take you where you need to go.
S: But we talked Cara that's─
E: It doesn't work everywhere.
S: ─cars as a service may actually increase the cars on the road because now you have self-driving cars with no passengers going to the next person summoning them.
C: Yeah but I wonder if it's not a net negative. I don't know.
S: May not be a net negative. But that's another variable and it depends on how it all plays out. Again it gets complicated.
Special Segment: Green Bank Observatory (55:45)
S: All right Bob you recently took a trip and you wanted to talk about something that you ran into that you thought was cool.
E: Oh my gosh is it okay? (Cara laughs) Thanks Cara.
B: Thanks it's very okay. This happened in West Virginia recently. Liz set up a tour at the Green Bank Observatory. And I had heard about the Green Bank Observatory for sure but the details were kind of fuzzy since I'm reading about observatories all the time. And well that's not so fuzzy anymore I have to say the history of this place and the current work plus the sheer broad nagging awesomeness of my first encounter with the huge radio telescope made me decide to do a deeper dive and talk about the mighty Green Bank Observatory. What a fun tour. So it wasn't always called the Green Bank Observatory. For years it was the National Radio Astronomy Observatory built in 1957 by the National Science Foundation. It was the United States first national astronomy observatory and also on the first national laboratory open to all scientists from all around the world. At that time in the late 50s they had a head honcho meeting in DC and they're like we need a national astronomy observatory. And radio astronomy because we were way behind and we needed to really get do some catchup and we certainly did. So then once some green bank was there for a while then other other observatories also were created as part of this network. Then it was basically referred to as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory Green Bank. And now since I think 2016 it's more independent. It's no longer officially affiliated with the government and it's simply called Green Bank Observatory still doing amazing stuff. So now driving to the observatory and it was still quite far away and I first noticed this amazingly huge annoyance that overcame me as I had no damn cell service. Not one damn bar. Nothing. There was nothing on my phone. Super annoying as I'm sure many of you can relate. Turns out there was a very interesting reason why that's so. And it's called the United States National Radio Quiet Zone. That's a 13 000 square mile area.
E: I've never heard of that quiet zone.
B: Yeah the quiet zone. United States National Radio Quiet Zone. 13 000 square miles and I was right in the middle of it.
S: Did you put your phone on airplane mode?
B: No. No need to. It wasn't getting anything.
S: No but that's why you should do that because otherwise your phone is going to constantly be pinging to try to find a signal and it will run the battery down.
B: Yeah my phone was plugged in. The battery wasn't going anywhere. But it gets even more interesting because I was right in the middle of this. And this is radio transmissions are restricted by federal regulations. This is like a real it's a really interesting area. And because they did this. Why they do this? Because radio telescopes are bottom line just so super sensitive that they are susceptible to any weak radio interference that could ruin the scientific [inaudible].
E: Microwave oven.
B: Oh so there's so many. So now tremendous sensitivity is needed because radio waves have notoriously low energy. And this is where I pull in my Carl Sagan quote from Cosmos and he was essentially accurate in 1980 when he said this, when he said: "The total amount of energy from outside the solar system ever received by all the radio telescopes on the planet Earth is less than the energy of a single snowflake striking the ground." So we're talking about amazingly weak energy and that's why these radio dishes are so big. They got to they're trying to get as much as they can and it's not much but they can. And they get amazing images. So what happens with these radio signals? Why is that so dreaded from nature or man-made? And that's because and I saw actually what this looks like. It throws this radio interference so it's nasty these vertical interference spikes all over your data. And if it gets bad enough it's like you got to just throw it away. Like I can't this isn't going to.
E: Yeah like an etch a sketch gone wrong.
B: It's it's really bad and that's why they picked that area in West Virginia because essentially if you looked at the topography and the geography this is like a bowl-shaped area surrounded by hills and mountains that essentially shield it. And it's also why Green Bank actually has a truck with antennas on it that I saw that they drive around looking for excessive signals from microwaves, Wi-Fi routers or even automatic doors that use microwave signals. So if they detect it if they detect any of these overabundance of radio interference or microwaves they will send a representative from the Green Bank. They will find you and they will sit you down and you won't believe this they actually amicably work out a solution with you. And that's what they do. It's not a big deal. Like for example that automatic door that used microwaves to open up they just basically paid for swapping out their microwave emitter to an infrared one. There. Problem solved. So it's not like they can't really make you do a lot really anything legally. But it's I mean they will then they're really nice about it. They will work with you and fix the problem. But if you get close to the observatory though the closer you get the more insistent they become. Especially if you're within eye shot of that radio antenna. No cameras allowed. Steve when I walked in there cameras are off for the tour. Absolutely off. There's no microwaves. No microwave ovens that are like right on on the campus there. They've got Faraday cages over a lot of stuff because you need it. And then can you guess. Here's one here's a question for you. Can you guess why all the work vehicles that are on site are diesel? Everyone. They're all.
S: Because of the starters? Whether it's a heat starter with an electrical starter?
B: Well the diesel engines don't have spark plugs and those spark plugs─
S: That's what I just said.
B: ─yeah this is yeah but spark plugs it was the key word. Like tailgating. You didn't. We didn't say tailgating. You didn't say spark plug. (laughter)
S: They use heat instead of electricity. Instead of sparks. That's what I said.
B: Right and it's really it's the diesels have compression ignition. And they have glow plugs that heat the area. So yeah the wires that are connected to the spark plugs they're like antenna. And they just they create nasty radio interference spikes. Okay so let's talk about the radio telescopes themselves. Yes Evan?
E: I'm sorry but before we get off that topic entirely. What about the airspace? Is there a restricted air?
B: No they really they don't have any control over what's flying overhead.
B: So they don't there's not much they can do about that. All right so the radio telescopes themselves. There's four active ones that are at the observatory. There's a 12.2 meter or 40 foot radio disc. They got a 20 meter. They got a 43 meter. And then of course the jewel in the crown the 100 meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. Now the smaller ones we drove by those. They're beautiful. They're really cool. It's a little miniature. Kind of miniature. I guess it's all relative but they're really cool. But when I walked up to that Green Bank Telescope it was I would compare it to the time I saw a Saturn V or I walked onto the bridge of Kirk's Enterprise. Not exactly as awesome but right kind of up there. It was an amazing experience. If you've never seen something this big. I mean we're talking 17 million pounds and it's over 485 feet tall. 148 meters. This thing is monstrous. And with a maw that could swallow a dozen starships. It destroys planets. Chops them into rubble. Sorry I was channeling Matt Decker from the Trek Doomsday Machine episode. Couldn't help but thinking about that. Sorry Cara.
E: I think we all thought of that one.
C: Yeah. Totes.
B: What a great episode. And if you're gonna watch that episode. The doomsday episode. Watch the one that was that had the special effects redone because they're especially sweet. (Evan laughs) Okay so I meant the collecting dish. The collecting dish. I said 100 meter. That's about 300 feet. Two and a third acres. You could fit a damn football field on this thing. It's so huge it's mind-boggling and it really it really was a sight to behold. If you're nearby there definitely check it out. Pictures don't do it justice. It is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in existence. The premier telescope of its of its kind in the world. And that's why this thing operates pretty much 24/7/362. And it's been operated by 900 scientists in the past five years. And each of those scientists only had a 25% chance of having their proposals accepted. Only one in fourth. 75% of the people that apply to use that telescope don't get it. And I'm just so bummed I couldn't get a picture in front of it. Or I could or go inside of it. I couldn't go inside of it either. All right enough of that. So let's look at this the amazing scientific history of the scientific discovery. And it really made me feel like it was hollowed scientific ground. So many interesting discoveries. I'm not even gonna cover a hundredth of them. But here are the ones that that stood out for me. 1960 Project Ozma. That's when that's a project that where astrophysicist Frank Drake was the first to use a radio telescope to search for extra extraterrestrial life at Green Bank. And he looked at Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani two of my favorite star system names anyway. If you, does anyone know what project what Ozma means?
J: Isn't that a character from Star Wars?
B: No that's from the Wizard of Oz. L. Frank Baum Oz. The Queen of Oz was was Ozma and so they kind of just took that name and Buam said in his book he said he described it as very far away difficult to reach and populated by strange and exotic beings. So they used project Ozma the name Ozman which I thought was was kind of interesting. Okay and one year later what did Drake do? He introduced at Green Bank the Drake equation which of course estimated the number of transmitting civilizations in our galaxy. And is still just one one of the more famous equations around. Okay how about this one? 1967. The first discovery of flat galactic rotation curves. That is big because that implies that was the first hints of dark matter. In 1967. Because we use dark matter to explain those those flat galactic rotation curves because otherwise without the dark matter being there then all the stars in the in the outskirts of the galaxy should fly out. It's just way too much. Okay 1974. This is a big one. 1974. Sagittarius A* the black hole the supermassive black hole the center of our galaxy was discovered at Green Bank. And they in that case they were using the four element radio dish interferometer system. 2008. First detection of prebiotic molecules in space. And I'll end with this one: 2014 Laniakea was discovered. Now if you look at where the Earth is we live in our local group of galaxies. And then we're in the Virgo Supercluster and the Green Bank discovered that we are in an even larger super cluster called Laniakea and so it was a major adjustment to the address of the Earth. So nowadays the Green Bank is still doing great science like I said that Green Bank telescope is busy every day of the year except a few. And notably which is funny because it kind of came back around they're also working right now on the latest phase of a SETI project it's called Breakthrough Listen. This is the most comprehensive search for alien techno signatures to date. Specifically they're looking for radio signals from one million near nearby stars and the centers of a hundred galaxies. So man come on I it just do I even need to say what would happen if they actually did find a you know a verified techno signature?
S: Huge party?
E: Oh boy.
B: Drunk for a week.
E: Bob which okay how would they verify because you would have to verify that signal. Would the with the Green Bank telescope also? This telescope also be responsible for doing the verification of it? Or is there something else somewhere else on the planet that can independently do that verification?
B: Sure you would definitely want independent detection that's one of the big things that you would do as quickly as you could. You want to have somebody else on the planet discovered. You can't have just one place detected so there's so they've got the Green Bank telescope detecting. They've got one in the southern hemisphere that's also looking. There's also a Chinese radio telescope that's also joining in on this. So they would try to before we could you'd have to rule out. The thing is you have to rule out that it's coming from the Earth.
B: That's the biggest thing. And that's the biggest thing. If you could rule that out then that would be something [inaudible].
B: Oh absolutely. And what I like is that they're releasing their data every six months. Bam. They do a dump every six months. And the Green Bank telescope was used recently Steve you're like this one. To scan ʻOumuamua for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. You know what they found? A rock. It's a rock. It's just a rock. That's it.
E: A rock? [inaudible].
B: And so they are working on one weird signal that they found that seems to have come from Proxima Centauri the closest star to our Sun. And it hasn't been fully ruled out yet I'll say that. But a lot of the scientists think that yeah this is probably Earth-based. It's some sort of contamination but they haven't fully ruled it out. I mean and just think of it. What are the odds we've oh yeah there's Earth. I mean there's life on around Sol and there's also life around the closest star? I mean that would just be the winning a lotto 20 times in a row. But hey I mean that would be a best case scenario and hey it happened on Babylon 5 so maybe it will happen on Earth. (laughter) So yeah so guys if you ever get down to West Virginia check it out. It's a beautiful place and seeing that Green Bank telescope was really it really was awe inspiring.
S: Cool thanks Bob.
Who's That Noisy? (1:10:12)
S: Jay it's Who's That Noisy time.
J: All right if you don't like loud or high-pitched noises please lower your volume right now and then we'll play the noisy. All right guys last week I played this Noisy:
[high pitched whoops and grunting, squeaking calls]
E: Just keeps going.
J: All right guys. So what is this thing?
C: Mechanical. Something that needs to be lubricated. (laughter)
J: All right well Dan H writes in: "I'm going to guess that this week's Noisy is a Japanese Ryu Techie". Please don't. Ryu Techy flute.
C: (laughs) Please don't.
J: It's a flute. Playing some especially shrill notes. All right that's that sounds reasonable. It is not a flute but I definitely can. I've heard. I've made flutes make this noise so I'm agreeing with you that it does sound like a bad played flute.
Amanda Lay wrote in: "Hey Jay I love this week's Noisy because I'm a big fan of whales and that sounds like a cetacean to me. But which one? So many choices it doesn't sound ponderous and thoughtful enough to be a Mysticeti so I'm thinking that it might be what was described by early sonar operators as the canary of the sea so is this week's Noisy a beluga? Best wishes Amanda from Melbourne." No it is not a whale but that was one hell of a guess.
Moeen has written in from Chicago and say: "Hey Jay it sounds to me like a rooster's singing noise in the morning. I hear some dogs barking in the background as they wake up by the noise." This is not a rooster and I will tell you. One lives about 30 feet from where I sleep in my neighbor's yard and if it made that noise it would not make it to tomorrow. (Cara laughs) Because I could not hear that noise at 6:30 in the morning every morning.
Some rando dude in Australia named Visto Tutti wrote in. I don't know who this guy is. "This call sounds to me like the curlew bird of Australia. It's mournful calls at night spawned many a legend. Some say the birds call in the soul of an aboriginal princess who was unjustly murdered the night before her wedding by a jealous rival to her beloved. Her spirit still calls for her beloved to this day."
All right so let me just give you the answer here. John McKinnon wrote in: "Hi Jay I've been listening for about 10 years now and I rarely think I'm right when it comes to Who's That Noisy but this week I really think I know it. This sounds just like the cry of a bull elk." It's an elk guys.
C: Oh man. That's horrifying.
J: Yeah so let me explain to you. I'll play it again but let me explain to you now. This Noisy was sent in by a listener named Steven Tuscan as in Tuscan raiders. Very cool name Steven. This is the call of an elk. They're calling these bugles and chuckles and indeed it is during something called a rut. So at its peak from mid-september to mid-october the elk rut is a time when male elks or bulls vie for the hearts of their female counterparts known as cows. Their goal is to prove their prowess and win the loyalty of a harem of females. Eight to nine-year-old bulls stand the greatest chance of mating. Guys this is an elk. Watch your ears as you hear this.
You can hear the overtones, right? So I'd like to say a ton of people got this one right. So good job everyone who emailed in the correct answer. I was surprised to see that many people know exactly what this thing was so it's I would say it's probably an unforgettable sound. It's pretty easy to remember once you hear it.
New Noisy (1:14:12)
J: Okay I have a new Noisy for you guys. This is a Noisy sent in from someone with a very difficult name. Pi Frogen. Froge. It's P-I. That's the first name. Last Name F-R-O-G-D. Frögd. With two dots over the--umlaut, right? Is that umlaut over the o?
J: Pi Frögd. Okay. Very cool name and here is the sound:
[bellowing, buzzing, and low chirping, chittering animal sounds]
J: All made by the same animal. If you think you know this week's Noisy or you heard something cool--because you must have, because you have ears--please email me at WTN@theskepticsguide.org.
J: All right guys we got NECSS coming up fast. We have David Copperfield and Bill Nye talking together as our keynote. And then we will very likely have Bill join us for one or two other things during the conference. You can go to necss.org to see more details about who's going to speak. We're adding people to the list as we go and we're really ramping up a great conference this year so please do join us. Also if you like science fiction go to alphaquadrant6.com. We have science fiction reviews that Steve, Bob and I do. We do a new one every week. We have a podcast. All the details is on the website. If you want to hear and learn more about science fiction you gotta go to AQ6.
S: Thanks Jay.
Correction #1: UY Scuti
S: All right we got a couple of emails so the first one was a quick correction a few episodes ago during science or fiction. There was a one of the items was about the largest known star in the universe. Which I said was UY Scuti and a few people emailed in to to point me to the fact that that is now the second largest known star in the universe. And actually it may even have fallen way down the list. That the new king of stars in terms of size is Stephenson 2-18 2150 radii which puts it right outside of the orbit of Saturn. So 2150 times the size of the Sun. 2150 solar radii.
B: That's nuts man.
S: It is nuts. Now UY Scuti was found to be so that's bigger than the previous estimated size of UY Scuti but in addition new measurements find that UY Scuti is actually a lot closer than we thought it was so it's actually a lot smaller than we thought it was. So that's why it's kind of it's actually not as big as Betelgeuse. So it's still it's a big star. It's just not in the top tier anymore. Stephenson 2-18 is now the leader.
B: For now.
S: For now.
Question #1: Science of Gun Regulation (1:17:04)
S: All right the next email is actually a bunch of emails. We got a lot of questions. A lot of people asking us to do a deep dive on the research into gun regulations and their effect on deaths and injuries. So we're gonna do it. Obviously it's a huge topic. We're probably not gonna be able to discuss everything in one go. I wanted to give people some background on this question so they could at least think about it, research for themselves and have a framework of what do we know about the effectiveness of gun regulations. So first the complexities. And some people pointed out and of course a lot of the people who are pushing back against gun regulations. The anti-gun regulation people will often make comments of well the science hasn't shown that gun regulations work or restricting gun ownership works. And they'll or so it hasn't proven that it's to be that it's effective. Of course you can always in any large set of research you can always cherry pick what you want. Part of the problem here is that the research is very complicated for a number of reasons. One is you can't really make blanket statements about "gun regulations". You have to say what specific gun regulation are you talking about. Where was it. How was it executed. Further, what is the outcome that you're looking at? There's multiple outcomes and if you're not thinking carefully about that outcome then it could you could easily obscure positive effects. So for example you could talk about all gun deaths. All gun related deaths. People who died because they were shot. But that includes suicides, homicides and accidental shooting. And also mass shooting. It includes all of that. There's not going to really be one gun regulation that reduces all of those things. Unless it's something draconian like nobody owns guns. But the kind of regulations that are on the table are not going to necessarily reduce all of those things at the same time.
C: But to be fair I mean and I know you use the word draconian. I'm not sure I would agree with that word. But to be fair in countries where they did really really restrict private citizen gun ownership all of those things were significantly reduced.
S: Yes. Yeah. Something you have to get to the thing where you have significant limitations on the ability to own guns for all of those things to be reduced. But the thing is you can't for any one particular regulation you could like if you're trying to be a regulation denialist let's say. You could say well it didn't increase total gun deaths. Yeah but it really wasn't designed to do that. Some regulations are not designed to reduce all of those things. I want to talk about if just a few of some of the more commonly proposed regulations and see how that fits into the data. Also we can't obviously can't do perfectly controlled experiments. We're doing ecologically or epidemiological data. We're seeing what happened if you compare states with different regulations or countries particular different regulations. Or when regulations were tightened or loosened what happened. This is like ecological data. So it's always imperfect. It's never going to be like every possible confounding factor was perfectly controlled for. So we have to make inferences from lots of studies and look for the patterns. What seems to consistently happen.
C: But that's not uncommon in science.
C: There are a lot of things that we can't ethically do. Like a randomized controlled trial for.
S: Absolutely. So there is a lot of research. Not as much as there should be partly because for the last 20 years there's been no federal funding of gun as a as a public safety or public health issue up until like 2019. And so it's just starting to ramp up again. There were privately funded state-funded studies so there was some research. And obviously in other countries as well. But there was a huge chilling effect on federally funded gun related death research in the US unfortunately over the last 20 years. In any case what does the research we have show? So again you could I mean we could spend hours talking about this. But let me go over some of the highlights. So there was a good review in 2016 which just said let's look at all the gun studies that we could find and see what that shows. This is published in 2016 and they looked at all studies published from 1950 to 2014. So that's a lot of different studies. 130 different studies in 10 countries. And they found a number of things. First of all overall gun regulations do decrease gun related deaths. If you look at all the data just like in general. But of course you have to dive a lot deeper to get to some of the details. So laws targeting multiple different firearm restrictions were the most associated with a reduction in firearm deaths. Laws restricting the purchase of, you know background checks, and access to firearms, such as safer storage laws, were associated with with lower rates of intimate partner homicides, unintentional deaths and suicides. If you look at the evidence as a whole overall gun regulations generally work. I mean just as a sort of first approximation here. But of course like a safer storage is not going to do much to necessarily reduce homicides but it will reduce─
S: ─accidental death by a lot. And obviously it will reduce guns flowing into the criminal market if you prevent them from getting stolen. Whereas like anything that which delays the ability to buy a gun has a significant reduction in suicides. And also it does reduce homicides as well because a lot of times those are impulsive acts. And even just having a three-day delay or whatever the delay that's happening for background checks prevents that from happening. The number one predictor by the way of suicide is having access to a gun.
C: And that's I mean as a as a clinician when somebody talks to me about death and passive death wish and suicidal ideation. It's my duty to figure out do they have are they just ideating or do they have means. Do they have a plan? And if they have means and a plan I am legally bound to do something about it.
E: Do you ask him do you have to ask him out right Cara?
C: I do. Usually but usually it's because I already have a relationship with them. So I'm really going there with them.
S: Which makes it insane that some states try to illegalize physicians like asking patients do you have a gun.
E: Oh my gosh why would you?
C: Yeah which is bananas because then you're doubly responsible. You can't ask but then if they do something and they gave you any indication. We have Tarasoff rule in California. It's crazy. We're responsible if somebody goes and hurts somebody else if we didn't warn them.
S: So let's talk a little bit about some of the proposals that are being thrown around now. So first of all I want to talk a little bit about the AR-15 because that is often a style of weapon used in a lot of recent mass shootings and so a lot of attention is drawn to it. So I did a lot of reading about it actually. I learned quite a bit about it. So first of all you guys know what the AR stands for? In AR-15?
E: The "A" was the original manufacturer.
J: Automatic Rifle.
E: No. It's the name of the original manufacturer. Ammo something.
B: Antirio retro diode.
S: Armalite. So it's not assault rifle. It's not automatic rifle.
J: What a coincidence.
C: Is rifle? Is the "R" rifle then?
E: Yes. The "R" is Rifle.
C: Okay. Armalite Rifle.
S: Armalite Rifle. It was made for the military. It was designed as a military weapon.
E: By the Armalite company.
C: That might be a better term to use then. Because I know there's a lot of political argument when people say things like assault rifle or whatever. But the military weapon is specific term.
S: This is what we're gonna get to. So by describing this you'll get a better idea about what--because the language in these regulations matters. And if you just say an assault rifle or try to define it in a way that doesn't really make sense. I'll tell you why. The assault rifle ban had a very limited effect. They didn't sell it well so they sold the patent for the design to the Colt company and they made--they based the M16 on the AR-15 design and that's a fully automatic military version of the gun. Very popular in Vietnam and later still used versions of it. But their patent expired in the 1970s so since then anyone can produce a "AR-15 style weapon". And so that's really what we're talking about. It's an AR-15 style weapon because the design is now off patent and hundreds of companies produce it. Hundreds of companies produce it. And there are also hundreds of modifications possible for these weapons. In fact if you talk to enthusiasts. People who own, use the gun. One of the key features is it's so modifiable. It's like it could adapt it to so many different specific uses. So one of the questions I had was: do people really use this weapon for hunting? And is it reasonable for people to use it for hunting or to allow them to use it for hunting? Because there really isn't any other purpose. People say for self-defense. What they're really talking about and seriously like if you really ask them they're mainly talking about yeah when the government tyranny descends on us we need a good firepower to fight back. That's why really the extreme, people who want these type of military style weapons. But there are a lot of hunters who generally like it and use it for hunting. And essentially they argue that it's very effective. Of course it's very effective. It's effective at killing stuff. There's no question about that. So what makes an assault rifle an assault rifle? Again there's no one feature. It's a kind of a combination of features. It's kind of fuzzy and hard to define specifically. There's no one thing that's required.
C: Is it just that it's efficient?
S: But it's the it's the lethality. It's overall. These are just features and modifications within which increase the lethality. So one specific feature for example is that it has a pistol grip. So it just which gives you better control and handling. It also has a little recoil so you can fire--you can maintain your aim as you're firing. It has very rapid semi-automatic fire. Again semi-automatic is one pull one bullet. Fully automatic is it'll fire as long as you're holding the trigger. And manual you have to push the bolt back and manually reload. So this is a semi-automatic. Hunters like yeah I love it. I'm hunting coyotes I could like squeeze off a number of different rounds maintaining my aim. It's got good range. Hundreds of yards. So it's yeah for certain situations it's a very effective killing machine. That's kind of the point. So like you won't dispute the fact that it's a useful hunting tool in some scenarios because it's a useful killing weapon in some scenarios. But some of those same features make it unfortunately a very deadly weapon. One thing that came up--a couple of people emailed us and said because we had mentioned that it's a powerful rifle. Like it's not that powerful. Okay well that's a relative term. So it is a powerful rifle. It's just not relative powerful relative to even more powerful hunting rifles. If you want to take down an elk, like the sound that we just heard, if you want to take down one of them it's not a powerful rifle. You probably will wound the animal and not kill it outright. You need a more powerful rifle to take down big game. But you could actually swap out the chamber--and again it's very modifiable--for a larger caliber bullet if you want to use it to take down bigger game you could do that. But if you compare it to a handgun it's way more powerful than a handgun. It has something like twice the muzzle velocity. Which you you have to square that in order to calculate the force. So like the it's like has four times the force on the body when the bullet hits then then typically. And that's even at at short range at long range. Pistols might be effective at 50 feet whereas an AR-15 could be effective at 2-300 feet in terms of being lethal. So it's much greater range and it hits the body with so much force that it this is going to be gruesome. People are sensitive. Just be aware. But it blows a large hole in bodies. That's what it does.
C: And it's not even about its power. It's also about how many rounds before reload.
S: Yeah we're getting there. That's another feature. So yeah it may not be great for if you're taking up down a moose or an elk but if you're shooting human sized game it's perfect. You actually don't want it to be more powerful because then you get more kickback and you can't fire as fast or as accurately. So it's in that sweet spot for killing a lot of people. That's exactly where they go.
C: That's why they choose it, yeah. Of course.
S: Yeah and so let's talk about and it's like 45. You can squeeze off 45 rounds in a minute. It's a rapid fire semi-automatic weapon. In fact if you attach the bump stock to it it basically turns it into an automatic rifle functionally even though it's not technically an automatic rifle. Let's talk about the large magazine. So that's a magazine is where you put the bullets in that's like how many can you take. So another feature of so-called assault rifles are that they are designed to take a large capacity magazine. More than 10 rounds let's say. And the assault rifle ban that was like 1994 to 2004 in the US banned large capacity magazines. Over 10. So that's one of the features. There's a lot of evidence that when there is a mass shooting when large capacity magazines are involved they dramatically increase the lethality of the mass shooting. More people are killed. More people are wounded. Twice as many people. Three times as many people. It's a significant increase. So there's evidence to show that large capacity magazines--it may not may not increase the number of mass shootings but it increases the lethality of those mass shootings. Which again gets to the--you have to be careful about what end point you are talking about. Of course they're not going to increase the number of events. But when they do occur it does make them more deadly.
C: And they have large magazines. I think they're already I was just reading 30 round is standard but you can aftermarket them to a hundred rounds.
S: Yeah you can get a drum for like a hundred.
B: A Tommy Gun.
C: Except are Tommy Guns automatic?
S: So the difference is you do have to squeeze the trigger in between.
S: Unless you've got a bump stock.
C: Unless you have a bump stock. You're right.
E: You can modify that thing into an automatic status.
S: Yeah it's a functionally automatic. All right so what what gun regulations? If you look at all the evidence just how these weapons work etc. What regulations are likely to work and are politically plausible. We'll just say that for now and that they won't─
C: You mean here in the United States.
S: Here in the United States. That's what we're talking about. The United States. The one country that has way out of proportion gun related deaths compared to any other uh industrialized nation. So like one thing would definitely be limiting magazine capacity. Another would be limiting the ability to own the style of weapons that are highly lethal. And it may be you can call them assault rifles or military star rifles or whatever but these are these are weapons that can have a high rate of fire with with a deadly force. The other thing about their--so in chronicle how powerful they are. They are powerful enough that they can get through police officer body armor. That's powerful. And that has--a lot of people have argued including with the Uvalde event that that has a huge effect on these mass shootings. So now the first police who arrive on the scene may be out gunned and may be not protected by their own body armor and so they're reluctant to confront the guy. In the one of the most famous shootouts between police and criminals the police officers literally went to a gun shop and bought more powerful weapons during the shootout in order to have parody with the bad guys.
C: Yeah so right there just regulate things that are more powerful than what the police already have. But of course then the argument would be no just give the police more powerful weapons.
S: Yeah I know. But the thing is yes but if you limit it so that you can't own a rapidly firing semi-automatic rifle that has enough power to get through armor with high range and accuracy, all these things. Unfortunately it's also all things that make it an effective hunting rifle. But the thing is you don't need it for hunting. So you could say all right for most hunting situations you can use manual reloading weapons or weapons that aren't designed to be quite so deadly. But if you're somebody who for some reason requires this kind of weapon. And people are oh we have we go up against these wild hogs or like there might be they're dangerous and I need to be able to essentially kill a lot of them very quickly in order to be able to be safe. It's like okay if you're that person then you just get a license, you know what I mean? Which is the other thing. Licensure is hugely effective. It's hugely effective because it delays─
C: Of course it is.
S: It delays access to the weapon. It gives you time for an extensive background check. And you can tie other things to it like training, safety training, making sure they have safe storage. All of those things. So just requiring licensure could connect to a lot of things which have been proven to reduce either lethality or the number of homicides, suicides, etc. So that's another hugely I think effective possible regulation. And again if you want to balance this out with the right to own firearms you just say you can raise the age to 21. You could raise it to 25. You could require licenses for different types of guns. Not everyone needs to have immediate unfettered access to every type of weapon. That's already pretty much established in the law. Fully automatic weapons for example are banned. And so it's just some common sense restrictions on the type of weapons and when people can get them so that there's responsible legal ownership but we keep these kinds of weapons out of the hands of the very few people who are likely to do horrible things with them. And again these are really not scientifically controversial. Most people agree with these things. With these regulations or more thorough background checks, licensure etc. And in terms of the research the research shows that as best as we can tell a lot of these things are likely to work. Now of course bad regulations that are poorly executed don't work. The big problem with the "assault rifle ban" from 1994 was that it was really easy for gun manufacturers to get around it by simply changing a feature or two. But making the weapons were just as lethal. Now you couldn't attach a bayonet to it and therefore it was no longer an "assault rifle" for example.
C: You're always going to see that kind of creative approach to regulation which is why we have to be iterative with this.
S: Totally. I wouldn't be I wouldn't have a problem with just saying every--just like drugs have to get approved by the FDA before they go to the market. There needs to be a pre-market at least categorization of weapons. This is a category one weapon that's a category, we already have this, this is a category 2 weapon, this is a category 3 weapon. And each category has its own regulation in terms of age, licensure, requirement, etc. If you want to drive a commercial 18 wheeler you need a different license and if you just want to drive a personal car or motorcycle, etc.
C: And that's the thing everybody is used to and understands the licensing protocol for certain responsibilities in our country.
C: Everybody has to be licensed to drive a car. You have to pass a test. You have to be documented. You carry around a little plastic card that has your face on it. You're accountable. It improves responsibility because cars are dangerous.
S: Right. Again the only, the final objection to all of these common sense things that either we are very confident will work or should work is but then the government's going to come and take my guns, right? As a prelude.
E: The slippery-slope.
S: So that's the narrative that is really driving the refusal to adhere to any gun regulations is this notion that you need firepower equal to the government and you don't want to be on file because then they'll know exactly who to go to to take the guns away from. It's like that's like they don't know? It's like most 40% or something of homes have guns in them so it's not a big deal just to go to every home and confiscate guns. If that were your goal. It's not like the fact that you have a license or it's registered makes you really more vulnerable. But that's the thing. They're just paranoid about the government knowing anything or restricting arms in any way.
C: And that's why the hunting conversation is almost a red herring because that's not the argument that's being made here. Like oh but I need this to hunt. I mean some people might say that in a facebook argument but and you're right but ultimately when it comes down to the most kind of I guess the opposite of draconian like the most extreme resistance to gun control in our country it has to do with the fundamentalist reading of the second amendment. And it has to do with a well-armed militia.
S: Yeah and the AR-15 style weapons are sold for self-defense as well but that's like not really a good application. They're not good for self-defense. But it's like yeah when the hordes of people are storming your home that's when you need the AR-15. Yeah like that's gonna happen.
C: That's the view. Offense and defense are blurry line.
E: It's an apocalyptic scenario.
S: Yeah it's an apocalyptic world-playing.
E: That's really the only time where that would apply.
C: But that's why that's what people prep for. I mean that's really what the that's the fear-based rhetoric.
E: Weapons that's right.
S: We have to decide as a society is like having an optimal weapon to hunt any kind of animal you want to hunt rather than having to make do with something that may be a little bit more challenging to hunt with. Is that really worth all of the mass shootings and─
C: Of course not.
S: ─killed children. All right.
Science or Fiction (1:40:30)
Hidden Theme: Counterintuitive Results
Item #1: A new study in yeast finds that about 75% of synonymous (or silent) genetic mutations are actually significantly harmful.
Item #2: In a large Danish study researchers found that having shingles increased the risk of being diagnosed with dementia over the next 21 years by 10%.
Item #3: An analysis of air pollution in China finds a significant association with higher socio-economic status and higher exposures to ambient air pollution.
|Fiction||Shingles and dementia|
|Science||Silent mutations are harmful|
Higher S.E.S., higher exposure
|Shingles and dementia|
|Shingles and dementia|
|Shingles and dementia|
|Shingles and dementia|
Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.
S: Each week I come up with three science news items four facts. Two real and one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. Three news items. No theme this week. You ready?
S: All right here we go. Item #1: A new study in yeast finds that about 75% of synonymous (or silent) genetic mutations are actually significantly harmful. Item #2: In a large Danish study researchers found that having shingles increased the risk of being diagnosed with dementia over the next 21 years by 10%. And item #3: An analysis of air pollution in China finds a significant association with higher socio-economic status and higher exposures to ambient air pollution. Jay go first.
J: So the first one about the yeast. 75% of silent genetic mutations are actually significantly harmful.
S: I'll be happy to explain that to you if you want.
J: Go ahead.
S: So a silent mutation is one where you change a base pair in the DNA. But it doesn't result in a change in the coded four amino acid. So remember there's three letters in the genetic code. The GATTACA code, right? Three of those letters equal one specific amino acid. But every amino acid has like three or so codes that code for it. So you could have a mutation to another one of the codes that code for the same amino acid. So it doesn't change the protein itself. That's why they're called silent because they don't change the amino acid sequence.
E: Did that help Jay?
J: Yeah I mean in a way yes. Okay so all right then. There's number one. Second one in a large danish study researchers found that having shingles increase the risk of being diagnosed with dementia over the next 21. Jesus that sucks. By 10%. So there's a--can--is there a connection between shingles and dementia? What? That nutty. That is nutty. So shingles does something to you neurologically I guess. All right and the last one an analysis of air pollution in china finds a significant association with higher socioeconomic status and higher exposures to ambient air pollution. So the more money they make the more exposed they are to air pollution.
J: When isn't that counterintuitive? Well okay let's talk about this. So if you're rich you might live in a city and the cities are pretty bad. But that's like really really, that's not like what I would consider to be ironclad freaking thought process there. But! That is just wacky enough and it's China and I'm gonna channel Perry and say yep because it's China, okay? I think that one is science. I think that the first one about the yeast and the silent genetic mutations--I think that one is science. I think the danish one the study researchers found about shingles I think that is the fake because I don't think there's a connection between shingles and dementia.
S: Okay Evan.
E: Okay yeast 75% of silent genetic mutations actually significantly harmful. I wonder why yeast. Are yeast studies typical and do they often do studies on yeast for looking at these kinds of genetic mutations? Interesting. I don't know that one. I'm having the least amount of feelings about that one. The second one. Researchers ate a large danish. They got shingles. (Cara laughs) Oh no in a large danish study researchers found that having shingles increased the risk of being diagnosed with dementia. Jay you said shingles has nothing to do with dementia. I don't know. Over the next 21 years. 21 years. That seems like a long spread by 10%. How would they know that? That's interesting. And then the China one. Pollution in China a significant association with higher socioeconomic status and higher exposures to ambient air pollution. Well if you I suppose the reason being for that the higher socioeconomic status means you're in the cities by nature and yeah. China's notoriously famous for air pollution issues in their cities. That seems to track. I guess I'll go with Jay about the danish study and the shingles and the dementia. I just don't know about the 21 years but by 10%. I don't know how they extract out 21 years.
S: Okay Cara.
C: I mean this one's killing me because they could all be one way or the other. 75% of silent genetic mutations and yeast being harmful. If that's true this is a really big deal. Because I think the assumption here is that these are neutral. Mutations could neither be beneficial, harmful or neutral to the organism. And I think the implication is that these silent mutations have always just been neutral or like net neutral. And if they're significantly harmful I mean that's it has massive implications. But it also has massive implications for our understanding of disease so that's kind of cool. So there's a part of me that kind of hopes that's true even though it's I don't know it could be a good or a bad thing. Having shingles increase the risk of being diagnosed with dementia over the next 21 years by 10%. This is a hard one because A: I don't know anything about--what? Is it varicella? What's the? Chickenpox virus?
S: Herpes zoster.
C: Oh zoster. Yeah yeah yeah. And so the they both happen when you get older. Like are they related? I don't know. Why wouldn't they. I mean viral infections often do affect us neurologically. But I don't know. Is this just like a correlative thing like it's just that people who the older you get the more likely you are to have dementia and the more likely you are to get shingles. I don't know. And then even though the China one does sound counter-intuitive Jay I think you might have hit the nail on the head when you say higher SES and more exposure to air pollution. Because even though income inequality in the US is really really great. China has massive rural populations that are very impoverished. And then massive urban populations where there is a higher concentration of wealth. And so I could see that yeah it's just a function of being near industry. And we kind of even think to like the industrial revolution in Europe or in America. Of course if you were in the cities your exposure was way higher. So that could be why there. So I think I'm gonna go with the guys and say it's the shingles one because I hope it's not true.
S: And Bob.
B: I agree with Jay. Shingles. Fiction.
Hidden Theme revealed
S: All right.
E: Oh boy. We're all together.
S: So there was actually a hidden theme in these items. These studies all showed as written the opposite of what the researchers thought they were going to show.
C: Oh cool.
S: So we'll see which one. Does that help you or not help you? We'll see.
C: I mean that's probably why they all feel like they could go either way.
S: Yeah. Yeah yeah. They're all counterintuitive to the researchers themselves.
S: Take them in order.
Steve Explains Item #1
S: A new study in yeast finds that about 75% of synonymous (or silent) genetic mutations are actually significantly harmful. You all think this one is science. And this one is... science.
C: Wow that's a big deal.
B: That's a little scary man.
S: That's a big deal. So Evan to answer your question they use yeast because it reproduces very quickly. So if you're looking for something like mutations you want a research creature that has a very very fast generation time. So yeast is very easy to use that way. They can gather a lot of data. So Cara you're correct I mean you have the appropriate reaction to this. We thought that silent mutations were silent ergo neutral. But we have been discovering recently and this is why they looked at this. They wanted to see is this really true and what's the extent of the phenomenon that some mutations some "silent" or synonymous mutations are harmful because they affect the copy number. They affect the translation of the of the gene into protein so how much of the protein gets made. Doesn't affect the sequence or the structure of the protein but it affects how much gets made. And that could have a measurable effect. An epigenetic phenomenon but they were still shocked by the 75% number. That was they the researchers had no idea the number was going to be that high are harmful. And of course they what they were using essentially a Darwinian measure of beneficial or harmful. If it reduced the number of generations, reduced the number of offspring that was harmful. If it increased it that was beneficial. No significant change was neutral. They also found that 1.7% were beneficial. A tiny number. And the rest were neutral. But 75% being significantly harmful was a shocker to the researchers.
B: Same protein.
S: Yeah same protein but they're just not making as much of it is the idea. So the research said appropriately you know we have to make sure this replicates in other animals and other creatures. But there's no reason a priori to think that yeast would be different it's probably similar. But we until we do those studies we have to see how generalizable that 75% is. Even if it's not generalizable specifically it's probably--this is fitting a trend in recent research that we're learning that yeah silent mutations are not so silent. And Cara you're also correct in that immediately this has huge implications for genetic diseases because we only look at the non-silent mutations. We're not even looking when we're looking for genetic diseases. We're not even looking for the silent mutations. So now we apparently we have to. And so this could lead to a whole pulse of discovery of new genetic mutations. Point mutations that can be associated with disease states. So this is huge.
B: And can be treated.
Steve Explains Item #2
S: All right let's go on to item #2: In a large Danish study researchers found that having shingles increased the risk of being diagnosed with dementia over the next 21 years by 10%. You guys all think this one is the fiction. So the question is is this the counter-intuitive result or would the opposite be the counter-intuitive result? Well this one is... the fiction!
B: Yeah. Nice job Jay.
S: Researchers were looking to see if shingles increased the incidence of dementia. And what they found is that it actually decreased it a little bit.
B: Cool. I had shingles. I'm psyched. (laughter)
S: Yeah I mean well how did they do a 21-year follow-up? This was a retrospective study. They were looking at a large. And danish is important here because the Danes have really good public health records. So it's one of the countries where you can do this. They looked at 247 000 people who visited the hospital with shingles and compared them to 1.2 million people who didn't. They age and sex and match to them. And then they looked at the subsequent 21 years to see if they were diagnosed with dementia. And the number was 9.7% in people who had shingles and 10.3% in people who did not. So there was a slight increase in people who did not have shingles. Whether that's a real effect or whatever it's hard to say. It's not that big of an effect but it was in the opposite direction than what they were looking for.
C: And that's if they actually had a shingles outbreak. Not just that they had the virus.
S: Well it was they were the charts were identified because they were diagnosed with shingles or they were given antiviral medic medication for shingles.
S: That's what those were the two flags they used to identify those 247 000 people.
C: Right because I haven't had shingles I don't think I'm quite at that age yet. But I definitely had chickenpox like most people my age.
S: Yeah same thing here. Chickenpox and no shingles.
S: Gotta get the vaccine. Get the vaccine.
C: Yeah that's true there is a vaccine for it. I think, I don't think I'm eligible until I'm 50. I could be wrong but yeah.
S: I can get it now.
Steve Explains Item #3
S: All right this means that an analysis of air pollution in China finds a significant association with higher socio-economic status and higher exposures to ambient air pollution. That is science. The researchers were expecting it to be the opposite because it's the opposite and pretty much every other country studied. So the question is what's different about China? And so you guys mentioned that yes there's a the poor people live in the country on farms and if you're wealthy you probably live in a city. But even within cities. Think about this. Even within cities the wealthier people get higher exposure. So it's not just rural versus urban de vital that is part of it. If people who have lived in cities for longer are ones that have the most health and they are in the parts of cities that have more industry. And so it's just a unique pattern to china because of where they are in their industrialization and the pattern of industrialization and where the populations have moved to. It's just that for some reason wealth has brought people in closer proximity to the sources of particulate matter of specific kinds of pollution. And so it's producing this pattern. But it really is the opposite of what they were expecting and what has been shown in other industrialized nations around the world including the United States. There's usually the poor people live next to the coal factories. That's the general pattern in the US for example. So all counterintuitive findings. Very interesting. But good job everyone. You guys got the right answer.
S: I think I swept you last week and you swept me this week.
E: Oh yeah.
C: Oh right.
S: It balances out. All right Evan give us a quote.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:54:51)
What I love about experts, the best of them anyway, is that they get to their humility early. They have to. It's part of who they are; it's necessary for what they're doing. They set out to get to the bottom of something that has no bottom, and so they're reminded constantly of what they don't know. They move through the world focused not on what they know, but on what they might find out.
– Michael Lewis, American author
E: This week's quote comes to us courtesy of a listener Luis Renoso who's been a listener for a very long time of the SGU. I think since year one. Luis you'll correct me if I'm wrong there. He suggested this quote. He heard it from--I'll tell you who it's from first Michael Lewis. He's the author of Moneyball, The Big Short, The Blind Side. These are all excellent movies. I haven't read any of the books but he's the author of all those books. And they're great movies and if the movies are half as good as the books then those are great books as well. He has a podcast called Against the Rules and Luis heard this quote spoken by Michael Lewis on his podcast. "What I love about experts, the best of them anyway, is that they get to their humility early. They have to. It's part of who they are; it's necessary for what they're doing. They set out to get to the bottom of something that has no bottom, and so they're reminded constantly of what they don't know. They move through the world focused not on what they know, but on what they might find out." Michael Lewis.
S: I like it.
E: I like it too. Humility. Yes. We talk about humility all the time.
S: Yeah critical for skepticism.
S: Absolutely critical. And I agree. Carl Sagan made this point as well. You read Albert Einstein's papers and they're very modest in the conclusions that they're drawing. And then if you read like a typical piece of pseudoscience and it's the opposite of humility. It's grandiose.
E: The new bible.
S: The claims that they're making go so far out of proportion to whatever justification or logic or evidence they're pointing to. And they're just so full of their own unique genius. And we encounter this all the time. So absolutely it's worth pointing out the real scientists. The real scholars are often intellectually humble. They may not be personally humble.
S: Let's say they don't have egos etc. But in the process of doing good science it a good dose of humility and self-skepticism is absolutely required.
All right guys thank you all for joining me this week.
B: Sure man.
C: Thanks Steve.
E: Thank you Steve.
S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at theskepticsguide.org. Send your questions to email@example.com. And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to patreon.com/SkepticsGuide and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.
Today I Learned
- Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference
- The Conversation: Why can't you remember being born, learning to walk or saying your first words? What scientists know about 'infantile amnesia'
- Live Science: Why don't we have many giant animals anymore?
- Neurologica: AI Can Help Traffic Jams
- Green Bank Observatory: Green Bank Telescope
- NIH: What Do We Know About the Association Between Firearm Legislation and Firearm-Related Injuries?
- Nature: Synonymous mutations in representative yeast genes are mostly strongly non-neutral
- Medical Express: Does shingles increase a person's risk of dementia?
- Environmental Health Perspectives: Ambient Air Pollution and Socioeconomic Status in China
- [url_for_TIL publication: title]