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Student Questions: Zero Point Energy and Missing Time

Skeptoid answers some interesting questions sent in by students.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #148
April 7, 2009
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe


From the university files, we have more student questions this week. Today we have a number of particularly fun ones. Although we start off with menthol cigarettes, which are kind of gross, we move on to the implications of antibacterial cleansers, missing time reported by UFO believers, zero point energy, and finally the ability to sense when you're being watched, and I've even got an experiment you can try. Let's flick our lighters and get started:

Hi Brian, I'm Ivan from Austria, age 21, my question is: Are menthol cigarettes worse for your health than ordinary cigarettes?

They may possibly be. Menthol itself is not directly harmful, but it may play a role increasing your body's absorption of nicotine. Menthol is often used in "light" cigarettes, which have less nicotine, and the menthol flavor replaces some of the lost impact.

Although black smokers smoke fewer cigarettes per day than whites, they smoke a much higher percentage of menthol cigarettes. Blacks also have a 30% higher risk of tobacco related lung cancer, despite smoking fewer cigarettes. Whether the menthol flavoring alone is the cause of this huge discrepancy is something that is being studied. It may be as simple as the menthol flavoring's cooling effect makes it easier to inhale more smoke more deeply. Or it may be a complex combination of factors involving race, gender, and certain biochemical differences.

So, while the data we have now shows that menthol smokers are at higher risk of lung cancer, it's not yet clear whether this is correlation or causation. Best advice? Don't smoke.

I'm Julie Brandenburg and I'm a student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in music. I'm a master's degree candidate and also a piano teacher. My question has to do with hand sanitizers. I understand that there's a new study out now that shows that hand sanitizers actually promote viruses because they thrive in the alcohol environment, I also have heard that hand sanitizers promote the "super bug" because the surviving bacteria are actually the ones that could tolerate the hand sanitizer alcohol. I'd like to know if there is any truth to these rumors, and if it is worthwhile for me to use hand sanitizers with my students to avoid getting ill.

There is indeed a growing consensus that antibacterial products do more harm than good. Triclosan is the most common antibacterial agent in consumer products, and like all antibacterial agents, it works by leaving behind a residue that is toxic to the bacteria. But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. And every time such residue is left lying around anywhere, it becomes a breeding ground for new resistant strains. So while it does effectively kill most bacteria, it also fosters the creation of new superbugs. This is the same reason doctors always advise you to take your entire course of antibiotics: Taking all of it will probably kill all the bugs, but taking most of it will kill most and confer resistance upon those that remain.

Alcohol works differently. It kills the bugs and then evaporates, leaving behind no residue in which superbugs can emerge. So alcohol wipes, for your application, are a much better choice than antibacterial products. Soap and water is also highly effective at removing bacteria from your hands, with zero downside. Do wash with soap and water between students, or use alcohol wipes. Avoid antibacterial sanitizers.

Hey Brian, my name is Ryan Miller, and I'm from Charlton State University. The other day I was watching the Pseudo-History Channel, and they had an episode on about missing time, and of course they attributed it to UFO's. My question for you is: Is there any scientific explanation for missing time?

Missing time is usually reported by people who find that they've traveled somewhere but it took much longer to get there than it should have, or who otherwise look at a clock and discover that a lot more time has passed than they were aware of. As you point out, the default conclusion that many people jump for is that an alien spacecraft must have abducted them and erased their memory of the event. UFOlogists commonly claim alien abduction as the only possible explanation for people occasionally losing track of the time.

As we've discussed before, Wikipedia becomes progressively less reliable when the topic is a controversial one. Here is a snippet from Wikipedia's article on missing time:

There have been multiple cases of people who affirm that they have experienced lost time just by being in the close presence of a UFO ship. This phenomenon could be explained by physics. General relativity states that time is relative, and that time runs slower in the presence of a gravitational field. The UFO ships may have a strong gravitational field and could make time dilation possible for nearby witnesses.

I'd like to see the effect on a human body of gravity strong enough to dilate time by an order of magnitude. Isn't that what the black hole scientists call "spaghettification"?

Much of the problem is that nearly all of these stories are self-reported anecdotes with no supporting evidence. Sure, it's easy to prove that you left your destination at 1:00 and didn't arrive home until 5:00, but rarely or never is there a GPS track provided that shows where you went in that time. Investigators almost never have any evidence other than the verbal report of where the person was during that time. Certainly in some of these stories, the person was simply lying, and we can ignore those. But most of the time people are honestly reporting what they believe happened to the best of their ability. And there are any number of ways to explain the average missing time story, with no need to spring for the alien abduction hypothesis:

  • More often than not, such people are probably just mistaken about how long they think their journey should have taken, or about what time they think they left. We're all honestly mistaken about things all the time; there's nothing improbable about this; and it probably explains the vast majority of "missing time" stories.

  • For missing time at home, people can simply fall asleep. There are also a number of seizure disorders in which the victim will suddenly experience missing time, from a few seconds to many hours or even days. And of course, it's just as easy to simply lose track of the time at home as it is when traveling.

  • Hysterical amnesia is another possibility that may explain a small number of such cases. This is often claimed as the reason the person doesn't remember their UFO abduction, but any other traumatic event is also possible, and doesn't require the introduction of an alien spacecraft.

Hi Brian, I am an Ivy Tech student and I was wondering what is the zero-point, or vacuum, energy in quantum physics, is it really possible that we could harness this energy?

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, zero point energy and vacuum energy are not really the same thing. Zero point energy simply refers to the lowest possible energy state of a system, which, incidentally, is always non-zero. Stuff always has some kind of quantum state. Vacuum energy refers specifically to the presence of energy in a vacuum, where there is no matter. One manifestation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is that certain properties, usually position and momentum, cannot both have exact values at the same time. It can have one or the other, but not both. This means that if we pick a point in space in a vacuum, we know the position, and therefore the energy level must be a non-zero unknown. At every position in space, there is energy. This can usually be explained by the constant appearance and disappearance of virtual particle/anti-particle pairs, which is the same phenomenon that generates Hawking radiation from the event horizon of a black hole.

The best-known experimental demonstration of vacuum energy is called the Casimir effect, which is often performed and duplicated. Casimir predicted that in any environment, a dense metal plate would be bombarded from all sides by zero point energy. Put two such plates near each other, and there would be insufficient space for some of the larger reactions to occur, and energy frequencies of longer wavelengths would be prohibited. Move them even closer, and you'd eliminate even more frequencies between them. Soon there would be less energy striking the facing surfaces than there would be on the outer surfaces, and the zero point energy would actually push the plates closer together with a measurable, though incredibly small, force.

But don't look for zero point energy to make perpetual motion machines possible, despite all sorts of such claims out there. Zero point energy is already the lowest possible energy of a system, therefore it is impossible to use that energy: Withdrawing it would leave less than the lowest possible energy, which is (obviously) impossible. The laws of thermodynamics remain inviolable.

I'm Mark at the University of Cincinnati. Has anyone investigated the alleged ability to sense someone watching you or to sense another person's presence?

I searched and searched all the usual sources but I couldn't find such a test being done. The vast majority of the opinions on the Internet hold that the phenomenon of being able to tell when you're being watched is real; some kind of sixth sense left over from when we were being hunted by saber toothed cats. Naturally, there is no plausible science by which this sense might exist: Photons hitting the retina of someone far away do not return on any pathway to you. And of course there are possibilities like hearing something faintly in the bushes and mistaking it for the sense of being watched; or having prior knowledge of the presence (or the possibility of the presence) of other people, and simply having that stuck in the back of your mind. This certainly happens to everyone every day.

People often report what appears to be confirmation bias. There seems to be a common belief that you're often right: That you can feel someone watching you, turn around, and you'll usually find that there is in fact someone there staring at you. But I question whether this belief is accurate. I don't think I've ever turned around and found someone actually watching me. Usually I get this feeling when I'm home alone, or somewhere off by myself, and when I turn there's never anyone there. If this is a real sense, it's a pretty darn crappy one.

Here's an easy way to verify that for yourself. Have two friends sit apart from each other with their backs facing you. Stare at one of them for 10 seconds, and then have them each raise their hand if they thought they were the one being stared at. You'll get two data points from each test: Each friend will be either wrong or right. Be sure to employ basic controls: Don't give any feedback. Make sure there is nobody else around who might be looking at the person you're not looking at. Make sure they can't tell if each other is raising their hands. Run ten such trials, collect twenty data points, then add them up. You'll find that they'll average about 50%, which is random chance. This is particularly fun if you have a friend who is a staunch believer that he can sense when he's being watched.

Thanks to the students who sent in this week's questions. Who's next? Just come to and click on Student Questions, I'm looking forward to hearing from you.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Zero Point Energy and Missing Time." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 7 Apr 2009. Web. 29 Nov 2015. <>


References & Further Reading

Aiello, A.E., Larson, E.L., Levy, S.B. "Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky?" Clinical Infectious Diseases. 1 Sep. 2007, Volume 45, Supp 2: S137–S147.

Genet, C., Intravaia, F., Lambrecht, A., Reynaud, S. "Electromagnetic vacuum fluctuations, Casimir and Van der Waals forces." Annales de la Fondation Louis de Broglie. 1 Jan. 2002, Volume 29, Number 1-2: 331-348.

Hatsukami D.K., Giovino G.A., Eissenberg T., Clark P.I., Lawrence, D., Leischow, S. "Methods to assess potential reduced exposure products." Nicotine & Tobacco Research. 1 Dec. 2005, Volume 7, Issue 6: 827-44.

Mustonen, T.K., Spencer S.M., Hoskinson R.A., Sachs D.P., Garvey A.J. "The influence of gender, race, and menthol content on tobacco exposure measures." Nicotine & Tobacco Research. 1 Aug. 2005, Volume 7, Issue 4: 581-90.

Oswald, M., Grosjean, S., Pohl, R. Cognitive Illusions. Hove: Psychology Press, 2004. 79-96.

Visser, M. "Ask the Experts." Scientific American, 18 Aug. 1997. Web. 28 Jul. 2007. <>


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