SGU Episode 932
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|SGU Episode 932|
|May 20th 2023|
"Butterflies: a diverse and charismatic insect group, thought to have evolved with plants and dispersed throughout the world in response to key geological events." 
|S: Steven Novella|
B: Bob Novella
C: Cara Santa Maria
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
|Quote of the Week|
Much intelligence can be invested in ignorance when a need for illusion is deep.
Saul Bellow, American writer
Introduction, 2024 eclipse & other SGU events
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 Tuesday, May 16th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...
B: Hey, everybody!
S: Cara Santa Maria...
S: Jay Novella...
J: Hey guys.
S: ...and Evan Bernstein.
E: Good evening everyone.
S: So here we are. We're just 11 months away from the total solar eclipse that's happening in April 2024. And we finally were able to book our hotels.
E: So we have plans is what you're saying.
S: Yeah. So we are, the SGU will be congregating near Dallas, Texas for the solar eclipse.
E: A wise choice.
S: We even though that's the farthest way, farthest point in the States, basically away from where we are right now, at least the Connecticut boys. Because we want to maximize the probability that we're going to have good weather. I'm not sure I trust New England in the spring.
E: Buffalo, New York? No, I don't think so.
S: So we'll be in Dallas. We'll be there the whole weekend before. So this is Monday, April 8th. We'll be there on Saturday and Sunday, 6th and 7th before that. So we're planning on doing live events. We don't have any specific plans yet, but we will let you know as soon as we do. At the very least, we'll do like a private show plus kind of show. We'll see if we could arrange for an extravaganza as well.
E: Ooh, an eclipse themed extravaganza. Sounds pretty good to me.
S: Yeah. But we'll all be there. So if you're planning on going somewhere to see the eclipse, you can consider going to the area of Dallas, Texas and maybe joining the SGU to boot. So-
E: Get your hotel rooms. Get them now.
S: Evan, you've seen a total eclipse. How awesome is it?
E: I went to the 2017 eclipse. I was out in Oregon. It was, well, I call it the greatest show on earth because it is. I can't think of anything else that really compares to it. There's no other experience like it.
S: Really? You agree, Cara?
C: Yeah. I mean, it's like bizarre. Like earth becomes weird. Like, what is it like?
E: It is. It's like I'm standing on a different planet all of a sudden. What is this place? But oh my gosh, it's overwhelming. And it's emotional. If you feel that swelling, that sort of sense of like your emotions starting to get the better of you, I think that's normal.
C: Oh, I cried and I was like live. Like when I did it, I was with an astronaut, Terry Virts, and we were doing a full live stream for Nat Geo, this like massive thing with YouTube. And yeah, I cried like live on air. It was intense.
S: Like you did all the Clint.
E: I did.
S: No, I can't wait.
E: It was fantastic. And it's not, obviously there's going to be, I think it's about two and a half minutes, we will be in totality?
S: Well, it depends on where we go exactly. It could be three, it could be four minutes.
C: I think it's over four that we're planning on doing.
E: Oh, is it over four? Wow, that's great.
C: I've never seen anything like that. I think it was like a minute something when we were in Oregon.
E: We had about two minutes in Oregon, just under two minutes, I think. And that's great. Also, the buildup, the actual hour while the eclipse is occurring is also this wonderful buildup in which you watch the environment around you change as it moves into the shadow. It's this metamorphosis that takes place. It's getting you ramped up in a sense and getting that anticipation going. That was a big part of the experience for me as well, was that hour as it started before totality.
S: Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. We've got a lot of stuff planned between now and then too. A lot of live events we're going to be doing. Starting with when this episode is coming out, we will be recording the six-hour show on Saturday, May 20th. That's why we're recording early this week. We've got to get it done so we can be ready for the six-hour show.
E: So hopefully if you're listening to this now, you just got done watching us on the six-hour show and now you're enjoying today's episode.
S: If you are planning on joining us in Dallas, you could send us an email at theskepticsguide.org with Eclipse in the headline. And yeah, if you have any advice, if you have any suggestions in terms of what kind of events we could do or whatever other stuff to do while we're there, just let us know.
E: Can't wait.
Microsoft Signs Up For Fusion (4:26)
S: All right, Bob, well, we're going to get right into the show. We have a lot to talk about. You're going to start us off, Bob, by giving us an update on this fusion thing.
B: So yeah, this kind of dominated my news cycle the past week. In a first of its kind deal, Microsoft has entered into a binding agreement with Helion Energy to provide it with at least 50 megawatts of electricity from fusion by 2028 or it has to pay penalties if it doesn't.
S: That's crazy talk.
B: Pretty dramatic, kind of unexpected, shocked a lot of people. According to the press release, the plant is expected to be online by 2028 and will target power generation of 50 megawatts or greater after a one-year ramp-up period. Okay. Now this is generally part of a trend I've noticed, a lot of people have noticed that's been increasing lately where companies are distinguishing themselves from the large, very large, often multinational, government-based fusion projects that also can be seen as being stuck in molasses, just slow, slow-moving predictions decades in the future. These companies, these new companies are working on new technologies and their timelines for success are far rosier. Instead of the 2040s or 50s, they're saying 2030s, even 2020s. So let's take a look at this and see what we find. Helion founder and CEO David Kirtley told The Verge recently that "We've committed to be able to build a system and sell it commercially to Microsoft". And Brad Smith, president at Microsoft Corp., said in a news release regarding Helion's work said that it supports, "Helion's work supports our own long-term clean energy goals and will advance the market to establish a new efficient method of bringing more clean energy to the grid faster". So now if you're looking for quotes that are much more informative than that, I couldn't find them. This just seems like kind of like vague blather that makes me think, well, whatever, is that all you're going to tell us? As of right now, they have not released any financial or timing details about this power purchase agreement. So who knows what's in there? And you know, when we do find out, we might be like, ah, this isn't that much of a compelling deal in the first place. Who knows? Maybe they would just like how much would they have to pay and what exactly would they need to deliver by 2028? I don't know. All right. So what is Helion Energy? This is an American fusion research company. It's been that since 2013. It's the first private company to achieve 100 million degrees Celsius. It's 180 million degrees Fahrenheit. That's pretty dramatic. That's pretty high temperature. And it's the first private company to do that. Their funding has been pretty dramatic as well. I was kind of shocked. They've received a record 500 million USD so far. And check this out. If they reach certain milestones, they can get an additional $1.7 billion to commercialize fusion energy.
B: That's just unbelievable. $1.7 billion. Here you go. But they got to hit some milestones. Not sure exactly what those milestones are, but that's a huge chunk of change. Now their investors include co-founder of Facebook, Dustin Moskowitz. The tech investing group called Capricorn Investment Group. I've heard of those guys. And I know you've heard of this guy. The latest round of investment was led by none other than Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI. OpenAI, of course, is the AI company that's behind ChatGPT and Image Generator DALL-E. Apparently, Altman's fairly knowledgeable about physics as well as artificial intelligence. And he's been involved in Helion Energy not only as an investor, but as chairman since 2015. So, man, this guy. Wow. The technology that Helion's employing here to create fusion, it's fascinating. And I never took a deep dive into it until recently. So what they're employing here is called magneto-inertial fusion. It's a hybrid technology.
J: It's a hybrid.
B: It's cool. It uses magnetic forces like ITER's huge multinational Tokamak project in France. And it also uses inertial forces like the famous now Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achievement. They achieved ignition last December, if you remember, using 192 lasers to implode a pellet to start the fusion process.
E: Yeah. Steve brought us all back down to earth after that one.
J: I remember that.
E: That was awesome.
B: I did the talk on that and I kind of brought everyone down to earth is my memory. But whatever.
B: So the fusion reactor is shaped like a dumbbell. So get that shape in your mind.
E: What did you call me?
B: Yeah. So get over the obvious dumbbell jokes. Yeah, you'd have to be a dumbbell to invest in this technology. Blah, blah, blah. Stuff like that. Get out of your system. All right, done. So at either end of the dumbbell, they inject the fuel, helium-3 and deuterium, which is superheated into a plasma. Okay? So you got this plasma at each end of the dumbbell. Now magnetic field turns that plasma in on itself into a torus or a donut shape like used in the Tokamak reactor. But these are now called plasmoids. I'll say that again. Plasmoids. How awesome is that word? Plasmoids. I love plasmoids. They're awesome. So the next step uses Helion's own patented plasma accelerator, apparently. The magnets then pulse sequentially towards the center of the dumbbell, sending the two plasmoids or plasma donuts, if you will, crashing together, traveling at 1.6 million kilometers per hour. A million miles an hour. So these two plasmoids are traveling at 444 kilometers per second, which is also 278 miles per second. So yeah, do you get it? They're going stupid fast, amazingly fast. So they crash together and so you have a new ball of plasma that's even hotter and more energetic than before because they smash together at this ridiculous speed. You've got this in the center now, which is then being squished by a magnetic field, making it smaller and smaller, denser and denser, hotter and hotter, reaching 100 million degrees Celsius, far hotter than the 15 million degree core of our sun. Crazy hot. And that's the kind of range you would need to be in for a lot of reactors to overcome electrostatic propulsion and allow fusion to occur. So that's kind of like an important number. Now the real meat here though that was fascinating was their unique power harvesting technique. The plasma in the center is expanding. Fusion is happening. The plasma is expanding and that pushes back on the magnetic field that's being created by the machine. So imagine that this magnetic field is getting larger because the plasma is expanding and then it clamps down on it again and gets smaller and then larger again over and over. And this change in magnetic flux, per Faraday's law, induces current in the machine's coils and that current is fed back to the capacitors to get them ready for the next pulse. And there's also some other more subtle power harvesting techniques in here as well outside of that. I'm not sure how much that actually contributes to it, but everything that I just described here takes place in about a millisecond of real time. It's just like, bam, it happens super fast and they can do it again and again, over and over. This version of their prototype can do it once every 10 minutes. Future versions of the prototype should be able to do it once every second. That's what's their plan. Anyway, so the sixth generation prototype is called Trenta. This is the one, the device that they have now that has reached 100 million degrees Celsius and has also completed more than 10,000 high power pulses and has been run almost every day for 16 months. I mean, if you compare that to Lawrence Livermore's National Lab, they fired those 192 lasers. They could do that once in a while, once in a long while. Trenta is doing this once every 10 minutes that the National Laboratory could not do. I would predict never do it. It's just so much effort. It would take quite a while to be able to do anything like that. The seventh generation Polaris prototype, which they claim will be ready by 2024, is predicted to be able to produce excess electricity. It produces, it harvests the electricity not only to resupply the capacitors to do another jolt, but it's supposed to have extra that then you would feed into the grid, for example. That's what their demonstration model is supposed to do in 2024, just next year at this point. Will this tech, is this the tech that will ultimately make commercial fusion viable? Why are you asking me? There's way too many unknowns, Jay, at this point. All right.
J: Hey, look, Bob, I want it just as bad as you do, but I want to know if this is legit.
B: Yeah, and so do I, Jay. What I looked seemed very promising until I saw a video takedown by former fusion scientists. Couldn't find this guy's name, but it's Improbable Matter on YouTube. I've seen a couple of his videos so far. This guy seems to really know his shit. He's quite skeptical of Helion's claims and therefore I have to be now as well. This guy is the real deal. I got to take what he says extremely seriously, more seriously than, for example, what press releases are saying from companies that are looking for money. So, you got to really put it into perspective here. Some of the things he's saying is that the helium-3 deuterium as a fuel is highly problematic and it's because of the helium-3. The power output of such a reaction, he claims, is 1,000 times less than the more conventional fuel mixture, for example, of deuterium and tritium, like ITER uses that. But tritium is much more powerful, but it's also problematic. It produces lots of neutrons, which are nasty, for reasons I'll tell you in a little while. Therefore, he says that generating the desired energy gain at only 100 million degrees Celsius probably just wouldn't happen. There's not enough energy gain at 100 million and you'd have to go far, far hotter than that and that just makes things so much more difficult. You need far more robust engineering. You need shielding. So many things would happen if you need to go much higher than 100 million degrees. Improbable Matter also says that more neutrons would be released than Helion is claiming. My research showed me where their press releases were saying things that they said that it's aneutronic, meaning that it's like 5% neutrons would be created and you don't want neutrons. If Improbable Matter is correct and they're producing a lot of neutrons, that's bad. That's nasty. They're deadly to human DNA. They have the nasty side effect of doing stuff like making things radioactive all around you. Not good. The Trenton prototype does not have the shielding to block those neutrons. You need like three feet of really good—you got to put basically because neutrons are not charged, you can't control them with a magnetic field. It just needs to hit atoms and to hit atoms, you need to have a lot of them in the way of the neutron so they don't get out and screw things up. Trenton doesn't have that. Improbable Matter also claims that even the Helion's power harvesting idea is problematic. He said that when you accelerate charges like that, you emit photons from radio waves to X-rays and this is a process called [[w|bremsstrahlung}}, which means breaking radiation in German. He says that such energy losses are incredibly problematic for the plasma and I saw no hint of or mention of this radiation being created in any of the research that I did on Helion's process. So I know how do I take this? I think to really do an assessment, I need to look even deeper on what Improbable Matter is saying. Also take into account that his comments are from 2021. What is he saying in 2023? I'm also finding some people that are saying that he's missing some of the nuances of the research. Maybe he is. Maybe he was basing it on one video and not enough, but I'll just say that I'm very skeptical if a fusion scientist, even if it's two years ago, is saying that there are lots of problems in Helion's research, then I'm going to go with him for now until I maybe find other fusion scientists that have a more updated response. I don't know, but I'm skeptical at this point and not as excited as I was. It seems like a really interesting technology, but it seems like they may have a fundamental flaw from what I could tell, at least from what this guy is saying. I don't know. It's just frustrating that something looked promising and then it was kind of taken away from me anyway when I finally got into all the nitty gritty. So we'll see what happens. The proof is in the pudding, right?
E: Or the tasting of the pudding.
B: If you could do what you're saying, I want my chocolate fusion pudding with the hard, with that hard skin on top. I want that pudding. I want to eat it.
E: No neutrinos.
B: Yes, no neutrons. I want to eat that pudding and we may maybe we're just going to have to wait and see a couple of years before we could really see if this is good. But right now, that doesn't look that great.
E: But here's the point. It says here, deliver 50 megawatts of clean fusion power by 2028 or face financial penalties. If the criticisms are correct, that's not going to happen.
S: It's not going to happen.
B: It's not going to happen.
E: So they better write the check now, what the hell?
B: Yeah, even right now, it seemed way, I mean, even from what I read, it didn't make a lot of sense because if they're if they're coming up with the Polaris in 2024, that's going to just prove that they can create excess electricity. They won't be if this scientist is correct. And then their eighth generation prototype, which is supposed to be a commercial grade reactor, there's no way they're going to have that ready, especially after a year of warm up. They're figuring a year of warm up of a bootstrap, but a year to get ready. It doesn't seem like they would make the 2028. Especially if this guy's right. So, yeah, so my expectations are very low on this one. Some of the technology looks fascinating, but they may be missing some critical things about the fuel mixture not being powerful enough. And the neutrons could be very problematic that they're not really accounting for properly. So we'll see what happens.
S: They're going to have to build a massive containment facility. I think that a lot of the there's a couple of things with fusion that I think people get wrong. One is that they think that like scientific excess energy is somehow really close to engineering excess energy. But as we learned with the-
B: Lawrence Livermore.
S: -Lawrence Livermore, it was what was it? One percent, right? Yeah, you need to make 100 times more energy to get to engineering excess, which means scientific just means, yeah, if you just look at the chamber, you're making more energy than you're putting into the chamber. But engineering excess means you take into account all the energy of the entire process.
B: Yes, the real.
S: That's the only thing that matters. The whole operation from soup to nuts has to generate more energy than goes into it. Otherwise, you're not making energy. You're just moving it around. And here, Bob, here's a here's a thing that I think is a deal killer, which you didn't even mention. It's not even where are they getting the the H3 from the 3HE?
B: No, no, you're wrong, Steve. They have a patented process that that creates the helium-3 that they will do as in a separate facility that could then be the energy.
S: Yeah, but Bob, from what I understand, that separate facility is a nuclear reactor.
E: Oh, hey, there you go.
S: So, yeah, you're going to build a nuclear reactor to crank out the H3 to feed into your fusion reactor. That fusion reactor better make a lot more energy than that nuclear reactor is making to make your fuel.
B: Yeah, I mean, that to me, that that wasn't a deal breaker. Based on again, based on what I read of their of their their material, they have a patented process of creating helium-3.
S: But so what?
B: That that they would feed it. So that wasn't if they say they could make it.
S: But Bob, that's not the point. The point is, how much energy is it going to take to make it?
B: Yeah, I don't know.
S: And how much are they going to be able to make? Again, from what I'm writing, reading is they need to build a frigging nuclear reactor to make the enough H3 to feed.
C: And then we might as well just use the energy from that.
C: To do so.
S: It's got to be significantly more energy than what that nuclear reactor is producing.
B: This whole this whole fuel question is even problematic for other projects like even like ITER. They use tritium and tritium is very powerful. And that's what the scientist was saying is so much better than helium-3. But tritium, there's like 20 kilograms of tritium on the entire planet. Yeah, but you wait a second.
S: But there with tritium, though, you could breed it. You the neutrons that you're capturing, if it's if you surround it with lithium or beryllium, it could actually produce tritium. Now, the question is, how is it going to make enough tritium to feed back into the process?
B: Exactly. And that's that's an unproven process, I think. And that's potentially a huge deal breaker.
S: There's so many unproven steps along this whole way.
S: Yeah, I mean, the idea that they're going to be adding energy, adding net energy to the grid by 2028. No way.
B: Yeah, yeah.
E: That's why Microsoft took the bet probably.
S: Let me go on record as saying no way that's going to happen. Listen, I hope it does. I hope I'm wrong. Yeah, I hope I'm 100% wrong.
B: I was going to mention I was going to talk about Helion. I do like how their focus is on commercial and industrial viability, which I liked. They anticipated one penny per kilowatt hour, which is pretty damn good. But based on this other stuff, I don't know if they'll ever get there. But I do like their focus. Whereas you look at Lawrence Livermore, where they've got the inertial confinement, 192 lasers that they could fire like once in a while. There's no way they're going to scale that up. That's just not really going to happen.
S: You know what I'm reminded of, Bob? I'm reminded of Back to School. Oh, you left out a bunch of stuff.
B: Right? Exactly.
E: What about the Teamsters?
B: Steve, even ITER has got huge problems in terms of expense of the tritium and the damage from the neutrons and maintenance and all that stuff. It's just like it just seems like, oh, man. I think, and like I said, I was going to end my talk originally, I was going to say something like, imagine we have fusion technology in the near future. It's been created. We have fusion technology. It's viable. They made it work. But we never see commercial reactors ever because they just can't compete with renewables. They can't compete with the cheap renewables. And we never see it. We see them maybe in specialty. Maybe we'll see them in rockets, which would be fantastic.
S: Or we'll see them on the moon. Right?
B: We see them on the moon. Right.
S: But they're not great. And there's a lot of H3, apparently.
B: Right. And so we may never really see these reactors on the earth because it's just like, ah, sorry, too expensive.
S: I mean, continue to develop the technology. I agree there'll be niches for it, I think, in outer space.
B: Rockets. Yes.
S: Rockets and settlements.
B: It's the only reason you need.
S: But it's got to get really good, though. I still think it's 20, 30 years, and that's optimistic, in my opinion.
B: Yeah. I mean, we'll see fission rockets in the next decade, I think, almost for sure, especially since the government's really super interested to compete with China. That's the kind of motivation you need, apparently, to get this stuff made. But yeah, the fusion stuff will, as much as we predicted that that is the future, a critical, major type of propulsion in the future, it's more distant future than close future. It's going to take a couple of generations, really, to really start getting kick-ass.
B: We'll see.
S: All right.
Robot Helpers (24:47)
S: All right, Jay, we're going to move from fusion to robots. Tell us about these robot helpers. Is this real?
J: You can believe my news item. (laughter)
S: All right.
E: It's not based on fairy dust and lepricons.
B: Yeah, right.
J: So the engineers at the University of Waterloo. Where is Waterloo?
J: Thank you.
J: There's got to be more than one Waterloo.
E: Oh, yes.
S: So this is probably talking about the one in Canada.
J: I think it is Canada. OK, so in Waterloo, Canada, they focused on addressing this common struggle faced by people with dementia. So those who suffer from dementia typically have to deal with memory loss, right? That's what the biggest problem of it is. And this leads to frequently misplacing essential items, like things like medication, right, which is a horrible thing to misplace. By developing a companion robot with something called episodic memory, their goal was to create a solution that could increase the independence and quality of life for people with dementia. So what is episodic memory? Steve could answer this better, but I can give you a functioning definition. So in people, right, so in human beings, an episodic memory is a type of long-term memory that involves conscious recollection or previous experiences together with their context. So this means like in terms of time, place, associated emotions, et cetera, right? So a perfect example of that would be you don't remember a specific thing, like I know exactly where my keys are. You remember, oh, yeah, I came home from work and I put them, I threw them on the kitchen table. That would be more of like an episodic memory. And there's different kinds of memory, which is really cool. I talked, I had a whole discussion with Steve about it before, which is interesting.
C: Episodic is like your memory for like stuff that happens as opposed to semantic. Which is like your memory for like information and like language-oriented things.
J: So the researchers utilized a fetch mobile manipulator robot, right? This was, this is a pre-existing robot that's used for other industry. Now this robot is of course equipped with a camera so it can see its surroundings. And you might have, you might've seen these before. Like I said, like there's one in my supermarket. These also can be, they can do things like pick and pack items in a warehouse. They're not humanoid looking. They have like a weighted base on them and they have like a different versions of it, but there's typically like a functioning type of arm that can grab things. If it's doing warehouse type of work. So they're very useful and they're all over the place. So they program the robot with an artificial intelligence object detection algorithm. There's AI again. Now this enables it to identify, track, and maintain a memory log of specific objects within its field of view. So through its stored video, the robot can distinguish between different objects and record the time and date when those objects enter or leave its visual range. And this is why they said it has episodic memory. So I think this is a great idea. So like I was saying, human memories are often not just like a discrete piece of data. Our episodic memory is things in context. So you got to keep in mind, this is important fact in this, in this news item, because contextual memory doesn't exist with machines. They're coming up with this for the first time. This is a novel concept on how to store data and how to be able to give this "robot", the ability to understand the environment that it's in, in a completely different way that we haven't given a robot the ability to do this yet. So let me give you like a quick example of what it would be like again, this is a very humanized version of it, but let me give you an example of what it would be like for the robot. So the robot would be able to see that the patient left the room at 3.30 PM out the front door. And then the keys were in view at that time on the kitchen table. And at some point after 5 PM, the keys were no longer there. That would be the way that the robot would look at the events in the room and be able to remember them. So then you would go back to the robot and you'd say, where are the keys? And then it would be able to give you like a blow by blow of what it saw around the keys. And when was the last time it saw the keys, right? Does that make sense to you guys? All right. So to make this robot easy to use, which you would think how the hell are people going to use this thing? The team created a graphical interface that allows users to, to select objects that they want to keep track of, and they want the robot to keep track of. So users can then input the names of the objects they're searching for using a smartphone app or on a PC. And the robot can use its artificial memory to figure out when and where it last saw the requested items, as it assists the user to find it. So far, the system has shown to be highly accurate during testing, which is fantastic. And the researchers now are trying to make the interface as accessible to users as possible. And they want it to be really easy for people to use, especially people with dementia, because they can find technology challenging to work with. So of course, they're optimizing it to make it as easy to use. It's very easy, though, for a caregiver to operate it, which might be the case going forward with people that have dementia wouldn't be using it directly. They would just have their caregiver hey, I need help. I can't find this thing. And the caregiver would go over to the robot and use the app and tell it what you're looking for, and it might be able to help you find it. So moving forward, the researchers plan to conduct user studies that involve people without disabilities. I think this is a good idea. And then they will progress on to trials with people who have legitimately been diagnosed with dementia. Now, these studies will help refine the technology, get it ready for people who have dementia, and also ensure that it's effective for various different groups of people, because they they are obviously not only going to use this for people that have dementia. Overall, the development of this technology definitely holds promise for improving the daily lives of individuals with dementia. But we'll see what happens. Again, I'm not as skeptical as Bob is about his news item. This does sound like it's it's working now and it's doable. But I really do think having this non-human-like robot in the room if you're going to interact with it directly, I think that they need to humanize it a little bit. But if it's just going to be something that's parked in the room or just kind of moving around the space and looking at different areas in the space, I guess it's okay that it doesn't look humanoid at all. You don't want people going up to it and talking to it, I guess, is the big thing.
S: Why not?
J: Because it doesn't do that. It just looks. It's just an observer.
C: Well, I mean, there's a fair amount of research on the way that people interact with robots. And like what you don't want is them to be so humanoid ever that they're like creepy, uncanny valley. Like, regardless of their role, you don't want to go. But there's no point for a robot like this. But something literally as easy as like putting eyes on something that doesn't even look like an animal or a person.
J: You mean googly eyes?
E: That's a big step towards it. Yeah.
C: Yeah. Literally eyes. Just adding eyes or like sticking an iPad on it and giving it a cartoon face. Really, they've done this and it makes it so much easier to interact with these things. So it's not that hard.
S: Yeah, I agree. And even if it's not a robot, even if it's just literally an iPad in your kitchen or something that is tracking everything and then can answer your questions and say, oh, yes, your keys are on the table or whatever.
J: Well, Steve, I think that they want the robot to be able to move around the space.
S: That would be added functionality. But yeah, people who can't afford the robot, even having just the software and cameras may be very helpful.
C: But like we've seen that before. It's just like a stick on wheels with an iPad on the top that has like a cartoon face on it. And then you can engage with it. That's not new.
J: But if you're going to do that, then why not make it sound like R2-D2 as well?
C: They could do.
J: You know what I mean?
C: You could probably pick its voice.
E: Oh, program it to, yeah. Make it sound however you want.
C: If it's a person with dementia, program it to have a recognizable voice to them that they respond positively to.
J: I agree.
C: And then that can be really helpful.
S: I think this kind of technology is going to be increasingly useful. I mean, we're entering a phase where we're starting to get the first really disease modifying treatments for Alzheimer's. And it's perfectly plausible that within a couple of years, within five years, 10 years, we'll have one or more treatments that demonstrably slow down the progress of Alzheimer's significantly. So we could have a lot of people in the early stages of dementia for a long time because they're getting treated. They're not progressing quickly to the advanced stages. And the early stages is when this kind of technology helps the most. It's like GPS in the car. What does it do for the person with just at the beginning, the mild dementia? It keeps them independent longer. You could drive longer if you know you could always hit home and that GPS will tell you how to go home. You could be independent longer, if you don't need somebody with you 24 seven.
C: And you don't even need to be fully independent. Like it'll keep you out of-
S: Keep you out of a nursing home.
C: Yeah. Out of care.
S: And here's the thing. Anything that keeps you out of the nursing home is massively cost effective. Insurance would rather pay a thousand dollars or five thousand dollars for something to keep you out of a nursing home, which is just massively expensive. So these, even though you might think, oh, this is expensive technology, it's actually cost effective.
J: Yeah. That's great. That's actually that's good news, I think.
S: Yeah, totally. No, I think this is a great area of research and these kind of apps whether they're robotic or just AI or some combination of the two will be massively helpful to people with mild, even mild to moderate dementia.
J: So Steve, would you say then that my news item was better than Bob's?
S: In terms of utility and feasibility? Absolutely.
B: But only those terms.
DNA Everywhere (34:34)
- You shed DNA everywhere you go – trace samples in the water, sand and air are enough to identify who you are, raising ethical questions about privacy
S: All right, Cara, I understand that DNA is everywhere.
C: Everywhere. And we've talked about this quite a bit on the show before. You guys know about eDNA, environmental DNA, right? We've talked about how it can be just incredibly useful for ecologists and different wildlife researchers to, for example, let's say track sensitive or endangered species, that it would be much too invasive or honestly just too difficult to capture and tag. Basically, you can go where they have once gone before, scoop up some sand, scoop up the matter underneath a footprint and sequence it in the field now. We have these like rapid sequencers that are very, very small, that are very compact. Field kind of genetic genomic research is getting to be more and more precise and accurate. So that's not really the story here. The story isn't so much about the fact that eDNA is awesome and that researchers have now been utilizing eDNA for several years for their work. The story here comes from an article that was recently published in Nature, Ecology and Evolution, published online yesterday as of this recording, a write around for it in the conversation. You guys know I love the conversation. I'm always recommending people read articles in the conversation because they're often written by the actual researchers who did the work.
C: And so this story, is called, I'll read you the title of the publication in Nature, Ecology and Evolution. "Inadvertent human genomic bycatch and intentional capture raise beneficial applications and ethical concerns with environmental DNA." Okay, so we know that eDNA is rich and we know that we can track specific organisms using eDNA. So what happens when you try to start sequencing out all of the different organisms that are in eDNA, all of the different components of that eDNA, all of the different contributors to it, what do you think you're going to find? Because we're literally everywhere. People.
E: Yeah, humans.
C: You're going to find human DNA in like all of these samples and these researchers demonstrated that. So they collected samples from all over the place and only in the most remote places were they human-free. So like, for example, they followed a river from the top of a mountain all the way down to a not large, but like relatively populated city. And they found all the way along it that there were human samples of DNA except right at the top in the most remote part of the mountain. And they did this a few different times.
B: More human DNA than plastic?
C: That's another study. But of course, what does this, what kinds of concerns come from this? Well, let's say that I'm going to do a study where I'm sampling, I don't know, turtles. That's what these researchers were looking at. They were looking at turtles and how these turtles, these endangered turtles were like moving across the sand and they could collect the sand that they would scamper across in their path and they could learn things about these turtles. And it was really important for their research. But then they were like, holy crap, there's people, there's DNA of people in these turtle samples. What does that mean when you have something that they're calling human bycatch or human genetic bycatch?
S: It means you can track people wherever they go.
C: Right? It means that you can start to learn things about these people. And they proved within this study that they could figure out like important things, medical, forensic things about the individual people. They could look at their inheritance. They could look at certain genes that were there. The sequencing technology that we kind of think we know from watching Law and Order SVU is not what we're working with anymore. And I think that we forget because there was this long period where DNA evidence was like sluggish and there were bottlenecks to it. And so we thought for a long time, like, that's what it is. Okay, you've got to have enough of the sample. And so long as you have enough of the sample, then you have to purify the sample. And then you're going to use PCR to like make more and more and more of the sample. And then maybe the sample is going to be good enough for us to say things forensically about the subject. But it's getting to the point now where even in very messy samples, they're finding a lot more data than let's say they feel comfortable with. So in the study, they point to two different things to consider, right? Potential problematic implications of what they're calling the capture of human genomic eDNA data, and then also potential beneficial applications of human eDNA capture. Okay, so what, like, maybe we can put our heads together. What are some of the not great things that we can think of about the fact that these individual samples are going to have people in them?
E: Well, assuming there's a database where you could say, hey, I collected this, let's throw it through the database and see if John, oh, it's John Smith.
C: Right. So, so depositing that data into some sort of database, right, that can then be accessed later. They do mention that. Here's a big one that a lot of people, I didn't really think about, but then I read it and I was like, duh. There's no human subject consent when you do this kind of research, right? Like, there's no, your IRB is not talking about people being involved at all. And so it's much easier to get consent. But the minute that you start talking about the fact that individual people's privacy might be breached, because we're actively sequencing their DNA, that becomes problematic. And it's just much harder to get ethical approval when people are in a study as opposed to wildlife.
S: Unless they're anonymized.
C: Yeah. And that's, I mean, even if they are anonymized, you still have to get human subjects approval. And you have to do training for that. Like most of these ecologists has probably never done the NIH human trainings. It's not hard to do, but human subjects training for how to work with human data. Maybe you're tracking people's locations. Maybe you're actually able to harvest their genome to learn about ethnic groups without their knowledge or consent and utilize that. Maybe commercial purposes, maybe even malicious purposes, genomic surveillance.
S: Criminal investigation.
C: Criminal investigations, biopiracy, they even talk about. Like a lot of concerns there. But there are some benefits, right? Novel human genetic variation. We can learn about things that we didn't know about because our samples just haven't been big enough. A huge one has to do with like obviously non-invasive monitoring of like pathogens in the community. Transmission studies, just basically public health monitoring, looking at chronic diseases, how they move through a population, how they move through, let's say, the water supply, the wastewater supply, the air. And that's the other thing that I didn't mention at the beginning. Part of their study is with the consent of all of the people in the lab, they sampled the air of the lab and they got way more information than they wanted to of who was in the lab just from breathing. Like we're leaving DNA behind everywhere we go.
E: Is it dander? What's going on in the air that we're leaving behind?
C: There's spit.
S: The spittle actually hangs around in the air that long, huh?
C: I mean, you can sample it immediately. I didn't actually look into what the specifics of how those samples are, but DNA is in the air around your body.
J: At all times?
C: Around your body at all times.
E: You're always shedding.
C: If somebody were to follow you around and capture your breath, yes, they could pull eDNA from that.
J: And plus, we also have distinct bacteria clouds around us.
C: We do, but they weren't looking specifically at sequencing your bacteria. They're looking at your DNA. But yeah, so a filter kept in the room was sampled. So yeah, it's probably a lot of things contribute there. Probably there's dander. Probably there is some spit that's collected in that. We're shedding way more DNA than we think all the time because we're shedding parts of ourselves into the environment all the time.
E: So if that's the human condition, to what extent can we expect a right to the privacy of that?
C: Right. And that's really, obviously, these are researchers. These are ecologists who are writing this paper, not policy wonks. But they did want to point out that there is some really, like from a forensics perspective, for example, this is both a boon and a concern, right? Like especially air eDNA. Like maybe we can actually find things that we never found before at crime scenes because we don't, we're not just looking for, let's say, blood or semen or saliva on like cigarette butts or empty cans. But maybe we can figure out who was where and when. It can maybe help in recovery of missing people. It could maybe help locate, like they said, important archaeological sites or help build, as they put it, a roadmap for future wildlife eDNA studies. So looking at the kind of the interplay between people and wildlife. So there are good things and scary things that come out of this. But it's important that we know it's happening. And it's important that we understand, basically, that I think the big takeaway is, unless we understand that the science is there, we're not going to get out in front of it from an ethical perspective. We need to regulate. We need to have ethics boards talking about these things and having best practices in place so it's not the Wild West.
S: Yeah, I agree. Although just one more piece of information. I'm not saying we should just give up on this. But privacy is increasingly an illusion. And we've all been saying that.
C: For sure. And I think the question is, it's not an all or nothing about privacy, right? Like, of course, people can figure. I mean, that's like, is it possible is very different from is it legal? And I think that's where we have to have regulation. What is, let's say, what can we utilize in a court without a court order, for example? When do you need prior permission to collect things? If we do things by the book, we can at least attempt to have mutual respect for like our fellow travelers on this planet. And that's not to say it's perfect, but we don't want to go completely to the other side of this and it be anarchy. But the problem is, until we admit that these things exist, it is anarchy.
E: Right. It's the first step.
S: Yeah. It's like a lot of things, regulation is struggling to keep up with technology. But I think you've got to do it. You have no choice.
S: All right. Thanks, Cara.
The Evolution of Butterflies (44:44)
- A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins
S: So I'm going to do a quick item. This one's about the evolution of butterflies.
S: Yeah, aww. So there's very few so-called charismatic insects. What would you guys consider?
C: Speak for yourself.
B: Ladybug. Ladybug.
S: Yeah. So I agree with you, Cara. I love all insects. But in terms of like the gen pop there's very few insects that most people find cute.
S: So mantises are cool looking, but they're very-
C: Mantises are very charismatic.
C: But you didn't say cute at first. You said charismatic.
S: You're right.
C: I feel like they're the most charismatic.
S: I would say cute is ladybug, dragonflies, and butterflies. Yeah. So those are the three that most people will say. Ladybugs, butterflies, and dragonflies for some reason people think they're fine. They're not creepy. They're OK with them. But there's other cute insects, too. The jewel beetle is very pretty. More pretty than cute. But yeah. This pink meadow grasshopper. Have you guys ever seen that? It's this pink grasshopper.
C: Oh, I hate grasshoppers. I hate them. I hate them. Grasshoppers and crickets can you go die.
S: That's why they're not universally—
S: And then one that I think most people would— They're not really cute, but people tolerate them, and that's fireflies.
C: I love fireflies. But when's the last time you guys saw a firefly?
E: Last summer.
S: Yeah, last summer.
E: They were in my backyard all summer.
C: I'm so jealous. I haven't seen them in years.
E: Oh, no.
B: Yeah, I don't see them like when I was a kid, man.
C: They were everywhere when we were kids.
E: We have them here in our yard.
C: That's really cool.
E: Usually the hottest months, they seem to be more prevalent. July, August.
S: But let's get back to the butterfly, which most people agree is the prettiest insect. They're definitely considered—they're kind of this iconic, pretty insect species.
E: The swans of the insect world.
S: Yeah. So a recent study that—I really love these exhaustive study involving many, many people basically looked at the DNA of tons of different butterflies. They sequenced 391 genes from 2,300 butterfly species. There are almost 20,000 in the world, so that's like a tenth, more than a tenth. Sampled from 90 countries, from 28 specimen collections in order to do what? What do you think they were doing with all that information? They were constructing a phylogenomic tree of butterflies. So basically, the evolutionary history, the evolutionary tree of butterflies. They were able to represent 92% of all butterfly genera. So that's a lot of the groups of butterflies. And they found out that—they confirmed what was suspected, but they nailed down the date of when the group, the phylogenetic group of butterflies emerged evolutionarily. That was about 100 million years ago. They evolved from moths, so moths occurred first. And basically, butterflies are a diurnal version of moths. Moths tend to be nocturnal. Butterflies started to venture out into the day, and they specifically were taking advantage of nectar, of flowering plants. Because you think of bees and flowers sort of co-evolving, but butterflies piggybacked on that and started eating that nectar as well. So the other big thing, and this is really the primary goal of this research, not only was to construct a really thorough phylogenetic tree of butterflies, but also to figure out where they came from. Where do you think they originated? What part of the world did butterflies emerge?
C: All of them?
C: Southeast Asia?
S: North America.
C: Oh, interesting.
B: I knew it.
C: All the cool ones are in South Asia.
E: You just didn't say it.
S: That's now. It was 100 million years ago, North America. Most butterfly species eat one, their larvae eat one plant. They're very specific to one specific plant. They're dependent on it. There are a few that can they could lay their eggs, and their larvae can eat more than one plant. But most of them, it's like two or three closely related plants. They're very specific to the plants that their larvae feed on. We know that in Connecticut, in North America, probably the prettiest butterfly that we have is the monarch butterfly.
S: Milkweed, and one specific species of milkweed. If you want to plant milkweed to help out the monarch butterflies, you got to know which kind to put in. You can't just put in any milkweed. Some people were putting in the wrong kind of milkweed, because that was the one that was available at the nursery. But it's like, nope, if you want the butterfly one, you got to know which one to get. Yeah, so they emerged from North America about 100 million years ago, and they spread around the world through the Bering Strait during the maximum temperature when, like the land bridge was open. Yeah, when it was really warm. And then once, yeah, then they, now that they've spread around the world, they do favor tropical and subtropical climates, right? So that's why, Cara, you know of them. Like, there's so many in subtropics and the tropics. But that was only after they spread. They originated in North America. So yeah, very cool. Learned a bunch of things about butterflies. But this kind of research is now possible because we can sequence genes from so many different specimens that we could ask much more detailed questions and build these elaborate maps of evolutionary relationships of almost 20,000 species of butterfly. Cool.
CO2 and Lab Grown Meat (50:14)
S: All right, Evan, give us an update on lab-grown meat.
E: Lab-grown meat, yes. Artificial meat is also known as, some people call it clean meat.
S: Sounds like a marketing term.
E: Yeah. I think technically it's animal cell-based meat, ACBM. I see that a lot.
S: I guess they don't want to call it green meat because...
E: Yeah, because that...
J: Yeah, it doesn't work well.
C: Clean meat. As opposed to animal cell-based meat, which sounds disgusting. It's like, I don't know, sorry to interject, but you guys know what Chilean sea bass is actually called? Because that's not a real fish.
S: Yeah, I know.
C: It's called the Patagonian toothfish.
J: A toothfish.
C: Nobody wants to eat a toothfish. They just renamed it.
S: Yeah, you don't want tooth in the name of your food. I agree with that.
E: Right? The fish eats you at that point. And cultured meat. You might see cultured meat as well.
S: That's sophisticated meat, like the pheromonical? I say.
E: It knows the correct wine to order for itself.
S: Yeah. All right. Yes. But lab-grown meat, animal muscle cells produced through tissue culture in a controlled factory or laboratory environment in contrast to traditional whole animal livestock systems. So there's your brief definition of that. Now, I went to a website. Actually, I looked up online. I said, what are the benefits of lab-grown meat? And the first place it brought me was this website called believermeats.com. They updated their website in March of 2023. And they say, why do we need cultivated meat? It's a crucial solution for our global food system and the planet at large. Five main points. Better for animals, meaning no harm. It frees up land because they say that 70% of arable land is required for livestock feed. That's a lot. Less water usage, 82% to 96% less water usage. Whereas right now for beef, it's 15,415 liters per kilogram of beef. So that's a lot of water. Accessibility to food. Potentially reduce world hunger. And finally, demand. Demand is increasing for meat. So those are the points that they make.
S: But just to clarify one thing, that 70% figure, that's only if you include pastures, right?
S: Most pastures you can't use to grow crops. So it's deceptive if you say you make it sound like 70% of our crops are going to animals now.
E: I'm just reading you what was on page one of Believer Meats.
S: I hear you and I just clarified for you.
E: No, I appreciate that.
S: That's very deceptive if you just put it that way.
C: Well, he did say arable. But what's the distinction?
S: That includes pastures. We had this conversation, too, what counts as arable? And that's not a black or white thing. It's a spectrum. And not to minimize it. A lot of our cropland is being used to grow food for animals. Absolutely. Just not 70%. A lot of animals can be fed non-human food, non-human consumable food. They could be fed like the husks and stuff. And they also could be grazed on land that cannot be used for growing crops. So it's a more complicated analysis. You can't just throw out that figure. We've talked about this before. So I don't want to go into the whole thing. I just wanted to point that out.
E: That makes sense. And I appreciate that clarification, Steve. It is a good point. Generally, it breaks down to two things, amount of food for people and what's good, and the environment. I mean, that's really what basically they're saying. The points they're making about land and water usage are probably the ones most closely related to this week's news item, which is a study by researchers at the University of California who found that the process of producing cultivated beef emits carbon dioxide at levels at least four times higher than traditional beef. And it could be as much as 25 times higher, 25 times more carbon dioxide in the entire process. I first read about this over at New Scientist magazine online and other places have since picked it up. The researchers estimated that each kilogram of ACBM produces between 246 kilograms and 1,508 kilograms of carbon dioxide. There's your four to 25 times greater than the median global warming potential of regular beef produced from livestock. The study found that because, the reason why, the liquid used to grow the product contains salts, amino acids, and vitamins that all require energy intensive techniques and comes with much higher environmental costs. They say that animal cell culture is traditionally done with growth medium components that have been refined to remove and reduce endotoxins. And the method of endotoxin reduction or elimination is highly dependent upon the properties of the substance being purified. The use of the refinement methods contributes significantly to the economic and environmental costs associated with pharmaceutical products since they are both energy and resource intensive. That's directly from the author's paper. Yeah, so carbon dioxide emitted for the different stages of the lab-grown meat. And that's where this is all coming in. Steve, you talked about in the earlier news item, you have to consider what, the engineering?
S: Yeah, I mean with anything like this, you need to do a life cycle analysis of money, of energy, of carbon dioxide, of raw materials, and then you get a good idea of what's going on. And if you look at any small slice of the process, it could look artificially good when it really isn't.
E: And that's what they pointed to. They said that the proponents of ACBM have hailed it as an environmental solution that addresses many of the environmental impacts associated with traditional meat production. But their examination of what they're describing as a highly engineered system, it's resource intensive when examined from the cradle to production gate perspective for the scenarios and assumptions that they utilized in their analysis.
C: Okay, so it might be intensive, but how intensive is it compared to factory farming?
E: In terms of carbon dioxide?
C: In terms of all of these concerns. So they're only focusing on carbon dioxide.
E: That's what they focused on.
C: I just find it interesting because is that really, I'm curious, honestly, is that really the main argument for why we should be having our meat lab grown? Or is the argument a humane argument?
E: There are different arguments there to be had. Again, at that first website I mentioned, the first thing that they mentioned was it was better for animals, no harm meat.
C: Right. We don't have to slaughter millions of animals in order to eat our meat.
E: Right, right. There's definitely that component of it, but that's really not what they were looking at specifically. This is not the first study to suggest that there's a massive environmental impact on artificial meat. I found another study referenced from 2019 called the Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle. And they're basically saying that you not only have to take into consideration the carbon dioxide, but it's also the methane and nitrous oxide. And you have to really look at all of these metrics.
C: But I don't know why I still really have an issue with it's not apples to apples, it's apples to oranges. It's basically saying, OK, researchers are trying to develop a new way to approach this. And look, the way that they're doing it is bad for the environment. It's like, yeah, because they haven't scaled it yet and they haven't even figured out how they're going to scale it. So these are all projections.
S: Yeah, I agree.
C: This is modeling. Like, we could just do it better when we build the system.
E: Yeah. And I did find some other articles and studies that suggest that. It has to do with a study published this past January by a company called CE Delft. That's a consulting company based in the Netherlands. They conclude that lab grown meat could have a lower carbon footprint than beef if technology improves the production process.
C: Right. And there is no production process right now. That's the thing that's so annoying. They're looking at proof of concept. That's always more intensive. Like, the way you have to do something in a lab is bananas. It's so rigged. Everything is really rigged because you're not trying to produce for profit.
J: Yeah, it makes total sense what you're saying, Cara.
S: I think it's good to know we're restarting so we know what problems need to be solved.
C: I agree. I think if that's the point of this, is like, look what could happen. Let's not keep making the same mistakes over and over on this planet. As opposed to, neener, neener, this is a bad idea. It's not even any better. Let's not do it.
E: They mention the endotoxins quite a bit, which is what? Bacteria growth in the process and being able to minimize or reduce it or remove it. So what I couldn't get a good sense for is how much that is inherent in the system. In other words, if you're going to scale it up, does that just make the bacteria problem that much of a bigger problem?
S: Yeah, I mean, scaling up makes some things easier and some things harder. Often, that's where the rubber meets the road. That's where we find out if a technology is going to work when you try to scale it up. Anticipating potential problems is really helpful and necessary. But sometimes it just means that a technology needs to marinate a little bit longer. It might need to be on the fringes until we really get the technology working efficiently. It's easy to, you're right, Cara, it's easy to poo-poo a new technology because it hasn't figured everything out yet. We could think back 15 years, 20 years to wind and solar, where critics of wind and solar say, oh, it's too expensive. It's too little. It's too inefficient, blah, blah, blah. It's like, yeah, just give it time. And now it is the cheapest form of new energy that we can add to the grid is wind and solar. And it's just still getting better. It just needs time to really come into its own.
C: And I think just specifically speaking, Evan, to the endotoxin concern, like anytime you're utilizing living tissue in a laboratory setting, there's an infection concern, right? We eat meat from animals who have immune systems, and then we slaughter it and package it as quickly as possible to mitigate infection. And so the animals—
E: And we're feeding them antibiotics.
C: We are, but usually that's more for growth. But you're right. We also do sometimes feed them antibiotics, which you can feed cultures antibiotics. It happens all the time in labs. So it's like—
E: So yeah, I guess that's my point is that it sounds like it's a necessary part of the process.
C: Well, yeah, of course, you need to worry about infection control. But to be fair, you have to do that in any stream of food production.
S: Yeah, it's not a new problem to that.
C: Yeah, that's the thing that's annoying is when I feel like you learn about these things, they're like, oh, and also this thing. And it's like, yeah, all food production has to deal with that problem.
S: Yeah, it's so important to put these things into perspective. And it's so—the thing is I deal with this all the time is that you could make anything seem positive or negative depending on your spin and your biases that you come in. You could make solar panels seem like the worst possible thing or it's going to save the planet. And everything is a combination of both. It has limitations. It has challenges. It has hurdles. It has the potential, maybe. It could be a good thing. It might have certain advantages over other technologies. Everything's a tradeoff. Unless there's a deal killer. I'm always looking for is there a deal killer here or is it just tradeoffs? Is there something that will just work out with time? Or are there things that we just don't know? Like, will this scale up? And then we just have to wait and see. But yeah, but you could make anything sound good or anything sound bad if that's your goal.
E: Well, that was their goal in this one. 25 times higher CO2. Okay.
S: Yeah. Yeah. If you do it the way it's being done now, but that doesn't mean that it's not—these are not solvable issues. But again, this is one of those technologies I'm just waiting to see how it scales up, basically. I don't think we really will know until we get to that point. All right. Thanks, Evan.
Who's That Noisy? (1:02:27)
S: Jay, it's Who's That Noisy time.
J: All right. Last week I played this Noisy.
[echoing guttural sounds from rising and falling, either mechanical or animal]
There's a lot of people that think that I make some of the Noisies with my own mouth. That was one of them. That's not me.
E: So I'm going to guess Jay was wrong.
J: A listener named John Harmon wrote it and said, "To Who's That Noisy, Hey Jay, my guest for this week is a cat using a voice modulator." And I thought that was pretty funny. You guys know what a voice modulator is, right?
B: No, I don't.
J: So it's not a cat using a voice modulator, but that's exactly what it would sound like if a cat used a voice modulator. Another listener named Chris Bovitz wrote in and said, "Hey, Jay, is this week's Who's That Noisy are those the sounds from the aurora borealis or strellis? Thanks." Neither. And I have heard sonification of the aurora borealis.
C: Well, it doesn't have to be sonified. I think you can literally hear the aurora.
J: You can hear it too. Absolutely.
C: Like I think it actually makes weird noises.
J: Yeah. Imagine if you heard that noise in the middle of the night outside really loud, though, that'd be crazy. But that is not correct. I'll move on to the next one. Visto Tutti wrote in and said, "This week's Noisy sounds like someone playing a barcode reader as the laser scans the back and white patterns. It makes sounds. Freaky sounds." That is not correct. But I think I used that for a noisy at one point. And it's amazing what people can do with a barcode reader and a bunch of barcodes. If you haven't heard it, look up barcode reader music and you'll find some crazy stuff with that. That's a lot of fun. Another listener named David Barlow wrote in and said, "I guess that this is an AI attempting to recreate whale song." I don't know if he was being serious. I think he wasn't being serious, but I put it in there because I'm infatuated with artificial intelligence and he is incorrect. But I wonder what that would sound like. Nothing, huh, guys?
E: What the whale no?
B: Welcome to my life.
J: Bob, I laugh at you all the time, Bob. OK, we have a winner.
E: He means with you.
C: Yeah, he's laughing at you.
J:' We got a winner from last week. Brian Roach wrote in and said, "Sounds like a European starling, aka a common starling. They're incredible mimics and vocalists." So Brian got it most of the way there. It is a European starling. But this is a European starling slow down quite a bit, which accentuates the weirdness of the noises that it's making. So I'll play it for you once again. This is a European starling slow down making weird noises. [plays Noisy] Right. Very strange.
S: Yeah, cool. Now, in America, European starlings are horribly invasive birds.
E: Oh, yes.
S: They displace a lot of native species. They're very aggressive. They were deliberately released in Central Park in New York by some idiots.
C: I mean, they are beautiful.
S: They are. They're a problem.
C: They're a massive problem. I took a taxidermy class several years ago and learned how to taxidermy.
E: Oh, that's right. Yeah.
C: And you could when you were working the but when you take the meat out, you could find all the buckshot in there for that reason, because they're pests. So they're called.
J: That's crazy. That's a crazy class you took.
C: I know. It's really cool.
J: I remember one time all of us were at a museum and we were in the back room. It was like a room that was filled with stuffed animals.
E: Yeah, in Australia and in Melbourne.
J: And there was some of them that were done really badly. Do you remember that?
J: The eyes were all weird.
C: I love that.
J: I'll never forget that.
C: I think there's like a bad taxidermy Instagram or there's like a million bad taxidermy accounts. But yeah, bad taxidermy is so fun.
New Noisy (1:06:42)
J: All right. So I have a new noisy for this week. This one was sent in by a listener named Kalev Kalame. I think I actually pronounced that name correct. Let me know, Kalev, if I pronounced your name. It has like a, what do you call that? An umlaut, the two dots above the letter A?
E: Yes, umlaut.
J: Hey, so if you don't want to get your ears blown out by a crazy noise, this is the time where you should lower it a little bit, because this one gets a little extreme.
[High pitched scratching/wheezing/whistling/crackling]
C: It does kind of sound like a dentist drill, whoever sent that.
J: It is not a dentist drill.
E: Ugh, that smell of burning bone.
J: Oh, I hate that.
S: I hate that.
C: It's so much louder in your head than it probably is like in the room.
J: All right. So if you think you know what this week's Noisy is or if you heard something cool, email me at email@example.com.
S: So Jay, we should tell everybody that we've changed. We've changed the rules of Patreon a little bit. Basically, so one thing we're doing is we are putting ads into our older episodes. So when an episode gets three months old or older, there may be some auto inserted ads in the older shows. So again, if you won't get them in the first three months at all, and if you are a premium patron or legacy patron, you will still get the ad, the completely forever ad free version of the show. But since we are doing that, and some people don't like those ads, what we are doing is for if you are a patron of the SGU at the $5 level, so it's not the premium level, but if you are at the $5 level, you can get access to the ad free versions of the shows once they're three months old or longer. So the point at which they would get the inserted ads, you can get access to the completely ad free versions of the show.
C: So you only have to put up with us reading ads and only-
S: No, even then, if you're listening to shows three months or older and you're a $5 patron, it's no ads.
S: Because the ads that we read will have expired by then in any case.
C: But they're still hopefully listening to the show when it comes out.
S: Yes, of course.
E: Yeah, don't wait.
S: Listen to the show when it comes out. But again, it's just a trade-off. We'll put the ads in, but we'll give our patrons access to the not ad inserted versions of the older shows. So this is a good time to become a patron of the show. Even at the $5 level, you get some perks, and it really helps us do everything that we need to do. And we do appreciate and really need your support. As you can tell, and Jay mentioned, we're having fewer ads in the regular show. That's partly because we're really picky about our ads.
C: It's also podcast-wide, though. I'm finding it with a lot of podcasters.
S: Yeah, it's partly because just ads in general are tightening up, but it's also because we have a high rejection rate because we have a very strict editorial policy before we accept an ad. So it just makes it harder. I think our ad servers always get frustrated with us. But what are we going to do? You know, we'd rather have no ads than to have ads we don't agree with.
E: Hear, hear.
Name That Logical Fallacy (1:10:06)
- False equivalency
S: All right, we're going to do a Name That Logical Fallacy this week. This is based upon an email I got from Adam from Brisbane, Australia. And Adam writes,
I love the show. I have been listening on and off for many years and have introduced some of my friends to your excellent podcast. My question is about a discussion I was having with my brother-in-law, which turned into a bit of a debate.
Long story short, it was about a video where two cars were participating in a tug-of-war contest where a rope was attached between them and they had to try to pull the other car in the opposite direction. My brother-in-law's claim was that the victorious car had its victory because of the more advanced suspension system and the design of the four-wheel drive system. Note that in this battle, the victorious car was lighter by 600 pounds, had less power and less torque.
My claim was that there may have been other factors that the video maker should have eliminated to make the result more definitive and fair. For example, they should have done a few tests with the cars switching positions in case the road surface or direction somehow advantaged one of the cars. Also, they should have switched the actual drivers between cars to eliminate driver technique as a factor. Also, things like the types of tire, air pressure, etc. may all have contributed.
My brother-in-law claimed the above factors would have been negligible and didn't need to be factored into the testing. I then said that without factoring them into the testing, we don't know for sure. He then sarcastically said that by my logic, we should also take into account the angle of the sun, position of the moon, and a whole bunch of other nonsense factors. When I told him those factors wouldn't be considered reasonable as having an effect, he asked why I am the one who gets to judge what is and what isn't a reasonable thing to test for.
My reply was that we can't test for absolutely everything, so at least testing for the most reasonable and likely confounding factors is a good idea. He also used Occam's razor in his defense, claiming that this claim is the simplest, but my claim has a lot more factors and is therefore more complicated. I replied that his position has more assumptions since he is assuming all the things I mentioned have only a negligible effect.
So he wants to know if there's any logical fallacies happening in here.
C: I don't know, like, simplify the actual argument here?
S: So, yeah, so basically one brother-in-law was saying in this car tug of war, there are all these other factors they didn't control for. And the other one was saying, well, we didn't have to control for them because they would only have been negligible. And the question, well, how do you know they would have been negligible? And do we have to test for the position of the sun, too?
C: Wait, to be fair, the car tug of war was happening at the same time in the same place, right?
S: Yeah, but yeah, that's right.
C: So all those factors were the same.
S: Well, yeah, all the things that he mentioned were the same.
C: Right. They're not a variable if you can cancel them out. That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about logical fallacy.
S: The angle to the sun or whatever.
E: Oh, that's like non-sequitur.
S: So let's get out of the way. Yes, Occam's razor is not about favoring the simplest explanation. It's about favoring the explanation with the fewest new assumptions.
B: Yes, that's critical.
S: That's a very common misunderstanding of Occam's razor. But what do you think about the brother-in-law's position of we don't have to account for, say, the driver skill. That would be like accounting for the position of the moon or the sun.
B: The ridiculous comparison. The ridiculous comparison fallacy.
S: What do we call that? The ridiculous comparison fallacy is also called, we could also think about that as what? A false equivalency.
B: Yeah, that's what I said.
S: Yeah, or maybe you could even think of it's a false analogy. But I think false equivalency is probably the best way to characterize that. That saying like the road conditions might have been a factor is not equivalent to saying the position of the moon might have been a factor, right? He's giving just a ridiculous example.
B: Yeah, that was just ridiculous.
S: Yeah, but it's a false equivalency, I think, is what he's doing. But the deeper question is, it's like, well, who gets to decide what's a reasonable factor and what isn't a reasonable factor?
E: You make the protocols ahead of time.
S: Whoever's doing the study does, right? And whoever's reading and critiquing.
B: The peer review as well.
E: And you have to register it. Don't forget pre-register.
S: There's humans involved, yeah.
C: I don't know. The part that I'm still really struggling, and I don't know how to put this quite into words, like the who gets to decide. And you're saying this is ridiculous, and I'm saying it's not. And it's not even really about it being ridiculous. But scientifically speaking, the position of the moon is the same on both of the cars. That's what's bothering me the most.
S: Being charitable, I think he's saying the angle of the sun and the moon, which would be different for the two cars.
C: Barely. Negligibly.
S: It might be in front of one person and behind the other person.
S: I agree with you, Cara.
E: Is he being sarcastic?
S: He said, it was even in the email, he said sarcastically that you would have to account for these ridiculous things like the position of the sun or the moon.
C: But that's the thing about science, right? Is when we do science, we know that there's literally millions of variables, and we can't control them all.
C: So we have to choose the ones that probably account for the largest component of the variance. And how do you choose which ones account for the largest component of the variance?
B: Common sense.
C: Not always common sense.
B: In some case.
C: Sometimes expertise.
S: Yeah. Sometimes prior research.
C: Yeah, exactly.
S: Yeah, prior research or just yeah, or you could do some kind of preliminary kind of analysis.
E: Yeah, come on, myth busters and stuff.
S: Sometimes that's what preliminary studies are for, to say like what potential confining factors should be controlled for in the real study that we're about to do. Yeah, all of that's true. But I think it does highlight for me, and this is like one of the reasons why I wanted to talk about this, is that you can't really factor out the judgment when it comes to scientific studies, evaluating studies. There's always going to be a judgment call in there. And sometimes just because—
C: People are doing this.
S: Yeah. And it's like that joke, it was named Joe Montaigne, he said, because that way it won't be stupid, you know? Sometimes, yeah, sometimes that's the answer is because that way it won't be stupid. And it's like there's just a little bit of judgment involved in deciding what's a reasonable factor. I would say that good scientists generally go a little bit beyond the obvious reasonable factors to include some unlikely factors, but they don't go to ridiculous factors. So they do, I think, over control this, which is good. I mean, you should. Even if you think something might probably not be a factor, sometimes it's surprising that it is. And it's good just to prove it, just to check that box and say, yes, it's not—the gender of the person driving the car is not a factor, whatever. There are factors that you might not think are reasonable, but you just want to be able to say definitively, yeah, that's not it. But yeah, there's got to be a limit because you could infinitely invent silly factors, potential confounding factors. And just baseline—as you like to say, Cara, face validity comes into play at some point where it's like, yeah, but that's nonsense. I really don't think we need to consider it.
C: And ultimately, some of them may not be silly. For me, it's a probability thing. They just don't—they're going to account for 0.00001% of the variance. They might actually be factors. They just don't have a strong effect.
S: Yeah, we usually just say that's probably insignificant.
S: Never say zero, but we just say insignificant just means don't worry about it.
C: And I feel like maybe that kind of framing prevents us from making a logical fallacy when we're communicating is to say, oh, that probably has an insignificant impact and not that's stupid or like that's silly. I think that would probably help the guy who wrote the email in communicating with his brother-in-law.
E: Yes, communication is important.
Potent Quotables (1:17:56)
S: All right, Evan, you're going to bring back your potent quotable segment.
E: Yes, I am. Thank you, Steve. And tonight I have five quotes for you in which I'm going to challenge the rogues to identify who said or wrote this particular quote. There's five of them. I will keep score as I want to do. Are you all ready to play?
S: Ready, sir.
E: And it's multiple choice, so that's the best part of this. So you don't have to just say a quote. And you got to take a wild guess. You'll actually have the correct answer in your grasp. Here we go. First quote. "I think scientists have a valid point when they bemoan the fact that it is socially acceptable in our culture to be utterly ignorant of math, whereas it's a shameful thing to be illiterate." Who said or wrote that? Was it
A. Jennifer Ouellette,
B. Katherine Johnson,
C. Donika McKellar?
C: Oh, no. So three math people.
E: Let's see. We're going to go with J. I'd like for you to guess first, please.
J: I think that is A. Jennifer Ouellette.
E: Jay says it is A. Jennifer Ouellette. All right. Let's go with Bob. Bob?
C: I don't think it's...
B: No, I said Jennifer, not Cara.
C: I don't think it's Donika. It doesn't sound like Donika's voice.
C: It could be Katherine Johnson, though. I'm trying to think of, like, how modern does it sound? I mean, Jen would be making, like, a social critique in her book about calculus, possibly. But Katherine Johnson...
S: There's five quotes, Cara.
C: OK, I'm going to go with Katherine Johnson.
E: Nobody's guessed Katherine Johnson yet.
C: I just did.
E: OK. And Steve?
S: So, Evan, I'll have to say I knew the answer to this question before you even read the multiple choice.
E: Hey, there you go.
S: It's Donika McKellar.
C: It is?
E: The answer is Jennifer Ouellette.
S: Oh, no, I thought for sure she said it.
E: It's from her book. Cara, you were right. It's from her book on...
C: On calculus.
E: On calculus.
S: Then why did I think... I thought of Danica even before you said the name. So I was wondering why I associated that quote with her.
E: So you're saying I chose well the choices.
S: Yeah, I guess so.
E: All right, next quote, quote number two. "People say the government couldn't carry out the September 11th attack. It's too big. They'd get caught. They did get caught. They're just counting on you to be dumb and to go along with it." Was that:
A. Alex Jones,
B. Charlie Sheen
C. Rosie O'Donnell?
E: Bob, we're going to start with you.
B: I mean, it seems like any of them could have said it.
S: You bastard.
B: Just go with Alex, I guess.
E: You're going with... Yeah he's a target. Cara?
C: I don't know. Is this going to follow the same ABC logic? Because I'm kind of liking crazy Charlie Sheen on this one.
E: Okay, Steve?
S: Yeah, I mean, obviously if it's all of them. I think I could see, imagine, I should say Alex Jones ranting that sentence. So I'll go with Jones.
E: And Jay.
J: Yeah, I'll go with Jones.
E: The answer is Alex Jones.
C: Damn it.
E: I hear he listens to our show. No, he doesn't. All right, Jay and Bob doing very well. Steve, very close. And Cara, you've got time to catch up.
C: I'm going nil on this one. I didn't tell you in advance?
E: Oh, is that his-
S: Sharpshooter fallacy.
E: A third quote. "I believe the abominable snowman may be real. There are footprints that stretch for hundreds of miles. And we know that in the 1930s, a German fossil was found with these huge molars that were four or five times the size of human molars." Was that:
A. Jacques Cousteau?
B. Jane Goodall?
C. Richard Attenborough?
J: Oh, God.
E: Cara, you get to start this one.
C: I'm just going to keep, I'm going to go B down the line. I don't think-
E: These are scientists saying-
C: Yeah, but one of them's a fish scientist. So what does he know? I don't think it's Attenborough. What if it's Jane Goodall? She has some weird ideas. I might go with Jane Goodall.
E: Okay, Steve.
S: Yeah, I remember Goodall endorsing Bigfoot, I think. Although I think I remember something about Richard Attenborough saying something positive about it too. But I'll go with Jane Goodall.
E: Okay, and Jay?
J: I mean, I could see Jacques Cousteau getting a land-based creature that wrong. I'm going to go... Well, I could see Jacques Cousteau saying this.
E: Okay, so you want Jacques Cousteau?
J: No, but hold on.
E: Okay, I wrote it down, but I-
J: Yeah, no, I think it's Jane Goodall though.
E: Okay, Jane Goodall. And Bob, do you want to go with the crowd?
B: No, I want to go with my best answer, and that's Jane Goodall.
E: Everyone guessed Jane Goodall, and that was in fact Richard Attenborough.
B: No way.
J: Richard Attenborough.
C: That's embarrassing.
E: He's all pro-Yeti.
B: What the hell, man?
E: I know, isn't that surprising?
S: But didn't Goodall say something about Bigfoot that was like-
E: Yes, she also has had her moments of-
B: Was it Bigfoot or just some unrelated cranky stuff?
E: No, it was Bigfoot. It was Bigfoot.
C: Which is so sad because she's an actual primatologist.
B: I know, I know.
S: I remembered it about both of them.
E: Fourth quote, here we go. It's a good one. "If evolution is true, you could not know that it's true because your brain is nothing but chemicals. Think about that." (laughter)
E: That is an actual quote, and who said it? Was it Kent Hovind?
A. Kent Hovind,
B. Kirk Cameron,
C. Ken Ham.
Three very possible choices there. We're going to start with Steve.
S: Very cromulent choices there. I have to go with Kirk Cameron.
E: Even if you're wrong, you're not that wrong. Jay.
J: Yeah, Kirk Cameron was the one that stood out to me. I mean, he really is a babbling idiot. (laughter) I think he would say that.
E: Fun, fun. Bob?
B: Yeah, of those three, they're all good. They're good choices, but I think only Kirk could actually go to that level.
E: All right.
B: Among those three.
E: Cara, where do you want to go here?
C: The most embarrassing part of this is that whoever said this, which I think is Kirk Cameron, means that he said it in a public venue and it was recorded. Like, this wasn't just something he said to some guy on the street. So yeah, I think it's Kirk Cameron too.
E: Well, we all owe Kirk Cameron an apology because it was A, Kent Hovind.
B: You bastard.
E: Oh, you know.
'E: But birds of a feather— Really, any one of those three could have said that.
E: That was— All right. Now, here's one that— I hope I'm not ending on a sad note here in a way. If George were here, I think he would be visibly shaken by this one. The final quote in potent quotables. Here we go. "I can't manage without homeopathy. In fact, I never go anywhere without homeopathic remedies. I often make use of them. Was that
A. George Harrison,
B. John Lennon,
C. Paul McCartney.
S: Oh, I was going to say Ringo Starr.
E: Well, I saved you from being wrong. Jay, which Beatles?
J: A. George Harrison.
E: Okay, A. George Harrison. Bob?
B: Yeah, I'd have to go with George. The other two would just make me a little too sad.
C: Oh, I see. I thought it would be John Lennon.
E: Going with B?
E: Cara, you answered B on every—
C: I know. (laughter) I'm that kid in front of the scanner.
E: All right, Steve, bring it home. Which one of these Beatles is a homeopath?
S: Paul McCartney.
C: It might be A. Ooh.
E: And the answer is C. Paul McCartney. Steve got it.
J: Paul, what are you doing?
B: You got a three-way tie.
E: It was a three-way tie. Yes, it was. Each of the gentlemen got two out of five.
C: Yeah, but I won for being the wrongest.
E: You did, Cara. That was your goal.
S: If that's an award, you got it.
B: And that reminds me of a honeymooner's quote when Jackie Gleason's got a wacky scheme and he tells his wife, no one's 100%, Alice. No one's 100%. She's like, you are. You're wrong every time.
C: Exactly. Look at that. I have a higher reliability score.
S: You are more reliable.
E: Also, what were the chances that I was not going to choose B for any of them?
E: It's an unusual sort of statistical occurrence, I suppose. But hey, guys, that was fun. Thanks for playing that game.
S: Yeah, good job Evan.
C: Really hard.
E: Thanks. Thanks.
S: Yeah, because all the choices are all plausible. All right, let's move on with science or fiction.
Science or Fiction (1:26:58)
Item #1: Butterflies breathe through spiracles located mainly on their wings.
Item #2: Most of a butterfly’s taste receptors are on their feet.
Item #3: There are over 100 species of butterfly that are considered arctic, including almost 20 species that are high arctic and extremely cold adapted, although there are no butterfly species in Antarctica.
|Fiction||Breathe through spiracles|
|Science||Taste receptors on feet|
Over 100 arctic species
|Breathe through spiracles|
|Breathe through spiracles|
|Breathe through spiracles|
|Breathe through spiracles|
Voice-over: It's time for Science or Fiction.
S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts. Two real, one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week inspired by one of the five news items. The theme is butterflies. More stuff about butterflies because we haven't heard enough about them so far. Are you guys ready?
S: All right, here we go. Item number one, butterflies breathe through spiracles located mainly on their wings. Item number two, most of a butterfly’s taste receptors are on their feet. And item number three, there are over 100 species of butterfly that are considered arctic, including almost 20 species that are high arctic and extremely cold adapted, although there are no butterfly species in Antarctica. Evan why don't you go first.
E: So the first one about butterflies breathing through their spiracles.
E: Spiracles. It's a spiracle. Which is located mainly on their wings. I did not know this. They breathe, breathe with their... I suppose in a way it kind of makes sense. Kind of spreading out the capture, what do you call them, pores or whatever they would be, I guess. I suppose it would be.
S: Yeah, they're pores, spiracles. They'll have lungs, obviously, but spiracles are pores.
E: Right. Yeah. So surface area kind of spreading out. And I'm thinking about, in a sense, the human lungs may have some almost in a weird way, a similar kind of feature. So I think that one's probably right. Maybe the second one is going to be wrong, though. Most of a butterfly's taste receptors are on their feet. Why would this one be wrong? Because I'm thinking the third one's correct. Most of a butterfly's taste receptors are on their feet. On their feet. The feet of a butterfly. It's like something you don't think about with butterflies. You think of their wings or maybe even their antenna. And maybe their antenna is really where the receptors maybe are, as opposed to their feet. But you did talk about them pollinating, right? And that would lead to... Oh, shoot. Gosh. Then that would kind of hint that maybe they are tasting things with their feet, because there would be their feet that would be carrying around the pollen from... What? Milkweed to milkweed? Geez. Oh, so maybe it's the wings one. I think the last one's correct, though. And again, it was mentioned before kind of about North America. So Arctic makes sense. No butterfly species in Antarctica. I guess I'll go with the wings one, the first one, now that I'm thinking about it. The spiracles, breathing. That one's fiction.
S: Okay, Bob.
B: Okay. Taste receptors on their feet. That rings some weird bell. I don't know if it applies to butterflies or one of the other million different things it could be. But that kind of rings a bell with me. I know there's something out there that tastes with their feet. The Arctic butterflies, it seems like that's more than could be justified. How are you going to be cold adapted? There's such frail little things. How do you prevent the wings from just turning into little ice sheets? The one that doesn't make sense is the spiracles. For some reason, it just rubs me the wrong way that they would exist on the wings and not the body like I think they would exist on other insects. So I'm going to go with that as fiction.
S: All right, Jay.
J: Yeah, Bob, I could taste with my feet.
B: I knew it.
J: I sometimes make meatballs with my feet too. So it's-
B: Oh boy.
E: Good to remember.
C: Tell me in advance.
B: I'll still eat them. Delicious.
J: I'm going to cut to the chase and I'm going to say that butterflies spiracles are not located on their wings.
S: Okay. And Cara?
C: Yeah. I mean, obviously, it makes sense that they would have taste receptors on their feet if they're landing on different flowers and trying to determine which ones they want to drink from or different plants. The Arctic one is kind of bothering me. Like maybe that number is too high. But like the rest of the guys, the reason that I don't get why their spiracles would be on their wings, first of all, I think a lot of insects, they're on their legs. But even if not, like butterflies metamorphize. And when they're caterpillars, they don't have wings. So unless they literally migrate when they're in chrysalis form, I don't see that happening. It would have to be on their body, no? So I don't know.
B: All bets are off in chrysalis form. Anything can happen inside there.
C I guess.
J: A pile of goop, you know?
C: Yeah. But when you actually look at the wings, just structurally, it doesn't wear. It doesn't make sense. So I don't know. That one bothers me. I think I'm going to go with the group.
B: As it should.
Steve Explains Item #2
S: So you guys all agree with each other. So why don't we start with two? You guys seem to have the easiest time with that one. Most of a butterfly's taste receptors are on their feet. You guys all think this one is science. And this one is science. That is correct. And you guys pretty much nailed it. They land on a plant and their feet taste whether or not it's sweet. And if it's sweet, they extend their proboscis and suck. Right? So it's how they know they're on up there next to the nectar. They taste with their feet. They do have some on their antenna as well. But most of the taste buds are on their feet. All right.
Steve Explains Item #3
S: Let's go to number three. There are over 100 species of butterfly that are considered arctic, including almost 20 species that are high arctic and extremely cold adapted. Although there are no butterfly species in Antarctica.ou guys all think this one is science. And this one is science.
E: Oh, okay.
S: Yeah, but it's kind of surprising that there are butterflies in the high arctic region. That's where it's really cold. But they winter over in caterpillar form and there are butterflies in the summer.
C: That makes sense. Yeah.
S: Yeah, it works.
B: And then they die at the end of the summer.
S: Yeah, they only live to be a few weeks old, generally speaking.
C: That's sad.
J: It's not sad. that's their lifecycle.
S: They're delicate, so they don't last that long.
C: Sad. They're so ephemeral.
S: Yeah, they are ephemeral. They just lay their eggs and they're done. They could live for a few months. It's not like they age out. They don't die of old age, but they're just, they're delicate and they just don't survive that long. They usually last about three weeks or so.
E: Any predators? Anyone, anything prey on them?
S: Yeah, there's stuff that eat butterflies. I'm not sure specifically in the Arctic, but yeah.
B: So it's not old age. So either it's an accident or predation. And do some of them just get lucky and just freeze to death when winter finally shows up again?
S: Maybe, maybe. But yeah, none have managed to migrate to the Antarctic. But yeah, Cara's right. I think that's because they're native to North America. They just progressively moved north and sometimes see really high altitudes as well. Yeah, but I was a little surprised to hear that.
B: Which means? (laughter)
Steve Explains Item #1
S: Which means that butterfly breathe through spiracles located mainly on their wings is the fiction.
E: No way.
S: Because the spiracles are on their body where they should be. That's where they need the oxygen. I almost had you, Evan, and then that thing there might have influenced everybody. I'm like, that's exactly what I wanted you to think. That they're beating their wings and it's making the air move through their spiracles.
E: A little capture, right?
S: Yeah, I mean, it could work.
B: Nice try, nice try.
S: Could go down, but they need the wings. They don't need the oxygen. They need the oxygen in their thorax.
B: Yeah, exactomundo.
'S: Yeah, and they're very inefficient. The system is extremely inefficient, which is why they can only get so big.
E: So big.
S: Yeah, they don't have a circulatory system.
B: Which is why they got bigger when Earth's oxygen was a lot higher.
J: I knew this one because I went to a butterfly sanctuary in Denver.
S: Oh, yeah. There you go. How many legs butterflies have?
E: All of them.
S: They have six because they're insects.
C: They're true insects, yeah.
S: Yeah, they have six.
C: I thought that was a trick question for a second. I was like, wait, what?
S: But you can only see four of them. The front two ones are tiny and curled up and you can't see them.
E: Oh, like T-Rex arms.
S: So when you look at a butterfly, you're really only seeing four legs.
B: Oh, cool.
S: And you see the two antenna. They have four wings. Some references said they have two wings, but each wing has two parts. While other ones said that they have four wings. But they have one wing segment coming off of the middle segment. Like this thorax has three parts. Each has two legs and the back two have wing segments. So they do have four wing segments, you know. You guys know.
E: Yeah, I learned it from Silence of the Lambs.
S: And did you know that butterfly taxonomical groups are mainly defined by the pattern of veins in their wings?
C: Oh, I didn't know that.
S: Yeah, that pattern is very phylogenetically specific. And that's essentially how they all sort out is that by that pattern.
E: So that's it.
C: When you say veins, you mean actual veins.
C: You don't mean like color, like veining. You mean like physical blood flow.
S: No, no, they don't have blood.
C: Well, not blood flow, but like fluid flow.
S: Yeah, it's how they keep their wings rigid. They are these little tubes that they filled with fluid that... You know, when they come out of the chrysalis, their wings are all crumpled up. And they have to pump them up with fluid that's through the vein system. They're like the spokes that keep it rigid.
B: Taught, yeah.
S: Yeah, they keep it taught. And that pattern is, yeah, it's very, very phylogenetically specific.
B: That's cool.
S: Yeah, so that's how they get characterized.
B: How very how convenient, how like, thank you for making it easy to categorize you.
S: Yeah, yeah, yeah, because they have their own patterns.
C: Oh, yeah. And don't they also have, a lot of butterflies, don't they have structural color and not pigment?
S: Yeah, I almost went with that one. Their wings are transparent.
S: So the wings themselves, the chitin of the wings are transparent, but their moths and butterflies are the only insects that have scales on their wings. And the scales are what give it the color. And some of those scales, some of the scales are colored, and some of the scales produce false color because of the color light that they transmit, or because of birefringence or whatever. Like there's some, the way they interact with the light creates this false color. Like they themselves are not necessarily green, but they look green when you look at them because of the way they refract the light.
C: Yeah, there's like little marbles of physics.
B: It's not iridescence though, right?
S: Sometimes there are, some butterflies have iridescence.
C: Yeah, but not all of them. I think they call it literally, they call it structural color, if I'm not wrong.
S: Yeah, you might be right.
B: I think that's a good way to put it.
S: Yeah, but the actual wings without the scales are transparent.
C: It's so neat.
S: They're just thin chitin, so yeah, see through them. Very pretty. All right, guys, well, you swept me.
E: Yes, well, we...
S: It's all Evan's fault. I was very confident there at first. I'm like, oh, Evan's totally falling for it.
E: Yeah, but I thought it...
J: Right at the end, right at the end. He's like, yeah, but I'm going to go with the first one.
S: You bastard.
Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:38:18)
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
– Saul Bellow (1915-2005), American writer
S: All right, Evan, give us a quote.
E: "A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep." Saul Bellow.
S: Yeah, that's a great way of putting it.
E: That is a great way of putting it, definitely. It's to the point, I think.
E: Saul Bellow, American writer, and here, here's a few things about him. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for fiction three times.
C: That's a lot of hardware.
E: That is. He is accomplished.
S: Yeah, obviously a very good writer. All right, well, thank you all for joining me this week.
J: Thanks, Steve.
C: Thanks, Steve.
B: Sure man.
E: Thank you, Steve.
S: —and until next week, this is your Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.
S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at theskepticsguide.org. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. And, if you would like to support the show and all the work that we do, go to patreon.com/SkepticsGuide and consider becoming a patron and becoming part of the SGU community. Our listeners and supporters are what make SGU possible.
Today I Learned
- Fact/Description, possibly with an article reference
- Nature: A global phylogeny of butterflies reveals their evolutionary history, ancestral hosts and biogeographic origins
- New Atlas: Helion to supply Microsoft with fusion power by 2028, or pay penalties
- Science Daily: Can't find your phone? There's a robot for that
- The Conversation: You shed DNA everywhere you go – trace samples in the water, sand and air are enough to identify who you are, raising ethical questions about privacy
- Interesting Engineering: New study suggests that lab-grown meat produces up to 25 times more CO2
- Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory: All About Butterflies
- The Florida Museum: Butterfly Rainforest Moment, How do they taste?
- Carnegie Museum of Natural History: High Arctic butterflies
- [url_for_TIL publication: title]