SGU Episode 926
|This episode needs: proofreading, formatting, links, 'Today I Learned' list, categories, segment redirects.
Please help out by contributing!
|How to Contribute|
|SGU Episode 926|
|April 8th 2023|
Martin Cooper, father of the cell phone
|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
DS: Dan Scheffer, SGU patron
|Quote of the Week|
The Artemis II crew represents thousands of people working tirelessly to bring us to the stars. This is humanity's crew.
Introduction, Guest Rogue
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, April 6th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...
B: Hey, everybody!
S: Cara Santa Maria...
S: Jay Novella...
J: Hey guys.
S: And we have a special guest rogue this week, Dan Scheffer. Dan, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.
DS: Thank you everyone. Good morning. Good morning.
S: So Evan's not here because Evan's in his last spasm of taxes.
S: He couldn't make it for this week. So we're using this opportunity to have a guest rogue on the show. And Dan, you are a patron of the SGU and tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do?
DS: Yeah. So I've been a patron for a few years now. I'm a software engineer. I work in IT. I do it in my spare time I like to do a lot of computer gaming and tech stuff. I also like to get in some skiing and I also do some volunteer work with the Red Cross and the National Ski Patrol.
S: So when you tell people what you do, do you ever tell them, I do it or I'm in it?
DS: I'm in it or I do it?
B: As in IT it? Is that what you're talking about?
S: IT. Yeah.
B: Nobody says that Steve.
S: Nobody says that?
C: I know. I was like, what are you talking about?
J: That's not even-
S: What do you do? I do IT. I'm into IT.
C: Oh IT. Oh, now I get it.
J: That's literally a joke that's only happening in your head.
S: Okay. I'm just wondering.
DS: People's eyes glaze over when I start talking about computers. So I try not to make it too hard.
C: One of my best friends does ski patrol. She loves it. It's hard work though, man. Really hard work.
DS: It is. It's really hard work but it's a wonderful community and I find skiing with people who know how to do rescue is the best community to be in because they're the ones who show up with extra socks and gloves and everything you might need when you're on the hill.
C: And she does – I mean it's called ski. They ski patrol but she's actually on a snowboard. Some of the people are on skis but she's trained on a snowboard which I guess is a different approach. I don't know.
DS: Yeah. We welcome everyone. If you're interested in working in the mountains or anything or any sort of outdoor work, we also have a bike patrol these days as well. So anyone who wants to go out in the wilderness and enjoy nature is welcome to look into it.
S: And Dan, you are a bit of a mathematician buff.
DS: Sort of. Yeah. It's painful to hear that. I studied physics officially and we're supposed to have a rivalry but I do really enjoy math.
S: Isn't there a lot of math in physics?
DS: There is but usually what happens is the physics is the application of math and then where mathematics starts to get abstract where it breaks away from physical phenomena, we sort of have a little bit of a disagreement as to whether or not that's important if it doesn't match reality. And I'm not going to try and make a decision or stoke any fires but that's usually where all of the jokes about physicists and mathematicians fall.
S: I see.
Special Report: "Many Queens" puzzle (2:57)
J: But Dan, you have a math, like what would you call it? You wrote software that solved a mathematical puzzle that you think could be the actual solution, right?
DS: Yeah. Yeah. So this sort of is a puzzle that I've been thinking about for years. It's a famous puzzle. It's been around for about 175 years. And during the pandemic, I had some time to fill. So I decided to sit down and see if I could think about it. And after running out of different bread recipes with my wife, I really had to buckle down. So I started writing some code for it. And the math problem is known, it's got a few names, but the one that most people know is called the many queens problem. I'm not sure if any of you are familiar with it?
B: Sounds familiar. I forget the details. What's the gist of it?
DS: Yeah. So it's got a couple of different layers. So the initial was posed, is it possible if you have a standard chessboard, are you able to place eight queens on the chessboard such that none of the queens are attacking one another? And when that was posed initially, no one really knew, but it didn't take long to find that there is at least one solution. And then it took another two years for them to figure out how many different distinct solutions there were. And the problem has been evolving since then. So after they figured out how to do it on an eight by eight board, they looked at doing it with nine queens on a nine by nine board. And this is where the problem starts to get more famous because it's of the class of problems where it's easy to find a single solution, but it's difficult to find every solution. So when you're looking at a chessboard, if it's a blank board, there's no way of calculating what the right answer is. The only way to figure out what all of the different configurations are is to use a brute force search to look for all of them. And then you count the answers that you find. The problem that we run into doing this mathematically is the number of boards you have to search increases as a factorial. And the amount of time it takes to do that gets out of hand really fast. So if you look at an eight by eight board, if it took you one second to solve that, when you step up to nine by nine, it takes nine times as long. So it's nine seconds. When you go 10 by 10-
S: That's not too bad.
B: What's a conventional board?
DS: Conventional would be eight by eight. So when you go to 10 by 10, it's 90 times as long as eight by eight. And then 11 by 11 is 990. So if you look at in the 1800s, it took them two years to do the eight by eight board, where do you think we would be today? What's the largest board that you predict is solved?
J: I honestly have no idea, but I'm going to go low. I'm going to say 12 by 12.
DS: Okay. We've got 12 by 12. I think, Cara, you said 200?
C: No, I said 11.
DS: Oh, you said 11. Okay.
C: I was trying to answer the other question. He said, when was it done? And I thought he was asking how long did it take?
C: You said it took about 200 days?
DS: Two years.
C: Two years.
DS: Two years in the 1850s.
S: Two years.
C: Got you.
DS: With no computers.
S: Yeah, it would be like 10 or 11 then, wouldn't it?
C: Right, yeah, 11?
B: I'd go with 15.
DS: 15 is good. So you can write the software to do it. The current maximum is 26 is accepted. That one took, I believe, nine months to solve. They had to build a special computer specifically for it. And they've only built one computer, as far as I know, that's able to solve 27. But because there's no way of calculating the answers, you can't know if it's right unless somebody else builds another computer and goes through and finds them all and gets the same number that you did.
B: Confirms it, yeah.
B: But couldn't you assess the program itself and determine that it's correct, it is set up properly to get a correct number, a correct answer? Or is that too difficult to say that with any confidence just by looking at the code?
DS: Yeah, I think that it breaks down a little bit because there's a lack of confidence in the code. And also, you have to go through and make sure that each answer is distinct. So if you figure when you're looking at the 27 board, you've got 27 queen positions. You've got to analyze every one of them, make sure they're different than every other iteration. So even that check alone takes a long time.
J: So what did you create?
DS: I started out looking at the problem and basically, I just wanted to practice some programming. So I started from ground zero and I wrote an algorithm that focused on doing the calculation instead of doing the search. And after working on it for a while, I realized that I had a calculation that worked. It was able to look at a square board and without searching for any specific solutions, it was able to calculate what the correct number of solutions was. So I thought, okay, this is a little weird because I didn't think this was supposed to be possible. So I tweaked it a little bit and I set it up. So now instead of just doing the calculation, it would do the calculation and a separate count at the same time because I set it up to do the math and basically calculate every board that was attacking rather than the ones that weren't. And in doing that, I had leftover numbers that were the non-attacking, so I could just count those. And it worked out that every time I ran it, I had the same two numbers. So I thought, okay, this is sort of interesting.
J: So what can you do? Let's say that your program, it does solve it, right? First of all, how big of a board can your program solve?
DS: So the largest board I've done, I set a goal personally to do the N equals 20 board because this is the one that's commonly cited as impossible to do on a personal computer. But I also, I stepped away from that problem a little bit because the N Queens problem is interesting, but they stopped using it for testing and benchmarking for AI. They were using this as a way to see how well algorithms were working. And when you're looking at the boards, any board smaller than 16 is really trivial to do for a very fast computer and any board bigger than 20 is too hard. So there's only four boards you can use and everyone knows the answers for those ones. So several years ago, some professors, a team at St. Andrews in the UK, developed a variant problem called the N Queens completion. And what they do is they set up the board so that way you can use a much larger board and you put several queens in positions on there that are not attacking and then try to complete the board. This way you've got a random element and every time you run the board, it's a new problem. You can't risk having an AI over train on the problem. So I turned my attention to that one and using my slower Visual Basic version, I can solve N equals 28. And I wrote a version in C++ that I can solve N equals 30. And I've been working on it. Basically the only reason I stopped at those numbers is I've got to create variables that hold these giant numbers to do the calculation. And that takes up memory and I just didn't make the variables that big. I don't see an upper limit. I haven't found out what that is yet.
J: So you need to talk to-
B: ChatGPT. Run it through ChatGPT, see what it says.
J: You got to get this in front of a mathematician and you need someone to check your work to see if you solved it. I mean, what would you win if you did this? How much money do they give you? That's what I want to know.
DS: I hope it's a lot. I have been trying to get it in front of mathematicians. I've been trying to publish it, but that's part of what brought me to talk to you about it because publishing a result is different than generating it. This problem, the N Queen completion problem in particular is often talked about in the same breath as the Millennium Prize because the N Queens completion problem is considered NP complex. And if anyone manages to solve one of those, that's a big deal in the mathematical community. But I don't think that this solution all by itself is enough to necessarily tick that box just because A, it needs to be published, which I don't know how to do. And B, I think that this is maybe the way that it's performing is the kernel of an idea that works. And I think probably a smarter mathematician or a better programmer would do it even better than I can do. So I would love to put it in front of people and let them make it into something that's truly magical.
J: I mean, there's a lot of people listening to the show. So maybe somebody out there would be interested. I mean, do you have an email that you could say on the show that you're not worried about getting spammed? That someone could connect with you?
DS: Yeah, absolutely. I can be reached at dan.g.scheffer. And do you want me to spell that or do you have like a note file?
J: Yeah, spell it.
J: Definitely spell it.
DS: So it's S-C-H-E-F-F-E-R and that's at gmail.com. So email@example.com.
J: Good. Cool. I hope somebody... Look, if anything happens, if any prize monies are won, call me.
DS: I will do that.
J: We'll talk about it.
C: Jay expects a cut. Yeah.
DS: We will get some Wooly Mammoth meatballs if we get prize money.
J: That's what I'm talking about. I need funding to get my lips around that meatball.
C: Gross, Jay.
J: Look, I'll eat anything that's made out of mammal flesh. I will not eat insects. That's it.
C: Jay, I'm not grossed out by you eating a meatball. I'd eat that meatball too. I just don't want to think about you getting your lips around it.
J: Okay. All right.
S: T-Rex lips.
J: It's all gross. It's all gross. Cool, Dan. Well, all kidding aside, if you do connect with anyone in this, I'd be curious to hear how this goes. I want to know if you're correct, man. I want to know what's up.
DS: Yeah. I would love to find out if I'm correct. I would actually also be okay finding out that I'm wrong just because it's sort of been occupying a space in my head where I feel I have a responsibility to share with science. If they say, yeah, yeah, we knew about this or yeah, that's good, but not good enough, at least then I feel I've pushed it far enough. I just want to get a resolution.
J: Yeah. Totally get it. I hope somebody contacts you.
DS: Cool. Thanks. And if anyone is interested as well, I know that lots of people like to do programming. The way that I've set up my script, it should be able to be multi-threaded. I know lots of people like doing GPU programming. I have not been able to make heads or tails of it, but if anyone wants to try and turn this into a GPU program, I'm pretty sure we could solve a board bigger than anything solves. So I would like to say, if anyone wants to try and set a record with me, I would love to be a part of that.
Quickie News: Artemis II Crew (13:24)
S: Hey, before we get onto the news items, Jay, you wanted to mention that the Artemis 2 crew has been chosen and made public.
J: Yeah. I mean, just a quick mention. I can't have the astronauts for Artemis, the selection has happened and we got to talk about it real briefly. So four people have been picked. We have two white males, one black male, and one white female are going. And I think it is important to note that there is not only a black man is going, but they made the right choice and picked a woman to go. I take that very seriously. They should have done this a long time ago.
S: Yeah. Like in the 60s.
C: Yeah. That's the thing that's like you just, you obviously just describe some characteristics. This is the first black man, the first woman, and actually weirdly the first Canadian.
J: So there's lots of firsts going on. These four people like just look it up if you haven't yet. Look at the picture. These four people are risking their lives in an extraordinary way to do something that is extraordinary. Like they're going to go fly around the moon and it's very likely that one or more of these people will be on an Artemis 3 mission. But these are the people that are going to do it first. People have not been to the moon in a very, very, very long time. And this is huge. And I hope that the world can look at this as a as much as it's an effort by NASA, it is a global effort to do this. There's been help from other countries and lots of work that's coming from around the world to make these missions possible. And this is a massive human achievement. And we are going back to the moon. And here's our crew.
S: Yeah. I was thinking about that. Like they're going to have none of these people are going to be on Artemis 3. They have a whole new crew for Artemis 3.
J: I don't know. I don't know if they're going to do that. The thing is, Steve, we're not talking about that long of a time after the Artemis 2 mission. It's going to be about a year, year and a half if everything goes well. But things have been going pretty good.
C: When is Artemis 2?
J: It's supposed to happen in November 2024.
C: OK. So next year.
J: And then Artemis 3, they're slated for 25. So it's we're within a couple of years of all this.
DS: And this is going to be when they're wearing those new suits as well, right?
J: Oh, yeah. Those suits are critical. They've got to test them because that's the test for Artemis 3. So they have to be wearing the new suits for Artemis 2.
C: So what are they wearing in the picture?
J: I honestly don't know.
S: Those are flight suits, right?
C: They're flight suits? But why do they have those circular, I mean, they look like they're actual like air inflated suits. You know what I mean? They don't look like just flight suits. They look like space suits.
J: Yeah. I'm not sure what they're wearing. I don't know if the company that made the suits, I don't know if they gave them prototypes.
C: Oh, right. Yeah.
J: They did come out with the prototype. So they they have the base model now that we talked about on the show. So I don't know if they equipped them. I couldn't find anything out about it. I was seeing the same thing you saw. You could see that there's an air like an air receptacle on the suit. So yeah.
C: Right. And they have the ring around the neck, like the big rigid ring.
J: I highly doubt that these suits are going to be in outer space though.
C: Right. Right. They're probably just for photo.
S: These are just their talk show suits.
C: Yeah, exactly.
J: And they look cool. They got to show them in their space suits. Come on.
S: I know. I know.
J: Steve, there are little kids right now that are looking at that picture and it's the Apollo mission to us. You know what I mean?
S: Yeah. No, I get it. Absolutely. I mean, it's all going to be here sooner than you know it. I mean, it's good from one point of view, it's forever. I could get anticipation it's going to take a long time, but it's going to happen fast.
J: Definitely. And then the missions are going to come quick. We're going to have a base on the moon. We're going to have people staying on the moon. We're going to have satellites going around the moon that are going to be a way station. It's all going to happen very soon. And I, I got to tell you, I'm so freaking excited. This is basically the coolest thing that NASA has done in my lifetime. This is it.
B: I hope they find that monolith.
Quickie with Bob: Random numbers (17:27)
S:' All right, Bob, start us off with a quickie.
B: Thanks, Steve. This is your science news quickie with Bob. This week, random numbers. A team of physicists have created a new way to generate truly random numbers many times faster than ever before. And that's the crux of this, of this new development. So fast. Their source of the random numbers come from quantum fluctuations themselves. These are essentially changes in the amount of energy found at points in space that are minute, temporary, and most importantly for this news item, random. The fluctuations are related, as you might guess, to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which of course is fascinating and heady as most quantum topics are. Please read up on them if you're interested. You won't be disappointed. I'm still learning. Still so hard to wrap your head around it. To capture the randomness inherent in this quantum flickering, if you will, the scientists use a device I never heard of called an integrated balanced homodyne detector. It sounds like something out of Star Trek Technobabble. This device can measure this minute electric field of a quantum state. The scientists describe in their paper that they integrated a homodyne detector onto a computer chip, which can amplify this vacuum noise of these quantum fluctuations. The noise is measured and then these truly random numbers are then pulled out or distilled, as they put it in their paper, from this quantized measurement data. The random numbers, as I said, can be generated fast, 10 times faster than the current state of the art. One website was saying 200 times faster, but the paper itself said 10 times. So let's go with the paper. 10 times still order of magnitude is a lot faster. That's really important because there's so much of this, such a great need in computer science for these, for random numbers like this, for many different applications that the faster they can produce them, the better. This will likely prove to be increasingly invaluable in many areas of computer science and research, and especially, as the authors put it, we believe that this random number generator is a key enabler of high speed cryptography and quantum key distribution systems. So your random gaming environments in the future may be derived from such numbers. More importantly, your most private data and communications in the future may be secured by the random numbers generated from such a system. So that's all I got. This was your science news quickie with Bob.
S: And these are truly random numbers, right?
S: Which you have to say because if you have a random number generator on your desktop computer, it's probably not a truly random number generator.
B: No. If you're using deterministic algorithms, there will be patterns eventually. It's fine for most things, but when you're talking about cryptography and securing communications, you want that locked down and really, truly random, which is what you can get from quantum mechanics and the quantum realm. It's believed that a lot of these things, like these quantum fluctuations, are truly random. So if you do it right, they've proven to be as close to truly random as we may ever be able to get. So yeah, for sure.
S: I remember in the 80s, like on my Apple IIe or something, I made a script to generate random numbers for something and just let it run and generate hundreds, thousands of random numbers. And then I noticed after a while, the numbers completely start repeating.
B: Yeah. And they call them, I think they call them back then, pseudo random number generators because they're kind of random.
S: Didn't they or some of them just use pi, just like, use pi as the generator of the quote unquote random numbers?
C: It'd be random except for that it's pi. So it's completely predictable, which makes it not random at all.
S: That's why it's a pseudo random number generator.
C: Right. Yeah.
B: I think pi wouldn't be great because then all you need is a nice supercomputer and just run through all the digits. Because we can't get that deep-
S: Not for cryptography, but just like for desktop applications.
B: Oh, yeah.
S: Running a basic program, which is what I was talking about.
DS: I think they use a seed function from the time as well. They look at the milliseconds on your clock and try and base it on that.
Treating Infections without Antibiotics (21:26)
S: Cara, tell us about treating infections without antibiotics.
C: Yeah, so this is exciting. There is a study that was published just in this past month in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, called Endolysin Inhibits Skin Colonization by Patient-Derived Staphylococcus aureus and Malignant T-Cell Activation in Cutaneous T-Cell Lymphoma. It's a mouthful, but it's exactly what the paper is about. So we're going to dive into it. So Staph aureus, Staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as Staph, there are multiple Staphs. This is Staph aureus, is an infectious agent, right? It's a bacterium that we have talked about a lot on the show. Staph aureus is responsible, most of us are colonized with Staph somewhere on our bodies. It's opportunistic. Usually it's totally fine that you have Staph on your body. But if your immune system has a hiccup or in the case of what this study looks at, if you are somebody who is suffering from specific types of disease states, and in this case they are looking at individuals who have something called cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, which is a rare type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that affects actually your skin cells.
B: The surface, the surface?
C: Yeah, yeah. Staph aureus can actually be deadly. I mean, at the very least it can be incredibly painful and cause all sorts of systemic problems. But Staph aureus can be responsible for the MRSAs. Like I had MRSA once. It was brutal, but I was lucky. It was a skin and soft tissue infection. But it still took months for me to clear this thing and multiple antibiotics. But some people were talking sepsis, right? We're talking pneumonia. We're talking pretty severe and life-threatening illnesses. So in this study, what they looked at was basically a presentation of cutaneous T-cell lymphoma. What they did is they were like, okay, listen, we're dealing all the time in hospitals, we've talked about this for years and years and years and years, with these antibiotic-resistant infections, right? We've got Staph aureus everywhere. It is developing resistance to our first-line antibiotics really, really quickly. It's become this difficult thing in hospitals to treat. And what are other approaches that we can take? What do we do when somebody has a Staph infection, and especially if that Staph infection is antibiotic-resistant? And to add insult to injury, what do we do if that happens in a patient with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma? Because that patient is coming back to the hospital maybe every few weeks, maybe every few months to get these infusions. Their immune system is just not in a good way. And then something that's really specifically frustrating about this specific type of cancer is that Staph aureus actually has this interesting pathology in this cancer where it induces tumor production. And so they're like, okay, we do not want these individuals to be getting Staph aureus. It literally makes the cancer worse. Not just that they get sick because they have this secondary infection, but it's making the cancer worse. So what do we do? How do we get rid of this problem? Let's look at some options. And what these researchers looked at was they were like, okay, what naturally kills bacteria? You guys know?
C: Bacteriophages, right? These are viruses that infect bacteria.
B: They're awesome. They're so cool. They look like alien machines.
C: So let's take these alien machines. Let's look at their machinery and let's figure out exactly what mechanisms are involved and how we can kind of use this against the bacteria. And so here they look at a recombinant antibacterial protein. It's called endolysin. Specifically they're looking at endolysin XZ700. And when they looked at this endolysin XZ700, they were like, let's see what happens when we actually take that endolysin, which is an enzyme, and we just utilize the endolysin itself, the enzyme itself. We don't use antibiotic drugs, but we just take this enzyme and we apply it to this bacteria. And when they do it, what ends up happening is that there are molecules within the bacteria called peptidoglycans and the endolysins just like rip them up. They're what help the bacterial cell wall stay kind of functional. They help build a scaffold and these just destroy those, which means the bacteria can't stay intact. So basically they just like die from the inside out. Each bacterial species has different peptidoglycans. In this one, that XZ700 was the one targeted because they could selectively target specifically the Staph aureus that they were looking at. And what they did is they did a big study and they compared, or they looked at both people with healthy skin and also those with this type of lymphoma. And they found that in the samples of Staph aureus within the lymphoma, and this was all done in vitro, by the way. So that's important to note, right? They weren't actually giving this to patients. They were looking at samples that were taken from patients in the lab. They found that, here's something really cool, it was able to kill the, what we call the harmful Staph aureus. In doing so, it also blocked the tumor-promoting effects in those T cells that were malignant. And it also stopped Staph aureus from colonizing the samples of the healthy skin cells. So not only did it inhibit the ability to promote cancer growth in individuals for whom they are really susceptible and in the danger zone, but how does methicillin-resistant MRSA, antibiotic-resistant Staph, spread in a hospital from person to person? Very often people who aren't sick from it. So it also had the ability to kill basically the populations of this bacterium that maybe could become dangerous, but were just being carried. And so this is, I mean, obviously we're still in the research stages. Yeah, they even used words like it profoundly stopped the Staph aureus from colonizing, but that it was very, very effective within this study. And a couple of important things that I noticed in a write-up, in 2019, antibiotic resistance was registered as the third leading cause of death worldwide.
C: This is a big deal. Third. Yeah.
B: Oh, yeah, man.
C: This is a really, really big deal. And so it is really important that we develop not just one, but multiple approaches to getting out in front of this. And this could potentially be one of them. So I guess we'll wait and see.
B: So now phage therapy though, that's been used in Russia for decades, right? You aware of that? This phage therapy is not new.
C: Are you saying that we just, yeah, but are they purifying and selecting the components like the enzymes and actually giving these patients the enzymes? Or are they just like infecting these people with bacteriophages?
B: Yeah, they're using the phage, the phages to kill bacteria.
C: Right. So I think that's the danger zone is because it's non-selective. So you could be wiping out really important, healthy-
B: The good bacteria, yeah.
C: -good bacteria, which actually is not a good, I mean, yes, obviously, getting rid of a bacterium that's killing somebody is what you need to do, even if you're risking knocking out good bacteria. But ultimately, we don't want to do that either, because our microbiome does have some amount of balance.
B: Oh, absolutely.
C: And there can be secondary sicknesses. I mean, as a woman, obviously, this is just like a daily thing that we deal with. But a lot of women, every time they take an antibiotic, they get a yeast infection, every time, because they're wiping out so many of their bacterial colonies that now there's nothing to keep the yeast in check. And then they have to take antifungal medication. And then it's like this vicious circle. And so you can imagine how much more detrimental that is when we're talking about blood infections, when we're talking about really severe systemic infections, gut infections. We've seen how difficult it is with C. diff, for example. So yeah, if we can do something slightly more targeted, that's probably ideal.
DS: Cara, did you say that this also had an inhibition on the cancer itself? Is there a chance that this could develop into a cancer treatment?
C: Only for this specific type of cancer, it looks like, because this specific type of cancer, in this specific type of cancer, Staph aureus is a tumor-promoting agent.
S: All right. Thanks, Cara.
The Science of Clogging (30:08)
S: Dan, you're going to tell us about the science of clogging.
DS: Yeah, thanks, Steve.
C: Say what?
DS: Yeah. So this item, it's over on Ars Technica. It's about soft matter physics. And it sent me down a really neat rabbit hole over at the American Physical Society website. It really spoke to me in a lot of different ways. It reminded me when I was studying physics, I was very excited when I got to solid state physics. And then I was really disappointed to find out that this was just the physics of matter that was in the state of being solid, and not even all of them just crystals, because amorphous solids were too hard to do the math for. So this one talks about soft matter. And it goes into the areas of physics where it's really difficult to control your variables. You're looking at things like surface tension and sliding friction or compression. So if you have a chance, the gallery is really cool. There's a number of different video selections. But the one I want to talk about right now has to do with clogging. It's called Declog or Not Declog. The research comes from the teams out of UC Santa Barbara, CU Boulder, and Cambridge. And what they talk about is how items clog in a hopper. And I think, Bob, you're probably the most familiar with this one because you're the coffee expert. How do you feel about your hoppers? You grind your own coffee?
B: Yes, I do. I do that a lot, but I do grind them when I feel like having like French press or using the coffee maker other than the Keurig, Jay.
J: That's swell, man.
B: Throw in sugar and milk and it's yummy.
C: Why don't you drink your coffee black, Bob? Sorry. Off topic.
DS: It's okay. So do you ever have your hopper, your grinders get clogged where the beans all join up and they just decide to not go into the grinder anymore? I'm guessing this is fairly common.
B: Oh, yeah. There's always little nooks and crannies where it's like nothing you do can get them out. So I ignore them.
DS: Yeah. And that's where I thought this article was kind of interesting because it turns out you'd think that these is something that's very well known, that you'd know how to build a hopper where you can just put something soft like coffee beans through it and they wouldn't clog. But it turns out the interaction is really complex. So they built a really nice apparatus where they could have a two-dimensional hopper and then they used polyurethane discs and polarized light so they could watch as the stress patterns formed while the discs were flowing through the hopper. And then they could see the stable and metastable clogs forming. And in a way, it's mesmerizing to watch because you can see the lines form up as it forms a natural arch and then you can see additional arches forming off where it's supporting or where an arch forms in the wrong spot. And it's the point that puts the pressure that breaks the clog in and of itself. So it's interesting to look at. And as I was thinking about the coffee example, I was thinking about agriculture. We're talking about all of these different things. When you start out with seeds, they're in a big truck, they go through a hopper, they get distributed on a field, we gather them up, we put them in another truck, it goes through a hopper, we grind them into a mill. These hoppers are everywhere. And it's kind of mind-boggling to think that there's no unifying scientific theory that says this is the optimal design for this type of a thing to go through. It's all based on experimental or experiential data that this was the design that works for, I don't know, soybeans, and hopefully it works also for lima beans. And what it took me to next is if we think about where do we want to set up our colonies, and I'm going to ask everyone but Cara because I think everyone agrees that they want to put humans somewhere that maybe Cara doesn't want. So I apologize, Cara, for this. I'm touching a nerve. But where do we want to put people?
C: All good.
S: The moon and Mars, I think, are the only two viable places for the near term. And then eventually the belt, maybe the moons, some moons, some outer moons, Jupiter, Saturn.
B: I say the moon and O'Neill cylinders.
J: Right, of course you do, Bob.
DS: Are the O'Neill cylinders the ones that are in the lava tubes?
S: They're space-based settlements, yeah.
DS: Okay. Because I was going to go for lava tubes here because if we think about it, we know that we would like to maybe have a colony on the moon someday. And we think the lava tubes-
S: The new terminology is settlement, not colony. Because colony implies that there's already somebody there. You colonize a land where that is already occupied, but you settle a land that is not occupied. So assuming nobody's already living at the moon, it's a settlement, not a colony. Just to get the NASA language up to date.
DS: I didn't know that. Okay, yeah. So if we're looking at a settlement in a lava tube, that's good because it's structurally sound, but we're going to have to go up there before we can put people in there. And we're probably going to send some sort of a robot up there to go into the tube and start scooping up regolith and then turn it into some sort of lunarcrete and spray it up there. And the idea that every device that we have on Earth that does this, we had to go through trial and error to figure it out. We have no idea how it's going to work if we put it on the moon. We're going to have our Mason bot up there getting clogged up with regolith because we don't have a design that works in one-sixth gravity or zero air pressure or at the temperature ranges that we deal with. So while you look at this, it seems like it's relatively basic physics and you think this maybe doesn't have an application in the bigger picture. It can span basically the full experience that we have now and potentially experience that we have going into the future, which I thought was really interesting.
B: Yeah. Yeah. That's cool. I would think simulations, they would have to try to do this computer simulations to mimic the environment accurately because you can't really fake it on the Earth. You can't just turn on your gravity generator and reduce it. You can create vacuum, rooms that have vacuums, but the gravity is a problem.
DS: Yeah, the gravity and the temperature range.
B: But I would think simulations, yeah, that's right. That would be problematic as well because it's huge. It's a huge swing.
DS: Yeah. And if the glass beads with the water in them start making liquids in there, it's a really interesting way to think about it that maybe there's a lot more to learn.
S: Interestingly, the hardest problem to solve on the moon is probably going to be the gravity because there's nothing you can do about it. Everything else we could, like you say, build the station in a lava tube, you can get your pressure, you can create almost a perfect Earth-like environment inside a very large lava tube on the moon. It's protecting everything, but you can't do anything about the one-sixth gravity.
B: Unless you had some rotating, spinning centrifugal force.
S: Yeah, but if you're going to do that, you're better off being in space then rather than on the moon.
S: All right. Thanks, guys.
New Kind of Black Hole (37:05)
S: So Bob I know I've razzed you in the past for doing too many black hole themed-
B: Now it's your turn.
S: I know. So it's ironic that now I just had to do one. And because, listen to this, what would you say to the fact that we discovered probably a new type of black hole? At this point in our understanding of the universe, what would you think of the odds were that we discovered a kind of black hole that we've never discovered before?
B: Well, I've read your blog post.
B: ANd when I've read the title I was like, what? Give me a break.
S: Your immediate reaction is like, come on, really?
B: Right. But then when you read the details, like, okay, it's that kind of new type.
S: Yeah. I mean, it's still a black hole. It's still a black hole, right? It's not like there's anything different about the black hole itself. But when we say new type of black hole, we mean a situation in which one arises.
S: But not only is it a new type of black hole, it's probably the most common type of black hole.
B: That's interesting.
S: So yeah. Imagine discovering that at this point. Oh, most black holes are this type we didn't even know existed before this discovery. So, what's going on here? This is all a part of the Gaia orbital telescope, which is a European Space Agency mission. And Gaia has a number of instruments, three primary instruments that it's using to image the galaxy, specifically the Milky Way galaxy, in different EM frequencies. And it's doing it in a specific way called astrometry.
S: You heard that term before? Astrometry.
B: Of course.
S: Yeah. Which means that it's trying to three-dimensionally map the galaxy. And yeah, the goal is that it will find the precise position three-dimensionally, not just where it is, but how far away it is. In other words, not just the direction, of two billion objects in the galaxy in order to create this map, this giant map. So one of the subsets of that, one of the projects within that, is it's looking at binary systems, systems that have two stars in them.
B: Lots of those.
S: There's lots of those. I think one estimate that I've always read is that half of the points of light you see up in the sky are binary star systems. So that's a lot. If that's true, that would be two-thirds of the actual stars are part of a binary star system. There was a recent data dump from Gaia. Here's all the data it's been collecting. And within that data dump, there were information on a bunch of different binary systems. And two stood out. Two systems which were called, are now called Gaia BH1 and Gaia BH2. BH for black hole. So these are two systems in which the star that's visible is clearly orbiting another object because it's wobbling. You know, how it could it's following that loop-the-loop kind of wobbling pathway through space because it's clearly orbiting something. It's orbiting at a fairly good distance as well. It's not like a tight binary where they're just, where they're zipping around each other. It's something very far away but in its orbit. And also it's something pretty massive. So there's a distant massive companion to these stars. They're also really close. That's the other thing. These are also not only a new type of black hole, the most common type of black hole, they're the closest black holes to the earth. One of them is 1560 light years. The other one is 3,800 light years, which is on galactic terms is extremely close. In these binaries, we can see that there's a companion, but also we can't, the companion is not visible. They looked at where it should be based upon the gravitational influence and there's nothing there. So there's a dark black, if you will, source of intense gravity in that system.
B: What could it be?
S: Right. So it's, we could calculate the gravity. At this point, it's a pretty known entity in physics and astronomy. And we could say, yeah, we have the instruments. We're looking at all the known frequencies. There's nothing there. Certainly not a star there blazing away because we would be able to see that. So it's a black gravitational source and the gravitational pull is such that it's in the black hole range. So clearly these are black holes. So what's new about this is that is the distance. So normally when black holes are part of a binary, first we see them because the black hole's feeding, right? It's absorbing matter from its companion. And it's actually, even though it's a "black hole", it's blazing in x-rays and radio waves. And that's how we see them. So these are different in that they're actual black holes that we cannot see except for their gravitational influence. They're not producing radiation in x-rays or radio rays, which means they're not feeding, which is also consistent with the fact that they're far away from their star companion, the star that's orbiting around them. What's new about this is that we do not have a model, like astronomers don't have a model where this kind of situation can develop. You're not supposed to have stars that big, that far away from each other, but in the same system. Obviously it's possible, it happened. There's two examples of it in that one set of data. So they have to figure out now, come up with theories and then test those theories and model them about, well, how, what happened? How did this come about? What is, was the sequence of events that they form together in the same system? I guess that's the problem.
B: Was it a capture?
S: It's not supposed to happen. Was it a capture scenario? Did the black hole capture the other star because it came too close? That's a possibility. Stars are moving around in the galaxy. They sometimes pass very close to each other and they may pass close enough to for it to be captured.
B: I mean, that's got to be fairly likely. I don't want, it seems like it seems more, they're making it out to be more mysterious.
S: Well, yeah. It's not like this is like, we can't imagine how this could possibly happen. It's just that we don't currently have a simulation model that tells us how it did happen or how it likely did happen. But I don't think this is going to be one of those deep mysteries that's going to take a long time to solve. I think now that we've made the observations, we know that they exist. We have an idea about their frequency, which is another piece of data. It's not a rare, rare, rare thing that happened. And they could say, well, there's two examples in this set of data. So how common must this be? They could do that calculation.
B: Is that why they think it might be the most common black hole scenario?
S: Yeah, because they're close and they're, because they found two of them. The thing is, this is interesting. If we found only one, you never know if you just got lucky, right? Or it's harder, the error bars on the statistical probability is a lot bigger. Once you find that second one, the statistics, the error bars narrow way down.
B: How big was this data dump?
S: It was a lot. Yeah, it was a lot. So far, they've cataloged, Gaia has cataloged 813,000 binary stellar systems. Yeah. And these two were found in that set of data. But that doesn't mean, I don't know if they've looked through the entire set of data yet.
B: Right, right.
S: And in another cycle, whatever it's going to be in so many months, there's going to be another data dump. Remember, the goal is 2 billion bits of data eventually from Gaia during its mission. It's a massive survey. I also like the fact, just to put things into perspective, that in the last year or so, we've gained more information on binary star systems from Gaia than astronomers have gathered in the last two centuries. That's how much more information we're getting about the galaxy.
B: That's amazing.
B: Wow. Go Gaia.
S: And there's more to come. And there's a lot more to come. So, yeah, we're discovering new stuff. It seems at this point, it could seem like, yeah, we pretty much know everything that's out there, but we really don't. Universe is such a big place. And as much information as we have, it's just a tiny little sample of what's out there. So these new missions that we're sending out that are doing these more extensive surveys are going to find all kinds of things that are cool. Bob, you're the black hole expert. So in my research for the blog post, I know you're red, so you probably know these answers, but what is the biggest black hole ever seen? I think we talked about this on the show. Do you remember?
B: Yeah, it's in the 60s, 60 something billion.
S: Yeah, 66 billion solar masses. But I also found an article. I did not include this in my article, but I found a study where they did a simulation. They were trying to find the upper limit. What's the biggest black hole that could possibly exist? Have you ever seen that?
B: Yeah, I have. I have. And they were trying to think. Yeah, and I like the names too. Instead of supermassive black holes, they want to call them like ultramassive, which I like. Like once you get past like I think 10 or 20 billion, they think, yeah, let's call them hyper. Let's call them ultramassive.
S: Yeah, hyper, mega, ultra.
B: But I think the physics seems to break down at, what's it at up? We're getting close to it, but is it 75 or 100?
B: 500. 500 billion solar masses.
S: 500 billion solar masses. But what happens beyond that? That just means we just don't know the physics beyond that.
B: Yeah. I mean, we're not sure about the physics right now.
S: Yeah, that's true.
B: But yeah, I wonder what-
S: Something breaks down at that point.
B: Where did that number come from? What breaks down so catastrophically at 500 that they're like, oh, it's not going to happen.
S: Yeah, I don't know either. That's going to take some more investigation on our part or an expert emailing us saying, this is the answer. This is why.
S: But cool.
First Cell Phone (47:36)
S: All right, Bob, you're going to tell us about the first cell phone. How long have cell phones been around?
B: So yes, 50 years ago this week.
S: All right, you're giving the answer right out of the gate. No question or mystery.
B: Yeah. First two words. First two words. Yep. 50. I'm done. Okay. The first public cell phone call was made. Now, we need a moment of silence. We need to pay homage to Martin Cooper from Motorola who led the team that made that happen half a century ago, creating the Model T, if you will, of that addictive and indispensable descendant device that we all have today and all love and most of us love. All right. The day was April 3rd, 1973, what I call zero BCE, before the cell phone era. Come on. Insert giggles here, you jerks.
C: Sorry. Sorry. I'm freaking out because it's only 10 years before I was born and I'm just having an existential crisis over here.
B: Right? So Martin Cooper was working for Motorola and he scheduled a news conference to show off their working prototype cell phone. At that time and soon before it, everyone was looking at AT&T and Bell Labs and their car phone technology. And Cooper thought that being tethered to a car was almost as bad as being tethered to the house phone or a work phone. He didn't see a car phone as a truly mobile device, especially not compared to a phone that could be in your hand that you could take anywhere you can walk to and use it there. To him, that was a truly mobile device and everything else, car, phone, home, to him was just like it was tethered, really. So the car phone tech just couldn't handle, really, they couldn't handle such a mobile device at that time. They needed tons of power. They needed that car battery. And Steve and Jay, I don't know if you remember dad's car phone many, many moons ago.
J: The first one he had?
B: He had like a unit in the trunk. They were like 50 pounds. You would have had to have carried like a 50 pound thing around with you if you wanted to be mobile with it and that was not going to happen.
S: My first cell phone was a shoebox, basically.
B: Oh yeah.
S: Yeah. It was a transportable phone.
B: We came across something in the garage, we came across, or in the basement, we came across a super old one. Like, oh my God.
S: I got it when I was still in training, like a resident, because it was really good to be able to answer pages without having to hunt down a payphone or whatever.
B: Oh my gosh. You remember that?
B: Remember driving to a payphone to talk to somebody?
J: Oh my God. I can't even accept that as reality anymore.
B: So now, so Martin Cooper and designer Rudy Krolopp and their crack team of engineers, they took only 90 days to create their working prototype, three months. When it worked, Cooper didn't, he didn't want to use it officially for the first time in the office because the office, big deal, you could just jump on a landline in the office. You're not really embracing the spirit of the cell phone if you use it for the first time officially in an office. So he stepped outside and he started walking the streets of Manhattan with it and people were giving him looks and everything. But who did he make his first call to? His mom? No. Did he make a call to nine-year-old Bob Novella? Unfortunately, no. But he did the next best thing. He trolled his main competitor and rival, Dr. Joel Engel, director of AT&T's cellular program. Cooper called him and for all intents and purposes said, that's what he did. Now the actual words were different. Obviously according to Cooper, the conversation went something like this. Hey, hi Joel. It's Marty Cooper. I'm calling you from a cell phone, a real cell phone, a personal handheld portable cell phone. And I love how he just, he just totally rubbed it in. Cooper said that he remembers that there was just silence on the other end of the call. And even today, Joel claims not to even remember that call at all. He's like, I don't remember it. Sure you don't, Joel. Sure you don't. But then it took 10 years until 1983 for the first commercial model of that phone to be available for purchase. So it took a while apparently to go from that prototype to the first one. And that cell phone was the mythical DynaTAC 8000X. DynaTAC was short for a dynamic adaptive total area coverage. So the acronym is much better than the fully laid out words. All right. So what did it cost? What do you think it cost?
B: Back then. 83'.
B: $3,500. $3,500, which was equivalent in 2023 dollars to about 10,600 bucks for a phone. Even the crazy prices of today are not anywhere near that. Inside were 30 circuit boards. 30? It weighed two and a half pounds, 1.1 kilos, nine inches tall, about 23 centimeters tall. And guess how many phone numbers it could store?
B: 30. That's it. You're maxed out. 30. I got like a thousand stupid phone numbers in my phone. I don't even want all of them in there.
C: And I have like 30,000 pictures in my phone.
B: Oh yes. And it took 10 hours to fully charge it. And for that 10 hour wait, you got 35 minutes of conversation. Isn't that adorable? And of course now there's more cell phones than people on earth. Statista predicts that by 2025 globally, there's going to be about 18 billion mobile devices. It's just nuts. And as we know, it's gone far beyond just a cell phone, right? Cell phone, I mean, it's a smartphone, right? Much bigger, much better than a cell phone. It's a smartphone. It's a that makes it a library, a TV, a movie theater, and countless software based tools on it. So many different things that you could download and accomplish using software on your phone. It's amazing. I don't remember anyone really predicting. I always thought, oh yeah, yeah, I can't wait till I can download my science news on my phone. But actually thinking that, yeah, we're also going to download software tools that can do so many different things. I've got so many damn apps on my phone. 95% I don't even use, but I got them on there in case I need them one day. Cooper's still alive and I feel really bad for him the past month because I'm sure he's being harassed to holy hell for these interviews because it's the 50 year anniversary. This is like the, and he's 82, so this is like probably the last time he's really going to ever be bugged about it. So maybe he's enjoying it because he's like, yeah, the next big anniversary, I'm probably not going to be here. So he predicts that cell phones are still going through their evolutionary process and that in the future, maybe they're probably going to be implanted in the ear. And yeah, we'll see about that one. I guess that kind of seems inevitable at some point. It might take a while before that happens. But I mean, cell phone, who makes calls anymore? It's so rare. I mean, it's really just a-
C: Right. It's only for work.
B: It's just like, yeah, it's just like 5% of the usage or whatever is so low that you're actually talking verbally to somebody. But he did make one, he had one impression many decades ago. He said that a cell phone would be something that would represent an individual. So you could assign a number, not to a place, not to a desk, not to a home, but to a person. And that's absolutely correct. I mean, your cell phone is yours. There's no real sharing. That's not a thing really. It happens, but it's not a thing.
S: And we take that for granted now.
B: Right. That's just like, no, this is my phone, my number.
S: That was a game changer. 30 years ago, whatever, phone numbers were attached to places only.
B: Right. Hey, hello, is Bob there? Like, Bob, he's in the toilet. What the hell? You got- No, no, this is your number, your phone. And that's- and he, so he totally, I guess it seemed obvious to him. I don't think it was necessarily obvious, but yeah, it makes sense that it would be assigned to a person. But it is still, I like that he saw that a half a century ago.
C: Well, he was also probably seeing, there were shifts at that time, right? I remember when I was a kid, they were doing like second lines. And like, they could subdivide the landline out. Do you guys remember this?
S: Oh, yeah.
B: Oh, yeah.
S: Multiple lines.
C: Multiple lines using the same, I guess, jack. And so it was like really cool that like the kids could have their own phone number, but only the rich kids ever had that.
B: And also, you say this was the first, and that's true. And he is considered the inventor, the father of the modern cell phone. But the history of cell phone technology, it does go back. It does have a history decades before that. And it's actually, there's a phrase, it's known as the civil which law of firsts. And that is whoever was first, there's always somebody who was more first. And that's so often the case on lots of huge inventions. And Elliot Sivowitch, he was a former curator of the National Museum of American History. And that's true. I mean, the cell phone technology goes back. The first wireless telephone patent was issued in 1908. Train operators in Germany in 1920s were using wireless communications. World War II had mobile radio systems used in military vehicles. And then we transitioned to the car phones. And so it does have a long history. But Cooper and his team did. That was a huge milestone worthy of the accolades that he has gotten. The fact that he's called the father of the modern cell phone is absolutely true and correct, although there is a long history there. But so yeah, so Cooper, way to go. Fantastic. I mean, I don't think even then he could possibly imagine the ubiquity of these phones. And the real, truly killer app. I mean, you talk about killer apps, killer technologies. The cell phone, I think, is the premier version of that, I would think. And there will be others in the future. And maybe the cell phone will go away at some point when it's more distributed or integrated. I don't know. But it still has a decent life ahead of it, I think. But sales are dropping. It's kind of peaked, I think. So we'd be curious to see where the cell phone is in 10 or 20 years. But I love them.
S: Yeah, technology always goes back farther than you think. All right, thanks, Bob.
Who's That Noisy? (58:38)
S: It's Who's That Noisy time.
J: Last week, guys, I played this Noisy:
[Grinding background with a light clanging in the foreground ]
All right, you guys can hear that. Does anybody want to take a quick guess before I continue?
J: Okay. It's not a marine mammal.
B: It's a weird watercraft.
J: Oh, I can hear that in there. You're not right, but that's it. I hear a little bit of that in there.
DS: The clicking noise reminded me of the old-timey train stations when they had that board that would have all the panels that would flip to show what the trains were, but it wasn't nearly fast enough.
J: Yeah, I think I kind of remember something like that. Yeah, there's a little bit of that in there. I agree. All right, well, I got some guesses this week. I got a listener named Johnny Mogger who told me how to pronounce his last name. So if I got it incorrect, I am completely absurd. He said: "Hi Jay, sounds like a large woodchipper to me. My ears always perk up when I hear this sound in my neighborhood because it means I can go bug someone for some free mulch." Yeah, it's not a woodchipper, but there is a woodchipper sound in there. I don't disagree with that. It has some of that rattling going on as well that woodchippers do, but that's not correct, but that's a good guess. Mike Johnson wrote in and said: "Steam-powered stapler. Happy April Fool's Day." Yeah, please, everybody, don't forget. It was April Fool's, and when you're the person that runs Who's That Noisy around April Fool's, everybody thinks that they're saying something, they're telling me a funny joke about that week's noisy. I'm not putting you down, Mike.
C: You weren't the only one, Mike.
J: You're not the only one. I'm just letting you know there's a lot of people that are trying to pull that joke on me, but I liked your guess, though. That's why I put you on here. So you said: "I hear a fan motor and a solenoid clicking at varied intervals. I think it's a slide reel projector." I think that's a great guess. There are elements to what you said in there for sure. That is not correct. I will go on. Michael Blaney wrote in and said: "Hi Jay, Wow, okay. Your clue was many SGU listeners are familiar with it and Bob will like it. So that makes me think it has something to do with outer spice." That's how he wrote it. "So with that in mind, my guest today is it's the internal sounds heard in the International Space Station during a docking procedure."
C: Oh, I like that.
J: That is a fantastic incorrect guess.
C: Oh no.
J: That was a good guess.
B: Just make it the right one.
J: And I included this next one in here because multiple people sent in the same guess. Chris Vance wrote in and said: "First time guessing, that sounds like an air hockey table." And it kind of does because you got the air noise and then you have the clicking noise, which is the puck flying around. So there's a little bit of that in there. All good guesses this week. Very solid guesses. Unfortunately, Cara, there was no winner.
C: No winner, but was it in spice?
J: It was not in spice.
J: All right. So I will go back to the original email that was sent to me by Graham Lamb. And he said: "I have two attached sound files for inclusion in Who's That Noisy. Both of these files are recordings of roasting green coffee beans in my home roaster." So now listen again. This is the noise of a roasting machine, roasting coffee beans. The clicking noise you hear is the cracking of the coffee beans as they heat up and roast. [plays Noisy] Kind of like popcorn. You may ask, why did he send in two recordings? Because when you roast coffee beans, apparently that you roast it the first time and there's a crack, and then you roast it a second time and there's a second crack. Now I'm not sure if you completely cool the beans down in between those two intervals or if it's just one continuous heating loop, but there is a second crack that happens that sounds different enough that people who do this can recognize the sound difference between the first crack and the second crack, which I find very interesting and I'll tell you why. There is an entire world of people out there who have trained their ears to hear specialized sounds. So just think about that for a minute. This in particular is a fantastic example. There's lots of people roasting coffee out there because everybody's drinking coffee every day, right Bob?
C: All day.
J: So with the amount of roasting that needs to happen out there and the amount of small coffee shops that are out there with people actually attending the roasting machines, this is a thing. There are noises that are associated with that thing that happens every day and in all of our lives that most of us have no idea about. The second crack and it makes a different noise. So I'm curious if there's any proprietary noises that you as a person in the world have heard. I'm just putting this out there as an idea. If there's anything interesting that you hear because of your job, maybe send that in as a noisy and I might find some interesting things in there that I haven't played on the show yet. I can't help but think about how little we hear all these different noises that I'm playing on this show as well. I can't help but think about these things guys. I think it's fascinating. Most of the sounds I play on this show, most of us never hear.
C: No, it's correct. You're saying most of the things you play, we've never heard before?
C: I agree. Truth.
J: The world is filled with noises that most of us don't hear.
C: Like plants screaming.
J: Exactly. That's what I'm talking about. That happens.
C: I know. We found out last week. Was that last week?
New Noisy (1:04:45)
S: I have a new Noisy this week and it was sent in by some guy that none of us know who this guy is. Visto Tutti. He sent in a really good, I think it's his 60th birthday.
C: Hap's birth's.
J: He happens to have sent me in a noisy that coincides with this possible 60th birthday. I think I'm correct. Here's the sound.
[old recording of whooshing hiss warbling up and down, then another going in and out in amplification]
Okay. There are two sounds that you heard. My hint for you, because this is a hard one, but it's really cool, is that they're both associated with each other in some way. You must answer the question of what the heck is that noisy? You can email me at WTN@theskepticsguide.org.
J: Steve, we've got a few things to announce. All right. First, and the thing I'm growing in enthusiasm for is Friday, November 3rd and Saturday, November 4th of this year, we are trying to organize a conference called NOTACON. This is not a typical conference. This is a conference that is revolved around socializing. This is about having the time to hang out with the people that we've met in our community and being able to actually talk to each other and have time for socializing. Will there be entertainment? I get lots of emails. Is there going to be things to do? Is there going to be entertainment? The answer is yes, there will be things to do. There will be entertainment on both of those days, but there will be plenty of time to socialize, to have meals with people, to be able to walk around and talk to each other and to hang out with the SGU and the people that will be joining us for this. We have Brian Wecht, we have George Hrabb, and we have Andrea Jones-Roy, all of which will be joining the full cast of the SGU. This is a two-day conference. You can do me a favor. If you think that you would like to go to this conference, go to the theskepticsguide.org and on the homepage, you will find a button that you can click. You can either say, I am absolutely going to this or I'm really thinking about going to this. If you're not interested, I don't need your feedback because it doesn't help me in any way. I don't mean to be rude. That's cool. You got other things going on. I do too. But the point is, if you're interested, then you let me know. If we get to 150 or above of people saying that they are going to do it, then I will make this entire thing happen. I got to tell you, we're doing pretty good. I worry that if I say there's 149 people, then people will just stop. So let's-
C: Are there 149 people?
J: I didn't say that. I honestly don't know how many we have. I haven't checked in a couple of days.
S: I know there's a weird balance there when you're promoting something. It has to be popular, but you still have to motivate people to get out there. It's like with voting.
C: It's going fast.
S: Because if people think you can't win, they won't go. Or if people think they're not needed to win, they won't go. So there's a sweet spot in there.
C: Social psychology.
S: Yeah, exactly.
J: But please do join us. This is going to be a ton of fun. I promise you, you have never gone to a conference like this before. That's my promise to you. All right, a couple more things.
J: We have a live stream on Saturday, May 20th. In its entirety, it'll be a six-hour live stream, but the first hour is for patrons only. So if you want to be involved in that first hour, you can become a patron and you'll be emailed the link to get in for that early extra hour. But then we will be doing five hours that are open to the public of just a bunch of fun and a bunch of typically off-SGU branded stuff. Meaning, I shouldn't say typically. It's non-typical SGU stuff. We will be doing other things for fun to have a good time. So please join us. May 20th, 11 AM for patrons, 12 PM for everybody else. We really hope that you'll join us for that. And we will have more information on our website as soon as we have it. But the date is locked in and the time.
S: All right, thanks, Jay.
Follow-up #1: Feedback on AI discussion
S: So we got a ton of feedback on the AI segment from last week, which is not surprising at all. I expected that would happen. And for those of you who are interested, a lot of people either gave feedback or asked questions that I answered in a blog post that I wrote about it after. Because after the interview, I had to put my thoughts on paper. You know what I mean? On virtual paper. Because I thought it was too complicated not to explore in a more systematic way. So just check that out on Neurologica. Is AI Sentient Revisited And probably if you do have any thoughts or comments, we address it there. There's also a good discussion going on in the comments section there. But I do want to address one thing because a bunch of people sent us a link to Adam Conover's video AI is BS. Have you guys had time to watch this yet?
S: Yeah, it's interesting.
B: AI is BS.
S: Yeah, yeah. So I mean, the thing is, like, everything he says is accurate about it. And he does it in his typical way, which is engaging and very funny. And I agree with a lot of what he says. I do, if I had to give my one piece of feedback, I think he's too negative. And specifically, I disagree with framing this as AI is BS. Even though he throws in a couple of quick caveats there. I mean, the tone of the video is very, very clear. Really what he's saying is AI hype is BS. And that's a subtle difference.
B: Slightly different.
S: Yeah, no, it is. Because he's talking about all the hype. And yes, it is. The fact that Microsoft jumped out of there with Bing AI and it failed. And then Google tried to get their AI search engine and it failed. He talked about the fact that self-driving cars are not there, we were overpromised self-driving cars which is absolutely true We in fact wrote about that in our book about the fact that weren't we supposed to have self-driing cars by like 2020-2021? I would have preffered a little bit more context. I think that is not the kind he was making but peaople asked what we thought about it and this is what I think about it. All new technologies like this go through their hype phase. And hype absolutely is BS. And it is overpromising and premature and fake it till you make it kind of thing. And sure the tech industry is especially bad at that. I think that's probably a fair observation.
C: And also isn't AI actually more destruptive a technology?
S: Well, more than what?
C: I mean it's one thing to go all new technology is and I think sometimes we do that but it's like there are different levels.
S: Absolutely. The more "disruptive" it is the more hype it gets. So stem cells, massively hyped, you might have been a little young in 2000 Cara you may remember this, maybe not. Around that time, around 2000 by now to listen to the hype back then stem cells should have cured everything by now.
S: Alzheimers, Parkinsons, ALS. Should all been cured by stem cells by now. We should be growing organs left and right. That was the hype. And then there was a lot of BS around the hype. Stem cells clinics opened selling completely fraudulent stem cell therapy. But when I say stem cells as technology is BS? No.
C: Right. Of course. It has done amazing things for people.
B: And will do more.
S: And it's always over-hyped and people overestimate short-term progress. They think it's right around the corner. And it takes 20-30 years more than you think it's going to take. The same is true with like the hydrogen economy. Hydrogen technology is not BS, the hype was. Here comes the hydrogen economy stuff was all BS. But it will fill it's niche. It'll do it's thing. It's just wasn't the answer to everything that was being presented at.
B: Cold fusion and room temperature superconductors, remember that hype?
S: Well cold fusion is pseudoscience. Room temperature superconductors that was hype too. And that was also kind of a mix. That was a little BS because it wasn't room temperature, it was like a high temperature super-conductors. The bullshit was this is will immediately lead to room temperature superconductors.
S: And that didn't happen. The thing about AI, AI is already here and it's really powerful and it's working in so many things. Really what his talking about-
B: And very well too.
S: Very, very well, yeah.
B: It's an amazing tool already.
S: It's not bullshit. It's not hype. It's just, this next iteration of AI, this generative content production, all that stuff is great as far as it goes, too, but it has-
S: -and disruptive, but it has generated this pulse of ridiculous over-promising and hype, and the tech industry, I think, is taking advantage of that. It has become a sort of a marketing term. And he did make this clear. But I think distinguishing the hype from the reality, I think, could have been better in how it was presented. It's just my only feedback. But yeah, if you look, each piece of information that he delivered individually was correct. I agree with it. All right, let's go on with science or fiction.
Science or Fiction (1:14:22)
Theme: Technologies older than you think
Item #1: Magnetic tape as a means of storing information was first developed in 1868 by a German inventor.
Item #2: The first video game was patented in 1947, called the “cathode-ray tube amusement device”, which involved shooting missiles at invading planes.
Item #3: Hebron [sic] of Alexandria developed a steam powered automatic door opener around 50 AD.** 
** According to Wikipedia, the name of the ancient mathematician/engineer from Alexandria was Hero or Heron. Also, the shownotes page for this episode on the SGU website did not have a link for whatever article is supposed to be referenced for this item.
|Science||First video game|
Steam-powered door opener
|Steam-powered door opener|
|Steam-powered door opener|
Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.
S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And then I challenge my panel and skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. There's a theme this week. And Bob, you inspired the theme with your news item about cell phones. This is all technology that goes back farther than you think. That's the theme. OK? It'll become obvious what I mean by that in a second. Item number one, magnetic tape as a means of storing information was first developed in 1868 by a German inventor. Item number two, the first video game was patented in 1947 called the “cathode-ray tube amusement device”, which involved shooting missiles at invading planes. And item number three, Hebron of Alexandria developed a steam-powered automatic door opener around 50 AD. All right, Dan, as our guest, you get to go first.
DS: OK, so I was worried about going first because I have no inputs. But I know that the first person gets to ask questions. So I'm hoping that if I ask a good question, if anyone else gets it right, I can take partial credit.
S: There you go.
DS: So looking at the first one, magnetic tape as a means of storing information, let's see, 1868, I think we had a decent understanding of magnetism back then. Trying to think when we first started storing information on audio information. That was in the 1800s as well when they did their first recording wheel. So the idea is out there that you could store information, sound, in a phonograph, magnetic. It seems plausible that you might put those together. The first video game patented in 1947, a cathode ray tube, they were definitely around then. And I got to play with some cathode ray tubes a long time ago. So I could see, I mean, they're basic tech. I could see that you could have a way to maybe play with it. I'm wondering what the input is, how do you give feedback into the cathode ray tube? But back then, you're allowed to touch all sorts of electronics with high voltages. So yeah, I could see that was something that they'd let kids play with. I think the one that I'm struggling with most is Hebron of Alexandria developing a steam-powered door opener in 50 AD. Because if I remember right, we were talking about steam power elsewhere and they were using it as toys. So this seems like a really cool toy. I just don't know if the year sounds right. Yeah, they all sound reasonably plausible, but I guess that's the game. If I had to guess, I'd say Hebron of Alexandria, just because I would hope that if they had steam-powered things working back that far ago that they did more with them. Maybe they had a steam-powered escalator that was lost to history.
S: OK, Bob.
B: All right, so the magnetic tape, it's sure 1868 sounds early. And also the fact that, I mean, I don't think they had plastic. What was the tape made of? It doesn't have to be plastic. So I'll say that one is feasible. And the game as well, I would have thought 1947 CRT-based game. When researching the book, I think that would have been in my head. I don't remember it. But still, the one that's really getting to me was Hebron, 50 AD, steam-powered automatic door opener. I mean, if you've got this idea for steam power to do work, you're going to open a door with it. I could see how a game, like a toy that exploits some new idea, like steam technology, could be overlooked. Oh, it's a toy. But if you developed something that really worked and did solid work at a larger scale, like opening a door, I would think that would be much harder for it to be lost in the mists of time and forgotten about. And this just seems goofy to me. So I'll say Hebron's fiction.
S: OK, Cara.
C: Oh, no. I don't know if I agree with you guys. I think, Bob, you made a really good point with magnetic tape. What else would it be made out of? I thought tape was plastic. I thought that's like plastic allowed that invention.
DS: I meant to ask a question about it, but I forgot.
C: So every single-
S: Too late.
C: Too late now. Literally every single example of magnetic tape I've ever seen is plastic. I mean, magnetic tape is like tape, right? I'm not misunderstanding what that is. You mean like tape, like in a VHS tape or in a cassette tape.
S: I mean, it does not imply it's made out of the same stuff that modern magnetic tape is.
C: Right, it doesn't. But that is what you mean when you say magnetic tape, right?
S: Yeah, it's a strip that has some material on it that can respond to a magnetic field.
C: To then, yeah, to read the information.
S: To store some kind of information, right. That's the only key element.
C: Maybe there is, OK, a different version. I'm trying to think of what it would. It would have to be like I'm thinking material science here. It would have to be thin. I don't think it's rubber. Maybe I'm just missing something. But I think plastics are what allowed that technology. So that one's bugging me. The steam-powered door opener actually doesn't bug me for the very reason that Dan said. We've talked about really old steam technology before. And yes, OK, it was used as toys. It was used as whatever. But it's not that big of a leap to do work with it. And I was just in I wasn't in Alexandria, but I was just in Petra in Jordan. And looking at these tombs, which are sort of around that era, kind of like right at the turnover from BCE, everything was made out of rock. Like they were just like, the doors were massive. And like maybe you needed some help. Maybe you couldn't. Like it was like lots of power, lots of people to do it. I don't know. It seems like something that could have happened. So there's some cool technology that I saw there. And maybe I'm wildly wrong. But I'm going to say the magnetic tape is the fiction.
S: OK, and Jay.
J: I'll take these in reverse order. Like so first off, Bob, you're missing something big here with the Hebron of Alexandria with the steam powered door opener. The second that this person invented the steam powered door opener, the multiverse created another version of reality. And that's where that tech went to. Do you understand?
B: How did I miss that?
J: So that's definitely science. Absolutely, that's science. I do think that one is science, though. I think that, sure, somebody, I don't think it's that much of a leap to know that there is, when you boil water, that there's air pressure that's created because of the water turning into water vapor and steam. And then someone's like, I could use that to do something. You don't know what else they did. This is literally just one example of something that was done.
B: Two millennia ago.
J: So I'm going to say that one is science. And then the second one here about the cathode ray tube amusement device. At first, I thought this one was definitely false because I know that Pong was the first game. But you said the first game to be patented, which would come after the first game, I would think. Anyway, there's something about this one that sounds like science to me, too, because I must have I feel like I read about it. I don't know. It's one of those things like maybe. Yeah. And I was kind of agreeing with what Cara said. If they didn't use plastic for the magnetic tape one, then they would have to have some other type of substrate that they use that would take that could be magnetized and that would function similar to modern magnetic tape in a way. I don't know. That one seems like so sketchy to me. I just can't see how they could pull that off in 1868. I just don't think they were even close to having the equipment that could pull something off like that, even on some other substrate. So I'm going to say that one is the fiction.
C: No way. Oh, I'm sorry, Jay. I'm probably wrong.
Steve Explains Item #2
S: All right. So Jay and Cara at the first magnetic tape and Bob and Dan at Hebron of Alexandria. So we'll start with the second one.
S: The first video game was patented in 1947, called the “cathode-ray tube amusement device”, which involved shooting missiles at invading planes. Guys all think this one is science.
C: Oh, he sounds so funny.
S: Let me ask you a question. 1947 really weren't circuit boards or computers back then. How did they control like the planes and what was happening? I mean, how did what do you how do you think it worked?
C: I don't know, but I feel like there's ways.
DS: You could touch the front of the cathode ray tube when we would turn them off and you could make a dot go to where your finger was.
C: Oh, no way. It's a touch screen. This is amazing. Old school.
S: So this one is science. But the answer is they didn't. So this was a manual, in a way, video game in that the planes the target was just manually placed on the screen. And then you controlled the the cathode ray tube activity with knots, kind of like an Etch A Sketch kind of thing, I guess, where you have like two knobs. And the goal was to get the the missiles, which is really just the streaks of cathode ray activity to hit the plane. But the planes weren't doing anything because there was no computers to control them. You just physically would move them on the screen. So didn't really become very popular. I don't know. It was never like it just it was patented. I don't think it was ever in production. Yeah, but yeah, it was just patented. But it was the first video game. This is technically the first video.
DS: Well, think how much a quarter was back then. It had been so expensive to play.
S: Yeah, it's true.
Steve Explains Item #1
S: All right, let's go back to number one. Magnetic tape as a means of storing information was first developed in 1868 by a German inventor. Jay and Cara you think this one is the fiction. Bob and Dan you think this one is science. Cara, let me ask you a follow up question before I give the answer. When do you think plastic was invented?
C: Like around like the early nineteen hundreds?
C: Oh, shit. Yeah, but OK, that was when it was first invented. So I don't think it was utilized.
S: Well, when do you think celluloid film was invented?
C: The early nineteen hundreds.
C: Shit. Ah, wait. Good. Good.
S: That's when it was patented. But that's for film. So the idea that we didn't have like plastic film back then is just wrong. That we did have it.
C: Well, OK, we barely had plastic film.
S: Yeah. And someone had to do it-
C: Come on.
J: So what is it Steve?
S: Stick some metal filings on there.
J: Metal filings? Come on.
S: Jay, you can, I saw a video. It's really fun video. You can make an audio tape recorder. You could make the tape out of like plastic tape, what the British call sticky tape, sticky tape and rust. That's it.
S: That's all you need. You just put it on there and you could literally store sound on that. It's so simple.
J: That's crazy.
B: That's still fiction isn't it?
S: And yet it wasn't invented till 1928.
S: But I was very careful in picking that date to put it right at the beginning of the plastic-
J: OK, so we were correct.
S: I hate when people are right for the wrong reason, but it was for the wrong reason.
C: I'm always right for the wrong reason.
S: But the other thing is like, could how about a strip of cotton? I don't know. It still could be. I don't know. It still could have worked.
B: Yeah. I figure they just made something-
B: -not out of plastic.
S: But we had we had I mean, celluloid film was right around that time as well.
Steve Explains Item #3
S: OK, anyway, all this means that Hebron of Alexandria developed a steam powered automatic door opener around 50 AD. That is science. This guy was amazing. He was like the Leonardo da Vinci of his time. And let me just tell you some of the things that he invented. And you think, well, how did we not have the Industrial Revolution 2000 years ago?
B: Yeah, he was closer to da Vinci than than we think then, because da Vinci didn't really accomplish shit either.
S: No, but he did accomplish it. And they were in use.
B: Invention wise.
S: It just didn't get generalized. So he invented a mechanical theater that would like automatically run like a puppetry play for 10 minutes. He made a for a force pump that you could use like as a fire engine. He made he also did developed devices that took advantage of optics. And he made a fountain that operated on hydrostatic energy called the Heron's Fountain.
B: Damn, man.
S: He he invented I almost use this one. This is my alternate. The first vending machine. He invented a vending machine for-
B: 50 AD?
S: -for temples where you would put a coin into the machine. It would dispense a predetermined amount of holy water and then stop. The coin would press the thing which would open the valve and then fall off and close the valve. So that was to keep people from like wasting all the holy water. How about this? A wind operated organ. Organ meaning an instrument. So we had a wind operated machine, a wind turbine operating a mechanical device. I mean, the Industrial Revolution was right there. It was all freaking there. So that the door opener for it was for a temple. You would heat the water. It would produce the steam. It would turn the mechanics. It would pull a pulley and it would open the door. Because it probably was, it probably did weigh a ton. Some people think he invented the thermometer, but that's controversial. But this guy was probably the biggest experimenter genius engineer of the ancient world. And he just it's amazing that it's like you could definitely see like with an alternate time, like half the time this would take off and we would have Industrial Revolution 2000 years ago.
B: Oh my god.
S: All the components were there.
B: Well, I'm kind of glad it didn't happen because we wouldn't be here.
S: And he also made a straight up steam engine.
B: That's nuts, man.
C: For like vehicle?
S: It's the aeolipile, A-E-O-L-I-P-I-L-E, a rocket like reaction engine. First recorded steam engine. Although there are some-
B: I'm going to use it to open a door.
S: Yeah, right. So older writings that refer to it. But it's unclear like exactly what what his contribution to the whole thing was and whatever. But he definitely saw the potential of it as a machine to do stuff and had the engineering chops to make it and make it work and put it to work, to useful work, just not on an industrial scale.
J: That is pretty damn cool.
S: It's yeah, it's amazing to think about that. Because they also think-
B: Nobody else saw this stuff and said, wow, I want to make something like that, too. You know, it's like, ah.
S: You know, what was that quote from the guy who discovered penicillin? Fortune favors the prepared mind. The idea is they just didn't have the concept of industrialization back then. They had a lot of slave labor or whatever. They had a lot of other ways of accomplishing things. The idea, and it's not like they didn't have the idea of machines doing stuff. That idea is really old. Again, we write about that in our book. It's just whatever, just the pieces mentally, conceptually didn't all fall into place. And it's not like you need fossil fuels or anything, because we did, you could burn wood for all of this stuff. You know what I mean? The reason why-
S: -the reason why the British turned to coal during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, was because they literally were running out of wood. They were trying to control the world with the Navy. They had to, all their wood had to go to build and maintain their massive navy of colonization. And they were burning a lot of wood for heat and energy. And they were running out. So coal was it. Then they had to dig deeper for the coal. They had to get the water out of the mine. And there you go, the steam pump and everything came from that, you know? But until then, it's like there were tinkers. There was, you could build machines. We could work metals. I mean, we all had all the components to have an Industrial Revolution for 1600 years before that. Just didn't happen.
DS: I wonder if it's like he built all these things and they only worked 70 percent of the time and people just got fed up and they're like, I could just open the door myself. No, no, it can get better.
S: Slave, open the door. There you go. 100 percent of the time it worked.
B: Or maybe like Luddites took over.
S: Well, that's a complicated question. We don't have time to get it.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:31:18)
The Artemis II crew represents thousands of people working tirelessly to bring us to the stars. This is humanity's crew.
S: All right, Jay, you're going to revert to your old role and cover for Evan for the quote of the week this week.
J: Yeah, this is a quote from NASA administrator Bill Nelson, and he said: "The Artemis II crew represents thousands of people working tirelessly to bring us to the stars. This is humanity's crew." Bill Nelson! (laughter)
C: Rock on. I love it.
S: Yeah, that's a good quote. I mean, there's always this delicate balance at NASA. I don't know if you guys ever toured NASA or done any of the tours.
C: Oh yes, been a lot of times.
S: The astronauts are the rock stars. Absolutely. And they keep them front and center. But at the same time, they have to give love to the thousands of people behind them because they're not going anywhere without all of the the engineers and rocket scientists and and programmers and all that stuff. So it's like, yeah, it's a huge team, everything. But these guys are the rock stars. That's they're always sort of playing both sides of that.
C: What's funny is most of my NASA exposure is like I've been to NASA and Houston and I've been obviously like a lot of different places. But most of the times that I've been to NASA and gotten really cool tours were at JPL and at JPL, the rock stars are all the robots. So it's definitely like a different vibe, which I love.
J: I totally love that.
S: All right. Well, Dan, thanks for joining us as a guest.
B: Yeah, man.
DS: Thank you very much for having me. It's been wonderful.
S: You've been a suitable replacement for Evan. You didn't make enough corny jokes, though.
C: I know.
J: Dan, I told you Steve is not an asshole. I know.
S: I know it was hard to convince you.
J: You had to do the show in order to figure that out.
DS: I didn't know I was allowed to do puns. I didn't know about the do overs. I'll have to come back and try. I'll try harder.
S: And thank the rest of you for joining me again this week.
J: You got it Steve.
C: Thanks, Doc.
B: Sure 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 theskepticsguide.org. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to patreon.com/SkepticsGuide and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.
Today I Learned
- Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference
- NASA: NASA Names Astronauts to Next Moon Mission, First Crew Under Artemis
- PRX Quantum: Using quantum fluctuations to generate random numbers faster
- Science Alert: Scientists Find Antibiotic-Free Way to Treat Drug-Resistant Infections
- APS Physics: V014: To Clog or Not To Clog?
- Neurologica: New Type of Black Hole Discovered
- Gizmodo: 50 Years Ago, the First Cell Phone Call Was Made on This DynaTAC Dinosaur
- Iron Mountain: The history of magnetic tape and computing: a 65-year-old marriage continues to evolve
- Popular Mechanics: The Unlikely Story of the First Video Game
- Wikipedia: History of the Automatic Door
- [url_for_TIL publication: title]