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Science Salon Archives

In the tradition of the Enlightenment salons that helped drive the Age of Reason, Science Salon is a series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, scholars, and thinkers, about the most important issues of our time. Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn, or using the audio or video players below.

SCIENCE SALON # 84

Christof Koch — The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed

The Feeling of Life Itself: Why Consciousness Is Widespread but Can’t Be Computed (book cover)

In this fascinating discussion of one of the hardest problems in all of science — the hard problem of consciousness, that is, explaining how the feeling or experience of something can arise from neural activity — one of the world’s leading neuroscientists Christof Koch argues that consciousness, more widespread than previously assumed, is the feeling of being alive, not a type of computation or a clever hack. Consciousness is experience. Consciousness is, as his book title states, The Feeling of Life Itself — the feeling of being alive. Shermer and Koch discuss:

  • the Neural Correlates of Consciousness (NCC)
  • where consciousness is located in the brain (or, more precisely, where it is not located)
  • what comas and vegetative states teach us about consciousness
  • what brain injuries and diseases teach us about consciousness
  • what hallucinogens teach us about consciousness
  • what split-brain surgeries teach us about the nature of the self and identity
  • Koch’s experience with psilocybin and what he learned about consciousness
  • Koch’s experience in a flotation tank and what he learned about consciousness
  • why computers as they are currently configured can never create consciousness
  • why mind-uploading cannot copy or continue consciousness
  • Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness
  • Global Workspace Theory of Consciousness
  • why consciousness is not an illusion, and
  • mysterian mysteries.

Christof Koch is President and Chief Scientist of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, following twenty-seven years as a Professor at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist (MIT Press), The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach, and other books.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 83

Peter Boghossian — How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide (book cover)

In our current political climate, it seems impossible to have a reasonable conversation with anyone who has a different opinion. Whether you’re online, in a classroom, an office, a town hall — or just hoping to get through a family dinner with a stubborn relative — dialogue shuts down when perspectives clash. Heated debates often lead to insults and shaming, blocking any possibility of productive discourse. Everyone seems to be on a hair trigger.

In How to Have Impossible Conversations, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay guide you through the straightforward, practical, conversational techniques necessary for every successful conversation — whether the issue is climate change, religious faith, gender identity, race, poverty, immigration, or gun control. Boghossian and Lindsay teach the subtle art of instilling doubts and opening minds. They cover everything from learning the fundamentals for good conversations to achieving expert-level techniques to deal with hardliners and extremists.

Shermer and Boghossian discuss:

  • the growing political divide in American over the past quarter century
  • why politicians no longer reach across the aisle
  • when is the right time to have a difficult conversation
  • the best strategies to use to diffuse anger and keep a conversation productive
  • why the atheist movement splintered over disagreements
  • strategies used by hostage negotiators that you can employ in your conversations, and
  • negotiating the intractable social media.

Peter Boghossian is a full time faculty member in the philosophy department at Portland State University and an affiliated faculty member at Oregon Health Science University in the Division of General Internal Medicine. He is a national speaker for the Center of Inquiry and an international speaker for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and the author of A Manual for Creating Atheists. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

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SCIENCE SALON # 82

Phil Zuckerman — What it Means to be Moral: Why Religion is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life

What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life (book cover)

In What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life, Phil Zuckerman argues that morality does not come from God. Rather, it comes from us: our brains, our evolutionary past, our ongoing cultural development, our social experiences, and our ability to reason, reflect, and be sensitive to the suffering of others. By deconstructing religious arguments for God-based morality and guiding readers through the premises and promises of secular morality, Zuckerman argues that the major challenges facing the world today―from global warming and growing inequality to religious support for unethical political policies to gun violence and terrorism―are best approached from a nonreligious ethical framework. In short, we need to look to our fellow humans and within ourselves for moral progress and ethical action. Shermer and Zuckerman discus:

  • what is morality and what does it mean to be good?
  • the evolutionary origins of morality
  • the “naturalistic fallacy,” or the “is-ought fallacy” and why it need not always apply
  • how we’ve made moral progress over the centuries thanks to secular forces
  • why religion is always behind the wave of moral progress (but takes credit for it later)
  • the origin of good and evil
  • how to solve crime, homelessness, and other social problems through science, reason, and secular forces, and
  • the seven secular virtues.

Dr. Phil Zuckerman is the author of several books, including The Nonreligious, Living the Secular Life, Society without God, and his latest book, What it Means to be Moral. He is a professor of sociology at Pitzer College and the founding chair of the nation’s first secular studies program. He lives in Claremont, California, with his wife and three children.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

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SCIENCE SALON # 81

Bruce Hood — Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need

Possessed: Why We Want More Than We Need (book cover)

You may not believe it, but there is a link between our current political instability and your childhood attachment to teddy bears. There’s also a reason why children in Asia are more likely to share than their western counterparts and why the poor spend more of their income on luxury goods than the rich. Or why your mother is more likely to leave her money to you than your father. What connects these things?

The answer is our need for ownership. Award-winning University of Bristol psychologist Bruce Hood draws on research from his own lab and others around the world to explain why this uniquely human preoccupation governs our behavior from the cradle to the grave, even when it is often irrational, and destructive. What motivates us to buy more than we need? Is it innate, or cultural? How does our urge to acquire control our behaviour, even the way we vote? And what can we do about it? Possessed is the first book to explore how ownership has us enthralled in relentless pursuit of a false happiness, with damaging consequences for society and the planet — and how we can stop buying into it.

Dr. Hood and Dr. Shermer also discuss:

  • who owns your body and mind
  • how the military draft, conscription, is a way of the state taking possession of your body
  • suicide and bodily ownership: why states prohibit you from killing yourself
  • organs and bodily ownership: why states prohibit you from selling your organs
  • prostitution: why states prohibit people from selling their bodies for sex
  • slavery: why historically states have legalized owning other people
  • marriage & children: why historically states have sanctioned men owning women and children
  • children’s sense of ownership
  • income inequality
  • objects vs. money vs. social capital as possessions
  • money is not a possession so much as a means of getting possessions.
  • jealousy as a form of possession
  • xenophobia as a fear of loss of ownership
  • who owns the land, air, water, minerals, etc.?
  • intellectual property: who owns your ideas?
  • what wills and trusts tell us about the psychology of the transfer of ownership
  • the tragedy of the commons and environmental protection through private ownership: Ducks Unlimited, game reserves, licenses for killing big game in Africa
  • why original art is more valuable than fakes or duplicates, and
  • the Arab-Israel conflict and what happens when God ordains ownership of a piece of land to two different peoples.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 80

Bryan Walsh — End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World

End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World (book cover)

End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World is a compelling work of skilled reportage that peels back the layers of complexity around the unthinkable—and inevitable—end of humankind. From asteroids and artificial intelligence to volcanic supereruption to nuclear war, 15-year veteran science reporter and TIME editor Bryan Walsh provides a stunning panoramic view of the most catastrophic threats to the human race. Walsh and Shermer discuss these existential threats to humanity and what to do about them:

  • nuclear weapons
  • killer diseases
  • climate change
  • artificial intelligence
  • biotechnology
  • asteroids and volcanos
  • extraterrestrials, and
  • preparing for doomsday: should we all be doomsday preppers?

A graduate of Princeton University, Bryan Walsh worked as a foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor for TIME for over 15 years. He founded the award-winning Ecocentric blog on TIME.com and has reported from more than 20 countries on science and environmental stories like SARS, global warming, and extinction. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, with his wife and son.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

Addendum

In the discussion with Bryan Walsh about his new book End Times, in the section on nuclear weapons as an existential threat, the University of Washington Professor of Psychology David Barash, who is writing a book about the threat of nuclear weapons, points out two minor factual misstatements made about two Russian officials involved in nuclear close calls:

  1. The man responsible for the Soviet submarine not using its nuclear torpedo in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis wasn’t the captain but a high ranking officer named Vasily Arihopv
  2. The “man who saved the world” in 1983 was Stanislav Petrov. Thanks to Dr. Barash for providing the following excerpts from his forthcoming book, Threats: From Animals to People, Society, and Countries (Oxford University Press, 2020).
1. Cuban Missile Crisis Close Call

Unknown to US authorities, the Soviets had already put at least 20 nuclear tipped missiles in Cuba, capable of reaching as far as Washington, D.C., each carrying a one-megaton nuclear warhead — equivalent to roughly 70 Hiroshima-size bombs. At the same time, a Soviet submarine submerged off the Cuban coast was being harassed by a US Navy surface flotilla, which was firing small depth charges, of the sort used in training exercises — not trying to destroy the submarine but rather in an effort to get it to surface. The submarine’s officers, however, believed they were under full attack; the US military was unaware that this sub was equipped with at least one nuclear-tipped torpedo. Unable to communicate with its military leadership in the Kremlin and having been given permission to use its nuclear weapon in “dire circumstances,” two out of the three officers with launch responsibility voted to fire their nuclear torpedo at the US fleet, believing that a war had already started. This would almost certainly have provoked a thermonuclear war. But the third officer, one Vasily Arkhipov, voted “No,” and so the Soviet submarine didn’t devastate a chunk of the US Navy, the US did not retaliate, and the world remained intact.

2. The 1983 “Man Who Saved the World” Close Call

An enormous naval exercise was conducted during April and May of 1983, which was a particularly crucial year, with three Pacific-based carrier battle groups simulating total war against the USSR. By design, US forces began probing the sensitivity (and restraint) of Soviet air defenses. Especially provocative was a mock bombing exercise in which US Navy aircraft actually flew over a Soviet military base on Zeleny Island, which the Soviets countered by flying over the Aleutians, leading Premier Andropov to order that any subsequent overflight of Soviet territory be shot down. At the time, the US was about to deploy its Pershing II missiles in Europe. And then, sure enough, in September of that same fateful year, Soviet radar reported what they believed was a US spy plane in Soviet airspace over Siberia. An Su-15 interceptor was ordered to shoot it down. The intruder was no spy plane, but Korean Airlines flight 007, a commercial airliner bound for Seoul that had gone off-course, and whose communications with the scrambled Soviet jet were garbled. There were 269 civilian passengers, all of whom perished, including 62 Americans (one being a sitting congressman who was chairman of the bellicosely anti-communist John Birch Society) and 22 children under the age of 12.

The West was outraged. President Reagan denounced Soviet “barbarity,” and then things got even more dangerous. On September, 26, three weeks after the shooting down of KAL 007, a newly installed Soviet early warning satellite system sent an alert that a US ICBM had been launched and was heading toward the USSR, followed by a possible four more. The mid-ranking duty officer in the early warning command system, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, decided — on his own and counter to explicit military protocol — not to report this incident, which he judged to be a false alarm. And so it was. (Part of his reasoning was that a real first strike would have involved hundreds of missiles, not just a hand-full.) Had he informed his superior officers, General Secretary Andropov et al would have had just minutes to decide whether or not to “retaliate,” and given the tense state of US-Soviet relations at that time, the outcome could easily have been disastrous. Petrov was nonetheless officially reprimanded for his non-action; shortly thereafter he left the Soviet military and, in May, he died in relative poverty. Interviewed for the film, The Man Who Saved the World, Petrov said this about his role in the incident, “I was simply doing my job … that’s all. My late wife for 10 years knew nothing about it. ‘So what did you do?’ she asked me. ‘Nothing. I did nothing.’” Petrov’s “nothing” could well have saved the world.

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SCIENCE SALON # 79

Anthony Kronman — The Assault on American Excellence

The Assault on American Excellence (book cover)

The former dean of Yale Law School argues that the feverish egalitarianism gripping college campuses today is out of place at institutions whose job is to prepare citizens to live in a vibrant democracy. In his tenure at Yale, Anthony Kronman has watched students march across campus to protest the names of buildings and seen colleagues resign over emails about Halloween costumes. He is no stranger to recent confrontations at American universities. But where many see only the suppression of free speech, the babying of students, and the drive to bury the imperfect parts of our history, Kronman recognizes in these on-campus clashes a threat to our democracy. Shermer and Kronman discuss:

  • free speech vs. hate speech
  • how language affects how we think about other people
  • diversity of characteristics (race, gender) vs. diversity of viewpoints
  • the search for universal truths vs. understanding other’s perspectives
  • affirmative action in the academy: from the University of California to Harvard
  • taking down statues of Hitler and Stalin vs. taking down statues of Confederate Generals
  • the problem of applying current moral values to the past, and
  • how to reform the academy to refocus on excellence.

Anthony T. Kronman served as the dean of Yale Law School from 1994–2004, and has taught at the university for forty years. He is the author or coauthor of five books, including The Assault on American Excellence; Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life; and Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 78

Dr. Donald Hoffman — The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes

The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience (book cover)

In his new book, The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth From Our Eyes, the U.C. Irvine cognitive scientist Dr. Donald Hoffman challenges the leading scientific theories that claim that our senses report back objective reality. How can it be possible that the world we see is not objective reality? And how can our senses be useful if they are not communicating the truth? Hoffman argues that while we should take our perceptions seriously, we should not take them literally. His evolutionary model contends that natural selection has favored perception that hides the truth and guides us toward useful action, shaping our senses to keep us alive and reproducing. We observe a speeding car and do not walk in front of it; we see mold growing on bread and do not eat it. These impressions, though, are not objective reality. Just like a file icon on a desktop screen is a useful symbol rather than a genuine representation of what a computer file looks like, the objects we see every day are merely icons, allowing us to navigate the world safely and with ease. The real-world implications for this discovery are huge, even dismantling the very notion that spacetime is objective reality. The Case Against Reality dares us to question everything we thought we knew about the world we see.

In this conversation, Hoffman and Shermer get deep into the weeds of:

  • the nature of reality (ontology)
  • how we know anything about reality (epistemology)
  • the possibility that we’re living in a simulation
  • the possibility that we’re just a brain in a vat
  • the problem of other minds (that I’m the only sentient conscious being while everyone else is a zombie)
  • the hard problem of consciousness
  • what it means to ask “what’s it like to be a bat?”
  • does the moon exist if there are no conscious sentient beings anywhere in the universe?
  • is spacetime doomed?
  • quantum physics and consciousness
  • the microtubule theory of consciousness
  • the global workspace theory of consciousness, and
  • how Hoffman’s Interface Theory of Perception differs from Jordan Peterson’s Archetypal Theory of Truth (Shermer’s label for Peterson’s evolutionary theory of truth).

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 77

Dr. Lee McIntyre — The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience

The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience (book cover)

In this engaging conversation on the nature of science, Dr. McIntyre and Dr. Shermer get deep into the weeds of where to draw the line between science and pseudoscience. It may seem obvious when you see it (like Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography — “I know it when I see it”), from a philosophical perspective it isn’t at all easy to articulate a formula for science that perfectly weeds out all incorrect or fraudulent scientific claims while still retaining true scientific claims. It really comes down to what Dr. McIntyre describes as a “scientific attitude” in an emphasis on evidence and scientists’ willingness to change theories on the basis of new evidence. For example, claims that climate change isn’t settled science, that evolution is “only a theory,” and that scientists are conspiring to keep the truth about vaccines from the public are staples of some politicians’ rhetorical repertoire. In this podcast, and in more detail in his book, McIntyre provides listeners and readers with answers to these challenges to science, and in the process shows how science really works.

McIntyre and Shermer also discuss:

  • the strengths and weaknesses of Karl Popper’s “falsification” criteria for the line of demarcation
  • how conspiracy theorists draw their own line of demarcation between their version of the conspiracy vs. that of others within their own community
  • the problem of anomalies that are not explained by the mainstream theory and what to do with them
  • McIntyre’s adventure at the Flat Earth conference
  • Graham Hancock and alternative archaeology
  • Creationists and why they are wrong (and how evolution could be falsified)
  • similarities between Evolution deniers and Holocaust deniers
  • anti-vaxxers and their motives
  • climate deniers and why they’re inappropriately skeptical of climate science, and
  • how to talk to a science denier of any stripe.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 76

William Poundstone — The Doomsday Calculation: How an Equation that Predicts the Future is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe

The Doomsday Calculation: How an Equation that Predicts the Future is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe (book cover)
  • When will the world end?
  • How likely is it that intelligent extraterrestrial life exists?
  • Are we living in a simulation like the Matrix?
  • Is our universe but one in a multiverse?
  • How does Warren Buffett continue to beat the stock market?
  • How much longer will your romance last?

In this wide ranging conversation with science writer William Poundstone, answers to these questions, and more, will be provided … or at least considered in the framework of Bayesian analysis. In the 18th century, the British minister and mathematician Thomas Bayes devised a theorem that allowed him to assign probabilities to events that had never happened before. It languished in obscurity for centuries until computers came along and made it easy to crunch the numbers. Now, as the foundation of big data, Bayes’ formula has become a linchpin of the digital economy.

But here’s where things get really interesting: Bayes’ theorem can also be used to lay odds on the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence; on whether we live in a Matrix-like counterfeit of reality; on the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum theory being correct; and on the biggest question of all: how long will humanity survive?

The Doomsday Calculation tells how Silicon Valley’s profitable formula became a controversial pivot of contemporary thought. Drawing on interviews with thought leaders around the globe, it’s the story of a group of intellectual mavericks who are challenging what we thought we knew about our place in the universe.

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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SCIENCE SALON # 75

Charles Fishman — One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon

One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew us to the Moon (book cover)

On this July 16th, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Michael Shermer speaks with veteran space reporter Charles Fishman who has been writing about NASA and the space program for more than 30 years.

In One Giant Leap he delivers an all-new take on the race to the Moon that puts Apollo into a new perspective in American history. Yes, the Apollo astronauts are the well-known and well-deserved public heroes of the race to the Moon. But the astronauts didn’t make the trip possible. It took 410,000 people to make the moon landings achievable. Every hour of spaceflight for Apollo required a million hours of work by scientists, engineers and factory workers on the ground — the equivalent of 10 lifetimes of work back on Earth. Fishman tells the story of the men and women who did the work to get the astronauts, and the country, to the Moon and back. Fishman and Shermer discuss:

  • When President John F. Kennedy rallied the nation to go to the Moon in 1961, the task was impossible. None of the technology or techniques existed to do it. Engineers, scientists and factory workers in every state in the USA created that technology in just 8 years. They invented space travel on a deadline.
  • Apollo is sometimes judged a disappointment because it didn’t usher in the Jetsons-like Space Age we thought it would. Fishman argues that the success of Apollo is the age we live in now — it opened the world to the digital revolution in ways that have never before been appreciated or written about. “The race to the Moon didn’t usher in the Space Age; it ushered in the Digital Age,” he writes. “And that is as valuable a legacy as the imagined Space Age might have been.”
  • Secret tapes JFK made of meetings about space, along with other overlooked information from the Kennedy Administration, indicate that Kennedy himself was losing enthusiasm for the Moon race and the Moon landing by the fall of 1963. Had he not been assassinated, it’s not at all clear that Armstrong and Aldrin would have walked on the Moon in July 1969.
  • The on-board computer for Apollo was the smallest, most flexible, most powerful, most user-friendly computer ever created when it flew the astronauts to the Moon — and it did its mission with less computing power than your microwave oven has today.
  • Much of the most critical work to make the Moon missions possible was done by hand: the spacesuits were sewn by hand; the parachutes were sewn and folded by hand; the computer software was woven by hand; the heatshield was applied by hand, using a specialized version of a caulking gun.
  • The iconic image of astronauts unfurling an American flag on the Moon almost didn’t happen. NASA had not even thought about carrying a flag on the Moon missions until just weeks before the first mission blasted off.
  • Shermer ends by asking Fishman about the reputation of Wernher von Braun, the Nazi rocket scientist who built the mighty Saturn V rocket that took the astronauts to the moon: how can we reconcile his genius and vision with his Nazi past, especially his involvement in the slave labor that built the V-2 rockets that rained death down on England in the final year of the war?

Listen to Science Salon via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play Music, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, and TuneIn.

You play a vital part in our commitment to promote science and reason. If you enjoy the Science Salon Podcast, please show your support by making a donation, or by becoming a patron.

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