SGU Episode 915

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SGU Episode 915
January 21st 2023
915 Webb Exoplanet.jpg

The Webb Telescope's first confirmed exoplanet is 99 percent the diameter of Earth. LHS 475 b is just 41 ly away.

SGU 914                      SGU 916

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

You cannot reason someone out of something they were not reasoned into.

Johnathan Swift, Anglo-Irish satirist

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, CNET gaffe & Chat GPT[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 Thursday, January 19th, 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 you all doing?

J: Good. How are you doing?

C: I like your use of y'all. I appreciate that.

S: So, to get right into some interesting conversation, you guys seen that CNET was publishing articles entirely written by ChatGPT, and it was pretty much a disaster. (laughter)

B: Well, the articles or the PR based on the fact that they did it?

S: Both, because the articles were, a lot of them were just factually incorrect.

B: My God, they didn't vet them first? That's ridiculous.

S: Well, that's the question because they claim that the articles were edited, that they were written by ChatGPT, but then they were edited by their editorial staff. And so the question is, were they really edited? And if they were really edited, how did they let egregious errors get through? There were some math errors, for example, which we know that ChatGPT doesn't do that well. But it's interesting, this first foray into just having ChatGPT write articles didn't go very well. And CNET, I think they're being a little coy about exactly what their process was. So, the question was, maybe they weren't editing them as thoroughly as they would a human written article. Maybe the authoritative voice of the articles and the fact that this was written by an AI kind of put the editors off their game and they maybe didn't look at them that closely. They're like, yeah, this is cogent. And they didn't bother fact checking them. But something went terribly awry.

J: You'd think that they would want to put them up unedited just because it seems like a stunt.

S: No, it wasn't. That's the thing.

E: That's the problem.

S: It's not like they were transparent about it. They weren't saying, hey, folks, this was something we produced through ChatGPT. Take a look at it as a meta article about ChatGPT. They just published it under the byline like the CNET staff or something.

E: CNET money staff.

S: CNET money staff.

C: Yikes.

E: Yes.

C: Not CNET money robot staff.

E: Nothing up front letting you know that this was an AI generated article. You had to do some digging a little bit to reveal that information. It was just not apparent from the first glance.

S: Interesting. I personally see this as just growing pains for the technology. So first of all, be up front about where the article is coming from. And you'll need to come up with some language about the process. AI generated, but whatever, editorially reviewed by whoever. And then editors have to know that what ChatGPT can and cannot do, you still have to fact check it. It's just sort of regurgitating whatever crap is on the internet. But it doesn't know what's right and what's not right.

E: So will the technology get there in that direction of the accuracy? Will it be able to pare that down?

S: Yeah. That's an interesting question. Can they include some kind of fact checking in the process itself? Some internal fact checking or improve the algorithm so that it relies more – like it somehow can tell what better information from worse information and then bias the algorithm towards more reliable information.

B: I wonder – that's an interesting idea though. How would ChatGPT actually fact check? Because you would think that everything it apparently knows in quotes or understands would be already fact checked because that's – it went through all the training data. And how does it handle information that's – discrepancies where two different sources are saying two different things? I don't know. I don't know. But yeah, they need some way to do some sort of fact checking whether – maybe it's external to the training data or rate sources for reliability. I don't know. I think it's totally doable, sure.

E: I would even be satisfied if the chat itself revealed, hey, there are many opinions on this particular thing. For example, XYZ says this and ABC says this. It sort of brings the – that level of – well, the fact that it's still under discussion or controversy or whatever you want to call it.

J: Yeah, I agree, Ev. That's a good point. Sometimes it might want to put in its sources into what it's giving you as information. So you have an idea of where it's coming from and-

E: Sure.

J: -maybe even – maybe it even rates what it thinks the reliability is.

E: Reliability, yeah.

B: Based on what though?

E: Well, it has to – it has to learn, does it not? It has to-

B: Yeah, but it just – it goes through billions of websites and the websites don't have a rating to how reliable they are. So how is it supposed to know?

J: But they could though, Bob. That's the thing. Sources can be rated for the amount of trust you're giving them.

B: Yeah, but then you're limiting – but then you're putting a limit on the training data because you want to go through and have as much – a lot of training data, billions of pages and there's no way you're going to rate a billion webpages for reliability before you train your–

J: You could rate – as an example, you could – in each field say, they rate pages that they say are the most trustworthy. So at least it knows like what a "empirical source of information" could be for that topic.

S: Hey, Google has algorithms that it uses to promote better information over worse information. ChatGPT could use similar algorithms to bias its output for information that has certain features like it comes from academic sources or non-profit sources or whatever, some determination of more authoritative sources. Or if some answer is the 80% answer, then it will favor that over the 20% answer assuming that the other factors also favor it. So whatever. They could just use some predictive algorithm to stay which – and when you train the data and you have to feed back into the loop was the answer correct or not and then it uses the process to figure out the correct answer over incorrect answers. I mean just kind of build that into truthiness into the algorithm.

E: And does the AI actually "learn" from that? In other words, once it realizes that something is more reliable than not, then it will start to ignore the things that are less reliable?

S: Yeah.

B: It's really good. I mean when you have extended back and forth chatting with ChatGPT, everything you discussed with it, it remembers until you close it all out. But yeah, it remembers everything. So it could base answers to your conversation later in the conversation. Those answers will reflect things that – your back and forth, your conversation.

E: It's still very early in the technology, extremely early. A lot of room for growing.

B: Yeah. I was listening to just an open AI executive and he was saying how people – he's like there's so much misinformation going around about ChatGPT – I mean GPT 4.0 and he's like people are just setting themselves up to be disappointed. He wouldn't commit to a release date. He wouldn't even commit to it. Maybe this year but not definitely this year. He said something interesting. He said that he believes that people, when they use GPT 4.0 or whatever as more of like an assistant which is kind of where this is all going where you have a personal digital assistant that knows you better than you know you. That's what we're heading towards and I'm just very excited by that, to have an entity going through the web, looking for things it knows I would love or things that it predicts I would love that I've never seen before, whatever. So he was saying that you should be able to have a conversation with your assistant and you could say, this is what I want. This is the kind – you could get a little edgy. You could use sources that are a little not PC and that's fine. That's how I want you to be or you could have a scenario where you say you're a teacher in school and you could say, I want my assistant to be locked down, totally safe and PC and everything on board, nothing, no bias at all, none of that. So you could actually have – you will tweak it for it to behave the way you want it to behave to be the best assistant for you.

J: You know what would be cool, imagine like you say, I want my assistant to be Darth Vader.

B: Yeah.

C: That's a terrible idea. I do not want Darth Vader to be my assistant at anything.

J: No, but you get what I'm saying.

C: Yeah, I do. I do. Like he could have a certain personality.

E: He'd give it a personality, oh boy.

C: The problem is it might make decisions based on that personality. You don't want that.

B: I just force choked three people that I knew you wouldn't like.

C: Exactly. Like, ooh, too far.

S: The other thing about going back to the CNET thing is that the ChatGPT like only is trained on data. What was it, up to 2021?

C: Oh, well, that's not very helpful for news.

S: It's not up to date. Yeah, it's not even up to date.

J: Hey, guys, don't forget. We're still in beta here, man.

S: I know.

J: It's open to the public because they want to have a massive increase in data for learning.

C: But that's exactly why they shouldn't have used it on their platform.

S: Right. That's my point.

E: Or disclosed that they did do this. They should have been it should have been apparent, transparent from the get go.

S: But I think we will be seeing this just the allure is too great, especially the mindless tasks of just writing really just dry copy that's factual. Just sort of using a bot to do that, I think, is going to be a thing.

C: Oh, yeah, for sure.

S: Very, very quickly.

C: I think so, too.

S: This is a blip. This is a blip in the road.

C: Following like perfect grammatical rule. I mean, that's like one of the things like don't use passive voice like, oh, I got to get so creative right now just to write uncreative stuff.

B: What's a blip? Do you mean the CNET thing?

S: Yeah.

E: Yes.

B: Or chat or?

S: No, the CNET fiasco.

B: Yeah, yeah. Because yeah, because GPT and ChatGPT, that's not going to be a blip.

C: Yeah. And I think the other, I guess, not going to be a blip is how universities are. I mean it's like every article. So much of the write around that I'm seeing online right now is about how universities are handling this. Like, what do we do?

B: The OpenAI CEO said that he compared it to calculators when calculators became a thing and people just had to deal with the fact that, yes, they could bring calculators into tests and they could use them. They just had to deal with it.

C: Well, there's two things that they did. Like on the one hand, there were certain scenarios in which they said, now we have to make the test a calculator friendly test. So we've got to test like more complex mental processes. But then on the other hand, they could say no calculators allowed. And that's part of the problem. You can't bring a calculator into your SAT or at least you couldn't when I took it.

B: Yeah.

C: They expected you to do it without a calculator. But so like, you can't be like no chat bots allowed if it's homework. So maybe they're going to do more timed sit down and write an essay right now. You have the hour.

B: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And initially, there will be ways where teachers will be able to determine like there's a high likelihood that this was created using ChatGPT.

E: Yeah, ChatGPT detection software.

B: That's short term. Anyone that's even a little industrious will be able to get around that. And it's just we just got to deal with it and not try to stop it because-

C: Yeah, it's similar to Turnitin. You guys probably never had to use Turnitin back when you were in school.

S: No.

E: I don't even know what that is.

C: Yeah, I didn't have to use it in undergrad or master's, but only in this PhD. So since 2017, I had a couple of classes where you were expected to put your paper through Turnitin, which is like this online platform. And it basically scans it.

E: Oh, it scans it for plagiarism.

C: Yeah, and gives you the probability that you plagiarized it.

B: Oh, wow. Nice.

C: And it also does, I mean, it's also kind of nice because it's almost got a grammarly type software built into it. So it also is like, hey, this is a weird thing.

E: Make suggestions.

C: You didn't cite this and blah, blah, blah. But yeah, it definitely, if you're above a certain percentage, it's basically like other things on the internet are too similar. It's hard when you do super academic papers because there are certain phrases that you always use. And those phrases flag it for plagiarism. So you have to kind of sometimes go through and change the algorithm a little bit. But yeah, it's interesting. I mean, that does exist. So I don't see why like you said, they're going to come up with something for ChatGPT too.

SBM Announcement (13:20)[edit]

S: Before we move on to some news content, a quick announcement. Science-Based Medicine will be hosting a virtual screening of the movie Virulent, the Vaccine War. It's a great documentary about the anti-vaccine movement and all about vaccine hesitancy and all of that. You can screen at any time between now and January 29th. And then on Sunday, January 29th, that's 7pm Eastern time, there will be a live Q&A with me, David Gorski from Science-Based Medicine and the filmmakers, director, producer, Tardis Greenness, and producer, Laura Davis. So the four of us will be available for a live Q&A about the film. They are asking for a suggested donation of $12.50. That's the early bird rate that goes up to $15 on Tuesday, January 24th. So a nominal fee to help support the film, to get it out there spread the word as much as possible. So we would appreciate you doing that. And you can get the link and all the information on Science-Based Medicine. The announcement, I believe, is pinned to the top, but you'll see it very quickly, the virtual screening and Q&A for Virulent.

Quickie with Jay: Intermittent fasting (14:35)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, you're starting us off with a Quickie with Jay. You're going to tell us about intermittent fasting.

B: Ooh.

E: But only tell us a little bit at a time.

J: So according to a recent study on fasting versus calorie restriction, what they found was that eating less overall was the only effective way to lose weight. So they had 550 adults, 18 years or older, and they tracked them for six years. They were using a mobile app to keep track of-

B: Six years?

J: -what they ate, what time they ate, when they slept.

B: Screw that, man. That's a lot of work.

J: And the data found the following. So they found that meal timing was not associated with weight change during the six-year follow-up period. And this includes the interval from first to last meal, from waking up to eating a first meal, from eating the last meal to going to sleep, and total sleep duration. The total daily number of large meals estimated at more than 1,000 calories and medium meals estimated at 500 to 1,000 calories were each associated with increased weight over the six-year follow-up, while fewer small meals estimated that less than 500 calories were associated with decreasing weight.

B: Really?

J: Yep.

C: Right, but you did say the total number of large meals.

J: Total daily number of large meals.

C: Exactly. So if you're only taking one large meal versus three large meals, you might have seen some similarity with one large meal and five small meals, for example.

J: Sure.

C: Yeah. Because you said it's really just the number of calories.

J: It does come down to the calories. So the average time from the first to last meal was 11.5 hours, which if you think about when you eat dinner or when's the last thing that you eat and then you get up and then you have breakfast, how long is that interval? And apparently the average for this group was 11.5 hours. And they said that the study did not detect an association between meal timing and weight change in a population with a wide range of body weight. The summary here is that it really came down to and only came down to how many calories you're eating in the 24 hour period. So fasting, saving all your calories for one meal or fasting in any way, which is just putting more time in between meals, didn't do anything.

C: Well, I think what we're leaving out though is the psychological component of that. So for some people, the way for them to restrict their calories is to not eat most of the day and then eat a lot in one sitting because there's only so much one can eat in one sitting. Does that make sense?

J: Yeah, I totally get that. I mean, people use fasting as a way to control what they're doing. It's a method, but in and of itself, fasting is just a tool, but it's not, it doesn't do the operative thing here, which is lose weight.

C: That's a great way to put it. It's a tool that works for some people based on their own eating habits and their own style and what they can tolerate and what they can't.

B: If you could eat a small breakfast, lunch and dinner and restrict your calories, if you could do that and lose weight, that's great. Or if you're the kind of person that needs to go for an 18 hour run, but an 18 hour span where you're not eating and you have just one big meal, then that's fine too. It doesn't matter. You can't be anal about the timing and the amounts of food that you eat. It's all about absolute number of calories. That's the takeaway. That's it. That's it.

C: And probably what that's really showing, because this is aggregate data, is if we looked at each individual person, different things work for different people. Just like you said, some people probably need to eat a tiny amount every hour because they need to regulate their blood sugar better and they're in a better mood when they do that. And just overall, they feel better.

S: It's just more evidence that the only thing that really matters when it comes to weight is calories in, calories out, and that other things are just nibbling around the edges. I mean, I can't say it has zero effect, but it's not significant.

B: Yeah. Don't focus on cardio to lose fat because it's not going to be the main driver. It'll be a very minimal driver of fat loss.

S: It's good for you overall.

B: It's great for you for other reasons.

E: Yeah, for heart health.

B: For other reasons.

C: If you want to lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories.

B: That's it. That's the 80-20 or 90-10 of losing fat is eating fewer calories.

S: But people love to focus on that 10%, man, because that's where we focus our mind.

B: Oh my god, right?

J: It's very important to eat a varied diet and to eat green leafy vegetables.

C: Yeah, get your micronutrients.

J: You got to have that variation or else you're not going to get everything that you need. It's super easy to have a limited diet and basically not be getting the nutrition that your body needs.

B: Yeah. I'm fine with vegetables at this point, but for me, I don't eat enough fruit at all. It's just like not on my radar.

S: I love fruit.

E: I love fruit.

J: You got to have it in the house ready to go, right, Ev? You got to have it-

E: Yeah, banana. You got to have the-

B: It doesn't matter.

E: I've got the clementines this time of year. They're perfect. At least one of those a day.

B: It doesn't matter. Liz was laughing at me, she's like, yep, I had to throw out the two apples we had. We had just two apples for a week and they weren't touched. I'm like, oh, I can't eat these now. Holy crap, even two pieces of fruit we have a problem eating. So it's like I just got to make sure-

J: I eat probably a dozen apples a week.

E: Oh, yeah. If there's apples in the house, I'll-

B: Screw apples, man. They're not (Evan laughs) they are not in terms of, if you like them, that's fine. Eat them. They're delicious. I love them.

E: You get some vitamin, let's see-

B: In terms of like pure nutrition, apples just don't have a lot of nutrition compared to other fruits.

J: They've got fiber.

S: Get strawberries. Get a little box of strawberries.

B: Not much more else.

E: Blueberries, very good.

S: Very well. There's a lot of nutrition in them.

C: Bob, you know what you can do?

B: What?

C: This is what I do. So because I think, Bob, you may struggle with something similar to what I struggle with, which is not living alone. I live alone alone, so it's just me. But the smaller the household number, the harder it is to keep a lot of fresh food in the house because it just goes bad really fast. You can't always eat the whole bag of salad or the whole whatever. Yes, you can buy a single apple, so that's not really an excuse. But one of the things that I do because I don't eat enough fruit either is I keep frozen berries and I just make smoothies a lot with frozen berries.

J: That's a great idea.

B: That's not bad.

C: They last forever.

E: Berries are good.

J: I make my kids smoothies with that same thing, Cara. You think about like, because I'm also putting spinach and kale and-

C: Yeah, you can, you can add all sorts. And I put yogurt and protein powder in them.

E: Yogurt. Yeah, yogurt.

C: It's super good for you. And then they never go bad. They're just always ready for you in the freezer.

J: You better fix that shit, Bob. You got to eat, man. (laughter)

E: Wow.

C: You're making him worry.

B: Well, you got to move away from a dozen apples a day and go get a better fruit.

C: He said a week, by the way, not a day.

J: I eat everything. I buy all different kinds of stuff and constantly shaking it up. Don't worry about me. Worry about yourself. (Cara laughs

S: Well, that was some quickie. All right.

E: It was a smoothie quickie.

News Items[edit]

Tech Devices and Brain Development (21:43)[edit]

S: Cara, tell us about the effects of using all of these tech devices on our brain development.

C: Ooh, okay.

E: Is it good?

C: Is it good?

E: Is it bad?

C: So there's a really fascinating study that was just published in NeuroImage called Technologically Assisted Communication. Here's the giveaway. Attenuates inter-brain synchrony. Okay. What does that mean?

B: Nice.

C: So these researchers from the University of Montreal, they came up with a pretty ingenious experimental design. They recruited pairs of mothers and basically adolescent children. They ranged in age between 10 and 14. The average age was 12. And they set up an interesting paradigm. They looked at three different test conditions. In one test condition, the mom and the child sat side by side and just stared at the wall. So it was sort of like a control condition. In another condition, the mom and the child sat facing each other in the same room and they had some kind of pre-planned conversations. So basically they told them, plan a camping trip together or talk about a trip that you want to take to an amusement park. So something exciting. And then they talked. And then in the third condition, they did the exact same thing, but instead of sitting across from each other, they were online. They were across a screen. So they were in separate rooms, the doors were locked and they were only communicating via like Zoom or whatever. And they used a really interesting, I had to look this up because I didn't know about this scanning technology because it's super, super new. I think it only just started like, I don't know, a lot of the articles about it are from like 2020, 2021, 2016. But I found something from the early 2000s, but maybe it was like still very new then, called hyperscanning EEG. So hyperscanning EEG is, you guys know about traditional EEG, right? Electroencephalography. Okay. So hyperscanning electroencephalography actually is simultaneous readings from two different people who are engaged in a social task to try and find synchrony in the brain waves. So it's not just that we want to see what brain waves are happening at any given time. We want to see, are they synchronizing? Because there's a fair amount of evidence that shows that when individuals are socially engaged that certain things synchronize in the brain. We've also seen this in animals. There's like a lot of animal models of this, but this is like a relatively kind of new-ish area of research is this kind of social neurological activity. And so what do you think they found in these different test paradigms?

B: I think they found you could catch COVID by synchronizing brain waves.

C: (laughs) Do they think they found more or less synchrony in which group?

B: Oh, face to face. Come on.

E: That would be my guess. More face to face.

C: Right. So more face to face. And what would you say if I told you that you're right, but that also they found only one synchronous brain region that they tested when they were looking across the computer and nine when they were face to face. And these are different areas. So it's not like they were, and they're pretty broad though. I mean, this is EEG, right? So it's just looking at brain waves and it's picking it up from the skull. So basically we're not going to get down to like the nitty gritty of exactly where these things were occurring in the brain. But they found, and I want to kind of highlight this because I think this is the meat here. In face to face interaction, they saw a wide net of connections. They saw same region, same hemisphere links. They saw same region, different hemisphere links. And then they saw multi-region patterns of connectivity. They especially were interested in, based on previous research, areas where the mother and the child's frontal and temporal regions were oscillating at the same frequency. The frequency that a lot of these same, same oscillations occurred at tended to be beta, kind of in the beta zone. But the one link that connected the brains during the video chat was between the mother's right frontal region of her brain and the child's left temporal region of the brain. So basically what they didn't see between mom and child across the computer was right to right linkage, which was concerning because right to right linkage tends to be where we're seeing a lot of that prosody of speech, the social interaction, a lot of the things that we think of as being important for kind of empathy and for learning social cues. So this empathic engagement and the social learning, the authors have a rich literature review in here about how important it is for kids to develop pro-social skills. Basically cognitive, social cognition. When somebody makes that face and then they use that tone of voice, what are they telling me? Are they being sarcastic right now? Are they being authentic with me? If their eyes go over here, what does that mean? What are all these social cues? These are things we learn when we're really young. And so the researchers basically said we need a ton more research to know what this actually means, but it does worry us about the kids that are doing all online education right now. Because we're seeing that their brains are not reacting the same way when we look at two people who are engaging with one another as if they were face to face. And that is disconcerting. They go on to say, we did not study this specifically, but we speculate and would love to see somebody else or maybe later on we will study that this may contribute to that Zoom fatigue that so many people talk about. Because if you're on Zoom and your brain isn't naturally synchronizing with the person that you're on Zoom with, it's going to take more mental effort to try and read their cues and to try to basically use empathy and social engagement that would have happened maybe more naturally and less effortfully if you were in face to face communication. So they hypothesize that maybe that's why people feel more exhausted by engaging socially on a computer than they do face to face. Because they actually need more effort and more energy to get the same social cues. It's interesting. I think it's a pretty robust study. I think it's pretty smart and clean and easy. It was pre-registered. They did a lot of good science and statistics in it, obviously. And they're pretty good about saying, these are things we're concerned about and we need to study more. We're not saying this is exactly what's happening. We're not saying because your brains aren't as synchronous as they are face to face, therefore kids are lacking empathy or therefore kids aren't learning social skills. They're not jumping to that, but they're saying there's a concern here that we should probably address and study more. What do you think about it, Steve? I mean, I'm curious because I know this is probably fascinating to you, as fascinating to you as it is to me.

S: Yeah. I mean, unfortunately, this kind of data is so complicated to interpret because there are so many possible pathways of cause and effect. But I think the basic concept that our brains basically do function on these two levels. This is like the thinking fast, thinking slow kind of concept where things that it does a lot, it automates and it does in the background unconsciously and efficiently. But you always have the ability to do things from the top down with more analytical and more conscious. And it takes a lot more energy.

B: And time.

S: And more mental energy, more effort. But it's also more versatile and more specific. You know what I mean in that like when you do an analysis, you actually crunch the numbers as to saying, ah, it feels like this, you know? So in this, all of our social stuff, it does tend to be very automatic in the background, efficient, use minimal energy. For the neurotypical person, I should say.

C: Exactly.

S: There are people that don't-

C: And a neurotypical adult.

S: -that aren't typical for whom social interactions are extremely energetic. They are exhausting. Things that most people would take for granted, they find utterly exhausting because they don't have those modules of automatic synchronization.

C: And they only looked at neurotypical pairs in this study. But so the important kind of thing is that kids don't just know how to have social intelligence. They learn it through experience. And when we think about academics, that's built in a little. I do think that more and more recently because we have such a good understanding of child development and psychology and social psychology and all of that, that that's thought about when planning curriculum, right? Kids in kindergarten are learning social skills intentionally now. But so much of it is still happening in the background. You might be learning algebra, but you're learning algebra in a classroom where you're engaging with the teacher and where you're seeing the teacher's micro expressions and where you're locking, you're making eye contact with the other students. And that is the part that the authors are saying is sadly and kind of scarily probably getting lost. And that part might be pretty foundational to outcomes later in life. They do point to studies, they didn't study this at all, but they do point to studies about psychopathology that happens when the pair bonding isn't there. And they've actually been able to look at animal models where they disrupt synchrony and the animals are less interested in making eye contact and they don't spend as much time together. So we do see, I mean, I think it's not a leap to say that this is fundamental for this behavior, but you're right with the cause and effect question, that's not answered by this study. What's great about hyperscanning EEG though is that it has a high level of ecological validity because they were able to counterbalance. It wasn't like they were comparing one group that sat face to face to another group that sat across the computer. All groups did all conditions and they compared their own brains. So that really shows you that there is a fundamental difference between these different tasks. Because all the other variables are kept controlled when you're able to use the same people and just counter match them against these different conditions. So some did one first, some did the other first blah, blah, blah. Like they use good experimental design.

S: Yeah. It's always one of those studies where the questions it generates are more interesting than the actual findings. And it's, it suggests a line of research that you really want to see how it plays out.

C: And they wrote about that well. They were very good at doing exactly what good scientists do, which is saying, although we didn't study this explicitly and although we can't make any claims to this, we wonder if, and it would be important if more people studied, or we worry that, and it would be important if more people studied this phenomenon. So I appreciate that.

S: Yeah.

C: Yeah.

S: All right, let's go on.

Latest Cancer Statistics (33:03)[edit]

S: So the latest cancer statistics are out is the 2023 report, which basically covers data through 2020, because it takes a couple of years to really crunch all the data. So what do you guys think? And actually, this does include some data through 2022 as well. But specifically in the 2023 report, they looked at a lot of data, but they looked specifically at the death rate from cancer. So there's a lot of ways you could look at how much cancer is out there, basically. You could look at the incidence, how many new people get diagnosed with cancer. You could look at the severity of the cancer at the point that it's being diagnosed. You could look at survival, like once you get the diagnosis, how long do you survive? And you can also look at the death rate, just how many people are dying from cancer. The death rate is kind of all of those things combined, right? Because obviously, the more people who get cancer, the more people are going to die from it. But of course, the better it's treated, the fewer people who are going to die. The older people live, the more people are going to be getting cancer, and therefore, more people are going to be dying from it. The more cancers we capture diagnostically, the numbers go up. And if we're sort of not capturing it, then we could be missing numbers. There's a lot of things potentially going on statistically, epidemiologically within that number. And when you delve into very specific cancers, we can't assume that. But if you look at all of the cancer, what do you guys think in general?

C: It's getting better.

E: Yeah, detection's up and survivability's up.

B: Incrementally down.

S: But again, let's look at just the death rate. Let's focus on that.

C: Death rate has gone down.

E: Death rate, it's got to go down.

S: It's got to go down, right? And basically, because treatment's getting better.

C: Yeah. But that's not what we saw early on after the "war on cancer". We actually saw because of all of those things that you mentioned.

S: Well, initially, when you go from not diagnosing to diagnosing, the numbers skyrocket.

C: Yeah, exactly. And it looks so much worse.

S: It's not the real numbers. It's just the recorded numbers.

C: And also, when we have these incredible treatments, like you mentioned, that keep people alive longer, we see some changes, some epidemiological changes downstream from that as well. There's a really good, by the way, if you haven't read The Emperor of All Maladies, the Siddhartha Mukherjee, I highly, highly recommend it because he dives deep into exactly this. I mean, it's only one component. He gives the whole history of cancer. But it's one really good component. How we measure cancer has a lot of bias in it and a lot of caveating that we have to do.

S: One thing that is interesting statistically is what's called lead time bias. If you get better at diagnosing cancers at an earlier stage, it will appear as if people survive longer with cancer just from that fact alone, even if they're not getting better treated. But all right, but let's go back to, say, 1991. So that's the last 30 years when basically we've been using the same methods. We kind of worked out all of this stuff and the surveillance and everything had plateaued. Any differences over the last 30 years are probably mostly from actual treatment. So what do you think the reduction in cancer deaths have been over the last 30 years?

C: What do you mean? How are you asking?

E: As a percentage?

S: How much? Give me one percentage for the last 30 years from 1991 to 2020.

B: 25%.

C: From 1991? I mean, we already had so many good drugs.

E: Without cheating, I would have guessed 49%.

C: 7%. Wow, that high? 20% then? I don't know.

B: 25 for me.

S: 33. 33%.

C: That's great.

S: So that's more than 1% per year, a little bit more than 1% per year.

C: That's incredible.

S: That has been the rate. It's been 1% per year basically for the last three decades.

C: That's incredible.

S: It is incredible.

B: That's great.

S: It's like battery technology and all that stuff.

E: Steadily moving forward.

S: So steady, incremental 1% per year, like clockwork almost. There was a question actually, and some people were anticipating this report was, did we lose ground during the pandemic? And the answer is no. Actually from 2019 to 2020, cancer deaths declined by 1.5%, a little bit above average for the last 30 years.

B: Awesome.

S: Yeah, the pandemic. If it did have a factor, it was overwhelmed by new treatments. There's also prevention, right? You prevent cancers, that also reduces the death rate. So what do you think the biggest cancer was specifically in terms of reduction in cancer deaths? And especially in the last five to 10 years, that's sort of a big hint.

C: Five to 10 years. Oh, that's a big hint? Really?

S: Yeah.

C: Not long. Lymphoma? I'm trying to think. We've got, okay, so now we have, there's so many different factors here because now we have immunotherapy, which is like amazing.

S: So I'll tell you, the incidence of this cancer decreased from 2012 to 2019, right, over those seven years, decreased by 65%.

B: Whoa.

C: Oh, cervical?

E: Nice.

S: Yes, cervical cancer.

C: Yeah, because of the HPV vaccine.

S: HPV, absolutely.

E: Oh, vaccination.

C: Buckers.

E: Damn.

S: The biggest, I think, set of information in this data is this dramatic drop in the incidence of cervical cancer, 65% drop, which of course then leads, the death is a little bit delayed because people take time to die, basically. So that will, so we're anticipating in the future that the death numbers from cervical cancer are going to really go down. And that 65 drop should continue to decrease because of, there's actually really good herd immunity with the HPV vaccine. So quick background.

C: Well, there has to be because guys like...

S: People spread it. This is the communicable virus.

C: There's little vectors out there.

S: Yeah, so this is the human papillomavirus, actually quite a number of different human papillomaviruses. And they cause virtually all cervical cancer. They also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx. Not as much as cervical cancer, again, which is virtually all. So for those people who were, they said sexually active females age 14 to 24 who were vaccinated showed a 90% reduction in infections with HPV 16 or 18. And those who were not vaccinated showed a 74% reduction in infections.

E: Oh, that's the herd.

S: That's the herd immunity. So even if you were not vaccinated, then you still see the reduction. It's just less circulating around.

C: But they were looking at what age range?

S: Sexually active females age 14 to 24.

C: That's why, yeah. Because you see that anybody above, like basically my age and older, not only are they not vaccinated, but neither are their partners. The herd immunity has a very clean break in age range. So it depends on the age of your sexual partners, but there is a year at which, and it sucks because we had to chase it. I'm finally vaccinated, but I wasn't able to get vaccinated when I was young. It wasn't approved.

E: It wasn't available?

C: No, it wasn't approved.

E: It wasn't approved.

C: It wasn't approved for people my age, so insurance wouldn't cover it, and it's an insanely expensive vaccine.

E: Oh, interesting.

S: There is a huge difference state by state in the US in terms of uptake of the HPV vaccine. Mississippi was the worst.

C: I'm not surprised.

S: 13 to 17 year old girls in Mississippi only have a 32% uptake.

C: It's horrifying.

S: Now that is not necessarily related to the politics of Mississippi, although that certainly is a factor, but it's also because they just have also the worst health care in the United States.

C: Yeah, and which is also related to education.

E: Socioeconomic.

S: It's all kind of ties together, but it's not like one simple cause and effect. It's not just hesitancy.

C: But are there places where the vaccine's mandated? I think there are.

'S: So the other lowest state is West Virginia at 43%. The states with a high proportion are Massachusetts, 73%, Hawaii, 74%, and Rhode Island, 83%. Those are the highest. So that's a big difference, like twice as much from lowest to highest, even more.

C: It should be even more than that. It should be 100%. There's no reason.

S: 35% plus, yeah. But there's a lot of vaccine hesitancy out there, and parents are very anxious about vaccinating their kids.

C: There's also some weird puritanical stuff about why would I vaccinate an 11-year-old against an STI? It's like the whole point is that you're vaccinating them before they're sexually active.

S: Before, exactly. Exactly. You're right. There's some puritanicalism or whatever there. But vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vaccine movement is definitely playing a role. And this is just another example of how it kills, how misinformation absolutely kills. We have a vaccine that prevents cancer. Think about that. And it works. It works immensely.

C: And this is clearly-

B: That's like Star Trek medicine, man. Here's a vaccine against cancer. Hello.

C: And this is clearly near and dear to my heart, and it should be to any adult over a certain age who's listening to this show who didn't have access to that vaccine but knows that their kids do. I mean, obviously, I got cervical cancer from this very reason. I'm very lucky that I caught it early, but I had to have a pretty life-altering operation.

B: Oh, wow. Yeah, that'd be-

E: That's right.

C: Yeah. And then, of course, I also have the vaccine now, so I feel like I'm safe moving forward for the future. But your daughters and sons, by the way, may never have to deal with this. I think about, I mean, I know it's not as severe, but I think about chickenpox, too. We are of a generation, everybody who's talking on the show, where we all just had to get chickenpox, but now young people are vaccinated against chickenpox.

E: I got my chickenpox.

C: Yeah. Yeah, we all just had to get it.

E: Early 80s, yeah. Yeah. Oh, yeah, there were chickenpox parties.

C: Yeah, that was horrible. It was a terrible idea.

S: It was a terrible idea.

J: I never got it.

E: You never got the chickenpox?

J: No.

C: And the thing is, now we all have a risk of shingles because of this. But there's a shingles vaccine.

S: Now, there's a shingles vaccine. Yeah, absolutely.

C: Yeah, thank goodness.

S: The other pullout of this data that's worth talking about is the prostate cancer risk, which for the first time in 20 years went up.

C: But isn't that because we've changed all the screening things so much?

S: Yeah. Not just screening, so this is an interesting story of how to balance the benefits and risks of doing screening. So back in the, so you go back prior to 20 years ago, it was standard of care to do prostate-specific antigen, which is a blood test in all men over age 50, in order to screen for prostate cancer. But then what they found, and then prostate cancer rates went significantly down. Well, actually, it was kind of both where they initially went up because we were catching more of it, but people were surviving longer with it because we were catching it earlier. So actually, it caused an increase in prostate cancer diagnoses. Then there was data which showed that, you know what, there's a huge false positive rate to this, and then there are a lot of men who are getting unnecessary procedures. Maybe it's not a good screening test. So then the recommendation was to not do it routinely. And then prostate cancer diagnoses plummeted, but they didn't go away. We just weren't diagnosing them because we weren't screening. But then the data started to show that, oh, now that we're not routinely using PSA for screening, men are being diagnosed later in the course of their prostate cancer where the treatments are not as effective and the interventions are more invasive, and maybe this isn't such a good idea. So now, and this is now the first time to show that, yeah, now that we're not routinely screening more men are dying from prostate cancer. So maybe we overreacted to the false positive. So now they're kind of compromising in the middle, saying, okay, for men over 50, we're not saying that you need to get screened with PSA or that you shouldn't get screened with PSA. Just talk about it with your doctor and make an individualized decision with informed consent. So they're basically punting to the individual practitioners, which I guess is better because like either extreme of always doing it and never doing it wasn't good. And so, okay, we'll compromise in the middle. But I'm not sure like I'm 58. Should I get my PSA done? I guess I would do it and just deal with a false positive if it happens. Of course, you don't know if it's a false positive or a true positive.

C: Well, then they have to do a biopsy.

S: So what's your, yeah. So what's the question? Do you want to get a biopsy that you might not need?

C: I mean, they've done this for cervical cancer forever. We get PAPs and when I was young, we got a PAP every year. Now they're able to move it to every three years. But like, and you get an abnormal PAP, you get a biopsy. And it sucks. Trust me, they don't give us anesthesia. You get anesthesia for your biopsy.

S: Not always, actually. No, they don't. I've spoke to patients, they just go in there and it's a punch biopsy and blood comes out and it's out of your penis and it's a nightmare.

B: Aaaah!

C: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

B: Wait, they got to go through that?

C: That's standard practice for-

B: I'm not doing that again.

E: Is there another way?

C: That's standard practice for women in our cervixes. But anyway, I have a question for you, Steve.

S: The good news is there's new markers and imaging that we could use instead of a biopsy. You still may end up with the biopsy, but you might be able to skirt it. So not every false positive PSA gets an unnecessary biopsy, necessarily.

C: I'm also wondering if there's this, I don't know what the epidemiologic, what the name for it is. But basically, I remember when my dad was diagnosed and it was very, very early stage, was able to have it all removed, it was fine. But his physician basically said, all men will get, not all, but most men will get prostate cancer if they live long enough. And he was saying, if you look at an autopsy of an elderly man, like X percent of elderly men knew that they had prostate, or will die of prostate cancer, but then this way larger percent will have it on autopsy, even though they didn't even know they had it. It's just a function of the older we get, the higher our risk is. So I'm curious, is that number going up also part of lifespan or life expectancy going up?

S: Oh yeah. So cancers go up as life expectancy goes up as well.

C: But prostate especially, like they won't say-

S: Prostate is one of those ones that's very age related.

C: Right. It's like ovarian for women and prostate for men tend to be two. Just the older you get, the more likely your chance of getting it is.

S: Yeah, totally.

C: Okay.

S: Yeah. So and on a happy note, so if you translate those numbers, these statistics to the number of cancer deaths avoided since 1991, it's 3.8 million. In the US, 3.8 million people in the US since 1991, fewer deaths from cancer based upon the new treatments and screening and prevention, et cetera. So it is good. And the new treatment, every now and then I'll talk about some new treatment coming online. It really is the technology, it's because new technology is being introduced. We have so many more ways of treating cancer now than we did 30 years ago. And there's more coming online. The CRISPR stuff is coming online now. So there's every reason to expect that that 1% per year or more is going to continue to happen into the future.

C: Yeah.

S: It's awesome.

Short Sleeper Syndrome (48:48)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, tell us about short sleeper syndrome.

J: Have you guys ever heard someone say that they only need five to six hours of sleep?

E: Yeah, I have heard that.

C: A lot. Yeah.

E: From others.

J: Yeah. You do hear people say that, right? So a typical person would need seven to nine hours of sleep to be fully rested. I am definitely in that category. Being fully rested meaning that you don't have a sleep deficit of any sort. The idea that some people actually needing less sleep than others is called short sleeper syndrome. It's actually a name for it. And what this means is that some people can get fully rested from a shorter amount of sleep than typical. So as a skeptic, when I hear about this, anybody saying, I don't need that much sleep, a red flag always has gone up for me. I always question how true that is. I would imagine there'd be some variability, but anybody that was trying to pass it off like they could survive on six hours of sleep never seemed reasonable to me. So the question is, does the short sleeper syndrome exist in the first place? Is it biologically feasible that a person can only need five to six hours of sleep to get the same benefit as the typical seven to nine hours? So there is some science behind this. An expert in the field of sleep named Andrew Coogan, who is a behavioral neurologist at Maynooth University in Ireland, says that short sleeper syndrome does exist for sure. He says that there are people who can get a full night of rest from six or less hours of sleep where they don't experience-

S: Or fewer.

J: Sorry, or fewer?

C: Waiting for that.

S: Six or fewer.

J: The next time I say it, I will say or fewer. So six hours or fewer hours of sleep where they don't experience adverse effects from sleeplessness, they don't have cognitive impairment or lowered mood, and the other typical things that happen when you are operating inside of a sleep deficit. So to many people, this would be an amazing thing, right, Bob? I've heard Bob say this our entire life, how Bob would love to be one of those people that only needs four, five, or six hours of sleep.

B: Yeah. I love sleep, man. Don't get me wrong. I dig it. I don't want to get up and I look forward to getting into bed and get all comfortable. But if it could be two or three hours, even four or five would be great too. I don't need as much sleep as Jay, but I need a good seven or eight. And it's such a waste of time, goddammit.

E: Well, the brain needs it though.

C: Some, some, most. But I've had patients before who, it was interesting because they were also usually ADHD or high-level anxiety patients, but yeah, who were like, had so much energy and they slept four hours a night and they were rested and woke up with like more energy than most people who have 8 to 10. And that's just how they were their whole lives.

J: As a father with two kids young kids, I'm getting between six and seven hours a night. That's my calculation on what I'm averaging throughout the week. And it is not even close to enough.

C: Yeah. You must feel so just zombied all the time.

J: All the time. Yeah. I mean and it's remarkable because when I do catch a good night of sleep I wake up and I'm like, oh my god, the difference is profound. So getting back to this, so researchers think that genetics are the cause, right? Of course that makes a ton of sense here. You can't learn how to live with less sleep. No amount of practice is going to ever get you there. You have to be born with this. Families that have short sleeper syndrome seem to have genes that likely are the cause. So there's a couple of studies here that support this. A 2014 study published in the journal Sleep determined that a variant of a gene called BHLHE41, not that that means anything to any of us, but that gene is connected to this phenomenon giving those who have the gene a resistance to sleep deprivation. I thought that was an interesting way for the researchers to put it, right? Giving a resistance to sleep deprivation.

B: Yeah, yeah, I like that.

J: In this study, they concluded that having this gene mutation will allow a person to sleep less and resist the effects of sleep loss. And then another study in 2019 that was published in the journal Neuron concluded that a mutation in a gene called ADRB1 led to a short sleep trait in humans. So in this study, they estimated that approximately four people in a hundred thousand have the mutation, and this is an incredibly small percentage. I mean, we're talking about 0.004% of the population was their estimate of who would actually have this. Not common, definitely something that they need to make CRISPR give to all of us. If that were possible, that would be amazing. Imagine getting a CRISPR treatment that makes it so you only need to get four or five hours of sleep a night. Could you imagine? Is that ever on the table? So then of course, the question is, how do you know if you have this mutation? So Coogan said that if you don't sleep longer when you actually have the opportunity, right? So we were talking about like on the weekend, let's say Saturday morning, you don't have to get up early, but do you still get up at the same time?

S: Yes.

B: God, no. Sleep in.

C: Sleep in, sleep in.

J: Yeah, you sleep in. So most people will take advantage of the extra sleep time and sleep during that time. Then he said, but then you might have the mutation. I think he's saying if you're getting six hours or less a night, and then when you do have the opportunity to sleep, you still only want six hours or less, that might be an indicator. However, this is a big however, it is much more likely that even if you think you're a short sleeper, you probably aren't. And he said, most people just become accustomed to less sleep, but they're still doing damage over the long haul. And it's important to note that the amount of sleep each person needs is down to the individual. It is an individual thing. There isn't a time that everybody needs, of course. There are people that need more than eight hours of sleep. I think we average out to be somewhere between seven and nine. And then the other important thing that was brought up was that the amount of sleep that you need can and typically does change during your lifetime. The obvious one is that children need more sleep, but children and teens need more sleep than the average population. And then in your later years, the amount of sleep that you need could change to needing less sleep. So, very interesting. Now, there are some famous people that have made claims that they require less sleep, like Margaret Thatcher was very well known for claiming that she only needed four hours of sleep. And then there's the idea like, is this a trait that a lot of rich and famous people have? Obama said this and Elon Musk said this.

E: That they needed fewer hours of sleep than average people?

J: Yes. Yeah, that they survive on six or less. I don't know. I don't know if I believe that, to be honest with you. I'm highly skeptical because, again, the percentages here are so low. And I don't think that there's any like, if you can handle having two hours less of sleep, it's not like you're twice as productive as the next person. You're not.

C: No, you're not. But I think it's hard for those of us who need a lot of sleep to imagine what the day would look like. But it's literally that they have two extra hours in their day where they're as alert as we are. And I think that's the thing too. And there's probably a sampling bias here. It's hard to believe because all these people are saying it, all these famous people, but there's probably a sampling bias. That might be partially why they are who they are.

J: Could be, yeah.

C: Or it might contribute to them having gotten that far ahead in business or politics or whatever because that whole, I get more done by 9 a.m. than you do in a whole day. Some people are very productive in the morning and some people jump out of bed with a lot of energy, which I hate those people.

B: I hate those people. High five.

E: Jen says, I'm one of those people.

C: I'm on the other end of the spectrum. If I consistently get eight hours of sleep a night, I feel like I have a sleep deficit on the weekends. Eight hours is not enough for me each night. I'm exhausted with only eight.

B: Wow.

J: Yeah. That's again, see the variability? You're probably more of a nine hour person.

C: Yeah, nine, even nine to 10.

E: Do you sleep well for those eight hours?

C: I sleep very well. And I've actually had a proper full sleep study where I was diagnosed with a sleep disorder, but it wasn't because of my nighttime sleep. My nighttime sleep is fully restorative. I go through all of my phases. They were like, your night sleep is very high quality sleep, yet I'm still tired all the time.

Hungriest Black Hole (57:44)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, tell us about the hungriest black hole.

E: Nom, nom, nom, nom.

B: Yes. Sounds like a kid's book.

C: It does.

B: Yeah. I found an interesting black hole in Quasar recently, and I thought it would be a really interesting discussion. The black hole in the Quasar, or perhaps comprising it, is the most ravenous ever found, and it weighs in at 34 billion times the mass of our sun. This was reported in the monthly notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. I'm going to talk about Quasars a bit because they're awesome. They were a mystery when they were discovered. Scientists were like, what is happening? What is this? When radio astronomy really got going in the 50s, they did their very first whole radio sky surveys, and they found these anomalous and incredibly energetic radio sources with no optical light, meaning that there was radio light, but there was no UV, visible, or infrared light that was associated with it. So what was this? It was just like bare, intense radio waves. So after years, though, they started finding some of them that were associated also with visible light, especially I think the first ones were blue light. So they looked at that light spectrum, and they wanted to see what chemicals were there, but it made no sense. They could not interpret it. The light also varied very quickly, meaning that whatever these things were, they could only be on the scale of a solar system in size and no larger. Otherwise, the light variation could not happen as fast as it was happening. So okay. So we had something very small and incredibly intense. So they called them quasi-stellar radio sources, which was shortened to Quasar, which is a wonderful acronym. The term Quasar then was like the terms dark matter and dark energy, a name given for something we know shit about. It's like, let's just throw this name at it because we don't know what this is. So eventually, and after much debate, a surprising amount of debate actually, it was realized that the spectra from these quasars made sense when you factored in a huge redshift because of their incredible distance and the expansion of space, which after billions of years stretched out the light frequencies, causing the weird spectra. So it also meant that they were billions of light years away, not just hundreds of millions, but billions of light years away. And they were still so visible, they had to be just energetic beyond belief. Because if they were like a million light years away or at the edge of the galaxy or whatever, then they'd be powerful, but not that powerful. But if they were that far away, they were just insane. Some scientists didn't even believe that they could be that far away, purely because they have to be too energetic. So eventually, of course, we realized that supermassive black holes with millions or billions of solar masses were in these galaxies, and they were actively feeding on anything nearby that was smeared into an accretion disk of gas that was swirling down the black hole drain ever faster, and in the process, releasing stupid amounts of energy. That's what these were. These types of galaxies now often go by the more precise initialism, AGN, for active galactic nuclei, which is nice, but quasar is still a lot cooler. So then this leads into the quasar that was discovered, called SMS J215 blah, blah, blah, blah 15.1. I'm going to call it quasar J2. I hate these long names. So this quasar looked interesting. So they said, let's take a really close look. They used the Keck telescope, among others, and they discovered that it was 12.5 billion light years away.

E: That's far.

B: That's crazy far. The light that we were seeing left when the universe was only 1.25 billion years old, very little baby universe. Not only that, it was the most luminous and most powerful quasar ever seen. This thing was just off the hook. So now such a quasar has got to have a special supermassive black hole inside, right? I'll call this black hole J2. It did not disappoint. Its mass topped out, as I said, at 34 billion solar masses. That's 8,000 times bigger than the Milky Way's central black hole. And I have serious black hole envy, I got to say. This thing is amazing. There are whole galaxies that are less massive than this black hole. I mean, it's just so if you put black hole, get this, this is, this is something. If you put black hole J2 where the sun is now, it's 200 billion kilometer diameter would encompass the entire solar system, depending on how you define solar system, of course. So by that I mean 33 times the distance to Pluto. So yes, 33, go to Pluto, times 33, and that's the radius. Incredible. So a quasar though is all about the accretion disk. That's where it all happens. That's where the magic really happens in terms of creating a quasar. So now imagine, I really thought of this for the first time today. Imagine the accretion disk of this hyper glowing gas around a black hole as big as a solar system. How big would the accretion disk be? Because when they tell you that the diameter is this big for the black hole, they're not talking about the accretion disk. They're talking about the event horizon, right? So how big would the accretion disk be? And I actually couldn't find out. I don't know how big the accretion disk would be for such a thing. I do know though, I was able to find out that for a smaller normal black hole, say whatever, 10, 20, 30 solar masses or whatever, even more, 100, 1,000 solar masses, you can have an accretion disk up to 300 times larger than say, I guess it had to be the event horizon. So it's big. I mean these things, they spread out. The accretion disk spreads out 300 times. So what would it be for a super massive black hole? I mean maybe 300 times is too much, but even if it was 100 times, I mean imagine the size of this thing. It's just mind boggling. It's so big that imagine that you're at the inner edge of the accretion disk, right? You're going around the black hole. You're at the inner edge. You're about to drop in through the event horizon. Even if you traveled at the speed of light, it would take you a month to go around just once assuming you were really close to the event horizon. A whole month at the speed of light just to go around. It's not going at the speed of light. It's going less and it's probably much farther away. So what does it take? Two months to go around just once? This is so big. It's amazing because whenever I think of an accretion disk, I think of a smaller accretion disk around a standard black hole that's not very big. It could be, I don't know, kilometers, many kilometers, not 200 billion kilometers. Oh man, just boggled my mind thinking about that today.

E: And it's still feeding.

B: Oh yeah. Well, it was 12.5 billion years ago.

E: What's it doing lately?

B: That's a good question.

E: It went on a calorie restriction diet.

B: So where does the energy come from? Now people often say, and I wrote it in my notes here in my first draft, people say, oh, it's the friction. And yeah, but it's obviously more complicated than that. So I took a deep dive on that. Apparently, from what I could tell, the energy ultimately comes from the inevitable increase of gravitational binding energy. As the gas in the accretion disk gets closer and closer, the gravitational binding energy, the energy holding it together has to go up. It just has to for some reason. And when that happens, energy has to be released. And it's a little counterintuitive. As you increase the gravitational binding energy, energy has to be released. That's just the nature of the binding energy. And that energy release can be more efficient than thermonuclear reactions. It's really efficient. And the article I was reading actually said that that energy extraction is so efficient that super advanced civilizations in the deep far future may use it to actually run their civilization. I don't know about that. I mean if I was a super advanced civilization, I don't think I'd be hanging out near an accretion disk. I would – you could get plenty of energy from the ergosphere. But I digress. (Evan laughs) So how much energy does the – so how much energy does the accretion disk-

E: A half percent of the audience may be understood with that. OK.

B: If you listen to me, you know exactly what I meant. So how much energy does the accretion disk of the black hole J2 release? Astronomers measured the light that the accretion disk emits and it came to one quadrillion times the amount of light that the sun emits.

E: You just wanted to say quadrillion.

B: Yeah, yeah. Quadrillion is a great number, a great number. That's mind-boggling. Get a quadrillion suns, put it in the space of our solar system and that's what this damn accretion disk is emitting. Incredible. Oh, but listen to this. If you know how much energy is being emitted, if you do some fancy math, which I didn't do, but if you know how much energy is being emitted, you can then calculate how much mass the black hole must be swallowing in order to release that. I couldn't do the math but I got the – I did some of it but I relied on experts to really do it. All right. It is swallowing the equivalent of just under four earth masses every second.

E: Four Earths every second.

B: Or one Jupiter every 90 seconds. I calculated that on my own. And one sun every day. Every day. I'll take another sun please. Every day this thing is swallowing the equivalent of the sun's mass every day. The most ravenous black hole ever discovered. I was going to do the amount of average J meatballs that it was consuming every day but I didn't have enough time. But it would be a lot. It would be a huge – it would be a huge-

E: Theoretically, there could be a larger one out there.

B: This is – yes, absolutely. And there are larger black holes. Absolutely.

E: Oh, gosh.

B: We know – it's not – this is not the most massive, super massive black hole ever found. It's the biggest ever found in the universe at that age. And it's actually like, how did it get so big so fast? It's definitely a little bit mysterious. And it makes me think, all right, how big is that damn black hole right now? How – now it certainly could not maintain that diet forever. It definitely had some serious fasting in its future, right Jay? Eventually it's going to consume all the local matter and the quasar just becomes less and less active over time. And eventually it becomes calm like all the nearest galaxies to us within say hundreds of millions of light years to us. There's no – there's no active galactic nuclei within hundreds of millions of light years of us because it just – you just run out of fuel. And it makes sense that in the earlier universe, we're seeing a lot of these quasars because there's just a lot of stuff to go around. So just a fascinating story even though this story was a little older than I thought it was. I was like, oh crap, this story wasn't – it actually was – this news was released in 2020. I was like, what? I got to find a new topic. I'm like, screw it. I'm going to talk about other interesting things related to this topic. And I did check and this is still the most energetic and still most powerful quasar ever discovered and this is still the biggest black hole in the universe at that time. So but fascinating stuff. I just wanted to talk about quasars and accretion disks.

S: And you did.

Webb's First Exoplanet (1:09:11)[edit]

S: All right, on a related item, well, in that it's astronomy, Evan, I understand that the Webb Telescope has found its first exoplanet. That's right. Yes, they did.

B: Oh, nice.

E: Yeah, they announced it just about a week ago. The researchers, as you said, Steve, used the James Webb Space Telescope and they've used it to confirm an exoplanet. And of course, that's a planet that orbits another star. And it is the first exoplanet discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope.

B: What took so long?

E:So let's say hello to our little friend, our new little friend, this new planet. Here's what I'm going to do. Here's how I'm going to explain it. I'm going to describe it in the first person as if the planet itself had the capability of introducing itself.

B: Oh, it's a talking.

E: So in a way, it has a little ChatGPT aspect to this, as if you were to type in, hey, ChatGPT, describe the new exoplanet that was discovered, but do it in the first person as if it were describing itself to a fourth grade class, let's say. All right. So that's what we're going with here. Here we go.

B: Which you obviously couldn't really do because it doesn't have this information.

E: Correct. Well, I'll tell a little story at the end about that. But I did not do that. This is my own embellishment. So here we go. Hi, everyone. (whispers) That's where you say hi.

C: Hi.

B: What's up, XO?

E: My name is LHS475B. As you can see, I'm a rocky planet, roughly the same size as Earth, about 99% the size of Earth. Small world, huh? I live relatively close by, only 41 light years from you in the constellation Octans. Csmically speaking, we practically live in the same apartment building. I have a parent, a parent star that is. It's a red dwarf star, which is one of the smallest types of stars in the universe, much smaller than your sun with much less mass, which is one of the reasons I've been so hard to find for this long. Your friends there on Earth, Kevin Stevenson and Jacob Lustig-Yager, both of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, along with their team of researchers, found me recently using your way super cool James Webb telescope back in August of last year. But partial credit has to go to your Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which initially hinted at my existence. The James Webb Space Telescope confirmed those suspicions. Webb's Near Infrared Spectrograph, or the NIR-SPEC, found me rather clearly and easily with only two transit observations. Can you believe that?

B: Nice.

E: I wish I had a telescope, but sadly I don't because I'm not exactly a prime candidate planet for advanced life to have been created, I mean evolved. That's because I orbit very close to my red dwarf star. I orbit around the star in just two of my days. So you can tell that I'm very close to my star, so close that I'm considered tidally locked. And that means I don't rotate like Earth does once every 23 hours and 56 minutes. Nope, I'm locked with one side of me always facing the star and the other side always facing away. Some more about me, let's see. Oh, I'm warm, like very warm. About 300 degrees Celsius is my estimated surface temperature. But I'm not really sure what kind of atmosphere I have, or if I even have an atmosphere at all.

S: You don't.

E: And Aaron May of the John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory recently said, I quote: "We can't yet make any definitive conclusions about the planet's atmosphere." Your researchers have ruled out certain types of atmospheres though. For instance, they say I do not have a thick methane dominated atmosphere similar to that of Saturn's moon Titan. And while it's possible that I have no atmosphere at all, they are saying that perhaps, just perhaps, my atmosphere could be something extraordinary like a 100% carbon dioxide atmosphere. An atmosphere like that would be so compact that even the amazing James Webb Space Telescope instruments might have a tough time detecting such an atmosphere. I'm special. The good thing is that your awesome space scientists are going to perform additional research to try and find out more about me. The researchers are scheduled to obtain additional spectra with upcoming observations this coming summer. I wish I had a summer. I'm not even sure my axis tilts. Well, I have to go now, but don't worry, you'll see me when I transit again in about two days.

S: You said two of my days, isn't it two Earth days?

B: You meant your days.

E: Did I say that? Oh, you see, well, you see how these things always sometimes get the facts wrong. They need to fact check these things a little better. Good catch.

S: Yeah. So recently, by coincidence, I did an updated article. I like to find like, what's the most Earth-like exoplanets we've discovered so far? And we really haven't found a really good Earth match. Most of the "Earth-like planets", of course, you have to define what do you mean by Earth-like. So let's say roughly Earth-size, rocky, in the habitable zone of the star. That's what most, usually that's what they're talking about. But the habitable zone, habitable. (laughter)

E: I love it.

S: It's just the distance at which you could have liquid water on the surface. But it doesn't take into account spectrum and surface gravity necessarily. And are they tidally locked? So most "Earth-like planets" that get reported are surrounding red dwarfs, which means they're not good candidates for life. Or the red dwarfs are very active, especially early on. So there's still this idea that maybe a planet could either reconstitute its atmosphere or it could settle in to a closer orbit from outside the solar system later on in the life of the red dwarfs when it's settled down. But settled down still could mean a thousand times more active than a yellow sun like our sun. So it's still controversial whether or not red dwarfs can have planets in the habitable zone with an atmosphere, but it's not looking good. So it's just not going to be a good candidate to look for a really Earth-like planet. But there really isn't even a single exoplanet that has close to Earth surface gravity that's in the habitable zone of an orange to yellow star. Even those things, those three things all together where it could be a truly Earth-like candidate. We haven't found one yet.

B: Could be an Earth-like candidate. Oh, you said all together.

E: Let alone one only 41 light years away, which is very close.

B: Yeah, when you said that, the first thing I thought was, why the hell didn't we find it already? 41's close. But like you said, it's hard to find red dwarfs.

E: It's hard to find. Yep. But James Webb found it. First one, first of many, let's hope.

Who's That Noisy? (1:16:28)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
Ham Radio

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

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

[mysterious, unearthly music]

So any ideas?

E: 7200 baud dial-up. Thank you.

S: Is it a sonification of a data stream of some type?

J: I don't really like doing sonifications and I told you if I do use one, I will tell you it's a sonification.

E: Yes, Steve, he told you.

J: It is not. I told you.

S: Okay. It was a long time ago. I thought maybe you forgot.

J: Well, Benjamin Greenberg wrote it. Said: "Hi, Jay, long time listener, first time guessing. Might be totally off here, but the clicking noise in the background reminds me of analog tape decks. There's an interesting play on how each tone and its oscillation pattern starts incrementally and plays on each other before stopping incrementally as well. That being said, maybe some type of synthesizer through an analog tape delay system." So that is not correct. Very interesting guess though. And I think you hit on a couple of maybe ideas there that might lead to what this thing is. Michael Blaney wrote in, said: "Hi, Jay. Okay, it's not a UFO. Of that, I'm pretty sure I'm going for a 14400 baud modem failing to make a connection." So that's what Evan thought as well. Another guess is David Mool Richardson said: "This is probably wrong, but I remember hearing the 1970s BBC radio adaption of Isaac Asimov's initial Foundation trilogy at university. And this week's sound was strongly reminiscent of the odd soundtrack the BBC radiophonic workshop provided." And I could, yeah, I totally can see that. It has the kind of sound that when people who are making sci-fi would be like, yeah, we should use that.

B: Yeah, right.

J: So I'm going to get, I'll get right to the winners now. So this is one of those things that if you know it, you know it. And if you don't know it, like most of us, then you really have no idea. First I'll start with Visto Tutti because he got very close. He says: "Sounds like shortwave radio transmitting data. Perhaps it is the famous Explorer 1 satellite launched by the US in response to the Sputnik satellite." So this is radio transmission. You are correct, but there's a lot more detail here. So the person who got it right first, Gunther Helmut, wrote in and said: "Sounds like FT8 digital mode communication for amateur radio on HF band." Okay, so that is correct. But let me tell you what the hell this is.

B: Wow.

J: Let me tell you what it is.

B: He got it.

J: He did get it. So person that wrote in a very good explanation is named Tim Haywood.

S: Really?

C: Haywood.

J: Don't say it. Don't say it. Holy shit, it's right there.

B: I'm thinking it. He said: "Hi guys, Tim, the patron here as all hams who listened to the noisy this week will know that sound is audio of FT8 mode where a bunch of hams" are a ham, meaning a person that uses a ham radio, right? So if you don't know what a ham radio is, it's time for you to pause the show and look it up and read it, read up on what that is and then come back. So he said "where a bunch of hams are sending short digital messages to each other all over the world. It's one of the many digital modes that have been developed by hams and currently the most popular in addition to the traditional analog voice and Morse code modes. In fact, I was just doing FT8 this morning." So from my understanding, it's a protocol to communicate with other people who are communicating with people over ham radio and this is sending like a initial packet of information identifying like this is who I am and this is where I am kind of information. And then from there you can pick who you want to talk to. So it's kind of like an initial communication that gives base data to other people who are who are on the system. You know what I mean? Probably can be explained much better than that, but I know nothing of ham radio. I know nothing. I just know it's expensive.

E: But the information is decoded in some way.

J: Yeah, so that it is. It is decoded because it's sending out from what I when I gather it's sending out like the initial like, hi, this is who I am and this is where I'm at. So then you know, you could and it can read all of them at the same time, like your radio receiver can read all of those signals from all over the world at the same time.

E: It's like maybe a transponder?

J: Kind of, I guess, in a sense. But I think you're able to pluck out of all of that noise, like the people that you know. And you can connect.

E: Yeah, like an airplane sends out a signal saying, hey, this is this airplane and it can be picked up by all sorts of things.

J: Yeah, that's what I imagine. OK, yeah, it's pretty cool. Very interesting sound. I mean, just I'll play the whole thing again. So just listen to all these different signals happening at the same time. [plays Noisy]

E: It has an outer limits kind of sound to it, doesn't it?

J: Somebody explained that this thing that we're hearing could be hundreds or even thousands of transmissions at the same time.

E: Wow.

B: Wow.

E: You need a machine to pick that out.

J: Very interesting stuff there.

New Noisy (1:21:56)[edit]

J: All right. I got a new sound, new noisy for you guys this week. Requested by a listener we all know, Craig Good.

E: Yeah, Craig.

J: Yeah, Craig. Craig does. He sends me good noises every once in a while. I may have played this one before. That's my only clue. There's something tickling me in the back of the head that I may have played this. But if I did, it was quite a long time ago. So it's worthy. It's really awesome. So check this out.

[high-pitched animal noise]

Let me play that again for you.

B: Wow. That's sound creepy, man.

E: It's those member berries from South Park.

J: If you guys-

C: That's a marine mammal. Going to lose it.

J: I'm going to tell you right now, it's not a freaking marine mammal. That is a whole category right there. But again, Cara, isn't it funny? Because you start to realize how there's so many things that are out there that sound like other things. What is this thing?

C: For sure.

J: So if you think you know what this noisy is or you want to send me in something cool that you heard this week, email me at

Announcements (1:23:09)[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.

J: These are happening right now.

J: 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.

J: We have a conversation.

J: Pandemonium ensues.

J: Pandemonium.

J: And patrons will get early access to that content.

J: And we're also making, we said this last week and I'm super excited because we just made a few more yesterday.

J: We are on TikTok.

J: Oh my God.

J: Could you imagine old white men on TikTok?

J: This is fun.

J: Steve is doing a couple of different things here.

J: He is doing, we're finding ridiculous stuff on TikTok and Steve's doing a quick takedown on whatever that ridiculous thing is.

J: Or Steve is explaining a concept in about three minutes.

J: 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.

J: 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?

J: This is even too crazy.

J: 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.

J: They're like totally like, oh my God.

J: Sorry buddy.

J: And then Steve gets in there and tells you what the hell's happening.

J: You can go to our TikTok at it's slash skeptics guide.

S: All right.

S: Thanks Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:25:07)[edit]

Email #1: Coffee pods[edit]

S: We're going to do one email, this one comes from Giles or is it Giles? I'm going to say Giles.

C: Probably Giles.

S: Giles.

E: I say Giles.

C: I say.

S: And of course he starts with: "I read a BBC article today that suggests that the use of coffee pods might actually be less damaging to the environment than more traditional ways of making coffee. They mentioned filter coffee and French presses being two examples of methods that might be more damaging than using coffee pods." He goes on to say some nice things about how the skeptics guide helped him to think critically and skeptically about this and other topics. But that's his basic question. Is this correct? This idea that, and this has been going around the intertubes recently. It's actually old news. You can find articles from 2019 talking about the same kind of information. Cara, what's your reaction? What's your just honest immediate reaction to this idea that the coffee pods are actually better for the environment than other ways of making coffee?

C: Yeah. I mean, my gut is like, there's no freaking way. That's like, and so I saw this going around too and I haven't had time to read it. So I am really curious, like by what measure?

S: Exactly. That's of course the key question, by what measure?

C: Because it's the same thing when people go, reusable shopping bags are terrible. Think about how long it takes to make one. And it's like, yeah, but we're not just talking about raw materials. We're also talking about what goes back into the landfills.

S: So all right, but the article is talking about, and again, I found ones going back even to like 2019, is the carbon footprint. So that's just one way of looking at how bad, quote unquote, how bad it is for the environment. But if you look at carbon footprint, the best way to make coffee is with instant coffee.

C: Yeah, that makes sense.

S: It is the most efficient because the coffee grounds get get the freeze dried, get converted into the crystals, and then you completely convert them into coffee. There isn't any coffee grounds left behind and you're heating up exactly the amount of water that you need for the coffee that you're going to drink. And so in many ways, it's coffee being efficient, it's water efficient, and it's ultimately the most carbon efficient way of making coffee. The high end, like pour over, French press, whatever, the barista way of making it, that's the worst. That it uses the most energy, it uses the most water, and it uses the most coffee. And of course, you think about the carbon footprint of coffee, it's mostly from growing the coffee. So anything that uses the coffee beans themselves less efficiently is going to have a much larger carbon footprint than anything that uses those coffee beans more efficiently. Now let's talk about the coffee pods. They have the advantage of using less water, but they don't have to use as much energy to heat that water. And they use less in terms of the amount of coffee itself in order to make your individual cups of coffee. So from a carbon footprint point of view, it is more efficient than other kinds of coffee, even when you consider the carbon footprint of creating the pods the pack. The individual cups of coffee. If you do a lifetime analysis, cradle to grave analysis of the carbon footprint, it's still better. It is still, but not as good as freeze dried, but it's better than the other ones. But of course, that's only when you're asking what has the lowest carbon footprint and not considering what puts the most plastic into the environment. If that's your question, then obviously the individual single use plastic coffee pods are not good. In fact, the British producer, according to research by HALO, a British producer of compostable coffee capsules, every minute about 39,000 of these pods are made worldwide, well up to 29,000 are dumped in landfill sites. Every minute 29,000 get dumped in the landfill sites. But here's the thing, you don't have to use plastic. They also come in recyclable aluminum pods and those are much better. So if you use the aluminum pods, you're actually getting the best of both worlds. You're getting the second best, lowest carbon footprint and you're using recyclable aluminum so you're not putting any single use plastic into the waste stream. They also make reusable pods as well if you'd like to use.

E: I've seen those.

S: So you have the efficiency of that system, but you don't want to have the pods as in the waste stream. So guys, you all have to start drinking instant coffee. I'm sorry.

C: Nope, I refuse.

E: Why don't you have a nice Sanka?

S: Have a Sanka. Yeah.

C: I drink instant coffee in the Peruvian Amazon. That's the last time I drank it. It tasted really good there. But no, at home I have a system and a routine and I'm sorry. I'm going to keep doing what I do.

E: You make it up in other ways. You make it up in other ways, Cara.

C: I make it up in other ways. I don't have a car, dude. I haven't driven a car in like months. I can have my coffee the way I want it.

S: Yeah, you got to live your life, right? But looking for those places where you could make an improvement without making a compromise, does it sound like a familiar conversation? It's, I think, a good way to go. It's like, well, if you could shave some carbon off of your coffee habit without compromising the whole process and the enjoyment and the quality of the coffee that you get, et cetera, then you would do it, right?

C: And also, I think the manufacturers should be thinking about that as well.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

C: How can they, if they can make certain changes that make it less water intensive.

S: I'd like the move to aluminum. Now you can get, instead of bottled whatever, it just comes in aluminum.

C: But like I use a, I don't understand because I use an espresso machine. So I just put the raw beans in the top. It grinds them. It has a little water reservoir.

S: It's terrible. It's terrible in terms of carbon footprint. You're using a lot more beans, first of all. You're using burning electricity to do that whole process. So you've got to count the carbon footprint of the electricity as well as the growing of the coffee, the amount of coffee. And then you're also putting the coffee grounds into the waste stream, which is-

C: Yeah, I am putting coffee grounds, although those are compostable.

S: Those are compostable, yeah.

C: But I'm confused because whether I'm grinding the whole beans for one cup or in the earlier manufacturing process, all the beans are being ground.

S: Yeah, I think there's an economy of scale where if you're doing it individually, it's not good. Plus you end up using more water.

C: Right, right. I'm probably definitely using more water, but I'm not using any packaging. So there is that trade-off.

S: Yeah, right. But it does show you how complicated these questions are and then you make immediate assumptions like, of course, those pods are the worst. It's like, actually, it's more complicated than that depending on how you want to look at it. And again, it's the same thing with the plastic bags. It's like, yeah, you don't want to put that single-use plastic bags into the waste stream, but they are pretty efficient in other ways. So there is a trade-off. There's lots of trade-offs. And the reusable bags may cost a lot more carbon and energy to make them, but if you use them for years, they pay off. You just have to use them for a long time in order to get the payback of the extra energy cost of making them in the first place. Which why wouldn't you use them forever? Just don't lose them. Just keep using the ones that you've had. They should last forever. All right. Interesting question. Thank you, Giles. But that's definitely making the rounds. So it's good to weigh in on that. All right, everyone. Let's go on with science or fiction.


Science or Fiction (1:32:58)[edit]

Theme: Technological advances

Item #1: A Japanese company will market MRAM memory chips this year that use new technology to achieve terahertz switching speeds, 1000 times faster than existing RAM.[7]
Item #2: Researchers have created a hybrid cultivar of cotton that is naturally fire resistant, and under testing will self-extinguish if ignited.[8]
Item #3: A California company announced it will roll out the first mass produced solar-powered car this year.[9]

Answer Item
Fiction MRAM switching speeds
Science Hybrid cultivar of cotton
Solar-powered car
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
MRAM switching speeds

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

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, one fake, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. There's a theme this week, technological advances. All right, so these are just news items that all relate in one way or another to some kind of a technological advance.

C: You might as well call on me first.

S: OK.

C: I will offer zero information to anybody on the panel.

S: All right, here we go. They're not as bad as you think. Item number one, a Japanese company will market MRAM memory chips this year that use new technology to achieve terahertz switching speeds 1000 times faster than existing RAM. Item number two, researchers have created a hybrid cultivar of cotton-

J: It's a hybrid.

S: -that is naturally fire resistant and under testing will self extinguish if ignited. Item number three, a California company announced it will roll out the first mass produced solar powered car this year. Cara, you go first.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: All right. I'm going to go I'm going to go in reverse order because I feel like a California company rolling out a mass produced solar powered car sounds feasible because it says literally nothing about its range. And I think about my very first electric car and its range was 80 miles. And it did me fine. Living in L.A., I didn't need more than 80 miles in a day before I charged it.

S: You want to hear the range? You go first. I'll give you more information if you want it.

C: Oh, sure.

S: They're saying that the car will have a range of 500 miles.

C: Oh, that's amazing.

E: If it's a sunny day out.

S: No, that's not including the sun. That's just on one charge of the battery. If you include the sun, then they give all kinds of numbers depending on conditions. But it's more than 500.

C: Yeah, I mean, that's cool. And I do think there are I mean, I feel like I've heard of solar cars being available now. So I feel like the question then is that it's like mass produced. So yeah, I don't know. I don't see why that wouldn't be the case.

B: What does solar powered in this context mean?

S: It means it can run.

B: What it's supposed to mean?

S: It can run entirely on solar power.

C: So the solar power charges the battery. Yeah, that makes sense. Researchers created a hybrid, it's a hybrid cultivar of cotton that's naturally fire resistant. And by naturally you mean...

S: Meaning they don't add any retardant, fire retardant.

C: Right. But you don't mean naturally as in it's not transgenic. Well, it's hybrid.

S: Well, it's not. It's hybrid.

S: Oh, okay. So they just found two. Okay. So they found something that had a fire resistant property and they bred it with kind of traditional cotton and then under testing, when it was ignited, it would self extinguish. That part's interesting because I would think if it was fire resistant, it couldn't even ignite. But I guess anything can ignite if you like blow torch it. So then it puts out its own fire. Yeah, why not? Why can't? I mean, I think a lot of crops don't catch on fire. I guess cotton maybe is known for catching on fire. But like I know living in LA, there are recommendations for how you should plant your backyards to prevent fire from spreading so that if there is a forest fire or wildfire, if you have certain vegetation, it can actually protect your house because it's like, yeah, fire won't consume it. So yeah, that one I buy too. So I think it's the MRAM one, the one that I literally don't understand. Technology to achieve terahertz switching speeds. I don't even know. I think we're in the gigas right now with RAM. So tera is a thousand times faster. Okay, sure. But these chips might not have anything to do with like a normal computer. This might be used for some technology that's not consumer technology. So, and yeah, why not? I mean, they all sound, no, that one's not feasible. I'm going to say that's the fiction. Screw it. I'm putting down my nickel.

J: Which one? Which one?

C: The MRAM. MRAM is not happening this year. Thank you.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: All right. Well, Cara, I hate to say this, but I think the one that's most likely here is the MRAM.

C: Oh, interesting.

J: MRAM memory chips this year that use new technology to achieve terahertz switching speeds. Yeah, I just think that that one there's so many companies out there that are building chips and trying to improve chip technology. This just doesn't surprise me at all. What Steve wrote here. Going to the second one, researchers that created a hybrid cultivar of cotton. Yeah, it's hard. I don't know. I don't really know if, could it be fire resistant? I would imagine sure. Okay. There's got to be something in it that retards the fire. Yeah. I'm half on the fence with that one, but the one that I really don't drive with is this California company that announced the mass produced solar powered car. Now you said it's going to get 500 miles per charge, Steve?

S: That's what they're saying.

J: Yeah. I don't think that that's possible. I think that was a fiction.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Did everyone go?

S: Nope. Evan, didn't go.

C: No.

B: Evan, you go.

S: And Bob. (laughter)

B: All right.

C: With the confidence.

E: I appreciate the opening but I'm good.

B: No, I'll go. Yeah, solar car, no.

C: Damn it.

S: And Evan.

E: Well-

B: There's not enough room. There's not enough space. Unless I'm making assumptions here and it has in its trunk this gargantuan solar panel that you spread out that's as big as the damn, I don't know, 10 by 10, 20 by 20. There's not enough real estate to charge your car with the sun. I don't care what about the breakthroughs we've made in solar panels and we have. You'd be sitting there for an hour to get two minutes of ride time. That's not going to happen. There's not enough real estate.

C: Okay.

S: And Evan.

Evan's Response[edit]

E: I'm going to start with the middle one.

S: Okay.

E: Cotton, naturally fire resistant. Inflammable means flammable? What a country. I just wanted to say that. This was an opening to use that.

B: Either it flams or it doesn't.

E: For you Simpsons fans. But I'll jump right to the one I think is the fiction. I think it's the car. The reason I think the car one is the fiction is that I think they invented the car. I don't think it's mass produced though. They got a test or something, one model, and maybe is doing all this, but mass produced, I don't think so.

S: Okay. So you all agree on the second one. So let's start there.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Researchers have created a hybrid cultivar of cotton that is naturally fire resistant and under testing will self extinguish if ignited. You all think this one is science and this one is science. This is science.

C: Okay.

B: Cool. Very cool.

S: It is very cool. And what's interesting is that the parent species that they started with were not fire resistant, but with the right combination of genes, they were able to create some cultivars that were fire resistant and the winner, that was the best, had a very high degree of fire resistance. So it was obviously harder to ignite. And then when they did basically set it on fire, it wouldn't propagate. It would just extinguish itself. Whereas normal cotton would just, the whole thing would burn. The flame would just consume the whole strip of cotton that they were testing. Yeah. So it's like without having to add flame retardant chemicals, which is very controversial in terms of their environmental effects, et cetera. Basically you could just have the natural cotton untreated that is itself fire resistant. Again, we don't see fire proof. The thing can burn enough heat, enough flame, but it's resistant to the flame. It wouldn't necessarily propagate it, which is of course the important thing. Yeah. So that one is science. So let's go back to number one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: A Japanese company will market MRAM memory chips this year that use new technology to achieve terahertz switching speeds 1000 times faster than existing RAM. Cara, you think this one is the fiction. The boys all think this one is science and this one is the fiction. It's the fiction.

B: What? No f-king way.

C: What? I win and I don't know anything about what I'm talking about?

B: No way, man. This is bullshit.

C: Yes, yes.

B: I can't wait to hear the bullshit with this card.

S: I'll tell you what it is. But now this is based on a real story. So they are researching an MRAM chip using anti ferromagnetic tunnel junctions, which could theoretically allow their projecting up to a terahertz switching speed. But this is still in development. They're not marketing it this year. This was just a sort of – they just figured out something about the technology. Again, so it's still years away. But the idea is with the ferromagnetic RAM chips, you have to line up all of the strips and of the magnetic pieces and that creates a magnetic field which limits the speed that the switches can switch. But with the anti-ferromagnetic pieces, you can align them in such a way that there's no net magnetic fields. You don't have to make them all parallel. And that would allow for much faster switching and they calculate that they should be able to get into terahertz range with this technology. So this may be something that's rolling off the assembly line in five to ten years. And this is just laying some of the theoretical groundwork. Anti-ferromagnetic tunnel junctions which can be much faster. So yeah, just fiction because it's five to ten years ahead of its time.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Which means a California company announced it will roll out the first mass produced solar powered car this year is science.

C: Yey!

S:The company is Aptera. They've been working on this for a while. Their goal was to make the most fuel efficient car possible so that it could be feasibly powered by solar panels. It's a three wheeled vehicle, two seater. So obviously it's small. It's not the kind of thing you're going to be chugging the family around with or taking on the construction site or whatever. But it would be perfectly fine for most commutes. You know, most people...

B: Three wheels.

S: Three wheels.

B: Is that even technically a car?

S: Yes.

B: Yeah, it is. It's a little city car. You know what's smart too is that this could be good for city car, kind of like the city bikes. Where they're just in parking spaces around the city and you can just borrow them.

S: They went with three wheels because it's less friction and improved fuel efficiency.

B: All right, get to the meat.

S: And all right, so it's basically an electric car, first and foremost. It has a battery. It can go 500 miles on a single charge. But it also, the roof is designed to be as long and flat as possible, not only to be aerodynamic but to maximize the surface area for the solar panels that are included.

B: So is it made of aerogel? Is that it?

S: It's made of carbon fiber, again, to be maximally light. And they have like, all of the electronics use LED lights and are in the low energy mode and everything is optimized for efficiency. And they have the car self-cools in a way that minimizes your need for air conditioning. They did everything they could to make the electricity use.

E: Top speed.

S: So if you have a sunny day, top speed was 81 miles per hour.

E: That's respectable.

S: Acceleration is huge. It accelerates really fast. So it's a peppy, fast vehicle. That's not a problem. It's a real car.

C: Yeah, that's like electric vehicles are fast as shit off the line.

B: Yeah, the torque is off the hook. But how long does it take to charge?

S: All right. So, well, the question is, if you have, say, a sunny day, how far could you drive on one day's solar recharging? And the answer is...

C: So from empty, like if you had zero miles and then you sat in the sun.

S: How many miles would the sun put into the battery in one day? That's the question.

C: I'd guess like 50, 100?

S: 40, 40. 40 miles.

E: Oh, so it does take a week.

S: Which is...

B: 24 hours. 24 hours.

S: No, not 24 hours, Bob.

S: You said a day.

S: Yeah, the sun doesn't shine for 24 hours.

C: Yeah, but the sun's only out for...

B: I thought it's out all day in California. (laughter)

S: So obviously there's a lot of variables here. It's going to work a lot better the closer you are to the equator and the longer, the more you are in the middle of the summer versus the middle of the winter. You're not going to get 40 miles on a winter day in Connecticut. But take...

B: So it's a piece of crap solar car because think about that. You drive to work, you come home, you're near empty.

S: No, Bob.

B: It's night. The sun has set.

C: Charge the car first.

S: Bob, the car has a 500 mile range. You're not going... It has a battery.

C: Charge it electrically in the wall so that you have all 500 miles, then go out and drive in the sun. And then it's going to constantly re-up itself.

S: Right. So the point is that if your commute is less than 40 miles a day, which is-

E: You're good.

S: 40 miles a day is the average distance that most drivers drive.

E: You don't even need to plug in.

S: Right. Then you're basically driving off solar energy. That 40 mile a day average amount that drivers drive could be entirely on solar energy. But then you've got a 500 mile range. And in fact, the range is more than 500 miles. The range is 500 miles just on the battery. And then you add to that whatever you get off the solar panels while you're driving, which could, if you basically drive during the day, you might be able to add another 40 miles to that. But in some of the write-ups, they said it had like a thousand mile range. I don't know what they're talking about. I think they might be talking about if you're under certain driving conditions. That doesn't mean all at once.

C: But even a thousand is a big, because there's always a range.

S: It's just pointless. And somebody else said 3,000 miles. It's pointless. The fact is the battery gives you 500 miles and the solar panels recharge 40 miles a day. Those are the only two numbers that matter. And everything else is all condition dependent or whatever.

E: Interesting.

C: I want one. Do you know how much they cost? I'll order one.

E: $195,000.

C: No, I bet you they're cheap because they're small.

S: No, no. $23,000.

E: Yeah, there you go.

C: $23,000? That's not bad.

B: I would never drive a super light three-wheel thing that's going to be your coffin.

C:' Yeah, but you also have to, you just have to think about where the market is for these kinds of things. City drivers who, the same people who, if you would be comfortable riding a bicycle with a helmet in traffic where you drive, I don't see why you would be uncomfortable driving this.

B: Yeah.

S: Yeah, it's going to be a niche car. No question.

C: Yeah, I mean, maybe niche, but niche in huge cities. I mean, that's something that we sometimes forget about. Most of the people in our country live in cities where a car like this would make sense.

S: The other thing is-

C: Most of the people.

S: It's also, even if the car itself may only have a niche, maybe because it's small. It's a two-seater. There's no trunk space, basically. Well, even given that, the other point of developing this car was just to, almost theoretically, how fuel efficient could we make a car, an all-electric car? And so this may have some ideas and technology which could get adapted to more traditional full electric vehicles to make them more fuel efficient, and maybe up the range of existing cars or up their fuel efficiency. So it is just about the technology itself, not necessarily the specific application of it, which I still think, I agree, Cara. It's cool. It will have a niche. I will never buy one. I need a bigger car. But for a lot of applications, this is all people need. It's a great commuter car.

C: But again, yeah, I also think like, I don't think it's as niche as you're saying.

S: Oh, we'll see.

C: Because again, the vast majority of people live in cities.

S: Europeans may love it. Who knows? They drive those tiny little cars.

C: Europeans may love it. But a lot of people are single. A lot of people don't have children. We think of the norm as like the nuclear family living in the suburbs.

S: Isn't everybody like me, though, Cara?

C: Exactly. But that's the thing.

E: I thought you were the center of the universe.

C: You actually are not representative of the typical American.

S: I have 2.4 kids. That's representative.

C: That's not the norm anymore.

E: I never met the .4th kid.

S: Yeah. I hear you. But I'm just saying, yes, I said there is a segment of the population for whom this might be a perfect application.

C: Totally. I would love to have this car.

S: But it's not going to be widely adopted. It's not going to be an every person car because there are limitations.

E: That was kind of why I went.

C: Oh, I'm thinking about how easy it would be to park.

E: But that's why I was going with like mass produce this. Do they have pre-orders on this thing? They must.

S: I don't know if they have pre-orders.

C: They must have a lot of pre-orders.

S: They're still tweaking the design, but they are going into mass production this year. So they say.

C: What's it called again?

E: So they say.

S: Aptera.

C: How do you spell that?

S: Well, I said, they said the company announced they will roll out the first mass produced car this year. So we'll see if it actually happens or not. They just announced that they're going to do it.

C: Yeah, you can reserve yours now. Which means they have preorders.

S: And then they also need to get approval for the car. It's a new car. They need to get the stamp of approval. So probably next year or the year after is when you could actually buy one, get it delivered and start driving it.

C: They have $100 million in pre-orders already.

S: Yeah, you just look it up? Yeah. The Aptera 2E is the car.

C: That's awesome.

J: So you're saying that we lost.

S: I'm saying that you lost.

C: Oh, wait, no, it's way higher now. This was an old article. Over 30,000 reservations, which represents over one billion in total pre-order value.

S: Awesome.

C: That's really cool.

S: All right. Good job, Cara.

C: Thanks.

E: Yeah, Cara. Nice work.

C: Neat.

S: All right, Evan.

B: Whatever. (laughter)

C: Love you, Bob.

B: Love you too.

S: Give us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:51:24)[edit]

You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.

 – Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Anglo-Irish satirist

E: The quote this week was suggested by a listener. His name is Trano. T-R-A-N-O. Thank you, Trano from France. He says: "Hi there, I heard someone in a favorite podcast of mine say this quote, you cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into." And I'm still reading the email here, "which I thought was very interesting. According to Quote Investigator, it's from Jonathan Swift, although other similar quotes also exist." And he gives a link to that. "Recently started the audiobook version of The Skeptic's Guide to the Future, exciting stuff. Greetings from Paris and thanks for the awesome show." Thank you, Trano.

S: Thank you.

E: And yeah, that is a quote that I think I've heard and maybe tweaked a little bit or just in a different way.

S: I've heard that quote many times and I've heard it from skeptical speakers. I forget who I first heard it from. I didn't realize that was from Jonathan Swift originally. It's just been bouncing around the skeptical movement for the last 30 years because it's a great quote.

E: It is a great quote. And going back to the 17th century, good stuff with Jonathan Swift.

S: Yeah, he was a real intellectual, that guy. Pretty cool. All right. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Sure man.

E: Thank you, Steve.

C: Thank you Steve.

J: You got it, man.


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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

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




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