SGU Episode 914

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SGU Episode 914
January 14th 2023
914 Damascus Steel.jpg

Damascus steel was the forged steel of the blades of swords smithed in the Near East from ingots of Wootz steel. These swords are characterized by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water. Such blades were reputed to be tough, resistant to shattering, and capable of being honed to a sharp, resilient edge.

SGU 913                      SGU 915

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
Quote of the Week

Prompt: "Generate a memorable and funny quote about the importance of skepticism in today's society. Please also give a very brief analyzing of your own quote and its meaning."

Result: "Without skepticism, we'd believe everything we hear, like unicorns being real and pineapple on pizza being a good idea.
-- Viggo Tellefsen Wivestad."

ChatGPT, Open AI chatbot

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Show Notes
Forum Topic

Introduction, passing of Harriet Hall[edit]

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 January 12th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening everyone!

S: How are we all doing today?

J: We're here.

C: We're doing well.

E: Bad for January 12th. Not bad.

S: So we do have to begin the show with some sad news. We all learned just today, really just a couple hours ago, that our friend in skepticism, Harriet Hall, died yesterday on January 11th. She was 78 years old. For those of you who don't know, Harriet was one of the regular authors and editors on Science-Based Medicine. Actually, Bob, you and I met her at the same time.

B: Yeah.

S: If you remember-

B: I do.

S: -we met her at that health conference in California, like in 2000, the early 2000s before we were doing the show.

E: Wow.

S: Yeah, way back before we were doing the show.

B: I thought it was the late 90s, but yeah, it could have been the early aughts.

S: And we immediately connected. It's like, oh, we're both physicians who are skeptical of alternative medicine. We connected with Wally Sampson at that time and she was one of the writers, contributors to Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.

B: Yeah.

S: And then she was one of the original people I invited to blog with me at Science-Based Medicine, along with David Gorski and others. So she's had quite a career. Of course, I respect anyone who spends a huge chunk of their life fighting for science, skepticism, and reason, which she did. She was a retired physician who spent her retirement working. Working to promote science and skepticism. She also authored a book. In 2008, she published Women Aren't Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon. She was a flight surgeon. And at the time, that was very unusual for a woman to take that career path. So she was a bit of a trailblazer in that way as well. She was contributing every week to Science-Based Medicine. So she is going to be sorely missed.

J: Yeah, I remember the first time I met Harriet at TAM. She was one of many people that came up to the table and introduced themselves. This is back when we had like a table. Remember, guys, we had a table at TAM?

S: Yeah.

E: Oh yes.

J: We were a podcast and we would just sit there.

E: That's right.

J: We would sit at this table. Anyway, so I definitely remember – we're going way back in TAM, probably TAM 2005.

B: No, we didn't go to 2005.

J: No, no. I'm sorry.

E: 2007 was probably our first year.

J: Yeah, you're right. She was always kind, always like wanted to get into a conversation. And I really respect the work that she did on SBM because I would read most of the blogs. I still read most of the blog posts that come out on SBM. And we have a body of work like that. That's a great legacy.

S: Yeah, it's a huge body of work. I'm pretty sure she is the one who coined the term on SBM, tooth fairy science, which I use all the time. The idea is that let's say you wanted to scientifically examine the phenomenon of the tooth fairy and you catalog how much money children are given based upon which tooth they leave under the pillow and blah, blah, blah. You do all kinds of, that's still, you do all of that research just looking at the details, but none of that would prove that the tooth fairy is real, right? And a lot of alternative medicine does that kind of tooth fairy science where they're talking sort of about the phenomenon, but they're never doing the kind of investigation that would show whether or not it's real.

C: Right.

S: And that was a really useful idea that she crystallized extremely well. And I frequently go back to that. All right, guys, well, let's go right into some news items.

News Items[edit]

Roman Concrete (4:16)[edit]

S: And Jay, you're going to start us off by talking about the mystery of Roman concrete.

E: It's amazing. This concrete gets up and walks around. It's totally Roman.

C: Roman! Is your concrete running?

J: If you read history about Romans, you will definitely learn that they're known for their military, their-

S: Their roads.

J: -their politics, their social institutions, but they're also known for incredible feats of engineering. And this has been something that I have been interested in. I love Italy and I love ancient Rome. And I always thought that the engineering that they did was damn near miraculous what they were able to pull off back then. So one of the first things that comes to mind for me is the Roman aqueducts and the fact that some of them are still being used today to bring water to Rome. I mean, we're talking about 2,000 years ago.

E: Yeah.

J: And there's many ancient Roman buildings that are still standing. There's quite a number of still standing buildings and some of them in fantastic condition.

B: There's a couple of things that need to be thought about at least when discussing something like this in terms of buildings that are centuries and millennia old. First off, there's survivorship bias. We don't see all the buildings that collapsed. So you're seeing – by definition, you're seeing the ones that are the oldest and have lived the longest. So that's something that needs to be considered. And also, there's a maintenance issue. If you maintain a building for centuries, it's going to last for centuries. And so if you don't maintain it, it's not going to last as long. So some of the famous Roman buildings that are still around to a certain extent have been maintained religiously, if you will, for centuries. And that plays a part as well.

C: But Bob, I have a feeling it's something more.

B: Yeah. I'm just saying that it's something that you should be thinking of when you're thinking about, oh, these buildings have survived forever.

S: Those are good points. But there are buildings like the Pantheon, which wasn't maintained religiously for the entirety.

B: Oh, yes. I think it was. I think it was.

S: Rome was sacked by barbarians and ransacked for its raw material. And it wasn't not – I mean for a lot of that time, sure, but you can't say continuously.

B: Not continuously. But yeah, you could take a century off of maintenance, I guess. But still – and also don't forget massive overengineering because they were very conservative for some of those structures. So they were massively overengineered, something that you could never, ever do today because it would just be way too expensive and you can't do it. I just want to throw those caveats out there. That's all.

E: All right!

J: So when we look at modern science and modern engineering and we look at concrete that's made today, scientists have realized that it is not the same thing from a chemical perspective and from a component perspective of the concrete that was made 2,000 years ago.

S: Yeah, Jay. If you look at concrete today, none of it has survived for 2,000 years.

J: No way. It can't survive that long.

S: That was a joke. Go ahead.

J: You got to ask the question, what did these ancient wise people know that we don't know, right? It's almost like they got visited by UFOs and – but it isn't that. There's science here. A common denominator in a lot of the buildings that are still up in ancient Rome is that concrete was used. And don't think that modern engineers haven't noticed this and haven't been studying it because they have. Lots of people for decades have been studying Roman concrete trying to figure out what's the deal about it? Why does it have the fortitude that it has? That study was done – MIT, Harvard University and scientists from Italy and Switzerland have recently made some discoveries that I think legitimately reveal the answer now. So we can finally say that we do understand it. Their research is now published in the journal Science Advances. So previously, researchers thought the key ingredient to Roman concrete was what, guys? Do you know what the–

B: Volcanic ash.

S: Yeah, the volcanic ash.

J: Right, right. You nailed it. Pozzolanic material, this is volcanic ash from the area around a city in Italy called Pozzuoli. Romans would ship this ash all over the Roman Empire to construction sites and use this in their concrete. And researchers were pretty convinced, most of them were convinced that this was the secret ingredient that was doing something to the concrete. This team of researchers recently, when they were looking microscopically at the concrete, they found these very small white minerals in these samples from Roman concrete. And these minerals are called lime clasts. That's with a C-L-A-S-T-S, right? Because Romans also used lime in their concrete. Modern concrete does not have lime clasts. And what's funny is when these minerals were first discovered in the concrete, they were thought to be due to inferior mixing techniques or even low quality materials. Now the researchers from this study found that the lime clasts are actually the reason why Roman concrete has lasted as long as it has because they give concrete the ability to self-repair. And when I first read about this-

B: That's big.

J: -a while ago, right? This isn't a new thing to hear in the news. I remember reading something along these lines that there was evidence that the concrete was able to do some type of self-repair. I really didn't believe it because it just sounds like impossible. How can concrete doesn't move? It doesn't have any ability to do that. It just intuitively didn't seem correct. Well, there is a reason here. The researchers used high resolution, multi-scale imaging and chemical mapping techniques that gave them more information about these lime clasts. When Romans mixed their concrete, it was thought that they used slaked lime. Quick lime and slaked lime are two forms of lime, which is a common term for a type of material that's made from calcium oxide. And calcium hydroxide. So quick lime, also known as burnt lime, is made by heating limestone, which is calcium carbonate, to a very high temperature. And this causes it to release carbon dioxide and it leaves behind calcium oxide. And at that point, it's in the form of powder or lumps and it's highly reactive. Slaked lime, also known as hydrated lime, is made by adding water to quick lime, causing it to undergo this chemical reaction that releases some heat, not as much heat as quick lime. The result is a fine powder or a paste and it's less reactive than quick lime. And it's also known as lime putty, right? So we have these two different ways that lime can be affected chemically by what you mix it with and with heat. Now in summary, quick lime is calcium oxide and is made by heating limestone, while slaked lime is calcium hydroxide and is made by adding water to quick lime. Okay. So that was the part that took me a little while to wrap my head around because when you read engineering blogs and posts, they use the lingo like you wouldn't believe.

S: Sure.

J: Every sentence, you got to look up three words. You're like, what is this, right?

E: You need the engineering dictionary handy.

J: Totally. It's fascinating, but it took me a while to get there and I will admit, what did I do, guys?

S: You used ChatGPT?

J: ChatGPT.

B: Yeah, baby.

E: Ask Jeeves?

J: I asked ChatGPT to explain the difference between quick lime and slaked lime and it did it in an unbelievably coherent way. So thank you.

B: Did you double check it?

J: I did. (laughter) I also said that Bob sucks and I just ignored that.

B: Did you double check that?

J: First-hand knowledge, baby. So using spectroscopy, the researchers were able to determine that the lime class were formed under extreme temperature, the same temperatures that using quick lime would produce. Hmm, right? What's going on here? So they concluded that there were two main reasons to use the hot mixing quick lime process. First, the intense heat allows high temperature associated compounds to form, which are the things I'm telling you about. In this case, the lime class, right? So under the extreme temperature that the quick lime process creates chemistry happens at that temperature that wouldn't ordinarily happen at lower temperatures. And these lime class are created in that heat. Now, the second reason was that the extreme heat reduces the curing and setting times and this allowed for faster construction, which I find interesting as well. If you've ever read about the Hoover Dam and how unbelievably complicated that build was and the pouring of the concrete and the heat and the cooling that they had to use to cool the concrete so it's set for the next day. There's all sorts of things going on and modern concrete was behaving differently than this concrete because they needed the cool of modern concrete. The heat didn't help it cure faster. Oh, it's just fascinating. There's like tons of chemistry going on inside all of this rock. So in hot mixing, the lime class form a brittle nanoparticle architecture. And when these minerals are fractured during stress, they become a source of calcium. And when mixed with water, they recrystallize into calcium carbonate and they fill any nearby cracks.

E: That's cool.

B: Wow.

J: So they can also mix with volcanic ash and the volcanic ash that's in the mix would also add to the strength of the existing concrete when this process happened, when a crack happened and the nanoparticle broke and all of a sudden calcium was available and the ash mixes in with that. It's unbelievable that they figured this out. Now in fact, these little self-repairing reactions help stop cracks from spreading throughout the entire block of concrete. Because it stops them dead in their tracks-

S: They don't propagate.

J: -and they don't keep propagating. Exactly. The researchers also examined Roman concrete that shows evidence of these cracks being fixed. So check this out. The researchers prove that all of this was taking place because they created a sample of both Roman concrete and modern concrete. They stress fractured the samples and then they ran water through the cracks. And guess what happened? In two weeks, the cracks in the Roman concrete were completely repaired. They simulated it and the modern concrete had cracks that water was freely flowing through and nothing happened to that concrete.

E: Right, because there's nothing in there. Right.

J: So if you extrapolate this out into reality and you're thinking about the aqueducts and everything, the aqueducts are this remarkably heavily trafficked concrete. It's being used and abused by water every day, all day, 24 hours a day for 2,000 years and it's still there. They're saying that it's there because of this process and because of the quicklime, the use of quicklime, the heat and then those nanoparticles that are there to literally seal the cracks as they occur.

E: So is this something we can affordably, affordably, economically start incorporating into modern concrete technology?

J: That's what I read, Ev. I read that they are basically formulating this. They're coming up with what the formulations need to be in order to mass produce it. They're also hoping that concrete that can last a lot longer would eventually lead to less concrete being needed to be made because–

E: Yeah, we're constantly repairing and replacing concrete that doesn't have this kind of ability to sustain itself for that long a period of time.

C: And isn't concrete – am I wrong, Jay? Isn't concrete made from sand and we're having actually mining, we're over mining the world's sand?

J: I read that, Cara, as well. Not in this go around but I have read that in the past.

C: Yeah, I have a friend who wrote a whole book about it that they're literally conflict zones around, actually sand is a pretty precious commodity that we don't talk about very often.

J: Well, all the more reason to where when we make concrete, like let's have it last a long time. Like Evan said, I've been living in Connecticut my entire life and there's a town called Waterbury that has quite a bit of highway bridges and I've seen them fully repair that highway three times now in my lifetime. That's a lot of concrete just in that one highway stretch that goes over the town. So that multiplied times the entire world, right? Think about all those concrete that's being repaired globally.

E: Yeah. Yeah, as long as it doesn't make the environmental issues any worse by whatever this process or incorporation of the new material you have to put into it and it remains economical to get longer lasting concrete, I don't see – there's no downside.

C: I can't imagine that it would have to be more environmentally taxing considering that they did it 2,000 years ago before the industrial revolution.

E: Yeah, but the gases are released in the hot mixing process. So is that a new contribution to the already environmental issues we're having with concrete?

J: Yeah, they got to figure all that out. I mean this is them studying it and they're going to – all the off-gassing and anything that happens with that concrete, they're going to figure it all out. But just in the 30,000-foot view though, if you think about it, this seems like a no-brainer here. We want concrete that's way more durable and that can last a very long time. Why wouldn't we just immediately start using that process then? Even in the short term, even if there is off-gassing that would lead to greenhouse gases or whatever, it's still probably going to be on par with how horrible concrete production is.

S: Yeah, but even still, we got to run the numbers and we got to see how it scales and how cost-effective it is, et cetera. But I mean it seems like there's a lot of potential there and then maybe they do need to iterate it a bit to make all the numbers work out. But one other angle to this because we often say, oh, isn't it amazing the ancient Romans were able to create concrete better than what we have today. But we have to remember that first of all, there's a couple of things there. Ancient people were smart. They were as smart as we were. It's not like they were mentally primitive. You know what I mean? But also, we underestimate how much time they had, right? Because our industrial revolution is so compressed. They had centuries, sometimes millennia of trial and error for core technologies. Yeah, so they worked that shit out.

C: Also they probably – I mean the thing that I was thinking about the whole time you were saying this was like how funny that they probably didn't really know. They knew that this was strong.

E: Trail and error [inaudible].

C: They knew that it worked well.

S: But they new immidiately.

C: They didn't know it was going to last 2,000 years.

S: They knew it was going to cure faster and therefore it was more efficient in the building process.

C: Right, like when they were making it and then it held its shape and it did the job.

S: Yeah, so it had some immediate benefits. I think the long-term benefits are just a happy accident.

C: Yeah, and they had no idea what was happening at the molecular level.

J: No, no you're right.

C: How cool that they just happened upon this process. I mean obviously they didn't discover it. They invented it because like you said, they were actually engineers, you know. But that, yeah, there was this kind of lasting effect that there's no way they could have known about that.

S: No, they didn't know about the nanostructured whatever stuff.

J: I mean it is possible that early – this is just conjecture here. But it is possible that they tried – like Steve was saying, trial and error, they tried all different kinds of concrete. Oh, look, this concrete is breaking apart after five years. Then they try something else. They try something else. They finally stumble upon this and it stayed. It had the fortitude. But I agree, Cara. They didn't know that there was nanoparticles in there that were self-healing. They couldn't detect it if we couldn't detect it.

E: Nor did they think to reinforce it with steel rods.

J: Yeah, it's true.

C: Right. They didn't – yeah, they didn't go to that level.

J: But did they even have-

C: They didn't even need to with this stuff.

J: They didn't even have – did they have steel rods?

B: No. If anything, there was bronze.

S: They had iron at the – 2000 years ago, absolutely.

E: They may have had it, but from what I read, they didn't incorporate it in the application of concrete.

J: Very interesting.

S: Let's move on.

Neuroimaging and Mental Health (20:55)[edit]

S: Cara, tell us about the status of neuroimaging mental health disorders.

C: Yeah, this is something that I guess it's funny because working in this field, I never really thought much about neuroimaging as a diagnostic tool. I mean, I often think about it in a research kind of setting, an fMRI study or like a PET scan or a CAT scan or anything in order to try and understand a little bit more about underlying neuronal or neuropsychiatric issues. But the idea that you could scan somebody's brain and that would be predictive or diagnostic of a mental health problem is interestingly something I often don't think about. And maybe that's just because my bias comes from psychology where we just don't use those kinds of tools except in a research.

S: Yeah. I mean, I'll tell you as a counterbalance, I think about it all the time because–

C: Yeah, I'm sure you do because neurologists [inaudible] brains.

S: That's the question. It's been the burning question is when is neuroimaging going to cross that line from being a research tool to having the sensitivity and specificity to be useful as a clinical diagnostic tool. That's what we're talking about, obviously.

C: Yeah, and not just in neurology but in neuropsychiatry.

S: Exactly, in psychiatry. That's what I mean.

C: Yeah. A new study is published actually yesterday as of this recording in the American Journal of Psychiatry and it is a follow-up study or – it's not really a follow-up study because it's a different research group but it's like a replication study basically of a study that was published in 2021. So in 2021, a massive research group from – I think it's like Emory but also Harvard and also it looks like maybe – are these some VAs? I'm not sure. But a big mix of different institutions, individuals from a lot of different institutions published an article in 2021 called Brain-Based Biotypes of Psychiatric Vulnerability in the Acute Aftermath of Trauma. So in that study, basically what they did is they had a first cohort and then an internal replication cohort, so two different groups of people and these were all people that they found organically in emergency departments all over the country. And so basically people showed up in the ED after a severe trauma. Specifically they were looking at motor vehicle collisions and they scanned their brains as – I think as actually just part of their treatment. But they were able to then scan their brains two weeks after and based on certain patterns of brain activity and this is fMRI activity. So actually that wasn't part of treatment. Let me clarify there. They actually looked at fMRI scans two weeks after the motor vehicle crash that they were involved in and they developed different profiles of activity and they looked specifically at three different kind of things. They looked at response to threat, response to reward, and ability or response to inhibitory signals. So basically seeing fearful faces in the scanner versus playing a game in which they would get a monetary reward, a small gambling game and then a no-go paradigm, which is very, very common, a very common inhibitory paradigm. Hit the Xs but not the Os and so you have to learn to inhibit. And in doing this investigation, they found this massive research group actually found that they could predict with some fidelity how severe the PTSD after the experience of these car crashes was based on the way that their brains reacted to these tasks in the scanner. Now the new study said, oh, that's cool. Let's see if we can do that again. And so this was a group from Yale, so your colleague Steve, and they looked at something very, very similar. They looked at neuroimaging data that was collected from survivors of recent trauma, but this time in Israel, and they could not replicate the findings. So that's the news item here. Although they could actually find the different clusters of activity and they could say, okay, here is, for example, activity that is synchronized between, this is what's going on in the amygdala and this is what's going on in the prefrontal cortex and here's what's going on in the hippocampus. And they were able to look at these different brain regions and say, this pattern of activity tells us that this person is having a heightened threat response and that they're having a heightened response to reward, or they're having a hard time with inhibition, whatever the case may be. They found similar patterns and they could actually specify them, but they did not find a significant relationship or an ability, I should say, to predict severe PTSD symptoms later on. And so the conclusions of this were, A, the jury's still out. B, maybe we can't actually… Caution is warranted when attempting to define subtypes of psychiatric vulnerability using neural indices before treatment implications can be fully realized. And also, these original brain… They're calling them biotypes of trauma. These brain-based biotypes of trauma resilience and psychopathology may not generalize to other populations. So here they were looking at trauma survivors in Israel versus a group in America. Maybe there's a cultural difference there. And I think that opens up to me the conversation that I would like to have with all of you, which is, is this even... This holy grail that we're talking about, being able to use a scan, being able to look at neuronal activity or patterns of neuronal activity and say, that is schizophrenia on the brain or that is depression on the brain, is that reasonable, meaningful? Is there a threshold cutoff? Are neurological, or I should say neuropsychiatric conditions, aka psychological conditions, wholly organic in nature? Are we ever going to be able to use a scan as a diagnostic tool with a lot of fidelity?

E: Like an acid test.

S: So I've thought about this a lot. I've written about this a lot of times in the context of what I call psychiatry denial or mental illness denial because some of the mental illness deniers will say that mental illness isn't even real because you can't image it. That's one of their-

C: Or you can't test for it in a blood test or something.

S: Yeah, there's no objective diagnosis. It's a clinical diagnosis and they dismiss all of that, which is problematic, of course. But yeah, there's two ways to approach it. One way is to say, well, it's primarily a limitation of the technology. And with a lot of mental illness, there's no pathology. The brain cells themselves, as far as we know, in most of these things, we're talking about depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, they're normal. They're healthy cells. The pathology is in the pattern of interconnections among the neurons.

C: And or the actual neurochemicals that are involved or how they fire.

S: It's at a wiring and a neurochemical level. And we're not imaging at that level. We're looking for brain tumors and inflammation and things that like biological pathology. So we wouldn't expect-

C: Yeah, an fMRI, you're just looking at metabolism. That's all you're seeing is how active is the brain in those regions.

S: Right. So we definitely need to get from anatomical scans to functional scans. With that, you might think we have a chance of diagnosing it. So now that gets to the second issue of, is there something inherently limited in our understanding of these entities that means that they don't have a reliable enough neuroanatomical correlate that we can turn that like a functional scan into a diagnostic criteria?

C: Right. A "biomarker".

S: Yeah, exactly. So if maybe schizophrenia is, our idea of what that is is too vague. It's multiple things that overlapping. And so we're never going to come up with a diagnosis for schizophrenia until we come up with a better definition of schizophrenia itself. Maybe it's really multiple things. And so I think that both of those things are simultaneously true. The technology needs to evolve. Although we're getting there. We're actually getting close with some of the functional scans. Again, they're at the research useful level. But I think to be clinically useful, I think our clinical labels may need to improve. But that's something we're going to have to look back on once we've done it.

C: I also think that we can't look at all psychiatric or psychological diagnoses. We can't paint them all with the same brush. Because even when we casually throw like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, whatever, schizophrenia, I think is going to be a much better candidate for diagnosis at this level than, for example, anxiety.

S: Yeah, I agree. Although schizophrenia itself is already clinically researched. Yeah, there's really eight things that make up schizophrenia.

C: For sure. It's like autism, right? We know. That's why we call them spectrum disorders.

S: Yeah, exactly.

C: Like there's so many different. And that's the thing that I think is important. And we've made this distinction before on the show between sort of like diseases and syndromes.

S: Or disorders.

C: Or like, I mean, there's, yeah, disorders. There's a lot of different ways that you can talk about these things. But when it comes to mental illness, we are looking at a constellation of symptoms. And the thing that pushes any mental illness over the edge to being diagnosable from a psychological perspective, but I'm assuming also from a psychiatric perspective, because we use the same DSM, right? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Is that one of the specifiers always has to be that the experience, the symptomatology is so severe that it interferes with daily life.

S: It's going to be debilitating, yeah.

C: And so what's the difference between a depressed brain and a clinically depressed brain? What's the difference between healthy anxiety and an anxiety disorder?

S: It's a continuum.

C: And that's where things start to get really, really messy. I personally believe in a continuum, what we call a dimensional diagnostic approach, as opposed to a categorically diagnostic approach. I don't think somebody is this or that. I think they're somewhere on a continuum.

S: Yeah, I agree.

C: And when you can say that's over the threshold, now it becomes relevant or necessary for whether it be medication or psychotherapy or a combination or behavioral interventions.

S: And it's context dependent because it's interacting with other variables and the environment and the patient's situation.

C: Yeah, we use the term biopsychosocial a lot in psychology. We also talk about a diathesis stress model because you'll see this as well. I want to give a very brief but fascinating example, and I'm curious of you guys' thoughts. I did a, do you guys know what Story Collider is?

E: Yeah, sure.

C: I did a Story Collider. Oh, yeah, of course you do because Brian Wecht.

J: Yeah, he was one of the people that started it.

C: I did a Story Collider several years ago, and one of the individuals that shared the stage with me, so I think three of us went that night, was this fascinating, I think he was a neurologist, maybe a psychologist or a psychiatrist, I'm not sure. But he was really interested in psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder and psychopathy. And he was doing this fascinating study, and he was looking at the brains of psychopaths, and then he had normal controls, and they didn't have enough controls for their study, so they're recruiting their friends and family. And they were one down, so he somewhat semi-unethically had his own brain scan to throw it into the mix.

S: You told us this story.

C: I told you this story, and they unblinded it, and they were like, oh my God, the researcher's brain looked like the brain of a psychopath.

S: He himself is a psychopath. Yeah.

E: Got to go.

C: Yeah, but he had never done anything antisocial in his life, and their views were that psychopathy is not just about having the right brain structure, brain chemistry, whatever. There also have to be life experiences that help sort of push you. Yes, the diathesis and the stress, right? So how were they raised? What sort of exposures do they have? Early childhood insults, things like that. And I think with psychiatric disorders, it's so important to remember that some people might be sensitive to or predisposition to psychosis, but never actually experience psychosis or only have one episode once, and then it resolves, and they never experience it again. Whereas other people, because of certain life stressors, might actually experience a lot of psychosis throughout their lives.

S: Some things may only be a problem when they occur with other things, whether that's other personality traits or environmental triggers or whatever.

C: ight. So this stuff is a construct.

S: Yeah.

C: I mean, it is. Yes, it's also real. I'm not saying it's not real, but it is still a construct. And I think if we try to view it the same way that we try to view, I don't know, a dysfunctional cell type in the body, a cell that can't process a certain protein, it's not the same thing as a lot of ways that we look at medical problems.

S: I agree. All right. That was cool.

Quickie with Steve (34:39)[edit]

  •  [url_from_show_notes _article_title_][3]

S: Let's go on. Actually, again, I had sort of two news items that I was debating about, so I'm just going to give a very quick honorable mention to the one that I'm not going to talk about tonight, mainly because Evan, you and Jay both talked about using artificial intelligence in drug development. And lo and behold, there was a study published that showed that using AI in a particular kind of drug development, designing polymeric long-acting injectables, works. That when you, that the AI algorithms were able to effectively predict which formulations were more likely to function. Now, very quickly, long-acting injectables or LAIs basically are a technology for injecting a drug into your muscle and then have it be slowly released over time. Like Depo-Provera is probably the one most people have heard about. This is also called Depo technology. Interestingly, when I was researching it, I wrote about it recently, a lot of the long-acting injectables, Cara, that are already on the market are anti-psychotics.

C: Oh, yeah. That makes sense.

S: It makes total sense because you're going to give somebody who has schizophrenia, one of the biggest problems of treating schizophrenia is...

B: Oh, yeah.

E: Oh, their medicines, they have their meds?

S: If they're psychotic, they think that the whole thing is a conspiracy, whatever. So the disease prevents itself from treating it. But imagine if you can give somebody who is suffering from schizophrenia one injection and they're good for two months, three months.

J: That's fantastic.

E: Oh, that would make a huge difference.

S: So anyway, the LAIs are hugely important. I think we're going to be seeing much more of them. There may come a time when the idea of taking a pill three times a day for every day, it seems archaic. Why would you do that? You just give yourself a shot, you're good for three months or whatever, the durations. It could be anywhere, the ones that are on the market now are anywhere from like two weeks to three months.

B: What about overdose? What about overdose concerns with that from accidents?

S: Well, only if the technology breaks down or you break it down. So that's always like... This came up with the long-acting opioids. People found a way to crush it to get, to sabotage the slow release.

E: It's inside of you releasing over time.

S: But then you have to include mechanisms that prevent that from happening. If you do that, it also releases an inactivating agent.

B: Nice.

E: Interesting.

S: So the AI has the potential to dramatically speed up this research because you think about it, there's so many potential formulations and you have to test each one in animals and then get them to human research. Imagine if you can cut out 90% of the research and get right to the ones that are most likely to work. It's massive increase in efficiency.

E: That'd be nice.

Using Tumor Cells to Kill Tumors (37:20)[edit]

S:' But I'm going to be talking about using tumor cells to kill tumors. And this is pretty exciting. This is actually not a totally new technology. We've been doing this for several years. And essentially what you do is you take part of the tumor, a cancer from a patient, let's say glioblastoma, which is a horrible brain cancer. And you genetically alter it so that it targets the immune system at the cancer, right? So it's expressing proteins on its surface. It's basically making it more attractive to the immune system, more interactive with the immune system, which then it's like a vaccine. It's literally a tumor vaccine, which you make from the tumor itself. Does that make sense? But you got to tweak it first so that it activates the immune system more. So that's already been happening, basically tumor vaccines. The new bit, the new research is using live tumor cells. Now previously, this is the first time that's happened, previously they would use inactivated tumor cells because you don't want to inject live tumor cells into people because that could seed more tumors. That's not a good thing. But there's an advantage to using live tumor cells. And that is that they will inherently seek out other tumor cells of the same type.

B: Wow. Search and destroy.

S: Search and destroy, exactly. So what the researchers did is they used the name of their study was Bifunctional cancer cell–based vaccine concomitantly drives direct tumor killing and antitumor immunity. So it's bifunctional in that it will directly kill tumor cells and then also be a vaccine against further tumor cells because it's live. So it seeks out the main tumor and then they could basically include different payloads in there that will stimulate those tumor cells to undergo spontaneous apoptosis, right, which is programmed cell death. The cells just kill themselves basically. They showed that this was a study in mice and that had glioblastoma and this treatment eliminated the tumor, which is for glioblastoma, that's amazing. Now of course, eliminating the tumor is not the same thing as a cure because there could be lots of surviving cancer cells that are just not part of the main tumor, right? So you have to kill them too. And so that's where the activating the host's immune system comes in. So you kill the tumor and immunize the patient against return of the cancer by again activating the immune system like a vaccine. That's why it's bifunctional. Very cool. We only have mouse data so far, but very encouraging. Of course, a lot of things that are encouraging at the mouse level don't make their way to human treatments, but we're crossing our fingers with this. This could be a whole new technology, a whole new way of fighting cancer that is sort of the next step and you continue this incremental advance that we're doing in terms of increasing cancer survival. And if it works on cancers like glioblastoma, which again is one of the hardest to treat, one of the most horrible brain tumors there is, that would be great. Now, what do you think they used to modify these tumor cells into the engineered therapeutic tumor cells as they're calling them? CRISPR. CRISPR-Cas9. Yeah. So yeah, this is just another example of the effect that CRISPR is having on biological research. Now, maybe at this point you're thinking, but Steve, what about the fact that they're injecting live tumor cells into the patient? Aren't they concerned that that may seed other tumors even if it's killing the existing tumor? And yeah, they were concerned about that. So guess what they did? They also included two kill switches in these therapeutic tumor cells.

C: Self-destruct buttons.

S: Self-destruct buttons, absolutely. So one is a rapamycin-activated Capsase-9. So rapamycin is an antibiotic. Capsase-9 is an enzyme that will kill the cell. So basically, they genetically modified these therapeutic tumor cells so that when you give the patient a course of antibiotics, of rapamycin, it destroys the injected therapeutic tumor cells. It activates the the kill switch and kills them. So-

C: Why can't we just figure out a way to get that into the cancer cells?

S: Yeah.

B: You read my mind.

C: That would be amazing.

S: Anytime that you can get CRISPR to target tumor cells and not healthy cells, there's all kinds of things you could do to the cancer cells, right? This would be one of them, but there's all kinds of other things. You could just chop up the DNA, right? We talked about that before. You get CRISPR to target cancer genes that are different from healthy genes, and then it just cuts up the DNA so that the cells die, you know? So all kinds of CRISPR-mediated approaches are being researched now to treat cancer. And I do think that's going to be one of the low-hanging fruit for CRISPR therapeutics, either directly or indirectly, like with this approach modifying tumor cells into therapeutic tumor cells. So it really has three functions. It has direct tumor-killing activity, anti-tumor vaccine activity, and self-destruct activity. All three of those things were included. And again, at the mouse research level, the effect was pretty dramatic. So 10 years from now, we could be looking at this as like a game changer in terms of cancer treatment.

B: A similar moment.

S: But you know, what always happens is my whole career I've been reading about these new cancer treatments, new approaches to treating cancer. They always sound fantastic. This is going to be a game changer. I remember first hearing about, we're going to keep new blood vessels from growing into tumors. We're going to right, so we'll starve the tumors of blood supply and they'll die. That's great. We've cured cancer, you know? You keep—it always feels like it's going to be really dramatic. And what happens is, the treatment works and it's effective, but it's incremental. It just is one more step forward in terms of it's one more treatment, one more incremental advance and all that's together. But it wasn't like the cure for cancer. So I see—

C: And also—

B: Yeah, that's how we felt about CRISPR. Oh, wait. I'll be right about CRISPR.

C: And also, cancer is like awesome at what it does. Too awesome at what it does. So even with really good chemotherapies, which don't have the specificity that you were talking about, they kill all cells. Not all cells, but different generations of chemotherapies do different things.

E: Too many of these cells.

C: But yeah, rapidly dividing cells. It depends on what they target.

S: They evolve. Cancer cells evolve.

C: They evolve. And people become resistant to chemotherapy. That's why they often have to take multiple lines of chemo and eventually there's nothing left in the arsenal because people develop resistance to them.

S: Yeah, it's like killing bacteria. Anything you do to try to kill a population of billions of cells there's always a chance that some are going to evolve a way out of that. And then you—

C: Yeah, and then cancer is almost by definition a superbug. It's your own cells. It's a superbug version of your own cells.

S: Yeah, just breaking out of all of the inherent limits that are supposed to be there to keep this from happening, right? This should be one more powerful tool in our toolbox. So very encouraging.

Planet Spirals Into Its Sun (45:20)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us about planets spiraling into their sun.

B: Yes.

E: No, wait, which one? Not ours.

B: No, well, not soon.

E: Oh, thank goodness.

B: So scientists did some sciencey things recently and proposed some cool scientific theories.

S: Yeah, that's the short version.

E: That's it.

B: Yeah.

E: That's it. That's all you get.

B: Kind of generic. In this case, it involves a hot Jupiter exoplanet slowly death spiraling towards its star, which could help us determine the ultimate fate of Earth and many other planets. This was a study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, and the planet, the exoplanet in question is called Kepler-1658b, which orbits which star?

E: Alpha Centauri.

B: No, you should know from the name.

C: Oh, sorry.

E: Oh, Kepler.

B: If the planet is Kepler-1658b, the star is Kepler-165a.

S: A is always a star, and the first planet is B and so on.

E: What's a binary system?

S: Yeah, the stars are A and B.

C: A1, A2?

S: No it's A and B.

E: Alpha, beta.

B: The star name that I saw was just Kepler-658. I thought the same thing, Steve, that the A is for the star itself, but this one is the star is 1658. It doesn't matter though. As the name confirms, it was discovered by the famous Kepler Space Telescope. It's 2,600 light years from Earth, and it's about almost six times the mass of Jupiter. As I said, it's a hot Jupiter. We've talked about that a few times. Hot Jupiters have a couple of defining characteristics.

S: They're very sexy.

B: They have a very large – oh, yeah. Good one. They have a very large mass. Their masses range from about a third of a Jupiter mass to about almost 12 Jupiter masses, and they've got short orbital periods, 1.3 to 111 Earth days.

E: Yeah, but we don't hold that against them.

B: No. They're often tidally locked as well, but typically though, they're huge and they're close to their star. And because they're huge, they're gas giants. So Kepler-1658b has a year that is 3.8 days long. 3.8 day year. So this is Thursday night, right? So remember last Monday? Well, that was last year if you lived on this planet. But that year though is more unusual than just because it's super short compared to our year, which really doesn't mean anything. The anomaly about a 3.8 day year is that it's getting shorter regularly by about around 131 milliseconds a year. So every year, in Earth year, it loses 131 thousandth of a second in its orbit. Now if you calculate that out, that inward spiral will continue. If it continues, it will impact the star in 3 million years. So it's like, ah who cares? It's a little change. 3 million years is so far in the future, but there's so many interesting ramifications to that. Shreyas Vissapragada is a postdoc at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the study lead author said: "This is the first time we observed direct evidence for a planet spiraling towards its evolved star". I had never heard that expression before, an evolved star. I mean, you can kind of guess what it means. I figured, oh, it's just an older star. But specifically that means that it's mature obviously, but all the hydrogen has been fused into helium. So it's basically like the next stage of its life. And it's started expanding into what's called a subgiant. So it's those kind of stars that we have never seen any planet spiraling in towards that kind of planet, which is important. This can tell you about the end life of a planet because the star is now in its end life. So now this is happening, scientists believe, because of one of my top four favorite forces, tidal forces. We've mentioned tidal forces.

C: Was that blank? He was waiting for us to guess, wasn't he?

[talking over each other]

E: Three quarters of a second.

B: So that's essentially tidal forces, essentially the difference in gravity strength from one point to another. So the moon tugs on the near side of the earth more than the far side because it's closer. So you may think, hey, Bob, I've heard you described so eloquently in the past that tidal forces are driving our moon away from us, not toward us. What's the deal? Ah, good point, mental listener. You are correct. As tidal forces, it is fascinating just unto itself. As tidal forces slow earth's rotation, making our days longer, there's a concomitant increase in the orbital distance of the moon. It's like stealing energy from the earth, so it's got to go farther away. But that can happen the other way, the opposite way too. Tidal interactions are very complex. In some scenarios, especially if it's a star planet scenario, tidal forces are predicted to make the smaller body get closer and closer, decaying the orbit, and these scientists theorize that that's exactly what's happening for Kepler-1658b. Theories have predicted it, and we're not sure exactly of the details, and now we've got this laboratory in space showing us that it's happening. I was going through the paper, interesting paper. The parts that I could actually make sense of regarding this specific point was fascinating. So check this out. So the smaller and smaller orbits require less energy, right? If you give energy to something in orbit, and it takes that energy, it's going to go into a higher orbit. But if you're taking away energy, then where's that energy going to go? It's going to go into a smaller orbit, but where is that energy going? So apparently, the star could be dissipating that energy, or the planet can be dissipating the energy. Those are the two theories. One of them is taking that energy, and they think, in this case, that the star, the star is dissipating that energy in processes that are very difficult to figure out. But they've determined that the star is soaking up that energy of the planet, which is making it go into a smaller and smaller orbit. But the planet is also dissipating a little bit of it, 10% of that energy, and that's why they think that this planet is so bright. They think it could be 4,700 degrees Fahrenheit or 2,500 degrees Celsius. It's really, really hot, and they think it's because of that. It's taking some of the energy that it's losing, going into smaller and smaller orbits. So that was really interesting. Now, of course, this decaying orbit is of extra interest to us. Why? Because it's nice to know what Earth's fate is going to be in the distant future. So regarding that, Vissapragada said, while the tidally driven processes seen on Kepler-1658b will drive the decay of the Earth's orbit towards the sun, that effect could be counterbalanced by the sun losing mass. The ultimate fate of the Earth is somewhat unclear. Yeah, we're not sure exactly what's going to happen to the Earth in billions of years when the sun really buys the farm. Are we going to collide with it? Are we going to get just burnt to a crisp? Are we going to actually get into a higher orbit because the sun is losing mass and its gravity is going to go to—I don't know. They're not 100% sure what's going to go on. So in the future, what's going on in the future with this? Regarding that specifically, Vissapragada said, now that we have evidence of in-spiraling of planets around an evolved star, we can really start to refine our models of tidal physics. The Kepler-1658 system can serve as a celestial laboratory in this way for years to come. With any luck, there will soon be many more of these labs. So once we learn more about such systems, we may eventually figure out with a much higher level of confidence than we have now the fate of many planets in many solar systems, including of course the ultimate fate of Earth, which is pretty cool. Interesting aside, this planet, Kepler-1658b, the very first exoplanet candidate spotted by Kepler telescope, which was launched in 2009, it took 10 years for them to realize, oh, this exoplanet candidate is actually really is a full-fledged exoplanet. So it was the first one that it identified and it took all this time to figure it out. It's really hard to spot such a minute amount of orbital decay, especially when it's so far away, was it 4,200 light years?

E: What happened to the notion that our sun will expand in 4 billion years and engulf the Earth before it has a chance to say spiral away into it?

B: Yeah, it's definitely going to be doing that. It'll reach its own sub-giant phase and it's going to balloon out its outer layers and it's going to lose a lot of some of that mass. So yeah, that's going to happen. But what's going to happen to the Earth when that happens, we're not clear. It's not clear. And this may help us determine the ultimate fate of the Earth.

[commercial brake]

Dumbest Thing of the Week (55:12)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, you're going to do a dumbest thing of the week.

E: That's right. Back by popular demand. Oh, and speaking of popular demand.

S: Really? Do we have to?

E: Well, what are we going to disappoint? All those people who wrote in-

S: Both of them?

E: -and expressed their desire to have me sing the official theme song for dumbest thing of the week? I will not deny them. Here we go.

(singing)

It's the dumbest thing of the week.

It's the dumbest thing of I speak.

In a world full of fools, this story rules.

The dumbest thing of the week.

Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you. Steve, can you find some music to act as a backing for that?

S: I could.

E: You'll work on it. We'll talk after. I first saw this news item written up in the New York Post. All right, New York Post, I get it. But in the days following, many other news outlets wrote their own reports on the matter. However, none of them properly categorized it as the dumbest thing of the week. So I'm here to fix that. This is back January 4th. The journalist's name, Andrew Court. Here's his headline. "Potatoes in socks, flu remedy shocks TikTok. What came out of my body?" That's the headline. All right. So TikTok users are sleeping with slices of potatoes in their socks in a desperate bid to beat the flu.

C: What?

E: Yeah. So it's called potato sock, #potatosock, if you care to look this up on TikTok. And yeah, hundreds of clips showing social media users trying out this health hack, as they call it. I don't have TikTok on my phone, but I did watch the videos using my conventional computer. I did not open an account. I didn't do any of that. But it is there. Anyone can go. #potatosock. And yeah, I think it's done a good job of tagging some of the most gullible people on TikTok. And before I start, I want to say this. First, if you watch these videos, and I watched, oh, about 30 of them. I watched 30 of these things. Zero actual skepticism to be found, but almost 100% pseudo skepticism to be found. And what I mean by pseudo skepticism is that at some point in the video, somebody says, well, I was skeptical at first, but then I tried it myself, and now I believe. That's pseudo skepticism. And like it says, people are doing this. First, you slice a potato. Then you put it on your foot. Then you cover it with a sock, and you go to sleep. If you're sick, you're going to wake up, and you're going to feel much better. Natural way of fighting the flu. Some people absolutely swear by this practice. That has helped potatoes draw the toxins out of their body, which is clearly what was causing their flu, and their cold, and feeling miserable. But now they feel fresh and energized. Thank goodness for the almighty potato. Here is a quote. "It works. My daughter has been feeling so much better", one mother exclaimed. After testing the trick on her sick child, and the only true part about this, the trick, her video has garnered more than 6.6 million views. I think it was up to 7 million the other day. But when this was published, it was 6.6 million views, and with a set of instructions on how to correctly complete this remedy. You take a potato, cut two slices out of it, put them beneath the sole of each foot, and cover them with a sock overnight. You're going to see an imprint on the bottom of your foot, which is totally fine. Don't worry. Then you're going to see the potato slices, which are disgustingly dark. That's because the toxins are removed, and your child will feel so much better.

C: My god.

E: So here's another person showing the blackened potato slices. Whatever it pulled out of my body, it worked. I feel so much better.

C: Wait, has that person never put just a sliced potato on the countertop and seen what happens to it?

E: Oh, and believe me, some of these potato videos on TikTok, potato sock videos, they did just that, Cara. They had the control group, shall we say, of the slices just sitting out on the plate overnight compared to what they put on their sweaty feet in a nice warm sock that they slept with overnight. Oh my goodness, you should see. The one on the counter only browned a little bit, but the one that came off their stinking foot in the morning with the hot humidity in the body and the warmth and everything, it was 12 more shades darker than the control. Tell me what, how-

S: How do you explain that?

E: How the heck do you explain that?

C: The tides come in. The tides go – you can't explain that.

E: The medical experts are warning TikTokers – too late – to not do this because there are obviously real things you can do to alleviate your flu symptoms, not to mention it adds to people's misunderstanding about bodily functions, how it deals with viruses, basically the whole can of misinformation that you wind up consuming when you start doing these kinds of things will pour over into your other areas of cognitive reasoning and decision-making. So yeah, don't do this. It says, Dr. – where are we here? Dr., TikTok doc, Dr. Tommy Martin. This does not substitute seeing a doctor if your child is ill, right? I mean, you're supposed to be taking care of your children responsibly, not slapping pieces of potato on their feet and thinking that that's doing anything for their health. A potato in a sock is not going to cure your flu. Here's what else he says. The mind always goes to what's next, what's down the pipe. And I encourage people to not think of these things as a one-off, like, oh, thank goodness we were past the NyQuil chicken. That was a thing, I think, last year or perhaps the year before, not combining NyQuil with chicken and gosh.

J: Oh my god.

E: There's no – right. There's a pattern of medical misinformation that could be pretty damaging long-term. Yes, very well said, I think. So and of course, the reason potatoes brown is because of the oxidation. So no surprise there. This does have a long history to it. People have been putting potatoes and onions, it turns out, on their feet for a very long time. This isn't anything new that just crept up with the new year in 2023, there have been videos about this made for many years. You can go through YouTube. But also they say it dates way, way back, even beyond that, back to what, the Middle Ages and beyond, where people were doing all sorts of things, attaching all sorts of vegetables when they didn't know about germ theory and how viruses work and so many other things. And like desperate people dying of all sorts of nasty stuff, sure, you had kind of a reason almost to try almost anything, a home remedy or something that your ancient wisdom from your family was passed down from generation to generation. Understood. That's not today though and clearly that's a major problem. I did find something else though. Now there were people who would put potatoes, OK, whole potatoes, not slices of potatoes.

J: In their ass.

E: No, in their socks. In their socks. But for a reason, for a practical reason, as warmers. They would heat up the potato basically, right? As if you were to cook the potato and you can wrap it in a cloth or do something else. And if you were cold at night, you would then take that potato, put it at your feet and put a sock over it or some sort of fabric over it and it would help keep your feet warm. OK, so now we're actually talking about something that actually makes sense. They didn't say it was going to cure your flu or anything, but you can almost kind of see how perhaps this evolved maybe over time. Maybe it wasn't slices of potato. It started with the whole hey, warm potato on your feet, keep you warm at night means you just were more comfortable or you just felt better even when you were feeling bad or suffering with some sort of cold, flu or what have you. And then there was also this, and I'll wrap up with this. In my research into this, ever wonder why we call potatoes spuds?

J: No.

E: Well, here we go. As Folk Etymology has it, there was once a group of activists who formed the Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet, SPUD. They suspected the potato of being unfit for the diet of British people and aimed to ban it from Britain. Consequently, the humble potato was given its nickname, SPUD, Society for Prevention of Unwholesome Diet. So this was written in 1949, but it was made up, obviously. You know, it's like poking fun, having fun with it. But it did appear in a book and it's like, okay, so what? Is this the original origin of spuds? So you go a little bit deeper into it. No, that's not, obviously it wasn't there. It goes back even before that. Spuds reached back to the 15th century where a spud, S-P-U-D-D-E, or spudde, was a small, sharp gardening tool for digging holes and digging up weeds. In the mid-19th century, people used the term spud to mean potato. First recorded use, New Zealand, 1845. But also, spud can mean a hole in a sock. It took on, at some point, this whole potato and sock thing has this history to it. What the hell were people doing with all the potatoes in their socks? It seems like a phenomenon that was going on for many hundreds of years in all different kinds of ways. But spud apparently is slang for a hole in a sock. So there you go, a little more connection with socks and potatoes during my research. But regardless of all that, treating your flu symptoms with potatoes in your socks, that definitely qualifies as the dumbest thing of the week.

C: Yeah, it does.

S: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of competition, but sure.

E: 6.6 million views. Oh gosh.

Who's That Noisy? (1:05:46)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
A striped skunk chittering

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

J: All right, guys, last week I played this noisy. [plays Noisy] So I got a lot of people writing in jokes.

E: Because it's funny.

J: Because apparently a lot of people thought that that was me. I got two serious submissions out of all the joke emails I got. I got two serious submissions. Only two? What happened? All right, so here we go. Frederick Niant wrote in and said: "Hello Skeptics, based on the reaction of my dove and having raised them, it sounds very similar to the vocalization of a large baby rock dove." And then he put in my quotes, pigeon, "specifically around the time when their adult feathers sprout and they start walking around my balcony. Regards." So you got to correct that this is an animal, but it is not a bird. And my second guess came in from Visto Tutti because he guesses pretty much every week. And he said: "I have no clue, but my dog reacts like it's a baby mammal. He always wants to eat baby mammals. I'm just going to throw a dart and it lands on a baby ferret." That is actually not a bad guess. I used to have a ferret and they do make really cute noises when they run.

E: They smell.

J: And a ferret is actually not a bad guess at all because...

S: Is it a mammal?

J: It's a mammal.

B: Jay, do you remember my ferret? Remember his name?

J: Yeah, Lotus Llewell.

B: Lotus Llewell Mwadi.

J: Anybody want to guess what animal this is?

S: Good Skeptics Guide trivia. What was the name of Bob's ferret?

E: Oh, wow. That's definitely a lot of points.

C: Okay. You said a ferret is a good guess.

J: Yes.

C: So it's something like a ferret.

S: A weasel?

E: A weasel.

C: No, it's probably not that simple. Like a raccoon or something?

J: It's a striped skunk. It's a skunk.

C: A skunk.

E: That's a skunk.

J: Skunks make amazingly cute noises. Listen again.

E: Yeah but nobody knows because they can't get close enough to hear that.

C: I've seen a skunk up really, really close and they're really cute. If it weren't for the fact that they skunk, they would be awesome.

S: Well, people remove their glands and then you have them as pets and they are cute.

J: All right, listen again. [plays Noisy] It sounds like a joke. They're adorable. Come on. Imagine having one in your house that's running around like cackling like that all the time.

E: I would not be in that house. I wouldn't know.

J: So you never know with who's that noisy. You might think, oh my God, so many people are writing and sometimes I don't get that many guesses and I could be reading your guess on the SGU.

S: This was a huge opportunity.

J: Yeah, you missed it. And I don't know, maybe they just thought it was too, I don't know, it's just weird. I wonder why we didn't get more guesses, but it was a cute little skunk, a striped skunk. We used to have a standard poodle growing up and I saw him get sprayed by skunks multiple times.

C: Yeah, and Killer got sprayed by a skunk once. It was so brutal.

S: I got the tomato juice. I don't know if it worked. I mean, just had to wait.

C: What the tomato juice thing?

S: Tomato juice, that was our thing.

C: Yeah, it doesn't work. I know this for a fact.

E: Oh, you did the science? You scienced it?

C: Well, Killer got sprayed. It was atrocious. I ran upstairs, first thing in my head, I'll grab a can of tomato juice. Didn't have any, but I had like SpaghettiOs.

S: Oh my god.

B: Oh my god.

J: So Cara, this is your scientific determination that it doesn't work?

C: No, so then I called the vet and I was like, hey, my dog got sprayed point blank, like one foot away. His eyes are swelling.

E: In the mouth probably.

C: Yeah, and I was spraying water in his eyes and he smelled horrible. And I was like, I put tomato juice, and she was like, that's so stupid. I'm going to send you a recipe for what you need to do. And I was like, should I bring him in? I'm afraid his eyes are injured. And she was like, I was like, I'm doing a consistent eye wash. I'm going to do it for a full hour. And she was like, if you come in, you'll be paying us to do the same thing. So keep doing that. And only if he seems like he's having vision problems, he can't see, they're like crusting shut, then you can bring him in later. But do that. And then she gave me the recipe for the bath that you're supposed to use, which if I'm remembering correctly, is like dish soap, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide.

J: Yeah.

S: Okay.

E: Hydrogen peroxide, yeah.

S: And tomato juice.

C: No tomato juice. And apparently you can't leave it on that long because it actually bleaches their skin or their fur.

S: Yeah.

C: So you have to be a little bit careful about that if you have a pet with dark fur.

J: Yeah, that's a thing you don't want to deal with, trust me.

C: Oh, it's so gross.

New Noisy (1:10:44)[edit]

J: All right, I got a new noisy this week sent in by a listener named Gary Groves. And check this one out.

[mysterious and unearthly multiple, overlapping/overtoning chimes or bells]

S: Now that's a UFO.

C: Clearly.

E: Oh yeah.

J: It totally reminds me of a movie from the 70s. Can you guys guess what it is?

S: From the 70s?

J: Yep.

S: You're not thinking of Forbidden Planet, are you?

J: No. That's all theremin. It sounds like Logan's Run a little bit.

S: Oh yeah, a little bit.

B: Yes yes.

E: Yeah, okay.

J: You know what I mean?

S: Yeah.

J: All right, so if you guys think you know what this week's noisy is, or if you heard something cool, don't forget, email me at WTN@theskepticsguide.org.

Announcements (1:11:31)[edit]

J: Steve, did you know that if you become a patron of the SGU, not only do you already get premium content, which you will only have access to because you're a patron, but you will also get access to an early release of all of the new YouTube videos that you and I are producing right now. These are happening right now.

E: Right now.

J: So you'll get two weeks of early release on basically anything that we do with this new project that Steve and I are doing, which is, so we're making YouTube videos where I ask Steve a science question and he answers it. We have a conversation. Pandemonium ensues.

B: Pandemonium.

J: And patrons will get early access to that content. And we're also making, we said this last week and I'm super excited because we just made a few more yesterday. We are on TikTok. Oh my God. Could you imagine old white men on TikTok? This is fun. Steve is doing a couple of different things here. He is doing, we're finding ridiculous stuff on TikTok and Steve's doing a quick takedown on whatever that ridiculous thing is. Or Steve is explaining a concept in about three minutes. Something that a science enthusiast or a person who's trying to learn about skepticism and critical thinking that you probably want to hear and learn about. So but we're having a lot of fun because we're, if you could imagine, we're sifting through like all of these ridiculous things, we're like, should we talk about this? This is even too crazy. This time we made one that you should, that's probably up by now where these people think they're seeing a UFO and they're freaking out. They're like totally like, oh my God. Sorry buddy. And then Steve gets in there and tells you what the hell's happening. You can go to our TikTok at it's TikTok.com/SkepticsGuide.

S: All right. Thanks Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:14:44)[edit]

I have listened to every episode, huge fan. I have never heard you guys talk about the Damascus steel debate. This comes up frequently when people on YouTube or in blacksmithing TV shows make steel cut and folded into ornate patterns. It is referred to as Damascus steel. Then the nerds come out of the woodwork. Actually, the technique to making true Damascus steel has been lost to time and modern attempts are nowhere near as strong. From a material science standpoint, is there any truth to the claim that ancient Damascus is a better material for sword making than modern Damascus? It seems almost a given that with modern metallurgy, knowledge, equipment, and techniques that we can make a better steel and still have a signature pattern visible after polishing. What do you guys think? Thanks for the great show. PS. I wheezed when I heard Avatar described as dances with Smurfs.
–John Mullen

Email #1: Damascus steel debate[edit]

S: We're going to do one email this week. And this email is part of the reason why I wanted to answer this question is because it has a lot of overlap with the Roman concrete news item, some common themes. This email comes from John Mullen from North Ireland. And he writes: "I have listened to every episode, huge fan. I have never heard you guys talk about the Damascus steel debate. This comes up frequently when people on YouTube or in blacksmithing TV shows make steel cut and folded into ornate patterns. It is referred to as Damascus steel. Then the nerds come out of the woodwork. Actually, the technique to making true Damascus steel has been lost to time and modern attempts are nowhere near as strong. From a material science standpoint, is there any truth to the claim that ancient Damascus is a better material for sword making than modern Damascus? It seems almost a given that with modern metallurgy, knowledge, equipment, and techniques that we can make a better steel and still have a signature pattern visible after polishing. What do you guys think? Thanks for the great show. PS. I wheezed when I heard Avatar described as dances with Smurfs." All right. So there's a lot to unpack here. I'm going to try to make this as efficient as I can. So Damascus steel is actually two kinds of Damascus steel. They're in both are have been around for a very long time. I guess the original Damascus steel, meaning the older one, is a type of steel that has a the surface looks almost like flowing water, right? Because it has a kind of a pattern on the surface of the steel that makes it look like it's flowing. This was produced from about 600 AD to about 1750 AD. And it was stronger better quality, better for weapons than any other steel at the time. So I think that's what most people think of when they think of like ancient Damascus steel. Modern Damascus steel is more accurately referred to as forged Damascus, but people just call it Damascus for shorthand. And what that is, is when you take two different types of steel and you forge weld them together and you fold them over and you do that multiple times. And it creates a very similar looking pattern, this wavy water like pattern in the steel. It's actually very pretty. And then you can compare ancient Damascus to forged Damascus to just modern mono steel. We call it mono steel, meaning it's just one steel, not multiple steels forged together. Which one would have the better quality, be better for sword making? There's also the question there of was the knowledge to make the ancient Damascus steel lost to modern times? And the answer to that is, well, yes and no. For a while, because the people who were making the Damascus steel, it was kind of a trade secret. So it wasn't widely, like the knowledge of exactly what to do was not widely available. And it was similar to the concrete. I don't know that the people who were making it actually knew what was happening. At like a molecular level. So they might not. All they knew is if we do this specific thing, we get the results that we want. But they didn't necessarily know why. And therefore it was hard to export. Does that make sense? So let me get into why the ancient Damascus steel was so good. So first of all, it's derived from a specific source of steel from India called wootz, W-O-O-T-Z, steel or wootz, whatever. And you had to use that as your source of steel. It would come in ingots. And then you would, they had to go through a process, where they heat it to a specific temperature. They had to heat it with other material in order to like a source of carbon to get the carbon content very high. They would heat it for a long time, which would work out a lot of the impurities. So it had several characteristics that made the steel very high quality. It was high carbon steel. It was low impurity. And it was using this specific stock of steel that maybe had certain alloys in it that was responsible for the quality of the steel. So this was the thing that really wasn't known after, basically they said after guns were around, the sword making industry was not as robust and then the exact knowledge of the technique was lost. But in the 1990s, researchers basically figured out how to make Damascus steel. Basically to add what I said, what they discovered was that the wood steel has a very small amount of vanadium in it. And vanadium is known as a good alloy for steel, which makes it very strong. What they didn't realize that even a tiny amount, like 0.02% alloy, allows for a certain crystal structure in the steel that gives it that wavy pattern and also causes an interlocking of the crystals of the carbon and iron that give it not only its hardness but its strength. It allows it to be very malleable but also hold an edge very well and be very, very strong. So they basically reverse engineered ancient Damascus steel. And what's interesting because as with the concrete, it's that tiny impurity in the steel that turned out to be a critical ingredient. That's why you needed to source from that particular source of iron because it had that small amount of vanadium in it. It turns out to be a critical alloy. And then probably just through trial and error, they figured out we have to heat it to this much for this period of time. The heating process is critical to making steel, like to the resulting property of steels. How high you heat it for how long and how quickly you cool it down. When you're making hardened steel, it has to have a certain carbon content and then you have to quench it, which means you cool it down very, very quickly. This is like what you always see, like they dunk the steel in the water and it steams.

E: It's not just a cool effect.

S: Yeah, but the thing is you would never do that. You wouldn't quench it in water because that's a good way.

E: Yeah, it seems too Hollywood.

S: It's a good way to destroy the steel because it would create a lot of cracks into it. It'd make it really hard. It's a super fast way to cool it down. I remember in Conan the Barbarian, they quenched it in snow. That would destroy the steel.

J: It looked cool though.

S: It looks cool. Typically, you quench in oil that's at a certain temperature so it cools down just the right amount but not so much that it gets, because the harder it gets, the more brittle it gets. When you quench in water, it makes it brittle and you run the risk of it cracking and breaking. Not good for a sword. Not that you can't ever do it. It's just like wouldn't be standard procedure for making weapons. Modern Damascus, you take modern steels but with different alloys, usually different amounts of nickel so they look a little bit different and then you fold them together and acid etch them so that you could see the different layers of steel. It's basically for aesthetics because it looks beautiful. You can use these techniques in order to give different parts of the sword. You want the spine to be strong but not hard and you want the edge to be hard so it can hold an edge. That way, you might want different parts of your tool or your weapon or whatever to have different types of steel. You could use Damascus as a technique for that or you could just layer the steels. You don't have to do specifically a Damascus pattern. Now there's one other type of steel that often gets thrown into the mix and that's Japanese steel because they famously would fold their steel over and over and over again, a million folds. You keep doubling the number of folds every time you fold it. The reason for that was to work out the impurities because the impurities are weak spots. You could have one little grain of impurity in a sword and that's where it breaks. Of course, that's a disaster if you're fighting with that sword. Having like really working out all the impurities is critical. Here's the thing. Modern steel, modern industrial steel blows away every type of older steel. Any ancient steel, whether it's Damascus or Japanese steel or whatever, modern steel just blows it away because we have it down to a science. The steel that we make today has virtually no impurities in it. All the shit that you do to get rid of the impurities, it's done. If you buy a chunk of modern industrial steel, there's no impurities in there. Then also, we have the alloying technology down. Not that we're not still making discoveries, but there are like thousands of types of steel based upon different alloys. We can get consistent to the decimal point amount of carbon in it, which is critical. Also, when they heat and cool it, they're doing it to specific temperatures. If you look at instructions of how to make Damascus steel, they say, heat it until it glows with the light of the setting sun. That was their technology at the time. Now we just use temperature guns and we heat it to a specific temperature.

E: Fraction of a degree.

S: Yeah, it's dialed in.

B: Wavelength with this many nanometers.

S: Yeah, right. It's dialed in to a significant degree. Just again, it's just much better than any older technology. This idea that the ancients are making better steel than we are today is just not true.

B: Old stuff sucks. (laughter)

E: That's right, Bob, you tell them.

S: Through trial and error and a lot of work, they made really good steel. But again, it's just nothing compared to what we can do today. Actually understanding the science of alloying and carbon and getting the impurities out, et cetera. It's just much more scientific, much more powerful. At the end of the day, it's a long explanation, but at the end of the day, the answer is modern steels are better.

B: Very long.

S: Much better. (Evan laughs) Okay, everyone, let's go on with science or fiction.

[top]

Science or Fiction (1:25:42)[edit]

Item #1: Recent research demonstrates that with as few as three genetic changes human hemoglobin can be made to function similarly to crocodilian hemoglobin, allowing for extended periods on a single breath of air.[7]
Item #2: Researchers have developed artificial biorealistic nerve cells capable of communicating using ions, and stimulating living nerves.[8]
Item #3: An international team of scientists have found that there are millions of abandoned mines worldwide that can be converted into grid storage units with as much as 70 TWh of storage (about one day of world energy use).[9]

Answer Item
Fiction 3 changes to hemoglobin
Science Biorealistic nerve cells
Science
Mines into grid storage
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Evan
3 changes to hemoglobin
Cara
3 changes to hemoglobin
Bob
Mines into grid storage
Jay
Mines into grid storage

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. Then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Just three regular news items this week. You guys ready?

B: 27 parts.

S: All right, here we go. Item number one, recent research demonstrates that with as few as three genetic changes, human hemoglobin can be made to function similarly to crocodilian hemoglobin, allowing for extended periods on a single breath of air. Item number two, researchers have developed artificial biorealistic nerve cells capable of communicating using ions and stimulating living nerves. And item number three, an international team of scientists have found that there are millions of abandoned mines worldwide that can be converted into grid storage units with as much as 70 terawatt hours of storage, about one day of world energy use. Evan, go first.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Okay, I'm honored. First of all, thank you very much.

S: Sure.

E: I don't know. All right, number one, as few as three genetic changes, human hemoglobin can be made to function similarly to crocodilian hemoglobin, allowing for extended periods on a single breath of air. Three genetic changes and boom, human hemoglobin turns into crocodile hemoglobin. Can it be that few? Maybe. Sounds remarkable, but...

B: Remarkable.

E: I mean right? We've learned about how close we are to chimps and just like a couple of things that, small things that just differentiate us. But I know a crocodile seems like no way, not even close to human, but I don't know. I think more and more we're surprised at just how connected we are, not built that dissimilarly to things that appear to be dissimilar. So I think that one's plausible. The next one about artificial biorealistic nerve cells capable of communicating using ions, okay, and stimulating living nerves. So maybe that's the key there. It's probably too simplistic to say, well, it's just signaling. Why couldn't that be the case? There's something in there about that artificial over to living nerves.

B: What do you specifically mean by biorealistic?

S: I mean, there's a, I will give you a technical definition, but you'll have to go with it for now.

E: And there's the last one where a team of scientists found that there are millions of abandoned mines worldwide. There's millions of those things? That in itself is kind of amazing, I think.

B: Yeah, right?

E: But you can convert them into grid storage units. What? Convert, they just house the machinery or whatever you put in there, convert it into grid storage. And okay, well, that doesn't sound too implausible. Just the fact that there are millions of abandoned mines. So okay, a crocodile hemoglobin, I don't know. There's something with that one that's a little too, a little weirder than the other one about the nerve cells. So I guess I'll go with that. Crocodile hemoglobin is fiction.

S: Okay, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah, they're all weird. They all seem, I don't know, the nerve cell one, I want to be true. And it doesn't, I feel like there's something that Evan said, which I kind of agree with. It seems like it's all too simple, but it's just signaling. And yes, I think inside of a nerve cell, all of these really complicated metabolic and molecular machines are going on. But ultimately, ions are flowing in, ions are flowing out, it's going to fire. If it fires, it's going to basically tell the muscle to twitch. I could see this working, especially in vitro. The scientists who have found that there are millions of abandoned mines worldwide that can be converted into grid storage units. Sure, you guys are so obsessed with grid storage. We talk about this all the time. I feel like I should know more about it. But we are often talking about like, the only limitation is how much land mass we have to use or like, where could this go? How would we do this? And so cool, there's already a bunch of like stuff that's not being used that we could shove it into. I like it. So I think I'm going to go with Evan on this because I can't imagine that the only reason a crocodile can live underwater for that long is because it has some cool hemoglobin. I mean, it's probably one of many reasons. But I don't think that all of a sudden, if we just changed a few things in our hemoglobin, we would become like, sea people. It just doesn't seem realistic to me. So I think I've got to go with Evan on that.

E: Phew.

S: Okay, Bob.

E: I feel better.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: I'm going to say that the hemoglobin one is science.

E: What?

B: I would think hemoglobin would be highly conserved. The genetic structure of hemoglobin would be highly conserved because it's pretty important. You don't want to mess with that too much. It's doing a good job. So to me, it makes sense that it would only be a few changes away, a few genetic changes away. I suspect that we couldn't change ours to that type of hemoglobin very easily. I'm sure there would be huge other downsides that make it totally impractical. But the fact that, which is the thrust of number one, is there's three differences. Yeah, I totally buy that. I mean, sometimes that's all it takes. It's just a small amount of changes. Yeah. That one made the most sense to me. I mean, I got a little pause since Evan and Cara selected it, but tough crap. Two, yeah, the biorealistic nerve cells. I was surprised that Cara wasn't too surprised with that, the feasibility of that. That sounds pretty amazing. But yeah, maybe it's in vitro and maybe what kind of ions? Maybe there's an ion issue that's different, that's incompatible, but it seems like a pretty damn big breakthrough. So for that reason, and I bet this is wrong, the stupid mine one in the grid storage, I'm just going to say that's fiction just to spite Steve.

E: Wow.

B: Because I know he's [inaudible].

S: And Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: Yeah, the first one about the hemoglobin, I have to admit, I just don't know enough about the genetic, the capabilities of the, what are they using to do this? Is it CRISPR or whatever? With CRISPR, it just seems like so much has become accessible that wasn't accessible just a few years ago. So, I mean, it would be really silly to just say that one isn't science. I think that one is likely to be science. The one thing about the item number two here about the artificial biorealistic nerve cells, I mean, I thought we were at the level where we were stimulating the brain on a much higher altitude, not down to the neuronal level. But again, I don't see why, like Cara said, we couldn't be doing something like this as a test in the lab and I could really see it. I think that we might be able to do something like this at this point. Apparently, there's something big about it using ions to communicate. I don't get that. I really want that to be science because that sounds like they would have crazy applications. Now, this third one, I don't like the whole idea that there's millions of mines. I could see a use for mines. I could see them, you know how we were talking about, were you saying forced hydro, Steve? Pumped hydro?

S: Pumped hydro, closed loop pumped hydro?

J: Yeah, closed loop pumped hydro.

E: I remember that.

J: Maybe they found a way to use these mines if they're capable of holding water. There's also like the, what do you call that, the salt battery. Maybe they're going to fill them up with sand or something like somebody said and use it to store heat. But millions of mines, I mean, god damn, that's a lot. Millions of abandoned mines worldwide that can be converted. I can't see that. I mean, even with as giant as the earth is, if you just break it down, like let's say in the United States, how many mines would there have to be in each state? It just doesn't seem plausible that there's that many mines. Just on that one thing alone, I'm going to say that that can't be science.

S: Okay. All right, so let's start with number two since you all agree with this one.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Researchers have developed artificial biorealistic nerve cells capable of communicating using ions and stimulating living cells. You guys all think this is science and this one is science.

J: Oh my god, how cool is that?

C: This is very cool.

E: That's pretty darn cool.

S: Here is the title of the article. Ion-tunable anti-ambipolarity in mixed ion-electron conducting polymers enables biorealistic organic electrochemical neurons.

J: Of course.

E: The lay public will eat that up.

C: Wait, so are they actually forming synapses?

S: Pretty much.

C: That's cool.

S: They fire in a biorealistic way. So they have the spikes at frequencies around 100 hertz. Here's the thing, Cara, they activate the channels on the nerves.

C: That's really cool.

S: It's not just like just ephaptically. Ephaptic means it's not going through any biological pathway. You could shock anything. I could shock you anywhere.

C: Of course, but this is actually telling the post-synaptic neuron to, oh, that's really neat.

B: What can't it do?

S: You asked. I don't want to get too much into the weeds, but just to give you the big view, they said there are 20 characteristics that scientists came up with to say this is what a biorealistic neuron would look like. This one has 15 of the 20.

B: What?

S: The previous iteration had like two. So this is a huge advance.

C: So but the weird thing is it's internal, I'm guessing, it's internal architecture is nothing like a cell.

S: No, it's a polymer.

C: Right. It's just like a little bit of plastic.

S: It's just plastic.

C: But when it secretes-

S: It's an organic polymer. That's it. But whatever, they structured it so that it can conduct electricity and spike in a realistic way.

J: Steve, can I hook this thing up to a computer?

S: And also release ions.

J: I mean, is this like-

S: The idea is to make-

B: Repair nerves.

S: -to make this into circuits.

J: Holy Christ, this is big.

S: You could also use this to communicate with the brain. You want the squishy electrodes, right? This would be an interface between the brain and the computer.

C: Oh, this is cool. I wonder if you could bypass damaged pathways.

S: Yeah. That's the other thing. They used it. The nerve they tested it on was the vagus nerve. They basically were able to stimulate the vagus nerve.

J: So it was about gambling then? What are you talking about?

S: V-A-G-U-S.

C: But that's kind of like a, it's a more gross application than stimulating individual cells. Stimulating a whole nerve to react is a little bit more. But still, that's freaking awesome. I mean, that's why when I read it, I thought it was a muscle twitch because that seems like that's what I would start with is the neuromuscular junction.

S: It's a good advance.

C: Yeah, it's cool.

S: And it shows you where the technology is headed. Okay, let's go back to number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Recent research demonstrates that with as few as three genetic changes, human hemoglobin can be made to function similarly to crocodilian hemoglobin, allowing for extended periods on a single breath of air. Bob and Jay think this one is science. Evan and Cara think this one is fiction. And this one is the fiction. Sorry, guys. But not really for the reason that you guys think, or at least think. So can crocodiles hold their breath for a long time because of their hemoglobin? Yes. That's exactly why they can hold. They can-

C: Is that the only reason?

S: It's the primary reason, Cara.

C: No. That's amazing.

S: The hemoglobin is awesome. So let me tell you how it works.

E: Super hemoglobin.

S: So vertebrate hemoglobin. So hemoglobin is the molecule in red blood cells that binds oxygen from your lungs and then delivers it through the blood to the tissue. And the tissues can extract the oxygen from the hemoglobin, right? So essentially, the hemoglobin has a very high affinity for oxygen, but cells need to have something that has a higher affinity for that oxygen so it could pull it from the hemoglobin. For most vertebrates, that is phosphate groups, right? So it uses phosphates to bind to the oxygen, and it does that very well, right? So the whole system works incredibly well, and it's very conserved, as Bob said. But crocodiles, the crocodilians, that whole group, manage to evolve a completely separate system. So their hemoglobin binds oxygen like normal hemoglobin, but their tissues extract the oxygen not using phosphates, but by using bicarbonates. And this is critical for two reasons. One is it extracts it much more slowly so that the oxygen can leach into the tissues over a long period of time. But also, the level of bicarbonate, which is carbon-based, right, is based on the level of carbon dioxide in the tissue, and carbon dioxide is the main byproduct of metabolism. So the tissues that need more oxygen automatically get it because they're making more bicarbonate, and therefore they will extract more oxygen from the hemoglobin.

C: And that's the signalling molecule. That's brilliant.

S: So it's a brilliant little system. Now what makes this fiction is that we can't get there in three genetic changes. What the research showed is that it could take as many as 20 mutations to make this happen and that the pathway to the crocodile hemoglobin is a long and torturous one where there had to have been multiple mutations sort of happening in concert. And the reason why-

C: Right, because otherwise wouldn't we see this in like a bunch of other animals?

S: Exactly. That's exactly the reason why they suspected this and were looking to try to reverse engineer the evolutionary pathway to crocodilian hemoglobin because like this is awesome. Why doesn't everybody have it, right? There's a lot of animals who could benefit from this from holding their breath longer, you know?

B: There's a lot that already do. They're not just crocodiles.

S: Yeah, exactly.

C: It also makes you wonder like which came first, the chicken or the egg? I mean these things must have been, obviously the genetic changes to the hemoglobin then affected that whole bicarb system, which affected the hemoglobin, which affected the bicarb system.

S: So here's the thing.

C: They were evolving in lockstep.

S: Researchers were comparing the hemoglobin of crocodiles to the hemoglobin of other extant species to try to figure out the evolutionary pathway and it just wasn't working. So what these researchers did is they were able to reverse engineer the hemoglobin of the ancestors of crocodiles, the common ancestor and their common ancestor with birds. And so to see like what is the pathway here? And they were able to in much greater detail reverse engineer the evolutionary pathway from that common ancestor hemoglobin, which was, so the common ancestor was the group was the archosaurs, which includes crocodilians and birds. So anyway, they found that-

E: That's pretty far back.

S: Yeah, this was really hard to evolve and that's why it only happened once.

C: Neat. And then they were just so awesome at surviving.

S: Yeah, they became a successful group.

B: How do other animals hold their breath for a long time?

S: They have large, very large lung capacity. They reduce their metabolism.

C: Or they might have better also some, they might also have slightly better hemoglobin, but not this whole cool bicarb system.

S: Yeah, but the crocodilians are the only ones that have this system, the bicarb, which is like almost like auto regulation built in. So that doesn't mean we could never genetically engineer it, but it's just a lot harder than the three quickie genetic tweaks. That's funny, Bob. In the literature, they call the crocodile hemoglobin scuba tanks. It is like the source of steady release of oxygen. That's why crocodiles drag their prey under the water and drown them.

E: Oh, sure, because you have no choice.

B: They do the death roll.

E: The death roll. That's right.

S: Yeah, the prey drowns and the crocodile's fine. It's a long time without having to breathe.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right, all this means that an international team of scientists have found that there are millions of abandoned mines worldwide that can be converted into grid storage units with as much as 70 terawatt hours of storage, about one day of world energy use, is science. And this is pretty cool, but I was a little disappointed when I did the calculation. This wasn't in the actual study that I could find anywhere. They said, yeah, it'd be anywhere from seven to 70. So I took the high number, the 70 terawatt hours. I did a calculation and it was funny. Just let me figure out in days, and it came out to almost exactly one day. Just a coincidence.

E: For the world.

S: Yeah, just like the number for the amount of energy used by the world in a year was almost exactly-

E: Gosh, we use a lot of energy.

S: Yeah, we use a lot.

B: Is this based purely on what, the volume of these mines?

S: No. So they are proposing a specific grid storage solution using these mines. Unfortunately, Cara, it uses sand. So sand is-

E: Oh, here we go. Precious resource.

S: Sand is the energy storage medium. But just like pumped hydro, it's pumped sand. Basically, they let the sand fall and use gravity to turn turbines and produce electricity. And then they use excess electricity to raise the sand to higher reservoirs.

C: So that's good because they're renewing the use. They're not using up the sand.

S: No, they're not using up the sand. That's right.

E: Right, it doesn't get destroyed or repurposed.

S: So they said there's a-

C: It's a global hourglass. I love that so much.

S: Yes, there's a couple of advantages to this. So one advantage is that there is zero energy loss. In other words, the energy does not dissipate over time because the sand doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't evaporate like water can. It doesn't slowly leak energy like a battery can, et cetera. So you could store energy basically forever in these systems, which means you could shift energy from the summer to the winter or even over years using this method. So it's good long-term energy storage.

B: How do you get it out? What, do you have to run lines to every damn cave in the world?

S: Well, they said that these mines are already wired, Bob. They're already wired for electricity because how else do you think they were functioning? So they already are connected to the grid. So that's an advantage.

B: Functioning, I mean, what do you mean? They're mines. Why do you need electricity? I mean, I guess you need lots of stuff.

S: Why do you need electricity in a mine?

B: Yeah, but the thing is, how do you – so what? Just because there's electricity, oh yeah, that means we can therefore pump out a lot of energy. You wouldn't need to update the lines and make them hardier.

S: They might have to, but they specifically listed it as an advantage that they already have a connection to the grid. But you're right. There may need to be updates or whatever. The other advantage is that a lot of these mines are just abandoned. They're just sitting there. Some of them are environmentally hazardous, but if left to their own devices. But if you convert them over to grid storage, it's actually better for the environment. This could be a benefit to the environment rather than posing an environmental risk or downside like even pumped hydro can. So that's good as well. Now Jay, you asked, I know millions of mines around the world, it always blows your – we have no sense of scale. What they found was there's over 550,000 just in the United States.

J: Wow.

S: And that's probably an underestimate because they're not all really carefully cataloged. That's what they were able to find. So yeah, they estimate there's millions around the world.

J: That's a lot.

S: Yeah, it's a lot. This isn't going to be the one grid storage solution, but this would be a good solution again for the long-term storage when you need to shift seasonally. That would be a good idea. But again, I was disappointed, yeah, but then you get one day of electricity. But that is for the whole world. So we're not going to be running the world off of grid storage at any point.

B: Oh, India's out. Let's help out India for a day. You're good.

S: Whatever. So you could see added to the grid system, this could be significant storage. And again, it could be shifted even significant amounts of time.

C: Wait, how long does it take to get one day of storage?

S: No, if you basically fully charged all of the mines, they would run the world for a day, basically.

C: But don't you only need to run it for a day?

S: No, then you're out of energy. After one day, you're out of energy.

C: Yeah, but then how much longer until they're fully charged again?

B: A million years.

S: Well, it depends on how much energy is pumped into them in order to reset them.

C: Yeah, that's what I'm curious about. Is it a day? Is it a day's worth? Is it a year's worth? Is it?

S: So the thing is, like any grid storage, you're using it just to shift energy from production to use to balance out the grid. This would be complimentary to I think, pumped hydro and battery. I think batteries are good for really fast point of use kind of storage. The pumped hydro is good for massive grid storage for shifting hours to days. And this would be good for shifting months or years. Just have that in the background if you need it. But I think we're probably going to need to use all of these things. But it was interesting to read about yet another method of potential grid storage that is workable and doesn't seem, this one seems to be environmentally friendly because it's using existing and abandoned infrastructure. These things are just sitting there.

C: Right. Yeah, I love that.

S: We're recycling. We're going to recycle those mines into grid storage.

B: How many centuries would it take to adapt a million mines?

S: I don't know. Well, I mean, how long did it, probably less time than it took to dig them. I think that digging the mines probably the hardest part of creating this gravity sand grid storage.

C: Yeah, Bob, it's not the same team going around to do all of that. You're hiring locals.

E: It depends how hard we crack the whips.

B: Talk about a job. I mean, that's like, that's a, wow, a million, here's a million mines. Let's put a thousand people on it.

S: Well, Bob, how many people did it take to build the mines in the first place? I mean, you got to think about it that way.

B: It's a lot of people over centuries. I'm just saying that's a gargantuan task. It's not like, let's get it ready for 2030 or 2040. Not gonna happen.

C: I don't know. It seems more plausible to me than that.

S: 2040? We could if we wanted to just hire a bunch of people.

C: Yeah, it's just like labor.

B: I think you're underestimating the amount of work that would be required.

S: I think you're underestimating the engineering capacity of the world.

C: Yeah, look what they just did for FIFA in like Doha. It's insane.

B: FIFA in Doha?

C: Yeah.

B: I don't know what you're talking about.

C: For the World Cup.

S: World Cup in soccer.

B: Oh, whatever.

E: It's a sport Bob. (laughter) There's a ball.

C: He's like FIFA, Doha, these are not words.

S: FIFA is acronym.

B: I saw it mentioned a bit on TV, but whatever.

C: Oh, yeah, they like literally built I mean, it's bananas what people can build very quickly.

S: If you have no ethics.

C: If you have enough money.

S: If you have a lot of money and no ethics.

C: Slave labor. Yeah, I mean, there was a lot of human rights violations there. We should mention that.

E: Oh my gosh, forget it.

C: Jesus.

E: You don't want to go there.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:50:43)[edit]

(quoted text)

– (author of quote), (description of author)


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

E: Okay, this week's quote was, well, provided by listener Vigo from Norway. Thank you, Vigo. He said, I thought it'd be fun to let ChatGPT generate a skeptical quote of the week this time. I hope you like it. Here was his prompt. "Generate a memorable and funny quote about the importance of skepticism in today's society. Please also give a very brief analysis of your own quote and its meaning." Here was the answer. Here's the quote. "Without skepticism, we'd believe everything we hear, like unicorns being real and pineapple on pizza being a good idea." (laughter)

C: That's amazing.

E: Chat GPT.

C: That's really impressive.

E: That's funny. That's funny. I have to love pineapple on my pizza. But regardless, I'm in the spirit of the whole thing. It was very, very clever. Thank you, Vigo.

J: Bob, what did you tell me about ChatGPT today?

B: Yeah, Microsoft is thinking of investing $10 billion in ChatGPT.

S: Oh, as long as we keep it up in short.

E: Oh, gosh, they're going to Skype it, right?

C: Yeah, it's like what percent ownership are they going to get for that investment?

B: No, I think if they do do that, I mean, the goal isn't, I don't think, going to be like, oh, let's integrate ChatGPT into a search engine. I think they're probably thinking beyond that on the level of like having, creating an AI assistant, which I think ChatGPT would be good for.

C: Yeah, we just don't want them to own the IP.

E: Right, or they sell advertising space to Coca-Cola on every answer it generates.

C: Oh it's coming next. You know that's going to happen.

E: Here's your answer. Enjoy Coca-Cola. Please, please, can't something be pure?

C: No, apparently not.

S: That would be the Simpson dystopian version of it. I heartily endorse this event or product. Okay, Evan, you already gave us a quote. All right. (laughter) Well, thank you.

J: Oh, my god.

C: I'm sorry. Please, buddy.

S: Brain fart. Well thank you all for joining me this week.

C: Thanks, Steve.

J: Okay, sure.

Signoff[edit]

S: Okay, Evan, you already gave us a quote. All right.

C: Well, thank you.

E: Oh, my god.

E: I'm sorry.

E: Please, buddy

J: Brain fart.

S: Thank you all for joining me this week.

E: Thanks, Steve.

S: Okay, sure.

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 info@theskepticsguide.org. 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.

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