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Student Questions: Marauding Mammoths and Queen Elizabeth the Man

Skeptoid answers another round of questions sent in by students all around the world.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #312
May 29, 2012
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Today Skeptoid answers another round of questions sent in by students all around the world. We're going to examine the value of Bikram yoga, the possibility of bringing extinct animals like the woolly mammoth back to life through cloning, the necessity of thawing chicken properly to avoid kitchen bacteriological warfare, whether Queen Elizabeth I was a man or a woman, whether the consumption of certain foods can influence dreams, and whether the popular medical practice of avoiding cholesterol is indeed a major factor in controlling coronary heart disease. Let's get started by stretching out in the heat:

Hi Brian, just wanted to get your thoughts on Bikram Yoga. It seems to be getting really popular here in australia and the idea that doing yoga in 40 degree heat with high humidity will help just seems a bit strange to me.

The greatest dangers of working out in very hot conditions are dehydration and risk of heat stroke. You're going to sweat a lot more in such conditions, so you will lose hydration very quickly. Unless you stay hydrated, you're going to lose more weight; but it's all water weight, and there's no physiological reason that Bikram yoga will produce better weight loss results than any other exercise that burns a similar number of calories. If you enjoy it and stay hydrated, great; it's probably not going to hurt you, and it's perfectly good exercise.

Some practitioners claim that the heat loosens your muscles, allowing better stretching; or that it produces benefits similar to applying a hot pack to a tired muscle. This is false. Hot packs (or ice packs) need to be placed directly against the skin. Hot (or cold) air alone does not conduct enough heat to significantly affect the temperature of your muscle tissue. If it did, and your body temperature actually did rise, then you would be in hyperthermia, which is a serious medical emergency. If a Bikram practitioner tells you that the heat is better for your muscles, they don't know what they're talking about and you should leave.

Hello, this is Madeleine from New Mexico. I have heard claims recently of science nearing the point at which it would be able to reanimate extinct species of animals, such as woolly mammoths, through the cloning of undamaged bone marrow cells found in fossils. Is this a possibility?

Yes, it's theoretically possible, but it's a really difficult problem. Getting DNA of high enough quality is only a part of the solution, even though it receives the most attention. When we discover a new frozen mammoth corpse, there's always excitement and speculation about recovering its DNA. And we have plenty of it, but that's just gets us across the starting line. The DNA has to be nearly perfect, and then molecular biologists must manually create the 50 to 60 different chromosomes that elephants have. That's a huge project. Once you have a cell nucleus containing all the chromosomes, you can then replace the contents of the nucleus of a living elephant embryo, but you'll probably have to do this about 100 times before one will survive.

Healthy clones are even harder to make. Most artificially cloned animals have died early. Scientists in Spain once cloned an extinct goat, using genetic material extracted while the last surviving specimen was still alive, which allowed them to skip much of the tedious work that awaits mammoth cloners. However, the goat died after only a few minutes.

It will probably be done sooner or later, but the smart money is on later.

Hello, Brian! My name is Erlend, and I recently graduated from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. I'm wondering how dangerous it actually is to let chicken thaw out at room temperature. Many say it's an outright death-wish to leave chicken thawing on the kitchen counter even for a few hours. Now, obviously warm and moist flesh encourages bacterial growth, but the cooking of the meat kills almost all bacteria. So, assuming one is hygienic when handling the raw meat, and there are no toxic bacterial waste products, this sounds like pure hysteria to me. Could you investigate the matter to see if this zero-tolerance for counter-thawing is based on facts? Thanks!

I have to give a "yes and no" answer to this. Yes, completely thorough and proper cooking will kill all of the myriad little bugs that can cause foodborne illness; but no, it's not just hysteria. Some of these bacteria are seriously dangerous, and they will multiply quickly once the temperature of the meat is above about 4°C/40°F. Having them on your food preparation surfaces where they may come into contact with other foods that will not be cooked is dangerous. Getting them on your hands or on your knives is dangerous. So properly thawing your meat is not just hysteria, it's very sound food safety.

Once the little beasties multiply they will begin to break down the tissues of the meat as they consume it, and this is what happens when meat "goes bad". It tastes terrible. You can indeed cook it to kill everything and eat it safely, but do you really want to?

Hi Brian! My name is Tiffany Delligatti and I am a graduate student at the University of Connecticut. Recently, my art history professor has made an unusual claim; she says that there is strong evidence to suggest that Queen Elizabeth I of England was in fact, a man. This sounded incredibly dubious, but she points out the following as evidence: balding head, heavy make-up to cover a five 'o clock shadow, and dresses that would be impossible for a woman with hips to fit. What do you think? Is it possible that she wasn't in fact a woman? Thanks!

Anything's possible but that doesn't give it credibility. Contrary to what your professor says, there's no evidence whatsoever that she was a man, nor any sound reasons to suspect such a thing. This has to do with confusion over what the word "evidence" means. Queen Elizabeth never married and had no children, but this is not evidence that she was a man, it's merely consistent with the suggestion. She's usually depicted with a high hairline and wearing a collar that would hide an Adam's apple; but this is also not evidence, it's just consistent with the suggestion. I could just as easily suggest that she was from Mars, and point to her pale skin color, and call that evidence.

Nothing about Elizabeth's appearance as depicted in paintings is outside the normal range of women's features. None of the many suitors she had over her lifetime ever noticed anything worth mentioning. None of her attendants or servants ever raised the alarm. Outside of a few crank pseudohistorians, no real academics in the field have ever found cause to take this suggestion seriously, no more than they would take my suggestion that she was from Mars.

Hi Brian, this is Mike at the US Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School. Is there any truth to the claims about various foods such as popcorn and cheese improving or altering one's dreams? Thanks!

There is probably no biochemical connection between the food you eat and the type of dreams you have. That would require far more intricate signalling between your digestive system and the cognitive centers of your brain, and our bodies simply don't work that way. Nutrients make it into your bloodstream in a very gradual and prescribed manner, and by the time that blood is processed and brings oxygen to the brain, no significant information remains about what specific ingredients were in the food.

Smells, however, have been found to creep into dreams. If someone's cooking bacon for breakfast you're more likely to dream about bacon. Similarly, if you ate something especially pungent before bed, or the taste of which is still in your mouth, that lingering smell or flavor can intrude into your dream as well. Smells also trigger memories, and memories absolutely influence your dreams. In cases like this, everyone's individual experiences may match certain foods to certain remembered events. This type of connection between foods and dreams is experiential, not biochemical.

Some people point to things like blood sugar affecting adrenaline and this causing an exciting dream, but these are all really just speculations and not supported by proper research. The experiential component is probably the most significant driver.

This is Niko from Northern Illinois University. I have a question about fat, and, does it actually cause heart problems? A lot of people think that it doesn't, and this is based off of the Ancel Keys' Seven Country Study, and they believe that this study was actually flawed, because a lot of the countries were removed--I believe they actually studied twenty-one instead of seven, and then he only actually used seven--and so a lot of people believe that fat leads to heart problems, when, well according to some other people, it's actually sugar that and carbohydrates that lead to heart problems and not fat. They have some pretty good arguments and some good scientific evidence to show this. [So] I was wondering if you could comment on this, and let people know if this is actually a real thing to be concerned about, or if it's just another alternative scheme to, I guess, show people why the mainstream food and drug industry is flawed.

What you're referring to is cholesterol denial, a trend among alternative medicine practitioners who are critical of mainstream medicine's use of statin drugs to treat high cholesterol levels. Ancel Keys and his Seven Countries Study, which studied correlations between dietary cholesterol and heart disease, ran for 50 years, and was largely responsible for the unpopularity of saturated fats. Cholesterol buildup in the coronary arteries is a major cause of heart disease. It can be treated any number of ways, including diet and surgery, but also with statin drugs. Many alternative medicine practitioners reject the findings of science-based medicine, particularly the use of medications; and perhaps as a result, many have embraced the fringe claims that statin drugs are useless in their imaginary world where cholesterol is not correlated with coronary heart disease. They direct their focus instead on other causes, which is a textbook example of cognitive dissonance. They embrace what they should know is bad science because it happens to fit nicely with their ideology. In this case, the ideology is usually distrust of the pharmaceutical industry.

Unfortunately, the whole subject is a missed opportunity for science-based and alternative practitioners to find common ground. Both state that a good diet, low in saturated fats and sugar, plus exercise, is the healthiest lifestyle. It's unfortunate that at that point, they diverge into an ideological disagreement that does not serve a single patient's interest.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Marauding Mammoths and Queen Elizabeth the Man." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 29 May 2012. Web. 25 Nov 2015. <>


References & Further Reading

Choi, C. "Woolly Mammoths Could Be Cloned Someday, Scientist Says." Live Science. Tech Media Network, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May. 2012. <>

Eakins, L. "Elizabeth I: Queen of England." The Tudor Monarchs. Lara E. Eakins, 17 Aug. 2000. Web. 23 May. 2012. <>

Hall, H. "Cholesterol Skeptics Strike Again." Science-Based Medicine. Science-Based Medicine, 9 Oct. 2008. Web. 23 May. 2012. <>

ORNL. "Cloning Fact Sheet." Human Genome Project Information. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 11 May 2009. Web. 23 May. 2012. <>

USDA. "The Big Thaw: Safe Defrosting Methods for Consumers." Fact Sheets: Safe Food Handling. United States Department of Agriculture, 17 Aug. 2010. Web. 23 May. 2012. <>

Van Sunder, T. "Bikram Yoga: Not All It Is Claimed To Be." Flying Squirrel Media, 8 Mar. 2012. Web. 24 May. 2012. <>

Webber, R. "How Does Food Affect Your Dreams?" Chow. CBS Interactive, 9 Oct. 2009. Web. 24 May. 2012. <>


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