SGU Episode 940

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SGU Episode 940
July 15th 2023
940 Betelgeuse.jpg

"Betelgeuse may be larger and later in life than other scientists have calculated.
It could go supernova very soon." [1]

SGU 939                      SGU 941

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


AJR: Andrea Jones-Rooy,
political, social, and data scientist

Quote of the Week

Every time you perform a magic trick, you’re engaging in experimental psychology. If the audience asks, "How the hell did he do that?" then the experiment was successful.

Teller, American magician

Download Podcast
Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, wildlife encounters, incl. Steve’s bear sighting(s)[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, July 12th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Evan Bernstein...

E: Good evening, folks.

S: And we have two guests this week, George Hrabb.

G: Happy summer, people.

S: And Andrea Jones-Roy.

AJR: Hi, everyone. Great to be here.

S: Guys, welcome back to the show. Nice to have you. Jay and Cara are on different continents from us and each other. Cara's in Africa, Jay's in Greece right now.

AJR: The sun rarely sets on the SGU.

S: That's right.

E: Never.

S: We have listeners in all seven continents because somebody told us that they listened to us in Antarctica once.

E: Absolutely. More than once, yes.

S: Yeah.

AJR: Awesome.

S: And Under the Sea of Japan in the Submarine was one.

E: Yep. And the Persian Gulf. Someone was patrolling the Persian Gulf.

B: Yeah, but didn't they discover that other continent by New Zealand? I don't think anyone's on that one.

S: Zeelandia? We also need somebody to listen to us on the International Space Station.

AJR: Right.

E: Yeah, when will that happen? Yes.

G: I'll get on that.

E: And eventually, Moonbase Alpha. And then we'll...

S: And eventually, Moonbase Alpha.

E: Oh my gosh. Then we'll be a solar system-wide podcast.

S: So I sent you guys all this video and your reaction was as predicted. So one of the running stories that we got going on the show is our wildlife encounters. And Cara's always cute because she thinks that we live in the woods, you know? Because there's trees surrounding my house. But the thing that's funny is it's getting harder and harder to make fun of her for that because it's like the wilderness is encroaching so much. So this was on Sunday, a few days ago, middle of the afternoon, broad daylight, my dog starts barking. Jay's, I'm watching Jay's dog while he's in Greece. So I have both dogs in the house. They're both inside. They both start barking at the deck through the glass sliding glass door to the deck in a way that let me know this was nothing, this was something unusual. This was not their usual bark.

E: Yes, a dog's bark has a communication to it, absolutely. My dogs do the same thing.

S: But it could be, it could be a raccoon. It could be something else.

G: Mormons. Mormons.

S: Could be Mormons. And there's a bear on my deck. Black bear.

E: Black bear.

S: Black bear. So this is now the third time that there has been a black bear encounter on my property.

E: You need to put up a sign to keep them out.

AJR: Yeah, no bears allowed.

E: Exactly.

S: I'll do it.

AJR: I don't know. Do they speak Italian bears? I don't know.

S: Black bear? I don't know. So that's three times, I've been in my house for about 25 years. This is my third bear encounter in the last four years. So clearly an uptick. So there's one a few years ago. It was again during the day. It knocked over the birdseed and it scared itself and ran away, basically.

AJR: That's what birdseed is for.

S: It was at nighttime. Again, dog barking at the deck. Thought it was probably a raccoon. Flipped on the light. There's a black bear standing on the railing of my deck trying to get at the suet, the bird food. This time, broad daylight, it's on the deck, the dogs are going crazy. This bear was chill. He did not, he was not skittish at all. At some point, you guys saw on the video, he like bears his teeth at the dogs, puts his paw on the glass. And he wasn't going anywhere.

B: Lights up a cigarette.

S: Yeah. We could scare them away fairly easily. The other thing is it's July. We almost always have bear sightings either in the neighbourhood or somewhere in the spring when they're just coming out of hibernation and they're really jonesing for food. In the middle of the summer, you don't see them so much. Then they get active again when they're bulking up to go back into hibernation, like in the fall. But this is unusual. I've never had a bear sighting in July. So yeah, I was then I'm thinking, what are we supposed to do here?

B: Take a video and send it to your family.

S: I did.

AJR: Live stream it.

S: The previous two times they were gone too quickly. Well, we actually did get a little bit of a video. The first one, the second one was too fast. This one, he was there for like five, 10 minutes.

AJR: He was enormous, Steve. I was really surprised.

G: How big do you think he was? How heavy do you think he was, Steve?

S: I mean, that was actually the smallest of the three black bears that I've seen on our property. The last one was a lot bigger. I think he might be a yearling.

B: 80 pounds?

S: No, no. That bear is probably 200 pounds.

E: So the third one was just right.

B: Well, geez. I mean three times the weight of your dog. Yeah, I guess.

B: Oh, totally.

E: 300 pounds, sure.

G: I think it was Jocelyn's hands were holding the door shut.

S: Yeah.

G: Just frantically pulling the door shut, like, please don't.

AJR: So what did you do?

S: Well, I put the board there so that she didn't have to do that. Then I closed the garage door because we have garbage cans in the garage.

G: And bears like Teslas, we all know that.

S: And the door from the garage to where we were, like in the family room there, would not keep that bear out. You guys saw that video of a bear just blowing the door open on a house and walking in.

G: So how did it conclude? What happened?

S: All right. So it could not get the bear to go away. It was obviously looking for the bird seed. So we have like this half-size aluminium can on the deck for the bird seed. And we have a big heavy rock on top of it, which is enough to keep out all animals except bears. So the only one strong enough to get that stone off. He had knocked it over, but the lid didn't come off. It was just sort of like it was stuck on the top of it. So he was like nosing around that for a while. He eventually got it off, but then didn't see that. I think once he figured out that the dogs weren't going to be able to bother him through the glass, he just ignored them from that point forward. And so I went upstairs because there's the bathroom window that overlooks the deck. I could see him from there. Took some more pictures. And then I said, all right, the bear's going out.

G: I'm going to shake my fist like you won't believe.

S: I yelled at him like he didn't care. So then I had to find something. There was nothing at hand. I got a bottle of saline or something, something heavy. I threw it at him, hit him in the ass. Nothing. I threw something else at him. Second time. And then he just like moseyed away. Like you know what I mean? He was just like whatever. This is boring. And then he went through the backyard, started sniffing some of the─

B: I'm not leaving because you asked me to.

S: I just choose to go. And then he went to the neighbours. You have to call the neighbour like there's a black bear coming your way make sure that they were inside. And then eventually he left probably went back into the woods.

G: Is there someone to call? Is there some kind of contingency in your town or something? Like what do you do?

E: The Simpsons had the bear patrol.

S: Last time we called animal services or whatever and they said they just noted it. They didn't do anything. They didn't send anybody. They just recorded it as a black bear sighting in Hamden, Connecticut and that was it.

B: My big fear, Steve, if I were you, I'd be a little nervous, quite nervous. I mean, imagine that those two dogs were outside when he decided to show up.

AJR: Well, I was just thinking that.

B: The question is, would he have like done a U-turn or went around your property or would he have moseyed in the property? I mean, he, that's scary, man. Like, holy crap, he would take out a dog without much effort, I don't think, right?

E: A dog should be faster than a bear to get away.

S: Black bears generally are skittish because even if they can win in a fight, it's not worth the risk. If they get a bite or something, they could get infected and die. It's just not worth the risk for them, so they go for the low-hanging fruit. Unless they're desperate, unless they're protecting cubs or they're really desperate for food, then they start to get more and more.

B: Or they're not a big fan of the show, you know that too?

S: Yeah, there is that.

AJR: They're more into wellness culture, but yeah.

S: So I looked up the laws in Connecticut, by the way, what are the laws regarding black bears in Connecticut? First of all, there's been a massive uptick in sightings and encounters. This is not just a coincidence, I've had three encounters in the last couple of years. And Connecticut's the only state in the region that doesn't allow bear hunting. The surrounding states all have a hunting season for black bears.

E: Probably not enough of them to─

G: Let's go live in Connecticut, Boo-Boo. It's safe.

S: Half of the bear encounters are because of garbage, and 25% are because of bird feeders. That's my problem. But you are allowed to kill a bear if they attack you or your pets. If they're attacking people or pets, you're allowed to kill them. And farmers are allowed to kill them if they attack their crops or their livestock. Other than that, you're not allowed to feed them and you're not allowed to hunt them or to kill them. But I know that if bears do get too bold in their interactions, if they do attack anything, or if they come into your house, they'll put them down. Otherwise, they may move them, but they think they're not really doing that anymore because they don't have any place to send them.

AJR: Oh, I was going to say, yeah.

S: This is the big problem is that we've encroached so much on their habitat and there really isn't that much space to move them to. Where are we going to move them to? There's more suburbs, so they just don't do anything.

G: So Steve, what would be your go-to weapon in your house?

S: Well, I'm thinking about it. What would I do? There's a couple of things. I think what I might want to get at hand.

B: Noon checks?

S: I do have, no, I have a paintball gun. And that would hurt them, I think. It's not going to physically-

G: Well, scare them.

S: That'll, you shoot them in the ass with a paint pellet, they'll feel it.

B: Those ass shots hurt, man. Although the fur would probably attenuate a bit.

S: But still, I think that might be a little bit better. If I had to kill it, I do have a crossbow in my house.

AJR: Wow. Please get someone to film that if it-

G: No katana?

S: I have a katana, but I would probably prefer the ranged weapon to the katana. That's more of a desperation maneuver, breaking out a katana.

E: I use my bare knuckles.

AJR: So is it all habitat encroachment? Is that the whole story?

S: Yeah. Yeah, mostly. And so there's a dramatic increase in small critters, right? And that attracts the predators. The other thing that's on a dramatic increase in Connecticut, and I'm sure just regionally, is coyotes. And-

E: [inaudible] in my neighbourhood.

B: We saw a baby, mid-sized baby adolescent outside my mom's back window for the first time in my life living in Connecticut. I have never seen a coyote.

G: A coyote. Wow.

B: I've seen foxes.

S: Their populations that have exploded. So about a week ago, I saw a coyote like 20 feet maybe in front of my car, just walked across the street. There's a hundred percent of coyote. And by coincidence, this morning in the bath, I get six o'clock in the morning, I'm getting up and getting ready for my day, I'm on the bathroom, and I hear howling from outside. So I open up the window to listen to it, and there was like five or six creatures yipping and howling.

E: Oh, yeah.

S: It's a hundred percent they were coyotes.

E: No doubt.

S: Because first of all, it was coming from the woods, I know all the dogs in my neighbourhood, you know what I mean? There's no reason why there would be five or six dogs all together yipping and howling.

E: Oh, it has a certain pitch frequency to it.

B: There's no reason for them to start in a spontaneous a cappella group or anything?

AJR: Barbershop.

E: I hear them at night is when I hear them.

S: Yeah. This was six in the morning. I'm very familiar with the sound of coyotes howling because I play Red Dead Redemption 2. They have a pretty sophisticated sort of nature simulator in the game where they have lots of animals and they're very realistic, including the noises. So if you play that game, you totally know what coyotes sound like.

E: So it's a nature lesson.

S: It is. This is 100% coyotes. So there's a whole group of them just howling in the woods this morning at six o'clock.

AJR: So Cara has been right this whole time. You are just in the wilderness, or really, we've taken over wilderness.

S: I'm surrounded on two sides by woods and they're pretty deep, but if you keep going, you get to another road though. I mean, it's not that big. But yeah, there's a lot of wilderness. I looked it up too. Coyote populations are exploding everywhere basically. They're just really, really well adapted to human civilization. They do well in the cities, in the suburbs, in the rural areas.

E: Which means you got to watch your pets. Watch your dogs. Watch your cats.

AJR: So a news item that I actually considered for this week had to do with a wolf that was either spotted or hunted somewhere that it wasn't normally expected to be found. And it was a mix of like, oh, wow, this is kind of exciting because of population dynamics and they can survive here. But then it was also like, oh, maybe this is very concerning, depending on your point of view.

S: Well, that's part of the reason for the explosion in coyotes is because we killed a lot of the wolves. And they're just filling the space. I don't mind the coyotes because they pretty much keep to themselves. They eat a lot, mostly rodents. They did an analysis of coyote scat and it was like, yeah, 98% of their food is basically animals.

AJR: Can they come to New York City and that might be the rat-sar solution.

S: Well, they are already. I remember a few years ago we read there was a study that estimated there were 70,000 coyotes in Chicago.

AJR: Oh.

B: Yeah. I remember that science or fiction or something we talked about in the show. I was like, what?

E: Fiction.

S: So they're doing well. The other thing we talked about recently was that the mountain lions are moving east. In 10 years, we may have them to deal with too.

AJR: Wow.

E: Well, then they'll come up against the bears and maybe that will.

AJR: And meanwhile, we'll be all under water anyway. So it's the piranhas.

G: It'll be dolphins and sharks.

AJR: Yeah. Man.

S: I know. The other two I thought were just quirks. With this encounter, because the fact is that bear was not skittish. He was perfectly comfortable facing off against those dogs. He was not scared away by people. You know what I mean? That's not good.

B: This wasn't his first rodeo.

S: That's not good. He's acclimated to people's homes. That's when it gets scary.

AJR: I mean, him pawing at the door was chilling.

S: So now I'm like, all right, how do I have to change my behaviour now? Because we generally leave our garage door open because that's where we let the dog in and out. And that's where we also have our garbage. Maybe we can't do that anymore.

B: Do they need to capture him and tie him to the chair and hold his eyes open with the drops and the classical music in the background? We got to re-acclimate him to the nature?

S: I don't know. Yeah. Got to reprogram him. No, for those bears, they either move them or put him down when they get too comfortable with people.

G: You have to name them something so you can just refer to him. You need some kind of a name.

AJR: Barney.

E: The name is taken to the dinosaur.

AJR: Right. Barney is for dinosaurs.

S: All right. Well, we'll keep our listeners updated if you have any more interesting wildlife encounters. In Pennsylvania, Georgia, what kind of wildlife encounters do you have?

G: In Bethlehem, we have foxes that are actually really cool. There's a big cemetery that's here and there's a couple foxes that live there. They're just classy and cool. There's something about it. You see a fox in the distance, kind of looks over at you. You look over at the fox. You both acknowledge each other. You're just like, yeah, this is kind of cool. And they go back to their business. We have a lot of deer. I've hit, I think, since in my couple of decades living here, I think I've hit three deer.

B: Me too. I'm at three. Yeah.

G: You're at three.

AJR: Badly, like, damaged, killed, injured?

G: No. One was looking at me funny. And I was just like, look, man. I'm just trying to have a good time. I'm just in a restaurant. Just leave me alone. No. Yeah, a car. One was on a highway, ran out into me. The other one was also on like a little side road. And they just bolted out and hit the side of my car. And they're just massive. Just massive.

E: They could take a hit, too.

AJR: They could really kill people. Kill themselves.

G: Yeah, we got raccoons and stuff like that. But yeah, nothing. No bears, thankfully. Thankfully, no bears yet. But just give it time. Just give it time.

S: Yeah, we got all that. We had one sighting of a fisher cat. You guys ever encounter one of those?

G: A fisher cat?

B: I have heard of them. They're tough, man.

S: They're tough, yeah. You recognize it mainly by its call. If you ever watch a UK TV show and they're canned soundtrack for nighttime. It's different than in the United States. When it's nighttime on a TV show in the US, what do you have? You have crickets and frogs or whatever. In the UK, I noticed they have fisher cats screeching in the background.

G: Fischer cats and teacups.

S: Background noise. It's like a child screaming kind of noise.

E: Oh, great. Can one get any sleep in that country?

B: Wow.

AJR: Maybe they find crickets absurdly distracting, whereas I let them. They blend in.

B: Does it sound kind of like this? [plays a scream]

S: I should insert this noise at this point in the show, so probably I'll do that. [plays fisher cat sound] Again, if you play Red Dead Redemption, it's every time it's nighttime and they're screeching in the background like that's a fisher cat.

AJR: You get a zoology degree at the end of that game.

S: You could.

G: Did you hear the story that the USPGA, the people that were broadcasting golf, were broadcasting bird sounds over footage, but it wasn't the local birds? People noticed and complained where they were saying, you're using the wrong birds. These birds wouldn't be in Florida. Basically, there's the wrong soundtrack during this big golf tournament. They had to get the right birds into it.

B: That's awesome.

G: You can't get away with anything.

E: Of course, yeah, people would notice that if you're in a heartbeat.

AJR: I read today about an app. It was like, are you sick of social media? I said, yes. Well, download this other app where basically it's kind of like a Shazam for nature where you put it in your yard and it tells you what kind of birds are doing the bird calls or if it's a squirrel or if it's a whatever.

E: Identify it, yeah.

AJR: I was like, I think I need that.

E: That's pretty neat.

AJR: It would just be rats. Can I talk about rats some more? It would just be rats.

Dumbest Thing of the Week (18:54)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [2]

  • Meteors and Alien Craft

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

E: Yep, dumbest thing of the week. Hey, look, we have two special guests with us this week.

G: Are we it?

AJR: Are we the dumbest thing?

G: Oh, man. Andrea, let's get out of here. Unbelievable. So, so unclass.

E: Sit down. Sit down. Get back. Steve, I don't think they've heard the official song for this segment, the dumbest thing of the week.

S: Oh, boy.

E: And George being the musician, I think he can wholly appreciate this. So here I go. It's the dumbest thing of the week. It's the dumbest thing of I speak. In a world full of fools, this story rules. The dumbest thing of the week. Thank you.

AJR: Very nice.

E: Oh, thank you.

AJR: I'm going to wake up in the middle of the night with that in my head and not remember where I got it.

E: I'll remind you. Don't worry.

AJR: Okay. All right.

E: Avi Loeb, astrophysicist.

B: Oh, not again.

E: Here we go. That's all I had to say. Two words in and take it away, Bob. Astrophysicist and professor of science at Harvard University. He must be tenured because I don't know how someone like Professor Loeb keeps a position at Harvard.

S: Academic freedom.

E: Yeah. Well, he and the late John E. Mack, they met the same criteria, whatever it is, but I don't want to digress too far.

G: He was also on Steve's porch yesterday. It was really weird.

E: But the bear made more sense. Avi Loeb. Yeah. He of the belief that back in 2017, when the space object named ʻOumuamua was detected in our solar system, that this was possibly an alien space probe with a propulsion system disguising itself as a comet. In fact, he wrote a book about this called Extraterrestrial, the First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth, arguing that ʻOumuamua had been nothing less than humanity's first contact with an artifact of extraterrestrial intelligence. There you go. Now, it wasn't simply a object that was outgassing hydrogen as the comet warmed up by the sunlight and propelled it along sort of at an unusual sort of distance and speed. But other than that, yeah, that's what he believes. Now, Professor Loeb just recently claimed that tiny sphericals, or spherules, am I pronouncing that right? Spherules.

S: Spherules or spheres.

E: Spherules, spheres. Yeah, I'll just call them spheres. He and his team, they collected them from the floor of the Pacific Ocean, and they are mysterious alloys. They may be evidence of an interstellar object and even possibly more proof of the existence of an extraterrestrial civilization. Yep. Yeah. I learned about this, and I wound up going to one of Cara's favorite go-to sites for science called The Conversation. And here's what they say. Loeb is linking his finding with the passage of a fireball back in January of 2014 as meteor was observed by sensors of the U.S. Department of Defense that tracks all objects entering the Earth's atmosphere. It was recorded as traveling faster than most meteors and eventually broke up over the South Pacific Ocean near Papua New Guinea. All right. So, and ever since his provocative, well, I'll say provocative thoughts on the ʻOumuamua, Professor Loeb and his team of researchers, they've been pursuing leads to find more interstellar debris floating around our solar system. And as part of that pursuit, they've been looking through data at the Center for Near Earth Object Studies, CNEOS, going through their database looking for objects with unusual orbital characteristics. And a candidate was this particular meteor from January of 2014 due to the objects higher than normal velocity, right? Suggesting perhaps that this object originated from outside our solar system. Interstellar, as they say. So, they traveled to the coordinates where the meteor would have hit the ocean. They dredged the ocean floor with a powerful magnet sled, which picked up dozens of spherical objects, little tiny spheres, molten droplets about half a millimetre in diameter. And he wrote a blog post about it. "We have discovered spherules from the path of the first recognized interstellar meteor", which they're designating IM1. Fine. Here's what they say. They used X-ray fluorescence analysers to get its composition. They found a composition of mostly iron with some magnesium and titanium, but no nickel. This composition is anomalous compared to human-made alloys, known asteroids, and familiar astrophysical sources. Our preliminary analysis implies that the composition of mostly iron with a tenth of that in magnesium and some titanium does not resemble known human-made alloys or familiar asteroids. The fundamental question is obvious. Was this the first recognized interstellar object from 2014 manufactured by a technological civilization? Here we go again.

B: Wow, just leaping to that leap.

E: Oh my gosh, this guy has a penchant for doing this, clearly.

S: That's now his thing. So the thing is, other than that last giant leap into speculation.

AJR: I was sort of with it, yeah.

S: Yeah, the science is fine. So they basically said, we're going to try to see if we can identify from historical NASA records of incoming meteors anything that had characteristics that might mean that it's interstellar. So that was the first one, the 2014 meteor, because it was traveling too fast to have been an object from within the solar system because its velocity is so high that it's like escape velocity for the sun. So sure, that's a pretty good argument that that meteor was probably an interstellar object. Then they went and they looked at the calculated path of the meteor and they dredged up the floor with their magnet to see if they could find anything. And they said they did three other control areas. Again, I don't know where exactly they were. And they had fewer of those spherules. Not none, just fewer. But fine, okay. So even if I buy that at all, good job. You identified a probable interstellar meteor. You found what may be some remnants of it. Because as the meteor is burning up, the spherules are a sign that something was basically liquefied and then rained back down to Earth because when it's in free fall, it becomes a sphere and then it solidifies and there you go. And that's like a standard kind of evidence for comet impacts and meteor impacts and stuff like that. So fine, that's all good evidence.

G: Ergo, Superman is real.

S: Keep in mind, these little spheres are mostly iron.

AJR: Which we are familiar with, as I recall.

S: Okay, so fine, it's not the same ratio as meteors that we find in our solar system. Good, you've already said it's extra stellar. It's an extra stellar object. But what are you telling me, that the aliens made their spaceship out of iron?

AJR: That's how advanced they are.

S: That's what they're talking about. And there's plenty of other interstellar sources of iron that would also fit all of those characters that he's talking about that isn't man-made and isn't a meteor from our solar system. One of the coolest is that when large stars, the largest stars will fuse elements down to iron at their core and then they'll go supernova. And they could basically, the iron core explodes and sends these little fragments of iron throughout the universe. It could be one of those fragments. It would be interstellar, it would be mostly iron with just trace elements otherwise. So that's a possibility. That's cool. So the astronomy here is interesting and cool, but he spoils it by making this unfounded leap to it's aliens. And in interviews, I don't know how many interviews you saw with him, Evan, but he doesn't come right out and say it. He's like, well, we're investigating that.

AJR: But just listing it as a possibility invokes it as a possibility.

E: Of course.

S: And not only that, but the interviewer, the only thing they wanted to talk about was aliens. That was it. That was the whole interview. So you're telling me this could be aliens?

B: He got his hits. He got his clicks.

S: Completely irresponsible.

E: Yep. So a couple other things, Steve, to add to that: scepticism. Peter Brown, meteorite specialist at University of Western Ontario says, basically, it's really hard to know whether he actually picked up. First of all, this debris actually came from that particular comment. He said it essentially would be impossible to say that these particular spheres come from this particular event. So that hasn't even really been proven. This thing has not been tested for age. I mean, how old are these things? Did he rule out all the terrestrial pollutants? And here's something else he said that was interesting. He said that particularly at higher speeds, the US government sensors tend to overestimate the speeds at which they measure these things coming into our atmosphere. So we're not even, I suppose, really 100% sure that this was ever something that did come in at a higher than usual rate. So all those things still need to be investigated. And Brown said, I don't see any evidence that would necessarily bring you into such an extreme hypothesis that this would have anything to do with either alien technology or even necessarily something that's interstellar.

AJR: I mean, it sounds as useful as saying, well, it was aliens that caused the submersible to implode, too. You're like, I guess? I don't know. Like, it could have been aliens who did anything. Like, it just doesn't seem any more reasonable to include here than any other claim of anything that's ever happened.

S: At best, it's an argument from ignorance. But, Evan, you're right. Like, there's four links in this chain, right? And let's focus on the first three. I mean, those are kind of semi-plausible that this was interstellar, that it was not a standard meteorite, you know what I mean? All these things that the things that he found are actually from something are from a meteor and from an interstellar meteor. But that last step is like, wait a minute, let's focus on the first three, the ones that are actually plausible.

B: Yeah, these are Michio Kaku level sound bites just to get attention. It's annoying as hell.

E: Yeah. And in a way, trying to, I think, do perhaps some reputation rebuilding from his prior incidents, which certainly there's been a lot of ridicule of him since he came out back in 2017.

B: Oh, yeah.

G: What is that about? First off, I think this is more likely Iron Age time travellers, but I don't want to get into that. But what is it about these on some level qualified experts who then just veer off? Is it this sort of idea of being blinded by the clicks, being blinded by book deals, by television appearances?

S: I think that's a layer. That's part of it. I think it's also the other part is that he's not a sceptic.

B: Critical thinker. They're not great critical thinkers.

S: You could be a scientist without being a great critical thinker. Absolutely.

G: That's so weird, man.

S: Yeah, so they commit some basic logical errors, like argument from ignorance, for example, and they don't realize it. And then his project that he's working now is like the Galileo project. Like, really, are you that tone deaf that you are going to label your project with the Galileo fallacy?

E: The Einstein collective, right?

B: Oh, my god, that's why he needed Galileo?

S: Yeah.

E: Yeah, he's the pioneer.

S: He's taking the defensive thing of we shouldn't be stigmatizing exploratory science, and you shouldn't. Just because we're looking for something new doesn't mean you should be ridiculing it. No, we're ridiculing you because of your horrible logic, because you're not being a critical thinker.

G: It's the true Scotsman project.

E: It's crankish.

B: Yeah, right?

E: It definitely is.

S: Yeah, exactly.

AJR: Okay. Oh, just remind me what he's a professor of?

S: He's an astrophysicist.

E: Astrophysicist.

AJR: He is. Okay. I was like maybe he's like─

E: An accomplished one.

S: No, he's a legit astronomer.

AJR: Wow.

S: It's just that he decided that he's going to make this his thing.

B: He went to the dark side.

S: Then you write a book, and you get the press, and you get the interviews, and otherwise, nobody would care about his career at all. And so that you can't underestimate the impact of that.

AJR: Well, that's what brings me back to the freedom of speech note that someone said, which is like, yeah, I guess he can say these things, but freedom of speech shouldn't protect scientists pretending to do science, right? Like, we have freedom of speech around things that are maybe social issues, and they're debated, and we argue about that, but I rarely see it we retract scientific articles if there are errors, right? Is it because he's not publishing these things in scientific outlets that they can't get him on that?

S: No, he is, but no, it's not freedom of speech. It's academic freedom.

AJR: Academic freedom.

S: Yeah. So the same thing with John Mack, which with Evan mentioned, who was a Harvard psychiatrist who came to believe that his patients were actually abducted by aliens. He literally fell for his own patients' delusions. Rule number one for psychiatry is you don't believe your own patients' delusions. And his argumentation was horrible, his methods became terrible, he just became involved in just verifying his beliefs rather than trying to disprove them.

E: Isn't that what this smacks of as well?

S: Yes. Yeah, exactly.

AJR: But doesn't academic freedom prevent you from, like, your department could be able to step in and say, well, it's not actually science that you're doing anymore. But I guess if you have tenure, you can't even do that.

S: I mean, there's a very high threshold for doing something because somebody's on the fringe. Unless you're sleeping with your students, you're pretty much okay.

AJR: I mean, we've had people in political science get in trouble for falsifying data. And that is grounds for maybe for these were younger scholars who ended up getting their job offers rescinded. So they weren't tenured and they didn't there wasn't that. But people do get fired for falsifying results.

E: Oh, for fraud, yeah.

AJR: Or like you said, sleeping with students. But I guess the fringe.

E: This isn't a case of fraud, though. I don't think he's doctoring any of his data. He's just drawing these conclusions based on─

AJR: That aren't fair, critical.

E: ─[inaudible] arguments.

AJR: Yeah, I see.

S: And that's not unreasonable, having a wide berth academic freedom. You're going to have to allow some some cranks in there in order to make sure that people who have legit but out there ideas have the freedom to pursue that. But yeah, but in the modern media environment that we're in the downside is just magnified significantly. The only thing the media wanted to talk about was this. So you're saying this could be aliens, right? That was it. The whole interview.

G: And then that's a badge of honour, too. If someone like that does get like, let's say, kicked out of a university, then they often flip it around and will be like, look─

S: What are they try to hide.

G: What are they trying to hide? I had these great ideas and they threw me out. So buy my book. You can't win.

AJR: I mean, you see it with with anti-vaxxer sorts of campaigns and other things, too, like there are serious health consequences. But you're right. They just form another rebellion university.

G: Right.

S: Yeah, exactly.

E: Dumbest thing of the week. Thank you Avi Loeb.

S: Let's talk about some actual science.

AJR: So hold on? So there aren't aliens? That's that's my headline. That's one of us is an alien.

S: No, the takeaway is aliens are flying in iron spaceships. That's the takeaway.

G: And they abducted Jay and Cara. So that's where.

E: Oh, no.

AJR: And sent a bear.

G: Sent a bear.

AJR: Yeah, it was an iron bear. Realistic.

News Items[edit]

Leqembi for Alzheimer's (35:07)[edit]

S: OK. So the the FDA has recently approved Leqembi as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

B: What? Really?

S: Yes. And this is kind of a big deal. It really is. But let me give you back up a little bit. So first of all, the FDA gave a kind of a preliminary approval, what's called accelerated approval to this drug in January of this year based upon their new relatively new, like a few years old, accelerated approval program. And so which they created this pathway, this accelerated approval pathway. Here's a quote from the FDA "To approve drugs for serious conditions where there is an unmet medical need based on clinical data demonstrating the drugs effect on a surrogate end point that is reasonably likely to predict a clinical benefit to patients." So that was a departure from historic FDA procedures. So normally, in order to get the drug approved for a disease, you have to prove that it actually treats the disease. That there's improvement in a clinical outcome in reasonably in excess of any risk. But they said, all right, so we're going to for the first time approve drugs, not without proof that they actually work, but based entirely on a surrogate end point. Or you can also say a biomarker. In other words, this protein is going up or down or whatever. And that might indicate a benefit to the disease. So we'll use that to approve the drug. But only only accelerated approval, not full approval. And they'll make it contingent on eventually getting clinical evidence showing that it works, that it actually works. So two years ago, the FDA approved Aduhelm, which is another Alzheimer's drug, also based on this pathway with only evidence that it reduces a biomarker without clinical evidence. And that drug is still being studied to see if it actually works clinically. This drug got the accelerated approval in January, but now they just approved it for traditional approval based upon a recent study showing that it reduces the progression of Alzheimer's by 20 percent.

E: Wow.

G: What was the biomarker?

S: Well, it's amyloid protein and the buildup of amyloid plaques. So Leqembi is a monoclonal antibody. There's been a slew of monoclonal antibodies coming out in the last decade. This really is almost a revolution in medicine that's happening. These are antibodies, they're proteins, and just the technology of commercially making these monoclonal antibodies that are humanized, that they're safer and they're not rejected. And they could target them against a protein. So if you have a clinical target, give it a receptor or something somewhere that you could say, if we block that, it'll help this disease. Instead of making a drug to do it, you can make a monoclonal antibody to do it. But these are proteins, so you can't eat them, so there's no pill, you have to get an injection or an IV infusion. So this treatment, the Leqembi, which is lecanumab, so all the monoclonal antibodies end in Mab, that's how you know. So lecanumab is every two weeks you get an IV infusion. That's the treatment. So just forever, you get an IV infusion every two weeks. The estimate is that it will cost per patient per year $26,500.

E: Not really affordable.

S: It's a lot. At Aduhelm, they estimated at like $55,000. This is less expensive than that.

AJR: It's a bargain.

S: Monoclonal antibodies, the ones I'm familiar with, the low end is like $6,000-$7,000 a year, but it goes up from there. So anyway, it would be very, very expensive. They only studied it in early onset Alzheimer's, so not advanced, probably because it would have the best chance of working. The clinical data looks good, and the primary endpoint was robustly statistically significant. It's a clinically significant benefit. All the secondary measures were better. There's really no red flags in terms of does this work? Yeah, it seems like it does work. And it also showed that it decreased the amyloid that it's targeting as well. There are some significant side effects. It can cause some brain swelling and brain bleeding. It's an inflammatory attack against proteins in your brain. So inflammation is kind of part of the package here. It caused some kind of reaction in 26% of patients, but it caused the edema in 12.6%. 12.6% is a significant percentage.

B: How significant is the edema, though?

S: Most of those patients were asymptomatic from the swelling and just had micro hemorrhages, but some of them could be significant. They can get headaches and dizziness from it. And if the bleed is significant, it can be even life-threatening. So it can be a significant side effect. I do think, though, that if you are facing Alzheimer's disease, you probably would take this risk. You would think, yeah, it's not perfect, but acceptable. Obviously, this is the first drug that actually alters the disease in Alzheimer's. The first what we would call disease-modifying treatment. All previous treatments were just symptomatic. They might improve your memory while you're on the medication, but they're not altering the course of the disease. This is the first one that's actually slowing down progression of the disease. That is significant, hugely significant. Now, within the community, it's huge news because it's really the first clinical confirmation we've received that all this stuff we think about what's happening in Alzheimer's disease actually is correct.

E: OK, so that's a good indicator that you're on the right path.

S: Yeah, because for the last 50 years, we've been studying Alzheimer's collectively, the royal we. We've been studying Alzheimer's, and we're discovering all this stuff, all these biomarkers, all this stuff that's happening in the brain and in brain cells of Alzheimer's patients. And we don't know if any of it is actually the cause of the disease or the result of the disease. Is this something that just happens because of Alzheimer's or is this driving Alzheimer's, is this causing it? And so until you close that loop and you say, if we interfere with this process, people actually either they get better or it slows down progression, you just don't know for sure that you're dealing with an actual cause. So this is really the first clinical confirmation that the beta amyloid hypothesis is really clinically, like part of probably not the whole thing, but part of the cause of Alzheimer's. So that's huge.

G: So how long before the misinformed fringe advocates start complaining about this as being a big ploy? Because it's $26,000 a year.

S: Big pharma, yeah.

G: Big pharma just, yeah. What, a year maybe?

S: Yeah, who knows? I'm sure there's going to be some kind of conspiracy theory about it. It does abode well for the other drug, the Aduhelm, because it's a similar mechanism. So if this works, hopefully the other one will work as well. And I think, I hope that this is just sort of the first drug, that this isn't the end of this research process. This is just, okay, we're on the right track. Great.

AJR: Like this is doing something.

S: Yeah, let's keep going in this direction.

B: Because you don't have to cure it. All you got to do is delay it enough where it's like it'll just never happen because you're not going to live to be 120 to really see it.

S: Exactly. And not that much, because again, most people get it late in life, and most people survive 10, 11 years after diagnosis. So if you think, yeah, if somebody gets diagnosed at 70, if you slow it down maybe by 50% or 60%, that might be enough. You want to get to the point where you die with Alzheimer's, but not of Alzheimer's.

AJR: That's going to be huge for quality of life of the families of everyone.

S: It's not like you're just surviving longer, but horribly demented. The hope is that you're retaining some of yourself and your independence and your functionality.

B: And you only forget the people you want to forget.

AJR: I'm already doing that just as a voluntary sort of thing. Steve, what do you think is the next horizon of improvement? Is it more of this that do it better, or is it like now that we know this, we can explore these other possible mechanisms?

B: Good question.

S: Are we at the limit of the amyloid approach for treating Alzheimer's? So we'll see. We'll see how well Aduhelm works.

B: That's all you got, Steve. We'll see?

S: In the pipeline.

G: Can't you just jump to some conclusion about iron spheres or something? It's aliens, right?

S: There are other things going on. Again, Alzheimer's disease is probably not one disease. It's probably different people have different diseases.

B: Syndrome?

S: No, it's not a syndrome. It is a disease, but there's different subtypes. For example, and they did look at this in this study, there is a genetic variation. The APOE protein, which is involved with the beta amyloid. So if you have one version of that protein, you have a higher risk of Alzheimer's than if you have another version. Everyone has two copies of everything, because we have a pair of chromosomes. So if you have two bad copies, your risk of Alzheimer's is ten times the baseline. If you have one bad and one good, it's four times, and if you have two good, then it's that baseline. The people who had two copies of the bad gene did not respond to treatment. And the people who had one copy responded, but not as well. And the people who had no copies responded the best. So that's interesting too. It's also like it's a double whammy. It's like, yeah, you have a high risk of getting Alzheimer's and you won't respond to treatment. But what does that mean about them? Like they have something else. It's like a different, there's a slightly different biochemical process going on.

AJR: And therefore the intervention obviously has to be different.

S: Yeah, so maybe, again, there's tau protein is another one that could be a target. There's other things that are happening that are either breakdown products that are building up, plaque formation, fibular rectangles, there's cell death, all this stuff happening. The hope is we'll end up with a cocktail of two or three treatments that add it together. Like if they each whack it back by 20%, we end up with that 50, 60% decrease. And then it becomes, it's not like destiny. It's just, yeah, you have it, we could manage it. It's a manageable chronic illness. But of course the big concern and this will vary country by country is, okay, there's six million people with Alzheimer's in the United States.

E: And that's going up.

S: Yeah, even if it's just like, all right, let's just give it to like one million of those 6.7 or whatever million is, that's $26.5 billion a year just for the drug, not including other associated costs. For some countries, that's going to be unsustainable. And then you got it. And we're just inventing drugs that we're not going to be able to afford to give to people.

AJR: Right, or only the rich people.

E: Yeah, all kinds of questions come along.

S: Yeah, yeah. So it's great, but it's not.

E: It's not a panacea.

S: Yeah, it's complicated.

AJR: The most encouraging part really is, Steve, what you said about the confirmation.

S: Yeah, totally.

AJR: The thinking is along the right track. Like to me, that seems like there's very serious problems with allocating the drug and affording the drug and who helps and all of that. But that's very exciting just as like a research breakthrough that we're like, we're not just casting it out completely in the dark.

S: Absolutely.

E: Decades to get to that point.

S: It also kind of justifies the FDA advanced approval pathway, which I think is kind of a 50-50 on that. I could see the reason for it, but the predictability of biomarkers is not great. I guess it depends on how it gets used.

G: Are there other types of illnesses that you think would be good for biomarker viability?

S: They basically said we're going to do this for neurodegenerative diseases, and they've already done one for ALS too. That's the other one.

AJR: I was going to say, Steve, I'm itching to ask you about ALS, but I don't want to derail the conversation just as far as treatment on that because it seems like another one of these black box mystery.

S: Same thing. There's a lot of stuff going on, a lot of biomarkers. We've already had a drug that slows it down by about 10%, 20%. That was approved maybe 15 years ago. There's lots of things in the pipeline, even some recent drugs.

B: Monoclonal antibodies?

S: Well, now they're starting to turn monoclonal antibodies towards ALS as well. So it's kind of in the same boat as Alzheimer's. There's some encouraging treatments, but it's still a long way. No cure. It's just, yeah, you could survive for a few more months if you take this from the beginning.

B: Well, who knows? When they finally do come out with a monoclonal treatment for ALS, maybe it will be dramatic.

S: Yeah. Again, we'll see. But again, part of the ALS is the same problem. It's like we have so many targets, we don't know which is the right one to really be targeting. All right. Let's move on.

Jeffrey Epstein Not Murdered (48:48)[edit]

S: George.

G: Yeah.

S: Finally, have we solved this deep, deep mystery about how Jeffrey Epstein died?

G: It looks like we have. This story reminds me of what I call the novella postulate, which is when deciding between conspiracy and incompetence, always lean towards incompetence.

E: Yeah, it's like computer problems and user error.

G: Exactly. Unplug it and then replug it in, basically. So Jeffrey Epstein, as we all know, was suspected of sex trafficking. He was arrested. Allegedly he ran a sex trafficking ring with young women. He had lots of very rich, wealthy, and famous people that would visit his island and that he worked with and stuff like that. He was jailed in July of 2019. And while he was awaiting trial, he was in the New York Metropolitan Correctional Center or MCC. About a month after he was in jail, he killed himself. He was supposed to be under close watch. And so there was a lot of questions, whether it was a suicide or not. Tons of conspiracy started being floated about because of his high profile acquaintances, many of whom were rich or prominent or famous or whatever. And obviously famous people don't kill themselves ever. So the far right started pushing a whole murder plot and things like that. Subsequently, the U.S. Justice Department decided, the Inspector General from the U.S. Justice Department decided to investigate whether or not Jeffrey Epstein's suicide was legit. And surprise, surprise. So it does turn out that he, yes, he died by suicide. Suicide was what transpired. However, the report that was that was given by the Justice Department was pretty aggressive in its criticism of the MCC, the Metropolitan Correction Center and the Bureau of Prisons. So the inspector basically said that negligence, misconduct and really poor staff performance all contributed to Epstein killing himself. They found serious staffing issues for one. There was one guard there that worked for 24 hours straight because there weren't enough people to cover shifts. Security cameras weren't working. They just didn't work. One of the conspiracies was that the camera was turned off so they couldn't see what Epstein was doing. And it wasn't the camera was turned off. It just was busted and it was never fixed.

S: Half of these cameras are busted.

G: They're busted. And also because of his status, Epstein got special treatment. So they found pictures of his cell where he had extra clothes and stuff on his bed and on his floor. And he wasn't supposed to have an extra bed sheet or extra clothes. The exact thing that he used to hang himself. There was also he was supposed to be housed with a cellmate, which he wasn't. He was earlier on housed with a cellmate. And the cellmate warned everybody, hey, he's talking about suicide. That was kind of ignored. Two officers were supposed to check on Epstein every 30 minutes throughout the night. And they didn't check once during the entire night. They didn't because they were either distracted or they just weren't doing their job or whatever. On top of that, guards falsified records and they lied to investigators to cover their asses that they weren't doing their job correctly. So staffing, broken cameras, all of this stuff is horrible. So much so that that that that prison has now been shut down.

B: Really?

G: Yeah. Or at least that section of it. So also the city's medical examiner's office ruled that the injuries that Epstein had were consistent with hanging as opposed to consistent with being strangled or being some having some external force on him. So it's not the first time that the significant job performance and management failure on part of the BOP personnel has been found. There's been consistent reports of like widespread disregard for their own policies, like checking on prisoners, being aware of suicide, watch all those kinds of things. So this rather in-depth report says, no, there was no conspiracy. That guy just probably knew what his fate was going to be and died by suicide. I'm reminded of the Petraeus scandal, which that was the first thing popped in my head. If you're if you're unaware this is when the director of the CIA, David Petraeus, had an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, and it was found out. So the head of the CIA couldn't hide his affair. So people talk about, oh, yeah, these vast, vast conspiracies involving dozens or hundreds of people. The guy who was running the CIA couldn't basically hide the fact that he couldn't keep it in his pants. So like he was the director for. We ended up resigning. He was a retired forester general. He ran the CIA. And while he was running the CIA, he had a biographer that was writing a thing. And then Paula Broadwell, they ended up having an affair. And so then, yeah, the FBI found out and it triggered his resignation, which is the go-to story for any kind of any kind of conspiracy I always talk about. So that's what this reminded me of.

S: I like to say they couldn't hide a blowjob in the Oval Office.

G: Exactly. Exactly. So Jeffrey Epstein died by suicide.

S: But people just don't find that answer satisfying.

G: Of course not.

E: No, because of the horrific nature of his crimes.

S: Yeah, I think there's a few things going on here just in terms of like critical thinking, skeptical lessons. So there's something called hyperactive agency detection, right? Where essentially we like to think that when things happen, especially big things, they were deliberate. Somebody engineered it to happen, right? That's our go-to sort of gut reaction. Something big happens. Who made that happen? It wasn't an accident. Shit just doesn't happen.

B: That was meticulously planned.

S: It was engineered, right? That was a deliberate outcome. And then the next question is, well, who benefits? Quibono, right? Who would have benefited from that? They must have engineered it. So that's sort of just where our minds are because that narrative is just satisfying.

AJR: It's comforting. Yeah.

G: We hate the idea of random chaos. We hate this idea that, oh a president can be killed by a random weirdo. History can take a sharp right turn because of one lunatic. That doesn't sit very well with this idea of how civilization is supposed to work. So it has to be a massive thing.

B: People don't like the idea of not having control. So this puts control in the hands of somebody, not just random forces, which is kind of scary.

AJR: And a hyper kind of control that managed to pull something off without revealing its secrets.

B: Beyond human capability, actually.

AJR: And they're just distracting us with these affairs and blowjobs. That's what's going on.

G: We want to see Epstein on trial. We want to see that. We want to watch that movie. We want to see all the witnesses come out. We want to hear all these stories. So yes, he's not around anymore. But that's an unsatisfying kind of narrative because we caught the guy. We caught the guy. And now there gets to be a trial and, oh, now he's gone.

E: Yeah, but he could have implicated the other people who also were likely part of the criminal enterprise that was going on here.

G: Oh, sure. That's part of the appeal.

E: That opportunity is largely gone now because of this. And again, it does feed into it, but it also doesn't make it illegitimate in a way. It's not an invalid point.

S: It's a good way to generate a hypothesis. So if you're doing an investigation like, well, who had the motivation to pull off the crime? That's fine. It doesn't prove they're guilty. That's the leap of logic. OK, that's a person of interest, but you can't arrest them and put them on trial because you have that one suspicion that they may have benefited from the outcome. So that's the problem. There are things that are good for generating hypotheses or guiding an investigation. That doesn't mean it's good enough to conclude that that's what actually happened. But I think what a lot of you are touching on is something else that I think is important to realize. And I do think there also is this bias that we have just collectively, and some obviously more than others, that the world is being run by mature, competent adults.

E: Oh, yeah, competency.

S: And when we know that the world is being run by petty, mediocre people, because we are generally petty, mediocre people, just human beings.

B: I know I am.

AJR: I've got to write this down. Yeah, this is good.

S: Yeah, I mean, there are exceptional people who are very serious and are mature and some people who are brilliant. It's great when that kind of person gets into a position that they should be in. But I think that's more the exception than the rule. And I think it's partly because of movies.

G: Mostly because of that. It's like that's always the big spy network that's so efficient and everyone's doing their job so brilliantly and they've got this major overarching plan. But it's like, think of every organization you've ever been in. There's always douchebags in it that just don't know what the hell they're doing. And it feels like, how are we even doing this? How is this even working?

AJR: I mean, most CIA meetings are probably dreadfully boring and filled with touch points and circle backs.

B: Who ate all those donuts again?

S: I think that comedies are probably a lot closer to the truth than dramas.

G: Oh, yeah.

S: When you think about M.A.S.H. or something. In fact, a police officer once said to me, the most accurate show on television about policing is Barney Miller, which is a comedy. Because day to day, most people are goofballs. That's just the human condition. And we're not these always ultra-serious things. That requires a culture of professionalism that has to really be imposed. It's not the default. It doesn't happen automatically.

G: Did you ever see The Informant? That's a movie, a Matt Damon film, where he plays a guy that dealt with the lysine price fixing. It sounds like a very dry, boring kind of thing, but it's a hilarious film. It's a Steven Soderbergh film. It's based on a true story. And it just shows at every level sort of incompetence that's dealing with the big, big industries and police and the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the prosecutors. And it's just level upon level. And the entire cast are all stand-up comics, but they're all playing it straight. So it's a really, really good film.

B: I haven't seen that.

G: Yeah, it's really great. It's called The Informant.

AJR: SGU movie night.

G: Yeah. But it's exactly what Steve's saying. It's like this comedy is way closer to how things actually work.

S: Yeah, totally.

AJR: Then these cutting edge, sharp shooting FBI people sneaking around and solving whatever.

E: Yep, a lot of illusions broken with reality here.

S: Also, it always reminds me of Ed and Lorraine Warren. And this is why. Because we investigated Ed and Lorraine Warren, and they were this cranky old couple who didn't have the slightest clue. And then you watch the movies about them, and they're like these really serious, competent researchers. And the disconnect was massive.

G: So wait, who is this? Explain who this is. I don't know.

AJR: Yeah, I don't know this.

S: Ed and Lorraine Warren if you live in New England they're famous ghost hunters. The Conjuring movie series.

B: Oh, not just the Conjuring, but the Amityville Horror.

S: Amityville Horror.

E: They got involved with that case.

S: So we investigated them way back in the day, like before the podcast.

B: It was hilarious.

S: It was hilarious. They're like these cranks, man. They're like the most ridiculous, unserious people you could imagine. You watch them portrayed in the movie, and they're like giving these serious academic looks at each other. You're like, oh my god, that is so not them.

B: I watched the Conjuring, and I was like, oh my god, do we have to watch this? And I kind of enjoyed it. I liked the actors, and they were not anything like the real people that I met.

E: Not even close.

AJR: Wow, so you guys met them and talked to them and everything?

B: Oh, yeah. Interviewed them.

E: A one-year investigation.

AJR: Wow.

B: We took their best evidence. We said, give us your best evidence. They gave us a videotape of a guy disappearing, and we ripped it apart.

AJR: Wow.

B: Evan took it to his company at the time and did magic to it.

E: Figured it out in five seconds. Yeah, there's a guy standing in front of the screen. Someone hit pause, basically. The guy walks out of frame, and they resume the recording.

S: That was the extent of their evidence.

AJR: That's called all TikTok videos.

B: And we proved it. They didn't even care.

G: Wow.

E: That was the level of their sophistication.

B: I remember the quote. Right, Steve? I don't care what you say. That guy disappeared.

S: That kid disappeared.

B: Quote unquote right there.

G: Oh, so maybe they killed Jeffrey Epstein. That makes sense now.

E: With iron spheres.

S: But the best quote, though, and Perry loved this quote, was from Lorraine Warren.

B: Say it.

E: Yes.

S: What happened to you boys? Was it the science? Yeah, Lorraine. It was the science.

AJR: She said that to you guys?

S: Yeah.

B: The science did it to us.

AJR: The science happened. Wow.

S: That's what did it.

AJR: Did you say, yeah, I guess? I guess that's what happened.

E: The science. As if it's a disease.

AJR: I always got a case of the science.

G: Do not understand what you are saying. Explain, please.

E: Like getting the vapors.

B: Bazinga.

E: I have the science.

When Will Betelgeuse Supernova? (1:02:51)[edit]

S: All right, Bob. Is Betelgeuse finally going to blow? What's going on?

B: Oh, boy, oh, boy. Yes, the star Betelgeuse is in the news again. Some researchers are now saying that they may have new evidence implying that it's bigger than we thought, which means that it could brighten our skies with a supernova, not in a hundred thousand years like all those other pesky scientists believe, but maybe a few decades, just a handful of decades. Amazing stuff here. So this newspaper is, the paper is called The Evolutionary Stage of Betelgeuse Inferred from its Pulsation Periods. First author, Hideyuki Saio from the Astronomical Institute Graduate School of Science at Tohoku University in Japan, and the paper is going to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomy Society. This was such a fascinating news item. So many interesting nooks and crannies, tangents all over the place. I loved researching this. First, let me get the pronunciation out of the way. It used to have weird, slightly different pronunciations. Betelgeuse, blah, blah, blah. But this is, I think this is real. Tim Burton's movie, Betelgeuse, seems to really have had an impact, even among astronomers who say, yeah, I just say Betelgeuse now.

E: Why not?

B: And I think-

G: As long as you say it three times, it's all good.

B: So Betelgeuse, so that's pretty, I think most people are saying that, and I think it just kind of like, that's it. It's Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse, the star in question is, it's a red supergiant star, hundreds of solar diameters, hundreds of light years away. The 10th brightest star in the night sky. That's, I didn't know it was in the top 10. It's often thought of as the right shoulder of the constellation Orion, the hunter, right? It has a very distinctive muted orange-red color. And that is probably the best way to dramatically show someone, if they need it, to show them that not all stars in the sky are just these white points of light. You look long and hard at Betelgeuse, you're like, damn, I see it. It's kind of orange-reddish, which is kind of cool if you don't really look for it. So now those are some of the common facts. Some of the uncommon facts. Did you know that to many in Brazil, Betelgeuse is actually the hind leg of a caiman, which is a crocodilian. So they look up at the sky and they're looking for this hind leg of a caiman or the foreleg of a turtle. In Japan, it's the rim of a ceremonial drum. And in Peru, this one's good, Peru, Betelgeuse is one of the four vultures about to devour a criminal.

S: That's just silly.

B: Yeah, I like that one too. But most importantly, for this news item, Betelgeuse is a pulsating semi-regular variable star, which means it literally pulsates. It gets slightly bigger and smaller, decreasing and increasing its light output in a periodic but kind of irregular way. Its pulsations vary and they've identified the cycles. It varies every 125 days, every 400 days, even every 2200 days. There are detectable cycles that they have documented. Now this brightening and dimming seems to have gotten more dramatic in recent years. And whenever it happens, usually you're going to see lots of speculation online. People are saying, is it going to blow this time? Because we're just waiting. We know that this star is going to blow. It's a mature, it's an older super giant star. We know this is going to happen. There's going to be a supernova. It's really just a matter of when. But things got even weirder right before the pandemic. Betelgeuse dimmed by an astonishing two thirds, two thirds. That was huge. The dimmest that's ever been seen. It was so much so that they call it now the great dimming. They actually named the event the great dimming.

AJR: And it predicts pandemics.

B: Is that the takeaway? Ah, who knows? Is there a connection? Of course not. It turns out that the star didn't really dim though, like we thought. So you've heard of CMEs, coronal mass ejections.

E: Of course.

B: Our sun does it. Our sun does it not infrequently. It just belches out a large ball of plasma wrapped in magnetism. And this is from its coronal outer atmosphere. But a CME, as bad as that is, is nothing relatively speaking. We now think that the great dimming, I think Hubble and some other observatories detected that. The great dimming was at least significantly caused not by a coronal mass ejection, but a surface mass ejection. Every hear of that, Steve?

S: A surface mass ejection?

B: A surface mass ejection. This was so cool. And SME originates not from the star's tenuous outer atmosphere, the corona, but the photosphere, the very surface of the sun. Calculations put it when Betelgeuse did it, potentially 400 billion times the mass ejected compared to a typical solar CME. 400 billion times the mass. The thinking now is that the mass that Betelgeuse ejected, then that mass cooled and started blocking the light causing the observed dimming. So it was this SME that caused the dimming and not really the star itself. Although the fact that the SME happened actually did cause some dimming, but the major dimming we saw was probably significantly contributed to by this surface mass ejection. Cool. Never seen before. That's never been seen before in a normal star. Okay, so now let's get to the crux of the paper. What the hell are they saying and why? What the crux is, the contention of the researchers is that Betelgeuse is not merely a mature supergiant. It's really, really mature. Not like Bob and Steve mature, but like Bob and Steve's mom mature. That's the level of mature. I mean, it's like really end of life, kind of closer to end of life. Not that our mom's about to die, but she's 86.

S: Yes, so you're going to go with that analogy.

G: Keep going, yeah.

B: I should have stopped at the joke part and yeah, whatever. Okay, so by that I mean, what does that even mean, Bob? By that I mean that the star has not only fused hydrogen to helium, which everybody agrees has happened. It's happening in our sun, but the researchers contend that it's already fused all of its helium into carbon as well.

E: Oh, here we go. The cycle's begun.

B: And they go even a step further, which nobody has gone to before. They say, they contend that it's almost done fusing all of the carbon into heavier elements as well. And if that's truly the case, if they're right about that, then once carbon is gone, then it should only take a few decades. This is where the few decades is coming from. If the carbon burning fusion is really almost done, then it's only a few decades to go through the remaining elements, of course culminating in iron, which as we know prevents further fusion, which lets gravity basically win that iconic battle between the gravity and the outward pressure from the fusion. That collapses the star and then it partially rebounds and bam, you've got the classic core collapse supernova. So that's what they think is happening, that this star is older than we think and larger actually.

G: Bob, how far away is it from us?

B: We're not sure. And that's part of the problem. And I'll segue to that in just a paragraph here because that's actually very important. It's a good question, George. So the question then becomes, well, why? Why do they think Betelgeuse is near to the end of its life? Then basically all the other researchers, they link it back to the Betelgeuse pulsations. It goes back to those cycles of dimming and brightening. That's why they think this. So unlike other scientists, they believe that the largest Betelgeusean, I wanted to say that word, the largest Betelgeusean pulsation period, that one that lasts 2,200 days, that is the most significant. It's the fundamental pulsation. And because that one, the 2,200 day and not, for example, the 420 day one, the 2,200 day one, if that's the fundamental period that's happening, the implication then that the star is larger because there's a direct link between that pulsation period and the diameter of the star. If that's the case, then that means the star is larger than we think, maybe 1,300 times the sun's radius. And that's not actually impossible. Thinking about it, you're like, well, wait a second, how do we not know? It was a little surprising to me, but it really isn't because we're not sure how far away it is because it could be merely very large and 540 light years away or perhaps it's truly immense and 900 light years distant. So they can't really pin it down that close. It's difficult. In a lot of cases, it's very difficult to be that precise. And if that's correct, it's farther away and bigger than we think, then it's really a simple step to believe that the carbon burning is almost done. That would make it a much farther along in its life cycle than we think.

S: But Bob, I want it to go supernova now. I want to see it.

AJR: I've got plans.

B: And that segues nicely into my down-to-earth-like. Unfortunately, I still think Betelgeuse won't blow probably for centuries or even more likely millennia. I'm still there. We'll see what peer review. It hasn't gone through peer review. It's not finished. We'll see what peer review says. And we'll also eventually see what maybe even further research reveals. But I want this to be so true so badly. One of the reasons is why? Because we've been ripped off in terms of seeing nearby supernovas. Humanity has been ripped off. It's really sad. We should see, on average, one supernova in the Milky Way every century. And it's been 419 years. We are throwing snake eyes. It's really kind of sad.

AJR: Who do we submit our complaints to for this?

B: Well, the big culprit is probably all the nasty dust in our galaxy that is obscuring some of these supernovas that have gone off at the far end of the galaxy but have been so obscure that we didn't even see them. I think that's the theory now that they have happened, but we just haven't seen them. But I still feel extremely ripped off. The last one that was spotted, the last one spotted, was that in the Milky Way naked eye was Johannes Kepler in 1604. And get this, this was four years before the invention of the telescope. How's that for a cosmic slap in the face? This amazing thing that's not going to happen for centuries. And oh, here's a great invention, but it's not going to happen for four years.

AJR: It's almost as though the cosmos don't care about us, and that can't be true.

B: They don't. And that's so sad.

G: If Betelgeuse goes, though, if it goes nova, won't it sort of flash out the night sky for us for a significant amount of time?

B: Well, so the thinking now is that if it did go, it would be, first of all, it would be the astronomical event of the millennium. It would be so gargantuan. Safety wouldn't be a concern since it's well past the 160 light years, which is the best estimate now that you need to be beyond before you can see some bad side effects of having a supernova go off. But it would be visible. They are predicting that it would be visible like the full moon, even during the day. So a daylight supernova visible to the naked eye. That is the dream.

S: Two to three weeks.

G: Oh that's it? Just two to three weeks? Oh, I thought it was like for years.

S: No, no, two to three weeks.

B: It could be weeks or maybe even months.

G: Oh, that's cool. Because I was all worried that if this goes off, that we won't have stars for like five, 10 years.

B: Oh, no, it wouldn't be that long. But yeah, that's interesting. That would be a very bittersweet side effect, wouldn't it? But still, I want to see.

AJR: But we get off work for that, right?

B: I want to see during the day, like look at that. That is an exploding star. I'll end with this. Hopefully these researchers are correct. And Betelgeuse already blew up centuries ago, right? And the light's almost here. Because remember, this is probably over 600 light years away. So it already happened, probably, maybe. So that would be nice. It's already on its way here, and we're just waiting for it to happen. I'm going to be, though, on the lookout for news that a pulse of neutrinos have been detected from the direction of Betelgeuse. Because we all know the first thing to escape from a supernova is not the photons or anything else. It's the neutrinos. They just go through it. So that's the first thing that we will see. And when I read that, when I read that in the news, I'm going to go out on my lawn chair and look in the direction of that hind leg of a caiman in the sky. And I'm going to wait for the show. And that's what I'm going to do. But if that never happens, I have a backup plan. I may have to start saying over and over, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse. And maybe it'll happen. You never know.

AJR: Neutrino, neutrino, neutrino.

E: I learned about neutrinos from 2012, that documentary.

S: Yeah, right, the documentary. All right, thanks, Bob.

Can AI Solve Math Problems? (1:16:00)[edit]

S: All right, Andrea, at first when you see this, and I've said this to a couple of people, the reaction is the same. Can artificial intelligence solve math problems? What do you mean, like a calculator? Of course they can. But this is not about that, though.

AJR: Right. So this is about AI coming for mathematics. So the actual doing of mathematics as opposed to the arithmetic and calculations that most of us think of when we think of mathematics. And this was an article that was in the New York Times July 2nd. And I've been following, and I know I've talked on this show with all of you about, and I'm sure everyone listening has been listening to articles or reading about, AI is coming for fill in the blank, right? Art, music, science, comedy, this and that. But the mathematics one gave me pause, and it gave me so much pause, in fact, that I like saw the push alert and I saw the headline, and I thought, I actually can't face the possibility that mathematics could be something that AI comes for, even though, yes, sure, computers do math. But so I finally broke down and read the article, and then as we were approaching the show, I was like, I can't think of a group of people that I'd rather talk about this with, so I'm desperate to hear what you all think. But here's the gist of the article. The gist of the article is, AI is coming for mathematics. What do we do about it? And the two things I thought were most interesting that I, above and beyond AI kind of encroaching into every field you can think of, one, so computers have been part of math and not just calculators, but part of doing math and problem solving and reasoning for a lot longer than I thought, and I'll say a little bit about some of the things I thought were most interesting there, and maybe you all already knew that. I didn't, apart from my TI-83, I didn't realize we were using math for things like proofs. And then the second piece that's interesting is that it poses questions about AI with respect to math and what it means to do mathematics. And that itself is sort of interesting as a non-mathematician, but someone who's had math envy for as long as I can remember, it's always interesting to just hear mathematicians talk about what doing math is and how AI intersects with that. And then there's also some general questions about what are we doing when we're doing machine learning and computation by brute force versus reasoning. And everything around critical thinking, skeptical thinking seems to be the thing that computers still can't do. Question mark, can they ever get to a point where they can? And I feel like if computers can do mathematics, they can do everything else. So I don't know about you guys, but I did not realize that we have been using math to do things like validate and test our own reasoning and kind of pressure test proofs since earlier in the 1900s. And so we've been thinking about turning kind of the geometric propositions that we do when we do proofs and things like that into formulas that we can type into computers with our zeros and ones since the 1900s. And even as early as the 1960s, there was a proof assistant called Automath, very creatively named, Automath. You're like, are you sure you weren't just saying calculator? But you're not. You're saying Automath. So the way that works is a mathematician would translate their proof into code, and then the computer would help check if their reasoning is correct. So think of it as like a spell checker, like Clippy on Microsoft Word, for your...

B: Ha! Clippy.

AJR: Yeah, right? Clippy. The lost art of Clippy is a tragedy that Gen Z will never appreciate.

E: True.

AJR: But it will check if your reasoning is correct. And then eventually we built this body of verifications where we say, okay, this reasoning is right. And we used to have to do that with pen and paper. And again, that's not the same thing as, Steve, where you started this, we're saying, am I calculating this or solving for X? It's like, truly, is this logic right? And so by translating each code, you can get that. And in fact, do any of you know the first mathematical theorem that was proved with the help of a computational tool? Does anybody know what that is?

E: The first one? I don't know.

AJR: I'll give you a hint. It was proved in 1976. First mathematical theorem, first major mathematical theorem.

G: Bicentennial theorem?

E: Fermat's first theorem.

AJR: Fermat's first. Good guess, but no. The first major theorem proved with the help of computational, and this is brute force, we're just going through and saying, does this work, was the four color theorem. The theorem that you need, four colors are enough to fill a map so that you have no two that are next to each other. So that was the first one that someone was like, I'm going to run this reasoning by Automath or by whatever version they were using, and they did it. Much more recently, there's actually, you can check online now, it's a free online open source, you can download some software as well, proof assistant system called Lean, so like Grammarly for mathematicians. And it uses what's called AI-inspired logic, whatever that means, but basically more brute force to do more verifying of theorems. And right now, it's actively being used by mathematicians, and there's sort of purists who are saying we wouldn't use it, but it's really being used quite widely, much more widely than I was aware of. So I'm in data science, we talk a lot about programming, but I had never come across Lean because you're really using this program, L-E-A-N, to verify your theorems. And so teachers that they interviewed in this article said, look, it's actually really helpful as a teaching tool, and this is interesting to me because I think about as an educator how we make sense of things like ChatGPT and teaching coding and all of that. And they said, look, the way this works is you basically explain your reasoning to a computer, and the computer can say whether or not that reasoning is correct. And most importantly, it's really bad at it. And so you have to be really, really, really specific, and there's a term that I loved that was in the article called proof whining. So apparently this Lean program is quite fussy, and it will whine and say, I don't understand your definition, I don't understand your reasoning. And so what it does, and maybe you all have experienced that with things like ChatGPT or generative AI with language, where they kind of, because it's so dumb, you have to get simpler and simpler in your explanations of what it is that you are doing in your own logic. And there are arguments that both students and practising mathematicians, high-level professors, come to the end of working with this thing by walking the computer through its own proof, and they say, wow, I actually understand my own proof better. And by the way, the computer helped be kind of a spell check on it. So that's really...

G: It's like explain it to a five-year-old kind of thing.

AJR: Yeah. And so the art of doing that has kind of become its own interesting way of learning and teaching math, which I had no idea any of that was going on. So this is all going on in the last 10 years. Not surprisingly, the last couple of years are the first time that mathematical societies are really seriously talking about AI, as are many of us in many fields. And really one of the things that stood out to me is apparently in 2019, a researcher at Google said, "I predict that we will have AI and computers that are as good, if not better, than the best mathematicians in the world within a decade." So 2019 predictions, so by 2029. Last year, that same researcher said, actually, we're going to do that by 2026. So it's like that's how fast it's moving, that this guy is updating it.

B: It usually doesn't go in that direction. Usually it's like, oh, I really meant 2035. Usually it goes in the other direction.

AJR: Like when people asked me when I was going to finish my dissertation, next year for five years, right? Whereas this, it's like, oh, we're ahead of schedule. It's the first time I've ever been upset that we're ahead of schedule because it's terrifying. So where does this leave us? Well, there's two questions that the article asked at the very end that I thought were really great, or they quoted a mathematician as asking, which is one question that we ask when we think about computers and we think about computation, we think about AI is, what can these machines do for us? And I think there's some interesting ideas here where basically you train large language models, much like ChatGPT, on language from the general internet, but then you specialize it and you train it on mathematical and scientific papers, and it turns out they can really actually help you with this sort of iterative learning and validating as you go. But then there's the second question that I think is kind of the existential one, and I pose both of them to you all, which is what will these computers do to us, right? The thing that makes us scared, or makes me scared, is the computers that can write self-correcting code and the computers that can kind of start to prompt themselves with what to do. And the one area that kind of reassuringly, for my Luddite brain at least, that computers seem to be completely unable to do with respect to mathematics is exactly what you would think and is exactly what the barrier is in data science, social science, Steve, I'm sure, in medicine, this is it, which is this reasoning. Basically, computers can just brute force their way through things. They can detect patterns, they can tell you where to look, kind of the most sophisticated ones can help you say, I think there's a solution in this problem space, but I can't find it. The computer could either say, yes, there's a solution, or they might even tell you what that solution is, but you can't understand why that's the solution or how you'd get there. So it's sort of, Steve, like having an Alzheimer's disease that helps, but you don't know why it's helping. In a lot of domains, you'd say, well, who cares? It's helping, that's good enough. But in mathematics, and this gets to the point of like, what does it even mean to do mathematics? Many mathematicians are saying, well, the whole point of mathematics is the reasoning, and it's getting from A to B. It's not the finding B that's so interesting, it's the process by which we get there. And that seems to be the area that computers are not even close to getting to, and so that gives me, as someone who's afraid of the future, a little bit of solace, but we're evolving so fast that maybe that's not going to be the case, and we're going to see computers start to reason. So I really maybe you all have talked about this at length, but what better group to talk about the future of computers doing critical thinking than a group of critical thinkers? So I don't know where you all are in terms of your thinking around this kind of stuff.

G: Maybe that'll be the linchpin that sort of, that just does drive the reasoning engine. It'll be you would think it would be some kind of problem solving on a macro level, but maybe getting into the nitty-gritty of basic mathematical reasoning, that'll be the breakthrough thing that then will be like the killer app on some level.

AJR: Well, exactly. You know, we've seen computers get to points, again, it's all through brute force so far where we get to like, we can beat people in chess, we can beat people in Go, we can do this generative language model that's like very eerie sometimes, but at the end of the day, we still need to set the parameters for the computer and tell the computer what to do, and it really cannot logic itself through. And that kind of in a purist sense, the mathematician writes proofs. And so just like we've talked on this show as well about is the point of painting the output of a nice thing to look at or the art of doing the painting? And so mathematicians are saying, well, I still do the proofing, and that's the math. Proofing is not the right word there, but who cares in a way, right? If you can use this to brute force your way into various solutions that we can apply, I don't know.

S: Yeah, I mean, I think it's like a microcosm of everything we're dealing with with AI right now in that what we're learning is how powerful the new AI apps are, but also how dumb and brittle they are at the same time, like what they can and cannot do. I do think they do reason to some extent in their own sort of way, just not the way humans reason, but it is limited and it does use a lot of, well, feed me billions of data points and I'll go through it over and over a billion times, and that's how I'll get to my answer, which is just not what people are good at, right? It's what powerful supercomputers are good at, but not people. So it's getting to the result in just a different way. So again, if you just play around with any of the generative AI software, you realize that, wow, it's really good at mimicking stuff. It's really bad at understanding what I want it to do, you know? It doesn't have like the basic reasoning that a person would have and it forces you to learn how to speak its language because it's so quirky. So that's fascinating. But I do think, yeah, it sounds like the strength, I'm not surprised. It's like, it's really, from what I hear, like everyone, every expert who talks about how AI in their field, yeah, it's not thinking for you, but like it's really good at debugging your software or it's really good at checking your proof or it's good at offering suggestions about possible diagnoses. But it's not going to manage your patient for you. But it's just it's a good tool. It's a really, really good tool. And I do think for multiple reasons that it's not going to make people stupid. It's going to make people smarter.

AJR: That's my hope.

S: Yeah, that's always the way this tends to work out is that it may free us from some drudgery. And so we might think you might say like, oh, people don't know how to do addition in their head anymore. Yeah, but we traded that for being able to think at a much deeper level because we're kind of freed up from this drudgery in a way.

AJR: There's a great analogy by David Krakauer, the president of the Santa Fe Institute, where he on some other podcast talked about like you want technology that's kind of like a bicycle, right? We walking and then we come up with some way to like move faster as opposed to something like, we can debate this particular example that he gave something like Google Maps where you just stare at your phone and don't actually learn where anything is. And you're overly reliant on this thing and you're not actually doing the thinking or the spatial reasoning. He postulated that as one that's maybe making us dumber. But even that you could say, I don't have to map my route so I can focus on something else. So great.

S: But the bottom line is people are getting smarter. As much as we want to feel like the idiocracy is real, that if you just just in terms of just intelligence, like standardized IQ tests, there's a steady increase in IQ tests.

AJR: It brings up the question of what does it mean to be smarter? And for a long time, it meant knowing facts, which once we had the Internet, that goes away. And I have been saying to my students forever, I was like learn how to code because it's a helpful tool, but it's like you don't need to memorize it. What you need to really work on is the critical thinking and all of that because you need to know what to write in code. That's the harder part. And we basically now have ChatGPT that can write the code for you. You have to be able to read it. You have to know what it says and what it's doing and whether it works and debug it or to an extent. But we still need the ideas.

B: You have to code it in such a way verbally that it knows what you mean and produces what you're asking for. So I think people in the future will become increasingly important if they can interface with some sort of like ChatGPT analog and get the results better than other people can. I think it's going to be an amazing tool for a period of time and then more of a partnership for a period of time. And then after that, I think we're just going to be outclassed in the vast majority.

S: We'll just merge with the AI.

B: That's possible and that's always like the hope that something like that could happen. But also, Andrea, you mentioned this brute force. In some ways, we've gone beyond brute force. And the best example I could think is AI chess games. The early games were absolutely brute force, going through thousands, millions of different moves, looking as deep in the future as possible. But the latest iterations, the last one I'm familiar with it, Alpha Zero, they didn't actually give it anything other than here are the rules of chess. And it played against itself billions, billions of times and became the best chess player, better than any human could ever really hope to be on their own. And so that's kind of beyond this idea of brute force. It became a way to think about chess that was kind of foreign to the way people do. And we'll never be able to beat it with an unaugmented human. We'll never be able to beat that. I love this idea. Looking at some of this research on math, though, this idea, what's his name? Mergen Huel from Carnegie Mellon. He refers to it as brute reasoning, which I love. Brute reasoning. What a fantastic way to describe this. And that's something that's going to become more prevalent, more effective, more efficient. And it's going to be they'll be able to reason far beyond. I mean, there are some things that people will never be able to do because of the limitations of our biological brain. The smartest dog in the world, I say it over and over, the smartest dog in the world will never learn algebra, no matter how smart the dog is. It just will be forever beyond it. So what is forever beyond humanity in terms of being able to conceptualize ideas and figure and solve problems? There's problems out there. I'm sure that we just can't do it. We will need not only the help of some types of AI, but only AI will really be able to ever.

E: I'm good as long as they don't destroy us.

AJR: Yeah. I mean, it's kind of like a like a pole and pole vaulting, right? If you could really harness it or use it properly. Yeah. And the brute reasoning, I love that word, too. And basically, the idea is, yeah, you describe what you're trying to find and the computer will find it. By the way, in this article, they referenced a paper that was just finalized. I don't think it's been published, but they just kind of finished the proof. It's the largest proof that's been computationally assisted. And it was 50 terabytes to make it happen.

S: That's insane.

B: Terabytes?

AJR: Yeah. So it's so good.

E: Steve, you don't even have that much storage.

B: That's nuts.

AJR: They're also about when they compared this isn't quite the same thing as IQ tests, but when they give some of these programs math tests, apparently many of them work out to be about a little bit better than an average 16-year-old American on high school math exams. So they're not that far behind.

B: That's not saying much.

AJR: There's a lot of brute force behind it. But all you need to do is set aside what we're doing with the AI and a lot of it, what you're describing with chess around like neural nets and the predictions that they're making with that are amazing. Much more flexible, inspired by how humans think. But the scary thing I think Evan, you just said it is, we don't know how it gets to these predictions. And as long as they are subservient to us, it kind of doesn't matter.

E: Right. Are they going to see us as a pest in the way of their work?

AJR: Right. Right. Yeah.

E: Get out of my way, son.

AJR: Are they going to team up with the bears? You know, who knows?

E: Totally.

S: So just to get back to one thing you said, Andrea, in terms of like the effect on people, over like the last 20, 25 years of medical education, what I've seen is we've gone from a real emphasis on didactics and factual information to not even worrying about teaching facts and just teaching students how to think. We don't even lecture anymore. And in terms of teaching students, we don't ask them factual questions because the assumption is you will have all the obviously you need to have a fund of knowledge. You can't think in a vacuum. But being able to just memorize a bunch of facts is not important because you can get access to those and that information when you need it. The important thing is how to evaluate information and how to think clinically. And so the medical school education at least at my institution, has really completely changed in 20 years. And it's been now it's all workshops. We don't even lecture students anymore.

AJR: Wow.

B: That's crazy, man. Wow.

AJR: That's encouraging.

G: All tests should be open book, basically, like on every level. They should just basically be applied open book quote unquote book, but open information tests of just, yeah, how do you solve this problem?

AJR: I mean, even in my course intro data science, I would love to be able to give an exam that's like, here's some data, like, have a go or like, here's what we're trying to figure out. Steve, that's very encouraging because even 10 years ago I was in grad school and I had a number of friends who are medical students and I feel like they were just memorizing charts and drawings of arms and stuff.

S: So again, you've got to know stuff. You've got to learn information. But at least when you get to the clinical years, like the third year, I don't care if you know factoids, I want you to tell me how to think your way through a problem. All right, guys, let's go on with science or fiction.


Science or Fiction (1:36:49)[edit]

Item #1: A new paper estimating the number of planets in the Milky Way with liquid water increases the estimate by 100 fold from prior estimates, up to one planet per system on average.[6]
Item #2: A new bionic arm for an above-the-elbow amputation allows the user to control individually each finger of the hand using only connections with the remaining muscles.[7]
Item #3: In an example of convergent evolution, new DNA analysis finds that the pygmy right whale is actually a porpoise.[8]

Answer Item
Fiction Pygmy right whale
Science 100x more planets w/ water
New bionic arm
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
New bionic arm
New bionic arm
New bionic arm
Pygmy right whale

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And then I challenge my panel of expert skeptics to tell me which one they think is the fake. So we just have three regular news items this week. There's no theme or anything. Are you guys ready?

G: Yes.

S: All right, here they go. Item number one, a new paper estimating the number of planets in the Milky Way with liquid water increases the estimate by 100 fold from prior estimates up to one planet per system on average. Item number two, a new bionic arm for an above the elbow amputation allows the user to control individually each finger of the hand using only connections with the remaining muscles. And item number three, in an example of convergent evolution, new DNA analysis finds that the pygmy right whale is actually a porpoise. Andrea, you made a noise. That meeans you got to go first.

AJR: Yeah, my world is turned upside down if that third one is true.

S: All right, Andrea, please go first.

Andrea's Response[edit]

AJR: Thank you. So this is interesting. So I think the one about the bionic arm for an above the elbow amputation is the fiction. Because I think that I'm miffed by the connection between, oh, OK, when you were describing, I was like, we're going to allow the user to control each finger of the hand using only connections with the remaining muscles. I was expecting you to say something. You control each finger of the hand using signals from your brain as opposed to something with the actual muscular connections. And I just I feel like there's something missing in there where it's like there's got to be some nerves that are connected or there's got to be some implant in your brain. I'm not moved by the idea that we just have wires tied to muscles. I'm sure there's more to it. But for some reason, that one, I was like, no, that's not what's going on. We're either missing something big and oversimplifying or it's so basic we already have it. So for one of those reasons, I think that one's the fiction.

S: OK, George.

George's Response[edit]

G: You know, I have to say, Andrea, that like that's exactly what I thought, which now makes me question whether I should know.

AJR: Yeah, if Andrea thought it, it can't be correct.

G: No, like spot spot on. I'm thinking like, yeah, it's not the actual flesh muscle input. It's got it's probably a brain thing. And Steve's being all clever Stevie was going to be able to say like, no, it's actually the neuron of the thing of the thing. And then you go. So I'm going to agree that the bionic arm is the is the is the fiction.

S: OK, Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: The non bionic arm ones. Yeah, they they seem reasonable. The bionic arm does not seem reasonable. And I'll add a little bit more flesh to my answer than you guys.

G: More meat.

B: The problem as I see it. Problem is, I see it as this. Your fingers, there's no muscles in your hand. There's all tendons that connect to the muscles in your forearm. That's the problem. The premise here is that the forearm is gone. The muscles are gone. I don't know how the hell you're going to control five fingers without the muscles from your forearm, because that's what controls it. So I don't know what kind of weird flexing you're going to do with your bicep or deltoid to to actually move five different fingers. I think that's the Achilles heel, if you will, of this one.

AJR: Bob, as you described that, I'm literally sitting here looking at my arm like trying to move just my bicep.

G: I'm doing the Luke Skywalker right here right now, too.

AJR: Am I doing science?

B: Move your fingers and look at your forearm. It's all in the forearm.

S: OK, and Evan?

Evan's Response[edit]

E: Wow, Bob, not even a comment about the number of planets in the Milky Way.

B: You know, I don't. That's just like doesn't surprise me because we're always learning. Oh, there's a greater chance for for life. And then, oh, wait, there's less chance. Oh, now there's a greater chance to go back and forth, back and forth.

E: I suppose you're right. It does. He does write it here. A new paper estimating the number of planets. So tell me an estimate.

B: It is dramatic. I'll give you that. But this way, this forearm muscle one really grabbed me.

E: And why didn't we go with the poor? The the the whale is actually a porpoise one. A new DNA analysis finds that the pygmy right whale, that's a thing. Pygmy right whale is actually a porpoise.

B: That's cool.

E: Yeah, it's interesting.

B: I wonder how big they are.

E: And above the elbow amputation. Am I going with everyone else? Am I being that?

B: Nah, be bold. Strike out.

G: One of us.

AJR: Be the fringe skeptic today.

E: Alright, fringe skeptic. Pygmy right whale. Actually a porpoise. Fiction.

S: OK. So you all agree on the first one. So we'll start there.

E: I just dove in without a life jacket.

AJR: We bullied you into it.

E: Totally.

S: Yeah, just caved to peer pressure.

E: Everyone's doing it.

S: All right. So we'll start with number one, since you all agree on that one.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: A new paper estimating the number of planets in the Milky Way with liquid water increases the estimate by 100 fold from prior estimates up to one planet per system on average. You guys all think this one is science.

B: Please be science.

AJR: I really want it to be science personally.

S: Science. This is science. So what do you think is different?

G: ... H-2-whoa!

S: What do you think is different about this new estimate? What did they do differently that increased their estimate by 100 fold?

E: What, the information from the exoplanets?

B: The types of stars that could host planets?

S: That was part of it. That was part of it. That's not the key difference.

AJR: They changed whatever they're doing to detect liquid water.

E: More Goldilocks zones.

G: Larger number of planets?

B: I know. They redefined water.

S: Well, sort of, Bob. They redefined planet with water in that way.

B: Well, subsurface?

S: Yes, subsurface. So if you include planets that are frozen on the surface but have subsurface water, subsurface liquid water, then that dramatically increases it.

B: Yeah, makes sense.

S: Partly because it also includes a lot more planets.

B: Outside the Goldilocks.

S: Yeah, outside the traditional Goldilocks zone, but also a lot of planets around red dwarfs, which you know is like most of the stars out there.

B: Yeah. That's huge.

G: Cool.

S: And they say that there's, so for these, so we're used to thinking of moons with frozen surfaces and liquid water because of the tidal forces keep the water liquid. So what keeps the water liquid on planets?

B: Well, radiation.

S: Radioactivity, absolutely.

B: Yeah, of course.

S: Radioactive decay.

E: Absolutely.

S: Heats up the interior, causes the water to be warm enough to be liquid, and that's sort of an alternate scenario. And once you add that to your estimates, there could be tons of planets, hundreds of planets with liquid water.

B: That's awesome.

S: Not on the surface.

AJR: That's very cool.

S: Yeah, very cool. All right.

B: Surprised you didn't include that earlier.

AJR: Filled with porpoises, I assume.

S: I guess we'll go, we'll take these in order.

G: About to be destroyed by Betelgeuse as well, so yeah, it's perfect.

S: There you go. We'll go to number two.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: A new bionic arm for an above-the-elbow amputation allows the user to control individually each finger of the hand using only connections with the remaining muscles. Evan, you think this one is science. The rest of you don't buy it. You think it's fiction. So Evan, how do you think this works?

E: So let's see. Okay, so above the elbow, using only the connections with remaining muscles, they take the remaining muscles and they stretch them way, way, way, way out along the bionic substructure of the─

AJR: Oh, my arm hurts just thinking about it.

E: Yeah, but probably not.

S: They don't do that, but you're on the right track in that they do some kind of surgery to alter the muscles. So this one is science, guys.

E: Holy moly.

B: Oh, Jesus.

G: No way.

AJR: I thought for sure the porpoise was a false...

G: Stupid whales.

S: Yeah, we'll get to that one in a minute. So this is just a really good advance in bionic technology.

G: No way.

S: So this is something that we've been covering on this show over the years, every little incremental kind of advance. If you recall some of those specific ones, you could make sense of it a little bit better. So there's different ways you can get the person, the body to communicate to the prosthesis, the robotic limb. One is with brain signals. That's one way, whether it's directly or indirectly or wirelessly, whatever. Another one is with nerves. But the other way is with muscles. And the advantage there is that the electric current generated by a muscle contraction is like an order of magnitude bigger than what you're going to get from the nerve itself. And so a small patch of muscle can create a big signal. And so if you're recording from the muscle, it's a lot easier to control the, so you're not using the muscle to move the robotic hand. You're using the muscle to communicate to the robotic hand, right? But Bob, you hit upon a really interesting thing. How do they get these proximal muscles above the elbow to control five digits on a robotic hand? So what they did was they took the nerves and they separated them along the fascicle line. So basically a bundle of nerves has different sub-nerves within it, different fascicles. And so they dissected them away. So you turn one nerve into five nerves. And then you connect that to different patches of muscle. And then you connect those muscles to different connections on the bionic arm. And there you go. And then the person learns how to control the fingers with these different sub-nerves and sub-muscles in their arm.

B: So what are they flexing? What are they trying to flex?

S: So here's the other thing, another piece of the puzzle. They use AI to interpret the signals.

AJR: Oh, I was just about to say. AI can figure this out. It's helping.

S: All they have to do is just figure out how to do five different things, right? And then eventually they'll learn to communicate back and forth. And this is a tour de force. This is a real, more than just an incremental advance. This is like a significant advance. They also have sensory feedback from this limb tube, which we've talked about also. So these are all components we've talked about on the show in the past.

B: All coming together, right?

S: All coming together. But the real additional thing is just the engineering is off the hook. And just the surgical techniques have significantly advanced, separating out the nerves to increase the amount of control that you get.

B: Cyberpunk, baby.

E: Don't go cutting off your arm to replace it.

S: Like when I was reading it, where's the arm connected? And then you show the picture of the guy. It's like, oh, this is an above the elbow amputation. It's connected to his proximal muscles. You know, it's amazing.

AJR: Upgrade me. Let's go. Wow.

S: All right.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Which means that in an example of convergent evolution, new DNA analysis finds that the pygmy right whale is actually a porpoise is the fiction.

E: Clearly.

B: Boring.

S: Now, it's a little bit more interesting when you know a little bit something about whale evolution. So there are basically if you take the group that whales are in, these cetaceans, right? They are divided into two big groups. You guys know what those are?

E: The large cetacean.

AJR: The baleen whales and the other ones.

S: The baleen whales and all the other ones, which are. If you don't have baleen, what do you have?

AJR: Teeth.

S: Teeth. So the baleen whales and the toothed whales, right? That's the first dividing part.

AJR: I have a science teacher somewhere who's sort of proud that I was.

S: Now, the toothed whales as a group include dolphins, porpoises and then all the other whales with teeth like sperm whales. So the right whale is a baleen whale and the pygmy right whale, also a baleen whale, called the pygmy right whale because they both look very similar. They essentially feed by skimming the surface of the water, as opposed to taking a big gulp of water and then straining it. They're skimming and straining the surface. So the anatomies, their baleen anatomy looks very similar. So there is some convergent evolution going on there. But what they did is they did a DNA analysis of the pygmy right whale and they found that it's not a right whale at all. It's on its own branch. It's the last example of a very ancient whale line. But it's actually over with another group of whales. So not the right whales. It's with the rorquals, R-O-R-Q-U-A-L-S.

B: We made that up.

E: It sounds like narwhal.

G: Welcome to fantasy whale.

S: But moving it all the way over to a toothed whale would be insane because it's a baleen whale. So that was why that had to be the fiction. But I was just basing it on this story where, okay, we rejiggered the evolutionary family tree of these whales moving over. The pygmy right whales are really not right whales. They're their own branch of whales. They go back 16 to 20 million to 19 or so million years ago. Yeah, but they're not toothed whales.

G: Still delicious though.

AJR: Very cool. Man, my reasoning totally was like, oh, Steve wouldn't put something with the word porpoise in it and have that be fiction because porpoise is a funny word. This is where my brain is.

S: I actually thought, should I use porpoise or dolphin? I specifically chose porpoise because I thought it would be more plausible.

E: You did it on porpoise.

S: Yeah, I did it on porpoise.

E: I was right there.

AJR: Yeah, yeah, I should have.

E: So what did we learn? Peer pressure is a good thing.

AJR: Yeah, Evan, you're welcome.

S: Evan, good on you for striking out on your own. I like it when people are rewarded for breaking from the crowd. Very good.

B: Yeah, whatever.

E: It is scary. Thanks, Bob.

S: All right, Evan, and as a reward, you get to give us a quote.

E: Woohoo.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:51:38)[edit]

Every time you perform a magic trick, you're engaging in experimental psychology. If the audience asks, "How the hell did he do that?" then the experiment was successful.

 – Teller (1948-present), American musician

E: "Every time you perform a magic trick, you're engaging in experimental psychology. If the audience asks, how the hell did he do that? Then the experiment was successful." That was by Raymond Teller, also known as Teller.

S: Teller.

E: Penn and Teller.

S: Yeah, Penn and Teller are examples of magicians who like, this is how we do this. This is a trick. This is what's happening here. But they still fool you some other way. Even they had this bit where they literally walk you through the trick that they're doing. It's still entertaining as hell.

E: Of course.

S: Because of just the way they do it and the skill with which they do it. But then, of course, then you have to do something that you didn't explain to the audience. Right, to still wow them. And the other, the best mentalist I've ever personally seen was Banachek, who is amazing.

G: Amazing.

S: And again, he is like, this is a trick. It's not, however you think I'm doing it, that's not how I'm doing it. It's a complete trick. And then he just still blows you away, just utterly blows you away. And the mentalists that I've seen who are like, I'm really psychically, like the amazing Kreskin, are terrible. They're just not good at all. And I do think that's not a coincidence. I think that they're using the I'm really magic thing to cover up for the fact that they're just not that good.

AJR: And it totally conflates, kind of going back to what we talked about before, where wonder comes from. The wonder in the cases of the really good mentalists or performers is, gosh, how did they do that? And then figuring it out or thinking about it and guessing. Like Evan was saying, that's the experiment and the fun that we get to do as audience members. The wonder of, I guess he's a wizard. That's not wonder. That's blind faith in an unproductive way.

G: It's too simple. It's too simple. Oh, it's actual magic. No. It's way cooler than that. It's way cooler than magic. It's thought and construction and skill.

B: It's something that you could achieve on your own.

G: There's that too, right?

AJR: But yeah, it's appreciating the skill to be able to do that. There's an account, I'm very pleased that Instagram mostly gives me garbage, but it started serving me up magic accounts on Instagram reels. And so now I follow someone called ekatmagic, I think. And she basically just explains how you do various sleight of hand and so on. And it's so much more interesting to learn how it's done than to just watch someone make a quarter disappear.

E: It's a beautiful art form.

AJR: Yeah, it's incredible.

G: That's why Batman is the best superhero, because we can all be Batman. There's no superpowers.

S: His superpower is that he's rich.

E: You have to have a fortune.

AJR: Venmo me, quick.

G: But theoretically, you cannot be the son of Krypton. You cannot be bitten by a radioactive spider. You cannot have...

AJR: Speak for yourself, but yeah.

G: What you do on the weekends is up to you. But this idea, if you train yourself and have enough resources and whatever, you can become Batman. And it's the same thing. You could be Banachek. You could be... I mean, the guy is... He did an hour show at Psychcon two years ago. It was unreal. Even knowing, even being backstage watching him do it, it's still like, how is this possible?

E: Yeah. He spent his whole life perfecting his craft, and now he has his own show online. It's well deserved. And he earned it.

G: But it's so much cooler that it's like, oh, this is skill.

AJR: It's like watching a ballerina or a gymnast do an incredible thing. You're like, I don't know how they're doing that many flips in the air. It's a similar kind of...

G: Imagine if some gymnast came along and said, I am achieving these flips in the air that you can't do, that most people can't do. I'm achieving it through... I am keying into Zeus's power.

AJR: Gravity doesn't apply to me.

G: Gravity doesn't apply. I have a medallion from Zeus. You'd be like─

AJR: It sucks.

G: Yeah, that's awful. And if you touch my medallion, then you'll have good luck or whatever.

AJR: Don't forget to buy my merch.

E: They indulge in people's fantasies. Real magicians appeal to people's sense of wonder. Very different things.

S: I love David Copperfield's explanation of magic. The magic is in nobody would ever imagine that you spent as much time and energy as you did figuring out something so stupid. Figuring this one stupid little thing out. Because the magic is in the hours and hours and hours and hours of just figuring out how to do that little thing that will trick people.

G: But why is it there are thousands of other examples of people using unbelievable skill to achieve things that never get brought into the category? You don't look at a carpenter who's this amazing skilled carpenter who puts together a sculptor or whatever, a car mechanic or an airline pilot or whatever that's doing these unbelievable pseudo superhuman things because they've put in their 30,000 podcast hours. The person that develops the bionic arm on some level. It's like, my gosh, the teamwork involved and the brain power involved to make that happen. No one's going to say, oh yeah, it's magic. They're using magic to make bionic arms. Why does it get a pass? Why does that entertainment get a pass? Because it has this history of being connected with mysticism and whatever.

E: I love watching how-to and instructional videos on YouTube. It's one of my favourite things to do.

G: Of course.

E: It's for experts to show me how they figure things out, how things work together, how they accelerate at their craft. It's fascinating. I could watch that forever.

G: But if a car mechanic said, I can fix your carburettor because the rules of oxygenation don't apply to me, you'd think they're bananas and you'd be like, get the hell out of here.

S: You would think they were deathed.

G: It's crazy.

S: Well, guys, thank you for joining me, George and Andrea.

G: Thank you.

S: It was a pleasure.

Signoff & Announcements (1:57:49)[edit]

S: Now we have to mention that the both of you are going to be with the SGU at NOTACON in November, 2nd and 3rd in White Plains. Check out the Skeptics Guide website for all the information. This is going to be a physical in-person actual meetup, not virtual. George, what kind of crazy crap are you throwing at us during that?

G: Oh, we've got some musical things happening. Think of the most brilliant question you've always wanted to ask the SGU, and you'll get a chance to do it in person with them in the room with you. Maybe like a game or two or a scavenger hunt or maybe some kind of, oh, this is going to be so much, so much, but it's also not going to be like any conference you've ever been to. That's the best part of it because it's not a con. It's not a conference. It's not a con, is what it is.

S: Yeah. And, Andrea, you're going to do some kind of circus act.

AJR: We're looking into whether the venue wants me to do some circus acts, but permission and or willingness to beg forgiveness after the fact provided, I've got a room of things right here behind me, and I'm only doing it because I'm gifted by god and I don't obey the laws of fire, so that's why I'm doing it.

S: The laws of combustion don't apply to you.

AJR: Exactly, yes.

S: Really looking forward to it.

AJR: It'll be fun.

S: Again, thank you for joining me this week, guys.

B: Sure, man.

AJR: Thanks.

E: Thanks Steve.

G: Thank you.

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

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


Today I Learned[edit]

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


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