SGU Episode 930

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SGU Episode 930
May 6th 2023
930 www.png

Thirty years ago, the World Wide Web entered the public domain.

SGU 929                      SGU 931

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


BB: Brian Brushwood,

American magician, podcaster, author

Quote of the Week

Those who ask questions find answers, those who combat falsehoods find the truth, and those who see inside themselves will know the path ahead.

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor video game

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, SGU turns 18, "Skepticism" brand[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Thursday, May 4th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Did you say today is May 4th?

S: Yeah. May the 4th be with all of you.

E: Oh, I've never heard that before.

S: We get to record on May 4th. How often does that happen?

B: That's kind of cool.

E: Once every seven years.

S: It's leap years though, so it gets a little confusing. But yeah, this is also our 18th anniversary. Completing 18 years.

E: 18 full years. We are starting our 19th year.

S: First episode of our 19th year.

E: Oh my gosh.

S: 930 episodes. 930. We're a year and a bit away from a thousand.

E: I know. There's big numbers coming up for us. A thousand, almost 20 years of podcasting. Oh wow.

J: Yeah, I was just telling somebody today that the SGU is my longest relationship.

E: Well, other than your family, yes.

J: No, I mean it is my longest relationship. Hey, you know what guys? Now is a cool time to be alive. There's so much science and technology happening. The space exploration, if you enjoy anything that has to do with outer space, this is the best time. It's an amazing time to watch what's happening.

S: Somebody was asking us, how much longer are you going to keep doing it? It's like, well, as long as there's science news, we'll have stuff to talk about. I don't think that's going to stop anytime soon.

E: And not only the science that we've had the pleasure of watching develop over the better part of the past 20 years, is sort of the fact that the skeptical movement is as, I think, important as ever, as needed as ever, which shows you just how much sort of the world still falls into all the pitfalls and all the traps of human beings being human, as I like to say.

J: After doing tons of interviews and interviewing a ton of people and learning a lot about the world, I've realized that the word skeptic and the word skeptical is just seriously misunderstood by people who don't understand the skeptical movement. It's been co-opted, basically, by people. People are being called skeptics when they're denialists. You know what I mean?

S: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

J: And we did an interview recently. It was great. We did this interview for the Skeptic's Guide to the Future book in DC. And the person that interviewed us, when he heard the word skeptics, like look at this title of this book, Skeptic's Guide. You know, he was like, what are these guys? Like a bunch of deniers of, you know what I mean?

E: Yeah.

B: Yeah, cynics.

J: That was the outside perception. And I honestly think we might need to really start to refer to ourselves as critical thinkers.

S: Yeah, well, we do. We do that. But I mean, the brand is not going anywhere. Obviously, it's in the name of our podcast.

J: Oh, I know. But I think just thinking-

S: And in the title of our two books, by the way, if you haven't read them yet.

J: Understood. But I mean, just in general, like referring to what we do as critical thinking, I think will resonate better with people who aren't already understanding what skepticism is.

E: Well, part of our job is to help clarify that and remind people of what it is we are doing and what skepticism is in a scientific context. It's very important. And again, we've talked about it before. The scientists are busy handling the science. And to some degree, the science communicators are out there handling the science communication. But there has to be skeptical communication as well. It's still needed.

S: Yeah, because I've come to view it as like what we do is we communicate scientific literacy, critical thinking, and media savvy. Whereas most science communicators are talking just scientific literacy. They're just doing information and they're assuming that the information deficit is the problem. But we know that's not the case.

C: I disagree with that statement.

S: That's a lot of science communication that I see. That's what they're doing.

C: I think what you're referring to is science news. And it's a different mandate for science journalism. But science communicators fundamentally understand that it's not a knowledge deficit problem. I mean, these are these are conversations that are had in every SciComm conference, in every SciComm training, that anybody who's involved in SciComm is like fully aware of that. So I don't know. I think that's a little bit of short shrift.

S: Yeah, maybe. I mean, that's good to hear. It's not what I see out there.

C: Yeah, I think it's really important that we know that there's a distinction between science journalism, which is 100% information focused, and science communication, which is much deeper when it comes to how we communicate science.

S: Yeah, it might be a little confirmation bias on my part, because whenever I'm listening to a science communicator who's talking about critical thinking, I think that they're a skeptic. And I think a lot of them are skeptics.

C: Of course, just without knowing it or without using the label. And I think that's the thing that's become a little bit complicated. And Jay, I'm curious what you think about this. I have tried my best, and you guys probably have noticed this, to make a distinction in my mind between a skeptical approach, a skeptical mindset, a skeptical strategy, however you want to define it, right? Just like you were talking about, Evan, like skepticism is what we do, as opposed to making a distinction between that and the "skeptic community", which is another conversation.

E: Oh, yes.

C: So whether you want to consider yourself part of that community, great. Whether you're having issues with certain aspects of that community, also, I completely understand and support. But I think that those are two different things. I think being a skeptic is something you can do on your own, or you can be part of a community, and that's okay, too.

J: Of course. I mean, that goes without saying, and that goes with any community out there. I mean, like a complete tangent, I'm a massive fan of science fiction, but I really don't belong to any science fiction community, maybe on the outside of DragonCon. I go there, and there is a science fiction undertone there. So I totally agree. I mean, there is a big difference between being actively in the skeptical movement attending conferences, and even contributing to the movement in one way or the other, and just being a skeptical thinker. Absolutely, Cara.

C: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think that what we're promoting here on our show, and what we're promoting just by engaging, different strokes for different folks. We all approach it somewhat differently. But it's just to think differently, to dig a little bit deeper, and to like you always say, Steve, I think the foundational part of this is neuropsychological humility.

S: It's that and it's metacognition. It's like-

C: And metacognition, yeah, that's a good point. It's the two of those things together that I think are foundational. Obviously, there's a million little things. Read our book. There's a lot of chapters in it. But yeah, those two things, I think, underlie a lot.

S: Yeah, there's a big difference between people who think about thinking and people who don't think about thinking. That's, I think, a huge difference. And you're right. And we've actually very consciously have tried to build our own sub-community, like the SGU community, within the broader skeptical community and within the the broader science communication community. Because we are sort of our own way of approaching it. We have our own editorial policy. It is what it is. And I also think that we've built a great community of people, of our patrons, of our our Discord, the Friday live stream. Like, it's all part of a really critical interaction. It's not just a one-way conversation. We get a ton of feedback from our listeners that is all part of what we do, you know?

C: Yeah. And I mean, just kind of one more point on that is that people aren't monolithic. And I think we see this a lot. Like, I'll go to a SciComm conference and there'll be a session on, like, women in science. And it'll be like, how do we this? How do we that? And then there's always that dissenting voice that's like, as much as there is a we, there's also no we. Like, we are all working together to promote something, but there's no right way to do it. And we are all different people within this movement. We're not monolithic. We have different approaches. Like you said, different editorial policies, different, sometimes moralistic views. And I think it's just important that that voices are heard and that people can choose where they want to, I don't know, where they want to learn.

S: Yeah. Yeah.

C: Gosh, 18 years of it. Guys, when did I, when did I join with you? Was it eight?

E: 2015.

C: Year. Okay. So nine.

S: A half.

E: Yeah. You're in your ninth.

C: So I'm in my ninth. Okay. Do you remember what the date was when I started? Like it was at TAM.

E: Yeah, it was at TAM, the last TAM.

B: TAM at the last, the last TAM at that-

C: TAM's in the summer, right?

E: Which was in June. Wasn't it a June?

S: June, I think, yeah.

C: So I'm coming up on finishing my eighth year with you guys.

J: Oh my God, Cara.

B: I think it was, it was July.

C: I know, I feel old.

E: No.

C: That means that my podcast, Talk Nerdy, is now nine years old. Yeah. Because I was, I started that a year before I joined with you guys. Ugh.

J: Cara, I gotta tell you. I get compliments about you all the time.

C: Aw, Jay.

J: I do. I mean, all these different people-

C: Go on.

J: Hey, I'm serious. No, but it's true. I mean, you really, you bring a wonderful element to the show and it's, this show needs somebody like you in that seat. We needed it. And I felt the difference before you joined, it was just us and we were all really thinking very hard about like, who would we bring into this show? And it's intimate and there's you need to have a certain amount of boxes checked to be able to handle this.

C: And we had to have like rapport and trust and mutual respect.

S: Yeah, exactly. A lot of trust. Absolutely.

C: Yeah.

S: You're the only person on, who's ever been on the show, Cara, who was not opportunistic. Because like the guys got together cause we knew each other and you know, Rebecca joined the show because we interviewed her. We were like, hey, she's fun. Let's invite her on the show. It really wasn't planned. You know what I mean?

C: Right, right. It fell into place. Yeah. And she was pretty early too. How long were you guys going?

S: One year. Not even a year.

E: It was about a year.

C: Oh, okay.

S: But you're the only one where we're like, we sought you out as a very deliberate strategy plan. Like we wanted you specifically. And at a time when we could have chosen among pretty much anybody.

C: Yeah, you were vetting lots of people I remember. Like you kind of told me after the fact, secretly.

S: We were secretly vetting a lot of people.

C: And then I know, I know we've told this story on the show before, so it might be kind of boring to hear again. But when we were making the announcement at TAM that year, we had some fundraiser dinner that we all went to where like the "celebrities" or whatever they want to call them, like the featured speakers were sitting at tables with the people who bought tickets to this dinner. And oh my God, it was so uncomfortable. Everybody kept asking in front of us like, are you guys going to get a new Rogue? When are you going to get a new Rogue? And I had to just like, I have the worst poker face. We had to just fully lie for like a whole dinner because we knew the announcement was coming like the next day.

B: Right, right.

E: You kept it together. You did very well.

C: We tried, yeah.

E: You did very well.

B: Don't forget guys, I remember specifically we interviewed Cara at TAM like 2013 or something like that.

S: Yeah, a couple years before.

B: And all of us felt that, all of us after that interview were like, damn, she was awesome. She's we got to remember her because she, because she was so good that we're like she would be fantastic on the show. And then when the time came to actually specifically look for someone, we were like, yeah, I mean, we want Cara. But we got to do our due diligence. But in our minds, I think we were all like, yeah, it's going to be Cara. If she even accepts it, I thought you'd be like, why would I want to do that with you guys? Why would I want to? I got better things to do.

E: Right, you do television shows and all that.

B: I was really happy.

C: Yeah, like a dissertation and all that kind of stuff. I actually wasn't even in school yet then. Oh gosh, I miss TAM. Do you guys miss TAM.

B: I know.

J: Oh my god, I think about it all the time. It's unreal. We didn't know how good we had it, you know? And it did seem like it was going to go on forever.

C: You know what I want to do is I just really want to play poker with you guys again.

S: Yeah, agreed.

C: I just really want to sit down and play a game.

S: Hey, maybe we'll do that at Notacon.

E: Oh, Notacon?

C: Maybe. At least we'll play games. For sure we're going to play some games together.

S: For sure.

C: That'll be so fun. I'm excited.

S: All right, well, we got a lot of stuff to get through on the show this week. And, Cara, you're going to start us off with it.

What's the Word? (12:47)[edit]

S: What's the word?

C: I am. The word this week was actually recommended by Steve. The word is catacoustics, which is the branch of acoustics that really deals with echoes. And, Steve, I'm curious. How did this word come to you?

S: I looked up cool science words and that's what came up.

C: Yes! I love it. I didn't know if there was some sort of like personal relationship to it or something.

B: Catacoustics. I thought that was a study of meows.

C: Yeah. Yeah, I know. I was like, what is with this prefix cat? So, I dug into it. First of all, I cannot find who coined this term. Cannot for the life of me. If anybody knows it, let me know. It's like the internet is of no help. I don't have Chat-GPT. Maybe that would be of better help. But acoustics, when acoustics was first like kind of founded as a scientific field of inquiry, it was divided into two branches, diacoustics and catacoustics. So, diacoustics specifically is looking at how sounds refract through whatever medium they're passing through, right? So, how do sounds move through air? How do sounds move through water? How do they move through the medium? And then catacoustics is how they bounce off of surfaces. Because both of those things are necessary when we're talking about sound, right? Whether we're talking about musical instruments or ultrasound technology or sonar or really anything, seismology, anytime we're talking about waves, they're going to be moving through a medium, but then they're also going to bounce off of anything that gets in their path. And so, catacoustics is basically the study of echoes. There's also, Steve, you may not have known this, but there's a synonym for catacoustics, cataphonics.

J: Cool.

S: Cataphonics, that's cool.

C: Cataphonics means the same thing.

E: Makes sense.

C: And so, then I was looking at the etymology. And acoustics has a long history, but acoustics really has to do with pertaining to hearing, right? And it makes sense. We see it all the time. Everything from, gosh, what are some words that you can think of that sound like acoustic?

J: Words that sound like the word acoustic?

C: Looks like the source is of the Greek to hear.

S: Do you want me to tell you what Chat GPT-4 says?

C: Does it have an actual person?

S: So, I asked Chat GPT-4, what is the etymology of catacoustics? And its answer was, I'm sorry, but I'm not familiar with the term catacoustics. But then I said, it said, give me more information. So, I said, catacoustics is the study of echoes. What is the origin? And then it gave me this answer. Ready? Thank you for the additional information. The word catacoustics is derived from the Greek word kata, K-A-T-A, meaning down.

C: Or reverse.

S: And acoustos, meaning heard or audible. The term was coined in the 17th century by the English physician and scientist Robert Hooke to describe the study-

C: Robert Hooke!? No way.

S: It may be hallucinating. I don't know. To describe the study of echoes and the behavior of sound waves that include spaces. Hooke was particularly interested in the phenomena of echo, and he conducted experiments to study how sound waves behave when they bounce off surfaces and return to the listener's ear. And it gives you some more information. But that's what it said.

C: I'm looking up whether, I can't find anything on the internet that's Robert Hooke and catacoustics. But maybe somebody can. Maybe ChatGPT made that up. But yes, when we look at kata, right, this prefix kata, it's really interesting because although, yes, it means down in the Greek, which then became Latinized, down or downward, it also means through, on, or against. And that seems to be its usage here because we're talking about bouncing of sound, echoing of sound, right? We're talking about sound shadows. And that's really what the kata seems to be the root word for, is the bouncing of the sound, not beneath. Echoes and reflected sounds actually is what one of the dictionaries calls it, which I think is quite beautiful, reflected sounds. Yeah, it's a cool word. It's a cool word. Lots of times when you look it up in dictionaries, it does say archaic. So I don't think many people are using the term much anymore. But I feel like even from a literary perspective, the catacoustics, the cataphonics of one's voice or of something, I think it's quite lovely.

S: Yeah, it's a cool word.

C: So thanks for bringing that word to my attention. I'd never, literally never heard it before.

S: Okay, thanks, Cara.

News Items[edit]

AI Mind Reading (17:15)[edit]

S: So guys, have you heard that? You all have had this experience, I know, of coming across a news item and you're like, that's 100% what I'm talking about this week on the show.

C: Yeah. (laughs)

B: Of course. You had one?

S: Yeah, I had that experience this week. What do you think about using artificial intelligence to read minds?

E: Well, what do you mean by reading minds?

S: Yeah, what do you mean.

J: I'm skeptical of that, but yeah.

B: Reading MRIs, I would guess.

S: Through functional MRI scanning.

E: Awesome.

S: Could you look at the activity in the brain from functional MRI and infer from that activity what the person is thinking? What do you think about that?

B: Yes.

E: Maybe to a degree, but not to an intense depth, maybe on a surface.

C: I think we're trying to.

S: Yeah, there's a research. So I've been following this research for years, and I'm sure I've talked about it on the show from time to time.

J: But that means that it's translatable. That means that what they're seeing-

S: That means it's translatable.

J: On an FM, oh my god.

S: So-

B: That's, yeah.

J: Would it take an artificial intelligence to be able to decipher the data, or can a human decipher that data as well?

S: Well, let me tell you.

B: I don't think you need the AI.

S: So let me give a little backstory. So this has been a program, a research goal in neuroscience for years, for decades. The idea is if we take some mechanism of looking at brain activity, is there any way to translate that activity into what the brain's actually doing? What's it thinking? What is it experiencing or whatever? Can we use EEG or PET scanning and now functional MRI scanning? Functional MRI is probably the best one for this because it's still inferring brain activity, but it's doing it from blood flow. But that blood flow could be very precise and could be very precisely imaged. And it peaks and then comes back down to baseline over about 10 seconds. So there's a little bit of a delay, but it's still pretty close to real time. Now using either either fMRI or EEG or some other method, researchers have been picking the low hanging fruit, which from going from brain activity to what the person's actually experiencing or thinking, that low hanging fruit is in the visual cortex. I know we've talked about this on the show before. And the reason why that's a low hanging fruit is because the visual cortex has somatotopic mapping. Specifically, the cortex is laid out in the grid of the visual system. It's like a bitmap. Your brain is literally a bitmap of what you're looking at. So if you're looking at a giant letter E and you look at what cells are lighting up in the primary visual cortex, it's an E. You see the E on the cortex. Does that make sense?

E: Neat.

S: Because that's how it's laid out. And there's also, you guys know the homunculus, right? That's another brain mapping example. If you looked at activity in the motor cortex, you would know what parts of the body are moving. If you looked at activity in the sensory cortex, you would know what parts of the body were experiencing sensory information. But what about abstract ideas? Could we look at the language cortex and know what words the person was thinking?

E: Oh, that's deep.

S: That's tricky. And that's one that's going to take a long time. But think about it this way. Is there a way to look at, to train on a lot of data in order to infer a coherent sentence? Isn't that kind of what large language models do?

J: Yeah.

E: Sure.

S: So the question that the researchers had was, could we use these large language models, train it on fMRI data from somebody who is hearing a phrase and then have it be able to then infer what the person's thinking from the fMRI data?

B: That sounds totally reasonable. But I think the problem would be that there wouldn't be enough training data.

S: So this is what they did. They put people in an fMRI scan and then for 16 hours, I don't think they did it all at once, but for 16 hours, they had them listen to a podcast. It probably was not the SGU, but it should have been. They had to listen to a podcast. And they had artificial intelligence who both knows the target sound, like what they're hearing, and the fMRI imagery. And then it basically trained on the fMRI injury, corrected to what the person was actually hearing. Then they said, okay, now let's have the person listen to a novel phrase, a novel podcast, right, that wasn't trained on, and see if they can, if the AI could now infer what they're listening to. And then they said, okay, let's have the person just think of a phrase, just think of sentences, and let's, and then you could write it down and we'll compare that to what the AI thought you were thinking about. And then the third experiment, they had them watch a silent movie. And so basically the question was, would the AI be able to infer what they were thinking as they were watching that movie?

E: Okay.

S: So let me give you some examples. Here is, I'll just give you two examples, but there's multiple in the published paper. So here's the actual stimulus. This is not the training stimulus, this is the testing stimulus. So here's one. "I got up from the air mattress and pressed my face against the glass of the bedroom window, expecting to see eyes staring back at me, but instead finding only darkness." Here's what the AI decoded from the fMRI of the person who was listening to that. Ready? "I just continued to walk up to the window and open the glass. I stood on my toes and peered out. I didn't see anything and looked up again. I saw nothing."

B: The hell.

E: That's pretty darn good.

S: That's pretty darn close.

J: How the hell did it do that?

S: I'll give you another one. Here's the stimulus. "I didn't know whether to scream, cry, or run away. Instead I said, leave me alone. I don't need your help. Adam disappeared and I cleaned up alone crying." Decoded stimulus. "Started to scream and cry and then she just said, I told you to leave me alone. You can't hurt me anymore. I'm sorry. And then he stormed off. I thought he had left. I started to cry."

E: Wow. Pretty close.

B: What the hell man.

S: I mean, so it gets the gist. Some phrases, it gets some exact phrases, like two or three words that are the same. It gets some errors. There were some errors in there. But overall it gets the gist of what the person was listening to. Just looking at that, just from looking at the fMRI data. That's amazing.

B: That's, wow.

S: I got to say, that's decades ahead of where I thought we would be.

E: Oh, here we go.

J: Seriously, that's borderline scary.

B: What large language model are they using?

S: GPT-1. That was using GPT-1.

B: What?

S: Yep, just the basic GPT-1.

B: Why the hell would they use one?

S: Because Bob, this is research that's been done over years, because that's all that was available at the time. What if they didn't just do this last Tuesday?

C: Research takes a while.

S: Yeah, it takes a while. Why would they use a one-year-old AI model?

B: 3.5 has been out for a little while.

S: Imagine if they used GPT-4 or better, and they trained for weeks or months.

E: Oh, it's 99% correct.

S: It'd be interesting to see that. Now, they did a couple of other things that were really interesting.

B: Wait, guys, just remember this now. These amazing results that we are all oohing and aahing use GPT-1.

E: Yep.

B: Can you, I mean, they could right now start using four soon. What kind of results are they going to have?

S: Yeah.

B: Whoa.

S: It would seem, but there definitely needs to be a follow-up experiment here. Now, they did a couple of follow-up experiments that are interesting. One was they told the subjects, try to, while you're listening to this podcast, try to fool the AI and to throw in some random thoughts. They did that, and it completely broke the AI. They completely failed. So it's really easy to subvert the "mind reading", by deliberately throwing in random thoughts. Then they used the training data from one subject to test another subject. What do you think happened? So they used an AI trained on one subject to try to read the thoughts of a different subject.

E: Same results.

B: Completely got it wrong.

S: It was utter gibberish.

B: Everyone's unique.

S: Exactly.

C: Yeah, I'm not surprised by that.

E: Interesting.

S: Not surprised by that at all. Then it occurred to me, because I've just been involved in talking a lot about ESP, because I got a quote, I interviewed for an article on ESP, and then all the loons are emailing me.

E: What do you mean it's not real.

S: Yeah. You're not a real skeptic. Whatever.

J: I love that one.

E: I love it.

S: So anyway, it occurred to me, so this is a huge problem for ESP, right? Because how could, your brain could not read my brain. My brain would be gibberish to your brain, right? It'd be absolute gibberish, just like this fMRI is. Of course, whatever, they'll wave their magic wand or whatever. But in reality, our brains are mutually unintelligible to each other if you're just going by the activity of those brains. At that level of detail, of actual words, they're mutually incompatible. So very interesting. So this is amazing. And this shows the potential of using these AI large language model algorithms, processes to train pattern recognition, to look for things like this. This is just one example of how much of a boon this can be to scientific research. Although I have to say, in retrospect, this is kind of the sweet spot. They're using a large language model to infer language from patterns that they could train over time.

B: Right.

S: But brilliant. I thought this was brilliant to think about using it in this way. And it's amazing.

J: Steve, can you think of any bad application of this that we should worry about?

S: So out of the gate, and the authors think about this, they say, could this be used to extract information from somebody involuntarily to read your mind?

E: Uh-oh, lie detection.

S: Interrogation technique. And they say no. And basically for two reasons. One is that you have to cooperate for hours of training. It's worthless until you deliberately cooperate with hours of training. And then even then, you have to cooperate with the mind reading. It's very easy to subvert.

B: Yeah, but-

J: Steve, isn't it just a matter of time before this thing becomes so-

S: Well, that's the question.

J: It's going to be so nuanced that someday it's going to be able to do it without hours of training.

S: I don't know. I don't think you could assume that, Jay. I don't think you could assume that at all.

J: I'm glad to hear it.

S: Again, especially because everyone's brain is at this level of detail is unique that it's going to require at least some training. Maybe it'll get better that it won't need quite as much training.

B: Yeah, but how about this? You got some remote scanning, right? Super advanced remote scanning. And then you scan somebody's brain while they're hearing something.

S: Or while they're watching TV or something.

B: Right. So the computer will know what they're listening to, and then they'll know what the brain states that correspond to what it's listening to. And there's your training right there.

S: But that hypothesizes technology that we're not even close to yet. These people were sitting in an fMRI scanner. Don't forget.

B: I know, but I mean, what I just laid out to me doesn't sound like, oh, that's like transporting or FTL. Not even close.

S: No, you're right. But it's technology that could be decades in the future or longer. But here's, I think, a more plausible scenario. Let's say this becomes available for some kind of commercial application and we deliberately train ourselves for our own assistant, our own app. That becomes a vulnerability.

C: Capitalism.

E: Personalized assistant. That's what it would be.

C: Yeah, that's so scary. We knowingly engage.

E: It knows what I'm thinking.

S: Would people make themselves vulnerable to a security risk-

C: Yes.

S: -for a minor thing? For a minor convenience?

C: Yes.

E: Yes, they would.

S: Of course they would. Yeah, we know that they would.

E: Hello, TikTok.

S: Yeah, exactly.

C: Every literal thing we use in life right now.

S: So, yeah, I think people would voluntarily do training because it's cool. Even if it's just to play a video game, they would do it.

B: How about this? If you're locked in, you're locked in. You can totally communicate.

E: Yeah, that's the medical application.

S: Yeah.

C: True, true. But we have things that are helpful leading up to that. Like, you're right. That's a great application of this. We have some pretty amazing voice bank stuff. We've done some cool shit.

S: Yeah, although I think we need to get, I'd like to see how good this is with EEG because it's not really practical, obviously, that people are locked in an fMRI scanner. And EEG, the inherent problem there is that the scalp surface electrodes, the signals get blurred by the skull. But if you had, I think maybe a plausible approach might be use the stentrodes. These are the electrodes you put inside the veins in the skull. At least they're inside the skull. You don't have to put them on the pulsating brain, right, Jay? But the best approach would be invasive leads in the brain, an implant.

C: Which somebody who's locked in might be willing to undergo that.

S: I would 100% do it, wouldn't you?

C: Yeah.

S: But that technology is tricky because it's not just are you willing to do it. It doesn't last that long because of the scar tissue.

C: Right, and is it going to be in the right. Do you need to do it with one lead or do you need now like hundreds or thousands of leads?

S: But maybe with the stentrodes, it could be plausible in the near term.

B: How about this? Communicating with a brain in a jar.

J: I actually hope that never happens.

B: Done.

E: Very retro.

J: I hope we never do that under any interpretation of what you just said, Bob.

B: Oh, come on. We can't come up with a cool scenario.

J: Terrible.

B: Come on.

S: But what this means is that the matrix is plausible.

J: Yep.

E: Is that what this means?

B: Absolutely.

S: Every so far, every proof of concept necessary for the matrix to work has been in the right direction. It shows that it's, we're nowhere near it in technology, but it's plausible. But again, all of my assessments are almost worthless now in terms of how long is it going to take to do this or that.

B: Ha!

S: Once, seriously, anything to which you could apply like these large language models in terms of doing the research, it completely changes the calculus on how long it would take to accomplish certain things. Again, I would never have guessed we would be at this stage.

B: Yep. LLMs, man.

S: This quickly.

B: Amazing stuff.

S: Yeah. It is amazing. All right.

10,000 Steps Per Day (32:19)[edit]

S: Jay.

J: Yeah.

S: Should I take 10,000 steps every day for my health?

J: Yeah. You know, Steve, that-

C: Are we talking about this still?

J: Yeah. This is a legitimate... Cara, breaking news. Breaking news. No, but it's a legitimate question because as skeptics, right? We were talking about being skeptics earlier. As skeptics, we got to question things like this. Is the 10,000 step thing legit or not? Where did it come from? I bet you guys will be surprised what I'm about to tell you. Okay. 10,000 steps per day to stay healthy. That's the word on the street.

C: I thought it was 7,000.

J: It's 10,000.

E: It was 10, and I thought it was a gimmick to sell Fitbits to people.

C: But also, I think somewhat recently there was a massive meta-analysis and it was 7,000, and then it's diminishing returns after that.

J: Let me give you the details.

C: Okay. Okay. Cool. Cool. Cool.

J: First off, Evan, you are correct. This whole thing started with basically a company in Japan. Now, I thought originally when I heard about the 10,000 step thing, I thought it was recommended by researchers or backed up by something. The fact is it was made up by a company in Japan in the 1960s.

B: 60s?

J: They were very likely to be the first company to sell what we would consider a modern version of a pedometer. They were looking to come up with branding and marketing and everything. What they found was this company decided to use 10,000 because the Japanese symbol for 10,000 kind of looks like a person walking. (Cara laughs)

E: Oh my gosh.

J: That's where it came from. That's where 10,000 steps came from because it looked like this symbol. I think that that's brilliant. It's great marketing, but they made it up out of whole cloth just because of that coincidence.

B: 8 glasses of water a day.

E: I'm not surprised.

J: This idea of a pedometer though and of walking, this goes back, not walking in general, but measuring walking. This goes back to Leonardo da Vinci, at least it goes back to Leonardo da Vinci, who imagined a mechanical pedometer that could be used for military purposes. It's a very old idea, but the idea of walking for health, that you should walk a certain number of steps, really did come out of this Japanese company, which I find to be so typical. Of course it did. Of course it isn't based on solid science.

B: I totally believe it instantly when I heard it.

S: It's not like walking is a bad idea.

J: No, not at all.

S: 10,000 steps is arbitrary. It's like the eight glasses of water a day.

J: Exactly.

S: Keep hydrated, but eight glasses is made up.

J: Today, tons of devices, everybody's got at least one device on them that can count how many steps you're taking with all sorts of apps that suggest people walk 10,000 steps per day. Let's get to the science now. The US Department of Health and Human Services published a study back in 2018. This is the most recent one. It says, exercise is measured by time and heart rate, not by the number of movements someone does. So there's a huge number of studies that recommend, this is the boilerplate stuff. We've got a huge number of studies that are out there that recommend moderate activity for 150 to 300 minutes per week, or vigorous activity for 75 to 150 minutes. Epidemiological studies suggest that if someone can consistently exercise for these time estimates for a decade, that you can increase your lifespan by 1.5 years, and also your overall quality of life is improved.

B: That's a critical thing. You're not going to have dramatic, even if you're super fit all your life, it's not necessarily going to be dramatic increases in the numbers of years, unless of course you prevent something like a heart attack, but it's the quality of life that you should be aiming for.

J: Yeah, the quality is more about it. As I get into my 50s and I see the changes that my body is taking, and I, yeah, if I'm leading a sedentary life, I know where I'm going to be in 10 years, and it's not going to be in a good place. You got to exercise to keep that muscle tone up, to keep the bone density up. Do you want to be walking around when you're in your 70s? The only way to really get there is to exercise.

B: If you were in your 70s or 80s, and you take up a safe doctor prescribed bout of resistance, like weight training, you could literally triple your strength.

J: Yeah, that's true.

B: I mean, right? Just a little improvement, you could basically double your strength or more, and that could mean the difference between being able to take the groceries in, standing up off the floor, huge difference. So yeah, take it up, no matter, I don't care what age you are. Talk to your doctor and lift weights.

J: So historically, there has not been enough evidence to come to the same conclusions about taking 10,000 steps until 2019. So since then, several more large studies have been done regarding the number of steps and overall health, and they concluded that age has a factor in the number of steps you would need to take to get an approximation of the ideal amount of exercise, which is, just so you know, what I just said, 150 to 300 minutes for normal activity and 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity. The studies suggest that the people younger than 60 should walk, we're talking about 8 to 10,000 steps per day, right? Which would be the equivalent of the 150 to 300 minutes of brisk walking. If you're 60 and older, it's 6 to 8,000 steps. And this is an interesting thing here. Keep that in mind. The older you get, the less steps they say that you need to take, and it's not because you're older. It's because you don't walk as efficiently as a younger person and you're burning more calories by walking less.

B: Awesome.

E: Really

C: That makes sense.

J: They studied steps. They studied the whole thing and they did a comparison to the they did a mathematical comparison to the minutes 150 to 300 minutes for medium activity. So how many steps do you think roughly is equivalent to 150 to 300 minutes of brisk walking? 9,000 steps is roughly somewhere between 150 and 300 minutes of brisk walking. And if you are doing 150 to 300 minutes we're not talking about a lot of time per week.

B: Is that a week you're saying or a day?

J: A week.

E: Per week.

B: Well, then that would translate to, you said 150 minutes is 9,000 steps. So they recommend 9,000 steps a week?

J: Yeah.

B: Oh, Jesus.

E: That's a lot less than a-

C: That's nothing. That's not a day?

J: They were saying that 9,000 steps is roughly the equivalent to 150 to 300 minutes of brisk walking per week.

C: Gosh, I walk so much more than that. You know, I walked to work and back every day.

J: Yeah, so that's great though.

C: I walk miles every day.

J: It's not only a good thing to have in your head, right? And I'm not saying if you were doing 10,000 steps a day, you don't need to drop yourself down to an order of magnitude less than that. Like keep doing it. Because again, we're talking about cardiovascular health, we're talking about muscle density, we're talking about being able to grow old in the body that you're in. You definitely want to keep yourself in shape as best as you can. And these are just target numbers. Everybody's different. Everybody's body's different. 9,000 steps to me might not be 9,000 to you. You definitely should be talking to your doctor, especially if you're older. But in the end you don't have to move that much more to get a good benefit out of it. And if we're talking about doing 300 minutes of walking per week, that's really not a lot. If you split it up over seven days, it's not a lot of time per day that you need to be walking.

S: Yeah.

J: So one last thing.

S: Yeah.

J: And I found this really interesting. Research shows that overall intensity is not a key factor at all. It's the amount of time that matters.

C: Oh, that makes me feel good because...

J: So you don't have to go super hardcore, super heavy.

C: I can't or I'll be way too sweaty at work.

J: Yeah, don't do it. As a matter of fact there's a lot of danger to lifting super heavy weights and to pushing yourself. I mean, the older you get, the more risk you're taking when you stress your body that way. You could do moderate level exercise. Just make sure that you're getting in enough time. And if you want to use the 9,000 step thing as a measuring tool, that's fine. But just keep in mind, though, the most information that we have is the 150 to 300 minutes of brisk walking per week. That's what you should be shooting for.

B: Yeah, for cardio, absolutely. But resistance training is kind of a different beast with its own huge suite of benefits.

S: Yeah, but Bob, I heard resistance is futile. (laughter)

J: Oh, god. May the fourth be with you, Steve. That was brilliant. That was awesome.

B: Oh, that was awesome, Steve. Yeah, but resistance, man, I'm telling you, cardio and resistance are key, man. It is. You got to pack on some muscle so that when it starts really wasting away in your 70s and 80s, that you have enough.

J: It's true.

B: Just do both, please.

E: Some tech will come along and fix that for me. I'll swallow a pill and be fine.

B: Yeah, I'm waiting for that too. But in the meantime.

J: ChatGPT is not going to help you with this at all, Ev.

E: Ah, careful.

J: It could become a personal trainer or something, I guess. I don't know.

E: That's right.

30 Years of the Web (42:59)[edit]

S: All right, Bob. It's not only our 18th anniversary. It's not only Star Wars Day. It's the 30th anniversary of something else.

E: Whoa!

B: Yeah. Pretty big. 30 years ago on April 30th, 1993, scientist Tim Berners-Lee was instrumental in creating and giving the world the World Wide Web. And society was transformed by a new technology in ways nobody could have possibly predicted. An amazing turning point, I think, that has – I mean, how many websites have you gone to today, guys? How many different websites have you gone to today?

E: Today alone?

S: Today alone.

B: Just today. Just today.

E: Probably 40.

B: Just think about that. So now people – a little background. People often use the word web and internet interchangeably, right?

E: Interweb.

B: And technically, that's wrong on a couple levels.

E: Thank you.

B: The internet is really just a network of connected computers at its most basic. The internet was created in the 60s. It was the ARPANET then for government researchers to share information. That became the modern internet. It's widely accepted as the birthday January 1st, 1983 when it adopted TCPIP, which you may have heard of that, as a communication protocol so that it was important because different computers on different networks could now talk to each other and specifically, of course, non-government networks. That was the internet. As we know, that kind of took off. Now the web, the web is kind of laid on top of that. But it's not the only thing that's laid on top or within, however you want to look at that metaphor, the internet either. It's not just the only thing. There's also emails flying through. FTP or file transfer protocols are also on the internet. Instant messaging services are also going through there. So it's not just the web. The pre-web, the pre-web internet, there was no web, right? But there was programs and some of you guys might even remember. They had programs to navigate the text-based information, which was basically the only thing on the internet was text-based stuff. There was an ASCII-based program called Gopher and that let you kind of look through organized collections of files, kind of like file manager, if you will. You may have heard of the program Archie that let you do rudimentary searching for files. But it was arcane. It was complicated. I remember–

E: I remember bulletin boards. That was a thing in the early – in the late 80s.

B: Absolutely, absolutely. I remember trying to get on some of those like 91, 92. I went to the university I was taking classes in and for my master's and stuff. I remember I had my plan. I had the commands that I needed and I tried to get on the internet and I failed. I walked away. I'm like, this isn't working. It was complicated and annoying and I just like walked away after a while. I'm like, this isn't going to work. But then soon after that, a year or so after that, I remember specifically reading a magazine. It was in the upper right-hand side of the page and it said, there's a new thing coming to the internet and it's called the World Wide Web. I remember specifically – I wish I kept that magazine. I had no idea how prescient that was. This is where we come to Tim Berners-Lee. He was a researcher at a physics lab in Switzerland. You may have heard of it. It was called CERN. Even back then, CERN wasn't just one facility but it was an extended scientific community of over a hundred countries, thousands of scientists and they needed to share information. But sharing information between or among this behemoth of geeks was a huge problem. In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee began outlining a solution to getting information that was timely and efficient to all of these researchers all over the planet. With the help of systems engineer Robert Cailliau, that evolved in November 1990 into a proposal to CERN management for a new type of distributed information system. Now that proposal described in detail what he described as his hypertext project at CERN. In that proposal, Berners-Lee said, I quote, "Hypertext is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes." He said "nodes can in principle also contain non-text information like diagrams, pictures, sound, animation, etc." And he said "A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser." Does any of that sound familiar to you? This is in the early 90s. He basically laid out the essentials of what we know today as a worldwide web or the web or even just online. This is what we're talking about. In 91, Tim had the first website ready at It was not a porn site. My headcanon says that the first porn site was the second website that was created. That's probably wrong, but that's what's in my head. The first website was called World Wide Web, pretty basic. It contained links to information about this new idea that he came up with. But it also had links to other web servers as they came online. So now at this point, it's not over. At this point, this is when I think future time travelers may try to come back and mess with history and really screw it up because this was a critical juncture in hindsight, of course. This was critical. Because CERN at that point, they kind of like were at a crossroads. They could have just maintained the status quo and they could have used this new web idea, this new hypertext idea internally to share information for their scientists. That could have been it. Potentially, I guess that was a possibility. More likely though, CERN could have licensed out the World Wide Web for profit. They could have tried to make money like a Ferengi from this idea. Sorry. I've been watching Deep Space Nine. CERN had every right to do that because it owned the rights. Berners-Lee worked at CERN. He invented it at CERN. This was their – CERN owned it. They could have said, we're going to license this and we're going to milk it for as much money as we can. And I think they were kind of leaning in that direction. Berners-Lee actually convinced them not to do that. He thought that an open web would be the best thing to make the web grow. He said, "The web setting out as something which was universal, something which anybody could use, I felt was very important. It's no good having something which will run on any platform if, in fact, there's a proprietary hold on it." And then so the final important milestone happened on April 30th, 1993 when Berners-Lee and CERN submitted the document that put the World Wide Web in the public domain. CERN did not claim any of the intellectual ownership rights that it could have claimed, any of it. It was open for everybody. And of course the rest, as they say, is history. Some describe this post-web era as the great online awakening. And that's a wonderful way to describe it I think, the great online awakening, which it was absolutely no matter how you look at it. It absolutely was. By December 93, just a little, a year or two later, there were 623 websites. By January 97, there were 650,000. Now there's something like 1.1 billion websites. I'm not even sure if that includes the dark web. But right now it's generally considered that there are 1.1 billion websites, not all active of course. But there are probably hundreds of millions of them being maintained right now and over 5 billion people visiting them all the time. So it's just an amazing explosion. And I just don't even need to really go into too much detail about how we use the web for so many different things. It's hard to even get overwhelmed with the list of the things that we do on the web that has taken over our lives in a lot of ways. It's so helpful. But of course it's also pernicious, right? It's also a downside. Like any great tool, there's downsides with spreading misinformation and propaganda and all that stuff. But it's also got an amazing upside as well. And who knows what it's going to evolve in in the next few generations. But it's just an amazing thing, and I think more people need to know exactly who Tim Berners-Lee is.

E: Yeah.

S: Absolutely. It is I mean we almost think of our life now as before the web and after the web.

B: That's exactly how I think. Oh, 91, 92. That was BW. That was before the web. That's a line. That's a hard line in my head. I always think, oh, man, that was after the web was just a year old when that happened. As things as I hear about things from the 90s or pre-90s, it's funny how that's just like the huge thing in my head now that will never go away.

S: All right. Thanks, Bob.

When Will Aliens Make Contact? (51:57)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, can you tell me exactly to the day when we are going to make contact with aliens?

E: January 1th, 2029.

S: Excellent.

E: How's that?

J: Thank you. Have a good night.

E: And there's your news item.

S: And done.

E: Oh, wait, how do I know this? Well, it's because a recent study by two researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses, they suggest that alien contact could be achieved as early as, yes, 2029. The study authors are Riley Derrick and Howard Isaacson, and their research was published in the journal Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. So after having left the heliosphere, right, Bob, the heliosphere?

B: Yeah, baby.

E: Yeah. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, two of our favorite probes that are still going on out there. They are continuing to travel through interstellar space along with Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, and New Horizons. They are also on paths to pass the heliopause. And the spacecraft have communicated with the deep station network radio antennas in order to download scientific data and telemetry data. The DSN is NASA's international network of massive radio antennas that support interplanetary spacecraft missions, as well as some of Earth's orbiting satellites. So the outward transmissions from DSN, they travel to the spacecraft and beyond into interstellar space, of course, right? It's not just the spacecraft picking it up. It's a broadcast effectively. So it's heading in that direction and it's going out there for lots of different things, hopefully, to pick up. The transmissions have encountered and will encounter other stars, introducing the possibility that intelligent life and other solar systems will encounter our transmissions. So the researchers, they use the beam width of the transmissions between the DSN and the spacecraft to perform a search around the past and future positions of each spacecraft, which was obtained by the JPL Horizon system. By performing the search over the catalog of nearby stars, a catalog precisely mapped stars within 100 parsecs, they determined which stars the transmissions of the spacecraft will encounter. And they highlight the stars that are the background of DSN transmissions. And then they calculate the dates of these encounters to determine the time and place for potential intelligent extraterrestrial life to encounter terrestrial transmissions. So their findings revealed that a radio transmission that was sent to Pioneer 10, which did a flyby of Jupiter in 1973, the transmission reached a dormant white dwarf star in 2002. Also, regards to Voyager 2, it also has reached apparently some stars. And there were also transmissions made directly out in 1980 and 1983 that have arrived at a brown dwarf star in 2007. So if there's intelligent life in the vicinity of the stars, aliens could potentially, therefore, receive the signal and then make contact with Earth in about six years. And they give some specific dates as to when it could happen based on, again, there are hundreds of stars that these signals will eventually reach. But the earliest of them, again, would be, they estimate, 2029 regarding the signals that were sent in the direction of Pioneer 10. So, yeah, that's interesting. And what they're basically trying to do is help give the folks at SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, those researchers, they're giving them a more focused area sort of to concentrate on. At least a potential set of candidates in which they should start looking for some signals if they are going to receive them and bounce them back and reply to us in the next few years is about when the earliest ones would possibly come back to us. Now, there are some skeptics out there who are saying, yes, but no. For example, we have Jean-Luc Margot, who's a radio astronomer. He says, "Our infrequent transmissions are unlikely to yield a detection of humanity by extraterrestrials. The probability that another civilization resides in this tiny bubble is extraordinarily small unless there are millions of civilizations in the Milky Way". And then there's – so that's just one example. And then there's sort of another flavor of skeptics, if you want to call them that, who are saying some other interesting things, such as Chaim Eshed. I don't think we've talked about him before. He served as the head of Israel's space program for nearly 30 years and is a three-time recipient of the Israel Security Award. I'm not exactly sure what that is. But he explained that Israel and the United States have both been dealing with aliens for years. So what he's saying is that we've made agreements apparently between the aliens and us, which have been made because they wish to research and understand, "the fabric of the universe". And this cooperation includes a secret underground base on Mars where there are American and alien representatives. So that's a sort of a different direction of skepticism in regards to this particular news item. I thought it was interesting just to point out that some people with some interesting theories on these kinds of things also had something to say about that. But it is an interesting thought and it also does bring up I think the question, if we were to say receive a signal as early as 2029, great. What do we do? What do we do? Do we try to answer it? What do we do with the information when that signal comes in? And as of this moment, there are some sort of guidelines as to what would need to happen effectively. They're saying that there's a 2010 declaration from the International Academy of Astronautics that urged those who detect mysterious signals to, first of all, rule out prosaic non-alien sources first, such as a microwave oven down the corridor, which we've talked about before. And then if there's a consensus that the signal is legitimate, the researchers should inform the public and the Secretary General of the United Nations. OK. But that's it. That seems to be kind of really the extent of what is being suggested we do when a signal comes in. But we're starting to see a little bit more seriousness and effort put into trying to prepare a global response to a signal that would potentially come in. And it is something we have to think about, even if you don't think that as soon as just a few years from now, 2029, that we're going to be receiving a signal and then figuring out what the heck to do with it. But it is a question that we do need to address.

S: Yeah. I mean, it is complete speculation. There's so much speculation in there. And the biggest one is the notion that a civilization—first of all, that they would be that close. Chances are so vanishingly small that if there's a civilization that close—

E: Yeah. It underestimates the vastness of space.

S: Well, just the density of civilizations would have to be massive to have a chance of there being one that close. The other thing is the probability that they could actually hear our leaking signals is also vanishingly small because—

B: That's the thing because it would have to be an amazingly powerful signal to even be understandable or translatable in theory, even at, say, Proxima Centauri because at some point, you can't distinguish it from the background noise of space, the cosmic microwave background. You can't tease it apart. And I don't think our signals are powerful enough or even designed to travel, to go past even the closest star. So I think this is—the whole idea is ridiculous.

E: The information breaks down at certain distances, right? It becomes incomprehensible.

B: It's so attenuated that no technologies could distinguish it. We would have to do a tight beam or broadcast something on the order of gigawatts or terawatts to have any legs to it, real legs.

S: Okay. Thanks, Evan.

E: Yep.

Who's That Noisy? (1:00:21)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
Embers of lump wood charcoal after initial burn

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

J: All right. For May the 4th, I just want to play this for everybody. [plays Star Wars canteen song] Yeah, so that is—that was just for fun. That is played on an instrument called the Chapman stick, which is—it's like a guitar on steroids, but you got to just look it up and take a look.

E: I know what Chopstick is. I didn't know I heard—no, the Chapman stick.

J: Chapman stick. I know, right? I never heard of one either before until today. And, of course, somebody sent this in to me so I could play it for everyone. I thought it was great. After so many freaking years, Star Wars is still amazingly important to me. I'm 54 years old and I still am in love with my science fiction fantasy when I was a child. How crazy is that? No comments.

E: No, it's great.

S: Pretty crazy.

E: What's not to love?

J: All right, getting to who's that noisy. So last week I played this noisy.


I got a ton of emails on this one. So a listener named Jason Rogers wrote in. He said, "My guess is a sheet of glass being cut." And when you listen back to the sound, yeah, there is a glass kind of sound in there, but this has nothing to do with glass. But I do hear what you're hearing, so that's interesting. Another listener named Landon Steffler wrote in and says, "Hey, everyone, my name is Landon Steffler. I've been listening to you all for the better part of a year. This is my first time submitting a guess, but I've always loved the who's that noisy segment every week. My guess is a traditional rain stick being slowly inverted."

E: Okay.

J: Okay, so Landon represents 90% of the people who wrote in who thought it was a rain stick. It's not a rain stick. If you don't know what a rain stick is, it is, let me try to describe this. So imagine a hollowed out piece of wood like a thick staff. And inside of it there are little metal tines that are inside of it. And when you tip it, there's something that's falling inside of the staff that's hitting those little metal pieces as they fall down. And it kind of sounds like rain, and that's why they call it a rain stick. Well, it's not a rain stick.

B: Beautiful.

J: Man, it does sound like a rain stick. I have another guest here. James Smith wrote in. He says, "As a scuba diver and snorkeler, this sounds like the noise of a parrotfish munching on coral. I don't hear this while diving, but I have heard it from my GoPro after I filmed them underwater and watched the video later on my cell phone." So, again, I've never heard this. I've never heard a parrotfish eating coral. I'm sure that it sounds similar to that. And I have heard the sound of coral, like, breaking and stuff like that because I'm a snorkeler as well. And I've heard coral sounds before. So I kind of get what you're saying. But this is not that. It is something altogether completely different. So before I reveal what it is, guys.

B: Completely different.

J: Do you guys want to take a guess?

B: Altogether.

C: I don't know. I thought it was a rain stick.

J: You thought it was a rain stick, Cara.

C: Yeah.

E: A kaleidoscope.

C: I'm no help here.

J: Somebody came close, close enough where I'm going to give them the win because they guessed it without guessing it 100%. This is a listener named Michael Stoisu. He said, "This sounds exactly like a campfire after the logs have mostly burned down and it's only the very hot coals remaining." The coals have that exact cracky, poppy sound. Perfect for marshmallows. So he was correct. So the actual noisy that was sent in was sent in by a listener named Johnny Decimal Noble. And he said, yeah, I don't know why he has the word decimal in there like that. But he said that this is lumpwood charcoal. And I looked up lumpwood charcoal and it's charcoal, but it's a big piece of charcoal. It's not like a little brisket. It's more like it's like seven or eight, maybe 10 inches long. And it's a bigger piece of charcoal. And apparently if you use lumpwood charcoal, you'll get like a better cooking and better flavor out of your food. I can't attest for that personally, but that's what some people say. So what happens is this is the sound of lumpwood charcoal. Actually, after it's done the initial burn and now it's in the secondary burn part where it's all orange and like there's deep glowing embers that are in there. And it sounds like this.

B: Wow, I never would have thought.

J: So I wanted to find out more. So I did a little research because I wanted to find out what's causing the sound. I had no idea, to be honest, when you think about it, like what could possibly be causing that sound? It sounds like there's things going on. You know what I mean? It's not the sound of a fire. It's the sounds of something else happening. So this is what I was able to find out. If you notice any crackling or popping sounds, the person that I'm quoting here says you need to dry out the charcoal first because this is because the wood absorbs moisture from the air. And any moisture inside the charcoal will expand on heating, causing cracking and the sounds of the wood actually the charcoal splitting.

C: My fire pit does that sometimes after it rains. The lava rocks hold on to moisture. Not only do they pop, they fly out of the fire pit. Like I have to be careful because they become little projectiles.

J: Oh my god, Cara. That would set you on fire for Christ's sake. Yeah, so apparently this is caused by moisture that's trapped inside of the piece of charcoal and then it's splitting the wood, little micro splits as it evaporates and the steam comes out.

New Noisy (1:06:19)[edit]

J: Now, I have a new noisy for this week. This noisy was sent in by a listener named Ron Brown and here it is.

[Squeaky noise, as of an animal call]

E: Oh, that's the Sputnik bird.

J: That could be anything, right? Isn't that interesting?

Announcements (1:08:40)[edit]

J: Steve, we've got three things queued up for SGU. May 20th, we have a six-hour live stream. If you're a patron and you can become a patron whenever you like. And I will say the SGU could really use your support right now. If you were ever going to support us, please do consider becoming a patron and help us keep doing what we do. You may notice that there are less ads on our show and that is not by choice. That is just by circumstance. So, we could really use some help. So, if you want to help us, you can go to and you can become a patron. And if you do become a patron on May 20th at 11 a.m. Eastern Time, you will be able to be included in on the first hour of the live stream that we're doing. It's going to be a total of six hours of live streaming. The first hour for patrons, the remaining five hours for everybody else. And I'm going to tell you, we are proud to announce George Hrab is joining us for that program. He's going to be all over that.

E: Geo! Woo-hoo!

J: Helping us entertain you for hours upon hours. So, please do join us. You can go to our website for the details. And of course, we will be distributing the link everywhere on that Saturday including our website. If you're interested, please join us. Then we'll be at Dragon Con. You can go to Dragon Con. And if you go to Dragon Con, you know where we'll be to come see us. I don't have to give you any details. Just come find us. You know where we're going to be. And then in November, November 3rd and 4th, Notacon is happening. We are running a conference called Notacon. This conference is all about socializing and having fun and actually having time to hang out and talk to the people that you're with the con with. Now, the SGU has a huge community of dedicated patrons and people who join us on the Friday live stream. We have a huge Discord community. And a lot of the people that are coming are a part of that community. And we're really excited because this is going to be a ton of fun. We are going to have George Hrab with us. We will have Andrea Jones-Roy. And we will have Brian Wecht from, I was going to say from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But that is not where Brian is from.

E: No, no, no.

B: Are you sure?

J: Brian is from NSP, Ninja Sex Party.

E: Yeah, Ninja Brian.

J: He's been a very long-term friend of the show. We do lots of stuff with him including BBZ, our game show. So what are we going to be doing during this conference? That's a great question. Right now, we have a list of about 20 things that we could do at this conference. We are definitely going to be running a live in-person Boomer versus Zoomer where we'll be pulling contestants out of the audience. We are definitely going to be doing a live podcast recording, of course, because we always throw one of those in there. We have a lot of other ideas that we have come up with. Some of them are so extreme that I have to get permission from the hotel. But all of the things–

E: Yeah, like the campfire in the hall.

J: I am dead serious. One of them we can't do.

B: Naked twister?

J: Two of them actually I can't do without the right permission from–

E: Fountain swimming.

J: It's going to be cool. We have some really fun stuff planned. I'll be making announcements about this. If you are interested, you can go to the SGU website. We have a button on there that will take you to the link to sign up to go to Notacon. The one thing is I was able to reserve 100 rooms at the hotel. Any rooms beyond 100, I can't guarantee that you will be able to get a room in the hotel where the event is happening. So register now. Now is the time to register.

E: Now.

J: The earlier you register, the more leeway we will have financially to do other things at the conference. I want to cover our costs, of course, as quickly as we can. Then anything beyond that, I'm going to be doing some add-ons to the conference. Please join us. You're going to have a great time. It's going to be one of the best things we've ever done. Notacon, November 3rd and 4th.

S: All right. Thanks, Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:10:34)[edit]

Email #1: Carnivore Diet[edit]

with_reduced_spacing_for_long_chunks –

S: I'm going to do one quick email. This one comes from Steve Williams in Eugene, Oregon. I know somebody from Oregon. It's Oregon, not Oregon. They don't like to say Oregon.

E: Oregon therapy.

C: Oregon.

S: Yeah, Oregon.

C: One of my best friends lives in Eugene. Hi, Sarah.

S: No, he's not in Eugene. All right. He said, "Just read the SGU book and I'm starting on SGU future." I guess he means the Skeptic's Guide to the Future. "Excellent books. Curious if you have ever looked at radical fringe diets and the people who are their main proponents. Someone close to me has signed on to the carnivore diet and closely followed Tennessee MD Ken Berry and New Mexico MD Sean Baker. All meat and eggs, veggies and fruit are toxic, cures and prevents just about everything. Seems like just another instance of medical quackery and pseudoscience to me. But I can't convince this person that eating nothing but red meat and eggs is not a good idea in the long run."

C: Oh, my god. That's a terrible idea.

S: Cara is this new? Is this like the not California diet?

C: Well, I heard of it once. There was like a person that I know who was telling another person I know. They were like, you know that plants have like these toxins in them called phytotoxins. So I'm going to avoid plants from now on because they're toxic and I'm only going to eat meat. And she was like, yeah, don't do that. It's not healthy.

S: Yeah, so it's based on a lot of pseudoscientific ideas. I've done a couple of TikTok videos about it. There's like a carnivore MD sprouting a whole lot of nonsense on it. And that's one of the big ideas that plants have toxins. It's like, okay, that's true. But it's all about the dose. And here's the thing. And they say, oh, yeah, so plants evolve these toxins to keep animals from eating the plants. Like that's all true. And we eat none of those plants.

E: We fixed that.

S: We spent thousands of years cultivating these plants so they don't have toxins in them, right? Because guess what? Toxins are bitter. So all we have to do is breed plants so they're not bitter.

C: And that's why there are some plants like kale is a very bitter plant. And there are things you can do to kale. You probably shouldn't just eat a ton of raw kale all the time. But you can do things to kale. You can cook it.

S: Yeah, right.

C: That gets rid of all the problems. You can also just literally put it in a smoothie. You can break it up.

S: Anything you eat as a plant pretty much except for like raspberries and a couple of things. But they look nothing like they did in the wild. We bred all of those toxins out of them. That's part of the reason why our crops are so susceptible to pests because we've taken all their defenses away. We have to give them new defenses like pesticides because all the natural pesticides we bred out of them because they were bitter to us. So we don't want to eat them. So anyway, that argument is just wrong. Like you're halfway there and you're missing half the picture and it leads you to the exact wrong conclusion.

B: That's just willful ignorance.

S: Yeah, totally.

C: Oh, for sure. That's just being a charlatan and trying to sell your own spam. I mean we know that.

E: Yeah, plenty of those characters.

S: And of course there's plenty of evidence that eating fruits and vegetables is important. They have lots of vitamins and minerals and stuff in them that you don't get to eat.

C: Oh, it's like essential to life.

S: We are omnivores and again the best dietary advice is still everything and eat everything in moderation. That's the best advice. All this restrictive diet, it's like there's good food and bad food and you should only eat this and that's toxic. It's all nonsense.

B: The only good thing about the carnivore diet is that it's low in salt and fat, right?

C: Not necessarily. Yeah, I was like, wait, what?

B: No. Oh, my god. That's just like pfft.

C: Can you imagine if all you ate was meat all day every day?

E: That would get so boring.

C: Not only would it get so boring.

B: It just makes you think of two words, Darwin Award.

C: Yeah, all I can think of is just like your poor heart.

S: Also, you're going to love this, Cara. Think about how privileged this diet is.

C: Oh, right. It's so expensive.

S: You're basically saying, I'm going to eat a diet that is completely unsustainable, which means you're deciding up front that you're in like the 1% of the important people who are going to be eating.

C: Who deserve the meat.

S: Yeah, the all meat diet. You know that the vast majority of humanity couldn't possibly sustain that same diet, right?

C: It's just bad for the planet. It's bad for your arteries. It's bad just across the board.

S: It's bad. Just bad.

C: Oh, gosh.

S: I mean, meat's wonderful in moderation. I personally include meat in my diet. I think it's-

C: Right, it's a great source of protein.

S: It has its own nutrients and stuff that are really good.

E: I love eggs.

S: Yeah, it's a good source of high quality proteins. But everything in moderation. I eat just a little bit of meat. I don't eat a lot.

C: Right.

S: Anyway. Thanks for writing in, Steve. All right. We have a fun interview coming up with Brian Brushwood. So let's go to that interview now.


Interview with Brian Brushwood (1:15:50)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Brian Brushwood. Brian, welcome back to the SGU.

BB: Oh, my goodness. It has been far too long. I am so happy to be back with you. You guys are- It's wonderful. I feel like a very happy time traveling gnome.

E: The feeling's mutual.

S: You haven't been on the show since the before time.

B: The before time.

BB: Yeah, dude. It says before the plague.

E: B.C.

S: Before the plague, yeah.

E: Oh, B.C., yeah.

J: Brian, my last memory of you was right before we did a live SGU show at DragonCon. I was putting a Star Trek shirt on you. And then you joined us for like a Star Trek SGU thing that we were doing, which I don't remember many details about, right?

BB: Yeah. And as a matter of fact, this is one of those weird things. I'm sure you guys have experienced it as well. There's a peculiar type of amnesia that strikes when while you're doing a live event, you're so present in the moment that it's very, very difficult to access the memories afterwards. I don't understand it, but it seems to be familiar for a lot of performers out there.

S: I remember you from when you taught us how to eat fire. That was fun.

J: Yeah, that was cool.

BB: Oh, yeah. That is one gift that I will own is that anybody who wants to eat fire, give me 15 minutes. You guys were very, very fast. I remember we were looking for a place that had kind of wind blocks around it. We made it fast because we weren't sure whether the authorities would approve.

J: Yeah, right?

E: Yale police showing up, yes.

S: Jay, we have that video somewhere. I don't think we've ever made it public.

J: I know. I do have the video. I know where it is. I just haven't—I never put it up. But we should make that premium content.

E: Dust it off.

S: Yeah. That sounds like good premium content.

J: So, Brian, you're here today because you just finished a project and we want to hear all about it.

BB: Yeah. So, four years ago—so, a friend of mine, Justin Robert Young, was originally editor-in-chief of the number one magic blog called iTrix. He covered Scam School when we launched it back in 2009. We have continued to work. One day he called me about three years ago and he said, if you could do any premium podcast, what would it be about? High-quality storytelling. I was like, oh, it would be about the world's greatest con. And he said, great. What's that? I'm like, what's the world's greatest con? Oh, it's got to be the time that the Allies deceived Hitler into defending the wrong coast. He's like, great. What's that? And so, I started explaining to him all about Operation Mincemeat.

E: Oh, yeah.

BB: And so, we were going to tell the story, and we knew that we were in a race against Netflix because Netflix was going to produce a movie based on the same source material. And it's like, well, let's just get our thing out and then they're going to crush us. And sure enough, one day that email showed up, And I'm like, okay, here we go. And they're like, listen, about your project, would you like to interview the director of the Netflix original Operation Mincemeat? And so, and then, so then the question became, okay, okay, we told the world's greatest con. What do we do now? It's like, well, I don't want to be trapped into being a historical World War II podcast. So instead, let's do small stories. And Justin's like, go on. I'm like, no, no, no. Like, game shows are the evolution of the carnival midways. There are stories about the big guy screwing over the small guy, the small guy screwing over the big guy, people who broke the game, people who maybe cheated or maybe didn't. And there's one story of a guy who was doing an honest day's work and unfortunately happened to be on the lam from the FBI and got busted specifically because he made too much money on live television. That was all season two, which brings us to this moment right now. I don't know how many of any of any of the panel is familiar with the story of Project Alpha.

B: Oh, yeah.

E: Oh, we know it.

BB: This is my new party trick is to ask other people to tell me what they know about Project Alpha.

S: Well, we interviewed Banachek at length about it. So we're very familiar with it.

BB: What is the traditional narrative that has been said?

S: So the traditional narrative is that Randi got Banachek and this other guy whose name I forget. So the two of them, when they were kids, they were they were unknown, even though they were into magic, to volunteer for a project where scientists were trying to do serious research into psi phenomenon. And Randi told them, we also talked to Randi about this as well, that basically this is what you're going to do. You're going to pretend that you're psychic. You're going to play everything straight. But if at any point they ask you if you're faking it, you say yes. And if at any point they ask you, do you know Randi? You say yes, Randi sent us here. So basically they were not to directly lie to them. And they carried out the con for a really long time. I forget how long it was, but they carried it on. And the researchers basically never asked them, are you cheating? They never asked them, are you plants? They just accepted it all at face value. And they just used parlor tricks to convince these researchers that they were psychic.

BB: And that is the same narrative that I had always heard. And to be honest, if that's all I wanted was that story. And then because both Banachek and I toured colleges doing the college circuit I did my bizarre magic show, eating fire, and he did mind reading and stuff. So I was familiar with his background and reputation. But as we were doing World's Greatest Con, it just sort of floated out there. Hey, would you like to talk about Project Alpha? And he said, well, yeah, of course I'll say you guys know how approachable and generous Banachek is.

S: Oh, awesome.

BB: He said, but the guy you're going to have to convince is Mike.

B: Mike Edwards.

BB: MIke Edwards, right. And so I didn't know Mike from anything. And so I said, maybe send him the first couple of seasons of World's Greatest Con, because there's a couple of things that Justin and I always try to do. And by the way, Justin Robert Young owns the production company that created it. Justin is uniquely qualified for this story because he is not he was not just an intern at the James Randi Educational Foundation. He was the very first intern at the JREF ever. So he first hand knew a lot of these stories. And I brought up I was like, well Banachek and I are close. Maybe we're talking. And so now it's a matter of gently approaching Mike and finding out whether or not he wants to tell the story. Banachek was coy in in implying that it would be a tricky thing for us to get Mike to trust us to open up. And it is one of the greatest, most flattering things ever that that Mike agreed to. Because keep in mind, this is a 40 year old narrative that the whole world has only known one way and really through only one voice. And that, of course, is the consummate showman, James Randi. Nobody has ever tried to tell the story from the boots on the ground perspective. And when we went, we flew out to Las Vegas and we had a hotel room and we pushed together a couple of couches so that we could kind of set up microphones. You know how these things go. And just as kind of an opener, I say to Banachek, who was born as Steve Shaw, I was like, Steve, I've never been able to place your accent. What is that? And he goes on the next unbroken 15 minutes is begins with the phrase. Well, I was abandoned as a child in South Africa, and then we moved to North America and then we moved to England. And then, well, my because then I got adopted by and then this person was. I mean, it was the most tragic tale ever. But you get to this moment where in South Africa, abandoned Steve Shaw at the time is listening to the radio and a man named Uri Geller shows up and he says, you have power. You can bend metal if your mind is strong enough. Go find it. And so he goes, he gets a needle and he holds it. And to his eyes, it looks like it bent. So you have somebody who is has an agonizingly challenging childhood. And in meanwhile, Mike Edwards grew up in Iowa, was a literal choir boy, performed Pippin, got into magic. And he, he had never heard of Uri Geller. He had never heard of Uri Geller. He only knew James Randi was an escape artist and magician. So the two of them both come to James Randi from wildly different backgrounds. And both of them independently find out about the James S. McDonald grant. And this, this was the challenge to tell this tale is because how do you even explain to anybody under the age of 25, a pre-internet world, a world where there was a cold war and there were only three networks and propaganda reigned supreme. And in some weird version of PsyOps, Russia seemed to be saying that they had psychic assassins and so on. So we spent a fair bit of explaining that world. Then we get to the part where both of them independently apply for this program. And they both reach out to Randi. Randi is the one that says, okay, here are the rules exactly as you laid them out, Steve. If you're ever asked directly, you own it. But what most people don't know is day after day after day, these guys went into the lab, they would be presented with the challenge of inventing a magic trick on the spot. And then they would very proudly tell James Randi, who would say, good, good, good, good. And then James Randi would write a letter to the Mac lab saying, Hey, I don't know what you're up to over there, but, um if somebody was deceiving you, it seems like they would use this method, this method, and this method, maybe prevent those from being possible. And then the boy would show up and they would do it again and again and again. And it becomes this, this, what we discovered in the two interviews that we had originally is that nobody has, everybody who has told this story has told it from the perspective of James Randi as the master manipulator. Nobody has told it from the boots on the ground perspective of two brothers who eventually figure out that they're BFFs. And then eventually realize that if you spend enough time undercover, you eventually, these become humans to you and it becomes uncomfortable to deceive them day after day after day after day. And there's a moment that they ask to get out and they're told no, because we've got this giant TV special coming out. There's going to be a big reveal. And so they have to stay undercover. It's, there are very few times that I claim to be part of something magical, not magic, but magical. I do believe that for the first time ever, this will be the definitive telling of the deeper story of project alpha. Whatever anybody thinks they know about it. Uh, I, I assure you there are surprises awaiting you.

S: Brian, what was the most surprising thing you learned about project alpha from doing this, these interviews?

BB: It is surprising to me. You know what? It's not surprising. It makes sense. James Randi is, as we recorded this, Justin, as somebody who worked at the JREF and me as somebody who worshiped James Randi, we both really thought we could ever avoid any discussion about who deserves credit for what. But ultimately James Randi's timeline involves if you asked James Randi, he would explain that it was all his idea and so on. And that's a very good, very simple narrative. But, but it's pretty clear that the boys wanted to do this on their own and the boys were the ones in the trenches.

S: So who do you think gets most of the credit for project alpha? Are you not willing to, is that some, not even a really a fair question?

BB: There's one thing everybody agrees on. There would be no project alpha were it not for Randi. Full stop. Everybody agrees.

J: Sure.

BB: Also, it takes three lions to make this particular Voltron. That's a dumb metaphor.

B: I love it.

BB: I will not apologize for it. It's a very complicated legacy that is still unpacking because if I'm a little bit talking out of school. There are four scripted episodes and then we sort of end on a cliffhanger and episode five is all of us talking for the first time in studio together. And I'll not lie. It's truly magical to hear these guys in their sixties reminisce about being 17, 18 and keep in mind they're very 1980s, 17 and 18 years old when they begin this journey. And then they do it year after year after year. And at some point it gets complicated and they want out, but, but they've got to, they've got to cash the check that they wrote that they've written for themselves. Episode five is truly special. Episode six, literally we've not yet recorded as, as we're discussing right now, Justin and I are doing a question and answer thing, which by the way, if anybody wants to binge it, move fast, send us an email. But one of the things that was there, there's a private text thread with the four of us, principal characters, Mike and Steve, now Banachek and producer Justin and the face of things, the storyteller, me and Mike Edwards hit us up saying, Hey, I was trying to look up Mark Schaefer, who was the guy, the younger guy who took over the Mac lab and he died four years ago. And in real time, I watched him process the very real probability that, that there's a limited amount of time to close the loop on this story. We're in one of those weird moments, much like serial or something where the mere act of telling the story as accurately as we can has somehow affected the story. It's, it's like Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

B: Yeah. I was thinking about that.

BB: And I don't know what will happen over the next week or two but I do know that in my entire life there are many things I'm proud of but there's only one that I feel like is totally unassailable. This is, forget me for tutting my own horn here. Somehow Justin and I were at the right place at the right time. The right access to the right people. And this feels to me to be the definitive telling of the project alpha story. And it's very different from any version I'd ever heard before.

B: I'm really looking forward to it. Because I know that what I know that the story as it's been told over the years, and even like the the Wikipedia page on it. And I'm really curious to hear some of the details that have just not been commonly known.

BB: I think the big takeaway is just, there's so much more, there's so much more, there's so much nuance because, most people don't know the story of the humans at the Mac lab who were trying to run these experiments. And most people, if they're young enough, don't remember what it was like when the idea of psychic assassins was a reasonable budgetary expense. As a matter of fact, most people don't know the men who stare at goats.

E: Yeah, John Ronson.

BB: Yeah, exactly. The very first scene in that takes place, I believe, four months after the big reveal of the psychic fraud that was Project Alpha.

E: That sounds about right.

BB: So somehow, as governments tend to do, they managed to get on board too late after it was already exposed. But I don't know, it's been a wild ride, guys. I don't know.

S: Well, yeah, I've been listening to a couple episodes already. I mean, they're very, very entertaining. I like the production value that you bring to it the music and everything. It's really a fun listen. I can't wait to finish the season.

BB: You know, what really strikes me is, ironically, the biggest surprise of this project was the fact that what I always heard as a simple narrative became very, very complicated. And now all I want to do is put that genie back in the bottle. All I want to do is go back to the simple narrative that I had heard my entire life leading up to this moment. But I will say, if you are fascinated by a strange world filled with Satan and goblins and wizards and Atlantis and psychic powers, where military psychic assassins were being trained, that's a real place in the 1970s. Some of us remember that. If in that world you want to see two kids punch way up their weight and try to follow in the footsteps of nothing short of a living legend in the form of James Randi attempting to do exactly what he does to Uri Geller on the Tonight Show. And if you want to see what it looks like for two undercover cops to get to close to the mob and realize these are human beings. This is the living currently emerging deep deep lore of project alpha what in my opinion may just be the worlds greatest con. I'm working on the gravelly voice.

B: Nothing like a good gravelly voice.

E: The movie trailer voice, I love it.

B: Yeah, right, right.

S: All right, Brian, thank you so much for joining us.

J: Thanks, Brian.

E: Great to hear from you, Brian.


Science or Fiction (1:34:55)[edit]

Item #1: Scientists find that wild chimpanzees are capable of combining calls into “compositional syntactic-like structure” with new meanings that derive from the meaning of the individual parts.[6]
Item #2: The latest dark energy survey finds that it comprises 76% of total energy density in the universe, and that it is uniform in space and constant in time.[7]
Item #3: A recent systematic review finds that telehealth can save on average 40% of the carbon footprint of outpatient patient care.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Telehealth's carbon footprint
Science Chimps combine calls
Dark energy survey
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Chimps combine calls
Telehealth's carbon footprint
Telehealth's carbon footprint
Telehealth's carbon footprint

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 I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Just three regular news items this week. You ready?

J & E: Ready.

S: Here we go. Item number 1: Scientists find that wild chimpanzees are capable of combining calls into “compositional syntactic-like structure” with new meanings that derive from the meaning of the individual parts. Item number 2: The latest dark energy survey finds that it comprises 76% of total energy density in the universe, and that it is uniform in space and constant in time. And item number 3: A recent systematic review finds that telehealth can save on average 40% of the carbon footprint of outpatient patient care. Jay, go first.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: This first one about chimpanzees who are capable of combining their calls into something called compositional syntactic-like structure.

S: Yeah, basically a sentence.

J: With new meanings that derive from the meaning of the individual parts. Wow, that's crazy. I mean, are you saying that they're communicating with words?

S: Yeah.

J: I don't even know what to think of that. That's crazy. Let me read the next one here. The latest dark energy survey finds that it comprises 76% of total energy density in the universe and that it is uniform in space and constant in time. Wow, that's more than I thought.

B: Can you expand on that?

S: I think it's pretty self-explanatory.

E: Dark energy expands.

S: Dark energy is uniform in space, right? So it's, what's that called, isotropic? And it's constant in time. It is what it is, everywhere, always.

J: What do you think about that, Bob?

S: You'll find out when Bob's turn comes up.

E: I tried that a week ago.

J: A recent systematic review finds that telehealth can save on average 40% of the carbon footprint of outpatient patient care. I think that one is definitely science. So between the chimpanzee and the dark energy, oh boy, I have to go with the chimpanzees. I don't think that they're talking on that level. So that's the fake.

S: Okay, Cara?

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah, I don't know enough about the dark energy thing. Maybe, sure. Sounds right. That number, it seems like the number that we usually hear. Am I wrong? Maybe it's supposed to be higher than that, like 90%. I don't know. I don't know enough to know that it fits uniform in space and constant in time. I thought we don't know enough about it to know things like that. Telehealth can save on average 40% of the carbon footprint of outpatient patient care. Okay, just I need some clarification on this. Are you saying that if like 100% of outpatient appointments went telehealth, we would save 40% on the carbon footprint? What do you mean by telehealth can save?

S: I guess that would scan, but it just means like if a patient that is seen by telehealth uses 40% less carbon footprint than a patient who goes to the clinic.

C: No, I think it's higher than that. What's the carbon footprint of a patient being seen by telehealth?

S: That's the question.

C: Yeah, I think that's the fiction. I think it's like 80% or 90%. They're not driving. They're not going there. They're at home, you know? Like I just don't, yeah, there's the overhead of the hospital, I suppose. But even still, I do telehealth from home. I don't even go in when I do telehealth. Thursdays are my telehealth days. So yes, I guess I'm using internet and lights. I would be using those things anyway. I don't know. I think it's higher than that. I'm going to go with that one as the fiction.

S: Okay, Evan?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Yeah, Cara makes a convincing argument for the telehealth one. 40% would sem low because you're at home, you're in front of your computer. Okay, computer is on where it's not when you're going but other than that what's the difference? Everything, right? So I can't see how it would only be 40%. The math doesn't seem to add up. The dark energy one I don't know enough about dark energy. Bob's going to fill us in on that one.

C: Yeah, Bob's going to go last on purpose.

E: And the chimpanzee one's fascinating, but I think I'll go with Cara here, telehealth fiction.

S: Okay, and Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: Yeah, the chimpanzee one, I could totally buy. You know, nothing too Shakespearean, but certainly more complicated than we perhaps thought. The telehealth one, yeah, I agree that that just, it sounds actually low. So I think I'm going to call that fiction. The dark energy one, at first I was like, whoa, wait a second. But when I think about it, 76% is close enough, uniform in space and constant in time. Yeah, I mean, I'm trying to remember details when I took deep dives on dark energy. And it's always been there. But I think when you get a certain amount, and I think they actually calculated back what, six or seven billion years ago, was it five, five or six billion years ago, that there was enough space. The density doesn't change, but you get a parcel of space that goes from a cubic light year to say five cubic light years. There's still the same density in that attenuated cubic light year, that cubic light year that is now a smaller, basically a smaller parcel of space that has expanded. It's still, the density is still there. So it's just like, it's just getting more and more and more. And that's what's causing this kind of anti-gravitational effect where it's pushing the universe to ever increasing acceleration. So yeah, so it's always been there, but I think the universe had to be big enough in order for it to really start making its presence known to us observationally. So yeah, so that one, I think is science. So yeah, I'll say the carbon one is 40% carbon is fiction.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right, so you all agree with the second one. So we'll start there. The latest dark energy survey finds that it comprises 76% of total energy density in the universe, and that it is uniform in space and constant in time. That would mean basically that you could define dark energy with a single constant, right? The cosmological constant.

C: That's, yeah, we like that.

S: That one is science. That is science.

C: That's awesome.

S: So this is the-

B: Are they saying we're certain now that it's a cosmological constant?

S: One more piece of evidence, the latest survey, adding to all the existing evidence. This was done using an X-ray telescope, the eROSITA X-ray telescope. This was done by-

B: So Rosetta?

S: eROSITA, not Rosetta. Rosita.

E: Rosita.

S: So this is done by scientists from the National Chang Kong University in Taiwan in collaboration with LMU astrophysicists. And they found that, yep, everything looks like it's consistent with previous sets of data where the dark energy is 76% of the mass energy of the universe, and it appears to be definable by a single constant, constant in space and time. Very cool.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All right, let's go to number three.

B: That's all you got with that? All right.

S: Yeah, got one. I'll give you the link Bob. A recent systematic review finds that telehealth can save on average 40% of the carbon footprint of outpatient patient care. Bob, Cara, and Evan think the number should be higher. Jay thinks this one is science. And this one is the fiction.

C: Yes! Is the number higher?

S: You are the queen of being right for the wrong reasons.

C: (laughs) Amazing!

E: Here's your crown, your majesty.

C: I love it.

S: If there is a number to be derived from this study, it's closer to 10%.

C: Oh, that's low. That's surprising. Why?

S: Because only- first of all, it's really variable.

C: Right, okay. That makes sense.

S: For example, are you going to a clinic in the city where it's literally five minutes down the road? Or are you driving an hour to get to the clinic?

C: Right.

S: So the differential is massive. But they said in this study, this is a systematic review, that on average, traveling to the clinic is usually only about 10%, like on average, of the carbon footprint of the visit.

C: Oh, okay. Interesting.

S: Yes, it's only 10%. That's the potential saving. But again, it depends on how far basically you're traveling to get to the clinic. But there's also other variables too, like, is the doctor traveling to the clinic or not? Like, are they doing telehealth from the clinic? Or are they doing it, as you said, from their home? What about the assistant who has to check the patient in? Because there's even a virtual- I have a virtual medical assistant who checks the patient in for me.

C: Well, la-dee-da.

E: Is it AI?

S: No, because they do the things that they do. They go over the medication list. And they do all that pre-stuff that before a medical visit. They don't do vitals, obviously, because they're not physically there. But it's mainly just troubleshooting their audio and video, to be honest with you. You know, and getting it to work. Also, like, everything with the visit, including the entire stream of medical care, is a lot of stuff. And one of the things that they said is that a lot of studies didn't really adequately assess all of that, all of the factors that go into delivering medical care. So that's why- the other reason why it was kind of variable. And a lot of the studies didn't really even give a hard number to estimate, just that it was lower.

C: Oh, okay.

S: Yeah, but didn't even really give a-

C: So you just made that number up?

S: I just made the number up, yeah.

C: Gotcha.

S: But the only- again, the closest thing they came up to a number was 10%. So I figured I'd just make it a lot higher to make it to fiction.

C: That's fascinating.

S: And the other thing is they may also be underestimating downstream benefits. Like, for example, in New Haven, Connecticut, if there's literally thousands of patients who are being seen on telehealth on a given day instead of in the clinic, that actually reduces the traffic into the city.

C: On the road, yeah, that's true.

S: And also the parking demands. And like, I'll just tell you, like, my commute times are lower even still than they were pre-pandemic. They have never gone back to what they were pre-pandemic, because there's just fewer people going into the clinic. Right? So, but it's hard. That's sort of a downstream effect that may be hard to capture. So the bottom line is really we don't know what the number is, but that it's certainly not- I think 40% is probably an overestimate.

C: Interesting.

S: Yeah. But even at 10%, that's still a massive amount of reduction in carbon footprint in terms of an absolute amount.

C: For sure.

S: So it's still extremely significant. And if just healthcare itself considers its overall carbon footprint, this is definitely one way to reduce it.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. Let's go back to number one. Scientists find that wild chimpanzees are capable of combining calls into compositional, syntactic-like structure with new meaning that derive from the meaning of the individual parts. This one is science. And this is very interesting. This is the first time this has really been observed in wild chimpanzees. Essentially, they have calls that have specific meanings. And what they documented them doing is combining calls each of the has its own meaning into a new sentence that has its own meaning. And it affects how the other chimpanzees react to the calls. And they do tend to have a greater reaction to these combined calls these compositional calls, which is really interesting. So they said that this could mean that the cognitive building blocks of syntax may not be unique to humans, that it may actually have its roots in our common ancestor with chimpanzees.

B: Yeah.

S: So we could actually go back further. And again, it makes sense. This is not, this is just sort of one notch in that direction of language, you know.

C: It's very cool.

B: Just more evidence that humans are not as special as you think.

S: Well, just chimpanzees are our closest relatives that to a certain degree everything that we are is very, has to have some kind of antecedent or roots in our common ancestor with chimpanzees. Language is really that one thing that stands out there. Like that's what humans have that other animals don't have. But it's not surprising that chimpanzees are one step or two steps along that road. And certainly using vocalizations to communicate is not new to humans. That's very common among primates, very common in other species as well, other groups of animals. So that's not new. But, yeah, just what we do is can combine meaning and have abstract meaning. And we could create sentences that have really subtle and complex meaning. That obviously is way beyond what any other species can do. But the elements, the building blocks were there. It's fascinating. All right. Well, good job, everyone.

J: Thank you. Except for me.

S: Except for Jay. Jay, again, was absolutely sure that one was true.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:48:50)[edit]

Those who ask questions find answers, those who combat falsehoods find the truth, and those who see inside themselves will know the path ahead.

 – Chamber Mural collectible in the Devastated Settlement area of Planet Koboh, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor video game

S: So, Evan, give us a quote.

E: I have something special for you tonight. I'm going to let you choose. I have two quotes lined up, and I'm going to let you choose which one you want.

S: Okay.

E: All right. I submitted the, what I would say, the quote that I prepared. But then there was another quote that came in from a listener in honor of May 4th. So you get to vote, the four of you, which one do you want, the May 4th quote-

B: Yes.

E: -or the regular quote?

J: May 4th.

E: That's two votes for May 4th.

S: Yeah, do the May 4th one, and then the other one do next week.

E: That's a good idea. This quote, the quote this week in honor of May 4th comes from listener Christopher. Thank you, Christopher. And here's what he says in his email. Here's a quote I found while playing Jedi Survivor that I think fits skepticism, and I happened to find it today. "Those who ask questions find answers. Those who combat falsehoods find the truth. And those who see inside themselves will know the path ahead." There you go.

S: Cool.

E: May the 4th be with you all.

C: Thanks.

S: Thanks, Evan. Yes, May the 4th be with you all. I wore my Star Wars tie today. I have a tie that has crossed lightsabers. But it's perfect. No, it's perfect because if you don't look closely enough, it looks like just a tie with some kind of abstract design on it. But if you look closely enough, you can see that it's crossed lightsabers. So far, only one patient has noticed and said something about it. I don't know if people have noticed and didn't say anything about it, but they were very appreciative of my Star Wars tie.

B: And you gave that patient the good drug.

S: Yeah, right. Give them the real medicine.

E: The big lollipop instead of the small one.

S: All right. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Sure man.

J: You got it.

C: Thanks.

E: Thanks, Steve.


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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

  • Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference[9]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description



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