SGU Episode 953

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SGU Episode 953
October 14th 2023
953 white sands footprints.jpg

New research confirms that fossil human footprints in NM are likely the oldest direct evidence of human presence in the Americas, upending what archaeologists thought they knew about when our ancestors arrived in the New World. [1]

SGU 952                      SGU 954

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella


DF: Dan Friesen

JH: Jordan Holmes

American podcasters

Quote of the Week

Sciences provide an understanding of a universal experience, and the Arts provide an understanding of personal experience. They both are avatars of human creativity.

Mae Jemison, American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion


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, October 11th, 2023, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: ...and Jay Novella.

J: Hey guys.

S: Evan Bernstein is in tax preparation hell once again. This is, I guess, the last week before the final deadline, right, the deadline for delayed push funds and taxes.

C: The late tax deadline.

S: Yeah, the late tax deadline. So he's busy. So guys, you hear the NASA announcement, it had a big press release, a big media event. Jay and I were live streaming on TikTok when that happened. You know, it was boring. You know, it's God bless them, NASA, they try really hard.

C: They did something interesting.

S: Yeah, right. I mean, it was, I mean, the actual information was interesting, although it was very preliminary. There wasn't a lot of it. And it was basically like a half an hour buildup. Like you felt you were in a corporate meeting kind of thing, you know? They really need to upgrade their whole public outreach science communication thing.

C: At least for their press releases. I feel like they do, they do such a great job with a lot of stuff, but then these weird announcements.

S: Yeah, they're always anticlimactic and then they had something so cool to talk about this time, and they just managed to bury it so deep in the middle of this just corporate style presentation thing where, what are they even talking about? It's like, you know what I mean?

C: Yeah, it sucks.

S: But the good news is this is all about the OSIRIS-REx probe bringing back samples from Asteroid Bennu, which we talked about last week, I believe. Pretty exciting preliminary information. They have a lot more material than they thought they were going to have. So I guess they have like an outer chamber and an inner chamber, the inner chambers where the samples are supposed to be, and then there's a protective outer casing. But there was a lot of material in the outer casing, and they weren't really expecting that. So they haven't even cracked open the inner casing yet because they're still painstakingly collecting all of the bits.

B: My God. You're kidding? Wow.

S: In the outside. And yeah, it's really good. So a lot of samples. That's good. There's 4.7% carbon by weight, so a lot of carbon-rich material. And they also found that there are hydrated clay, so there's water in there too. So already there's some, yeah, interesting preliminary results.

B: Water and carbon. Hmm.

S: Yeah. Hmm. Not surprising, but you know, but interesting. They said in six months, they'll be ready to basically have a catalog where they could start accepting applications to give scientists pieces of the asteroid to study, you know.

B: Oh, wow. Okay.

S: But that's it. What I just told you was like all the interesting information, but that took an hour.

C: Yeah.

B: Wow. I just love the idea of us sending rockets out there and bringing stuff back. It's always just like amazing. Like, oh my God. That's great because it takes so long to get there, but also to get back and then collect it, which I'm sure is not easy. I love it.

S: The mission kicked ass. It was a tour de force. They nailed it. They picked a good asteroid. They said they picked a good piece of the asteroid. They got more sample, the greater they exceeded mission parameters. They returned it all back to Earth successfully, and now it's science time.

J: It's amazing that they're running these unbelievably difficult missions like flawlessly.

S: Yeah.

C: Yeah, it is. When you really think about what they did, it's like what? It's like we're in the future.

S: Oh, it is amazing. I think when they, they sent the New Horizons probe to Pluto and someone, I think they did that it was basically the equivalent of sinking a 20-mile putt. That's the level of accuracy that we're talking about. That's, it's really impressive. Those laws of physics, man. They never stear you wrong.

J: You know, I think people need to be reminded that they launched this rocket in 2016. So this thing has probably been in the works for a decade. They engineered it perfectly the launch reaching an asteroid that's in motion, getting a sample, flying it all the way back to Earth. There's a lot to be romantic about in there a lot of things to be really in awe of. I just don't think that they really, I don't think they know how to sell it.

S: Which is odd given what they do. But anyway, the mission was awesome, very successful, and we'll be waiting for a lot more science to come on examining the asteroid. It did make, yeah, some of the scientists made the best points, like, we're going to be studying this material for the next 50 years with instruments we haven't even created yet, answering questions we haven't even asked yet.

C: Yeah, that's pretty cool.

S: Those are the kind of statements that have really put it into perspective for you.

B: And the other important thing is that they, there have been other sample returns similar to this in the past, but this one has a lot of material, which means more science.

S: All right. Speaking of science, Bob, you're going to get us started with a quickie.

Quickie with Bob: Solar Panels at Proxima Centauri (5:17)[edit]

B: Yes. Thank you, Steve. Interesting study was recently published in scientific reports called Interstellar Photovoltaics. Would modern solar panels work near the closest star to the Sun, Proxima Centauri? Interesting question. Do you call them Proxima panels, perhaps? Not solar panels, right? Solar panels have obviously been optimized to work specifically with our Sun, with its copious amounts of ultraviolet light, visible light, and sometimes even infrared. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star with a mass 12.5% of the Sun's mass, small, much of the light it emits is in infrared. This study focused on organic photovoltaics, which makes sense since they're essentially much lighter and flexible, and it's what you would need if you're going to create large solar sails, which many designs that deal with interstellar probes choose them because of that. Organic photovoltaics also have an advantage over the more common silicon-based cells since they can be more easily tuned to different wavelengths. This paper concluded that solar panels wouldn't work well at Proxima Centauri because of the wide band gap our panels use to get the electric current flowing, a narrow band gap would work much, much better, and they ran some simulations, and the efficiency for Proxima Centauri went from like 0.9% efficient to 12%, huge, huge leap. The other major disadvantage is currently more problematic, however. Red dwarf stars put out, as you might imagine, much less light than our Sun, so even if you have great efficiency, it really wouldn't help that much unless the solar sail was much larger, which of course then means that it would be a huge increase in cost and weight. So very interesting article I recommend you're checking out online. This has been your Quickie with Bob. Back to you, Steve.

S: Yeah, basically solar panels work well when you're relatively close to a star that puts out light in a reasonable spectrum. I know we talked about the fact that like in our system at Mars, you're at 50% of the energy, right, as you are on Earth, and at Jupiter, you're at 5%, so solar panels not work very well if we had a station like in orbit around Jupiter. Again, even at Mars, they're half as effective as they are on Earth.

B: Yeah, and not just this, and so obviously, right, it's more of like the type of light that's being emitted is the fundamental problem with Proxima Centauri, which is what you could deal with using these different ideas. So interesting. I hope we have the chance to even seriously implement this idea.

S: The thing is, though, we're not going to need to worry about this for such a long time, but I think we'll technologically work it out.

B: Well, I mean, I don't know, we could right now, we have the technology right now to send a probe, like a nanogram, super tiny probe using directed energy to Proxima Centauri within like, what, 20, 30 years, this is called a star shot. I mean, this is something that we can do pretty much right now, it wouldn't be much of an effort to get it there within a generation, which is incredible. Of course, it would be a flyby, and it would just send back some data, but still, we could do it now, and I'd love to have some billionaires like, yes, I'm going to get a little tiny probe to Proxima Centauri within 20 years, that'd be amazing.

S: But it wouldn't have a solar panel.

B: No, no, you'd have, but you'd have solar sails, yeah, that's true, but I still would love to see that.

News Items[edit]

Oldest Evidence of Humans in Americas (8:50)[edit]

S: Okay, have you guys heard about the footprints at the White Sands National Park?

J: Yeah, like it changes how we date the first people that lived on the continent, right?

S: Yeah, so this has been a story that we've been following on the SGU for many years, the archaeological evidence for the peopling of the Americas, right? So what is the evidence of the first homo sapiens, the first human beings to enter North and South America? Now, of course, people evolved out of Africa and then into Europe and Asia, right? So they would have had to have crossed over to North and South America somehow.

B: Land bridge.

S: So the oldest theory is that, basically, when the timing was correct in terms of the glacial maximums of minima, that a land bridge opens up across from Siberia to Alaska, basically, the Bering Strait, and people can migrate over. That doesn't necessarily mean they came over all at once, they might have migrated over over hundreds, even thousands of years, but they were able to pass over that land bridge. Maybe they were following herds of caribou or whatever was around at that time, and that's what happened. So for a while, starting like in the 1940s, the dominant hypothesis was the Clovis first hypothesis, that the Clovis culture is the first evidence of people in the Americas dating back to 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. And everyone was kind of happy with that because, first of all, there's evidence for the Clovis culture all over the Americas, and they're basically known primarily from the stone points they left behind. They have the famous fluted points at the base of the point, it sort of chipped away so it's narrower front to back, and that was probably made it easier to have to to either a spear or an arrow or whatever. So that's a very distinctive technological innovation that typifies Clovis points, and we call it Clovis culture because that's what the evidence that we have of this stone point culture everywhere. I think there's 10,000 different Clovis points across North America have been catalogued up to this point.

B: All similar.

S: They have that characteristic fluted the fluted points. However, guess how many skeletons, human skeletons, we have associated with Clovis points?

B: Zero.

S: One.

C: Yeah, I'm guessing it's low. One?

S: One. One.

B: Off by an infinite amount.

S: A burial site of a one to one and a half year old boy found at Anzick site in Willsell, Montana. But this did allow for DNA analysis. Now we've had evidence of a person, right, from, again, about 12,000 years ago.

B: Bone marrow?

S: And the question was, yeah, I'm assuming, the question was, did the Clovis people die out and then and then be replaced by a later migration of the ancestors of American Indians, or did they become the American Indians? And the DNA evidence found that they probably became the American Indians, they have tremendous overlap in DNA. So yeah, so they probably there might have been later migrations that they interbred with, but whatever, they definitely their genes are in modern American Indians.

B: Why so few bodies, though?

S: Yeah, that's a good question. Just conditions, I guess, were not amenable to it. Maybe they're what, who knows, maybe they cremated their dead, I mean, we don't know. But there was this one, just this one burial site of a boy. But it's been very controversial, whether or not there was any pre-Clovis culture in the Americas. Every time something comes up, like maybe this is evidence of pre-Clovis culture. It was met with a lot of skepticism among the experts, partly because around 14,000 years ago, that's when the most recent glacial maximum was going away. And so that's the last 14,000 years ago was about the last time that the land bridge opened up. So it all fit together. They were able to cross starting around 14,000 years ago. We're here from 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. And there you go.

C: But people had boats.

S: Yeah. So if you're going to push it back farther than that, you have to hypothesize, like if you're going to say, like there's been controversial evidence, but mounting evidence of human presence going back to 16,000 years ago. And that, of course, is during the glacial maximum, when they said, well, how did they get here then? They couldn't have crossed over the land bridge. So the alternate hypothesis is that they migrated along the coastline, right? But basically up Siberia, down in Alaska. But they probably would have had to have used boats to sort of hop along the coastline with boats.

C: Oh, so they were still coming from that region, though.

S: Yeah. Yeah. They didn't like cross the Atlantic or something. They were just basically, rather than walking across land, they were boating along the shore. Right?

C: Right.

S: So that's the alternate hypothesis. Evidence has been accumulating for this 16,500-year-old pre-Clovis culture. The latest evidence comes from Cooper's ferry site in Idaho, where it looks like a human habitation site. Again, no people. That would be nice. But there is hearths and animal bones that were cooked. And those have been carbon dated to 16,500 years ago. Again, it's not this home run evidence that's enough to end the controversy. But it has been mounting. Okay, now let's go to the new evidence, right? White Sands National Park in New Mexico. So thousands of years ago, this was wetter, cooler, and probably lush vegetation, lots of animals, not the desert that it is now. And they have found a lot of, in the White Sands, there's a lot of fossilized footprints of animals, right?

C: And sand.

S: Yeah, basically in the ancient sand. It's basically hardened and you have a fossilized footprint that gets covered with later layers to preserve it.

C: That's cool.

S: Yeah. So it's like a whole field of prints. And we've started to find human footprints there. There's this one cool track. They actually traced a mother carrying a toddler for about a mile.

C: That's cool.

B: Lausy kid.

S: They can tell that she is shifting the toddler from one hip to the other based upon the footprints. And every now and then, she sets him down and he toddles alongside of her. Then she picks up the toddler again and it's just her footprints for a while and she's clearly heavier and shifted to one side. Then she puts him down again. Any parent can relate to that kind of scenario.

B: You're eating too much caribou, kid.

S: So the question is, what's the date of all of those footprints?

B: Yeah, that's the question.

S: Right, those human footprints. So a study came out in 2021 that dated these seeds embedded in the fossilized footprint. So the cool thing about this is that this is not an artifact in a media that we then date, which is fine, except that when you do that, if you're dating the soil in which a bone is found, you don't know how the bone got there. We have mixed with deeper soil and the age could be artifactual. But if the fossil is the soil, then there's no question about how old the footprint is. It's as old as the media that the footprint is made out of. So these seeds were dated to between 21 and 23,000 years ago, pushing back by 7,000 years, the oldest evidence of humans in the Americas. That's huge. Of course, this was met with pretty extensive skepticism. The biggest problem with this line of evidence is because these seeds are from an aquatic plant. And you know how carbon dating works? It's the ratio of carbon-14, and it assumes that you're fixing all of your carbon from the atmosphere, and then that starts the clock ticking. But if you're in the water, you're incorporating carbon from the water, which doesn't have the same ratio as the...

C: It's a huge sink. It could have... Yeah.

S: Exactly. So it's another variable that could be throwing off the date. So now the news is a follow-up study with two additional dating methods. One using carbon dating of pollen from land plants so that eliminates the seawater problem. And another one using optically-stimulated luminescence. Have you heard of this, Bob? I think you mentioned it.

C: I think, yeah. I talked about luminescence dating two weeks ago. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S: So I had to look it up just to really wrap my hand around how it works.

C: Right. Because I didn't know anything about it either.

S: Yeah. So essentially, certain crystals, like quartz, when light is shining on them, it shifts the electrons into a different state, right? The electrons get trapped by the sunlight. And then as soon as it's... So the last... Then when it's no longer exposed to sunlight, those trapped electrons start slowly shifting into a lower energy state. And so we can tell the last time that crystal was exposed to sunlight.

C: The last time it was at the surface of the soil.

S: Exactly.

C: That's really cool.

S: So this was buried this many years ago. Exactly. So it's at least that old, right?

C: If not older.

S: It could be older, but it's at least that old. Then they have to stimulate the crystal and they measure the radiation, which tells them about the state of the electrons, right? I'm skipping over a lot of details because I don't understand them, but that's the press release level of sort of understanding it. But it's cool. It basically measures the last time it was exposed to sunlight. So these two methods both agreed on a date between 21 and 23,000 years ago. So this is pretty much a done deal at this point.

B: That's pretty solid. Damn.

S: So you have multiple lines of evidence. People are like, well, yeah, I mean that's a good job. You have multiple independent lines of dating evidence.

B: 21, 22.

S: You can't really argue with that. So yeah, that's a long time ago. So of course, it's just footprints, right? No DNA. And so this creates more questions than an answer, obviously. So now we know that-

B: All good science does.

S: Yeah, of course. So it's still a big puzzle that we're trying to unravel, the peopling of the Americas. So were these people, right, the White Sands people, were they Clovis people? Did they become the Clovis culture? Did they die out?

C: Were they taken out by the Clovis?

S: Did they get replaced by the Clovis people? Yeah. So how far did they go?

B: Were they just passing through?

S: So yeah, we don't know. We really don't know. So we need a lot more data. We just need more archaeological evidence, more paleontological evidence to really flesh out this story of people coming to the Americas. But it just got a lot more interesting. This is super cool.

C: Very cool.

S: Definitely pre-Clovis people.

J: So Steve, is there more evidence there or that's pretty much it?

S: Well, I mean, there's more footprints and so keep in mind, they like basically dug a trench down to this time period to uncover these footprints and study them. And imagine there's this just layers of sand for the last 20, 30,000 years with millions of animal and human footprints all over the place to be studied. There's a ton of science to be done with this window into the past through footprints. But this maybe we'll find even older footprints that we could date, you know? This story is not over, but this is like at least 21,000 years ago, there were people in New Mexico.

C: Very cool.

S: Yeah. Very cool.

B: I love it. Something as fleeting as footprints just happened to get fossilized. It seems more unlikely than any, like any organism or body being fossilized to have something like that.

S: And it's such a human story that's being told by the footprints. There's also-

B: Behavior.

S: Behavior is another patch where it's basically a group of teenagers standing on the edge of a lake.

B: Hanging ut.

S: Hanging out on the edge of a lake.

B: Smoking something.

S: Very, very cool. So yeah, this is obviously a very, a story that's being told over a very long period of time.

Addictive Foods (21:48)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, tell us about addictive foods.

J: So before I start, guys, is there a food that once you start eating it, you have trouble stopping yourself?

C: I guess like chips.

J: Steve, how about you?

S: I'm trying to think of one where that's not the case.

C: I think it's like that bitch can't eat just one. It's like snacky things.

J: My thing is smart food, smart food, like, yeah, as soon as I start eating it, I get kind of feverish about it Bob, what Bob yours is a peanut butter based item. I would expect.

B: Yeah, I mean, it's I mean, my friend last year for was it was it for Halloween, a Halloween party brought me like a box of my favorite candy bar Reese's crispy crunchy. There was like a dozen of the of the extra large bars in there. And I tried to give them away. Nobody really was taking them. So I was left with like 10 bars. And over like four days, I ate every goddamn one.

J: All right. Well, right out of the gate, I want to say scientists who study this type of thing don't agree about whether there is an actual food addiction. Does it exist or not? And there isn't a consensus like the research is being done. More evidence is coming in. We can't really say that there is definitely a "food addiction" phenomenon happening because the word addiction means some specific things, right? It means that you have like a you know, Steve, you would be better, better describing this to me. But in short is there an actual addictive pathway in the brain for food, the way it would operate in other addictive drugs? You know, they don't know. They don't know.

S: Well, it definitely appears to be different than, say, like heroin, right? But it depends on your definition of the word addictive. Do you include compulsive behavior or just things that have a physiological addiction?

J: Yeah, but there there seems to be something legitimate happening that that seems to be measurable.

C: But again there's still a dopamine response. I mean, there's still pathways involved. But yeah, sort of where's that threshold?

J: Yeah, yeah. So it is a little fuzzy right now. So researchers at the University of Michigan ran a study that tried to answer what the most and least addictive foods are according to the Yale Food Addiction Scale, which is also known as YFAS, Y-F-A-S. So let me tell you what this is. So the Yale Food Addiction Scale it's widely recognized. It's a tool that was designed to evaluate addictive like behaviors relating to food. And it's important to note, again, they're not saying that food addiction exists, that they are evaluating addictive like behaviors that are just associated with eating food. And the scale includes a series of questions that help assess the severity of these behaviors. So researchers can better understand the extent to which people experience like, "symptoms" of potential food addiction like behaviors. It seems a little general, but they're they're trying to they've created a scale to measure essentially people's response to certain foods. Now, in this study, researchers surveyed hundreds of participants, including undergraduate students. They also had people that they recruited online and they were using the Yale Food Addiction Scale to identify which foods were most likely to trigger addictive like responses. And there were some pretty obvious results. And then other other areas are pretty interesting. So right out of the gate, highly processed foods, obviously ones that contained a lot of fat, refined carbohydrates, lots of sugar, white flour. These were these were strongly associated with addictive like eating behaviors. Chocolate emerged as the most addictive food. There was a lot of other like one in four people essentially like said they have like an addiction like relationship with chocolate. Other foods on the list included ice cream, french fries, pizza, cookies, chips. They have a lot in common. If you think about what they're made out of, there's a lot of commonality in that. And it's it seems obvious. Like I would have I think we could have named most of those if we were we're asked to make a list of sure of addictive foods and partly because we've all partaken it.I know how great eating ice cream is. And I do have to just tell myself, stop eating it. I don't get full when I eat ice cream. I just get disgusted with myself.

C: It's funny, though, because I it's like the different people clearly have different, I guess, personalities, reactions to that. I don't have that problem. I don't like it's not that I get full. I just get tired of it. If I sit down with a pint after I eat like a little bit of it, I'm like, OK, I feel done with this.

J: Yeah, that's good. That's a great response to have.

B: Wow? What is that?

J: And I've talked to other people who who feel the same way.

C: Right. Like, I think there's a lot of people who feel this way. There's also a lot of people who don't. But like, that's an interesting thing to me to study.

J: Yeah, I agree. So another food that was high on the list was breakfast cereals.

C: Oh, yeah, I could see that.

J: And these ranked higher than like items like soda or fried chicken. Breakfast cereals rated higher.

S: A lot of sugar in breakfast cereals.

C: It's sugar. And I don't think you get full. It's like fried chicken. You can only eat so much fried chicken, right?

J: Yeah, of course. Yeah, you're right. I mean with cereal, I again, it's another one of those things. I'm like, I just limit myself to one bowl whatever, even if it's like a pseudo healthy one, like raisin bran or something, it's still got a lot of sugar in it. I monitor my my intake of things like that. But I remember being a kid, I'd eat like four bowls of Captain Crunch. Just get deep into that box. So, like I said earlier, I think it's important to know that there is no consensus in the scientific community about this repeating that because I just want to make it perfectly clear, like some people might might take offense or think we're saying something we are on a trajectory to really understanding much more about this. So when I use the word addiction, like it don't take it as like a full like equating it to drug addiction. So traditional addiction is typically associated with substances like, alcohol or cocaine being being addicted to food certainly does challenge our current definition. So while the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, right, this is the DSM-5, Cara you know all about that. This is considered the psychiatry Bible, right? It doesn't formally recognize food addiction and the YFAS is based on, though it's based on the DSM-5's criteria adapted for food related behaviors. So they're taking into account research and conclusions that have been made in the DSM-5 and they're borrowing a lot from it, to be honest, they're taking a lot of stuff that's already been identified there and kind of using it as a starting point, I guess, to figure out what's going on with like the food issues that we're seeing. And there are researchers in the field that they've suggested that sugar may be as addictive as some hard drugs like cocaine. Wow, if that's true I don't know if that's true or not, but I think that's a, it's a very strong statement to make. And it would be great if we, if we knew for sure, like what was going on in the brain maybe to some people, like sugar really is, it does have addictive like qualities. They cited studies on rats that showed a preference for sugar and evidence of them going through sugar withdrawal. But these claims have limitations they're not universally accepted in the scientific community, whatever, it's all preliminary. Nonetheless, there is evidence though, suggesting that sugar and highly processed foods can activate pleasure centers in the brain, like no duh, right? This is what we're talking about when you get like a dopamine hit. And overeating, it, they believe that there is, you get a dopamine rush when you overeat and people who are more predisposed to addiction might find it challenging to control their consumptions of foods.

C: Do you think that may be part of why it's so hard to, to categorize this separately, right? Cause the DSM only categorizes substances. I think the new, the five also has gambling disorder listed in it because there is some good evidence to show that it's like the only behavioral disorder that mirrors a lot of the neurological stuff that's going on with substance use. But when we talk about addiction or substance use disorders, we're talking about four categories, so impaired control, social problems, risk use, and physical dependence, and it's, you can't have a physical dependence to food because we all have a physical dependence to food because we have to eat.

J: Yeah, agreed. I totally agree. I mean, I think the parallels that they're making is that they're saying that people describe their relationship with food using addiction related terminologies, cravings, withdrawal, loss of control, there is some crossover here.

C: Right. But I don't think like that description of withdrawal, it would be really interesting to actually side by side, compare what, like a heroin withdrawal or a methamphetamine withdrawal or benzodiazepine withdrawal looks like in comparison to like a, a chocolate withdrawal, because at a certain point it just goes into hunger.

J: They said, in summary, the current study found that highly processed foods with added amounts of fat and or refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour, these were most likely to be associated with behavioral indicators of addictive like eating. Additionally, foods with high glycemic index were especially related toaddictive like eating problems for individuals endorsing elevated symptoms of food addiction. So it's an interesting, it's an interesting situation. I think again, a lot more research needs to be done, but it is good for, for all of us to be aware like have some awareness about the kinds of foods that you're eating, the behaviors that you have certain around certain foods.

S: Well, I think the idea is that we evolved in a very calorie limited environment, right? Basically for most of our existence, evolutionarily speaking, we were living on the brink of starvation, right? And when we had access to food, it was like, eat all you can when you can, because you don't know when you're going to get your next meal. And we crave fat, salt, carbohydrates, because these are calorie dense foods. We suck the bone marrow out of bones because that's really fatty and nutritious food. And now we live in, in in developed, in developed worlds, we live in an environment where you have unlimited access to food that is designed to be as tasty as possible.

C: Yeah. Like scientifically.

S: It's the super-

B: Weaponized food.

S: Yeah. We did not evolve to deal with this kind of constant overstimulation and it applies to more than just food. The whole gambling phenomenon is that the pornography phenomenon is like that where there's, we have these things in our world that we didn't have before, our brains are not adapted to this. We're eating like we're starving on the Serengeti, but we're surrounded by fat, sugar, and salt, that's the problem.

J: Yeah, I agree.

S: All right, let's move on.

Using CRISPR To Make Chickens Resistant (33:40)[edit]

S: Cara, tell us about the latest application of CRISPR.

C: Yes. So there is a new study that was published in nature communications just a day ago as of this recording titled creating resistance to avian influenza infection through genome editing of the ANP32 gene family. So what does that all mean? Well, using CRISPR Cas9, a group of scientists out of Edinburgh, out of the Roslyn Institute and Royal School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh have used CRISPR Cas9 to genetically modify chickens to be resistant to bird flu. So this is like a big deal, right? So we're talking avian influenza. There are many, many different forms of avian influenza, but it's a pretty nasty, it can be a pretty nasty infection. So this is a group of flu viruses that spread in birds. Obviously we've heard of different versions of it. You may have seen a lot of coverage over the last several years of H5N1, a specific subtype of H5N1, which has been particularly virulent, has spread pretty much in most of the continents on the globe and killed tons of farmed birds, but not just farmed birds, it's out in the wild as well. And so we're seeing a lot of wild birds falling to this virus. And we also know that certain types of avian flu, even though for the most part, it's not really adapted to humans, certain types of bird flu can spill over. And it's only a small series of mutations that have to take place for human beings to be able to fall ill or even die from bird flus. And it's really kind of what a lot of epidemiologists have their eye on for the next big pandemic, right? So really it's important to keep an eye on zoonotic infection, on spillover when it comes to bird flu. So it's just bad across the board. It's bad for human health, but it's also bad economically. It's bad for these animals. A lot of them have to be culled just because the infections get so rampant and it spreads so quickly that there's sort of no saving these chickens. And in order to save what chickens aren't infected, they have to sometimes quarantine or kill the infected birds. There have been vaccine campaigns, but it's not always feasible to vaccinate all of the different farm animals that we are trying to grow for food. It's also impossible to vaccinate wild birds. It's just doesn't happen. And economically, it's also not always viable. So basically, researchers have been trying to think, how can we get a handle on this? And they did a pretty ingenious thing where they were able to identify a gene that promotes for a protein that they've known for a while about called ANP32, and it's got different subgroups, but it's the A subgroup, which is really, really important here. This is a necessary gene for the flu virus to proliferate. It needs this gene and the protein that it codes for in order to produce more copies of itself. And so they were like, OK, if we go in there and we make it so that the virus can no longer bind to the protein by actually editing using CRISPR Cas9, this very specific gene editing tool that we've talked about a million times on the show, by using CRISPR Cas9, we can specifically go in and we can make a change to this coding region. And now the virus can't bind to the protein anymore. And so it can't replicate. And so they're like, we're going to do this. We're going to actually it's really interesting reading about how they made these little kind of changes in vitro. And then they sort of knocked out the living embryos and injected these into the embryo so that these new chickens would be genetically modified. But basically, then they gave these genetically modified chickens avian flu. They took 10 genetically modified chickens and 10 control chickens. They gave them all doses of avian flu up the nose. So like a direct dose into the nasal cavity in this kind of first pass what they found was that I think something like 7 out of the 10 control birds got sick and they also spread it to other birds that were within the vicinity. So just like you would expect when a bird is exposed directly to a viral load. Only 1 out of the 10 gene edited chickens got sick and the viral load seemed to be low enough that it couldn't spread it to other chickens. So it sort of stopped I guess what I would think of as like almost like a nucleation point, right? Or that sort of, that it put a hamper on it.

B: And that one chicken survived.

C: That one chicken. So I don't know if it ultimately, I don't know if any of them ultimately survived, the research animals, but yes, it, it got sick, but it didn't make other birds sick and that's what's really, really important. Then they decided, okay, well, we need to push this because something's going on there where one bird still got sick and we need to A, understand why. Let's look at the genetics. Let's see what's happening. And B, let's see what happens if we overload them with the virus. So then they actually exposed them to something like a thousand times higher dose than the birds would have ever had in a regular exposure. And when they gave the gene edited chickens this a thousand times higher dose, half the birds still got sick. And so they were like, this is interesting, but they shed lower levels of the virus and they spread it lower. So they were like, okay, why is this working? But it's only working up to a point. So they went into it and they realized that you remember how I mentioned that there were other subtypes that there's this A and P32A protein, but there's also a B and an E protein. And typically what we've understood the B and the E proteins to do had nothing to do with the A protein, but it looked like they, there were some redundancies, even though we typically think of those as being, I think the B is usually inactive in chickens and the E actually has antiviral proteins in chickens. They found that when the A was knocked out or not functioning appropriately, the B and the E were able to sort of pick up the, basically the role that the A proteins or subunits would usually use in making that protein. So clearly there was some sort of latent capability in the genetics. And this shows exactly what happens in evolution, right? This is what happens when we use antibiotics. This is what happens when we put pressure on an infectious agent within different host animals is that they figure out a new way for that infectious agent to thrive. And so just like with a lot of GM work in plants, the researchers were saying, probably if we want to make, because this was a proof of concept study, probably if we want to make this widespread, we're going to need to do knockouts or alter the other subunits as well. Now there's a little bit of problem with that in that altering the subunit A is fine and dandy because it doesn't affect the health of the chickens, right? We're talking about farm animals. We're talking about a food source. If they don't thrive, this is moot point. It's not going to help anybody. We don't care if it prevents them from getting bird flu if they don't ever develop. So A was fine, but apparently it's thought that affecting the A, B and E is going to be detrimental to their health. So there may have to be some other way to get in there. Another variation that researchers need to work on. So I think it's a really interesting study study because A, it shows proof of concept. This can work, but it's, it's not perfect out the gate. And B, it shows that ethical balance that we have to take, which is if I'm trying to induce or create a solution to the problem of viral transmission of a potentially zoonotic pathogen that is like wildly detrimental to both farmed and wild bird species and potentially even humans, trying to fix it can sometimes have runaway consequences and make it worse. It can induce mutation and cause the virus to kind of spill over faster. So we have to be really, really careful when we start looking into these solutions, I think that they can be viable and they can be important, but we have to be careful about how we proceed.

S: But at least we have a tool, you know what I mean?

C: It's the first time this has ever been done.

S: Yeah. I mean, it's obviously, there's definitely the potential for bad things to happen, but it's worse to be sitting on the sidelines helpless in the face of a bird flu pandemic, which could be devastating.

C: Completely. And you think about how important the global food supply is and why these are big, like literally, I don't mean pun pun unintended, but like sitting ducks for this, like it is it seems silly talking about like gene editing birds, but we're talking about gene editing food birds. And I think that's the, but we're talking about chickens that are raised for food that these aren't wild caught animals. These are animals that are already coming from a particular stock. And so bringing them from a particular gene edited stock actually isn't that big of a jump when you think about it, especially if, if we have all those checks and balances in place and there's multiple genes that have been edited. So their redundancies worked into the system.

S: Right.

C: Yeah.

S: Okay. Thanks, Cara.

Superheavy Elements and Ultradense Asteroids (43:37)[edit]

S: Bob, tell us about super heavy elements.

C: Ooh.

B: All right. So scientists recently reported on their research of hypothetical super heavy elements to see what the characteristics of matter might be if it exists beyond the known elements in the periodic table. This was published in the European Physical Journal Plus by physicists from the University of Arizona, Evan LaForge, Will Price, and Jan Rafelski. This fascinated the shit out of me, but there are some problems as far as I can tell. I'll go into them. So what are these guys claiming? Well, as usual before that, let's delve into some background first about, it's about the area beyond the current outer edges of our beloved periodic table of elements, specifically the super heavy elements, that end of the table, super heavy elements are not made in stars or supernovae or kilonovae. They have to be made synthetically in a lab. So at the super heavy end, the number of protons in the nucleus, otherwise known as?

C: Oh, the atomic number?

B: Yes. Very good.

C: I was like, I know this, wait.

B: The atomic number at this end is getting really high at this point. Typically, super heavies are if there's a greater than 100 or 104 protons in the nucleus, and we have created and named elements with 105 protons up to 118 or so, but these super heavies have short half-lives since they're unstable and they're radioactive as well. So, yeah, I mean, they're fascinating and interesting, but they're kind of like, laboratory curiosities with no real practical use as a material, right? So elements with atomic numbers beyond 118 have not been observed, but they've always fascinated me. And some predictions are tantalizing, for example, something that there could be a so-called island of stability around 164 protons, meaning that elements with that amount of protons or around that could have isotopes that potentially last far longer than the other super heavy elements. Does that mean what? What does that mean? They could last for minutes or more usefully, I would I would think it could be months, years, or even far longer. Potentially, who knows, doesn't seem incredibly likely, but that was always out there as a possibility, which is fascinating to me. So this is where these researchers come in. They call super heavy elements with an atomic number greater than 118 hyperheavies, like that, and they wanted to explore what could be learned about such potential elements. Specifically, they wanted to know how dense can such matter be without having to resort to even more bizarre types of matter like dark matter or strange matter. They wanted to just to know like common matter on the periodic table, even if it's beyond what we know, what, how heavy could that be? How dense could it get? So now then they say that this could explain some asteroids that they claim are compact, ultra dense objects or cudos, C-U-D-O-S, compact, ultra dense objects. Now, this is where they lose me. Not sure why they did this. The researchers say that there are some asteroids, apparently, that appear denser than the most dense, stable element we know. What do you guys, I'd be kind of surprised if anyone knew the densest, naturally occurring stable element is osmium, O-S-M-I-U-M, osmium. Osmium is a rare metal. Its atomic number is 76. It's got a density of 22.59 grams per cubic centimeter. That's twice the density of lead. So that is some dense shit right there. It's dense, heavy, 22, say 22 and a half grams per cubic centimeter. So here's a quote from their paper. "Our study of mass density is motivated by the possibility of compact, ultra dense objects, cudos, which we define here as objects, typically astronomical bodies, which have a mass density greater than that of osmium, the element with the largest experimentally measured mass density. In particular, some observed asteroids surpass the mass density threshold, especially noteworthy is the asteroid 33 Polyhymnia. Based on mass and size measurements obtained from independent sources, its mass density is computed as 75.3 plus or minus 9.6 grams per cubic centimeter." 75! Over three times that of osmium based on this one asteroid. So apparently this asteroid is three times denser than the densest natural material that we know of. And this is what they're saying. The problem is it does not seem generally accepted by scientists that asteroid 33 Polyhymnia is in fact denser than osmium. It's like kind of like not a thing apparently. Even the scientists who they cite in their paper, the scientists who calculated this density that they are talking about describes his calculation as "unrealistic", the guy that they're quoting. Okay. So most, the most likely explanation seems to be simply, it's an erroneous measurement. The guy who made the measurement says it's not realistic.

S: Either that, or it's an alien spacecraft.

B: Right. Nobody's saying that Steve, be quiet. Also, I love this rule of thumb for many wild claims. If there really was decent evidence that an asteroid was three times denser than osmium, that would be a well-known major discovery that many people would know. And I probably already would have talked about it on the show multiple times. So it's kind of like, it's not a thing. And they weren't, they weren't just saying this one asteroid, they were saying multiple asteroids have been in fact calculated to have a density greater than osmium. But Polyhymnia apparently is the, is the most conclusive, but it's, I don't think it's a thing. And it's really disappointing that they even threw that in there. But all that said though, the research is still interesting. And anyway, I think the researchers seem to essentially want to know if such a density is even plausible. That's like their overriding goal here. They want to know, is this plausible with normal type matter? So you can kind of disregard this whole thing with the asteroids, but it still kind of gets under my skin. Okay. So for their research, they used a model called the Thomas Fermi model of atomic structure. They use this to try and tease out some information about such, such possible hyper heavy elements. What do we know? What are the properties? Researcher Rafelski said, we chose this model despite its relative imprecision because it allows the synthetic exploration of atomic behavior as a function of atomic number beyond the known periodic table. So this model seemed like a good tool to extend our knowledge as far as we could in terms of elements with atomic numbers far beyond 118. Number crunching using this model that they came back with that it supported the prediction that there could be an island of stability for super heavy elements with an atomic number around 164. So that I, that was encouraging. I always loved the idea of this island of stability and this model that they used kind of seemed like that seems potentially plausible. Further, they suggested that such stable hyper heavy elements could have a density range near 68 grams per cubic centimeter. Remember Osmium was like 22. So they're saying that a hyper heavy element near 168 atomic number would have potentially near 68 grams per cubic centimeter. And that is near the measured density of asteroid 33 Polyhymnia, which of course I don't believe, so that's kind of like whatever. So the bottom line here seems to be that these researchers potentially have a useful tool for exploring the structure and properties of extreme hyper heavy elements that might one day appear on our periodic table of elements. It could take quite a while before that happens, but they could potentially be there. I think we should absolutely explore this tool more to see how useful it really is. But if you want to use this tool to specifically learn more about so-called compact ultra dense objects, please have some serious evidence that they actually exist first before you start writing about it. It's like, oh, look at this cool problem. Let's solve it. Well, wait a second. Um, the problem's not that the mystery is not there. Um, when I first was reading this, Steve, have you ever read, I've never read about anything about compact ultra dense objects before. And I never, when I read in this article that there are asteroids out there that are denser than Osmium, I'm like, what? How could I possibly have not known that? That is a huge, huge mystery and something amazing that would be written about in a way that we would all have heard about it. So then of course, as I got into the, into the weeds and read more, I'm like, yeah, it's really probably not even a thing at all, but still this, this was, it was interesting exploring the potential of the periodic table of elements and elements, these hyper heavies is fascinating and at the very least you could use this information to make your hard science fiction a little bit harder if you, if you're talking about this. And I mean, what interests me about this as well is that these elements could there could be alien civilizations out there that are routinely creating these who knows, that would be fascinating, but it's, it's interesting to think about.

S: I mean, I think of the idea of an asteroid with three times denser than the right is just silly.

B: It's nuts. Three times.

S: The laws of physics, I think would have something to say about that. I would be shocked if that turned out to be the case.

B: Yeah.

S: Absolutely.

B: But it would be, but if they do find at some point in the future, a true compact, ultra dense object that gave credence to the idea of a stable element with a huge atomic number, that would be amazing. Nobel prize winning discovery. Probably won't happen, or at least definitely not in our lifetimes. I just love thinking about it.

S: All right.

Prehistoric Solar Storms (54:22)[edit]

S: I'm going to do another quick news item. Have you heard, Bob, of using tree ring data to date ancient solar flares or solar storms?

B: I think so. Yeah, that doesn't sound too crazy, right?

S: Yeah. So what happens, here's the backstory. Carbon-14 dating is based upon the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in the atmosphere, which gets incorporated into living things like in trees and we could date them based upon the tree rings. Carbon-14 is made out of nitrogen 14 when it gets hit by a cosmic ray or a high energy particle. And if there is a coronal mass ejection or a very powerful solar flare that hits the earth, that can increase, that cause a pulse of carbon-14 in the atmosphere. And if that is followed by a period of minimal solar activity, which it can happen, then that reduces the solar wind, which increases cosmic rays, which then can cause years of a increase in the background C-14 level. We actually have increased cosmic rays, increased carbon-14 because of decreased solar activity. So you get a pulse and then you may be followed by even up to like a century of a baseline increase in the amount of carbon-14. So that's the kind of signal we're talking about. So we see one, for example, corresponding to the Carrington event, which we've talked about many times on the show. Well, new data shows the biggest such spike 14,000 years ago.

B: Ooh, how big?

S: 10 times stronger than Carrington.

B: (gasps)

S: Yeah. So that was a big one. Yeah. I mean, so that would, yeah, that could potentially wipe out our electrical grid. That's something that-

B: 10 orders of magnitude greater than the Carrington event. But they had to go back 14,000 years?

S: Yeah. So what they found is that, uh, when you, when you gather all this data as 14.3 thousand years ago. So they found that there were in the last 14,000 years, there's about one every 1200 years or so.

B: At that what?

S: But it's random. Well, like Carrington level event, that was the biggest one, but there are big spikes. There were spikes. Well, yeah, there was definitely a big solar flare that hit the earth around this time and they said, so the, on average, the risk of it happening each decade is about 1%. That's it's not negligible 1% per decade of that level of event.

B: Does that jive? Remember we talked about this like, like a four or five years ago. We talked about this specifically[link needed]. And I think the conclusion was that within 20 years, the chance of having a Carrington level or, or a significant level, was dramatically-

S: 10% or something. Yeah. I think this was a lot less. I thought of that too. This seems lower than what we previously reported.

B: Which is a little encouraging.

S: Yeah. But still 1% per decade is not negligible. And it definitely sounds like something we need to be prepared for.

B: Oh yeah. It's still, I think one of the most likely ways that civilization will take a huge hit.

S: We'll take a hit. I'm not going to say end, but we'll take a hit. I mean, imagine a blackout for a decade that kind of thing.

B: Right.

S: That would be significant. That would be a significant disruption to our delicate living together.

B: Dogs and cats, living together. Total chaos.

S: Yeah. So it's interesting, this kind of evidence, it's, pretty well established that that's what we're seeing. That is what this evidence represents. And it seems pretty, these are random events, but statistically we were pretty good beat on how often this happens.

B: Now, Steve, are they, do they need to distinguish between a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection or potential coronal, what is it called? The surface ejection? Are they they kind of like treating that as similar thing?

S: Yeah. I don't think they could tell the difference with this kind of data. There's just, there's just, there's a carbon-14 spike. That's it. So something happened with the increased cosmic rays. So yeah, anyway, so that's, that's it. This is a short one. Just we have a record of these events. Hopefully we won't, we won't see one soon. We need to harden our grid against it.

B: And it's doable.

S: And the thing is, we don't really know what would happen we ended and it's a continuum. You could say, okay, well, if a Carrington level event hit, what would happen? But we might get one stronger than that, you know? And so, and even still, we really, really don't know, exactly how bad it would be. But we have not specifically hardened our grid against such an event or our satellites. Some satellites are hardened to some degree, but there's still, we have tremendous infrastructure at risk for this kind of event.

B: What are they calling it, Steve? Did they, because I like Carrington event, they need a name for this.

S: Yeah, I didn't see.

B: The biggest one ever discovered. They need a name.

S: I haven't, I didn't see a name.

B: Let's work, let's work on that.

J: The thing that scares me about this, it's kind of like global warming. What's it going to take? At what point do we invest the serious amount of money that we need to, in order to solve some of these problems and harden our grid. Hopefully when we're updating the grid, because of the electrification that's going on, that they're going to take this into account while they're doing it.

B: Yeah, that'd be nice, but I don't hold your breath.

J: But that's giving governments too much credit.

S: We generally will react after it happens and people will say, why didn't we do anything? Who could have predicted this was going to happen?

B: Yeah. Like people talking about the pandemic 10 years ago. Yep.

S: Yeah, exactly. We had infectious disease specialist, Mark Chrislip on the show 15 years ago[link needed], and he basically laid out the pandemic. He said, this is what's going to happen. He actually, I think he said stock up on toilet paper.

B: People listen to the show, listen to the older show from, I think it was like 2012, Steve, or 2015 even, and they're like, it's eerie how close he was.

S: Yeah. Cause the experts knew exactly what was going to happen pretty much. It's the same thing here. We'll get hit with an event and there's going to be a paper trail of experts saying, yeah, this is pretty much what we figured was going to happen. This is within the error bars of what we figured but everyone will act like we got taken by surprise.

B: Steve, I'm also curious how they could distinguish between a solar flare, but also maybe a nearby supernova or some other astronomical event that could also explain the increased carbon-14. I'd seem like they just jumped to the solar flare. I guess it seems that's probably the most likely explanation based on the evidence seen.

S: I think because we can, we know from historical events, like we know we, you have the Carrington event as a reference, but we don't have any of these other events as a reference.

B: True, true. All right.

Who's That Noisy? (1:02:11)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, it's who's that noisy time.

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

[crackling/clacking, as of a track]

So, I had a lot of people, a lot of people guess this one right, which was fun because I figured they would, once you find out what it is. I have a guest from a listener named Brianna Bible, Beeble? "Hi, I'm going to guess that this week's who's that noisy is a quarter machine, like at the laundromat, like the one that keeps overflowing when I try to take the quarters out and then I have to go chasing quarters across the floor. Thanks for a great show as always." Yeah, I kind of, I mean, I've used quarter machines. I've used machines like that, like soda machines and stuff like that. But I've never had one overspill with quarters. I have heard coins come out of like a one-armed bandit at a casino. So there is a little similarity there. I could hear that for sure. Edward Myers wrote in and said, "Hi Jay, this noisy sounds like a bunch of dominoes being toppled." And there is like a clicking that clicking noise that dominoes make when they go, yeah, there's a little bit of that in there too. But we could do better than that. Right? Michael Blaney wrote in and said, "Hi Jay, I'm glad I didn't have my volume up too high. My guess is hail on a tin roof." And I haven't heard hail on a tin roof, but I've heard hail on the roof of my car. And yes, it has like that repetitive type of thing going on there. Let's get to another guest here from, Danello Escobar. "Hello, Jay. I have a guest from my two boys. So Gail, who is age eight said it's a tree going through a woodchipper and Kai who's six said it's ice getting crunched into little pieces." Well, good, good try guys. Definitely keep trying to guess every time you try to guess what who's that noisy is you get just a little bit smarter, but let's get to the answer. The answer is, the winner for this week is a listener named Aaron Sharpe. And Aaron said, "Hi skeptical people. I'm Aaron from central Illinois. I don't know why, but hearing that mechanical squeaks and the crunchy sounds made me think of the old coffee grinder my family has had in the basement for decades", and that's his final answer. Essentially, this is a hand crank coffee grinder that a lot of people used to have many decades ago. It wasn't uncommon for people to have some type of hand crank machine that they would use to grind their own coffee. This was before we had electric coffee grinders or people shifted at one point to buying ground coffee in the stores. So these hand crank coffee grinders predates all of that happening. So they go back pretty far, but listen again real quick. I won't play the whole thing, but just so you can get an idea. [plays Noisy] It has like a circular kind of sound to it.

S: I thought it had like a circular sound to it.

B: Doesn't sound like they're grinding a lot of coffee beads though.

J: Yeah, it's not, it's not a fast process, Bob. I saw a video of somebody do it. And it's like it takes a little while to get it done.

New Noisy (1:05:16)[edit]

J: So I have a new noisy for you guys this week. This noisy was sent in by a listener named Michael Stoll. Let's see what you think.

[creaking croaking with echo]

All right. My hint is that this might be, I think that this is a broken version of the real thing. I don't know if that helps anybody. And I will give you another hint because I think this one is very difficult. It's something that's old. If you think you know what this week's noisy is, or if you heard something cool, you can email me at

Announcements (1:05:49)[edit]

J: Real quick Steve, we've got NOTACON coming up in November 3rd and 4th. There is still some tickets left. You can go to to see what's available. And we just to remind you guys, we are going to be doing a live boomer versus zoomer. That's our game show. We'll be doing that on Friday night at the conference and on Saturday night at the conference, George Hrabb and Brian Wecht will be performing a live eighties and insane eighties sing-along. That's what they call it, which is going to be a ton of fun. So please do consider joining us. It's not too late. You can still make it. You can still do it. Why aren't you going if you're not? That's the question.

S: All right. Thanks, Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:06:31)[edit]

Email #1: Nobel Peace Prize[edit]

S: One quick email. This comes from Tom and Tom writes, "I was literally screaming at y'all on the podcast as I listened to it in my car yesterday during science or fiction. As you considered whether four Nobel laureates won their award while they were imprisoned. Hello. Like the one who literally just won Narges Mohammadi who sits at this moment in an Iranian prison. I realized now that I have the benefit of the podcast time delay and that at the time you recorded episode 952, the 2023 peace prize winner hadn't yet been announced. How ironic that events in just a few days between when you record the podcast and when it was released to actually invalidated your science item and made it fiction, you should announce a correction or maybe acknowledgement is more appropriate in fairness to you that there are now five Nobel laureates who won their award while imprisoned." Yes, Tom. That's correct. In fact, right after the award was announced, Cara sent me an email, sent everybody an email pointing out the irony of the fact that the science of fiction is not wrong. It was right at the time. It just became obsolete between the recording and the posting of the podcast, which I think it's the only time that's happened. Not that much of a coincidence considering the fact that we were reporting in the middle of the Nobel awards being given out. But yeah, that was funny. Yes, always remember the time delay. That's why I say the date that we are recording the show because lots of times we're talking about things that are breaking news and the story evolves by the time the show comes out. This isn't the first time that someone's emailed us without realizing the time delay thing. Well, he did sort of halfway through the email.

C: I love watching emails evolve with people.

S: Yeah, never mind, I just heard the rest of the piece. All right, guys. So we have a fun interview coming up with Dan Friesen and Jordan Holmes from the Knowledge Fight podcast, so let's go to that interview now.


Interview with Dan Friesen and Jordan Holmes (1:08:33)[edit]

S: Joining us now are Dan Friesen and Jordan Holmes. Guys, welcome to the Skeptics Guide.

DF: Hey, thanks for having us.

JH: Thank you very much.

S: You guys do the Knowledge Fight podcast dedicated to critiquing Alex Jones info wars and other conspiracy theorists. You've been doing this since 2017. What made you guys decide that you wanted to start a podcast about this?

DF: Well, I think it it starts with me, I guess, and then I infected Jordan.

JH: No, it's a fairly dramatic story, and I think you should give it the gravitas it deserves.

DF: Me and Jordan were both like standups and we'd met each other and hit it off famously. And so that was sort of in the background. And at the time, this is like the kernel of what happened was in the 2016 election, I made a very critical error. And that is that I started watching Infowars coverage of the debates. So instead of watching Hillary and Trump, I would watch Infowars personalities, watch the debates and yell over them.

JH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It would be it's like remember when everybody saw Trump hovering behind Hillary in the debate and everyone was like, oh, this is an example of how-

DF: It's terrifying.

JH: On Infowars they're like, he's going to get her now. He's coming from the top rope.

S: Yeah, it is. It's amazing. It's just like a universe.

DF: Yeah. And I've been sort of interested in that already at that point. I've been I'd watched a bit of him and he didn't seem like how I remembered him from the like 9/11 conspiracy days. Something felt different. And so I was drawn to watching more of it and seeing what the hell was going on with this guy. And so I watched the debates. And then the election night coverage is like, well, I got to watch it on Infowars. I've gone this far. And you're watching it on Infowars is really like awful experience because Trump wins. And that's a bummer. And then at the same time, they're all celebrating with champagne toasts and they're mocking the Hillary Clinton supporters who these are a diverse crowd of people who are all crying and recognizing that their rights were now in jeopardy. And you had just a bunch of weird white dudes who were real angry, sitting around toasting champagne, laughing at these people crying. And I realized, like, yeah, I feel like I got to look more even more into this. I got to do something.

JH: Someone's got to deal with whatever this is.

DF: Someone's got to sort this mess.

JH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

DF: And so I just started doing that. And I thought we were just going to make fun of him, honestly. I thought that was what we were going to do.

JH: We started and we and I'll tell you why we can back that up. When we when we started, we spent plenty of time drinking on the show. Hey, this is us making fun of a lunatic. Why not have a couple of drinks? No big deal.

DF: It was more or less an excuse for us to hang out.

JH: Yeah, we love hanging out.

DF: And at the same time, learn a little bit more. But about this person that we just sort of determined was crazy and we didn't know enough about.

JH: Totally.

DF: Over the course of the time doing the show, like within the first year or so, it started to become clear that there was way more problems in his rhetoric and in the show as it existed, that we needed to take it a little bit more seriously. And so the show kind of evolved from that point where the mockery became trying to deconstruct. And it's been a learning process along the way of like how to do that.

S: So what surprised you the most? What did you learn about, like the whole Alex Jones phenomenon that surprised you from the time when you started out this project?

DF: I feel like Jordan's best to answer this, because you're the one who gets to experience the surprise the most.

JH: Yeah. I mean, there's the obvious ironic answer, which is very complicated and yet so straightforward, which is that Alex is a liar. I have learned over the course of eight hundred and fifty odd episodes what you know instinctively, just watching the dude talk, right? But the difference there is that the perception of Alex's lies throughout our culture is is so superficial that it hides the depth of how truly horrific his lies can be. And so it is fascinating to to see people like almost deceived by a liar in the way of them recognizing they're a liar.

DF: It's kind of like the what we opinion we had going in.

JH: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

DF: It's like you you're just like, oh, he's he's a liar. But there's there's something fun.

JH: Totally.

DF: And then you came to a more evolved

JH: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It's a matryoshka doll of eventually you go from oh, he's turning the frogs gay, which everybody likes to reference. It's an enjoyable thing. We all go, ha, ha, ha. How silly that is. And then you get down to it and you're like, wait a second. I did not remember that the civil rights were the fucking cause of communism. And now we're all going to die because Jewish people exist. I didn't remember that part.

DF: Yeah, that wasn't as apparent at the beginning. You kind of you kind of have to listen to a bit of his actual content to start to get these trends and start to understand what belies or what's behind a lot of the information that he presents. And that kind of sucks because, I mean, honestly, as someone who does it, it sucks to watch his show. It's a bad show.

C: Well, can I ask then, you guys? I'm just so curious, like, how?


C: How do you maintain your perspective and your sanity? And like, how does this not like deeply affect your mental health?

JH: (laughs) I just screamed no at you. (Cara laughs) So let's before we get into how do you maintain your sanity?

DF: I feel like it's that scene in Avengers where the Hulk is like, my secret is I'm always mad. It's like that. I'm always crazy. That's the secret.

JH: You didn't realize we were nuts before we ever even started this shit.

C: Do you ever, though, do you actually get depressed, like or worried? Or like, do you have an existential kind of response? Has it ever deeply gotten to you?

DF: Yeah, definitely. And I mean, I think the first night that night, watching the election coverage on Infowars, it's still a deeply visceral moment that I can recall. But yeah, it gets dark. Just our last episode before we're doing this interview was about the attack on Israel. And Alex did a special report. He broke into Saturday. He doesn't usually do episodes on Saturday. So he did a special report to cover it. And halfway through, he switched into an infomercial for his book. He has a new book coming out. And so like that depressed me incredibly. It's so bleak and cynical.

JH: Listen to your own silence.

DF: Yeah.

JH: Listen to all of your fake gasps. You can't believe that shit. It's insane.

DF: It's horrifying to see somebody who can operate that way and recognizing it and seeing it is often a pretty depressing thing. But like I said, Jordan and I are people who have both had experience for most of our lives with mental health issues. And we've had a lot of coping mechanisms that we've learned to develop through therapy and what have you. So it's easy to check ourselves, I think, whenever those feelings are becoming pronounced. So the answer is yes, but it doesn't need to. It doesn't always descend into despair.

JH: It is a little bit along like I'm bipolar type one. So this is a little bit of like when the world gets insane, the insane turn pro that kind of situation, you know?

C: Yeah. But I mean, I can imagine that some people can become very easily. I mean, obviously he has like like cult followers. And clearly you set out for an intention. But have you ever been watching and been like, oh, he makes a good point. Have you ever caught yourself like believing what he was spinning?

DF: He does sometimes. But a lot of the times it's not important, the good points. (Cara laughs)

JH: But that also brings us back to what we learned about him being a liar.

C: Right.

JH: You know, you hear him make a good point. And I go back to like during the trial, whenever he had the-

DF: You're talking about the Sandy Hook, Texas.

JH: The Sandy Hook Texas trial while we were there. And one of the things that I kept harping on was the the media kept being like Alex Jones apologized for his behavior for the first time, which is wrong on so many levels, not least of which, because it's not the first time and also because he wasn't really apologizing. He was just saying the words of an apology. So when you hear him make a good point, he's not making a good point. He is saying the words of a good point.

DF: Yeah. The cliche example that we've used over the years we've done the show is that like early on, some of the positions that he had that we found, they were like, hey, that's a good position. Or like he was in favor of drug legalization and he was strongly opposed to civil asset forfeiture. And both of these positions are things that's like, well, I hate Alex Jones, but I agree on those things. You can't like say that those are wrong because he believes in them. And then over time, we've seen him revert on both of them. And so it's like, well, you never really meant it to begin with. There wasn't a principle here. There was just a this felt like the right thing to do at the time.

S: Now, have you seen over the six years of covering him so so closely that he's had any kind of an arc like what's been the evolution of Alex Jones?

JH: That's such a good question.

DF: Well, actually, I think it's it's it's broader than that, because in the time that we've been covering him, I've also been going back and listening to his shows from as far back as like 2002. And so there's a there's a bigger arc to him that I've been able to observe. And it's not a good picture. It's not a man who's thriving. It's a it's a tale of self destruction in some ways. It's a guy who's a liar and doesn't really know that much about the subject that he's covering, get worse at his job over time to the point where that illusion is far less convincing.

JH: I would put it as almost like if you rewrote Faust with starring Mr. Magoo. He didn't even know he made a deal with the devil. He was just walking forward throughout all these people are dropping beams and shit, and he just keeps walking forward. Just like, if I keep being racist, it'll be fine. And it was.

S: Yeah. So that's that's interesting. So here's my question, because with con artists, sometimes we can like we the ones that we've maybe followed over years to not this closely, but just sort of more peripherally. So sometimes you could see them getting better at being a con artist over time. And then you go back to their early days. They just weren't as slick or polished at the con. But sometimes like with what's the nail lady, you know, the psychic with the nails and forget her name. The kid's dead, you know.

J: I'm so happy I forgot her name.

S: Sylvia Brown. Like what Sylvia Brown got lazy because she knew it didn't matter. She could be worse at doing what she was doing. Are you saying that Alex Jones was falling?

DF: That's exactly.

JH:' When you're the nail lady, everything looks like, OK, yeah.

DF: What you're you're describing is exactly right.

S: He just got you got lazy because he realized I could say really I don't even have to work. I could phone it in. Just rant crazy stuff and it'll work.

DF: I think at a certain point, he recognized that his brand was essentially emotion based and like creating feelings in the audience. He can do that without even really doing any work. And so why try? And then at the same time, he like came into these businesses that are so profitable that he was making money hand over fist. And it just who cares? Why? Why care that much? And yeah, I don't know. I think his scams are now not even scams. They're just like. He just is yelling.

JH: Hostage negotiation?

DF: Yelling at people for money all the time.

JH: If you love the country, give me money.

DF: Yeah, there's very there's very little craft to it.

JH: Yeah, I mean, in a certain sense, you could say that he's lost the polish. In another way, perhaps you could say like, there's no need for it. So why? Why? If you're a sprinter and everybody's like, look at the great style you have. But if it doesn't make you go any faster, then just be as economical and as efficient with your movements as you can. You know, so it's almost like a natural progression of how easy it is to do things that they get lazy.

S: His brand is incoherent, right? So it found I could be incoherent by just not trying.

C: But isn't his brand also just like, be afraid of everything. So and buy my shit because I'm the only person who can save you from it.

DF: Yeah, that is that is a lot of it. And I think that it's pretty easy to evoke those fear responses in an audience, probably even before, but especially after Covid. It's just it's elementary the way he can do that. You don't really have to try that hard.

JH: But his brand is also I will show up as J.K. Simmons and Spider-Man his brand is that too. His brand is not just all of those things. His brand culturally is a a foothold as the like almost avatar of the the guy on the sidewalk screaming at you.

DF: And the fact that he does show up in places like being J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man is that that unfortunately feeds into his brand, too, because like they need to make fun of me on such a high level. Because I'm so right about the things I'm saying now. Granted, all the things he's saying are dumb. But it does feed into people's perceptions about him. Yeah, he is dangerous. He's so dangerous that they have to assassinate his character in giant blockbuster.

JH: No, it is. It is a bit like, unfortunately, the culture gave him a slot. And until the culture recognizes that we gave it to him and he wasn't like he's not supposed to have it. It's not like his.

DF: I think it's a little too late to take that away.

JH: Exactly.

C: But I was going to say, do you do you feel like you guys contribute to that?

DF: I think I hope not.

JH: If he had ever spoken about us, I would have a completely different answer. I mean, I genuinely if he had ever because we can never know that from our perspective, like looking out will always be uncertain of that. But the big piece of evidence for me is if we can contribute to somebody else's success, they will use that.

DF: That is true.

JH: And Alex has never once used us.

DF: And it's glaring because he complains about like small blogs that talk shit about and stuff like this. And we've done like eight hundred fifty episodes of a podcast about him. We just toured the UK doing shows about him. It's kind of absurd that something like this could exist. And he doesn't talk about it ever. Considering that I was a expert consultant for the Texas Sandy Hook case, I was in one of the depositions that he gave. I was in the room with him. His producer emailed us asking him for us to have him on the show. His lawyers complained about us in a bankruptcy hearing.

JH: Oh, that's that's the other thing.

DF: His main writer used to follow us on Twitter. And so like there is-

C: He knows who you are.

DF: There's a very obvious awareness of who we are. And it's just I think that we can be confident that we are a negative because we never come up.

JH: At the very least. At the very least. This is a story that I think we should probably dine out on more. But we're we're just ourselves. But so the we we covered the depositions that all of the Infowars employees had for the Sandy Hook trial in not all of them, but for most of Texas and Connecticut.

DF: The ones that we get our hands on.

JH: So multiple depositions were for Rob Dew as the corporate representative of Infowars. And to give a slight background, all right, just to give you some legal ease. The corporate representative is the person who is supposed to know what the corporation knows.

DF: They speak as the business, not as themselves.

JH: Not a person who's like, oh, I might not know that because I just don't remember. It is the business has to know what the business does. They have records of that. So they did multiple depositions, all of which Rob Dew was so horrifically unprepared for. And we mocked so mercilessly that eventually the next deposition, they had a different corporate representative.

DF: That was Daria. And I was actually there physically in the room for that one. Yeah, it was horrifying.

JH: And we mocked that so miserably that there was another corporate representative.

DF: They had to hire somebody from outside the company.

B: To represent the company.

JH: Represent the higher. Yes.

DF: And Norm Pattis, Alex's lawyer, has said on the record-

JH: Specifically.

DF: -that the reason was they couldn't get anybody else from inside the company to agree to do it because they didn't want to get made public.

JH: So at the very least, not only have we not contributed to his success, but we have cost them roughly thirty thousand dollars.

J: That's actually pretty damn good.

JH: We helped with the lawsuit and all that stuff. But thirty grand directly to our bank account.

DF: I think I think that there is a danger to what you're asking about, too, of us like raising the profile of Alex in some ways. And I'm constantly aware of that. But I do think that the way that we analyze his content and the poison pill of our podcast, I don't think that anybody could become aware of him through our show and then be like, this guy sounds pretty cool. I'm going to check him out.

S: Yeah. You're not a gateway to listening to Infowars.

DF: I would hope not. I've not heard that from anybody.

S: But it is tricky. We face that as well. It's like do we debunk this guy or are we just going to be raising their profile? We have to put things through that filter as well.

DF: And the thing is, some things that I try not to cover, not on Alex's show, but some people who have come up, like who've been suggested as like, this is someone you should cover. I don't. I don't think that's wise.

S: The controversy is better than obscurity. So if they pick a fight with a skeptic or a critical show or whatever, that just raises their profile.

DF: Like if Alex was a no name person, it wasn't a multimillionaire who, is friends with not really friends with Trump, but he can pretend. But like friends with Tucker and Joe Rogan and all these people, then I don't think I would want to cover him. The damage is done in terms of his popularity. Yeah.

S: Right.

C: Well, that's why I was so like, it's funny because I remember, Jordan, I was sitting across from you a few weeks at QED and or at the diner outside of it. And we were talking and you guys were saying that you were on tour with your podcast in the UK. And I was like, yeah, people in the UK know who Alex Jones and you were like, is that a serious question? It's like, no, really, I had no idea that his profile was global. He's such a special American brand of crazy.

DF: It's true. But I think that that's been exported a little bit. In the UK, you have UKIP and Nigel Farage is somebody who is very closely associated with Alex. He's been on Infowars over the years. Paul Joseph Watson. I don't know how relevant of a figure he is in the UK itself. But he was swinging with these UKIP politicians. And there's Tommy Robinson is an agitator in the UK. And he is Infowars regular. Not so much anymore, but he used to be.

JH: And yeah, I would say I would defy you to find a media market that could not claim like, oh, we have our Alex Jones. Like, it doesn't matter if you're in Nigeria.

DF: A lot of them end up being guests on Alex's show because of that desire to create this solidarity or camaraderie between international shitheads.

JH: Because it's not. I mean, what he does is is a templatable, like repeatable thing. He's just uniquely good at it.

DF: Probably because of brain damage.

JH: That's what I mean. There is. That's also kind of one of the speculations that we have.

J: Does he talk about the money that he owes in any way?

DF: No, he pretends that he's winning the bankruptcy situation. He gives the audience a real flawed version of what's actually going on. He claims that he's in this bankruptcy reorganization process and everything is going great. And the courts, they realize that he's right and that he's going to just be able to make it through this reorganization. And they'll be able to stay on air. Maybe that maybe the Sandy Hook families will get a little something. But the diluted picture that he gives the audience is really necessary because if they recognize that every dollar that they're sending to him is likely going to go to legal costs or the settlement, they're going to stop sending him all that money. And he's going to not be able to do his shit anymore and not be able to scam more money from people. So it's an essential lie that he has to tell in order for that to continue.

C: Yeah.

J: Yeah, that's I'm curious about it because. I don't know. I mean, I get the sense. My gut is telling me that he knows he's completely full of shit. There's no way to really know. And he slips in and out of that character seamlessly, in a sense. You know what I mean? So we don't know really where he is. But you can't argue with the courts. And at some point, they're going to come and take his stuff. And he's got to know that.

DF: Yeah, yeah. I think I think there is an awareness of that. And that's why you see him at this point trying to create a lot of little lily pads, kind of like he's gotten a show on Steven Crowder's Mug Club. And he has his new book that he's brought out. And there are various things that he's tried to do. Like a couple of months back-

JH: He's bad at money laundering. He's so obviously bad at it.

DF: Like six months ago or so, he launched something called Alex Jones Live. There was supposed to be a business that was entirely separate from Infowars.

JH: Completely separate from Infowars. You know it because he said it.

DF: He said it like three times in the first 20 minutes of his first show. And it was so obviously a way to try and just create a different business that wasn't under the bankruptcy. And the bankruptcy court shut him down almost immediately.

JH: No, I'm screaming all the time, like, buy a cash only business. What are you doing? You're a money launder, do it like a drug dealer. They're really good at it.

DF: So he yeah, he has I think he is aware that there is like an expiration date.

C: Is he up for anything criminal?

DF: Not yet.

C: OK. Yeah, it's all civil, right? So like hitting him where where it hurts is only money out of his out of his pocket.

DF: There are implications that could come to bite him in the ass. Things like hiding money and bankruptcy fraud. Those are not civil issues at that point. So if there are if there is a case to be made there, he should be pretty worried about that. But even beyond that, there are whispers of all sorts of other potential criminal things that he could be liable for. But a lot of that, I don't know if I see persuasive evidence.

JH: I would say I would say this. I would say this. All right. Alex is a fantastic indictment of our stupid legal system because he's lost all of his money and he has not lost any of it. And he's allowed to spend it basically the way he wants.

DF: He's been taking a lot of vacations to Hawaii.

JH: Yeah, he's he's not received any consequences despite the fact that we all believe he has. And then second, I guarantee you that he's committed so many crimes, so many real crimes, it's crimming crimey crime.

DF: It's almost unfathomable-

JH: How many crimes, he's committed so many crimes. But because it would be so much of a chore and also because the cops are here to beat up poor people, that will never happen. I mean, maybe it'll happen.

DF: And maybe there isn't the evidence available. See, again, again, probable cause.

JH: Maybe there's not the evidence available to again, you know he's committed so many goddamn crimes.

DF: Are you suggesting they do a sixth season of The Wire? But about Alex Jones?

JH: I'm not suggesting they do a sixth season of The Wire. I'm suggesting they reboot the Wire.

C: I'd watch that.

JH: Port of Call New Orleans.

DF: Port of Call Austin.

C: I would so watch that.

J: Yeah, I was reading an article and they were saying, like, he spent $40,000 in July and he spent like they're tracking how much money he's spending. But there's no follow through. It's just like, OK, we know how much he's spending and we're watching him go out to these incredibly expensive restaurants and and do what he's doing. But you guys are right. It's like, OK, so when do you actually pull that trigger? When when do you actually start to dismantle this guy? What are they waiting for?

DF: Yeah, this is a tension that Jordan and I have because he has the like, take it all kind of thing. And I have a cautious belief that you just got to let the bankruptcy court exhaust all of his options. And it sucks. But everybody deserves their day in court. And that doesn't mean that someone who's abusing that, we know he's abusing it. But someone else could do each of the things that he's doing and be the sincere actor.

JH: Well, see, that's but that's the thing. That's the argument that Dan and I have is that I would like a law that says, if you do all of the things Alex did, we take all of your money instantly. No questions asked and no problems. And Dan is like, you can't write a law that applies to only one person. And I say, yes, I can. How about that?

DF: My position is that it's woefully idealistic to think you could write that.

JH: I want that law just of like, listen, if you do one out of three of these things, if you do two out of three of these things, but if you do all three f--k off, I'm against the three strikes as a basic concept of legal system rules, but on the one hand, this guy's is insane.

DF: Screams this guy. He's insane I scream.

JH: I hate it. It takes one to know.

DF: Yeah, it's frustrating, though. I mean, there's no way around that.

J: Well, guys, this journey that you're on, I really do hope that it doesn't do like real psychological damage to you guys because it's intense.

DF: It has. It has. Don't worry. It's too late.

JH: I mean, I was going to say, I like the idea of you being like, hey, listen, I bet it's going to be nine hundred where they're finally going to start getting damaged. Eight hundred and fifty episodes. You make it through that. No big deal.

DF: It's caused a lot of damage, obviously, but we've learned to cope in some ways. And I think so many of the positives that have come out of it between things that we've heard from listeners, things that we've learned about ourselves along the way and such, I think that they far outweigh whatever damage has been done by this dumb drunk in Texas.

JH: Yeah, I would say that as far as like that goes, I think around us, one of the things that's so amazing has flowered a the the audience of we call them policy wonks or they call themselves that. And they have turned all of this like miserable, horrific tragedy and bigotry and all of that into a source of positivity for them and and for ourselves. And it has been one of the more fulfilling and rewarding things that could ever have happened to us.

DF: Yeah, and completely devoid of any work on our part or necessarily influence on our part. A lot of people who are among them are folks who have lost family members to conspiracy shit. And they're able to really make a positive out of helping each other and being supportive. And that is that's worth whatever. Number of hours of listening to Alex scream.

JH: Yeah, to facilitate that is is our like achievement.

DF: Well, that and I don't know, I was going to make a joke about we already talked about Norm making or talking.

JH: Yeah, that's true. The 30,000.

DF: I can't deflect this with a joke.

JH: Oh, you son of a bitch.

J: So it's kind of like turned into your duty is what you're saying.

JH: As a Chicago comedian, I have to say you said duty.

B: I thought it too.

C: Me too.

DF: I don't think of it as duty as much as it is. Like, here's a really positive thing that has come out the side of it. And there's work still to be done like there's we've learned a lot about Alex and shown a lot of things about the way his propaganda works. But that is not a completed task. And so for me, if there's any duty, it is to complete this work that we've embarked on.

JH: I would also say for me, because I don't do work, I'm the guy who doesn't work. One of the great things about this is like part of the reason that I joined the show, that we started to-

DF: Joined the show.

JH: Joined the show. It's his part of the reason that we started doing this was we said famously we hit it off, but it was it was like it's so much fun to hang out with my best friend. And this was an excuse to make that happen regularly. And that's part of like being a Chicago performer.

DF: And that was really what fueled it for the first few years. And now that is gone.

JH: No, I mean, oh, oh, oh, I was going to say that it was still there. And it is for me.

DF: I have bad news.

JH: Yeah, well, you win some, you lose some.

S: Well, guys, it's been great talking to you.

DF: Likewise. Thanks for thanks for having us.

JH: Thank you so much.

S: Thanks for coming on the show. And good luck keeping keeping both your eyes on Alex Jones. It's tough, tough job, but someone's got to do it.

DF: That's what that's what they say.

JH: I suppose.


Science or Fiction (1:41:09)[edit]

Item #1: Astronomers have spotted the first exoplanet collision, which happened in a system 1,800 light years away[8]
Item #2: Scientists have developed a new method of error correction in quantum computers that is 10 times as effective as previous methods, reaching fidelities of 0.999.[9]
Item #3: The NIH has announced a $150 million grant to develop a Digital Twin Brain – an open-source platform to virtually duplicate human brain function.[10]

Answer Item
Fiction Digital twin brain
Science Exoplanet collision
Quantum computer correction
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Digital twin brain
Digital twin brain
Exoplanet collision

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

S: Each week, I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and one fake. And I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. And you know what? You can play along at home if you like. I understand that people like to do that. We have three regular news items this week. No theme. You ready?

J: Yes, let's do it.

S: All right. Here we go. Item number one, astronomers have spotted the first exoplanet collision, which happened in a system 1800 light years away. Item number two, scientists have developed a new method of error correction in quantum computers that is 10 times as effective as previous methods, reaching fidelities of 0.999. And item number three, the NIH has announced a one hundred and fifty million dollar grant to develop a digital twin brain, an open source platform to virtually duplicate human brain function. Jay, go first.

Jay's Response[edit]

J: The first one, astronomers have spotted the first exoplanet collision, which happened in a system 1800 light years away. Well, I'll be damned. I mean, I think that I would have found that news item because of how much I read about about things like this. But it is possible I missed it. And how would we be able to see this collision happen? I would imagine they would have to be transiting a sun. But that's crazy. That's a crazy situation. I don't know. I don't know if that's possible. Second one, scientists have developed a new method of error correction in quantum computers that is 10 times as effective as previous methods, reaching fidelities of point nine nine nine. Now, I expect them to make advancements like this. I don't think this one is shocking at all. So I think that is science. And then the next one, the NIH has announced one hundred fifty million grant to develop a digital twin brain, an open source platform to virtually duplicate the human brain function. So, yeah, this one is competing for the fiction for the first one, because I don't think first of all, I don't think we know enough about the brain to try to duplicate the human brain. I mean, who knows to what degree they they would be trying to to duplicate it. When you say duplicate you could take that as it's going to function just like a human brain or it's going to that's the other way.

S: That's the idea.

J: It's going to function just like a human brain. So how can it possibly be true? And one hundred fifty million dollars, I don't think is enough to do it. That's not a lot of money when it comes to doing projects like this. So there's two things in this news item that make me question. Develop a digital twin brain. I just don't think no, I got to pick that one as a fiction.

S: OK, Cara.

Cara's Response[edit]

C: Yeah it's funny when you were reading the one about the exoplanet collision 1800 light years away and then this new method of error connection in quantum computers that's 10 times as effective with these point nine nine nine fidelity. I was like, oh, no, I was a dart throw. Like, I have no idea. I don't know what the standards would be for error connection in quantum computing. I don't understand quantum computing, but I got to go with Jay on this because if a digital twin brain, I guess by definition, because we've seen like organ twins before, I think by definition has to be it's about function, not structure. And we've only like just recently done like the connectome. You know what I mean? I just I don't understand how we could possibly. It's way too complex for that. And I agree with Jay. That's not enough money either. So structure, yes, function, no. That's got to be the fiction.

S: OK, and Bob.

Bob's Response[edit]

B: I could see them doing that, creating this twin brain in terms of like, using what we already know about the brain and how the interacting networks and everything. But we know a lot. We don't know everything. We're not even close to everything. We don't know a lot of the key stuff. We don't know really what consciousness even is. But you can create attempt to create a system that works similar to the brain as far as we understand it. I mean, I could I could see that happening. I don't think it would probably. I don't think they would be very successful for quite some time and after a lot more than one hundred and fifty million. But I could see that. This number one is 1800 light years of exoplanet. That's far away, I think, for an exoplanet. That's pretty damn far. Sure. We have sure we've discovered some farther away. But but usually there it's pretty rare methods to see exoplanets that are really far away. But that 1800 seems like far away for something like the transit method. The quantum computers. Yeah, a 10 times 10 times as effective as previous. So once so yeah, error correction, an order of magnitude better. That's huge. I'm not sure the exact significance of fidelities of point nine nine nine. I'm not sure exactly what that what that means in terms of like error correction. But 10, an order of magnitude is huge because with quantum computers, error correction is is so important. You don't even need a lot of qubits. People talk about a thousand qubits, a million qubits. You don't even need that many qubits. If you've got spot on error correction, you don't even really need that many qubits because your error correction is really, really, really good. Or if you had perfect error correction, you could probably get by with, I think, like 200 qubits or something crazy low amount. So that this that's big. I really want that to be true because that's the kind of advances we really want to we want to see with quantum computers at this point in time. I'm going to, screw it. I'm going to say the 1800 light year exoplanet collision is fiction. Plus the fact that it's actually seeing a collision while you're a collision while you're observing. That's pretty that's probably almost as unlikely as winning this one point seven billion Powerball lottery. That I have that I have tickets for fingers crossed.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right. So you all agree on number two. So we'll start there. Scientists have developed a new method of error correction in quantum computers that is 10 times as effective as previous methods, reaching fidelities of zero point nine nine nine. You guys all think that one is science and that one is science. It sounds like a pretty solid advance. Bob, you're correct that the error correction really is the big thing now. It's like the big technological hurdle for quantum computers is reducing the errors. So there's two approaches that you could take. You could prevent them from occurring in the first place or you could fix them after they occur. And that is with a method they're going with here. So it's they use this method of using laser light to illuminate the atoms which are falling out of superposition, right? So they light up and then they can either eliminate them and replace them with other atoms. Or they even said they could use the lasers to bring them back into superposition.

B: Really?

S: Yeah. Or entanglement rather.

B: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

S: Entanglement. So I don't know how that works. But yeah, the problem with the quantum computer is that it's based upon having entangled particles. And if particles tend to fall out of entanglement over time and that produces the errors or it's one method way that errors are produced. So this is a way of essentially bypassing the ones that fall out of entanglement or fixing them or replacing them or whatever. All right. Let's go on to number three.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: The NIH has announced a one hundred fifty million dollar grant to develop a digital twin brain, an open source platform to virtually duplicate human brain function. Bob, you think this one is science. Jay and Cara, you think this one is the fiction. I sense a couple of assumptions in your answers. I never said that it would function in real time. That's a matter of computing power.

B: Be shocked if they even were thinking about that.

C: Yeah, to me, that's not a I wasn't thinking of it functioning even in real time. I still don't think we could do it.

S: Yeah. And again, it's also it doesn't imply that we could do it now. It's more of-

C: Right. They're funding it for the future.

S: Yeah, they're going to develop a digital twin brain.

C: But they don't have a plan, do they?

S: They have a plan. They don't have funding. This one is the fiction.

C: They do want to do it.

S: So there was a there was a paper basically laying out a pathway for this to happen. But it's theoretical. If you wanted to do it, this is what we could do. So the idea is, which is a good one, I think I spoke about this in general terms previously on the show, where if you have essentially you bring together neuroscientists and artificial intelligence experts, programmers, et cetera. And they essentially try to model the brain as best as they can with the data that we currently have, which which is on multiple levels, Cara. So it's the connectome is one level. But it's also just knowing how neurons function sort of at the bottom up layer as well. And then we use that to model the brain and learn better how the brain actually functions, which then feeds back into the model itself. And then they want to use it as sort of a feedback loop until we more and more and more accurately model the brain and develop a fully accurate digital twin of the brain. But it's again, it's just it was just here's a proposal for how that could happen. There's no funding or anything.

B: Just image a damn brain.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. Which means that astronomers have spotted the first exoplanet collision, which happened in a system 1800 light years away is science. Yeah, Bob, I think I'm just getting really good at fooling you specifically.

B: Of course, you are. Of course, you are.

S: I saw the 1800 light years is what sold it for me.

C: Because we're like, maybe that's far. I don't know.

S: Yeah, like if it were a lot closer, it would seem more plausible. So they think that they are seeing evidence of two ice giant exoplanets colliding around a sunlight star and sending up a massive plume, which then blocked out the star. So you have a light dip, but also then irradiates in the infrared. There's an afterglow. So it's like it's the combination of those things of those two things. It's a characteristic drop in the light curve from a giant cloud passing in front of of the star. But also that cloud gets heated up and irradiates itself in the infrared. So that is they this was spotted. And the data was sort of made available for a lot of people to look at. They shared the the light curves. And it was actually an astronomer on social media was the first one to point out that there was this infrared brightening a thousand days before the optical fading. And that was that was unusual, like we'd never really seen that before. And then that that's what led to something more interesting and rare is happening here. This isn't just a dust cloud. And then they eventually concluded, yep, it's probably these two ice giants crashing into each other. Yeah, very, very cool. It is very lucky to to to see that happening. But yeah. All right. Well, good job, Jay and Cara.

J: Thank you.

C: Thanks. Thanks, Jay.

S: Oh, you got it.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:53:31)[edit]

Sciences provide an understanding of a universal experience; Arts are a universal understanding of personal experience. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.

 – Mae Jemison (1956-present), American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut 

S: Evan is not here. So I came up with a quote for this week. The quote is "Sciences provide an understanding of a universal experience. Arts are a universal understanding of personal experience. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity." Who do you think said that? That was from Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut in space.

B: Oh, cool.

S: Yeah, I like it bringing the arts and the sciences together, seeing how they sort of have a complementary view of human creativity and experience. All right, you guys. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

C: Thanks Steve.

B: Sure man. Time to watch some Halloween shows.

J: Right, Bob.


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[11]
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