Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

Instinctively SciSchmoozing

8 Jul 2024

Photo by Bart Zijlstra, UNIL

Hello again science fans. विज्ञान प्रेमियों को पुनः नमस्कार।. (120,000 Bay Area residents speak Hindi at home.)


Occasionally, ants get injured by predators, or from fighting, or from skate-boarding. Rather than drag around a broken, bleeding leg, an injured ant will request an amputation by another ant. Afterall, it’s pretty easy getting along on only 5 legs – or so i’m told. Since ants don’t go to med school, amputating a fellow ant’s leg must be an instinctual behavior that is encoded into its DNA. ¿How does that work? We don’t know. 

Consider the Bar-Tailed Godwit. After it leaves the nest, a youngster fattens itself up, departs its home in northern Alaska and flies 11,000 km to New Zealand – non-stop – over open ocean – alone. We’ve learned that birds – along with many other animals – are able to navigate by using the Earth’s magnetic field. ¿But from where did the youngster Godwit get a map? Instinct, we suppose – but that’s not a real answer. “Instinct” for one creature may be through entirely different processes than “instinct” for another creature. 

Male mosquitoes can be lured into traps using chemicals that mimic female pheromones of the same species. Or, as just discovered, males are instinctively lured into traps that play the females’ siren song: a sound that mimics the wing beat frequency of female mosquitoes of the same species. Pretty cool.


They missed! Two asteroids “narrowly” missed Earth this last week. The smaller one – 2024 MK – passed within 300,000 km from Earth. With a diameter of roughly 150m, a direct hit would have easily destroyed a city. The larger one – 2011 UL21 – got no closer than 6.6 million kilometers. At roughly 1,500m in diameter, a direct hit would have been catastrophic. However, its mass is hundreds of times less than the Chicxulub impactor that took out the dinosaurs.


We are offering a crystal ball enclosing a crude depiction of the Solar System. It comes with a color-change base. Just send an email before noon Friday to david.almandsmith [at] with your guess of an integer between 0 and 1,000.  Last time, Robert’s guess of 139 won him a glass beer stein displaying the molecular formula for ethyl alcohol.


For the first time in decades, fewer than a million people died of AIDS in the preceding year. We can credit several drugs that are available to combat HIV / AIDS but they must be taken every day – and not everybody finds that easy to do because of external or personal circumstances. A new injectable drug from a California firm needs to be administered only once every six months. It has just successfully completed human trials. ¿A rainbow on the horizon?

Bad news: Gen X individuals (born 1965 – 1980) are getting cancers at higher rates than their parents and grandparents. Data seem to be consistent with statistically poorer lifestyles of Gen X: “obesity, lack of exercise, eating too much red meat.” Among other possible causes could be industrial toxins and microplastics.

A dozen years ago, i visited Cuba on a public health tour. There we learned – among much else – that their biomedical research facilities had developed a drug that clinics were using to prevent the loss of toes and feet due to diabetic ulcers. In the U.S., over 150,000 amputations are performed every year due to diabetic foot ulcers. The Cuban drug, Heberprot-P, is finally on track to be approved in the U.S. but not for another 4 years. This 16-year delay is resulting in 2 million unnecessary amputations in the U.S. 

MY PICKS of the WEEK (Hint: save dates & times to your mobile phone)

Speculative Storytelling & Real Science Livestream 11am Wednesday

Twists & Turns in Teaching Evolution Livestream 4pm Thursday

Making Cancer Non-Lethal in Our Lifetime 6pm Thurs, S.F., $

NightLifeCon 6 – 10pm Thurs, Cal Academy of Science, S.F., $ (CosPlay!)

Wonderfest: How to be More Uncertain 10am Saturday, Berkeley

The Lawrence Carnival 11 – 3 Sunday, Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley, $

And a little later this month: SkeptiCal 2024 Livestream July 19 – 21, $


“Power from thermonuclear fusion is just 25 years in the future – and always will be.” This bit of wry wit has been around since the 1950s and so far has been on the mark. It was just announced that ITER – the huge multinational fusion research facility being built in France – will not begin tests next year as planned, but instead in 2034. Ouch!

Scientists are finding ever more uses for Artificial Intelligence: examining X-ray images; determining how proteins fold; developing new vaccines; etc. How about settling a biological evolution debate between Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin.

A ghostbot – a.k.a. deadbot, griefbot –  is an AI representation of someone who is no longer living. My first introduction to a ghostbot was in the Interdependency trilogy of novels by John Scalzi. In the story, everything an important woman said was recorded. After her death, AI allowed the protagonist to converse with a holographic representation of her. Now you can buy a ghostbot of yourself for your descendants or anyone who might put up with you. Yes, there are ethical concerns but the industry is expanding. Just because you can create a ghostbot of yourself, should you??  There is another use for a ghostbot: ghostwriting. Rather than thinking about what to write about some new development, i could ask my ghostbot to write it for me!

Feeling lonely? There’s an AI companion for that. The State of New York is subsidizing the use of an AI companion for the elderly called ElliQ, and the reviews are generally positive. Not only does ElliQ chat with its human while emulating empathy, its knowledge-base encompasses songs, literature, science, etc. It remembers every interaction with its human and will initiate conversation to fill an overlong silence.

¿What is the future of AI? Scientists point out that the silicon-based neural networks – used to create the Large Language Models that underpin AI – are not very close in function and geometry to our brain’s own dendritic networks. Therefore efforts are underway to better emulate our biological brain with the goal of creating a superior form of Artificial Intelligence.


Plunging into a Black Hole – NASA – 4 mins

Hydrogenated Water – The Right Chemistry – Joe Schwarcz – 5 mins

Dyson Spheres & Advanced Civilizations – Sabine Hossenfelder – 5 mins

Evolutionary Mystery of the Hyrax – Bizarre Beasts – Sarah Suta – 10 minutes

Tuberculosis – The White Death – Kurzgesagt – John Green – 11 mins

CMB ‘Axis of Evil’  – Dr. Becky – Becky Smethurst – 14 mins

The Oldest Unsolved Problem in Math – Veritaseum – Derek Muller – 30 mins

Star Talk, 2 July 2024 Neil deGrasse Tyson, Chuck Nice, & Brian Greene – 58 mins

Have a great week,
Dave Almandsmith, Bay Area Skeptics

Good is better than evil because it’s nicer.”
Mammy Yokum of the Li’l Abner comic strip by Al Capp (1909 – 1979)

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