SGU Episode 967

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SGU Episode 967
January 20th 2024
967 Betavolt.jpg

China-based Betavolt New Energy Technology has successfully developed a nuclear energy battery, which integrates nickel-63 nuclear isotope decay technology and China’s first diamond semiconductor module. [1]

SGU 966                      SGU 968

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


RS: Robert Sapolsky, American neuroendocrinology researcher

Quote of the Week

Every great idea is a creative idea: The fact that you're using paint or you're using guitar strings or you're using equations, they're not really very different things. Getting that spirit into the education process … being curious about the world, that is a gift we would love to share.

Damian Kulash, American musician

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, winter weather preparations[edit]

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

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Wednesday, January 17th, 2024, and this is your host, Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella...

B: Hey, everybody!

S: Cara Santa Maria...

C: Howdy.

S: Jay Novella...

J: Hey guys.

S: ...and Evan Bernstein.

E: Good evening, everyone, or good morning, wherever you might be.

S: Good evening. How is everyone?

J: Good.

C: It's late.

B: Doing good.

E: Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

J: My bronchitis is finally, basically gone. Just a little.

C: Oh, that's good.

J: That crap.

B: Bronchitis.

J: That's forever.

E: I know. It only took months.

J: It was a hell of a gut workout, I'll tell you that much. My stomach muscles are way stronger now than they were.

S: Yeah, but coughing is not good for you. You know what I mean? It's not like you're, oh, yeah, I'm getting this coughing workout. Coughing is bad for your back. People who cough a lot get disc herniations and bad backs and back strain and everything. So, yeah, I hate it when I have a prolonged cough. I always get back pain when I have a prolonged cough.

B: Really?

S: Yeah.

S: Cara, you are in another continent.

C: It is true. It is also another continent. It's a funny way to put it. Yeah, I've been in Scotland for a week and a half. I think I'll be here another week. And so it is two in the morning. It was beautiful here, though. I've been spending a bit of time outside. We had a really, really nice snow yesterday and the day before, so it's quite white outside. How is it looking in the Northeast? I know there were horrible snowstorms all over the country.

J: There were other parts of the country that got smacked super hard.

S: Yeah, we had some snow. Not horrible.

J: Usually, we're snowy here. But we had two light snowstorms.

B: It's definitely colder.

S: Yeah, it's cold here too.

E: Yeah, we're getting the remnants of the Arctic blast. What the, what do they call it?

C: Vortex or something? Yeah, I think it's pretty bad in parts of Canada.

E: And the Midwest of the United States got it very badly.

S: But so far, I mean, it's early. There's nothing winter so far by New England standards.

B: Oh, yeah.

E: True.

S: You never know. February's really like, we can get hammered in February.

E: Oh, boy.

S: I know it's gonna be cold and we're gonna get precipitation, but it always depends on the timing of those two things. Like, do we get the precipitation when it's cold or is it, do we get rain, you know what I mean? Because if it's all snow, it could be profound.

E: But any time an ice storm happens by, that's dangerous. I mean, that is when the power goes out. That is when all the tree limbs come down. We've had some nightmare ice storms in prior years. Not very recently, but I can remember a few.

C: Tell me about it with the hard freeze. I've been talking to some of my friends who live up in the Pacific Northwest where they had freezing rain, I think, for two days, but not snow, up in Oregon. And trees are down all over the place. People don't have power. It's been pretty brutal up there just because of the heaviness of that ice on everything.

E: And they tend to not get ice storms, if I recall correctly.

C: Oh, yeah, never. Like, they're just, yeah, the whole city. You know how it is. Anytime a city gets hit by something that's not typical weather for that city, they just don't know what to do with it.

E: It freezes, yeah.

C: It breaks everything.

S: No, yeah, I remember I was in Phoenix. They had, like, an inch of rain, and it paralyzed the city.

C: It happens every time it rains in LA. We don't know what to do.

E: Las Vegas has a similar problem.

C: And everybody's house floods. We're like, oh.

S: And I was in DC, and they had, like, a pretty mild snowfall from Connecticut standards, and the city was paralyzed. They just didn't have the infrastructure for it, you know? And, of course, with the kind of snowstorms that would paralyze Connecticut, Canadians are like, you lowlanders, you know?

B: We get 10 feet, and Toronto's like, big deal.

C: We've actually we've been talking a lot out here in Scotland about the fact that they ice, or, sorry, that they salt the roads here, and it's quite destructive on the cars. Like, it's really, really corrosive, and probably cause millions of pounds of damage every year to the cars that are having to constantly clean this ice off of their. Undercarriage, yeah, and the engine damage and stuff. And we've been really talking about, like, why do they use salt?

J It's totally inexpensive.

C: But sand.

E: Up to a temperature, it works, right?

C: Sand is cheaper, and it's not quite as efficient, but it's still efficient.

E: It has to do with the temperature, though.

C: It causes a lot less damage.

J: Sand has to be cleaned up, though. Like, salt just goes into the water.

C: Sand can just go into the dirt.

B: Plus, the melting effect of salt is pretty dramatic, isn't it?

S: Well, sand has no de-icing effect. That just temporarily adds friction to the road, whereas the ice, or de-icing chemicals, as they call them, actually melt the ice. But it depends on how much there is and what the temperature is. So there are some situations where the de-icing chemicals won't work, and you gotta use sand. But again, it's only, like, adding temporary friction. And they all have different environmental effects, so that there's no perfect solution.

C: It is superior. But the question would be, do we really need a superior melting effect if you have so much sort of negative side effects?

S: They don't always use salt. They use sand sometimes, too.

C: I think out here, they only use salt, and it's quite infuriating to the people.

S: Well, you have to have the undercarriage of your car coated against that.

C: They do. They do, but you still have to constantly clean it out. And it's just, yeah, it's pretty bad. Anyway.

B: I've never cleaned the bottom of my car.

S: Go to a car wash?

E: If you go to a car wash, they will drive it through. It has an undercarriage.

S: That's why you go to a car wash.

B: They still have those?

S: Car washes? Last time I checked.

E: They do. They're quite nice.

B: They don't exist. They went the way of drive-in movies.

E: Drive-in movies, soda fountain counters, and pinball machines. They're all gone.

S: I went to a drive-in movie not that long ago. There's still a couple of them around. They're definitely very retro.

C: Yeah, that became kind of a thing again during COVID.

S: Yeah, I remember that.

News Items[edit]

Betavolt 50-Year Battery (6:28)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, you're going to get us started with a talk. There's been a lot of discussion about this. This is really catching a lot of people's imagination, not in a very scientific way often. But tell us about this 50-year battery. What's going on?

B: Yeah. Chinese firm called Betavolt Technology claims it's created a new nuclear battery that can power devices for 50 years. There's a lot of silly clickbait surrounding this stuff. Here's one press release from the Business Standard. Their article was titled, China Develops Radioactive Battery to Keep Your Phone Charged for 50 Years. Like, ah.

J: Sure they did.

B: Oh my God. Such annoying clickbait. Now, nuclear batteries, though, are fascinating. They are distinct, of course, from everyday electrochemical batteries that we use all the time, from AA's to the lithium-ion batteries in our phones and EVs. Nuclear batteries are also called atomic batteries, which I kind of like, or probably more accurately, radioisotope generators.

E: Didn't Batman's vehicle have atomic batteries or something?

B: Yes. Yes.

E: Oh my gosh.

B: And they essentially take nuclear energy and convert it to electricity at its most, top of the onion layer there. One layer down, more specifically, it takes the byproducts of the decay of radioactive particles and converts that into electricity. So are these batteries? You know, yes and no, in my mind. Nuclear batteries are atomic batteries. They can power devices for sure. So in that sense, they are batteries. But they do not recharge, and they don't turn off. The nuclear batteries do not turn off. So for those reasons, and especially the not-turning-off one, they are often referred to as generators. But hey, it's language. Many people use the word battery for them, and so that's fine. Atomic batteries are generally classified by how they convert the energy. And it kind of boils down to either they take advantage of large temperature differences, or they don't. The former, these are thermal-based atomic batteries. And they have one side of the device is very hot from the radioactive decay, and the other side is cold. And that's the key there, that differential. So using thermocouples, that temperature gradient can be used to take advantage of the Seebeck effect, look it up, to generate electricity. That's basically how it works. Now, the iconic, classic atomic battery that does this is an RTG, radioisotope thermoelectric generator. There's that generator word. These devices go back to the 50s and 60s. And I think the principle was proved, I think it was like 1913. So it goes back to the 50s and 60s. The most advanced devices today can generate tens of watts, up to 110 watts, for NASA's top-of-the-line RTG. And they can supply power literally for years and years and years. RTGs are heavy. They're big devices compared to our portable batteries. But they are amazing for remote locations and places with poor sunlight. The Voyager probes, more than 15 billion kilometers from the Earth and the sun, are powered by RTGs. Mars Rovers, too, and countless other systems and platforms and probes, NASA and our knowledge of the solar system would be greatly diminished if it did not have access to these wonderful devices. But if you want really small, portable atomic batteries, though, you then want this non-thermal kind. These extract energy from the emitted particles themselves, kind of like before it degrades into heat, directly tapping into and using the particles. The semiconductors in these devices use these particles to create a voltage. And typically, these types of batteries have efficiencies, from 1% to even up to 9%. And they go by various names depending on the emitted particles that they are using. So they're called alpha voltaics if it converts alpha particle radiation, which is essentially just two neutrons and two protons. It's called gamma photovoltaics if it converts energetic photons like gamma rays. The real standout, though, of this type of atomic battery is called beta voltaics. This converts emitted electrons or positrons to electricity. And it's popular because beta decay can more easily be converted into usable electrical power, much more so than alpha particles or photons. Beta voltaics are not theoretical. These are being used right now, right now, in countless sensors and other devices that require very low power for very long periods of time. Did you know that they were used as pacemakers in the 70s? People literally had them in their bodies for decades with no ill effects. They are very safe. These are known things and they can be very useful. So that's why this Beijing startup company calls itself BetaVolt. They're taking advantage of beta voltaics and their new atomic battery is based on that. The battery itself is called BV100. It's coin-sized, about 15 by 15 by 5 millimeters. And there's a decent amount going on inside that coin. It has layers of radioactive nickel-63 in between layers of diamond semiconductors. Nickel-63 has a half-life of 100 years, which means in 100 years it'll be emitting essentially half the particles it does initially as it decays into harmless copper. Now, so saying this battery can last 50 years, I think that's reasonable, if it's got a half-life of 100 years. After 50 years, it'll be still, what, 75% as effective?

S: Well, it's not linear, but close.

B: So it's still, it's a good rule of thumb to say, yeah, 50 years, you could say it'll last 50 years and perform well. So, and it's safe. These are safe. It needs minimal shielding. Sure, you'd have to inhale it if you're gonna get concerned that that will do it. You would be concerned if you inhaled it. And I wouldn't want it to leak on my skin, but no more so than I would want a AA battery to leak on my skin, you know? So it's not like this, it's radioactive, no! It's pretty damn safe. So can this get 110 watts output like the best RTG? No. No, not even close. This battery generates three volts, but only 100 microwatts. That's 100 millionths of a watt. A microwatt is a millionth of a watt. That's tiny. You would need, what, Steve? 30,000 of them to power a typical smartphone. That's really low. So let's look at 100 microwatts another way. Let's look at how many amps that is. So, all right, we got an equation here. Power in the form of watts equals voltage times current or amps, right? W equals V times A. We know the power in watts and we know the volts, so you calculate the amps. That's .000333 amps. Now an amp, amps indicates how many electrons per second pass through a point in a circuit. So .0000333 amps, super low. You know, you're not gonna be powering something big and power hungry with something like this at all. So clearly, these batteries are not meant for power hungry devices, as are all beta voltaics are not meant for that. And that's okay, because power density is not the strength of these batteries. Now power density is the rate that it can output the power for a given size. And as I've shown, it's super tiny for one of these batteries. Very low power density, but they do have energy density. That's the total energy per unit mass. In fact, nuclear batteries have 10,000 times approximately, 10,000 times the energy density of a chemical battery. That's a huge 10,000 times, that's huge. But that's spread over the lifetime of the battery, which could be years or decades or even centuries. But that's where these batteries shine. They can last for ridiculously long periods of time. Now the significance of this battery seems to me to be it's a miniaturization and not the power density that everyone no one seems to be focusing on any of the miniaturization advances that they may have made. You know, there's not too many details on that either. They also claim that these can be chained together and connected in a series. So I think we'll have to see that to happen because it looks like I'm looking at some translated article here and they claim that they can get up to multiple watts if you chain them together. I don't, I'm not seeing that anywhere else. I'd have to see that. But the real important thing here is they claim they're shooting for a one watt version of this battery by 2025. Next year, one watt.

S: Bullshit, it's not gonna happen.

B: It's not. That's an incredible improvement that no betavoltaics has ever come near. And so Steve and I apparently are very, very skeptical of that. Now, if you can connect-

E: You'll not be investing, I guess, is what you're saying.

B: Yeah, I mean, if you can connect their batteries together as they claim and they also create if they can create a one watt version, then we would be in some interesting territory. But I don't believe that. I will wait, I'll have to wait to see if they even come close to doing that. I don't think they're gonna do that.

S: Bob when I wrote about it, I did my calculation, like theoretically, how, what could you get to? So given a betavoltaic battery of the same size, let's say you maximize efficiency, that gives you one order of magnitude, maybe, right? So you still have two orders of magnitude to go to get to one watt. And the, I think, buried in the article about it, they say that they're looking to produce this one watt version. And they're also looking to produce versions that have a half-life of two years or one year. It's like, yeah, those two things are related. The only way you're gonna pick up another order of magnitude is if you go from a hundred year half-life to a one year half-life. But then you don't have a 50 year battery anymore. You got a one year battery.

E: You can't have it both ways.

S: Which is still interesting.

B: But you've also got a more radioactive and more expensive battery on hand, right?

S: Using a different isotope with a shorter half-life.

B: Exactly.

S: But even assuming they could shield it and make it safe and pick up all that radiation and everything, that's fine. It's just, you don't get a 50 year battery with that kind of power output in that kind of size. It simply does not work. The physics does not add up.

B: Yeah.

S: So I think it's, there's no way around the fact that this is gonna remain a niche technology for very low power devices.

B: Yeah, yeah. I don't see it really breaking out of that characterization. You know, and other companies have tried to go commercial with beta voltaics. Steve and I were excited about nano diamond battery a few years ago. That's the one that used radioactive waste from nuclear power plants encased in diamond that could run for millennia. I think they were saying 20,000 years. So I looked them up recently and they were charged with defrauding their investors. Right, and there's been other, and there was another company that was trying to commercialize beta voltaics. And they, if you go to their website anymore, you don't find it. Their website's like gone. So it's just like we've seen this before and we're kind of seeing it again.

E: Yeah, this is a pitch for more money.

S: Well, partly, yeah.

B: Yeah, so, but what will we see in the future of beta voltaics? I mean, I love the idea of using them to trickle charge batteries. I think that's promising. And that would be useful for things potentially, like for EVs that are mostly idle. And you could just have it trickle charge at night in over 10, 12 hours. Like, oh boy, we got got a little juice out of this that you didn't have to plug it in for. And I love though, that when it comes to the worst case scenario, like you've got a dead battery, but if you had this trickle charge idea, you know, you wait a little bit. I'm not sure how long you'd have to wait to get a reasonable charge.

S: But at least you wouldn't be dead in the water.

B: Right, you're not dead in the water. And "eventually" you'd be able to just drive home. And of course, of course, trickle charging would be awesome in the apocalypse. Obviously. Now in the future, then when the zombies are roaming the countryside and you could say like Robin in the Batmobile, right Evan? Atomic batteries to power, you could say that. And then of course you'll have to wait a while for your beta voltaic atomic battery to slowly trickle charge your zombie resistant EV. And then you're going, then you're good. So maybe we'll see that.

S: I think it'd be more than like for an electric vehicle, it's just, I think it's too little electricity. But for, you don't wanna drag around an atomic battery, that would be big enough to produce enough electricity that it would matter. But for your cell phone, you can, if you had even one that was producing again, like a 10th of a watt, let's say, or even a 100th of a watt, but it could extend the duration that you could go without charging your battery significantly, right? Because you're not using your phone all the time. It is idling most of the time. So let's say like you're going on a trip and you're gonna be away from chargers for three or four days. This could extend the life of your phone battery that long. I just say by trickle charging it 24 seven, whether when you're using it or not using it, or again, if you are in an emergency situation, you're never dead in the water. You always have a little juice. You just have to wait some time.

B: Yeah, if I were going out in nature for days on end, first off, I wouldn't do that. Secondly, I would bring a little solar panel with me.

S: Then it's overcast. No, but you're right, you're right. But yeah, but that's what they're finding with a lot of the deep space probes that relying upon aligning those panels with the sun is not a great thing. And nuclear batteries are really good. The European Space Agency, who previously said no nuclear batteries were gonna do all solar, they're like, maybe we should, maybe we gotta relent. So they reversed themselves because-

B: Do you know why they reversed themselves?

S: Because they had a big fail.

B: They sent a probe onto a comet. Their probe landed on the comet and then bounced into the shade. And then because it was in the shade, its batteries, which were solar-based, died in three days. So here's millions of dollars sitting in the shade, unusable, bricked, because they didn't have an atomic battery. So that story just cracks me up. So now they're like, okay, yeah, we're gonna do atomic batteries now. They were famously against them. Now they aren't, which was a funny story.

S: So like a lot of technologies, the technology is what it is, and a lot of it depends on being clever and being creative about how to implement it. Like what is the use where it's gonna be valuable? It's not gonna be like big drones that fly forever and all the crap that the press is saying about it. That's never gonna happen. But as a trickle charger or for super low-energy devices, this technology could be really, really helpful.

B: Yeah, yeah. The allure of a battery that can last for years, a conventional portable battery that can last for years, this is so high that people are just kind of like losing their shit over this and trying to extrapolate away from the science. For me, it's not so much beta voltaics, but for me, it's the RTGs. I wanna have these like chained, connected RTGs buried in my backyard that could power my entire house for decades. That's what I'm looking for.

S: Yeah, but the final point is like for your phone, like for trickle charging your phone, you don't want a 50-year battery in your phone. Your phone's only gonna last two or three years. You want a two or three-year battery, right? You want it to last as long as the phone.

C: That would be epic.

B: Yeah, then you don't need, you know.

S: Yeah, but it gets you more power. It gives you more power over the shorter period of time, over the lifetime of that phone. So there is a niche in there that could actually be very, very functional if the price works out, right? Would you add another 50 bucks to your phone to have something, an alternate source of power, a backup source of power and extend? Like now you only have to recharge it once every three days or four days instead of every night.

J: Well, those products exist, Steve. I mean, I have a battery that's a magnet battery that attaches to my phone, right? It's very easy to just put it there. It stays there. And it gives me like another half a day of juice if I need it. It's very, very convenient. And it fits in your pocket and everything. It's very easy. So, I mean, there are products out there like that.

S: Yeah, I know. This would be another option. There would definitely be advantages to it because it's just there. It's producing energy all the time. But it's not, but the hype was ridiculous.

B: Oh yeah, it was silly.

S: Silly, silly.

Moon Landing Delayed (23:38)[edit]

S: All right, Jay. I understand that the Artemis program is going swimmingly. Give us an update.

E: Oops.

J: Don't be look, we expected this, right?

S: Unfortunately.

J: So NASA's Artemis program, give you a quick refresher. It's aimed at returning humans to the moon. It's also very heavily, big part of this mission is that we are paving the way for future Mars missions. You know, we need to develop a lot of technology that's gonna allow us to get there, but they have been facing significant challenges that have led them to reschedule some of these timelines, which this information came out about a week ago. So the Artemis 2 mission, right? Artemis 1 successfully launched. It went around the moon, did everything that we wanted it to. We got a ton of data off of that mission, but now we move on to Artemis 2. Now, originally, if we go way back, it was originally slated to be, as you know, the first crewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft, but it's been delayed many times. Not, this isn't like the first delay or even the second delay. The first launch dates were said that they wanted to launch between 2019 and 2021. Now keep in mind, Artemis 2, not 1. Artemis 2, 2019, 2021. Then it was moved to 2023 and then November, 2024. And now they moved it to September, 2025. They are saying no earlier than that, which kind of implies it could be later, right?

S: That's for Artemis 2.

J: That's Artemis 2.

S: Yeah, so one of my predictions has already failed.

C: Oh no.

J: That's all right, Steve. Oh no, somebody die. So the delays are due largely to crew safety concerns. So let me get into some of the details here. NASA is always, they're just continuously conducting testing of critical systems, environmental control, life support. And they have found during their testing, they've found problems that include battery issues with the Orion spacecraft regarding abort scenarios. There's also a, there are challenges with the air ventilation and temperature control circuitry components, which these are all mission critical components. And bottom line here is, of course, it's good to know NASA is taking all these precautions. They're taking it very seriously. You know, this isn't like a let's launch it and test it and see how it goes. Like they fully plan on bringing every single astronaut back to earth. So they are trying to resolve all of these issues, but it sucks to wait longer, but you know, we're just a consumer here, right? Like I'm looking at this like, come on, launch it. I want to see it. I want to be a part of all that. But yeah, ultimately we want it to be successful. We want the people to come back. So of course, any delays with Artemis 2 means that it'll impact the launch dates of the Artemis 3 mission, which has now been pushed for 2026. This delay allows NASA to give them time. They don't want to like do Artemis 2 and then immediately do Artemis 3. They want time to make a lot of alterations and incorporate lessons that they learned from Artemis 2 so they can make Artemis 3 better, right? You know, hey, we had a problem with this thing and that thing, like they want to fix all of those things. But there's also problems with the partners that NASA is working with to develop, that are developing their own technologies. So there's a couple of names here you'll definitely recognize. SpaceX, as a good example, they're responsible for the human landing system. You know, they have to demonstrate that their starship can successfully dock. It also needs to be able to refuel with other tanker starships in orbit. These are not easy things to do at all. And this capability is essential for transporting astronauts beyond Earth's orbit. Getting the ship refueled and being able to do what it needs to do in and around the moon is going to be something that could take place frequently. And these tasks, like I said, are challenging and straight up, they're just not ready yet. They don't have the technology. And I'm sure that the timelines and the dates that they're giving, everything is a, we hope that it's this, but it's never like it will be done on this date. Like they're not, that's not where they're operating. They don't work that way. Axiom Space, you might remember, they're making the next generation spacesuits. No, they still need to solve some heavy duty requirements that NASA put on them. Like one of the big ones is that the spacesuit itself, standalone, needs to have an emergency oxygen supply system. So this will enable the spacesuit to supply oxygen for an hour with no attached gear, right? Just the spacesuit itself has an hour of air in it. So they're also having supply chain issues, which I was a little surprised to hear, but they're having problems getting materials that they need to make the spacesuits. And they also have, they're working with outdated components that need to meet the latest NASA requirements. I couldn't get any more details about these components. Like I don't, I suspect that they may have been borrowing from earlier spacesuits, certain systems and things like that. But NASA has been ramping up their requirements and they're having a hard time meeting it. Now, this means that they're likely to have to redesign parts of the current design that we've already seen. And this issue with the supply chain is definitely impacting the development of the spacesuit components. So lots of moving parts here. Now, NASA is also dealing with its own financial issues. They haven't presented an official cost estimate for Artemis III. And there is a group in the government whose job it is to get this information, right? And they need to give it and it needs to be assessed and it takes time. Now, keep in mind, the Artemis program is not just about returning to the moon, but it's also laying the groundwork for human exploration to Mars. So there's a lot of complexity here and there's a lot of weight on every single thing that they do. And these price tags the costs are phenomenally high. The Artemis missions, they include development and integration of a lot of different systems here. You know, think of it this way. We have the Space Launch System, the SLS rocket. That alone is very complicated because there's lots of different versions of that rocket that they're gonna be custom building for each and every mission. Then they have the Exploration Ground System. They have the Orion spacecraft itself. They have the Human Landing System. They have the Next Generation Spacesuits. They have the Gateway Lunar Space Station and all of the future rovers and equipment, scientific equipment that needs to go. Like there is a mountain of things that have not been created yet that need to be designed and crafted and deployed. So it's exciting because there's a lot of awesome stuff ahead of us. And I'm not surprised that they're pushing the dates out, but man, it's disappointing because I thought something incredible was gonna happen this year.

S: Yeah, it's unfortunate, but you know, they're just going back to the timeline that they originally had. You know, they were pressured to move up the timeline. Right, was it 2026 or 2028?

E: 2028.

S: Yeah, 2028 originally, yeah. So even if they push back to 2026, they're still two years ahead of their original schedule. And that was really just for political reasons that that was moved up.

J: Before we switch off to space topic, let me give you guys a quick update on the Peregrine Moon Lander. Remember last week we talked about this. Okay, so real quick summary. This Moon Lander was developed by a company called Astrobotic. Seven hours into the mission, they became aware of a fuel leak that was changing the telemetry of the ship. Bob was very concerned. They didn't know what to do. They didn't really understand what was going on. And then everyone dove in. They started to really figure out what was happening. So the planned lunar landing had to be canceled because they just weren't gonna be able to position the ship and get the engines to do what they needed them to do that would enable it to land. So the ship basically goes out approximately the distance of the Moon, right? 183,000 miles or 294 kilometers. It gets out there. Then it gets pulled back to Earth. It didn't, the Lander didn't actually transit or orbit the Moon. So I didn't see its flight path, and I'd like to see it because I'm not crystal clear on what it was, but it did get pulled back by the Earth. And they have currently set it on a trajectory back to Earth where they fully expect it to completely disintegrate upon reentry. This is gonna happen on January 18th. So as you listen to this, it'll have been, it happened a few days ago. You know, Peregrine was part of NASA's Commercial Lunar Payload Service Program, and that's it. It's gonna come back, all this stuff on there, the human remains, the messages from Japan, a few weird things that are on there. It's all gonna get burned up in the atmosphere. So it's sad, it's sad, but it happens. And we learn from these things. And again, this is a perfect example of why NASA, when people are involved, meaning like we're sending people into outer space, they don't have failures like this, right? Like they won't stand for failures like this. Everything has to be massively tested. So we gotta wait a little longer, guys.

S: Yep.

J: None of it's canceled, which is fantastic.

S: All right, thanks, Jay.

Cloned Monkeys for Research (32:57)[edit]

S: Cara, tell us about these cloned monkeys.

C: Yeah, so some of you may have seen there's quite a lot of trending articles right now that are based on a new study that was just published in Nature Communications. I'm gonna read the title of the study. It's a bit techie. Reprogramming Mechanism Dissection and Trophoblast Replacement Application in Monkey Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer. So based on that title, you may not know, but what Chinese researchers have done or what they claim is now happening is that they now have the longest lasting cloned monkeys, cloned primates, really. There's a monkey, he is a rhesus monkey named Retro. And my guess, even though it doesn't say it in any of the coverage that I read, my guess is that the name Retro, because they capitalize the T in Retro, comes from reprogrammed trophoblast. I think that's where they got his name, Retro. And so really what this story is about is a new technique for trying to clone primates that works a teeny tiny bit better than previous techniques. And the big sort of payoff here is this monkey is now coming on three years old. So you may ask, haven't we been cloning animals for a while?

E: Dolly the sheep, right?

C: Dolly the sheep, right. So this is the same technique. I should say it's the same general technique with some really important changes as Dolly the sheep. So Dolly the sheep lived for six and a half years after she was cloned. Mice, rabbits, dogs, goats, pigs, cows, lots of different mammals have been cloned over the years. Even other monkeys have been cloned over the years, but the difference is that they've been incredibly short-lived. So generally speaking, when we talk about cloning mammals specifically, it's super hard to do. About one to 3% of clones result in live birth. It's a very, very low percentage. So as it is, it's hard just to get viable embryos when cloning mammals. And then even if you get a viable embryo, it's hard to have a live birth. There were some monkeys in 1998 who I think were the most long-lived or the most kind of the biggest success story as of that point, but I still think that they only lived for a few months. And so Retro coming up on three years is sort of being hailed as a triumph by the media, but let's talk about what the difference was here. So all of these animals that I'm describing here have been cloned using a very specific technique. And that technique is called somatic cell nuclear transfer. In simple terms, as we know, we talk about the difference between somatic and germ cells. Somatic cells are like body cells, right? Everything but eggs and sperm. So a somatic cell is actually put into, so you're transferring the nucleus from a donor cell, but a somatic donor cell, like a skin, let's say like a skin cell into an egg cell. And then that donor DNA, which is now kind of closed up in the egg is sort of programmed to start developing embryonically. So here's one thing that I think is an important point here that not a lot of coverage that I'm seeing makes. These are still embryonic clones. None of these are clones that are coming from an adult organism. So when you start to see kind of the fear-mongering coverage around, does this mean we can clone humans? Does this mean we can clone humans? First of all, nobody has successfully been cloning mammals from adult cells. Does that make sense? Almost all of them are pulled from embryonic cells and some of them are even just pulled from split embryonic cells. So even though technically you could call it a clone, it's like a twin, if that makes sense. But this specific approach that's been used, which all of these, like I said, have been this thing, somatic cell nuclear transfer is where we run into some hiccups. So what ends up happening is that the cells of that embryos trophoblast layer, which is sort of the outermost layer that provides a lot of nutrients and also actually forms a big chunk of the placenta after it's implanted are very problematic in almost every case. And scientists think that this is because of epigenetic factors. So there are these markers that are present, right? That turn genes on or off. So it's not changing the actual genes that are there, but it's changing their expression, whether they turn on or off. When you put this cell, this clone cell into an empty egg, the egg kind of DNA or the epigenes, the epigenetic factors within that egg affect the DNA of the implanted embryo and all sorts of havoc is wreaked. And really scientists hadn't been able to figure out how to get these embryos to become viable. They're usually all sorts of terrible mutations. They often don't even make it to live birth. And if they do make it to live birth, they often die within hours, days, weeks, or in very lucky cases, months. And so what the scientists did in this case, and this is sort of the new bit, is a trophoblast replacement. So they inject that inner cell mass from the cloned embryo into a non-cloned embryo. So the embryo cell mass is going inside of a non-cloned embryo that they made through in vitro fertilization. So they're basically forming like a hybrid embryo and the trophoblast portion belongs to the non-clone, which seems to be less likely to kick in all of these epigenetic factors that seem to be harmful to the developing embryo. And so the scientists are claiming that this is like rescuing the development of the embryos. But to be fair, we're still talking about an attempt of like hundreds of potential cloned embryos and only still like a handful of them sticking and then only one of them actually being successful. So it's not like this case is any more efficient. It's not like this specific kind of success story with Retro, the first ever rhesus monkey that's lived for longer than a day. And actually he's coming up on like three years. It's not like their approach made a bunch of them. It's they still only, it was very scattershot and they only got one successful outcome. It's just that their successful outcome has been more successful than any other primate in the past. And so the argument that the Chinese scientists are making here is, if we can do this more, this could be very, very good for biomedical research. Because like we do all the time with cloned mice, you can give a drug to one clone and a different drug or no drug or placebo to the other clone. And you can see exactly how well it works because they have the exact same DNA.

S: Yeah.

C: Right?

S: So it's a good way to control for variables.

C: Yes, it reduces all sorts of variability. But of course, this is an ethical conundrum. And a lot of people are saying like, should we be doing this to monkeys? Should we be doing this to primates at all? And look at how many failures we have before we have a success. And look at how much suffering is happening to these animals until we get to that point. And is it going to, like, what is the payoff and how much is it going to improve our biomedical science, our pharmaceutical science? Is the sort of return worth the risk? That's another question. Now, this is perfectly legal in China. So the way that they're approaching this, it's passed all their review boards and it's a perfectly legal practice, unlike some of the historical stories that we've talked about. Do you remember when we talked about the CRISPR, the rogue CRISPR story?

S: Oh, yeah, yeah.

C: Like that was not legal.

E: The Raelians.

C: This is. But I think some people are saying, wait, if they were able to do this with the rhesus monkey, are they going to clone humans next? No, we're nowhere close to that. A, because we can't clone adult cells at all. These are still embryonic cells. And B, it's still hard as shit. It's no easier and it's no more efficient to clone this. It was no easier or no more efficient to clone this rhesus monkey than any of the attempts in the past. It's just that this one hiccup, it was surmounted in this case. Can it be surmounted again though? I don't know. Was it lucky that they happened to get this one just right? I guess we will see.

S: We'll see, yeah. I mean, it seems like a good incremental advance.

C: It does.

S: Yeah, and which is, again, that's par for the course, right, for science, right? Breakthroughs are rare, incremental advances are the rule. And this is, it seems like a solid one. But I still want to know, when can I make a clone of myself so I can harvest its organs?

C: Nowhere close. Yeah, it's going to be a long time. The funny thing though, which I did discover in doing this research, is that there's a Korean company that has made 1,500 dog clones at this point.

S: Yeah, how long do they live?

C: Like, they're long-lived. Apparently, they're perfectly healthy dogs. And so it's pretty interesting that just, okay, it's way harder to clone mammals, but some mammal species are easier to clone than others.

S: All right, well, thanks, Cara. This is definitely a technology that we'd want to keep an eye on.

C: And actually, I will add to this, and I think this is important. One of the arguments is that this could also have implications for conventional IVF. Because sometimes you do see this trophoblast problem even in conventional IVF. And so this could be at least a new way to look at improving outcomes in conventional IVF for people. So there's that.

E: So not that acupuncture I talked about last week.

C: Probably, yeah. Probably this would be more helpful to researchers. Yeah, I think so.

S: All right, thanks, Cara.

Converting CO2 into Carbon Nanofibers (44:23)[edit]

S: So I'm going to do another news item that's a little bit also of hype, more than reality. The headline is, scientists develop a process for converting atmospheric CO2 into carbon nanofibers.

E: Ooh.

S: Ooh, that sounds-

B: Oh, yeah.

E: Solves two problems at once, right?

S: Exactly, right? It sounds really, really good. But let's dig into it a little bit. So obviously, carbon capture is something that we're looking into. Researchers are studying various ways of either taking CO2 directly out of the air or capturing it at the source, near coal fire plants or natural gas fire plants or whatever. And then putting that CO2, taking the carbon out of it and getting it into a form that is solid, right? So that it could be buried or utilized in some way, but it would be permanently, or at least for on the order of magnitude of 50 or 100 years, giving us enough time to sort out this whole green energy thing, ully convert over to low carbon economy and energy infrastructure. If we could bind up that carbon for 50 or 100 years, that could go a long way to mitigating climate change. And the experts who have crunched all the numbers said, we're not going to get to our goals without some kind of carbon capture along the way. Although they're mainly figuring like after 2050, like between now and 2050, we really need to focus on reducing our carbon footprint. And then after that, that we, carbon capture has to really start kicking in to some serious degree to turn that line back down again, you know? So is this kind of technology going to be the pathway? Now, carbon nanotubes or carbon nanofibers are a great solid form of carbon to turn atmospheric CO2 into because we've talked about carbon nanofibers. You know, this is a two-dimensional material. They have a lot of interesting physical properties. You know, they're very, very strong and they're highly conductive, highly both thermally and electrically, et cetera. And even if you just make very, very short nanofibers, so they're not long cables of it, but just very, very tiny ones, it could, it's still a great filler, right? You could still like, for example, you can add it to cement to make it much stronger. And that would be a good way to bind it up. You know, just imagine if all the cement were laying around the world, it had billions of tons of carbon in it. That was then now long-term sequestered. So that would be, that's like one of the most obvious sort of uses of this kind of carbon nanofibers. So what's the innovation here? So essentially they said, well, one of our innovations is we broke it down into a two-step process, right? We didn't want to try to get all the way from carbon dioxide to carbon nanotubes, carbon nanofibers in one step. So we broke it down into two steps.

Catalytic Combo Converts CO2 to Solid Carbon Nanofibers

The first step is to turn carbon dioxide and water into carbon monoxide and hydrogen. And when I read that, I'm like, oh, you mean like we've been doing for years, right? I mean, that's not anything that's new. And that's kind of always the first step, you know what I mean? Because the problem with carbon dioxide is that it's a very low energy, very stable molecule, right? So it takes energy to convert it into anything else. Carbon monoxide and H2-hydrogen, are very high energy molecules. They are good feeders for lots of industrial chemical reactions, right? If you have hydrogen, you can do tons of stuff with that. We've spoken about this quite a bit. And if you have carbon monoxide, you can make all kinds of carbon-based molecules out of it. These are good, highly reactive, high energy molecules. So yeah, that's the key, is getting from CO2 to CO and H2, that's always the tough part. And they're basically saying, so we're gonna do that using basically existing methods. It's like, okay, so there's no innovation in the hard part. The real, right? It's like, okay, that's old news. The real new bit is that they develop a catalytic process to go from carbon monoxide to carbon nanofibers. It's like, okay, that's interesting. You know, that sounds reasonable. So they basically proved that they could do that. You know, they use cobalt as a catalyst, and which isn't great because cobalt is one of those elements that are sourced from parts of the world that are not stable. And we're trying to reduce our reliance on cobalt. And so developing a process that uses more cobalt, not great. It's an iron-cobalt system that they're using. Now it's gonna come down to two things, right? So they did a proof of concept. You could break this down to a two-step process where you go from carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide, and then carbon monoxide to carbon nanotubes. It works, but two questions, or actually, there's three questions. One is, can you do it on an industrial scale? Because unless you could do billions of tons of this stuff, it's not gonna matter, right? Second is, how cost-effective is it? And third is, how energy-effective is it, right? So if you have to burn a lot of energy to do the process, then it doesn't really get you anywhere.

E: Don't do it, right.

S: So they do say that the processes work at relatively low temperature and at atmospheric pressure, at ambient pressure. That's good. So that's a good sign that this has the potential to be energy-efficient. And then they also say, and this is always that gratuitous thing, if you fuel it, right? If you fuel this process with renewable energy, it could be carbon-neutral. Of course, if anything you fuel with renewable energy, it's gonna be carbon-neutral.

C: It's like part of this healthy breakfast, yeah.

S: Right, part of this healthy breakfast. But fair enough. So you could theoretically power this with solar panels or wind turbines or nuclear power, which is what you'd have to do. You'd need some massive energy source. But again, in the short term, if we're gonna build a renewable energy source, you're gonna reuse that to replace fossil fuel energy sources. You're not gonna use it to capture the carbon from the fossil fuel, because that's adding another step and that's inefficient. So this kind of process isn't, and this is what I was saying at the beginning, it's not gonna be relevant until after we decarbonize the energy infrastructure, right? Only once you've replaced all the fossil fuel with carbon-neutral energy sources, does it then make sense to add even more carbon-neutral energy sources in order to pull some of the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that you've already released, right? Until then, if you build a nuclear power plant, for example, just connect it to the grid. Don't use it to pull carbon out of the air that you put in by burning coal, right? Shut down the coal plant and power the grid with the nuclear power. But there's a sort of a good news to that fact is that we don't have to really perfect this technology for 30 years. This is the kind of thing that we need to have ready to go in 2050. Like if we get to 2050 and we've mostly decarbonized our energy infrastructure and some more industrial energy structure, that's what we really need to start ramping up carbon capture. And that's when these kinds of technologies are gonna be useful. So we do have a couple of decades to perfect it. So it's good that we're at the proof of concept stage now because it could take 20 years to get to the industrial stage where we're doing it. But it is-

C: Is it possible or reasonable that it would scale up like that?

S: Well, again, that's a big question mark. And we've been here a hundred times where something looks great at the proof of concept stage and then we never hear about it again because it just failed to scale, right? It wasn't the kind of thing that you could scale up. And with carbon capture, that is one of the big hurdles. Does it scale? Can you get this to function at industrial, massive industrial scales? Because it's not worth it if you can't. And then the other thing, again, is how energy efficient is it? Because if it's energy inefficient and then it becomes part of the problem, right? It's not helping. It's just another energy sink. This has potential. And I do think carbon nanofibers as the end product is a great idea. Because again, we could just dump it in cement and put it on or under the ground or whatever, put it in our foundations. So, and it makes it stronger. It increases the longevity of the cement. And cement is an important source of CO2 also. So anything that makes that industry more efficient is good. So there's kind of a double benefit. So I like all of that. But looking past the hype, this is something where we're at the proof of concept stage. This may be an interesting technology 20 years from now. So let's keep working on it. But this isn't like the answer to climate change, right? This is something we're gonna have to be plugging in in 20 years or so.

Feng Shui (54:04)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, I understand that people are doing feng shui wrong. What are the consequences of this?

E: My gosh, how are we ever gonna get past this obstacle? It's not every week that the news-consuming public gets advice about feng shui. But this week, we're fortunate not to have one but two articles warning us about feng shui mistakes that are all around us. And I know people pronounce this differently. I've heard feng shui, feng shui, feng shui.

C: I also think some of the differences- I think some of them come from whether you're saying it in Mandarin or Cantonese.

E: I suppose so, I suppose so. Well, maybe there are some people who are not familiar with what feng shui is. What is it? You know what I did? I decided, I'm gonna look up the definition. I'm gonna go to to find out. I don't know what's there. Here's what happens real quick when you get there. There's this big, so it's a blank screen with all except for a big blurry dot. And then the blurry dot will start to pull in opposite directions, forming two circles, touching at a point like a figure eight on its side, or the infinity sign, basically. And there's no text or anything. That's all there is. And the only thing you can do is click on the dot. And that dot takes you to the next page, which is a entirely black background page, no text again. And it slowly starts to transition to a gray scale. It dissolves eventually to a white background in about 10 seconds. And then an octagon appears. And then within the octagon, there are lines that appear interconnecting the non-neighboring sides of the octagon. And if you click on that, it brings you back to the blurry dot. So to tell you the truth, and that cycle repeats, to tell you the truth, I think that's the most cogent explanation of feng shui I've ever seen. You know, oh boy, this is wild. Oh, it's an ancient Chinese traditional practice which claims to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment. The term feng shui means literally wind water. And from ancient times, landscapes and bodies of water were thought to direct the flow of universal qi, the cosmic current, all energy, through places and structures, and in some cases, people. Now, here is the first article. Four feng shui plants to avoid. These are gonna disturb the qi in your home, warns experts. That's how the headline reads. Oh my gosh, this is a warning. And where was this? picked this up as part of their lifestyle news, and they pulled it from the website called Living Etc. So when it comes to the best plants for good feng shui, there are a few you should bring home, and some you should completely avoid. And they're gonna help you right now pick out the ones to avoid, because they are experts. Yep, yep, they consulted experts for this, and I hope that-

S: You have a degree in boloney.

E: I hope they met legitimate scientists, botanists, chemists, right? Maybe they got on board, but here's what they said. Feng shui master Jane Langhoff. It's essential to consider the type of energy plants you bring into your spaces. Oh well, so much for hearing from scientists.

C: What's an energy plant?

E: Yeah, energy plant. Type-

C: What's that?

E: Consider the type of energy plants bring into our spaces. So it's not energy plants, but actually I'll get to that. I'll get to that, Cara. There's actually, there are actually some things, and I will eventually get there. So you weren't totally wrong. Here's what else she says. I don't believe that specific plants will necessarily cause bad luck. However, there are certain plants that can represent negative elements or bring inauspicious energy to a space. Generally, it's advisable to avoid excessively thorny and spiky plants that can cause injury. Oh boy, thank goodness we have a person with a master's certificate and a gold star on it that warns us that thorny and spiky plants can cause an injury. Another one, Feng Shui consultant and educator Laura Morris. As a general rule, you want to be mindful about where you place a spiky or pointy leaf plant. Try to avoid placing them next to your bed or in the partnership area of your home, whatever the partnership area is, wherever people partner up. I don't know.

S: It's where the people get busy? I mean, what are they talking about?

E: But you want, so here are the four, okay? Here are the four plants in order and do this like David Letterman's top 10 list, but it's a top four list. Number four, the yuccas, Y-U-C-C-A-S.

C: I love yuccas.

E: Yuccas, yuccas, yeah. Got to avoid them. They're kind of prickly. They're kind of what, they have sword-like features to them, I guess. You know, long kind of bladed, pointy leaves. They say don't bring those in the home. Number three, cacti. I think we know what cactus and cacti are. Number two, dried flowers and dying plants. You know why? Because don't have those in your house because they represent stagnant energy. Best to leave those outside because if you bring them inside, they could restrict the flow of chi. And the number one plant you should not have in your house, and I have them, quite a few of them in my house, artificial plants. Yep, you know why? Because they block, well, they block energy. They're inauthentic, Steve. They're pretending to be something they're not. This is right directly from the article, which can affect energy in a space negatively. If you love artificial plants, they must be also kept clean of dust and grime. Wow, this is good stuff. Now, Cara, as far as the, what do we call them?

C: Energy plants?

E: Energy plants. They list some plants. So here's some plants that are associated with good luck and include, I'm not gonna give you their taxonomical names, but I'll give you their more common names. The treasure fern, the happy plant, the lucky bamboo, the jade plant, the money plant, and peace lilies.

S: And this doesn't sound at all like something she just made up.

E: I mean, totally.

C: To sell the plants that she has in her shop.

E: This is some fatal level thinking right here. You know, I mean, how more basic does it get than that? You know, I mean, yeah. Lucky bamboo and the treasure fern. But it gets better because there's the other article. Here's the headline. Small entryway feng shui mistakes, five things the pros always avoid. So again, like right on the heels of this other one came this article. Oh my gosh, pearls of wisdom coming our way again. Number one, don't have any dead or dying plants. They kind of referred to that in the first article because dead or dying plants create negative energy and represent decay. That's not something you want to welcome in your welcoming part of your home, which is your entryway. Number two, poor maintenance of the door space. For example, blocking the area behind the front door will make moving through the space difficult. You think so? If you kind of put something behind a door and try to open it, that's gonna, you know. We need an expert to tell us this though. Also, don't let your front door get dirty and grimy. You know, it'll stop the positive energy from flowing in that door. The next, the three of five, beware your mirror placement. You don't want to place a mirror face on because you open the door and you're looking in the mirror, oh my gosh, you might get scared or something. You want to hang that mirror on a wall facing away to a doorway to your next room because what it does is it sends opportunities and prosperities into your home. It kind of brings the energy in and reflects it into the center of the home, which apparently needs it. Number four is clutter. Get rid of don't come in and throw your keys down and fling your mail on the little table there and take off your shoes and throw your coat down. You know, everything has a place. Put your stuff away, basically. And number five, this is the most important and the one I'll wrap up on. We ignore the elements at our own peril. You must incorporate the five elements of earth, fire, water, metal, and wood into your entryway, which kind of, I think, goes maybe against the clutter part of all this, right? But they said the balance between these elements creates good feng shui energy and will create a harmonious balance in your entryway. So there it is. Of all the hard science that we've touched on this week, perhaps this will eclipse it all and be the most beneficial to us all.

S: Like, feng shui is one of those ones that amazes me because it's just pure magic, you know?

C: Yeah, it's nothing.

S: So you believe in magic, and I've said that to people, and the kind of answer you get is, well, science doesn't know everything. It's like, yeah, but we know magic isn't real.

J: Not everybody can say that, Steve.

S: Yeah.

C: Well, and it's like, what I love about it is it's magic mixed with, like, a dose of common sense. It's sort of like all the things you were saying, Evan, because then you have these true believers that are like, yeah, but I had an expert come in, and they helped me with my feng shui, and I feel better. It's like, yeah, probably because you're not bumping into shit all the time.

E: Right, because they cleaned your house and put your crap away.

S: Here's your problem. You've got a cactus right in your entryway here.

C: Cactus behind your door. You can't open your door all the way.

S: That's feng shui.

C: So stupid.

E: Yeah, okay, fine. If you're gonna do it in your own home, whatever. But I mean, and what we talked about before, and it's not the article this week, but when governments start hiring feng shui people, bring them in for architectural design and stuff, they are, oh my gosh.

S: It's driving me nuts.

E: Wasting all our money and driving us nuts.


Who's That Noisy? (1:05:06)[edit]

Answer to previous Noisy:
elevator temporary hoist car's nylon guide shoes rubbing against rails

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

J: All right, guys, last week I played this noisy. [plays Noisy] Now, I should have known that that kind of sound was gonna make a lot of people send me a lot of like funny entries into Who's That Noisy, things like they absolutely know that that is not it. They're just trying to make me laugh. And a few people did make me laugh, but I did get some serious entries this week, and we have a listener named Tim Lyft that said, "Hi, Jay, my daughter, age nine, thinks this week's noisy is somebody playing one of those snake charmer flute thingies, but badly" which I thought was a wonderful guess. And her cousin, who's seven years old, guessed "a lot of farm animals".

S: A cacophony of farm animals.

J: I think these are two wonderful guesses. And Tim himself guessed some kind of bird. You can't send me an answer of some kind of bird. You have to be absolutely specific. But thank you for sending those in. Those are great. Visto Tutti always answers. He always comes up with something. He said, "it sounds like peacocks calling during the mating season. They like to start the annoying screeching way before sunrise, which makes the humans in the neighborhood wonder what roast peacock tastes like". So I heard this and I'm like, I read his email like, oh, peacocks, I don't know. I never heard the sounds that they make. And then I proceeded to get about, I think six or seven more emails where people were saying peacocks. So perhaps peacocks sound like that, which is a horrible noise for a bird to make, especially if they live around you. Another listener named Harley Hunt wrote in, said, good day. My guess for this week is a peacock. Okay, I put that in. I don't know why.

S: I'm sensing a theme here.

J: Yeah, there's a theme. All right, so there was a bunch of people that guessed peacock. Another listener here named Adam Pesch said, "Jay, first time emailer, long time listener. Today, I was awakened from a deep sleep by this week's noisy. You did warn us. I never have a guess and probably am way off, but this week reminded me of a shofar horn that I've heard in synagogue trying to mimic an electric guitar riff. Thanks for everything you guys do." I could not find anything on that, so I have no idea what that sounds like, but I do appreciate those guesses. Unfortunately, nobody guessed it. And you know, this one was a hard one. I just thought it was a provocative noise that I wanted to play for you guys. And I will explain this one to you. So again, this was sent in by a listener named Curtis Grant. And Curtis said, I have a really cool noise I heard at work as an elevator fitter or installer. In this case, we use a temporary hoist that lifts the finished lift cabin, right, which is basically the elevator itself, up and down the shaft. We use this to hoist or install our equipment, which are the rail brackets and et cetera, from the top of the finished lift car, as it is more efficient than building a temporary platform to install from. So as these cars are heavy, they have temporary nylon guide shoes that rub against the rails and cause this noise. So basically, like during the installation of an elevator, this is a common noise that someone would hear if they were doing the install. Very, very hard noise to hear. Let me just play briefly again. [plays Noisy] Wow, imagine that like resonating inside the shaft, right? Wow, imagine that like resonating inside the shaft, right? Ugh, forget about it.

C: That's haunting.

J: Yeah, definitely.

New Noisy (1:08:36)[edit]

J: Guys, I have a new noisy this week, sent in by a listener named Chris Kelly. And here it is.

[Zipper-like zings, and a clack]

I'll play it again. It's very short. [plays Noisy] Very strange. If you think you know what this week's Noisy is, or you heard something really cool, please do send it to me, because it helps make the show good.

Announcements (1:09:03)[edit]

J: Real quick, Steve, I'll go down a few things here. Guys, if you enjoyed the show, we would appreciate you considering becoming a patron of ours to help us keep going. All you have to do is go to, and you can consider helping us continue to do the work that we do. Every little bit counts. So thank you very much, and thank you to all our patrons out there. We really appreciate it. One thing we started doing a few weeks ago, about a month ago, is we came up with the SGU weekly email. This email essentially gives you every piece of content that we created the previous week. We send it out on Monday or Tuesdays. So it'll have the show that just came out the previous Saturday, any YouTube videos, any TikTok videos, any blogs that Steve wrote, anything that we feel you need to see, it's going to be in that email. Also, we'll put in some messages here and there about things, like for example, an important message to tell you guys. So Google is changing its podcast player. And the new podcast player that they have actually is not something that we want to work with because there's a few things, without getting into all the details, the big humps for us that we couldn't get over was one, we couldn't integrate this automatically. So it won't automatically update to our RSS. We'd have to do everything manually.

C: What?

J: Yeah, that's crazy. It doesn't integrate with our media host and that's it. So that right there is a pretty much a deal breaker for us because we can't be doing everything manually. That's number one. Number two, and sadly, they auto-insert ads and the pay is terrible. And we would have no control over the ads. So that's it, it's a game breaker. We're not going to do it. We are not going to integrate with Google's new podcast platform until and if they ever change or whatever, if I'll keep an eye on it, but.

S: Hey, it should be able to turn ads off if you don't opt out of that.

J: Yeah, I mean, I haven't seen-

S: And like not automatically updating the RSS. I mean, come on.

J: Yeah, I know.

C: Yeah, like nobody's going to ever, nobody's going to use this.

J: Yeah, I don't think they will. So if, unfortunately, if you have recently found out that you no longer are getting our RSS on the Google podcast platform, this changeover happened over, I guess, the last few weeks or whatever, we're very sorry, but we have to, we can't engage in things that aren't good for us and that's it. So we're just not going to do it. And feel free to email me if you want to give me more information about it, or if you know, like, hey, either it's going to change or whatever. I can't find anything. But I admit, I didn't look that deeply into trying to figure out where they might be in the future. I just know where they are right now. Anyway, guys, there's an eclipse happening, and we decided let's do something fun around the eclipse because this is probably going to be the last one that any of us are going to see, especially one that's going to be close. And as Cara and Evan have been talking about, this is a big one. This is a long one. This is really one you really want to see. So wherever you are try to get yourself to a location where you're going to have totality. You know, bring the kids, definitely get the eye protection that you need, but this is going to be a big deal. So what we decided is we're going to go to a place where Bob's horrible feng shui of creating clouds.

E: Right?

J: Whenever an astronomical event is happening, we don't think that Bob's powers will work in Texas. So we're going to Dallas. We're going to be doing an extravaganza on April 6th, and we will be doing an SGU private show, a private show plus, actually, and we'll be doing that on the 7th of April of this year. All of these things will be in and around Dallas. So we really hope that if you're local or you're going to be traveling there for the eclipse, please do consider joining us. Ticket sales are going very well. So move quickly if you're interested because I can see things filling up very quickly. Other than that, guys.

B: The clouds will follow me.

J: Yeah, if they do, Bob, if they do. We will take it out on you. We're going to make you buy us an expensive dinner, I guess, or something.

B: Of course you will.

J: Yeah, but I'm looking forward to Cara's barbecue.

C: Yeah.

E: Ooh.

B: That's the only reason why I'm going.

C: You guys are going to be so good. Barbecue and Tex-Mex.

J: I'm going to diet before I go just so I can overeat when we're there, you know?

C: Oh, you're going to go hard in Texas. You can't not go hard. Oh, it's the best.

J: Deep in the heart of Texas, right?

C: Yep. Stars at night are big and bright.

J: I know that because of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, right?

E: Of course.

S: All right. Thank you, Jay.

Quickie: TikTok recap (1:13:37)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_][7]

S: Very quickly, I'm going to do an entry from TikTok. As you know, we do TikTok videos every week. One of the videos I did today, we record, we also livestream if you're interested, but we recorded one on the jellyfish UFO. Have you guys seen this?

J: Oh, yeah.

E: I have seen it.

S: Yeah, the jellyfish UFO. So yeah, the TikTok video that I was responding to was by Jeremy Corbel, who's a gullible UFO guy, right? And it's a really this is a great example, a great contrast between a gullible analysis of a piece of information, this video, versus Mick West, who does a really great technical, like skeptical analysis of the same video. So essentially, this is over a military base, a US military base, and there's a balloon, a monitoring balloon, a couple of miles away. It's like tethered to the ground. So you get sort of a bird's eye view of the base, and it's tracking this thing that's flying across the base, right? Now, it's called the jellyfish UFO because it kind of looks vaguely like a jellyfish. There's a blob on top and streamers below, right? So there's a couple of, so again, Corbel's going on just gullibly about all this, oh, what could this be? I'm trying to like mystery monger it, and pointing out anomalies, apparent anomalies. But here's the bottom line, very, very quick. And if you can, the deep, Mick West goes into the technical details very well. The thing is drifting in the direction and speed of the wind, right? This is something floating in the wind. And the 99%-er here is that this is some balloons. This is a clump of balloons and streamers floating in the wind. Now, we can't see it with sufficient detail to say 100% that's what it is. It could be something unexpected, but that's basically what it is, right? If it's not literally balloons, it's something very similar. But it's something lightweight that's floating, that's drifting in the wind. It's not a machine it's not a spacecraft.

E: A life form.

S: Not a life form. You know, it's just, it's not moving, right? At first, I'm like, is that like a smudge on the lens? But like, no, it's kind of moving with respect to the lens itself. But it is again, Mick West shows quite convincingly that it's moving in the direction of the wind, it's moving at the speed of the wind, given the likely altitude that it has. He does all the angles and everything. It's like, come on, guys, it's a freaking clump of balloons.

B: Maybe that's the secret of alien spaceship propulsion. You let the wind do all the work.

S: Yeah, that's how they hide, right? They just float along like the balloons.

C: So they're literally paper airplanes.

E: What's the difference between alien balloons acting like Earth-bound, Earth-created balloons?

S: And Earth-created balloons?

E: There's no, right?

S: The difference is Occam's Razor, that's the difference. All right, guys, we have a great interview coming up with Robert Sapolsky about free will. This one's gonna blow your mind. If you're not familiar with the free will debate, you will be after this interview. So let's go to that interview now.


Interview with Robert Sapolsky (1:17:01)[edit]

  • "Robert Morris Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinology researcher and author. He is a professor of biology, neurology, neurological sciences, and neurosurgery at Stanford University. In addition, he is a research associate at the National Museums of Kenya." - Wikipedia

S: Joining us now is Robert Sapolsky. Robert, welcome to The Skeptic's Guide.

RS: Well, thanks for having me on.

S: And you are a professor of biology, neurology, and neurosurgery at Stanford University. And you have written a lot about free will and other related topics. And that was primarily what we wanted to start our discussion with about tonight, because you take a pretty hard position that there is no free will. How would you state your position?

RS: I would say probably the fairest thing is that I'm way out on the lunatic fringe.

S: Okay.

RS: In that my stance is not just, wow, there's much less free will than people used to think. We've got to rethink some things in society. I think there's no free will whatsoever. And I try to be convincing about this.

S: Okay, well, convince us. Tell us why you think there's no free will.

RS: I think when you look at what goes into making each of us who we are, all we are is the outcome of the biological luck, good or bad, that we have no control over, and its interactions with the environmental luck, good or bad, which we also have no control over. How is it that any of us became who we are at this moment is because of what happened a second ago and what happened a minute ago and what happened a century ago. And when you put all those pieces together, there's simply no place to fit in the notion that every now and then your brain could do stuff that's independent of what we know about science.

S: So, yeah, that is, I think, the standard position of the no free will. Our brains are deterministic, right? We can't break the laws of physics and control what happens inside our head. Our brains are machines. But why, then, is there such a powerful illusion that we do have free will? And how do you square that, like the notion that we do make decisions? Or do you think we don't really make decisions? Is the decision-making level of this itself an illusion?

RS: Great. I think that's exactly where we all get suckered into, including me, into feeling a sense of agency. Because the reality is there's points where we choose. We choose something. We choose what flavor ice cream we want. We choose whether or not to push someone off the cliff. We have all those sorts of things. We make a choice. We form an intent. And then we act on it. And that seems wonderfully agentive, wonderfully me. There's a me that just made this decision. I was conscious of having an intent. I had a pretty good idea what the consequence was gonna be of acting on it. And I knew I wasn't being forced. I had alternatives. I could choose to do otherwise. And that intentness, the strength with which you were just in that moment, is what most of us, then, intuitively feel like counts as free will. And the problem with that is, when you're assessing that, it's like you're trying to assess a book by only reading the last page of it. Because you don't get anywhere near the only question you can ask. So how did you turn out to be that sort of person who would form that intent? How did you become that person? And that's the stuff we had no control over.

S: Okay, I see that. So you have no control over the person that you are, all of the things that went into influencing your decision-making. But does that add up to, though, that you're not actually making decisions? Or I guess another, when I try to wrestle with this, the other thing that really bothers me is not only the sense of decision-making, but of what we call metacognition. I could think about my own thought processes. So what's happening there?

RS: Yep. You're in some psych experiment where, like, if you had a warthog, and signed up for the experiment, they would do some manipulation psychologically, and the warthog would fall for it and all of that. But because we're human, and we've got this metacognition stuff, we can go in there and say, oh, these psychologists, I bet they're up to something. So whatever I think I'm gonna say, I'm gonna say the opposite so that I'm not being some, like, rube falling for their manipulation. Whoa, I've just exercised free will thanks to my metacognition. How'd you become the sort of person who would go in there and be skeptical? How did you become the sort of person who would reflect on the circumstance metacognitively, et cetera, et cetera? In both of those cases, whether you did exactly what the warthog did, or if you, just out of proving some sort of point to yourself, did exactly the opposite, in both cases, it's the same issue. How did you become that person? And you had no control over that part.

S: So you also talk about the fact that if you take that view of humanity, that we are deterministic and free will is an illusion, that should influence policy or how we approach certain questions. So what do you think are the biggest policy implications for the realization that we don't really have free will?

RS: Well, people immediately freak out along a number of lines if you try to insist to them that there's no free will. The first one is, oh my God, people are just gonna run amok. If you can't be held responsible for your actions, people will just be completely disinhibited or will be chaos. And sort of the most extreme extension of that is, and they'll just be murderers running around on the streets. And that won't be the case. And the thing is, if you take the notion that we have no free will, we're just biological machines, blah, blah. If you take it to its logical extreme, blame and punishment never make any sense whatsoever. No one deserves to be punished. Retribution can never be a virtue in and of itself. Oh, so you throw out the entire criminal justice system, forget reforming it. It makes no sense at all. It's like having a witch justice system for deciding which ones you burn at the stake in 1600. You need to come up with a system that completely bypasses that. And at the same time, hold up a mirror to that and praise and reward make no sense either. And thus meritocracies have to be tossed out as well.

S: So then what are we left with?

RS: Well, we're left with something that seems totally unimaginable. How are you supposed to function? But then you reflect and we actually function all the time in circumstances where we have subtracted free will out of the occasion and we can protect society from dangerous individuals. Nonetheless, let me give you an example. There's a setting where there's a human who's dangerous. They can damage innocent people around them and this would be a terrible thing. And what happens if this is your child and they're sneezing and they have a nose cold? The kindergarten has this rule saying, please, if your child has a nose cold, keep them home until they're feeling better. Whoa, you constrain your child's behavior. You will lock them up at home. No, you don't lock them up at home because it does not come with moralizing. You don't say you're a kid. Ah, because you were sneezing, you can't play with your toys. You don't preach to them. You constrain them just enough so that they are no longer dangerous and not an inch more. And as long as you're at it, you do some research as to what causes nose colds in the first place. And we have a world in which it's so obvious that we have subtracted free will out of that that we don't even notice it. Yeah, there's all sorts of realms in which we can reach the conclusion this person wasn't actually responsible for their actions. And nonetheless, we could make a world that is safe from any inadvertent damage that they might do.

S: That still sounds like at the end of the day, there are still consequences to your actions, right? So if you demonstrate that you're a dangerous person by committing a crime, then you have to be isolated from society until you're no longer the kind of person who would commit a crime.

RS: Or you have to be isolated exactly enough, the minimum needed to make sure you can't be dangerous in that way anymore. And we have all sorts of contingent constraints in society. You, if you have proven that you were dangerous to society because you keep driving drunk, they don't let you drive. They take your license away. You're still allowed to walk around and go into the supermarket and such. They don't need to put you in jail. If you have a certain type of sexual pedophilia, there's rules. You can't go within this distance of a school, of a playground or something. We have all these ways in which we can constrain people from the ways in which they are damaging and not do any more so. And the key thing in that latter point is we don't sermonize to them. There's a reason why you wind up being dangerous. So we are gonna keep you from doing that. And it's not because you have a crappy soul.

S: Yeah, I get that. But at the end of the day, in a practical sense, it could be very same to the criminal justice system we have now, just minus a lot of the judgment and the punishment is not punitive. It's not because you deserve to be punished. It's just because there needs to be a moral consequence to your actions.

RS: Well, I would differ there because the word moral is irrelevant. The word moral is irrelevant to your car's brakes that have stopped working. Oh my God, it's gonna kill somebody. You can't drive it. You need to constrain it. You need to put it in the garage. But that's not a moral act. You don't feel like you should go in each morning with a sledgehammer and smash the car on the hood because of how dangerous it is to society. You don't preach to it. Morality is completely independent of it. You are trying to do a quarantine model. And the people who think about this the most use public health models for this. And you are not a bad person if you get an infectious disease. And you're not a bad person if circumstances has made you someone who's damaging to those around you. But yeah, make sure people are not damaged by you but don't preach to you in the process.

S: Well, you could substitute the word ethical, I guess, for moral. It's just a philosophical calculation without any kind of spiritual judgment.

RS: Good, okay.

S: That's kind of what I meant. The point is that if you're saying, well, we're just, our brains are calculating machines and part of those calculations are moral judgments or ethical judgments or whatever, right? Because we evolved, and we're going to get to that in a minute, a sense of justice. And you have to leverage that in order to influence people's behavior. Otherwise, you have the moral hazard of not having consequences for your actions, right? So we're not in control of our decision-making, but there are influences on that decision-making and society needs to influence people's decision-makings by presenting concrete consequences to their actions. If you do this, you're going to go to jail. Nothing personal, but we have to do it. Otherwise there will be significant increase in crime or whatever you want to call it. Is that a fair way to look at it?

RS: Yeah, it's okay to have punishment as part of the whole picture in a purely instrumental sense, in the same way that you can have rewarding people for stuff that they've done, but again, purely instrumental. And then you say, okay, so if we ran the prison system on that, there's no such thing as retribution. There's no such thing as somebody deserves to be constrained. There's no such thing as justice being done. And you put in those factors in there and you have an unrecognizably different approach to, we protect the society from people who sneeze and we protect society from people who have such poor impulse control that they do impulsive, horrible, damaging things when they're emotionally worked up. But there's no retribution. Justice is not being served. They don't deserve anything. They have not earned their punishment. You are just containing a car whose brakes are broken. And if that sounds like, oh my God, turning people into machines, that's so dehumanizing, that's a hell of a lot better than demonizing them into being sinners.

S: Yeah, it's actually a very humanistic approach to criminal justice.

RS: Yeah.

S: Because it does lack that sort of punitive angle that can be injust in a lot of ways, right? You're taking somebody who is in a much more profound sense than we even may realize a victim of circumstance and punishing them for that, right?

RS: Yeah.

S: Is there anything beyond criminal justice system that has implications from your philosophy on no free will?

RS: Well, meritocracies go out the window also because it's this bi-directional thing. We run the world where some people are treated way worse than average for reasons they have no control over and then some people are treated way better than average for reasons they have no control over. They have the sort of brain, so they get good SAT scores or the sort of brain that makes them self-disciplined and so now they've got a great job, now they've got the corner office, now they have whatever and they did not earn it any more than someone who commits a crime earned it. Both of those systems are bankrupt. But then you have the same problem. The people then say, oh my God, if you do that, you're gonna have murderers running around the streets, not necessarily, but now flip to the meritocracy half, you would say, oh my God, you turn out to have a brain tumor and you're just gonna pick a random person off the street to do your brain surgery. No, of course not that either. We need to protect society from people who are damaging and we need to ensure society that competent people are doing difficult things, but you can do it without a realm of this being laden in virtue and moral worth. Just because somebody turns out to have enough dexterity to do surgery, they should not have a society that reifies them thinking that they are intrinsically a better human any more than someone in jail should be thinking that they are an intrinsically worse human. Both are mere outcomes of their circumstances.

J: Robert, can I ask you a couple of questions coming from someone who isn't a neurologist? First off, define for me what free will would be if we had it.

RS: Okay, this is one that completely pisses off philosophers who argue for free will. Just to orient people, 90% of philosophers these days would be called compatibilists, which is they admit the world is made out of stuff like atoms and molecules and we've got cells inside our heads and all of that science-y stuff is going on. They concede that, they accept that, but somehow, nonetheless, that is compatible with there still being free will in there. And as such, I would fall into the tiny percentage of people who count as free will incompatibilists. You can't have what we know about how the brain works and free will going hand in hand. So what would count as free will? So somebody does something and you say, well, why did they do that? And it's because these neurons did something half a second before. But it's also because something in the environment in the previous minutes triggered those neurons to do that. And because hormone levels this morning in your bloodstream made this or that part of your brain more or less sensitive to those stimuli. And because in the previous decade, you went through trauma or you found God and that will change the way your brain works. And before you know it, you're back to adolescence and childhood and fetal life, which is an amazingly important period of sharing environment with your mother and then genes. And then even stuff like what your ancestors invented as a culture, because that's going to have majorly influenced the way your mother mothered you within minutes of birth. So if you want to find free will, if you want to like prove it's there, take a brain, take a person that just did something and show that that brain did that completely independently of this morning's breakfast and last year's trauma and all the values and conditioning and stuff that went on in adolescence and what your mom's hormone levels were in your bloodstream when you were a fetus and your genes and culture, show that if you change all of those factors, you still get the exact same behavior. You've just proven free will and it can't be done.

J: Are you saying like we have zero free will or is there a little bit of it mixed in? You know what I mean? Like, is it so black and white or could there be shades of gray here?

RS: There's simply no mechanism in there by which you can have a brain doing stuff completely independent of its history, independent of what came before. It is not possible for a brain to be an uncaused cause. And taken to its logical extreme, the only conclusion is, yeah, there's no free will whatsoever.

J: Aren't we still thinking things over? Like, I think that when I do something that I really don't wanna do, that if I'm ever expressing free will, it's in those moments, right? Like, doesn't that make sense in a way? Like, if I'm gonna force myself to do something that everything about me-

S: That's just one part of your brain arguing with another part of your brain though, right?

J: But isn't that kind of an expression of free will? If you are having an internal debate and there are pros and cons and pluses and minuses and all the stuff that it takes for us to make a decision.

S: Not necessarily if you see it from a neurological point of view of, yeah, that's just your executive function and your frontal lobe fighting with your limbic system.

RS: Exactly.

S: Right?

RS: Yeah.

S: It doesn't rescue you from it being all caused neurologically.

RS: I mean, today is January 17th and thus we're probably 17 days into the vast majority of people who made New Year's resolutions to have already like given them up. And everyone went into it with the same, I'm gonna do this differently this year. And some people do and some people don't. And how did somebody become the sort of person who would have the self-discipline to do that? How would someone become the sort of person who first time they were tempted, they went flying off the rails. How did we all differ in that regard also? And it's exactly the part of the brain. You mentioned just now the frontal cortex. That's this incredibly interesting part of the brain that makes you do the hard thing when it's the right thing to do. And beginning in your fetal life, every bit of thing that happens around you is influencing how strong of a frontal cortex you're gonna have come January 1st and you're vowing to exercise every day.

E: So is there an evolutionary advantage to believing in free will?

RS: Yeah, I think there's an enormous one. And what you can see is in the fact that 90% of philosophers and probably more than 90% of folks out there in general believe there's free will because it's like kind of an unsettling drag to contemplate that we're biological machines. It's very unsettling. And people like to have a sense of agency. People like to think of themselves as captains of their fate. And this plugs into like a very distinctive thing about humans. We're the only species that's smart enough to know that everybody you know and love and you included are going to die someday. We're the only species that knows that someday the sun is gonna go dark. We're the only species that knows that because your neurons in your frontal cortex just did this or that, you carried out this behavior. We're the only species that's capable of having those realities floating around. And some evolutionary biologists have speculated, I think very convincingly, that if you're gonna have a species that is as smart as we are, we have to have evolved an enormous capacity for self-deception, for rationalizing away reality. And we're the species that's smart enough that we better be able to deny reality a lot of the time. And in that regard, major depression, clinical depression, one of the greatest ways of informally defining it is depression is a disease of someone who is pathologically unable to rationalize away reality. It's very protective psychologically.

S: And like cycling back a little bit to like the meritocracy thing, because where I tend to come down is I have to admit like, yeah, there's no metaphysical free will. You know, it is, we are, there is no uncaused cause. You know, we are just the neurons acting out what they do. But don't we have to act as if there is free will to a large extent because, again, of that moral hazard of thinking that there's no consequences? And even when, like with meritocracy, you were focusing on talent, but what about hard work? We do want people to be rewarded for hard work so that they'll do it. You know, people will do productive work. If there was no reward for it, we kind of know what those societies look like. It's not one I'd wanna live in. Would you accept that notion that even if you think metaphysically, philosophically, there's no free will, we still have to kind of pretend that there is?

RS: Again, in an instrumental sense, you can reward somebody if that's gonna make them more likely to do the good thing again, if that's gonna make them more likely to plug away, but you need to do it purely in an instrumental way. A colleague of mine at Stanford, Carol Dweck in psychology, has done wonderful work showing, okay, you've got a kid and your kid has just gotten a great, wonderful grade on some exam or something. And do you say, wow, what a wonderful job you did. You must be so smart. Or do you say, wow, wonderful, wonderful job you did. You must've worked so hard. And what she shows is you do the latter and every neurotic parent knows that by now. Yeah, sometimes you use sort of positive praise, reward for displays of self-discipline because that makes that part of the brain stronger, all of that, but you don't go about making somebody who is better at resisting temptation than somebody else think that it has something to do with they are an intrinsically better human. They just wound up with that sort of frontal cortex.

S: Let's talk a little bit more about evolutionary psychology. I mean, it seems like you're largely in support of that, but you tell me, what do you think about it? Because I know that is something where you can't deny that our brains evolved and that has a huge influence. So what do you think about the discipline of evolutionary psychology and specifically, how would you answer its critics?

RS: Its starting point makes absolutely perfect sense. And historically, take one step further back from it and you get this field called sociobiology, which I was sort of raised in, which is you can't think about human behavior outside the context of evolution. And then it's one step further and you've got evolutionary psych. You can't think about the human psyche outside the context of evolution. That makes perfect sense, wonderful sense. The trouble is in both of those disciplines, there's way too much possibility for sort of post hoc, just so stories. There's way too much individual differences. Anytime you see a human who like leaps into a river to save the drowning child and dies in the process and basic sociobiological models, basic models of how you optimize copies of your genes can't explain stuff like that. By the time you're looking at like vaguely complicated mammals, you get individualistic behaviors that violate what some of the models predict. So it's part of the story. It's interesting evolutionary psychology. One finding in there that I find to be very, very impressive is that we are far, far more attuned to the sort of norm violations that go in the direction of you getting treated worse than you expected to be, than you being treated better. We have all sorts of detection things in our brain that are better at spotting that bastard they were supposed to give me that reward and they didn't versus, whoa, they just gave me this gigantic reward out of nowhere. And that makes sense evolutionarily. And some of those building blocks were just fine. As with a lot of these relatively new disciplines, don't get a little overconfident and try to explain everything.

S: I kind of landed in the same place. From a philosophical point of view, of course, there's evolutionary psychology, but in practice, I do think it can fall into just-so stories too easily. So it's a kind of a weakness in the field. All right, well, Robert, this has all been very fascinating. Thank you so much for giving us your time. Anything coming up that you want to plug? Do you have any works that you're doing?

RS: No, I got this new book out, which I guess is sort of useful if people know about it. Came out in October, Penguin. It's called Determined, A Science of Life Without Free Will, where I basically lay out all these arguments and as far as I can tell so far, infuriate a lot of people.

S: That's good work. You know that you're accomplishing something useful if you piss off a lot of people.

RS: Oh, good, because I seem to be. That's nice to know.

S: All right, thanks again. Take care.

RS: Good, thanks for having me on.


Science or Fiction (1:44:27)[edit]

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biodegradable plastic

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 panelists to tell me which one is the fake. We have a theme this week. It's a mystery theme.

E: You can tell us.

S: I will reveal the theme after you guys all give your answers. Now, we'll see if you can figure it out along the way, but it's not gonna be obvious. Okay, here we go. Item number one, a recently discovered species of deep sea fish in the Antarctic Ocean has been found to have transparent blood due to a complete lack of hemoglobin. Item number two, researchers have developed a type of biodegradable plastic that decomposes completely in just one week when exposed to sunlight and air. And item number three, researchers have successfully trained a group of goldfish to drive a small, water-filled vehicle on land, demonstrating their ability to navigate in a terrestrial environment and challenging long-held views on fish spatial awareness. All right, Cara, go first.

Cara's Response

C: I don't like them.

S: Is that the theme that you're picking up?

E: Things Cara does not like.

C: Yeah, things I don't like. Deep sea fish in the Antarctic Ocean. There's an Antarctic Ocean?

S: Well the waters around the Antarctic, yeah.

C: But is that called the Antarctic Ocean? I didn't know that, the Arctic. Anyway.

S: It's the Southern Ocean, also known as the Antarctic Ocean.

C: Okay, I'm not mad at that. That one, okay, so this fish is lacking hemoglobin, which, okay, that's crazy weird, but maybe there's some sort of other compound that is like serving a similar purpose. Would it make the blood transparent? Maybe? Is the only reason blood has the color it is because of hemoglobin? Because of the heme? It might be. I know the heme does make the blood quite red, but I don't know what it would look like with no heme. Would it be clear? I don't know, but a lot of our liquids in our bodies are clear, so maybe. The biodegradable plastic that decomposes completely in just one week, I don't buy that for a second. When exposed to sunlight and air, like what's the catch? It's like, it also melts the second it touches water, like it's not firm like plastic. I just, I do not buy that one. How, I wish that would be revolutionary. But also, a goldfish drove a car? Okay, here's the thing about this one. I have a very fun, but very weird friend who clicker-trained one of her fish to swim through a hoop. And it was a goldfish, and she claims it was very, very smart. I never quite believed her, but maybe, maybe a goldfish could drive a little goldfish car. I want that one to be science, so I'm gonna say plastic's the fiction.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response

E: These all seem like fiction, don't they?

C: Mm-hmm.

E: That's why you don't like this.

C: I don't like them.

E: I agree, I'm with Cara. I will go with Cara and say I don't like them either. Next. Oh, I mean, right. For kind of the same reasons, though. I mean, if you take the hemoglobin out of blood, are you left with something that's transparent? Aren't there other things in the blood that would make it at least opaque, right? Not transparent, though. I mean, what? Right, there's something else floating around there. It's so strange. So that would be the catch on that one, I think. And yes, there is a fifth ocean. It is called the Southern/Antarctic Ocean. The second one about the biodegradable plastic. My question about this one is why would you make this if it's gonna decompose in a week if you can't expose it to sun and air, which is kind of everywhere? So what's the practicality of this? Where would you use this? Underground, okay, where there's no sunlight. And in a non-air environment, what? Water for underneath, but then, I don't know. That's tricky. I mean, maybe they developed it, but it has no practical industrial use. And then the last one, okay, training a group. A group of goldfish would be a school of goldfish. They went to driving school, apparently, to drive this water-filled vehicle. On land, demonstrating their ability to navigate. So how does that work? They don't, that's not how to do it. So when we say drive, are we talking steer? I guess, it's only steer, it would be. So just directional, so.

S: Yes, they have to be able to control which direction it's going in, yeah.

C: No, they use the clutch.

E: Well I mean, driving is a set of things more than steering, but it's steering something around, kind of.

S: And they have to go, brr brr.

E: Remember that video, that's hilarious. Ah! Shoot, all these are wrong, so I don't know. Cara and I are gonna sink or swim together on this one about the plastic, because I just don't see why that would be the case in any purpose.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response

B: Yeah, transparent blood, it seems somewhat plausible without the hemoglobin, that it would be kind of, I mean, I think it would be still kind of opaque, but I guess I could see it being somewhat transparent. The goldfish, the driving goldfish is just too awesome. I just wanna will that into existence. The plastic just seems silly, right? I mean, just like, oh boy, I took the bag out of the packaging, I've gotta use it quick or anything that's, if you forget about the bag and you put stuff in it and put the bag somewhere, and then next week it's gonna be gone, and then the contents are gonna spill. I don't know, it just seems a little goofy in some ways and just not very practical. And like, oh, how long has this bag been out? How much time do I have? It's only a day left. I don't know, it just seems a little silly and impractical, so I'll say that's fiction as well.

S: And Jay.

Jay's Response

J: So they all are saying that it's the plastic.

S: That's correct. That's what they are saying.

C: Oh, no.

J: I would imagine that they didn't develop the plastic to specifically only last a week, that they were working on a biodegradable plastic and that's what they ended up, that this is something that they made. Doesn't necessarily mean-

C: Well, that seems reasonable, damn it.

J: Yeah, right? But the key thing here is that it's biodegradable, you know, like legitimately, which, I don't know. I mean, again I trust your guys' judgment as well. You know, the first one about the deep sea fish, it's very odd to think that there's transparent blood, but I have seen many pictures of like that fish you could see through its head and I don't remember seeing blood there, so I think that's science. And then the third one here about the goldfish driving a water field vehicle. I mean, that is so wacky that it's gotta be true. Damn. This is such a hard one, Steve. All right, I'm trying to think of the theme too. I don't see the theme. Okay, I'm gonna go with everybody else. How could I not? I mean, there's something wrong about that one week decomposition, decomposing plastic. Something's not right there.

Steve Explains Hidden Theme[edit]

S: Okay, so anyone has a guess on the theme? It's very meta.

C: I don't like it.

E: Water.

S: It's very meta. No. The theme is-

E: Things in water.

S: Nope. This-

J: The fish eat the plastic.

S: Science or fiction has been brought to you by Chat GPT.

J: Oh.

B: Ah, geez.

E: Which version?

S: Four. So I typed in first, are you familiar with the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe podcast? And it said, yes, I'm familiar, and it gave a pretty good description of our podcast.

E: It better be.

S: One of the paragraphs reads, the Skeptic's Guide to the Universe is known for its approachable style, blending educational content with humor and informal discussions. It's aimed at a general audience and is designed to make science and skepticism accessible to people without a scientific background. That's a pretty good description of the show.

C: I love that.

S: Then I said, can you design for me a science or fiction segment similar to what they have in the show every week? And it did. Now, I had to do it three times and select from among those three, not because they weren't good, but because they were things that we've talked about before. Can't use that one. Yeah, because we've talked about that recently. So I had to find ones that wouldn't be too obvious. And one of these, it gave us a fiction, but I found it's actually true.

E: Right, you had to double check everything.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: I had to check everything. I couldn't trust it. All right, so let's take these in order. Number one, a recently discovered species of deep sea fish in the Antarctic Ocean has been found to have transparent blood due to a complete lack of hemoglobin. This one is science. So you guys are all safe so far. This is the oscillated ice fish. It's a family of fish. Lives in very cold waters off Antarctica.

E: Goes back and forth.

S: And it has transparent hemoglobin-free blood. This is the first, I think, in any vertebrate. And there are some species that have like yellow blood because they have very little hemoglobin, but this one is like fully transparent, zero hemoglobin. And they don't have some other molecule. They just have plasma.

C: Whoa.

E: So plasma, yeah, plasma would be.

C: How does that work, though?

S: Yeah, so they've adapted to basically just having oxygen dissolve in plasma and they make it work by, they have low metabolic rate, for example. But it also makes the blood less viscous, so it circulates much more vigorously, I guess. So that compensates for a little bit. They have larger gills, scaleless skin that can contribute more to gas exchange. So they have much more surface area to exchange gas.

C: Ew, wait. It's a fish with scaleless skin?

S: Yeah.

C: That is horrifying sounding.

E: Like one of those cats that has no fur?

S: They have bigger capillaries and they have a large blood volume and cardiac output. So they have all these compensatory mechanisms for not having hemoglobin to bind a lot of oxygen and they make it work. Yeah, so that one is true. So let's go on.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: Number two, researchers have developed a type of biodegradable plastic that decomposes completely in just one week when exposed to sunlight and air. You guys all think this one is the fiction and this one is science.

E: Oh.

C: No, I led you astray. The goldfish.

S: Interestingly, this one, ChatGPT gave me as a fiction. So I looked it up. I'm like, dang, there it is. This is actually true. This is published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2021. Yeah, they created a plastic that when exposed to air and sunlight will completely break down in one week, leaving no microplastics behind at all. It degrades into succinic acid, which is a small non-toxic molecule. So obviously it limits the applications because it can't be exposed to sunlight or air.

C: But if it took a year, it'd be great.

S: Right. So that one actually turned out to be true.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Which means that researchers have successfully trained a group of goldfish to drive a small water-filled vehicle on land, demonstrating their ability to navigate in a terrestrial environment and challenging long-held views on fish spatial awareness. Is the fiction.

C: Clearly.

S: ChatGPT just made this one up at a whole cloth. Made it up.

B: Not fair.

J: Made which one up, Steve?

S: The goldfish one.

C: It's not related to anything real?

S: No, they just said this one, they said psychologists kind of do weird things, but not this. So they made this one up. That was it.

E: Oh my gosh. It was like plausibly awkward.

J: Israeli researchers say they have successfully taught a goldfish to drive a small robotic car.

E: Science.

J: The team said the fish showed its ability to navigate toward a target in order to receive a food reward. For the experiment, the researchers built what they call the fish-operated vehicle, an FOV.

E: Can only drive in the FOV lane, though.

B: Jay, where are you reading that? Is that another ChatGPT?

J: I just searched. Here, hold on.

C: What search?

E: This is insane.

S: Oh yeah, you're right. I didn't see that.

E: Well, that's, I mean, I don't know if you wanna get, how technically you wanna get. The question was about a small, a group of goldfish as opposed to a fish.

C: Yeah, you'd have to look and see. There's probably a lot of things wrong in it, even if goldfish did drive a car, and what?

S: Yeah, but ChatGPT apparently is not good at making up fake ones, because it just keeps repurposing real news items.

E: Hmm. I wonder if it swears at people in traffic, like in fish language.

C: This is so dumb.

S: Gives people the fin?

E: Yeah, the middle fin.

B: So what does this mean?

C: Also, how does this work?

S: Yeah, I think this, science or fiction, is a ChatGPT mulligan.

E: Wow. So we're gonna have a no contest, a no score on it this week.

S: Yeah, no score from this week.

E: Has that ever happened before?

S: I don't think so.

C: I bet you it's still fiction.

E: We're witnessing skeptic's guide history right now at this moment?

C: Yeah, I'll take it.

E: Oh my gosh, for the first time in approaching 19 full years.

B: Damn you, ChatGPT.

E: And we have been failed by artificial intelligence at the highest level.

S: So ChatGPT failed at science or fiction.

C: Never again, yes. ChatGPT is zero.

E: All right, well put it down as like, zero wins and one loss for the year.

S: If this experiment has succeeded, I was gonna do this from now on, just have ChatGPT be science or fiction.

E: Oh, yeah, of course.

J: You can have the good ones and you just make up the fake one.

S: This actually took me just as long because I had to do it multiple times, I had to check every one, you know?

E: What you need is a program, Steve, that's optimized for performing the science or fiction function.

S: That's right, I need a science or fiction GPT.

E: Narrow AI. AI to help you with this, Steve. Do you think someone out there could do that?

S: Probably.

E: A listener on their spare time? Put in 5,000 hours of work.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:59:26)[edit]

Every great idea is a creative idea: The fact that you're using paint or you're using guitar strings or you're using equations, they're not really very different things. Getting that spirit into the education process … being curious about the world, that is a gift we would love to share.

 – Damian Kulash (1975-present), American musician, best known for being the lead singer and guitarist of the American rock band OK Go 

S: All right, Evan, give us a quote.

E: "Every great idea is a creative idea. The fact that you're using paint or you're using guitar strings or you're using equations, they're not really very different things. Getting that spirit into the education process, being curious about the world, that is a gift we would love to share." Damien Kulash, lead singer of OK Go.

C: I love OK Go.

E: I love OK Go. I'm on a big OK Go kick lately.

C: They're rock, but they're like very happy pop rock. I don't know how to describe it.

E: They started out as kind of pop punk alternative and they they're treadmill videos.

S: What country are they from?

E: The United States.

C: They're American. Not just the treadmill video, they did a parabolic space flight video.

E: They did, yes.

C: They shot an entire video in zero gravity. Yeah.

E: Oh, it's amazing.

B: That video is amazing. It's an amazing accomplishment.

C: Watching the behind the scenes of it is even funnier.

E: Yes, there's a whole documentary about it.

C: Yeah, like one of the band members was like near, like he was just constantly vomiting or about to vomit. So the whole time he's like sitting down. One of them was scared out of his mind the whole time. It's amazing. It's so good.

E: But this is, these artists, and I call them artists as much as they are musicians. They're visual artists, obviously, for what they do. They're so well known for their videos. But obviously they're also using a lot of engineering, a lot of science, a lot of math in the production of the videos. You know, they consult with a lot of people and teams of experts to come in and help them put these amazing ideas into the visual medium that is just so captivating. And the music's great too. So they're very pro-science and I love Damien Kulash and everyone at OK Go.

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

J: Thanks Steve.

C: Thanks Steve.

E: Thank you Steve.


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

S: Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by SGU Productions, dedicated to promoting science and critical thinking. For more information, visit us at 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]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description


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