SGU Episode 973

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SGU Episode 973
March 2nd 2024
973 Odysseus.jpg

"An American company has made history by becoming the first commercial outfit to put a spacecraft on the Moon." [1]

"The Odysseus mission is funded by NASA as part of their program to develop private industry to send instruments and supplies to the Moon." [2]

SGU 972                      SGU 974

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week

The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.

Robert Coveyou, American research mathematician

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, Leap year, AI Willy Wonka party[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, February 28th, 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: Hey, happy Leap Year Day tomorrow.

C: Eve.

E: Two days ago.

S: Leap Year Day Eve. Yeah. Yeah, this is a leap year, so we have a February 29th tomorrow, March 1st.

C: Happy birthday to all of you who are one-fourth the age of the rest of us.

S: Yeah. I do like when we get into March because that's the month that spring comes and then we're in the upper half for the analemma and it's good. It's all good.

C: Ooh, and daylight saving. Yeah.

S: Daylight saving.

C: It's reversed, I guess.

J: Evan always says this, a minute a day, right? Every year you say that, Evan.

E: I think I do. Maybe Bob does, but yes.

B: Yes, I see that quite often. I'm most happy for this day, for the 29th, because it puts us, Halloween, it puts it a day closer to the awesome, most awesome Saturday Halloween, which will happen in a couple more years.

E: Wow.

S: Bob, you going to do a Halloween party this year?

B: F yeah.

S: You have to make sure it's better than Willie's chocolate experience.

B: Nice segue.

E: What's Willy's chocolate experience?

B: I sent an email to these guys. This is all over Twitter. So this was some company in Scotland created this Willy Wonka experience.

S: The House of Illuminati is the company.

B: Yes, that's the company.

E: Oh, that's a reputable name.

B: They essentially – and you could probably extrapolate after this next sentence. They sent an AI-generated image of the event.

S: Multiple. The whole thing was AI-generated.

B: Yeah, I'm looking at one right now. That is just this magical wonderland of lollipops and beautiful images and lots of edible things. It's Willy Wonka. It's a beautiful image of a Willy Wonka room that you would expect in this extravagant, well-designed and created and expensive Willy Wonka attraction. The problem is, is that it was AI generated. And when people went there, they paid like $40. This was in Glasgow, $40 a person. When they went there, it was... Oh, my God. Imagine a warehouse that is sparsely decorated with mostly really crappy decorations.

S: Yeah, like a lollipop, like a – and singular lollipop.

E: Wow, what an immersive experience.

B: It was – Some of the printouts were even – they hung these things on the wall like they were like maybe printouts of some of the AI images and props here and there. Some of the props actually – somebody said, oh, this is like a college student party. And I'm like, no. Some of these props are actually – they look quite expensive. But they were so few and far between. It looks like so nothing compared to what was the AI imagined. People actually call the cops here. It was so bad. They called the cops. And of course, they did mass refunds.

S: Well, they claimed they're going to, but haven't been able to confirm that they've actually given a refund yet. None of the people who went there said, yes, I got a refund. Yeah, I mean it looks like – looking at the images, it looks like the event is over and they've 90 percent cleaned up and this is the dregs that was left behind.

E: Yeah. You know?

B: It was – I would have raised hell.

S: Total fail.

B: I would have raised hell. I think one of the takeaways is that if you're going to an event like this, first off, be on the lookout for promotional material that looks AI-generated. Even with spelling errors that you would totally expect from an AI-generated image. Spelling errors were all over the place. But I would say wait for reviews. Get some reviews before you pony up some good money for something like this that could – I think we're going to be seeing more of this. And there was one comment though. I read a bunch of comments online. One of the comments was the best. Apparently, kids were crying, right? And some people described it. They had a woman, this poor woman dressed as an Oompa Loompa, I guess, with this like laboratory equipment, like a weird laboratory equipment next to her. And people said it looked like a meth lab. So you see the words meth lab in a lot of these articles. But one guy had a response. One guy's reaction to this whole thing was he's like, of course, one could argue that a Willy Wonka inspired event that ended with angry parents and crying children is more authentic to Dahl's novel than any of the recent Wonka movies.

C: That's true.

B: Totally made me laugh.

J: Looking at the images. Oh my God. It's so bad. Like the, the candied up, super awesome AI generated images, like look just cool enough. And they could almost be real. Like it looks like that when they project like artwork onto the wall or a ceiling, like it has like a projection kind of look to it. But then you see the picture next to it. Where like, there's this super cheesy, like fake rainbow arch that they had. That looks like somebody made it out of paper mache. It's terrible.

S: Also, the actors who were hired, there were some hired actors. The night before, they get like a 15-page AI-generated incomprehensible script.

B: That they had to memorize in heaven cold.

S: Clearly, this was an organizational epic failure. The backstory may be interesting as to how it came to this. The company is described as dodgy and apparently has only one full-time employee. You know how those companies are, right?

B: Nice, Steve. Good one.

S: I think underestimated by an order of magnitude what would have been necessary to pull off the event as advertised. The expectation that was generated was way off the reality.

E: This is like Fyre Fest.

S: Yeah. Worse. But of course, it's entertaining for all of us on the internet.

B: Yeah. Ball pit levels.

J: Oh, my God.

B: This is terrible.

J: Looking at more pictures, it's like pathetic.

B: Steve, I read that the guy – maybe it's this one full-time guy you're talking about. I heard this one guy has a history of similar things of like using AI to generate revenue in this –

S: But he took it analog though. He thought he could use AI to gin up this warehouse with props scattered about. I mean, it was, anyway.

C: It's so weird when people don't think, like, obviously they're actually going to show up and I'm going to have to pull this off at some point.

S: That guy sounds like he's probably a scam artist. Either he's a scam artist or he is just grossly incompetent and unaware of how it works.

E: Do you guys remember – when you said $40 to attend this thing, this kind of lit up something in my brain. Joe Nickel used to talk about the scam artists that would travel around and do these drawings of dead people and stuff. And they would charge something around $40 and they would do it purposefully because apparently the laws are different and less severe if you charge kind of less money at a certain point.

C: Oh, interesting.

S: Is there a break point?

E: There's a calculation in there somewhere in which they know what they're doing is wrong, yet they'll suffer the minimum kind of penalties if they're either caught or arrested or prosecuted.

C: They're like, I'm a misdemeanor thief, not a felony thief.

E: Right, right. I wouldn't be surprised if that's part of this calculus.

Special Discussion: Alabama SC Decision (7:28)[edit]

  • [url_from_show_notes _article_title_] [3]

S: The other controversy that happened over the last week was the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are children, which is ridiculous on its face. But there's I've been engaged. I wrote about this on my blog. And so, of course, I've been engaged with debates with a lot of people about it. So apparently the fact that life begins at conception is basically already established within Alabama law.

C: Oh, so there's precedent for that.

S: So that's the starting point, right? The question at stake in this case was whether extra uterine fertilized eggs also count as children, right? Does the fact that they're not implanted in a uterus mean they're not a child? And they said, no, they could be frozen in a vat. They're still a child.

C: Well, and didn't it come? because somebody – I mean it was a tragedy. Like somebody accidentally destroyed a lot of – I think that's where all of this started, right?

S: A patient wandered into the area where they were – the vats were – the embryos were stored, decided I guess to take a look, pulled out a tray of frozen embryos, got freezer burnt because he didn't realize you can't touch things that cold. Dropped it, they shattered and basically destroyed three families' frozen embryos. So then they were sued for negligence, which fair enough. I think that was like, yes, they were negligent. But then they also said they also sued them for basically wrongful death under an Alabama law, like death of a minor law. Yeah, so this case basically said that this law applies because this law says just children, minor children – And it doesn't exclude extra uterine children, so we're going to include them. And, of course, they're assuming that child starts at fertilization. Like that's the assumption in Alabama legally.

C: That's insane.

S: So it's not just this one case coming out of the blue. This has been building in Alabama state law for a while. But it's still ridiculous.

E: Yeah, it sounds like they were just waiting for an opportunity for this to come up.

S: Frozen embryos. Yeah, this is of course the big anti-abortion debate. If life – if its personhood begins at conception, of course that makes all abortion murder, right? But even also some kinds of birth control becomes murder as well. Again, where do you – the implications – first of all, it would end IVF. You can't do IVF if – It's murder for a fertilized egg to be destroyed or to be discarded or to just not implant. You know what I mean?

C: Right. You don't implant every single one.

S: The process necessarily destroys.

B: Really? It's necessary?

S: Yeah. Oh, yeah. There's no way because you have to make more eggs than you can, than will be successfully implanted. There's no 100% implantation rate.

B: Right, but if you try to – I'm aware that sometimes they just put three, four, five eggs and hopefully one will fertilize. And sometimes more than that do. Like some people have had like six tuplets or whatever from this method. But if you put them in and they don't implant, then that's just nature. That's just nature taking its course, right? You're not like – you're not purposely destroying them.

C: No, but Bob, I don't think it's a function of just implanting every single embryo that you make. I think that a lot of embryos have to be made to find the ones that are going to be viable for implantation. Does that make sense? So there would be all of these other ones that you're discarding because they're not up to quality to even be implanted to begin with.

S: Yes, because you have to go through a whole process in order to produce eggs and then fertilize them in vitro. So they don't like make an egg and implant it, make an egg and implant it. They make a bunch of eggs, then they implant, implant, implant until one takes.

C: And they don't even implant all the ones they make because they're not all good.

S: That's what I'm saying. They'll implant a subset. Here's three or four. If none of them stick, we'll do another batch. So by necessity, they create more eggs than you're going to use. Plus also some parents may want multiple pregnancies, right? So they just make one batch. You could freeze them for decades.

J: Steve, what do you think about their claim though? I mean scientifically, where does this land?

S: So it's not a scientific question. That's the problem. They're trying to frame it as one. A lot of the defenders of it's a person, it's life, whatever. The thing is there's no question that it's a living organism, right? And it is human life. That's not the question. The question is, is it legal, morally and ethically a person? And there's no objective scientific answer to that. It's like, is Pluto a planet? First of all, there's a continuum from a single cell to a baby that gets born. The question is, what criteria are you going to use? It doesn't have a brain. It doesn't have organs.

C: It's not viable on its own.

S: It doesn't have anatomy.

C: It needs a host.

S: It's not viable on its own. It's not implanted. And so you could use any of these criteria to decide whether or not it's a person. And they're choosing, so they're kind of rigging the game up front without stating their major premise. They're saying, well, it is a human life. It's like, yeah, but that's not the question we're asking. You're framing it that way because, of course, there's only one answer to that question. But the question is not, is it a human life? It's, is it a person? And they're just arbitrarily – again, Alabama in law decided that they were going to define person as a fertilized egg. And that's a choice. It's not a scientific decision. And of course, most medical organization, institutions, professionals, whatever, do not agree that that's a reasonable definition. Again, it's not totally objective, but I agree. I think it's not a reasonable definition. You have cells. That's it. The potential to become a person doesn't mean you're a person.

C: And I think the larger context that we often don't talk about is that what we're focusing on are the "inalienable" rights of this clump of cells and wildly ignoring the rights of the host of these clump of cells. And I think this IVF question is even more – it gives even more sort of ammunition for these arguments because it kind of takes the quote mother out of it because we're talking about a Petri dish and we're talking – you know what I mean? Like these were in a freezer and that's where this conversation is happening. We're not talking about the rights of the mother at all. And oftentimes that's where we get held up in these sort of moral, ethical, legal debates because, of course, the sort of pro-choice movement there is about the rights of the mother. But is there even a mother involved when the cells have not yet been implanted?

S: But the other thing is the question of where is their decision coming from? Where is this notion that a fertilized egg is a person come from? It certainly doesn't derive naturally – or ineluctably[v 1] from any kind of scientific principle. It comes from this religious belief, the religious belief that the soul is implanted in the fertilized egg. That's it. And it's no coincidence that God was mentioned whatever, like 30 times in the decision, something like that.

B: Wow.

S: It's explicitly theocracy. This is a theocratic decision, and trying to defend it as scientific is complete nonsense.

E: And this is not a court's job to do this, to come up with this kind of interpretation on their own like this. They're supposed to be defending the laws that are passed.

C: Well, they didn't.

S: Well, they're claiming that they're doing that.

C: Yeah, because they're responding to a suit, right?

S: But – well, the law is already on the books. They're just saying does the law on the books apply to an extra uterine baby?

C: Exactly.

S: Child. That's what they're deciding.

C: This is how we interpret this law. That is what judges–

S: But, Evan, what they're doing though is they're choosing to decide that because the law doesn't exclude frozen embryos, it therefore includes them. But that's an arbitrary choice too.

E: Right. It's arbitrary. It's absolutely arbitrary.

S: Because you could decide that because it doesn't explicitly include them, it does not extend to them. You could flip the logic on its head and often that's what the originalists do, right? If the law didn't explicitly at the time refer to this thing, then you can't apply it to that. They're just turning it on its head. It's like, well, it doesn't exclude it, so we're going to say it's included. So it's legally dubious as well as being scientifically dubious.

J: Doesn't this though add – A huge level of complexity to all of the existing embryos that are in these deep freeze warehouses. According to these people, every single one of them is a person.

S: Is a child.

J: So what happens if – I don't know how long they last.

S: Decades.

J: Okay, but still. Okay, you put them in there. If they're going to be held for decades, which I doubt they are, but if they were even going to be held for decades, when it's time for them to, I don't know, essentially be disposed of – That's going to freak these people out.

S: That's murder, I guess, in Alabama.

C: Yeah.

J: So a family goes in. They're trying to get pregnant. They have four or five embryos that they put on the deep freeze and they pick one of them.

S: Yeah.

J: What happens to the other three?

S: Yeah, I mean it's more than that because they usually implant multiple at once. But yeah, they are saved in case they want another pregnancy. At some point, they say, all right, we're done and then they dispose of them. Or they could donate them for research or they could donate them for people who want to have a donated baby. But it's up to them. Like the parents own those embryos, right?

J: Clearly, there's a problem here, right?

S: Because again, IVF cannot function under this legal scheme, right? It's not functional.

C: Which is why everybody is pausing, right? Like everybody is like, what do we do at work?

S: Yeah, the IVF – yeah, institutions that are doing IVF in Alabama are on pause until this gets sorted out. And it's possible the Alabama legislature might come in and say, you can do IVF regardless of any other laws. You know what I mean? So they may just rescue IVF from this decision. But that won't really deal with the underlying problem. It will just carve out an exception for IVF to minimize the political fallout of their decision.

C: Which doesn't really make sense because the decision is based on IVF.

S: Yeah. It doesn't make internal logic. It doesn't make internal logic. It's like I likened it to Vermont's anti-GMO law that carves out an exception for cheese. Why? There's no internal logical reason to do so. It's because they didn't want to devastate the cheese industry, right? And Hawaii's – Hawaii's draconian anti-GMO laws carve out an exception for GMO papaya. Why? Because they can't live without the papaya industry. That's it. They just started insulating their ideological decision from the worst political ramifications of it. And that's what they're likely to do here is to insulate this decision politically from the whole fact that IVF is extremely popular even among conservatives, even among people who live in Alabama. A lot of the conservative politicians that have been asked about this over the last week had kids by IVF like Nikki Haley, right? And Mike Pence have had kids by IVF. What are they going to say? I got mine. Everyone else is screwed now. That's why they're just scrambling. They don't know what to say. So I suspect the Alabama legislature will sort of rescue the political disaster that this decision has created but without really correcting or addressing the underlying problem here, right?

B: That's absolutely what's going to happen. There's too much unanticipated political fallout for the conservatives.

S: I think the damage is done though. I think the damage is done. But we'll see. All right. Let's go on to our news items.

News Items[edit]

First Private Landing on the Moon (19:39)[edit]

S: Jay, you're going to start by telling us about a moon landing that happened recently.

J: Before I start my news item, let me ask you a very important question.

C: Yes.

J: Do you believe the moon exists?

E: Which moon?

C: Yes.

J: Exactly, Evan. Thank you.

E: There you go.

S: The moon.

J: Well, I read an article. This is a side note, but I have to bring this up because it's interesting. I read an article where they were saying that the Earth has more than one moon.

E: Yes.

B: It depends how you describe it.

E: There are certain – Define moon.

J: Exactly.

C: Comet?

E: Well, there are objects that are very large orbit around Earth, but they're like very small by comparison.

B: It's not just a very large orbit. It's a complicated orbit.

S: It's a complicated orbit.

B: You could argue that it's kind of orbiting the sun more than the Earth, but it seems to be orbiting Earth from one point of view.

S: You know, Bob, have you ever read, though, that you could argue from one point of view that the moon orbits the sun and not the earth? Because at no point, if you map out the moon's orbit, it's always concave towards the sun. It's never coming back the other way.

E: Oh, interesting. You know what I'm saying?

J: If you believe in the moon, then listen to what I got to say here. So a Houston, Texas-based company called Intuitive Machines, they created a lunar lander for NASA and they called it Nova C. Now, Nova C is the name of what the company called it. But when NASA uses the lander, when they deployed the lander, it's called Odysseus. So don't get confused because the names are interchangeable. Usually C, it's a Nova C Odysseus. But I would just prefer calling it Odysseus because it's a cooler name. So this is the name of the lander for a specific mission. So when they use the Nova Sea model again for yet another mission, NASA will give a different name to it, right? It's just going to be different every time they go.

S: Yeah, that was like a monopoly. They did that too. Every lander had its own name.

J: So Intuitive Machines, they specialize in autonomous systems, space exploration, and robotics. And this is one of the companies that NASA partnered with. So NASA's mission is actually called IM-1, and this launched on February 15th of this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The basic mission objective here was to land on the moon near the moon's south pole because this is probably the place where astronauts are actually going to go, so they want to get as much information about the south pole as possible. They're bringing scientific instruments to study the lunar regolith. And according to NASA, Odysseus successfully landed on February 22nd near the South Pole, about 190 miles from Malapert A Crater, which you could look up on the internet if you want to take a look at what that is. But did you guys hear... Everything didn't go exactly as planned. So what happened was they were having some problems with the laser guiding systems on the lander. And like the lunar regolith is not level. It's not like a field. You know, it's like–

C: Yeah, there's no landing strips there.

J: You're lucky if you find a flat enough area. So what happened was it came down and the lander tipped over. And when it tipped over, it landed on some of the equipment. This stuff isn't protected. If you see these landers and all the instruments that are hanging off of it, any lander that NASA has deployed – You know, it could easily get damaged. And it did. So, yeah, so a bunch of things happened. So, like, the remote camera that was on there, it's not working. They had a complete failure of the laser range finders, right? I guess this was going to scan the surface and probably look for better landing sites. Also, several of the antennas were crushed, and one of the antennas was the main data transfer antenna, and it significantly slowed down the data transfer, I guess, because it wasn't exposed. It wasn't pointing at Earth or just wasn't at the right trajectory or whatever. So they had some problems. It wasn't a complete failure. Just to think, again, I'll remind everyone how unbelievable it is to get this little craft from Earth all the way to the moon and land in a specific area on the moon. It's not easy. It really isn't. This is a testament to how hard this is. So there was 12 payloads on the lander. Six of them were provided by NASA. It's basically, to summarize them... They're preparing to put astronauts on the moon and there's lots of things that we need to test on the moon and we need to know more information about the moon, the moon's surface. Lots of different stuff. We want to measure like even measuring like spacecraft propellant levels in low gravity conditions, like all sorts of different tests that they want to conduct. So they have a really, really, really good understanding of what it's going to be like when we land modern ships that have people on them on the moon. And then we need to know where they're going to go, where they should go what the exact temperatures are going to be and everything. So there's a lot of details in all of these different modules that they have on here, but there's a few that stand out and I'll tell you the ones that I really liked. So there was an art installation on this lander by Jeff Koons, which is up on the moon now, which is really cool. They also had a disaster-proof data archive that was sent up by Lone Star Data Holdings. I tried to find out exactly what data they put up there. I couldn't find a very concise list or whatever, but it's pretty interesting. Let's put a whole bunch of important data up on the moon and just have it be there in cold storage or hot storage, depending on where it is and if it's hitting direct sunlight. Here's something that blew my mind. They said the lander's operational life is expected to be around seven days. This has got to be – yeah, I think it's because the solar panels were not in the right place. I was trying to get clarity on whether the solar panels were directly affected. It wasn't in the list of things that were said were affected, but I bet you the angle is off, right? Or they're in a crater that wasn't getting enough sunlight. So they're only going to have seven days of power. That sucks. Yeah.

E: What did the mission originally call for?

J: It could have just kept going. You know what I mean? Like they build these things and they don't know exactly how long they're going to last. But I think–

E: They have an expected lifespan for some of these things.

J: Yeah, they do. And this one was definitely not seven days. Like there was lots of activity that was supposed to happen with this lander. This particular mission is part of a $2.6 billion commercial lunar paid load services program, CLPS. And of course, this is all about getting the private sector and collaboration between different countries to all work on the effort to get people up on the moon. NASA is reassessing the CLPS contract with Astrobotic due to the previous mission failure, and now they have another mission failure. These are from private companies, and they don't have the experience that NASA does. It sucks to say this, but it's pretty much true. We learn an incredible amount from the mistakes that are made, and they're super expensive mistakes. But this is what it's going to take. We're trying to go to other celestial bodies. We're going to have failures, mistakes. Look, when we put people up in outer space, people are going to die up in outer space. We're going to have an accident or something that we didn't anticipate. And it's going to happen. So anyway, I am looking forward to more of these Nova Sea landers that are going to be going up. They're going to be putting up many more. This is like the beginning of a series of missions that are – they just keep doing it, right? We're seeing like these missions happen very frequently now. Every few months, it seems like something else is happening. There's a huge brushstroke here of finally getting people up to the moon and putting up a semi or permanent base on the moon.

S: Jay, I've read that one of the main experiments they're doing – I don't think I heard you say this – is they're going to measure how much blast the Regolith has from the landing and takeoff, right? Because one of the differences between Artemis and Apollo, Apollo landed – each landing was a one-off thing, right? But if we're going to have a permanent base where we're going to have landers landing and taking off over time-

C: Oh, from the same place.

S: Yeah, the same place. There's going to be other stuff around. And on the moon, there's no atmosphere. So the regolith is like traveling because of the blowback from the rocket. It's going like three times the speed of a bullet. And they keep going. They don't slow down. So it will sandblast everything in the area. So they need to know how far do we need to be away and what countermeasures will work. Do we build a wall? Do we put a net up there? They need to figure that out. That's a major problem that did not exist really for Apollo.

J: They need, I don't know, what do you call it, Steve? A landing pad. They need a landing pad.

S: They might need a landing pad. Yeah, exactly.

J: They've got to do it. And that's all part of Alpha Base 1, man.

B: Set off a nuke. That'll make a nice, flat, glassy surface for you.

S: That might be a little bit of overkill, but yeah.

B: Yeah, probably. I suppose it would.

S: All right. Thanks, Jay.

Sex Difference in the Brain (28:40)[edit]

S: So guys, have you seen this study? I think a couple of people emailed this to us. Study claiming to be the first one to show biological differences in the brain between men and women. Cara I'm sure-

C: Which is not true.

S: Well, let's take a look at the evidence that they're presenting.

C: I mean, it's not true that it's the first time they've ever shown it.

S: Well, I think there is one thing that I think is due Cara. We'll get to that. I know they always oversell it in the headlines.

E: Always.

S: All right. So to quickly review all the evidence to date, if you look at male brains and female brains, you see statistical differences. But what no one's been able to do in the past is to look at a brain and say if it's male or female, right?

C: Right, because the tails of the normal curve overlap so much.

S: Not just the tails. There's a massive overlap.

C: I just mean like if you're not looking at the first – like once you get to like the one degree out. You're right. Not the tails. But there is just massive overlap. But you can say statistically they're distinct.

S: They are distinct.

C: They overlap so much.

S: I think analogy is height, right? Men and women are statistically have different height curves. But you can't know if someone is a male or a female just by knowing their height, right?

C: Of course not.

B: Right. That's a great analogy.

S: That's basically been the state of brain research, yeah, there's statistical differences, but you can't tell male and female brains apart. There's more overlap. There's more overlap than there are differences. But also, and we talked about this, I think, a couple years ago. They did a survey of all the, like, a lot of different features to try to see if there was a pattern that was a typical female pattern or a typical male pattern. And the answer was basically no. That there isn't, you know, there's, yeah, again, there's statistical differences. There's a little clumpiness here and there. But there really isn't like a typical male brain or a typical female brain. There's just differences that are statistical but not definitive.

C: And to clarify, you're talking about structure, not function, right?

S: Well, yes, but they can – it could also be functional because like if you're using a functional MRI scan in the study, then you are looking at function. But yeah, it's mostly looking at anatomy, but it could be also correlating that with like functional MRI scan. All right. So this is what they did in the new study. They looked at the same kind of data, functional MRI scans looking at male and female brains, how they function in certain standardized situations. And then they threw in artificial intelligence, right? They used AI. And they trained the AI on the male and female brains. Like, here's a male brain. Here's a female brain. Right?

C: And everything you can about it. Yeah.

S: And then they tested to see if the AI... could tell the difference, could tell if a brain was male or female. And it was able to do so 90% of the time.

B: 90%?

S: 90%.

S: And that's the new bit, Cara.

C: That's really good. It shows, though, that there's still a big tail there of overlap.

B: Yeah, 100%, but damn.

S: Well, no, but again, this is looking at multiple features. Like each feature may only have a little bit of variance, but together you could tease out. Again, this is what AI is good at, looking at pattern recognition. But there's an important caveat here, and that is this study is agnostic to the question of whether or not these differences are genetic or cultural.

C: Of course, because these were adult brains.

S: These were adult brains. And sometimes that's framed as, are these sex differences or gender differences? And I know that relationship is complicated too, but is this because of the hormonal effects on the development of the brain? Or is this due to 40 years of socialization? And the answer is probably both. That's, I think, always a good first blush when you're talking about nature versus nurture kind of questions. And again, there's a complex dynamic interaction between the two things, between sex and gender, between nature and nurture. The brain is an organ that evolved to interact with the environment and to be plastic to respond and adapt at cultural level. You know what I mean? It's how we adapt faster than evolution can adapt us. That's what the brain is for in a way. And so you can't cleanly tease apart genetic and environmental factors. And this study wasn't even attempting to do that. It was just asking the question, if we train an AI on male and female brains, will it be able to tell them apart? And it could.

C: And the interesting thing is it can 90% of the time.

S: 90% of the time, yeah.

C: And that 10% to me is like, I want to go there. I want to get interested in the follow-ups. I want to see those 10% of people, what was their biological sex assigned at birth? What is their gender identity now?

S: Totally.

C: What's going on in their brains? That's fascinating to me.

S: And I would like to see this kind of study done explicitly on heterosexuals versus homosexuals versus bisexuals and on trans versus cis individuals. So people who are trans, how are they going to be? Is the AI going to think a trans woman is a woman or a man, right?

E: Oh, gosh.

S: That would be fascinating too, wouldn't it?

C: Definitely.

S: There's a lot of further study that this study provokes, which is always a good sign.

C: Because the brain is, there is something happening in the brain. We know this. It can't not be. The brain is the embodiment. Yeah, the brain is you. And whether, like we talked about, whether that's genetically predisposed or whether that is developed through experience and learning, the brain of a trans man is going to be wildly different than the brain of a cis man.

S: But there's another layer here, Cara, and that is where were the differences.

C: Exactly.

S: And the differences were in certain hotspots, they say, and those hotspots include the limbic system, which is where things like sexual attraction would be or whatever. So like a lot basically in the parts of the brain where we would kind of expect there to be a lot of gender sex differences. So anyway, so that's also fascinating. And as we get more and more resolution in terms of like what the differences are, like how is the AI telling the difference between the two? That's fascinating as well. So we're just getting started, I think, with this. This new layer of research into male-female brain differences and other kinds of brain differences too. Like we could do this on neurotypical versus autistic brains as well same kind of thing. Or ADHD versus non-ADHD, people who have schizophrenia or don't have schizophrenia, whatever. There's a lot of potential here to really see the differences in how brains are functioning in people with different conditions.

C: And also how they respond to medication will be really interesting. Like schizophrenia, I think of like, OK, we have a lot of good information about how different a brain of somebody with schizophrenia is than a brain of somebody without schizophrenia. But like depression is so hard because different people have different responses to different medications. It's likely there are multiple neurotransmitters involved. Some of it might be more situational. Some of it might be deeply functional. So yeah, that's – I would love to see that.

S: Yeah, yeah.

C: Sorry about that.

B: Steve, you said they got up to 90%. What could the best human expert typically do?

S: Zero. You can't tell the difference. Previous research has been unable to – even though we see statistical differences, you can't look at a brain and say if it's male or female. This is the first time anything has been able to do that.

E: Wow.

B: Yeah, but I mean – but you couldn't get an expert to get it like – 55%, right?

S: No previous study has shown that, Bob.

B: It was pure chance.

C: That's a coin flip anyway.

B: It's always a coin flip with a human expert.

J: Steve, how significant is this though? Like is this an important finding?

S: Oh, yeah. I think it definitely will – it's a new window into this very interesting question that is going to take us in the direction of a lot of follow-up research.

C: Yeah, and it almost like – it's super interesting for sex and gender research, but it's almost like more interesting just for discriminatory research in general with AI.

S: And as you say, Cara, like women and men like statistically are different in terms of their susceptibility to depression and anxiety and addiction and whatnot. So this will bleed into psychiatry and mental health significantly, right? Yeah. Cool.

Bee Venom for Breast Cancer (37:29)[edit]

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S: All right, Evan, tell us about bee venom therapy for breast cancer.

E: Yes, right. Read about that this week. Hey, I'm noticing a pattern: every three years, I bring up bee venom therapy. (Cara laughs) I don't know what it is. I don't know. I have to scratch this itch every three years. I did this last in 2021; before that I had talked about it in 2018. So I don't know. But, hey, this article was released just a few days ago. It's from DMIHER, the Data Mega Institute of Higher Education and Research. That's in India. And it was published by their Center for Advanced Physiotherapy Education and Research. And the title says, yeah, bee sting venom as a viable therapy for breast cancer. Yep. The authors were Aabhas Bindlish and Anupama Sawal. Here are a few highlights from the abstract and their conclusion. The potential impact of bee venom on breast cancer is the main subject of this analysis of the research article. Bee venom has drawn the attention of the world with the help of its constituent ingredients, namely the bioactive compounds, enzymes, and complex blend of proteins. They have a particularly varied chemical makeup and proven anti-cancer capabilities, which we'll talk about.

C: Can I ask you, Evan, was that a direct quote from the study or did you say namely? That's so funny because that's not what namely means. They didn't give us the names of any of those things.

E: So it's a translation. So I don't know how much is lost in translation here.

C: It just makes me laugh when you see this sort of like attempt to sound very scientific. And they're like, it's got these really important constituents, namely proteins and enzymes. And it's like, no, what are they, namely? I would love to know what those constituents actually are.

E: Yeah, right.

C: That's very funny.

E: And I'll mention one of them in just a little bit as soon as I get through what they're – I'm giving you what they're talking about first and then we can talk about the real details. B-Venom has given positive results in triggering apoptosis, preventing cell migration, inhibiting metastasis and invasion, and suppressing the existing breast cancer cells. It is found to have worked better along with the already existing chemotherapy treatments. I find that also interesting, right? How often do these things, alternative treatments, work in concert with proven treatments? And, of course, the alternative treatment gets credit for having the results. In any case, they said the results were also proved with the help of various animal studies that showed reduced tumor development, reduced metastases, and improve therapeutic effectiveness. I'll just jump to the end. Overall, in the end, we can say that B-venom might have some hidden potential as a therapeutic agent, but further study is required to understand its clinical utility and its real-life applications. which is a consistent footnote in about every study you'll ever, I think, see in the history of bee venom therapy. So yes, apitherapy, the use of substances from honeybees their honey, royal jelly, venom, whatever the bee is producing to treat various medical conditions. And it does take some different forms. The venom compounds can act as allergens. They cause the release of mast cell mediators, along with a spectrum of allergic reactions. You know, ones that can range from very mild, local swelling, to severe systemic reactions, anaphylactic shock, or even death. That's quite a range. So I guess it comes down to what? The melittin. And that makes up half of the dry weight of bee venom. And it destroys blood cells by breaking up their membranes. At the same time lowering blood pressure and causing histamine release. Steve, you once described it in one of your articles as cytotoxic, cell-destroying.

S: It kills cells, yeah.

E: Yeah. So how it – but does it have some sort of special ability to destroy only the cells – targeting the cells you want it to destroy other than the good cells?

S: Not as far as I can see.

C: Even most chemos don't have that.

E: Right, right. You're destroying all kinds of things along with the bad stuff.

S: Yeah, usually chemotherapy targets rapidly reproducing cells.

C: Which is why you like lose your hair and why you often have like – you might lose your fingerprints or have damaged your fingertips. Yeah.

S: Yeah. So we're always trying to target things that are different about the cancer cells from non-cancer cells. But none of them are perfect, right?

C: No. I mean obviously the ones that have molecular markers are a godsend. Like that's cool.

S: Yeah. Some are better than others. Yeah. And now the targeted autoimmune therapy – targeted immune therapy is really great because then you basically train your own immune cells against the cancer. So that gets even more specific.

C: But there has to be something about the cancer that is able to be targeted.

S: The B venom is a toxic brew of enzymes and toxins and nasty stuff. That's what the whole point of it, right, is to be that. And so there's no reason a priori to think that it would have any special affinity for cancer cells.

C: Especially if it's not engineered in any way.

E: Right.

S: Yeah, but sure. I mean, it's like, yeah, the bees evolved a lot of toxic things. Maybe there's something in there that we could exploit and turn into a pharmaceutical, absolutely. But just injecting bee venom into people is a pretty clumsy way to do it. And as you say, Evan, just to emphasize this point, the clinical trials are all small, open-label, adjunctive therapies. In other words, they're getting the bee venom, And chemotherapy. And it's not – these are like open label or case series or whatever, like the weakest form of evidence. The only thing you could say based upon these studies is that, all right, it's not completely unethical to do further research. But you can't make any conclusions about the effectiveness of B venom therapy from the data that we have.

C: Yeah. Especially because the studies are, like you said, so small. Like imagine taking one person who has a particular form of breast cancer and then another person matching them for their age and all of those, all these factors who has a similar form of breast cancer, giving both of them chemotherapy and one of them B venom. And then if the person with the B venom gets better faster or gets less sick or whatever, being like, it's because of the B venom and not like the thousands of other variables that make cancer a specific illness to the individual who has it.

S: Right. They haven't done that kind of randomized controlled trial that would control for the B venom as an isolated variable.

C: And even if they did, you almost can't unless you're working with cloned mice or something. It's very hard to do. You would need huge numbers.

S: Yeah, that's where the numbers and randomization come in. You can't get it with a small trial.

E: No, you can't get it. Right, right. And a lot of people, at least articles and things, are still pointing back to like a 2020 study that came out. Let's see. Researchers extracted venom from 312 honeybees and bumblebees, tested its effect on cancer cells, ultimately concluding that a specific concentration of honeybee venom can induce 100% cancer cell death.

S: Yeah.

E: Hey, look at this.

C: So does bleach.

E: That's impressive.

E: Yeah. And guess what?

S: It probably causes 100% cell death.

E: And also, hey, it's in vitro. It's in glass.

C: Of course. Yeah, you can add a lot of things to cells in vitro and kill them.

E: Of course.

S: There's that great XKCD cartoon with the guy standing over a petri dish with a gun. We could reliably kill cells in a petri dish. Doesn't mean it's an effective therapy.

E: I mean seriously. I mean if you go back, how many things have worked beautifully in glass that have never panned out?

S: Most.

E: When it comes to the–

S: 99 percent.

E: The vast majority.

B: Yeah.

E: The absolute vast majority of it. There are other institutions and scientists in India and elsewhere who are warning people, look, don't get overly excited about this, all the limitations, everything we've spoken about. Plus generally speaking, in a lot of cases – the risk outweighs the benefit here.

S: Yeah, it's all risk versus benefit.

E: You can have some horrible side effects as a result of all this.

S: That's the difference here. Like, again, if this were just, hey, we're studying some potentially toxic chemical to see if there's any cancer-specific activity we could leverage, that's all fine and good. But the difference here is that there's already a pre-existing infrastructure of using bee venom therapy as an alternative treatment, right? So this is not in a vacuum. And then this kind of research gets abused to feed into a snake oil industry, basically. So that's why you have to be very careful about how you do the studies and how you report them. And this write-up was very promotional. It was not the kind of responsible, careful, scientific verbiage that I would have wanted.

E: Definitely. Well, we'll come back in three years again and see if there's been any improvement.

S: See what they're up to. I wrote about this, Evan, I know you know this, like in the 1990s, Bee Venom-

E: You did.

C: Wow.

E: Yes, and there's an article from, my gosh, from our old newsletter that is online still.

S: So it's always like, yes, now it's 25 years later, and it's still in the preliminary research stage, right? I mean, real treatments would have emerged by now if there was something real going on there. We wouldn't be here 25 years later still talking about preliminary studies.

E: Of course.

C: Yeah, that's – yeah.

E: Oh, my gosh. And the real things that have advanced since then.

S: Exactly.

E: Since then. And what? You're going to go back to this and try to look for some sort of magic, magical property in a sense in this when you should be concentrating on a hundred other things that have much more promise.

S: If there was something there, a pharmaceutical company would have purified it, tweaked it, patented it, and made billions on it, right?

E: I agree.

S: That's what would have happened by now. All right.

Learning Empathy (48:02)[edit]

S: All right, Cara, let me ask you a question. Is it possible for someone to learn empathy?

C: A hundred percent. And I think that I chose a study to cover this week partially because it's one of those, well, duh, studies, like we already knew this, but also because I think it does kind of give us some important insights. So the study is called The Social Transmission of Empathy Relies on Observational Reinforcement Learning. There's a bit to unpack there, but it's, I think, a pretty accurate representation of what the researchers looked into. And so this was a group of, I think, four researchers from – it was sort of a hybrid group from Germany, China, and Switzerland. And when I say four, I mean five, five researchers. The lead author is a German woman from the Department of Psychiatry, Translational Social Neuroscience Unit at the University of Würzburg. Her name is Grit Hein. And what they wrote about is this idea of empathy as adults. And I think the new bit in this study that's kind of interesting is something that I think is really important, but I'm really bad about sometimes glossing over, which is the interplay between cognitive psychology and social psychology and neuroscience. So I'm going to get a little bit meta for a second. But one of the things that I struggled with as a psychology and neuroscience student throughout my undergrad and my graduate training was the way that different fields model or exemplify different constructs. So like a cognitive psychologist might talk about something that's happening very different than like a neuroscientist might, very differently than a social psychologist might. But we know that all of these things have to play nice together. And I think that this study does a kind of interesting and good job of packaging those things. The big question here, can you learn empathy, is sort of a non-question. And I don't like how some of the outlets that did coverage on this study framed it like empathy, often considered a fixed trait. That's like the first line in the neuroscience news. And I'm like, it is? By whom?

S: It's very common to emphasize the opposite. Like, we knew nothing about this prior to this. They always try to make the study itself as surprising and whatever is possible.

C: And it's so funny because it's like empathy, often considered a fixed trait. And I'm like, wow, one of the foundational aspects of the way that I do psychotherapy is talking about how empathy is a practice and it's something that you have to learn. It's not something that you're just like bequeathed by birth. I often liken empathy unto the Eric Fromm view of love, that love is a behavior and it's a practice. It's not a feeling. It's not an emotion. It's actually something you do, not something you feel. And I think that empathy, when we construct it in that way, it encourages and fosters learning and practice. And so what these researchers did is they did four different kind of studies. And in it, they tried to understand what was going on with individuals when they did or did not learn empathy. So sort of the main paradigm is that they showed somebody like a video of somebody getting hurt. And then they showed videos of individuals reacting to that. And the individuals were divided into two groups. There were the ones who reacted in a pro empathic way. And there were the ones that were like not empathic. And then they asked the people who watched the videos how, what they felt, right? And they found that individuals who watched other individuals watch somebody else and have an empathetic response to them tended to feel more empathetic. Individuals who watched somebody not be empathetic tended to feel less empathetic. And this, again, feels like a duh thing, but this is how you do research. First, you have to establish this, and that's what they did. The important part here is is not just that A, you can learn empathy by watching other people utilize it or practice it or model it. But B, you can learn it from people that are not within your kinship group, not within your family group. We all know that kids learn empathy by observing empathy, right? But these people didn't know the people. So they were like random people and they learned empathy on the spot or they improved their empathic responses on the spot. But then the researchers went further, and they said, I want to understand what's going on in the brain. And so they did a fair amount of fMRI studies to look at these regions to see if there was any sort of, if they were implicated. And really, they were following up on previous research. Previous research has shown a lot of different regions in the brain, like the mirror neuron system, which we can see in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the premotor cortex, the temporoparietal junction, the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex. But there's been some newer research that has implicated anterior insula. And so that's where they really wanted to target. And so they looked there and they saw that, yes, there was some good evidence that those who were practising or learning, those who were showing plasticity in this region were also showing higher empathic responses. So they are trying to operationalize what they call social transmission of empathy. How does empathy spread within social groups? And if we have a pro-social stance within, let's say, an academic institution, a work institution, a governmental structure, are we going to see across the board or downstream effects where empathy breeds more empathy? And it's – that's sort of the big outcome of this study is that, yes, if we foster empathetic environments, it's very likely that empathy will be cultivated and it will be improved across individuals. And they're saying, look, we think we know the pathway to achieving that. That's not necessarily new because it's probably been happening for ages, right? But they're trying to say, what's the mechanism here? How do we define this? But I do think that there is a massive limitation in this study. And that is that every single participant of the study was a woman. They did that on purpose. Because they wanted to reduce variance. But I would be – but now what I see in all of the coverage is that they're saying people can learn empathy. People – and it's like women, we know that societally are more – like we have – learning empathic behavior is more normative with women. We're trained it from a younger age. We carry the burden of it much more than men. And so is the magnitude of the – I'm not saying that this wouldn't translate. I do think that men can learn empathy. But I'm really curious. Would the magnitude be greater? Would it be lesser? I would hope to see that it would be even greater because the baseline is sometimes lower. And that's what I see oftentimes with at least psychotherapy is that people who are naive to psychotherapy, who go in with no tools in their tool belt, show massive improvements early on as opposed to those who have sort of been through it and done all the CBT stuff. And now they're still seeking like incremental improvements in their mental health. So my hope would be that if you studied this in men, that you might see more increase and improvement. But I don't know because they – that study hasn't been done. Luckily, the researchers do acknowledge that, and they say that subsequent studies that include mixed genders could be really, really interesting. They also didn't do a very big variance of ethnicities, but they did have, because this was done across those countries that I mentioned before, I think they had a large participant group that was both white and Asian, and a group that was both younger and older, and they saw no difference between those groups.

S: Yeah, this does make sense. And I think we've all experienced how the institutional culture, as you say, like a work culture or whatever, even like a group of friends totally affects your behavior in this sort of way. I recently thought of this as the Game of Thrones effect.

C: Okay, explain because I never saw Game of Thrones.

S: Yeah, so Game of Thrones, it's a brutal world where everyone is brutal and they keep saying, well, that's the way the world works. That's to justify their brutality. It's like, no, that's the way you work and you're part of the world. You are making it brutal, but it is self-reinforcing. There's a culture of brutality.

C: A 100%.

S: And yeah, so I think I get to experience this at different institutions, at different social places where there's there is a culture and how empathetic people are to each other definitely stems from that. And it makes sense to again, the brain is adaptive. If you're living in a social group that is very empathetic, you're probably going to be more successful socially if you are similarly empathetic. And you might have to be more aggressive or whatever if you're trying to survive in a culture that is very confrontational, very not empathetic, whatever the opposite.

C: Absolutely. And I think that this has ramifications, like you said, from the individual to the communal to the societal and beyond. And I think – I can't not say that like when we look at lots of different examples of historical atrocities, a lot of these psychological constructs – of like bystander effect or like learned helplessness or individuals who are sort of following the lead of other people's ideas or even the genocidal playbook, right? This idea like of dehumanizing the target of calling them things like animals of feeding this narrative that becomes normalized and other people. That is, that is by definition a manipulation of empathy.

S: Yeah. Yeah.

C: And I think that this directly relates to that.

S: And this doesn't mean that people don't differ in terms of their predisposition to empathy. And we know like psychopaths are very low on the empathy potential there.

C: Right.

S: Although they can sometimes learn to fake it.

C: Mm-hmm. Yeah, but I think that to think of it as like – I think it's done us a massive disservice to have this sort of Western ideology that either like you're just born with it or you're not. Like women are just better at it because that's how women are and like – it's not going to really help you in business, so you should probably work on not having it. I think that that's deeply, deeply detrimental.

S: It's counterproductive.

C: It's super counterproductive. It ends up being one of the biggest things that I work with people in therapy on is practising empathy towards their partners, towards their colleagues, towards their children, and even towards themselves very often because it is something they have to practice. It does not necessarily come natural to people, especially if it's never been modeled for them.

S: All right. Thanks, Cara.

C: Yep.

Brightest Object (59:45)[edit]

B: Bob, tell us about the new brightest thing.

B: So it's been roughly 185,000 minutes (Transcriptionist's note: approximately 128 days) since I've had my last black hole news item. So I think we're a little bit overdue here.

C: Did you actually calculate that, Bob?

B: Of course I did.

S: Of course he did.

C: I love it.

E: He designed an app that tracks it.

B: Of course, I round it down a little, but yeah, it's about right. So researchers reveal the most luminous object ever found in the universe, and you're going to listen to me talk about it.

S: Please?

B: This is not a star, but a beast of a quasar weighing in at 19 billion times the mass of our sun and 12 billion light years away. If you want to check this out online, the study is published in Nature Astronomy called The Accretion of Solar Mass Per Day by a 17 Billion Solar Mass Black Hole. So if you haven't noticed by now, I love extremes and record breakers in astrophysics. And this one is for the books. So this story starts with a point of light, ostensibly a simple star in the Milky Way. And it's called J05294351. And it really seemed like a star in our galaxy. It was certainly bright enough to be one. If you see something bright in the sky, you got to assume that this is within our galaxy. And you would be right, you know, 99.999% of the time. But then astronomers took a really close look at it. They looked using the European Southern Observatory's very large telescope in Chile. And they found that it was not in our huge backyard, either say hundreds or thousands of light years away. It was more than 12 billion light years away. And that's a B. That's a B, as in Bob, for billion, billion, 12 billion light years away. So if it were bright enough that we thought it was nearby, how bright would it have to be to be more than a million times more distant? And what is it even? No star could be that bright. Well, I mean if you read a lot of astronomy, it really can be only one thing. It's a quasar. It's talked about on the show a bunch of times, a massive black hole at the center of a galaxy that's actively eating up chunks of the universe. But before it swallows anything, though, all that food has to gather into a thin, hot accretion disk that swirls around the black hole drain before the final plunge into infinity. We have no idea what happens inside there. Well, our math breaks down. Maybe someday we'll find out. But it plunges into the black hole. So now it's that accretion disk that we're seeing from far away. That's what's lit up because it essentially converts gravitational binding energy into so much energy in the form of heat and light with amazing efficiency too. Amazing to be able to tap into that someday. OK. So even with over – how many quasars do you think we've discovered so far?

S: Ten.

B: A million. This number shocked me. A million. A million quasars.

E: A couple orders of magnitude.

B: So even among the million quasars that we've discovered, this one stands out. Its accretion disk kind of blew me away. Get this. Its diameter is seven light years. A seven light year accretion disk around the supermassive black hole. Possibly the biggest accretion disk in existence. Probably pretty good that that's – if not the number one in the universe, it's damn close. It has such a big active disk it creates radiative energy calculated at 2 times 10 to the 41 watts. 2 times 10 to the 41 watts. That's 100 duodecillion watts.

C: What?

B: Oh, come on. You knew a number like that was coming out, right? I can't just throw out–

J: Say that again?

B: 100 duodecillion. Duodecillion.

E: Duodecillion.

B: That's to the 41. So that's why it's 500 trillion times brighter than our sun.

'E: Don't look at it.

B: Other quasars were thought to be more luminous in the past. But it turns out – and I've even talked about one or two of them. But it turns out that they were – there was some gravitational lensing going on. So it was kind of like a false estimate. Gravitational lensing happens if there's a galaxy between the Earth and the quasar. It could distort the quasar's light and amplify it like a lens, making it seem much brighter. This quasar, though, has had that possibility ruled out. They're pretty certain that there is no gravitational lensing happening here.

C: Bob, I have a question, and I feel like you mentioned it, but you might have mentioned it like. I should know it, and I just don't. So you said it's like seven light years wide. So is the brightness of a quasar directly proportional to the amount of like crap it's eating?

B: Absolutely, absolutely.

C: Okay, all right.

B: Absolutely. It's that accretion disk that is most of the radiation that's hitting us. There could be some other effects, but it's that disk that's really throwing out all that light that we can see from 12 billion light years away.

C: So that means like the density of stars and planets and dust and just all the stuff that's going into that black hole is just high. There's just a super high density of actual atmospheric – not atmospheric, cosmic stuff.

B: Yeah, it's basically – primarily superheated hydrogen and helium. Everything gets kind of like decomposed and heated up into this superheated hydrogen and helium. And that emits UV and X-rays and light that we can see. So that's what's really shiny. And that's the only way we can see it over – we would never see it at 12 billion light years if it wasn't for that. So similar to how waste measurement often directly relates to number of meatballs eaten, a quasar that has the highest luminosity likely means that it's consuming matter at the highest rate of any other known quasar, right? If you win one award, yeah, chances are you're winning this other award as well. You're just eating – you're just eating – you're sucking down matter at a rate far higher than anything else if you're the brightest. It's a pretty safe bet. I mean it's a little bit more complicated.

E: Quasars got to eat too, you know.

B: Yeah. Okay. In fact, this was interesting. These researchers think that the supermassive black hole is accreting matter close to the limit allowed by the laws of physics. So of course, I had to take a little bit deeper dive into that. What does that actually mean? What are those laws? So what they mean is that this quasar is near what's called the Eddington mass limit, which is named after the English astrophysicist, Sir Arthur Eddington, famous guy, English astronomer.

E: 1919. Solar eclipse. Awesome.

B: Yes, very good, very good. He was the first to kind of prove that Einstein was right. Although if you look in – the details are fun because he didn't really prove it but he thought he did. But it got – he inspired interest in it because his margins of error were way too big for him to make any of the conclusions that he made. So he didn't really technically prove Einstein right, but we all know Einstein was right anyway. Okay, so Eddington, English astronomer, physicist, mathematician, and popularizer of science. I didn't know this. He famously announced and explained general relativity to the English-speaking world. He was one of the first to announce it and describe it. Imagine when general relativity first came out. People were like, what? What are you talking about? What's happening right now?

E: What language are you speaking?

B: People are confused today. It's really mind-bending in a lot of ways. So he was the first to popularize it, which is awesome.

S: And Bob, his alleged proof of Einstein with the eclipse and popularizing it, that's what made Einstein a superstar, the first scientist rock star.

B: Yeah, that was critical. That was critical to him being accepted. So yeah, it's kind of weird. He wasn't technically correct in his conclusions, but it was actually good that it actually happened. So I was okay with that. So this was – all right, named in his honor, the Eddington Limit. So this limit describes the balance of radiation that's pushing outwards and the inward flow of accreting matter for this accretion disk in this supermassive black hole. And this also applies famously to a star itself, right? Because a star has this limit of balancing. It has to balance the outward flow of radiation with the inward pull of gravity. That's the star's life. And when one of those fails, you're like – when gravity wins and there's no more radiation being created, that's when you have like an amazing explosion, one of the biggest explosions in the universe because that's what's happening because gravity won in that scenario, supernova. So, okay. So this limit would apply then to a quasar, for example, say if it swallowed a little bit more than what it's doing now because we think it's near the edge. So if it went over that edge by a little bit and ate a little bit more than this Eddington limit says that it should. Then it would create, of course, extra radiation, extra heat, extra energy would be created and that would be – that would just blow apart the accretion disk, right? Because it would just be too much and it wouldn't be able to handle it and it would just blow everything apart.

E: If it eats that wafer thin mint, it will–

B: Wafet thin.

E: You'll have an explosion. Monty Python.

B: And the same thing – right. The same thing would apply to a star. If somehow it just – it fused more matter than it should, then it would create so much radiation that it would blow apart the star itself and then everything would stop. So that's kind of like a hard limit. So one thing you may be thinking here that I was was that, all right, how does this quasar compare to others in terms of size and distance? Is there – what's closer and what's farther and what's more massive? So there are none brighter. As I've said, this is the brightest that we have found. But some quasars have an even bigger supermassive black hole. 18 billion solar masses is not the champ at all. There's some in the 30s, 35 and I think even in the 40s. There are some that are definitely more massive and they're actually more mysterious because they're actually older. They might be, say, what, 12 and a half or 13 billion light years away. So they're actually older and they're even more mysterious because we don't know yet how a supermassive black hole can get so big so soon after the birth of a universe. So in that sense, this supermassive black hole, this quasar is not as mysterious as some of these other ones. But Perhaps that is a topic for my next Black Hole Talk, hopefully before the next 185,000 minutes passes.

S: All right. Thanks, Bob. Jay, it's Who's That Noisy Time.

Who's That Noisy? (1:10:10)[edit]

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

[Wisps, clicks, and bell-like dings]


E: It's a robot woodpecker.

J: It's a crazy sound.

E: Right? It's a mechanical woodpecker.

J: I got a lot of big variety of responses on this one. So a listener named Ian Mahuika said, Hi, Jay. Listener since 2018 and patron since 2020. My nine-year-old daughter, Millie, loves listening to Who's That Noisy every week. Her guess for this week is a chainsaw being started in slow motion. I thought that was cool.

S: Not a bad guess.

B: I like it. Very creative answer.

J: Ian guessed is that it's some sort of pneumatic hand tool being spun up and down, which I thought was a good answer. Not correct, but very good guess. Another listener named Daniel Schechter, he gave me the pronunciation. Thank you so much. He said, hi, Jay. This week's noisy sounds a bit like a treetle. This is a foot-powered sewing machine. Back in the 1980s, he had a Singer treetle sewing machine that he bought at a farm for $8. Anyway, he goes on to tell me more about that. But that's a treetle is a foot-powered sewing machine. It was a cool little story. All right. Anyway, next guest comes from a listener named Tyler Eves. And Tyler said, this sounds like an object on a line slash reel being launched and then starting to be reeled back in with some sort of ratcheting mechanism. He said, my simple guess would be something like a heavy-duty commercial fishing rod reel setup. I've used, like, the big-style fishing reels. I've been on fishing trips a couple of times. I don't remember hearing anything like that, but you probably know better than me. But anyway, that is not correct. Listener named Matt Angrave, he said, he's thinking the noisy this week is a Kohler wind-up chicken toy from around the 1950s.

E: Yeah, see, mechanical bird. That's what I said.

J: Yeah, I looked it up, and it's a wind-up little desk-hopping toy. You've seen them, but they used to make them out of solid metal, not plastic. And I listened to it, and it did kind of sound like that, so this was a very good guess, but that is not correct. Someone else named Keely Hill said they think it's a Stirling engine. You could go look up what a Stirling engine is, but it's a little desktop engine that you could operate. That's not correct. I have a winner. The winner's name is Adam Jermaine Jones, and he said, Hi, guys. Love the show. I've been listening from the beginning. I just absolutely love what you guys do. Don't stop. We don't plan on stopping. I heard this week's noisy, and I knew I had heard that sound before. It took me a couple of seconds, but I realized that it was the sound of a penny stood upright in dry ice. So he is correct about everything. It wasn't a penny. In this case, it was a half dollar, but it doesn't matter. So someone takes a piece of dry ice. Then you take a coin and you push the coin into the dry ice and sublimation happens, right? Which means that the dry ice turns directly into a gas. And then what happens is you leave the coin there and it's still kind of standing upright. And then as it continues to sublimate the dry ice, it's pushing the gas that's being released is pushing the coin from one side to the other. It's going like that, going flopping back and forth in the groove. Here's the sound again. See, that's the coin going back and forth. Pretty cool. You can look that one up. That was a tough guess, and I'm shocked that somebody got it. So good job on that one, Adam.

New Noisy (1:13:49)[edit]

J: I have a new noisy sent in by a listener named Jay Novella. That's me. I came up with this noisy.

E: Thanks for listening, Jay.

J: I thought this was really cool. Yes, I love the show. Been there from the beginning. See if I'm going to give you guys a... I will tell you that you're going to hear two sounds, and you have to guess what's making the sound, and it's the same thing as making the sound in both of these. Are you ready? Okay.

C: Yes.


J: Did you hear the second one?

E: Yes, there was kind of a thud.

J: Yeah. All right. So just to clarify, the same exact thing, doing the same exact thing, made both of those sounds. Tell me what it is and try to explain to me why and how. Right? Understand? Thank you.

C: Yep.

J: If you can guess what the hell is going on in that, or if you heard something cool, email me at

Announcements (1:14:58)[edit]

J: Steve, I got a few things I'd like to say here.

S: Sure.

J: One is that I still like your haircut and I think you're a good guy.

S: Thank you.

J: So, okay.

B: See that coming.

J: So we recently added seats to our Dallas private show. Yes. This is a live recording of the SGU. I believe that right as we speak, there's about 40 seats left. I added 100 seats to the show. So you can go to You'll see a button on there that says Dallas Private Show. That is a live recording of the show. And then it's an extra hour of us doing some fun stuff with the audience and hanging out and socializing. And we also have a guest. Evan, who's our guest?

E: Special guest at our live show in Dallas is going to be Dustin Bates, lead singer of the band Star Set, who is a science enthusiast just like us. And he's coming on the show to join us.

J: Yeah, I'm really looking forward to getting a chance to talk to him. So that's The Private Show. There are still tickets left also for the extravaganza. I think there's like about 100 tickets left for the extravaganza. You can go to the SGU website as well,, and there's a button on there that says Dallas Extravaganza. Now, we are also doing two shows in Chicago. We're doing an extravaganza and we're doing a private show. Now, guess what private show? Guess what numbered show that private show is going to be?

E: You mean for SGU?

J: Yes. It is our 1000th show and we're going to do it live and we're going to do it in front of an audience.

B: Wow.

E: Wow.

J: And it's going to be a very special, very extended show. I think we're all kind of agreeing right now. It's probably going to be a four to five hour thing that we do. We have a lot of internal talking to do. But I'm going to be – over the course of the next six months, I will be inviting special guests that are going to be – that we'll have virtually. They'll come in over the computer. And we're going to do a show. We're going to talk about our show. We're going to talk about our experience on our show and give you some deep thoughts on everything that we think about the work that we've been doing here for the last almost 20 years. My God, guys. Anyway, it's going to be really awesome. However, you cannot buy tickets to that show yet because I need to do a little bit more work before I create those tickets. We have to basically figure out all the details before I'm going to decide on what it's going to cost and where we're going to have it and everything. But that should be happening soon. But you can buy the extravaganza tickets. And just so you know, the VIP tickets are already sold out. But please do go to the website. Join us. We're going to have a great year, guys. We have a lot of shows planned this year. We're also going to be in Vegas, Steve. You want to talk about that?

S: Yeah, we're going to be at PsyCon this fall.

J: October, correct?

S: We'll be there in a few years as a group. Yeah, that's in October.

J: So we will all be there.

S: Yeah, that'll be October 24th to 27th.

J: And George, by the way, is joining us for all of the shows that I told you in the last five minutes.

S: He's with us on all of them because George – Yeah, because he hosts the Extravaganza, so he's got to be with us.

J: Yeah, which is great because we always have a blast.

S: Yeah, absolutely.

J: And also, if you can't make it to any of these shows and you do appreciate the work that we do, please consider becoming a patron of the Skeptic's Guide. You can go to You could become a member of our awesome community. We have people on discord, they're having constant discussions all the time and you know I've come to know a lot of the people that are a part of our patron group and we just have a wonderful group of people. so it's a lot of fun and you can make friends. it's a great place to go. anyway Steve take it over man.

S: Well Evan's going to take it over. Evan you're doing your quote game.

Potent Quotables (1:18:37)[edit]

E: We do have a quote game this week. This week's a little special. It's kind of a theme. I'm calling this week's game Misquotation Marks. I'm going to give you guys five quotes that are famous misquotes. Now, that is to say, they've been incorrectly attributed... Or the quotes themselves have been perverted from their original. Or both. Or both. In some cases. So a little bit of a different take on the quote game this week. And we've got five of them. So you've likely heard these before. Let's see if you can suss it out. All right. Here we go. First quote. "Well-behaved women rarely make history." Who said that? I'll give you three choices, A, B, and C. Is it A, or was it A, Marilyn Monroe, movie star, the 1950s? Laurel Ulrich, a Harvard professor from the 1970s? Or Agatha Christie, author in the 1960s. And I'm going to give you the decade for all these going forward. So you kind of have a frame of reference, a time to sort of pin this to. And Bob—

S: Now, Evan, to clarify, we are just supposed to say who actually said it, not who it's misattributed to.

E: That's correct. We need the actual person who said the quote. And if there's a case in which the quote is misquoted, as part of the reveal, I'll give you the correct quote as part of that. Okay.

S: Do we get extra credit if we say that the quote has been misquoted?

E: Sure, extra credit. Absolutely. Double your victory points for this game. Hey, Bob.

B: Yes, sir?

E: You get to start. Do you need me to repeat the choices or the quotes?

B: No, this gives me a Marilyn Monroe vibe. I'm going with her.

E: Okay, Marilyn Monroe. We'll go next to Jay.

J: Well, first of all, I've seen this quote on the internet. It's a meme. I've seen it a million times. Oh, yeah. I just can't see. I don't remember hearing Marilyn Monroe say anything like this, so I don't think it was her. And who was the third one?

E: Agatha Christie. Agatha Christie.

J: I don't know. This doesn't feel like Agatha Christie to me either. All right, I'm going to go with the other one. I'm going to go with, yes, I'll go with Laurel Ulrich.

E: Harvard professor. Steve will go next.

S: Yeah, Bob, I had the same reaction that you did, thinking that, well, didn't I see that attributed to Marilyn Monroe? But I'm thinking about maybe that's the misattribution.

B: Yeah, could be.

S: I think that it sounds mainly like a political statement, so I'm going to say Laurel Ulrich.

E: Okay, and Cara.

C: I'm sure you can't answer this because I'm going last, but you said she's a Harvard professor.

E: Yes.

C: Of what?

E: Looks like – I don't have all my notes on it, but I believe it's history.

C: Okay. Well, then I'm going to go with Laurel Ulrich.

E: Okay. Laurel Ulrich. Okay. Bob said Marilyn Monroe. Everyone else guessed Laurel Ulrich. The correct answer is Laurel Ulrich. Yes, and yes, Marilyn Monroe is the person to whom this quote is misattributed. This is the correct quote, though. Laurel Urich, she coined it in a scholarly paper she wrote about eulogies for women in pre-Revolutionary War America. So there you have it. All right, moving on to the next one. Here's the quote. "The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." Who said that? You may have heard that. Who said that? Was it A, Harlan Ellison, who's an author, wrote it in the 1980s. Was it B, Frank Zappa, musician, said it in the 1970s. Or was it C, Albert Einstein, a scientist, who said it or wrote it in the 1940s. And this time we're going to start with Jay.

J: I mean, I got to go with Frank Zappa. That is so him. I could totally see him saying that. That's got to be the answer.

E: Steve?

S: Yeah, I was going to say Harlan Ellison.

E: Okay. Cara?

C: Probably not Einstein, but it sounds like something Einstein would say, so let's spread it out. I'll say it was Einstein.

E: Okay. And Bob, you get to break this tie.

B: Totally sounds like Harlan Ellison.

E: Bob thinks it's Harlan Ellison, as does Steve. Jay, you think Frank Zappa. Cara thinks Albert Einstein. It was Harlan Ellison.

J: Oh, damn.

B: Yeah, baby.

S: Misattributed to Einstein.

E: Misattributed to Einstein. Einstein in the 1940s said this, two things are infinite as far as we know, the universe and human stupidity.

B: Yes.

C: Right? Okay. So it's similar.

E: So it's similar. Right. Frank Zappa said this, there are two things on earth that are universal, hydrogen and stupidity. Okay. He didn't say elements, right? But it was Harlan Ellison in the 1980s. I think it was like a group of his writings from the early 80s. Apart from hydrogen, the most common element in the universe is stupidity. Tricky. Moving on. Third one. You've heard this one. "A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes." Who said that? Or wrote that. Was it A, Ann Landers, columnist from the 1950s. B, Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, set in the 1940s. Or Jonathan Swift, an author from the 1710s. And Steve, we're going to start with you.

S: I thought that was commonly misattributed to Mark Twain.

C: Everything is.

S: I thought that was going to be the fake one. But Winston Churchill, I mean, it sounds totally like Winston Churchill. I may have seen that attributed to him, but that's probably the false attribution. Swift was a satirist. So I'll go with Swift.

E: Okay. Cara?

C: Yeah, I was going to say the same thing. He probably said that really early and then Churchill probably used it or used some variation of it.

E: Bob?

B: Yeah, it sounds like Swift.

E: And Jay.

J: Damn. It does sound like Winston Churchill. Yeah, I'll go with him.

E: Winston?

C: Oh, you're going with Churchill?

S: Yeah.

B: Yeah, I almost did too.

E: The correct answer is, in fact, Jonathan Swift, author from the 1710s. The quote itself is also misquoted. He wrote, falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it. And it's been kind of twisted and bastardized since then. And yeah, Winston Churchill said something similar and Landers had written something similar also, but the original attribution is to Jonathan Swift. That's where this phrase first was born. Fourth one, here we go. "Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease." Who said or wrote that? Was it A, Margaret Atwood, author in the 1980s. Was it B, Posey Simmons, a graphic novelist from the 1980s. Or was it C, Marilyn Duckworth, a novelist and poet from the 1980s. And now we start with Cara.

C: I mean, who knows? So was it one of three different women who wrote books in the 80s, two of whom I've never read?

E: Yes.

C: Okay. I don't think it was Atwood unless she was quoting somebody. Like it was a character of hers. It doesn't sound like her point of view. So who are the other two?

E: Posey Simmonds. That's S-I-M-M-O-N-D-S. And Marilyn Duckworth.

C: I'll go with Duckworth.

E: Okay, Bob?

B: Duckworth, because I like that name.

E: Okay. And Jay?

J: I would go with Atwood.

E: Atwood. Steve?

S: That sounds like I have no idea who these people are, unfortunately. So I'm just going to go with The Poet, which is Duckworth.

E: Okay. And anyone who said Marilyn Duckworth is correct. And that is the correct quote from Marilyn Duckworth. Now, Posey Simmons and Margaret Atwood each had a quote similar to it, but not exactly.

C: Do you know what Atwood's was? Do you have it?

E: Atwood's was life is just another sexually transmitted social disease.

C: Yeah, that sounds more like Atwood.

E: And Posey Simmons wrote life is a sexually transmitted disease. But Marilyn Duckworth said life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease. The word terminal. Last one, guys. "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt." Oh, I'm sure we've heard this one before.

S: I've heard that one many times.

E: Was it A, Abraham Lincoln, B, Franz Kafka? Oh, I'm sorry. Abraham Lincoln, U.S. president, 1850s. B, Franz Kafka, novelist, 1920s. Or C, Maurice Switzer, author in the 1910s. We're going to start with Bob.

B: I'm going to go with Lincoln on this one.

E: Lincoln. Jay?

J: Wow, you went with Lincoln, huh, Bob? Yes, I did. All right, I'll go with Lincoln.

E: All right. Steve?

S: Yeah, I think I've heard it attributed to Lincoln, but I'm going to assume that's the false attribution. I'll say Switzer.

E: Okay, and Cara?

C: Yeah, and that's funny because I was going to go the other way. I thought it sounded a little bit Kafkaesque, but I think Switzer predates him, so I'm going to go with Switzer.

E: And the correct answer is, in fact, Maurice Switzer.

J: Of course it is.

E: And it's a misquote as well. Maurice Switzer in 1907 from the book Mrs. Goose, her book, wrote, It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool than to talk and remove all doubt of it. So the popular quote is a truncated version.

S: Just tightened up a bit.

E: So we have Steve. I think you got them all.

S: I did.

E: Is what it looks like. So you are the misquotation marks champion this week. Very good.

S: Thank you.

E: But you all did very well as far as I'm concerned.

J: No I didn't.

E: It was not easy. It was a tough one. Bit of a twist.

J: I don't mind.

S: All right. That was fun, Evan.

J: Thank you, Evan.

E: Thank you, guys.

J: Yes.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:28:56)[edit]

Correction #1: Oats consumption math error[edit]

S: All right, we have a quick correction before we go on with science or fiction. So last week, I talked about the chlormequat in oats. And remember we talked about how much you would have to eat every day?

E: Yes, 85,000, was it pounds or tons?

S: Yeah. So I made a boo-boo. That was in error.

B: Steve messed up.

E: It's more.

S: I did a math error. I think I must have – I don't even know what I did, but I must have gone the wrong direction with the units, translating units, because everything was in different units. You know what I mean? I think I just did it on the fly rather than converting them all first. Whatever. It was a dumb mistake. So the real answer is – you guys actually were very close in your guess. You would have to eat about 12 kilograms every day in order to get up to the lower limit. Yeah. Still a huge amount. What is that? 25 pounds of oats every day. You could never eat that much. And again, that's to get to the lower level of tolerance, which is probably one or two orders of magnitude below where actual stuff happens. So it is still several orders of magnitude less than what people are likely to be exposed to.

E: And you'd have to eat that every day for how long to have?

S: Well, just that, that's the target to maintain that level, the dangerous level. You'd have to do it every day because it's rapidly removed by the kidneys. So you would pee it out and your levels would drop back down fairly quickly. It does not bioaccumulate, right? So some toxins, they think, oh, it's a very low dose, but it accumulates over time like you'd store it in your fat cells or whatever. But this one doesn't. You pee it out quickly. So it's like actually not a good target for this kind of fearmonger.

E: And you would suffer other health problems even if you just ate that, right?

S: You can't eat 25 pounds of oats every day. I don't think you can eat 25 pounds of anything every day.

E: Yeah, I don't see how you could do it.

S: And the Genetic Literacy Project also wrote a good article about the same exact thing, characterizing it as essentially a media publicity stunt by the Environmental Working Group. Okay, let's move on with Science or Fiction.


Science or Fiction (1:31:08)[edit]

Item #1: A recent review finds that male psychopaths outnumber female psychopaths 10:1.[8]
Item #2: A new study finds that boiling tap water for 5 minutes removes up to 90% of nano and microplastics from the water.[9]
Item #3: Using AI scientists have developed a method for atomic force microscopy of material surfaces with resolutions below the width of the microscope probe tip.[10]

Answer Item
Fiction Male & female psychopaths
Science Boiling removes plastics
Atomic force microscopy
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Male & female psychopaths
Male & female psychopaths
Boiling removes plastics
Male & female psychopaths

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real, one fake, and then I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. Just three news items this week. You ready?

E: Ready.

S: Okay, item number one, a recent review finds that male psychopaths outnumber female psychopaths 10 to 1. Item number two, a new study finds that boiling tap water for five minutes removes up to 90% of nano and microplastics from the water. And item number three, using AI, scientists have developed a method for atomic force microscopy of material surfaces with resolutions below the width of the microscope probe tip. So obviously that is a form of very, very small detail microscopy used to look at the nanostructure of surfaces to see how they're formed and if there's any imperfections or whatever.

C: We have nanomicroscopes?

S: The atomic force microscopy.

B: Atomic force.

C: Yeah. Is that nano? I guess. Okay.

B: Oh yeah.

S: All right. Evan, go first.

Evan's Response

E: Okay, a recent review finding male psychopaths outnumber female psychopaths 10 to 1. Well, we just – I don't know if this relates to the brain issue we talked about earlier. I mean if there's a bunch – if there's overlap like we've discussed, then that would lead me to believe that the ratio here is off. It wouldn't be 10 to 1. It would be something else. But maybe there's – but again, the environmental considerations, exterior, external considerations is is that what would force this ratio to become 10 to 1? Or is psychopathy? Is that a thing?

S: Yep, that's right.

E: Psychopathy is it a purely a brain contained within the brain itself? And brain chemistry? I don't know enough about that. I'm questioning that one. The second one, boiling tap water for five minutes removes up to 90% of nano and microplastics from the water. So if it's-

S: They call it NMP, NMP, nano microplastics.

E: So if it's removing it, it's boiling it out, I guess turning it into part of the steam that – I mean, is that how it would get out of the water? That's how it would have to leave the rest of the water? Can you get microplastics into steam to be part of the steam that carries it away? I suppose you could because you can have like dust particles and things. In steam. I don't see a reason why you couldn't. So I'm leaning towards that one maybe being science. And the last one about AI scientists. They've developed a method for atomic force microscopy. Material surfaces with resolutions below the width of the microscope probe tip. A method. So it's about the method they use, not the device itself. It's how they're using the device. That would be the method. So, sure, yeah you get better at any kind of tool. I suppose you can find different unexpected ways of going beyond what you think its capabilities are. So I have a feeling that one's actually going to be science as well. I'm left with the psychopaths one, leaving the most doubt in my mind. I'll say that one's the fiction.

S: Okay, Jay.

Jay's Response

J: The one about boiling the water, if this one is true, if we have to boil tap water for five minutes, that's a long time to boil water with the quantity of water that we'd have to boil to do it. It's unfortunate that it would take that much energy to remove up to 90%, but okay. I mean I could see that working somehow. Like I could see that maybe there's something happening in there chemically that would do that. The one here, AI scientists that developed the method for atomic force microscopy. Say it, Steve.

S: Microscopy.

J: Microscopy. Okay.

C: I love you, Jay. I love you so much.

S: Not my rhythm, Jay. Microscopy.

J: Microscopy.

E: Microscopy.

S: Microscopy.

J: Microscopy.

E: Two hard Cs.

C: Yeah, there you go.

J: Yeah, I just feel like that one is science too because I could see – I'm expecting AI to do this exact thing. So when I go to the first one, it doesn't really make sense to me that men would ten to one – That doesn't make sense. I would think it would be much more evenly split. So I think that one is the fiction.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response

B: All right. Atomic force microscopy. Yeah, this kind of makes sense to me. I mean, doesn't the AFM – doesn't it use quantum tunneling? I mean, and if I'm remembering that right, then what difference does it make, the width of the tip? So – Yeah, but I haven't looked through any of that in so long. Yeah, tap water, removing plastic. I'm not sure what the mechanism would be. I mean, transporting the bits to the surface and what, throwing them into the air to breathe in? That doesn't sound great. I mean, if it... does work that would be kind of nice to be a way to because what did I read recently? They found microplastics in every-

E: Every living organism?

S: Placenta.

C: Placenta.

B: Every placenta that they tested. Every damn one. It's like oh my god, enjoy your new life with microplastics. So I don't think we're lucky enough to have that work. So I'm going to say the microplastics is fiction.

S: And Cara.

Cara's Response

C: Oh, interesting. Okay. So for me, the microplastics one feels like the most like, yeah, that makes sense. Cause I could see boiling cause it's nano and micro. So they're pretty small and I could see boiling them somehow volatilizes them or something. And they go up in the steam. That would be my assumption. So like, yeah, exactly. Well, hopefully it goes up the vent and then yeah, it goes. But, or a filter in the vent or something, but yeah, I can imagine that if you boiled it in a pot with the lid on, maybe that would undermine this. So I'd be interested in the, in the details of that one. So that left for me between the psychopathy study and the AI atomic force microscopy, which I have no idea on the microscopy one. That one is surprising to me, but maybe. The psychopathy one I think is the one that bothers me the most because – I have been studying for my EPPP, which is the Licensing Exam in Psychology. I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the conventional knowledge was that it was something like one to six, or sorry, six to one, male to female. But this is a recent study. So maybe it's trying to tell us that it moved in a different direction. But my guess would be that it's more common in women than we assumed, not less. So I'm going to say it's going in the opposite direction, this study. I'm going to go with the rest of the guys other than Bob.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: Okay, so the one you all agree on is number three. Using AI, scientists have developed a method for atomic force microscopy of material surfaces with resolutions below the width of the microscope probe tip. You all think this one is science, and this one is... science.

B: Tell me about it.

S: It's all safe so far. So the limiting factor, Bob, was the probe tip itself, right?

B: Really?

S: Because that introduces an artifact into the images. Basically, you have the image of the probe tip screwing up the microscopy. So what they did is they trained AI to essentially systematically remove the probe tip from the images. So you get these much higher resolution, cleaner pictures that actually reflect the features at that scale. So you get to see detail that's smaller than the probe tip because without doing that process, the probe tip would obscure any features smaller than the probe tip. Does that make sense?

B: Yeah. So the extremely high resolution images are now even more-

S: Yes.

B: Resolute.

S: Extremely high resolution. Yeah, exactly. I got to tell you, you know I look through hundreds of news items in doing science or fiction and the ratio of AI news items is dramatically increasing.

B: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

S: It's so many.

E: So is your NVIDIA stock.

S: Yeah, right?

B: Oh, my God, man. I should have bought that crap.

E: Me too.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right. Let's go. I guess we'll take this in reverse order. A new study finds that boiling tap water for five minutes removes up to 90% of nano and microplastics from the water. Bob, you think this one is the fiction. Everyone else thinks this one is science. And this one is...

B: Say it.

S: Science. Sorry, Bob. But it does not remove them. It does not remove them by evaporating them, right? They don't go up in the steam. So would anybody have another hypothesis how it might be removing?

B: It goes into a sub-dimension.

S: So I'll tell you. I'll give you another piece of information.

C: Is there a layer on top that you can peel away or something? I don't know.

B: It sticks to the side of the–

S: They're getting closer.

C: It's clumping together somehow.

E: Oh, it brings it all in into a ball.

S: It's clumping into what? What is clumping with it? Something else is clumping it.

C: The impurities in tap water.

S: Yes, the minerals in the tap water. So like specifically the calcium. So you form like this calcium scale[v 2][v 3], right, on the surface of whatever you're boiling the water in and the microplastics and nanoplastics. Get – adhere to that. They get incorporated into this scale. So I said up to-

B: So you boil water and then you got to skim it like you're skimming fat off of something?

S: So most of it is adhering to the sides of the vessel, right?

C: Oh, right. When you have a tea, like – yeah, if you use tap water in your tea kettle, you get scale in your tea kettle.

S: Yeah. So it would be basically in the scale.

J: Could people come up with a way to just filter filter it out once that happens?

S: Yes. Yes, Jay. So they said you can also run it through like a coffee filter for any free floating bits.

C: That's good.

E: Smart.

C: But nobody's going to do this.

B: No. Embrace the plastic. It is part of us.

S: This is more of a proof of concept than a practical solution. But the up to 90% is because it depends on how hard the water is. Hard water gets you 90%. Soft water, meaning less minerals, gets you as low as 30%. So it's between 30% and 90% depending on how hard the water is.

B: Oh, my God.

S: But most tap water is fairly hard if you're not pre-filtering it.

C: Because most of us don't boil our tap water before we drink it if we live in the U.S. or other developed nations where it reaches certain safety levels and we don't have to because we won't get sick from drinking it. But a lot of people like myself, I have a filter unit on my tap. So I've got a hot unit that boils the water and it comes straight out of my tap. It's amazing. And then I've got the cold. Yeah, I have a hot and cold water tap.

B: Yeah, but it's actually close to boiling?

C: It is, yeah.

B: That's awesome. I would love that.

C: You can change the temperature. It's amazing. So I never have to boil water for tea. It's the best thing. No, it's got a safety mechanism so you can't burn your hands. Anyway, and then the other one is a room temperature one that's on a completely different system. That's just like a multi-phase water filter just to make it taste better. I wonder if any of that plastic is being filtered out or if I'm just drinking it all.

S: I don't know. But I'll tell you. None of us would think, oh, I'm going to boil all my water.

B: Oh, my God. Screw that. I'd rather have the plastic.

S: But I remember when we were feeding our kids formula when they were babies, we would boil and filter the water.

C: Okay. Well, that's good.

S: So I could definitely see parents doing this. Like just do it for a full five minutes and then use some kind of like Brita filter or whatever before you use that water to make your formula. That absolutely can happen. And it's good to know that will remove the microplastic.

E: Put it in your plastic bottle.

C: Especially considering – we still don't know how much microplastics affect our health.

S: Yeah, we don't.

C: That's an open question. But it's probably likely that if they do affect our health negatively, they do it in a more severe way with a baby. You know, generally speaking, things affect babies more. So it's probably not a bad idea.

J: So this might be a stupid question, but is that happening like in my groundwater, like in my house?

S: You mean do you have microplastics in your groundwater? Absolutely.

E: They're in you right now.

C: They're in your blood.

B: Jay, they're in your uterus, in your placenta.

E: That's right.

J: I thought I felt that. So, hey.

B: In fact, they could be causing you to grow a uterus and placenta growth.

C: That's when we went from science to fiction.

S: All right.

B: Nobody knows what this is doing to us.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: Good cue to move on. Let's go back to item number one. A recent review finds that male psychopaths outnumber female psychopaths 10 to 1 is the fiction. Cara, very well done. You were correct. The standard... answer was 6 to 1, 6 to 1 male to female. The recent study found it's actually 1.2 to 1. And interestingly, you hit upon the reason earlier in the show and I had to like remind myself not to say anything. Because psychopaths were defined as male psychopaths, right? They were using the male manifestation of psychopathy as the standard. So, of course, that's going to match up better with male psychopaths. But when they removed the sex-biased features and looked at just the core features that were not sex-biased, it's almost 1 to 1. It was 1.2 to 1. So basically, the female psychopaths were hidden by, was an artifact of the methods that they were using, which were biased towards male psychopaths.

C: Because psychopathy is – I think we're getting to a point now where we can see psychopathy in the brain. Like we have a pretty good template for what psychopathy looks like.

S: Yeah. The empathy circuit is not there basically.

C: Yeah. And so – but what's difficult is that doesn't always manifest the same way behaviourally.

S: Right.

C: And so some people commit crimes and do – but other people have fully normal functional lives and don't even realize they have psychopathy.

S: Yeah, because they've learned the behaviors they need to survive and they don't know that they're just not feeling as much empathy as other people.

J: Steve, Cara, can you – if you're – I know that there's infinite shades of gray here. But can you learn to feel?

C: Oh, that's an interesting question.

S: Yeah, that's a good question.

C: And also what is feeling? What's the construct? How do we define it? But maybe – Specifically here – I mean everybody feels. I don't think there's any evidence that any human being on the planet can't feel. Even people with psychopathy feel. They just struggle with empathy. And so – but I've read some really interesting models of psychopathy that have to do with – so you've got this deeply genetic or deeply biological basis to psychopathy. Like the brain is very different. And then how people are raised – seems to have a massive impact on the behavior that comes later. So the criminality and the violence often happens when people are raised in such a way that there's not a lot of empathy in the home, that they're not cared for, that they don't trust adults, all those things. But people who are really fostered and loved, even though they still lack that circuit, tend to be less likely to have those behaviors that we often relate to psychopathy but aren't necessary for a diagnosis.

J: So it's partially developmental.

C: Yeah, but the brains are still the same, like everything. But their brains actually do still look similar. It's just how do they act. And that's fascinating to me.

S: All right. Good job, guys. Evan, give us a quote.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:47:35)[edit]

The generation of random numbers is too important to be left to chance.

 – Robert Coveyou (1915-1996), American research mathematician who worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory

E: This week's quote was suggested by listener Jeff from Reseda, California. Thank you, Jeff. Jeff wrote to us. He enjoys the show every week. He says here's one of his favorite quotes of all time because it's so witty. Cleverly makes a point that ought to bring a chuckle to anyone in the skeptical community. Let's see. "Random number generation is too important to be left to chance[sic]

this is a slight misquote

." I chuckled.

S: That's very clever.

E: It is a clever quote. It's from Robert–

S: And it's true.

E: Yeah.

S: And it's kind of true in a weird way. It's what makes it so clever.

E: I know. I know. You have to pause and think about that, the wording, and you're like, oh, OK. Yeah. Robert Coveyou. An American research mathematician who worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He also taught mathematics part-time for several years at Knoxville College and worked at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. He was also active in the civil rights movement, helping lead an effort to establish Scarborough High School in the African-American neighbourhood of Oak Ridge. This is back in 1950.

S: It reminds me of the Yogi Berra-isms where he says things that superficially sound self-contradictory but at a deeper level.

B: There's a kernel of coolness to it.

S: Yeah, they kind of make sense. One of my favorite ones I always remember is nobody goes there anymore. It's always too crowded.

C: That's funny.

S: He was giving directions and he said, when you get to the fork, take it. Because the thing is, it didn't matter because both of the roads then came back together again.

C: Came back together.

S: Yeah, I really like that. All right. Thank you, Evan. And thank all of you for joining me this week.

B: Sure, man.

C: Thanks, Steve.

J: Absolutely.


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



  1. Wiktionary: ineluctable; impossible to avoid or escape
  2. Wiktionary: scale; see etymology #2 and limescale, below
  3. Wiktionary: limescale; A white, chalky deposit of calcium carbonate found in kettles, washing machines etc., especially in a hard water area
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