SGU Episode 976

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SGU Episode 976
March 23rd 2024
976 SpaceX Starship.jpg

SpaceX's Starship launches on its third test flight, March 14, 2024. (IC: SpaceX)

SGU 975                      SGU 977

Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella

B: Bob Novella

C: Cara Santa Maria

J: Jay Novella

E: Evan Bernstein


DL: Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for NASA's OSIRIS-REx

Quote of the Week

One takes comfort from the fact there is no Gresham's law in science. In the long run, good science drives out bad.

American Gardner, American writer

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Show Notes
Forum Discussion

Introduction, equinoxes, climate change[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, March 20th, 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: Happy Equinox.

S: Yeah. Yesterday, the 19th, was the first day of spring. I always love the first day of spring. It was a day earlier than typical. You guys know why?

B: Yes.

J: I know.

E: I know why now.

B: Leap year.

S: It's a leap year. It's a leap year. Exactly. And it was the earliest spring equinox since 1896.

J: Why?

S: Because, interesting, I had to look it up, because the year 2000 was also a leap year. Normally, the years divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they're divisible by 400. And 2000, therefore, was a leap year. And that just also introduced adjusted the calendar so that the date is early. And basically every four years between now and 2103 will be the earliest spring equinox. You know what I mean? It'll just keep getting slightly earlier, like by a few minutes like earlier, earlier, earlier over the next century.

E: Like a Y2K ripple that is still occurring through space and time.

S: Not for nothing, but I'm pretty attuned to when things start to bloom in the spring. Usually by week by week, I know like, oh, this is the week that the forsythia blooms. And things are about two weeks early than they usually are.

J: Global warming, Steve?

S: Yeah, totally.

E: Interesting.

B: Yeah, absolutely.

J: We're so screwed. It's really happening. I know we had some cold days this winter, which was really nice.

S: Well, every month for the last nine months was the warmest month on record, meaning like the November was the warmest November on record and December was the warmest December on record. February was the warmest February on record.

J: Snazzberries taste like snazzberries.

E: Well, we're losing our winter. Yeah, right. We're losing our winter seasons at least in this part of the country.

S: Yeah, the last five winters have been very mild.

E: Very mild. What did we have this year? Maybe two snow events for the whole winter?

S: And nothing that stuck. There was very little time where there was actually snow on the ground. Whereas you go back 10 years – and obviously this is all short-term trends that we're talking about here. But – like this would not really have been possible 30 years ago.

J: Yeah, but our climate right now in this part of the world is partially affected by the volcano eruption though, which puts seawater up into the upper, upper atmosphere, which is – it's going to be gone in a few more years I think. But that is factoring in as well.

E: I was also chatting with someone in Canada, of all places, yesterday, and we brought up the subject of the fires that occurred last summer, and they said that they're already starting to issue some warnings that it's going to happen again this coming summer.

S: Oh, boy.

E: Yeah, that was nasty.

J: They need to – not that I'm a forestry person, but I did read that they can cut swaths into the tree lines so that –

E: Yeah, you make like a grid basically among the trees. So it contains – it burns out one square at a time instead of the whole thing going.

J: I don't know how hard that would be. I'd imagine it would be ridiculously hard with the real estate that they have up there.

E: There's a lot of forestry up there.

S: But they do logging and it is common to do forest management. I know in Connecticut, for example, because I looked into this because we partly buy some of our firewood, right? Although, again, I haven't had to burn that much firewood this winter. But typically I would get a cord of firewood for the winter and I did way more research than I needed to because I just got interested in stuff like that. You go down a rabbit hole. So essentially the state does forest management. It cuts down a lot of trees and then you can get a license to basically – to cut up those trees for firewood and then – you could sell it. Essentially, the forest management does this. They can cut down tons and tons of trees. That's not really as big a deal as it may sound.

E: You have to have it.

S: You have to do forest management.

E: You have to have forest management.

S: Talking about the Canadian forest fires, it was a complicated situation because yes, of course, it was global warming that sets the conditions for those kind of fires to happen. But also there's a lot of criticism that they weren't doing adequate forest management and that also creates a problem. It sets up – there's too much fuel on the forest floor. It makes it a setup as well. Same thing with California. It was partly forest management, partly weather conditions, partly mismanagement of – old electrical lines that sparked and caused the fire. So we just don't have the luxury anymore to like to be negligent about that sort of thing because the result will be massive forest fires.

J: Catastrophic. Yeah, it was bad.

E: And it all it all goes into the air that we all breathe. So nobody's immune from those impacts.

Quickie with Steve: Treating HIV with CRISPR (5:42)[edit]

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S: All right. We have a great interview coming up later, so I want to get right to the news items. I'm going to start with a quickie. This just dropped, so I'm not going to go into too much detail on it. There isn't actually that much detail to give. But have you guys heard of this proof-of-concept study where they use CRISPR to potentially remove HIV from cells, from infected cells?

J: What?

C: So cool.

E: Huh?

C: I know because it's a virus. This is so cool.

S: So here's the problem. Yeah, this is awesome. So here's the problem with HIV is that it's a retrovirus. So it inserts its DNA into the host cells, in this case immune cells, and they can lie dormant there. So even if you get rid of all of the circulating HIV and all of the actively infected cells that are producing HIV, there's still these dormant cells with HIV in them. Some of the treatments involve actually like coaxing the HIV out of the cells that you could then get rid of it, trying to like activate it. But still, if you have HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, you're on lifetime medications because the infection is chronic. It's there. You're not going to get rid of it. So here the idea is use CRISPR to go in there and snip it out, just snip it out of the cells where it's laying dormant. Now, the trick with CRISPR, of course, is getting it to the cells, right, all the cells that are infected. And so the researchers are very clear about saying this is a proof of concept. This is not a ready-for-the-clinic treatment. And there are a lot of challenges ahead, a lot of work ahead to turn this proof of concept into an actual functional treatment. So this is probably going to be years. But what they basically demonstrated is that it could theoretically work, that CRISPR can eliminate HIV from an infected cell. But now the trick is going to be turning that into an actual treatment strategy, like getting it to all the cells. Also, the study that we have so far, there was three volunteers, right, three people with HIV. After 48 weeks of treatment, they showed no serious side effects, so that's good. Of course, the biggest concern with CRISPR when you're trying to use it in an organism, like you're not using it in cells in a Petri dish, you're using it in a living organism, is the off-target effects, that it also will snip other things out of cells or target cells that you don't want it to.

B: I hate when that happens.

S: But that's why they have to monitor for the long-term side effects. But so far after 48 weeks nothing in those three volunteers nothing cropped up. Obviously, a lot of research ahead. This is just like the earliest sort of clinical step. But yeah, this is another way for CRISPR to be used clinically to remove viruses which have managed to insert their way into the DNA of their hosts. I hope it works out because it could be awesome.

B: Man, I love CRISPR.

J: And Steve, I mean is it too much to ask that like it would be – if it works with HIV, it would work with other viruses?

S: No. That's the idea, right? If it works, it could work potentially with any retrovirus or any virus that inserts its genetic material into the host cells potentially. It depends on the cells that are the target. It's all about getting the CRISPR to the cells, right? That's the tricky part. CRISPR is good at targeting the DNA, but then you need a vector to get the CRISPR to the cells you need to get it to. And that's actually a trickier problem is the vector. We're making strides there as well, but that's the challenge for specific clinical applications. That's why, if you remember, some of the low-hanging fruit in terms of using CRISPR therapeutically is like in sickle cell disease because then you could take the bone marrow out of somebody, do the CRISPR, and put it back. So that's how you target the cells as opposed to having to target cells that are circulating within a person or targeting a specific organ or something, right?

News Items[edit]

Starship's Third Launch (9:27)[edit]

S: All right, Jay, some other good news. I think this is good news. Tell us how Starship's third launch went.

J: Yeah, as you guys know, we need this technology to work in order to do the Artemis missions. So what was it? It was on March 14th that SpaceX had its third test flight of the 400-foot-tall – that's 122 meters – Starship, right? This is the spacecraft vehicle that they have that's all silver. It looks pretty bulletproof. So Flight 3 was known as Flight 3. That's what they called it.

E: Smart.

J: So it involved ship number 28 and booster 10, right? So the components that they used to build the ship are all numbered and they've pre-built. I think they have four other sets that are ready to go as well. So this is the world's most powerful rocket. Just to remind you, it achieved an altitude on flight three of 230 kilometers or 143 miles. And it launched from Boca Chica, Texas. You know where that is, Cara?

C: Nope.

S: Nope?

J: Texas is huge, so I'm not surprised.

C: It's very big, yes.

J: So this last flight test did demonstrate some legitimate progress from Flight 2. It achieved most of its predefined objectives that include things like engine operation, right, because all the engines fired and they were all working optimally. First and second stage, clean separation, controlled partial return. You know, unfortunately, the mission did conclude with the destruction of both the booster and the shifter. But it's okay. It's all right. These things explode. They learn stuff.

S: Well, they're designed to explode if something goes wrong.

J: Yeah, but, I mean, it went farther and did better.

S: Yeah, it made it to orbit.

J: Yeah, it's great. I mean, it is a success. But still part of SpaceX's methodology is that they're okay with these types of things happening. Like, they push it to its limits. They want to see what it can do. And then they make modifications on the next test flight. So real quick, prior to Flight 3, I want to tell you guys about the first and second missions just so you get an idea of what they've been working on and what they've fixed. So SpaceX initial test flights, they had a lot of big challenges. The first test flight dealt with engine failures. Remember the massive damage to the launch pad?

B: Oh, my God.

E: Yeah.

B: That was intense.

J: But putting those issues aside, that test flight provided the valuable data that they needed to make improvements, both to the launch infrastructure and the vehicle design. The second test flight, they introduced several upgrades that were aimed at enhancing the vehicle reliability. They improved the engine shielding and they had more powerful fire suppression system. Remember, because of the first launch, they had to beef up that fire suppression system to help save the launch platform. And despite these super expensive improvements, the flight ended in the loss of the booster again and the ship due to the engine explosion and all the onboard fires. So now we get to Flight 3. They incorporated everything they learned from the previous two flights. They included a change in the landing zone to the Indian Ocean, which was put in place to help mitigate environmental impacts, which I thought was a really good choice. The flight featured advancements like the opening and closing of the payload door, which they did successfully test. They also experimented with transferring fuel between two different tanks that are on the Starship. Now this was – they did this because it mocks up or mimics spacecraft to spacecraft refueling, which is – only going to – that's the way that this ship is going to get to the moon and back, right? It has to be refueled once it's in orbit around Earth. So that was a success. They also made structural enhancements.

S: Can we pause there for a second? You're saying that the Starship can't go from the surface of the Earth to the moon in one go without being refueled?

J: Yeah, that's what I understand. It has to be refueled.

S: How come? If the Apollo could do it, I mean, the Saturn V, this is a bigger rocket.

J: This thing is gigantic, Steve.

S: Yeah. This thing is massive. Shouldn't it be able to go farther?

J: I'm sure. I don't know. Honestly, I just don't know, Steve. I mean, I don't know how much it's burning to get into orbit.

S: Is that with much more payload than what the Saturn V could carry?

J: I would imagine that they're testing it to where it would be once they know exactly what's going to be on it. So the weight is probably going to be what it would be with full payload. I agree with that. I read it like it has to be refueled in orbit to then go to the moon.

S: All right. Yeah, we'll have to take a look deeper into that because that just strikes me as a little odd.

B: Yeah.

S: I can see with a smaller rocket, like you're trying to get to the moon with a smaller rocket, you'd need to refuel.

J: No, it says here it's critical for it to do this for space refueling, which is essential for missions extended beyond Earth's orbit. So, yeah, it has to be refueled. So they also made structural enhancements to the vehicle, which is good. They beefed it up, though it did fail to achieve the soft water landing and they lost a ship during reentry. The test completed several key objectives, which is good. This is really good progress. We needed to have a nice success here. So they made updates to the launch pad and vehicles were made to improve safety and performance. They changed the tank farm, which is the tanks that hold the fuel before they fuel up the ship itself. They modified engine designs. They modified the heat shield. The flight was trying to achieve specific test objectives, such as conducting a payload bay door. And like I said, the cryogenic fluid transfer test, all these things. It checked out. Everything went really well up until when things started to return back to Earth. There was also another idea that they were going to reignite the Raptor engines in space for the first time. And I guess this was part of the controlled reentry process. It was going at about 27,000 kilometers or 16,700 miles per hour. But the engine reignition wasn't attempted. And that led eventually to the loss of the vehicle. Flight 3's outcome, it's an indication of the ongoing efforts that we're going to see with SpaceX trying to refine the Starship program. Of course, they have to do it. They have to get a certain amount of the critical things, 100%. And as you guys may or may not know, the FAA is heavily involved in everything that's going on with the Starship testing. They basically help them determine what needs to be fixed for the next test flight. And then the FAA also analyzes everything that happens during the flight. So they're a part of the whole process here. They help implement the required corrective actions. So in the end, we did take a step closer to Artemis being able to happen. I think we're going to see another test flight in a couple of months. And onward, man. I'm just excited. I want to see this stuff kick ass.

S: All right, so my preliminary findings are that the main difference is between Saturn V and Starship.

J: What?

S: Saturn V had a bunch of different stages. So they would throw the stages away in order to save fuel as you go, but Starship is designed for reusability. It's only two stages, and the first stage has to land again to be reused. So it's just a different set of tradeoffs. So it gets into orbit with basically no fuel. In fact, it takes five to ten other starships to refuel one starship to get to the moon.

J: Oh, wow.

S: Apparently.

J: Wow.

S: I'll look into that more deeply, but that seems to be the short answer. Obviously, it's designed to function this way, but the tradeoff was no stages, so it's more reusable, which is interesting. All right. Thank you, Jay.

Extinct Flu Virus (17:45)[edit]

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S: Cara, do viruses ever go extinct?

C: They do. And one flu virus may have gone extinct. At least that is what experts are urging virus manufacturers to keep in mind as they produce the new flu vaccine for next year. So The World Health Organization and now the CDC are saying, hey, as you produce the new flu vaccine for the next season, let's not make the quadrivalent anymore. Let's make it only protect against three different strains because one of those four, the B. Yamagata strain, we think might be extinct. We haven't seen it in several years. So this is really interesting. Apparently, COVID has helped us cause the B. yamagata strain to go extinct. There have historically been four strains of the flu that have been covered by the quadrivalent vaccine. So if you got the flu vaccine this past year or for many years in the past, you probably got a quadrivalent vaccine. It protected against two influenza A and two influenza B types. One of those types was part of the Yamagata lineage. And that lineage over the past, I'd say decade or so, has been doing something really interesting as it evolved. From how I'm reading this, the clades, the sort of evolutionary changes to the vaccine have been getting further further and further apart. And in doing so, it's been one of the main reasons that sometimes when we get a flu vaccine, it hasn't been very effective. Because as we know, we're often sort of predicting how the flu is going to mutate over the years and having to estimate what the flu is going to look like in advance of the coming flu season. And when we do that, sometimes our predictive powers are not very good. And what ends up happening is that we will be predicting based on one subtype of one of these four types within the – so a subtype of a subtype within the flu vaccine. The Yamagata subtype, the B. Yamagata, has historically – had its own subtypes or the clades within it becoming like more and more distinct, more and more different. And because of that, sometimes the vaccine has not been providing very good coverage. But because of that, something really cool seems to have happened. And that's that during COVID, as it became more and more disparate, it actually just went extinct. People weren't transmitting it to one another. And we just weren't going out in public. We were maintaining social distancing. People were getting their vaccines. They were getting their COVID shots and their flu shots. And we weren't spreading viruses nearly as well. And so we first in 2021 started to notice that people weren't testing positive for this subtype of the flu. And since then, there have been no cases that anybody could detect. And because there have been no detected cases since then, kind of across the globe, experts have said, hey, we think that we can sort of reasonably say that we don't think that this subtype of the flu is in existence anymore. And we feel pretty reasonably comfortable no longer protecting for it within our vaccine formulations. And so, yeah, it looks like the guidance now for next year, and manufacturers are kind of moving pretty quickly, is that it won't be within our new flu shots. Our new flu shots next year will be trivalent, not quadrivalent.

E: No quad. No more quad.

C: Yeah. Pretty interesting.

E: OK, let's get that down to bivalent, you know.

C: Right.

E: That'd be nice.

C: Less complicated means less money means I think-

E: More accessibility.

C: -more accessible. Yeah. I mean, across the board, the fewer - obviously more is better if necessary, but less is better if-

S: It makes it easier to manufacture the vaccine.

C: A hundred percent, right? We want to be as protective as possible, but not if it's unnecessary.

S: Plus, making the vaccine cover that strain means that there has to be that strain in the lab. So it's safer to not cover the strain.

C: It's safer, yeah. So now we're talking two influenza A's and only one influenza B strain.

S: Yeah. I always wondered like what would it take for – because like a virus is just sort of moving around the population. But what would it take for just at one point it just doesn't infect anybody? If at any point no one is infected, the virus is gone, right? Because there's no non-human reservoir, right? Or is there a non-human reservoir for it?

C: There is. That's the thing. I was looking into where these viruses live because I was kind of confused. Apparently, there are four types of influenza viruses. There's an A, B, C, and D. A and B cause the seasonal epidemics, and that's why they're in our shots. So A and B cause flu seasons in the U.S. A are the only ones that also cause pandemics. So A is where you see H1N1 and H3N2. And then the B lineages are B Victoria and B Yamagata. So again, now B Yamagata seems to be extinct. And then C generally causes such mild illness that it doesn't even cause epidemics, so we don't even vaccinate against it. And then D only affects cattle. And there does seem to be spillover, but it doesn't infect people. So I'm trying to look here between Victoria and Yamagata what they actually infect. Okay, so bee only infects humans, ferrets, pigs, and seals. That's interesting. I'd have to do a little bit more digging to see if Yamagata is extinct only in people or if it's all the way extinct because all of the coverage that I'm reading says that it is extinct extinct.

S: Yeah.

C: But also, maybe we just don't know. How do we know if it's fully extinct in every seal, ferret, and pig?

E: Right. Yeah.

S: Right.

C: But yeah, pretty interesting. Or maybe those are only in Victoria, not in Yamagata. So I would have to do a little bit more digging. But yeah, A is where we see all of those.

S: Along those lines, I always had this crazy idea, starting where my kids had lice. Couldn't we just agree that everyone is going to shave all their hair at the same time in the world and we'll just eliminate lice? We'll be the generation for the rest of humanity to just get rid of lice.

C: Right?

E: Lice on – wait, but lice would go somewhere.

S: Well, there's human lice. There's human lice that only infect humans. Yeah, and they need hair follicles.

C: But would they all like – would there be – because of the environmental pressure is so heavy in that moment – Would you be bottlenecking them into mutating into dogs or something? It would be an interesting global experiment. That's for sure.

S: Very hard to get compliance. One person doesn't do it.

E: Social engineering.

C: That's what we're basically doing with like polio. That's what we're doing. I mean it is – and we've been relatively successful with some of these eradication efforts. But as we've talked about before, it only works when there is no non-human reservoir.

S: Right. For eradication. Yes. That's right.

C: For eradication.

E: Remember in World War Z, the North Koreans, they pulled the teeth out of everybody in the country so nobody could bite each other.

S: Oh, that's interesting.

E: That's how they dealt with that one.

J: Wow.

S: Well, it's extreme, but so was the zombie apocalypse.

Keeping Voyager 1 Going (26:09)[edit]

S: All right, Bob, how is Voyager 1 doing after all these years?

E: Hey.

B: So is Voyager 1 fracked?

E: What?

B: I used that word instead of what I wanted to go with, but it still works.

E: Oh, I see.

B: The oldest and most distant probe ever launched, Voyager 1, has been transmitting gibberish for months now. No data has been transmitted at all. What happened? Can it be fixed? Or is this the swan song of Voyager 1 destined to drift dead in space until it becomes the all-powerful V'ger in 249 years as prophesied by Star Trek. Now, if you're pounding your desk right now correcting me about V'ger, then kudos to you and your Star Trek geekiness.

E: Voyager 6, right?

B: Yes. All good fans know that it was fictional Voyager 6 that became V'ger in Star Trek The Motion Picture. Okay. So – but we all remember the real Voyager 1, right? Launched in the year Star Wars. I mean everything has got a science fiction milestone tied to it in my mind. Released – when Star Wars was first released in 1977, the mission took advantage of a once in 175-year alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune to use gravitational assists as a slingshot, Voyager went throughout the solar system. So after the glorious missions to Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 1 used Saturn to arc up and out of the plane of the solar system towards the next destiny in 2012 when it went through the heliopause where the solar system – in a sense, ended where it ends because the sun's solar wind and magnetic field give way to the true interstellar medium. So that was the last really big milestone for Voyager 1. Now it's just kind of been cruising along in the interstellar medium. It's 15 billion miles away, 24 billion kilometers from Earth. It's been running for an amazing 47 years.

E: That's so cool.

B: What a feat. What a feat. And it has had its share of technical difficulties all along, which have been fixed basically or worked around. But this latest glitch is the worst. November of 2023, it started babbling in binary. Linda Spilker, Voyager project scientist at NASA's JPL, said, we'd gone from having a conversation with Voyager with the ones and zeros containing science data to just a dial tone. She described it as a dial tone now. Now, engineers think the culprit here is corrupted memory inside one of the three onboard computer systems that Voyager 1 has. The system that they're really focused in on is the flight data subsystem, FDS. Now, FDS collects science and engineering data from the sensors, from Voyager's sensors, and then gets that ultimately to the high-gain antenna, which sends back all this wonderful information as radio waves, which it has been doing for decades up until last November. Now, I troubleshoot often errant computers. All the time in my mild-mannered persona as Bob the IT guy. Sometimes I even have to get on a server running Windows 2003, which is galling for me. It's like, are you kidding? 2003, how is this OS still alive. But I can't even imagine troubleshooting an ancient half a century old computer system where all the true original experts are basically dead. But not only that, this computer is also so far away, billions of kilometers.

S: How far away is it?

B: Yes.

C: Too late.

S: I'll fix it in editing.

B: The response to me hitting the enter key takes 45 hours to get back to me, 45 hours to see what the result is of my latest command or if I was troubleshooting this damn thing. For 45 hours, I don't know if I'm going to get back nothing. Or good information or maybe the fact that I actually killed the entire computer because it's like so fragile. They have to be so careful interacting with it. So what caused this glitch? The theory is that a high-energy cosmic ray flipped a bit in the system's memory. That's what they think. So now that's happened before. It has happened before, but it's even more likely since 2012. Why do you think it's more likely now?

E: Because it no longer has the protection of the solar system.

B: Right. Now that it's in the interstellar medium, there's more charged cosmic rays that normally wouldn't make it past the heliosphere. Now, when that happened before, they would get a memory readout, right? And then that would reveal where the bad bit was. So Susan Dodd, a Voyager project manager at JPL, said, we've recovered from bit flips before. The problem this time is we don't know where the bit flip is because we can't see what the memory is. It's the most serious issue we've had. So yeah, so it looked bad because they just couldn't find out. They couldn't pinpoint where the problem is assuming it even was this bit flip in the memory. But there was a breakthrough of sorts March 1st, 2024, just earlier this month. They sent a different type of troubleshooting command to Voyager and the result was a binary stream that for the first time was different than they've been getting for months, but it wasn't in the usual format that you would expect if everything was okay working again. Regarding this, NASA said in a recent update, but an engineer with the agency's Deep Space Network, which operates the radio antennas that communicate with both Voyagers and other spacecraft traveling to the moon and beyond, was able to decode the new signal and found out that it contains a readout of the entire FDS memory. So they got the memory dump. Now kudos to this unnamed engineer. I will call him Miles O'Brien. Now this seems to be great news to me in my mind. Now what they can do is they can now look through this memory dump, which they essentially have from this subsystem, this computer system. This computer subsystem. And they have the memory dump and they can then compare it to the most previous memory dump from the before time, right? Before it was sending gibberish. And hopefully when they do that comparison, they can then identify the bit that flipped and then correct it. And in the future – and then it will hopefully continue as it was until it does ultimately keel over. I mean I heard this thing is losing a few – like four watts every year. It's just getting less and less powerful. Those nuclear batteries do not last forever. But I'd much rather have it die a death of old age rather than just some corrupted memory, which would be a little frustrating. But hopefully we'll have at least a handful, five or ten years. I'm not sure what the life expectancy is at this point. But hopefully we'll get some more time out of Voyager 1 because it has been an amazing mission. Oh, my God. 77 this thing launched. And now it's outside of the sun's influence, the heliosphere, outside our solar system in a sense. Amazing. I want it to keep going for a while.

S: It is amazing. I never would have guessed it would be still going this much longer.

E: And there was an excellent documentary on Voyager produced by PBS called The Farthest.

S: Yeah, very nice.

E: Yep, 15 billion miles and counting. And it's even further than that because this was back in 2017. But it's excellent. I highly recommend it.

Death by Exorcism (33:33)[edit]

S: All right, Evan, you are going to give us another installment in our series on death by pseudoscience, The Exorcism Edition.

E: Yeah, it's sad that I even have to bring these up regularly, in fact. But this is the case when it comes to exorcisms. They persist. People continue this belief system. And it results in horrible, horrible consequences. So yeah, most religions claim that humans can be possessed by demonic spirits and other entities. And they'll offer exorcisms to remedy the threat. But believing in nonsense can cause a great deal of harm, including death. And there is a true body count that accompanies belief in exorcisms. There always has been and there always will be. But the latest tragic news is about the death of a three-year-old girl at the hands of their family as she was forced to undergo an exorcism. Yeah, this is in California. Renee Hueso was arrested in May 2022 for For the September 24th, 2021 killing of three-year-old Arlie Naomi Proctor. Hueso is the leader of a, well, it's described as a backyard Pentecostal church in San Jose. The name is in Spanish. I'll embarrass myself if I try to say it, so I'll move on. Hueso is the grandfather of young Arlie. And she died at his hands after she was delivered by Arlie's mother. Her name is Claudia Hernandez, along with her uncle, Rene Santos. So the news is, though, this past Monday, all three family members, they're in court. They're having their court date now. It's a probable cause hearing where prosecutors are laying out evidence against each of these three defendants, and the judge is going to decide if there's enough evidence now to go to trial, which we should know about by the end of this week. All three are charged with felony child abuse resulting in death. Arlie's mother was first arrested in early 2022, and then a few months later, upon further investigation, they made the arrest of the other two people involved. And according to the early reports from the investigators in the case... The reason the mother brought her daughter to him in the first place was that she thought she was being possessed because she woke up from sleeping multiple times in one night and the little girl was screaming and crying.

S: There you go.

C: So she was having nightmares?

E: Right. Or night terrors. I don't even know. Can three-year-olds have night terrors? I'm not even sure. Maybe. But regardless, they brought her to the grandfather's church, and then they tried to force her to vomit up the demons inside her by gagging, squeezing, and choking her. There was a coroner's report that was released that determined that Arlie died by asphyxiation, and authorities alleged she was subjected to more than 12 hours of physical abuse that included being strangled multiple times to the point of unconsciousness. Had fingers shoved down her throat to the point she had multiple injuries in her mouth and to her tongue. And there was pressure placed on her body, her torso from front to back. So much force applied that she lost consciousness several times. She was also not given any food and hardly any water in the 24 hours leading up to that death. This little girl... And after she died, the family took their time notifying the authorities. It was several hours afterwards before somebody decided to call somebody to try to help the girl who was not coming back from unconsciousness. So I don't know. I mean, shame and woe to those institutions and belief systems who really kind of turn a blind to these kinds of senseless deaths. They help prop it up. And I read so little about them coming out and kind of – they should be the ones to lead the way to say stop this, the churches.

C: This sounds like it's so far beyond that. This is neglect and abuse beyond some sort of religious bullshit, don't you think? I mean, like they didn't get help. Like you said, they didn't call for help even after.

E: Right. It's almost hard to categorize exactly what this is.

S: Yeah, it's two things. First of all, it is obviously contributed to by the religious belief in demonic possession, which is barbaric medieval, right? But also even in that context, there was abuse. There was neglect and abuse because there's always – obviously there's a duty to take care of a helpless child, not to be the agent of direct harm. Even if you think they need an exorcism, the number one priority should be to protect the child. So it was absolutely neglect and abuse. They tortured and killed that girl.

C: Even if in the moment they thought they were helping, when they realized she's not breathing, they didn't call for medical attention. That's a problem.

E: Yeah, you're right. It's a symptom of something deeper, perhaps, than solely the religious aspects.

S: And I'm sure that they're claiming religious freedom in terms of their defense. Or did they plead not guilty or guilty?

C: That's awful.

E: Again, this was a probable cause hearing where a judge is deciding if there's enough evidence to go to trial. So I don't know if there is a plea involved at this stage of this part of the case. Defense attorney says that the cross-examination has only begun. They were attempting to establish that defendants had no homicidal intent and were only trying to help the girl via exorcism because this is what they know.

S: It's still manslaughter.

E: This is their culture. This is right there.

S: Doesn't matter.

E: This would have been their reaction to anyone similar in in a similar situation. this is exactly how they would have reacted no matter who it was.

C: Of course that's going to be the defense strategy but it's good to hear that this is being fully prosecuted. That the state is bringing charges against these parents and it sounds like pretty strong charges. Do you know what they're actually? You said this is like a hearing to determine what charges should be brought?

E: Felony child abuse resulting in death.

S: Yeah, it's a child abuse. It's not murder.

C: Good. Yeah, but I mean that's good to hear that they're coming out kicking.

S: Yeah, good for them.

C: Yeah, like setting those kinds of precedences.

E: And it also picked up national attention. It's not just a local San Jose story. This is picked up by NBC and all the national outlets have been carrying this.

S: All right. Thank you, Evan. I know it's a terrible thing to have to report, but, you know.

E: Yeah, I know.

S: I do think it's important to talk about it.

E: It continues to happen.

S: Yeah.

Energy Demand Increasing (42:00)[edit]

S: All right, guys, are you aware that there's been a recent spike in demand for electricity in the United States?

B: Yes.

E: Yes.

C: This is for AI?

S: Are you aware – we're going to get to that in a second. Are you aware that for like the last 20 years, electricity demand has been relatively flat?

E: I wouldn't have guessed that.

S: Yeah, you wouldn't have guessed that, right? But it has been. I mean it bounces up and down, but it really hasn't changed much for 20 years. And the reason for that is that even though we're doing more stuff with electricity and population is growing – it's been offset by efficiency. LED bulbs were huge, right, going from the last 20 years.

E: Yeah, I love my LED bulbs. I love them.

S: The more energy-efficient appliances. And we basically went from homes not being weatherized to being more energy-efficient, going to double-pane glass and better insulation, better standards. So all of those things have contributed to a dramatic decrease in energy waste and that has pretty much offset the increase in demand for electricity, for doing stuff with electricity. But in the last year or two, there has been a spike. When you look at the graph, your first reaction is, really? Are they really extrapolating from that tiny little upturn? Isn't it too early to tell? But when you read deeper, you find that they're not just extrapolating the trend over the last year. They're taking into account things that have already – that are already underway. You know what I mean? Like they know like these factories are being built and this is happening and that's happening. And therefore, they're projecting demand into the future not just – it's not numerology, right? They're not just extending a graph out. They're analysing industries to determine what the likely future demand for electricity is. So there are four things that are the main drivers of this increase in electricity demand and this increase in the future projections of demand. What do you think those are?

E: Digital currencies.

C: Crypto.

S: We'll combine those into data centers, right? So AI, crypto, just increasing everything digital. So data centers are cropping up. They're proliferating, and they use a ton of electricity. They're also a lot faster to build than to power them is to build, right?

E: Right.

S: All right, that's one. What else?

C: Electric cars?

S: Electric vehicles, right? Right now, the United States, we're only at about 1% of cars on the road being all electric.

C: Really?

S: Yeah. But 9% last year, in 2023, 9% of new car sales were all electric. And in the last quarter, it was 17%. So obviously-

E: There's a trend.

S: Yeah, so that's trending up fairly quickly. And prices for EVs are plummeting. plummeted. they're really coming down almost to parity with similar ICE vehicles - internal combustion engine vehicles. So there's every expectation now that like we're over the pandemic and the supply line crunch and all that stuff the prices are coming down. Ddemand is going to go back up again. So this is again they're projecting out the fairly dramatic increase in EVs going forward. And as we've been saying, we have to account for that when we're figuring out like how much electricity we're going to need. Two other things.

J: I would maybe think like grow farms for marijuana.

S: No, that was not mentioned as one of the factors. That may be a factor, but it's not enough to be on the radar here.

E: Not top four.

S: Not top four.

C: What about like other battery technologies?

S: So we'll broaden that out to just industry. So we are onshoring a lot of industry that was previously – that was being done elsewhere in the world. So as we bring back industry, we have to power those industries like manufacturing. So we're onshoring a lot of manufacturing. So that's a huge one. And the fourth one I'll just tell you is increasing use of air conditioning because of global warming.

B: Oh!

C: That makes sense.

C: Which sucks. because then there's this like –

S: It's a feedback.

C: That's a feedback loop. Because it's one of the biggest contributors to global warming.

S: Right, right. And yeah, I think most residential electricity is used for air conditioning, heating and air conditioning. So the people who do this sort of analysis have had to revise their projections over the next five to ten years as to what our likely increase in electricity demand will be. And they've essentially doubled the projected increase in demand based upon these recent trend. Of course, things can change. We don't know if this is going to be the case, but it seems like it's going to be worse than we thought in terms of future energy demand. Now, this is a huge problem for a number of reasons, right? We're talking about what's the best strategy for converting our energy infrastructure over to low carbon, right? So we're talking about wind. solar, geothermal, nuclear, and hydroelectric, right? We want to get as much of our energy production over to those low-carbon sources as possible. We want to shut down coal as fast as possible and then eventually natural gas and oil and burn as little fossil fuel as possible, right? This is now massively frustrating, that plan, because... As this demand is really taking states and utilities by surprise a little bit, it's like they're now sort of struggling to keep up with demand. So what's the quickest new power plants they could bring online? It's the ones that are easy to build or proven technology.

J: It's coal, right?

C: It's coal.

S: Well, natural gas.

C: Oh, okay. But because you're not going to build new coal-fired plants. It's not in the U.S.

C: Do they have to frack for that?

S: Yeah, they probably do to keep up with demand. But natural gas is now – so now a lot of utility companies are building natural gas in order to meet this immediate spike in demand.

B: Oh, my god.

S: But not only that, they are delaying the closing of coal-fired plants. So they may not be building new ones, but they're delaying their closing.

B: Yeah, we're so screwed.

E: Oh, boy.

C: So we're just not hitting any targets.

E: That changes the calculus.

S: We're so far off our targets. Remember, we talked about the fact that 2023 had the biggest fossil fuel use in history, right? Despite the fact that we're dramatically increasing our renewable energy profile, that's just meeting the new demand, right? That's not eating into existing demand. And now this is going to be even more true or, in fact, we'll have to grow our fossil fuel repertoire in order to grow the supply fast enough to meet this spike in demand.

C: Increasing renewable energies is not good in and of itself. It's only good if we're decreasing fossil fuel. We're just using more energy. It's not a good thing.

E: Burn more coal so we can make more solar panels.

S: The real goal is decreasing our fossil fuel use, but we're not doing that. We're just making more energy. It's better than not having the new energy be renewable, but it's still not decreasing our fossil fuel use. So what are the roadblocks? What's the holdup in terms of expanding renewables fast enough to meet this increasing demand?

B: People who don't believe in climate change?

S: Well, I mean that may be contributing to it. But there are real technical limitations. Big one, probably the biggest one is the grid. It takes a long time to build grid expansion projects. And they're slowed by a lot of red tape. And there's no federal agency that has the power to make it happen. And so utility companies in different states basically fight with each other over who's going to pay for what. You know what I mean? So it really slows the process down. And we essentially can't do it fast enough, both technically and because of the regulations. So, of course, that means on the flip side that we could dramatically accelerate building more electricity grid if we funded more of it. So there is funding for it in the infrastructure bill, and that's good, but it's not enough, right? But we also need federal regulation that basically streamlines the process of applying for new grid installments and also new connections to the grid. I mentioned on a previous episode that applications for new connections to the grid can be delayed for five to ten years. So even if you can stand up like a wind turbine project or a grid solar project, you might be waiting ten years to get it hooked up to the grid or to have the grid installed so that the lines put in place so that you could send that energy to the city that you're hoping to sell power to. So it's just really slow.

B: So is cutting this red tape a priority for anybody who could actually make a difference?

S: I mean I hear a little bit of noise being made about it but I haven't heard like any major legislative initiative to – oh, we need to like radically change the regulations. The same is true for nuclear. So nuclear power, the construction time is five to six years and probably could be a lot less, especially as the industry moves to small modular reactors. The whole idea is to bring down the startup cost in time. But the regulations can take a decade, a decade of just applications and pre-applications or more and cost millions of dollars. I saw for one particular nuclear power plant, the application was two million pages. That's how long the application was.

C: Oh, my God.

E: Page one. Enter your name here.

S: I've read a lot of articles about this, a lot of people who are outlining the fact that there's a lot of efficiency to be gained without sacrificing safety. So the American nuclear power apparently is like among the safest in the world. But if the trade-off is that it takes a decade to get through the regulations – So we need to find that compromise. And we probably don't have to compromise on safety. I liken it to Operation Warp Speed, right, where you took a five-year approval process and we did it in nine months. And how did that happen? It was not because of funding, because companies that didn't even accept government funding were able to do it too. It's because the FDA said, this is how we could make this happen fast. We do all these things concurrently. So you don't have to wait to start phase two until you get phase one approval. You can do all these things at the same time. Like, for example. But also it might require funding for more people to do the process, right? So you're not, like, just waiting for somebody whose time to be freed up for three years while you're on the stack of applications that somebody needs to go through. So I do wonder how short we could get that time down to. Like, could we really stand up small modular reactors as fast as we stand up new data centers to basically power them, right?

B: Yeah, yeah.

S: And the same is true for hydroelectric. It's also a huge environmental – studies have to be done. There's a huge delay because of red tape. So it's not just nuclear. Even given all the good that the Inflation Reduction Act did in terms of investment and industry incentives for zero carbon energy, this spike in demand is a problem. And we're not going to really be able to stick to our timeline of decarbonization by 2050 without some massive legislative overhaul and a lot more investment in infrastructure. And so we're moving backwards right now. We're building more fossil fuel and keeping our coal-fired plants open to meet the spike in demand, and that's bad.

C: Very.

S: Yeah. All right. Sorry to end on a bummer, but there it is. Jay, it's Who's That Noisy Time.

Who's That Noisy? (54:24)[edit]

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

[popping sound like a jackhammer]

Any of you guys like to guess?

C: Fan?

J: All right. Well, we had a listener named Joe Jennings write in and said, first time trying, but this week's noisy reminds me of a sound of a particular ventilator we had in our ICU for a couple of patients in the early 2000s. The device's use was with adult patients, soon to be found to be not efficacious, so it is no longer used in our ICU. The machine was a high-frequency oscillator ventilator. So I tried to find this, but I couldn't find it. I wanted to hear what that sounded like, but that is definitely not it. But that's an interesting guess. A listener named Selena Goubert said, hello, is this the sound of a paper jogger? Love the segment and the show. All right, so what is a paper jogger? Well, I didn't know when I looked it up. Do any of you guys know what it is?

C: Mm-mm.

E: No.

J: So there are machines where you could put in reams of paper that are kind of not lined up with each other. You know, like if you have sheets of paper that are stacked.

C: Almost like a card. Yeah.

J: And it shakes them and it lines them up. It takes a little while, but it lines them up. These machines come in all different shapes and sizes. I did listen to a couple of them. And they're basically like a vibrating table. That's basically it. So... But that was a good guess, but that is not correct. John Pedraza wrote in and said, greetings from Kosovo. My guest is a paint mixer shaking a can of paint. Keep up the great work.

E: Yeah, that's a good one.

B: I bet.

J: Yeah, it's not that, and I've heard that many, many, many times. I would think that the oscillation in a paint mixer is much faster than this sound, but that is not correct. I have another listener here that wrote in and said, this is Michael Blaney, and he said, Hi, Jay, it sounds to me like a very poorly tuned motorcycle. Sounds almost identical to our neighbour's grunter that he liked to warm up and go for rides on about 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. Oh, my God.

C: That's annoying.

J: That is not correct. So nobody guessed it. I'm not surprised. This is a tough one. So the person who sent this in, Brett Newton, said, I look forward to seeing you in a crew in Dallas. So we're going to see this guy in Dallas. He said, this is a video I took a couple of years ago documenting my friend Richard Bobo's first ever day where his prototype subcontra bassoon was playable. The note in question is A minus one, negative one / A zero. I don't know what any of this means. Being the lowest note on the majority of pianos. The negative indicates that it is a full octave lower. This means that the subcontra bassoon shown here is the lowest woodwind instrument ever created. And this is one of the lowest notes capable. Okay, so let's just hear it again. So this is a wind instrument. The guy's blowing into this. And you can hear it. I left the sound of him breathing in the beginning to give you a little help. [plays Noisy] I'm not sure why you would need an instrument.

E: I would never guess that.

C: Me neither.

J: I know.

E: No chance.

C: That is not very musical.

J: I know. It's more of a percussion instrument than anything. But thank you so much. I thought that was interesting. There's people out there making musical instruments all the time. There's so many musical instruments that you don't know about. And this was one of them.

New Noisy (58:04)[edit]

J: So I got a new noisy this week. This was sent in by a listener named Gordon Dempsey. Check this out.

[zippy whooshings]

This is a tough one. If you think you know what this is, or if you heard a cool noise this week, you got to email me at

Announcements (58:39)[edit]

J: Steve, we have lots of stuff happening and I'm going to tell you all about it. All right? So we have two private shows happening in Dallas. They're both happening on April 7th. Okay? This is in the heart of Dallas in a hotel. One of those two shows still has tickets available and that is the 12 noon show. And you can go to to find more information about how to buy tickets for that. Now, on April 6th – I know it's the day before and I didn't go in order, but I'm just – I'm getting through this. Give me a break. April 6th, we have an extravaganza. If you don't know what this show is, this is our stage show. This show is about how your brain can fool you, how you can't trust your own perception on reality, and we prove it to you throughout the show.

S: Basically by humiliating each other.

J: Yeah, we humiliate each other.

E: Yeah, yeah.

J: There's a lot of improv bits that we do where George is basically making us do funny stuff. And then we teach you about things and then more funny and weird stuff. There is a lot of great moments in this show. We've refined the hell out of this show over the last six or seven years. So if you're available, this is in Dallas. It's on April 6th. And you can find information for tickets on All right, now we also have a show, two shows actually, that are going to be happening in August and they're going to be in Chicago. So we're going to have an extravaganza and we're going to have an SGU private show. Now this SGU private show, it's very likely that that show will be on August 18th. I mean, there's a slight possibility that we might move the date to earlier in the day on the 17th, but there's plenty of time to work all the details out. We are shooting for the 18th. This will be our 1,000th episode.

E: Ooh, we made it.

J: Yep. So this is a five-hour show.

B: Not yet.

C: Five hours.

J: Yes.

E: Five hours.

J: It's five hours.

E: What are we going to talk about for five hours?

J: Well, there's lots of things that are going to be happening during this show.

E: 200 episodes an hour.

J: We're going to be definitely talking about our experience doing this show for the last 20 years. We're going to be talking about some of the best moments, some of the funniest moments. We're going to talk about – George is going to be interviewing us. He's going to be asking us personal questions. He's going to ask the audience to ask us questions. There's going to be trivia. There's going to be tons of interviews of people that have been on the show. Like frequent guests, friends, and just interesting interviews that we've had. I'm starting to line those up right now. It is a gigantic celebration of the fact that we reached this incredible round number milestone. I think 1,000 is just an incredible number of episodes. Like the amount of time that we put in each week to pull this show off multiplied by 1,000. You know what I mean? It's just unreal that we've been doing this for 20 years. Anyway, we would really love for you to join us. It's all going to be happening in Chicago. This is a city that we've never been to for the SGU. We're really excited to go. So please do go to our website. You can find a link on there again where all the other buttons are to find more information about this show. The extravaganza tickets are also selling right now, and I think there are still some VIP tickets left, but they might be sold out.

S: All right. Thank you, Jay.

Questions/Emails/Corrections/Follow-ups (1:01:56)[edit]

Follow up #1: Fighting lions[edit]

S: One quick email from last week. So we had a lot of fun talking about that survey where 8% of men said they could beat a lion in unarmed combat.

C: I like how you said men because I don't think that was specified.

S: No, it was. The survey did specify it was men.

C: I was going to say that's a safe assumption.

E: Not just men, but manly men.

S: Manly men. We had a lot of feedback on that. A lot of people, I think, enjoyed that segment. But two of note. One guy linked us to a video of an interview with an MMA expert who also apparently has expertise in animal fighting. Mainly animals fighting other animals. But it was funny to listen to him talk, basically reiterating a lot of the stuff that we said. He basically said a gorilla can weigh 400 pounds. It could lift 2,000 pounds. And you could take the strongest man and the best fighter to have ever lived, and he would just rip him to shreds, like with no effort. It's so not a contest, it's unbelievable. All right. But the other one that was interesting is that we got an email to a – this is a 2019 news story about a man who beat a mountain lion in unarmed combat.

C: This does not surprise me. Mountain lions are not African lions.

S: But it gets even better, Cara. It was a juvenile mountain lion. They think that weighed between 20 and 60 pounds.

E: Oh, my God. That's like a big dog.

C: I mean, they're not. They're still brutal. I would not want to.

S: It probably weighed 40 pounds.

C: I still think it could kill me.

S: Oh, totally. Now, this guy fought it for 10 minutes. It scratched him up. It did a lot of damage, but he eventually was able to choke it out. And that's how he killed it. But yeah, so yeah, that's like an edge case, right? A 40-pound juvenile mountain lion. That's not a 200, 300-pound African lion. Yeah.

C: And that's the thing. Just because they both have the word lion in their name, they're not the same species.

E: Like dandelion.

S: A fully adult mountain lion, I think most people would be hard-pressed to survive an encounter with that.

C: But that's not what they were asking in the survey.

E: I'm afraid of the bobcat that roams around in the neighborhood. I don't want to go near that thing.

S: These things are predators.

C: You probably could take it, but don't.

S: They evolved, and their life experience is killing other things.

E: Right. You are in their environment.

C: I'm afraid of some of my friends' house cats. I wouldn't want to mess with them.

S: So I thought that was funny. But anyway. All right, guys. Well, we have a great interview, so let's go to that interview now.


Interview with Dante Lauretta (1:04:47)[edit]

S: We are joined now by Dr. Dante Loretta. Dante, welcome to the Skeptic's Guide.

DL: Thank you. It's great to be here.

S: And you are the principal investigator on NASA's OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission and a professor in the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona. So we're excited to talk to you about OSIRIS-REx and your other work. So tell us first, just give us an overview of the mission and how did the sample return go?

DL: OSIRIS-REx is a NASA mission which visited near-Earth asteroid Bennu. We arrived there in December of 2018, sent the spacecraft down to collect a sample in October of 2020, and successfully delivered that material to the surface of the Earth last September in 2023. It's been an amazing adventure. And I can tell you the science is just getting started because we've cracked into that sample capsule and we've delivered material to laboratories all around the world.

S: Yeah, it's really exciting. But I have to ask, though, as somebody who's obviously intimately involved with this, how certain was it that the material was going to come back? Or was that basically a coin flip? How anxious were you that you were going to actually get stuff back?

DL: Well, you have to ask as a function of time, right? Because when we first started it, it seemed like magic when we were designing the mission. I couldn't believe such a thing was even possible. And then as we got into the design and we reduced the risk and we really got rigorous about how we're going to approach this challenge. Technically, we launched with a 99 percent chance of mission success. That's an engineering term. I was, of course, biting my nails the entire way, especially during collection of the sample, because we didn't know how the asteroid surface was going to respond. And then those critical moments last September when that parachute system had to deploy because we could have lost the whole program in those final minutes.

S: Yeah, it's hard. You know, for any NASA mission, it's hard to say 99 percent. I mean, I don't think their history matches that confidence.

DL: That's right.

S: It's hard. It's hard. You know, they've crashed stuff on Mars. Well, it's something like half the probes to Mars have crashed. I mean, they do fantastic things. But wow, 99 percent. That was pretty confident.

DL: Like I said, that's an engineering requirement. We have to show 99% probability of meeting our requirements. What you can't do is put those requirements on the asteroid. And we, in fact, did that. And the asteroid threw a ton of curveballs at us. In some cases, literally threw curveballs at us. Particles were flying off the surface.

J: Yeah, I was reading about – correct me where I get this wrong. But the vehicle kind of barely touched down and then it shot like some type of gas to lift up the regolith so it could be captured, right?

DL: Yeah, I like to compare it to a leaf blower basically. We blew down gas into the surface and kicked up a bunch of dust and gravel. We had a – cylindrical sample collector, basically an air filter, and we just shoved as many rocks and pebbles into that as the gas would allow.

S: Now, was there a particular reason why you targeted Bennu? Was it because you thought the asteroid itself was a good target, or just because it was opportunistic, you were able to get to it?

DL: It was a combination of both. We were limited in where we could go in the solar system based on the capabilities of the spacecraft. We knew we were going to have to target a near-Earth asteroid. That's a smaller population compared to what's in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And those objects are generally a lot more accessible. And particularly Bennu has a very Earth-like orbit. It's on a low inclination, relatively small eccentricity, and in fact crosses the orbit of the Earth. But science got to play a role here, too. And the mission for me especially is driven by the origins investigation. We really want to understand how asteroids like Bennu may have contributed to Earth being a habitable world in terms of delivering the water that's in our oceans and the air that we breathe, and maybe even the organic molecules that trigger the origin of life on this planet. Bennu is one of the few dark carbon rich asteroids in the near Earth population.

S: All right, so it did have features that made it a good target, plus it was also one of the accessible ones.

DL: Correct.

S: Yeah, it had both those features. And yeah, so this gets to my next question is, is it the thinking that Bennu is a good frozen sample of the very early solar system? And also, you kind of answered this question already, but can you talk more about the fact that it's the kind of asteroid that probably contributed a lot of material to the early Earth?

DL: Yeah, Bennu stands out in the asteroid population because its surface is really dark. It reflects on average about four and a half percent of the sunlight. It's like coal or asphalt. And that was one of our first clues that it might be really rich in carbon. When we look in the main asteroid belt, which is between Mars and Jupiter, we see those dark asteroids are a lot more abundant the farther out you go. And so we think Bennu may have originated from a much larger asteroid, possibly accreted out beyond Jupiter, in which case in the early solar system, four and a half billion years ago, it would have picked up not only the rocks and dust and metal that's in the inner solar system, but ices and TARS that would be stable that far out. And somehow that material had to migrate into the inner solar system, delivering those critical compounds to the terrestrial planets pretty early in the process of planet formation.

S: So why would that kind of material be more common in the outer solar system than the inner solar system?

DL: It's a temperature gradient. So in the early solar system, we were a protoplanetary disk. There was material falling and collapsing from a giant molecular cloud that was spinning due to conservation of angular momentum. Most of the material went in to form the sun at the center, but a lot of material was spread out orbiting around that center of gravity. It's really hot close to the sun. And as you get farther away, it gets colder and colder. And that's when ices will become stable and also the organic material. And when it's just like a comet, when it comes into the inner solar system, it starts to sublimate and out gas. And eventually, if it sticks around, it just disappears.

S: So why is Bennu still around? Do you think it fairly recently migrated to the inner solar system?

DL: We do. We estimate Bennu migrated into the inner solar system about 1.75 million years ago. And that's based on tiny craters that we saw shot throughout the boulders on its surface. And we know the population of dust in the inner solar system. And we can use those little micro craters to estimate how long at least those boulder surfaces have been exposed in near Earth space. But Bennu's able to hang on to the water because it's no longer in the form of ice. That ice melted and reacted with the rocky material forming clays. And clays lock water right into their crystal structure, and they're stable at much higher temperatures than water ice is. So it's a natural way to deliver water that had to condense as icy material in the outer solar system. That object melted, clay minerals formed, and the clays are capable of surviving even in the intense heat of the inner solar system.

S: Now, is that something you knew before you had the sample return? Is that something you learned because of the sample return?

DL: It's what we hoped based on the selection of Bennu and comparison to very rare types of meteorites that show these clay minerals as well. So that was the goal, that we were targeting an object with that kind of mineralogy. And I'm very happy to report that we were right and we got exactly the kind of sample we were hoping for.

S: So let's talk about that. You said the science of the sample examination is just starting, but what have you learned so far?

DL: We've got a pretty good sense of the major mineralogy. In addition to those clays, we're seeing iron sulfides, iron oxides, calcium carbonates, and also phosphates. And the phosphates for me are one of the most exciting minerals or phases that we found because I'm an astrobiologist. I'm interested in the elements and the molecules that may have contributed to the origin of life. And I think a lot of information is in the phosphorus chemistry because it makes up, for example, the Backbone of our DNA. It's used as the major energy molecule in all life on Earth. It forms the cell membranes. And also, once you get to more advanced organisms, bones and teeth.

S: Is it possible that there are any amino acids in the sample returned from Bennu or on Bennu at all?

DL: Absolutely. And that's one of our key measurement objectives. We reported some early results just last week at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. It does contain amino acids. They look really compelling. For the listeners, amino acids are the building blocks of our proteins. So we're really excited to recognize that these carbon rich asteroids are may have brought the exact kinds of molecules that are used extensively in biochemistry today. We call that the exogenous delivery hypothesis. And it gives us hope that not only did Earth get all that material, but everything else in the solar system did too. Venus, Mars, the satellites of Jupiter and Saturn.

S: Yeah, Europa.

DL: Yeah, and we don't know how the origin of life occurred, but we do now have some confidence that at least those other places had a shot at it, making the search for organisms on those locations really exciting.

S: Now, you're going to have to explain this, but what was the chirality of those amino acids?

DL: The chirality is still under investigation. So we don't have a definitive answer on that, but it is a really important measurement because when we look at the proteins in all life on Earth, they use what's called the left-handed version of an amino acid. If you form these chemicals through a non-biological process, they have two mirrored structures, a right-handed version and a left-handed version. Somehow life is only selecting the left-handed ones to build the proteins with. And we do have evidence of small left-handed excesses in the amino acids. But we're not confident enough in that result right now. We really need to go in with more sample mass, higher sensitivity to definitively answer that question. But it is one of our top science objectives.

S: Yeah. But it sounds like you would predict that they would be both right and left-handed amino acids, but maybe a little bit of an excess of left-handed. And that's why life ended up using left-handed amino acids.

DL: I would definitely predict that when you form amino acids through a geochemical process, maybe in the hot fluids that we think form these clay minerals, you should produce equal amounts of left and right-handed versions. And then the question is, how does nature select one over the other? One idea, and I mentioned the sulfide and oxide minerals earlier, is that those mineral surfaces can have some chiral properties of their own, and they may preferentially absorb the left-handed over the right-handed and allow you at least locally to concentrate one version over the other. And that's an area also of active investigation right now.

B: That reminds me of the matter-antimatter mystery in the universe. Like, why is there matter and so little antimatter?

DL: Yeah, right? It's kind of interesting when you start to break these symmetries, right? A lot of our laws of physics, chemistry rely on symmetry, but the universe wouldn't exist if everything was perfectly symmetrical, everything matter and antimatter to wipe itself out. Left and right-handed amino acids don't build peptides and protein chains. So something is driving the system to one version of that material.

J: Were you guys able to accurately predict what the regolith was going to contain?

DL: We were. Yeah, we have a nice sample analysis plan. I posted it several months ago on If people are really interested, it's about 300 pages long. And we predicted clay minerals. We predicted iron oxide minerals. We predicted sulfide minerals, carbonates. We did not predict the phosphorus bearing phase. That's one of the biggest surprises so far.

S: Getting back to the amino acids, because it's interesting that you say that there's a lot of clays there, like water-containing clays. Isn't there a hypothesis that one of the potential pathways to the origin of the first biological molecules on Earth was that clays formed a template that allowed either amino acids or RNAs to form? Are you familiar with that?

DL: Absolutely. And even if all of that had happened on Earth, we still are going to gain a lot of knowledge from these Bennu samples because the environments where these clay minerals form terrestrially are at these hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, particularly the white smokers or what we call the alkaline hydrothermal vents. That heated water is being driven by formation of clay minerals, a process we call serpentinization. It's an exothermic chemical reaction. So it releases heat, heats that water up. It's the carbonate minerals that are white, which is why they look like white smokers. We try to understand even today where these environments exist. Could this have been a site for the origin of life? Well, we can't answer that question on Earth because there's all kinds of organisms that live down there. So if you find amino acids, well, you're like, yeah, probably came from that bacteria. Right. So, yeah. But now if Bennu had that same geologic environment, presumably without life present, so we could see exactly what you were talking about. How do these clay minerals catalyze formation of these interesting molecules, maybe isolate them in voids and pockets, leading to some kind of catalytic system, which we think is one of the hallmarks of life.

S: Yeah, some kind of prebiotic chemistry going on there.

DL: Exactly. And we don't have to worry about all this pesky terrestrial life contaminating us.

B: Contaminating it, right.

S: Right. So you mentioned that the amount of phosphates was a bit of a surprise. Any other big surprises so far? Or is there potential for any surprises for analyses you haven't completed yet?

DL: Potential. There's always potential for surprises. And I think the organic molecular diversity is turning out to be pretty astonishing. We're seeing tens of thousands of different molecules as we go through kind of sweeping on a mass spectrometer and just looking at all the different total masses that are there. And you start to say, how are we ever going to sort all that out? And the good news is we don't have to do all that because these samples are going to be around for decades. We'll kind of start the process, but in just a few short months, any qualified researcher around the world is going to be able to request this material for analysis in their laboratories and maybe focus on a subset of that amazing organic diversity.

J: I would think that there wouldn't be so much organic diversity on something that doesn't have an atmosphere and flowing water. Where is it coming from?

DL: Good question. Now, I think one area of that question that's interesting to focus on is there probably was liquid water on Bennu's parent body. And that's an important concept to get across. So Bennu's a pretty small asteroid, about 500 meters in diameter. That would not sustain liquid water. There's simply not enough pressure inside of it. But it's a fragment or a series of fragments, what we call a rubble pile, from a much larger body that was catastrophically shattered in maybe a billion years ago in the main asteroid belt. And Bennu is just one of thousands of fragments from that collision. And so that body may in fact have had liquid water, kind of the hydrothermal system like we see at the bottom of the ocean today.

S: Do you think Bennu is the fragment that is Bennu was a superficial fragment or a deep fragment and does it matter?

DL: I think it was probably both because you mix that whole object up when you shattered it. Think about breaking a pool rack. The balls go everywhere and you don't know which one's going to end up next to the other. When we simulate these collisions, you can easily mix surface material with deep interior material. And the boulders on Bennu kind of give us a clue that that might be the case because we have several different populations. Some are really, really dark, like less than 3%. Some of them are much brighter, 5, 6, 7, 8%. Some rare phases up to 30%. And we see layering like sedimentary strata in those boulders that look like maybe you had slow deposition of material at the bottom of a liquid water setting.

B: Well, how are the pieces sticking together? If the bigger chunk was destroyed – I mean it's not – I mean Bennu was what, 500 meters you said? I mean there's no gravity really going on there. So did it just – just the impact had such velocity that it just kind of glommed together into different chunks or –

DL: There's just enough gravity to pull all that and hold it together. There's just five micro G's is the acceleration of the surface.

B: Wow.

DL: And what really surprised us was we thought that we had the same question. How is this thing being held together? And we assumed there must be some sort of chemical cohesion between the grains. Even a van der waals force would be strong.

B: Yeah right, like a gecko.

DL: Exactly. And then we made contact with the asteroid and there was no resistance to the downward motion of the spacecraft. We sunk in over 50 centimeters deep, astonishingly deep compared to all of the tests and most of the simulations we had run. And I honestly believe if we hadn't fired the back away engines we would have lost it. It would have disappeared like into a pool of quicksand.

S: So with the success of OSIRIS-REx, are there plans for further asteroid material return?

DL: There are a couple missions in the works right now. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, which has flown two successful asteroid sample return missions, is currently working on the Martian Moon Explorer or MMX mission, which is targeting Phobos, the small moon of Mars, which may be a captured asteroid. I'm working with some colleagues on a concept to try to deliver material from the surface of a comet, which I think is the next most challenging target. Small body, much more rich in ice even than Bennu's precursor, we think, and would contain additional clues to these important elements and chemical compounds. But there is no asteroid sample return mission currently in development, at least that I'm aware of.

S: Okay. But as you say, you're going to be investigating this material for the next 40 years probably.

DL: That's right. And beyond, I think it's going to be a treasure for generations to come.

B: Well, how much material was brought back?

DL: We brought back 121.6 grams, which is more than twice what we promised NASA. Our mission requirement was 60 grams. So we're incredibly proud of that feat.

S: Which doesn't sound like a lot, but most of the experiments you're doing require just probably a very tiny amount of material, right?

DL: Yeah, we have electron microscopes. We can literally characterize things down to the atomic scale. We did kind of a bottom-up estimate when we said, how much material do we need? And the scientists said, we need 15 grams to do all of the science that we're laying out on this program.

B: Nice.

DL: And NASA's requirement is we can't consume more than 25% of the sample. 75% has to be held for future researchers. So that's how we got to the 60.

B: Nice.

J: Dante, so you wrote a book that in part covers this, right?

DL: Just this week, we released The Asteroid Hunter, which is really my personal journey on this mission. It starts out when I'm an undergraduate looking for a path in life. I get an amazing undergraduate opportunity to work on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. And that just fires me up. Most of the book focuses on the 20-year journey I've been on to conceive, design, build, test, launch, fly, return and now analyze these amazing samples from the asteroid.

J: Where can people get your book?

DL: The book is available everywhere. Fine books are sold. You can get it on Amazon. You can get it at Barnes and Noble. Lots of local bookstores are carrying it. That's awesome. Yeah, I should also say the audiobook version, I read most of it, but I worked with a good friend of mine, Sir Brian May from Queen, who does what we call the interludes underlying the grand Osiris-Rex adventure is a cosmic journey where two carbon atoms are trying to reconnect after getting separated in the early solar system. One of those is in my genetic code and one of them is in Bennu.

S: Love it.

J: Did you learn anything cool about Queen?

DL: Oh, my goodness. I've learned so much. Brian and I did a second book. We released it last summer called Bennu 3D. Brian is a member of my science team, and he's an expert in stereo imaging where he takes two images that are slightly offset in angle. And with a stereoscope, you can see the surface pop out in 3D. That was a joint venture between his London stereoscopic company and the University of Arizona Press. But I got to hang out with him. We did a bunch of autograph signing. We started working on a little music together. And I've seen him play live now five different times. It's been an amazing partnership.

J: Oh, wow. That's awesome.

DL: And I should say when he does his guitar solo, at least on the latest tour, he rises out of the stage riding Bennu into his cosmos.

E: Of course he is. Of course he is.

J: Oh, that is awesome.

S: That's awesome. Yeah.

J: Yeah, he's a profound guitarist. I mean, God, his writing for Queen was just epic.

DL: Yeah, he really is a polymath. He's a pleasure to work with. Writing that book was a complete joy. He was a great collaborator. And we're looking forward to some more adventures together. We'll both be at the Starmus, which is his space meets music festival that he holds every year. This year, it's going to be in Bratislava.

J: Thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it. And it was, again, like we covered this two or three months ago. And then when I found out that I can get you on an interview, I'm like, yes, this is the exact person that we want to talk to about this because you're like you're ankle deep in the regular.

DL: That's right. Literally some days.

B: 50 centimeters deep.

DL: That's right. 50 centimeters deep. We have a really cool animation of that that the Goddard Science Visualization Studio put out if you want to see what actually happened to the spacecraft. It's frightening. I still shudder when I watch it.

B: I want to check that out.

S: Well, Dante, thank you so much for joining us. This was fascinating.

DL: Yeah, thanks. I really appreciate it.


Science or Fiction (1:27:03)[edit]

Item #1: Researchers have developed a universal exoskeleton control system that can work for any user without the need for extensive calibration or training.[7]
Item #2: Scientists created a new method for using classic computers to error-correct quantum computers, resulting in a 60 qubit quantum computer with an accuracy rate of 91%.[8]
Item #3: New material design allows for structural wood to create buildings as high as 18 stories.[9]

Answer Item
Fiction Quantum computer accuracy
Science Universal exoskeleton system
New structural wood design
Host Result
Steve win
Rogue Guess
Quantum computer accuracy
Quantum computer accuracy
Quantum computer accuracy
New structural wood design

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

S: Each week I come up with three science news items or facts, two real and then one fake, and I challenge my panel of skeptics to tell me which one is the fake. We just have three regular news items this week. Are you guys ready? Okay, here we go. Item number one. Researchers have developed a universal exoskeleton control system that can work for any user without the need for extensive calibration or training. Item number two. Scientists created a new method for using classic computers to error-correct quantum computers, resulting in a 60-qubit quantum computer with an accuracy rate of 91%. And number three, new material design allows for structural wood to create buildings as high as 18 stories. Jay, go first.

Jay's Response

J: Researchers have developed a universal exoskeleton control system that can work for any user without the need for extensive calibration or training. I mean, I would think that we're about time for something like that. Extensive calibration, I mean, they'd have to fit it to some degree, but I bet you that it could be very intuitive. I would say that one is science. Second one, scientists created a new method for using classic computers to error correct quantum computers resulting in a 60 qubit quantum computer with an accuracy rate of 91%. I can't possibly see how scientists could use classic computers to error correct quantum computers. That goes against everything that I think I understand about quantum computing. All right, so that one is a definite maybe. The last one, new material design allows for structural wood to create buildings as high as 18 stories. Okay, I'm definitely going with number two, the quantum computer as the fake. That is definitely the fake.

S: Okay, Evan.

Evan's Response

E: Well, I'm probably going to wind up agreeing with Jay on this. The exoskeleton control system. Did anyone else think of Ripley jumping in the yellow thing and just saying the loading thing, walking around with no training basically and just learning it in two seconds?

B: No, she actually used one for her job before she went on that mission.

E: Oh, so maybe I will change my – based on that, I'll change my answer. Yeah, I mean, I don't know about quantum computers. I'm very ignorant. 60-qubit quantum computer. I read something about it. Was it going to be 1,000 qubit coming or they did it?

B: Well, that's the plan. I think IBM was planning 1,000.

E: This year, I think they were hoping to, I think. But this accuracy rate of 91%, I don't know if that's high, medium, low, where. I just don't know enough about this. This is why I think I'm going to call that one the fiction as well. And the last one about a new material design, structural wood to go as high as 18 stories. I suppose so. In theory, I'm not really sure why you would want to build an 18-story wood structure in itself. So I'll agree with Jay. Jay, you and I are together.

S: Okay, Bob.

Bob's Response

B: All right. The exoskeleton, I can buy that. I mean at least there's some calibration training. It's just not extensive. I mean it incorporates some AI in the control system and it seems reasonable. The quantum computer one though, 91% – I haven't – track this lately, but I know 91% is very good. It's – I mean it's all – for quantum computers, it's all about error correction. It really is. You could have a low qubit system. But if it were say very close to 100% error corrected, that would – achieve amazing results. Even if it's a low qubit, you don't need crazy qubits. As long as you have really, really good error correction, it could be dramatic. So 91 seems really high and it'd be a hell of a breakthrough. I really hope that's true. The third one, structure wood 18, that's still pretty damn high. What, 180 feet? All wood for the structure? Wow. I wouldn't be surprised if They had some freaky quantum breakthrough, and this one is the fiction. That sounds quite high for wood. But in terms of just like the odds, I'm going to have to go with quantum and say that that is probably going to be fiction, and it's not quite as high as 91%.

S: Okay, and Cara?

Cara's Response

C: So everyone is going with quantum computers?

E: So far. Okay.

C: I don't know anything about quantum computers. So you're saying that something about the qubits and the 91% is too high. The too many qubits and the too many percents.

E: You know more than I do, Cara.

B: The accuracy of 91% is really good.

C: The accuracy is too high. I don't... Part of me wants to like... Keep going on my crazy streak and like go out on a limb because I don't want Steve to sweep us. I don't know. I just want to play the odds here. Like the poker player in me is coming out. The exoskeleton one seems like too easy but I felt a few people hesitate on the structural wood so I don't know if I want to play the odds on that or not. Okay.

E: Especially after last week's defeat.

C: I know, I'm definitely and and I'm going last now. It's like Cara don't be stupid, don't be stupid. I wish I could see Steve's face. This is the one thing about this being audio only.

E: Oh, right. You need to tell. You're a poker player and a good poker player.

C: I'm better at playing poker live than like computer poker. Steve, give me something.

E: Steve, turn on your camera.

C: I think I'm going to do, I'm feeling reckless right now. I'm going to, I'm going out on a limb. I'm going to say structural wood. You know, I know nothing about quantum computers and I know nothing about material science. So I'm literally rolling the dice and saying structural wood. That's crazy. 18 stories. There's no way. It's only eight stories or something. Or you made that up or something. The last one being the fiction.

Steve Explains Item #1[edit]

S: All right. Cara going out on a limb. I love it. All right. So you all agree on one. We'll start there. Researchers have developed a universal exoskeleton control system that can work for any user without the need for extensive calibration or training. You all think this one is science, and this one is science. And of course, Evan, all the reporting mentions Ripley and Aliens with the exoskeleton. Yes. So the idea is that you build a robotic exoskeleton that can help somebody who's paralysed walk, for example. And the problem is that these systems all need extensive calibration and training.

B: Not to mention the batteries.

S: Yeah, but I'm just in time to just get it to work for a person. But this new system is basically like off the shelf. It works right away. It doesn't need any calibration or training. And Bob, you hit on it. It's AI. Of course it's AI.

B: Of course.

S: Yeah. So AI basically trains itself as you use it. And then that's it.

B: That's great.

S: Yeah.

C: How much energy is it going to take?

S: Well, I mean, this is not an improvement in the design of the robot itself, just the control system. But it's a huge – this was a huge impediment to getting this to people who need to use it clinically, right? Is that, yeah, after months of training, you'll be able to walk sort of with it. Now it reduces that time and could work right off the shelf. So that's – it's a huge advance actually.

Steve Explains Item #2[edit]

S: All right, I guess we'll take these in order. Scientists have created a new method for using classic computers to error-correct quantum computers, resulting in a 60-qubit quantum computer with an accuracy rate of 91%. So you guys threw out a lot of comments there, some of which are kind of correct. So, Jay, this is what happens now all the time. Classic computers are used to error-correct quantum computers. That's how they work, right? Again, it's in our book. But, yeah. So the problem is, the problem is that classic the whole point of quantum computers is that there are certain calculations that they could do orders of magnitude faster than classic computers. So you rapidly get beyond what a classic computer can do, right? You know, except for like the smallest qubit quantum computers. So improving – Bob is correct. Error correction is the game at this point. That's like the big limiting factor with quantum computers. So any advance in the ability to error correct them would be huge. But did they do it? And are the numbers accurate? Well, this one is the fiction. Because –

B: Too bad. I'm bummed. I'm kind of bummed even though I got it right.

S: Yeah.

E: In a way you want it to be true.

S: So first of all, it wasn't really a quantum computer. It was a quantum simulator, which is a type of quantum computer, but whatever. It's a little different.

B: No, but that's cool, though. That's a whole thing, man.

S: And the accuracy was 9%. The error rate was 91%.

E: Inversion.

S: But 9% is awesome because the previous benchmark was like 1%. Like 1% accuracy rate is considered very high for a quantum computer. So getting it up to 9% is huge. Yeah.

C: Look at that.

S: But yeah, 91 is crazy. That's obviously an order of magnitude greater than where we are. So how did they do it? What was the new method? The new method was using classic computers in series. So they liken it to like doing a painting with increasingly smaller brushes, adding increasingly smaller details. So you're not relying on one classic computer to give you the same amount of detail as a quantum computer. Once you get beyond a certain point with quantum computers, you can't. Again, that's the whole idea. So you just use a series of classic computers to try to – But each one subsequently adding a little bit more detail to the answer and then eventually you get an answer that's detailed enough that you can error correct the quantum computer to see. did the quantum computer get the correct answer basically. And so they were able to get a 60-qubit system up to 9% accuracy, which is huge. So, okay. It's actually an incremental advance in quantum computing, but fairly solid.

Steve Explains Item #3[edit]

S: All this means, that new material design allows for structural wood to create buildings as high as 18 stories is science. Sorry, Cara.

C: Yeah, I tried.

S: Two weeks in a row. That's like even more rare for you.

C: I'm keeping things interesting.

S: I appreciate that. I really do.

E: It was a clearly stated gamble.

C: Yes.

S: Evan, you asked the question, why would you want to build an 18-story building out of wood? Well, there's a very good reason, and that is because of the carbon footprint of the building. So steel and concrete are huge carbon emitters, whereas if you build it out of wood, it's a carbon sink, right? You are locking that carbon in the wood. And for whatever, that building is going to survive for 100 years. You're tying up that carbon for 100 years rather than releasing carbon because of – through steel and concrete. So that's why. That's why you would do it.

E: So these 18-story buildings would be of equal quality and structural integrity and everything else?

S: Well, so what happened was that the international standards were altered to basically now allow for wooden structures up to 18 stories because prior to that, you couldn't do it. You couldn't get approval for that design because but they were outdated. They were based upon the timber that we had at the time but there's recent material science advances in timber basically using like cross grain laminates I think is a big one where you essentially you sort of have laminated wood with it where you're deliberately making the grain go in different directions so it adds a lot of strength.

B: That's new?

S: Well, it's just – these are not totally new. The point is they're getting really good and they finally updated the international standards to account for these more recent advances in what's called mass timber. And they basically said, yeah, the mass timber we have today, you can build it. You could safely build an 18-story structure out of them. Also, they can apparently be beautiful. Aesthetically, it gives architects a lot of options.

E: Oh, sure.

S: Yeah, they could be very, very pretty.

E: It'll look like, yeah, the Elven kingdoms from Lord of the Rings, basically.

S: I've seen some of them. They are beautiful. So, yeah, just build a bunch of stuff out of wood, and it actually becomes a huge carbon sink rather than a carbon release. You know, like anything, it's always a drop. Everything's a drop in the bucket, but you've got to add them all together.

E: Sure.

S: It moves the ball forward a little bit. All right. Well, good job, guys.

J: Thank you.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:41:16)[edit]

One takes comfort from the fact there is no Gresham's law in science. In the long run, good science drives out bad.

 – American Gardner (1914-2010), American popular mathematics and popular science writer

S: Evan, you got a quote for this week?

E: I do. "One takes comfort from the fact that there is no Gresham's Law in science. In the long run, good science drives out bad." Martin Gardner.

C: Oh, I know him. I mean, I don't know him.

E: You should know him. Every good skeptic should know Martin Gardner.

S: So what's Gresham's Law?

E: Gresham's Law. Bad money drives out good. Perhaps you've heard that expression before. In other words, if I have a $100 bill and I have a little piece of gold that would be today's value worth $100, a person will tend to pay for something, assuming the vendor will take it, using that $100 paper bill, which is considered the bad money. because gold has more properties to it intrinsically in its value, and it can go up in its value, whereas the $100 bill you hand over is considered not as good as the gold. So the bad money will be spent first, and a person will hoard what they feel is the good stuff. So bad money drives out the good money.

S: But he says good science drives out bad science.

E: Right. Yep. So you can't have Gresham. No Gresham's law in science.

S: I agree that is in the long run. But that could take time. It does take a lot of time for that process to play itself out. In the meantime, people will spread the bad science if it's profitable. In medicine, it can take 15 to 20 years to really know the answer to a complicated clinical question. In the meantime, you got to practice medicine with the preliminary sometimes bad information. And even worse, there are snake oil salesmen who will be more than happy to sell you the bad science during the preliminary phase. And then when it eventually gets driven out by good science, they move on to the next thing because there's always something in that preliminary part of the process, you know.

E: Yeah. So unscrupulous people will take advantage of those gaps. Absolutely.

S: Right. So it does work in the long run, but it doesn't mean we don't have to deal with a lot of bad science or pseudoscience in the short run. All right, guys. Well, thank you all for joining me this week.

B: Sure, man.

C: Thanks, Steve.

E: Thank you, Steve.

J: You got it brother.


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[10]
  • Fact/Description
  • Fact/Description


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