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Fruitful Feedback and Followups

Donate Skeptoid answers another round of listener feedback questions.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid Podcast #935
May 7, 2024
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Fruitful Feedback and Followups

Once again, we have for you a whole raft of updates and responses to feedback on various recent Skeptoid episodes. Today we're going to examine whether blobs of atmospheric plasma could have accounted for the foo fighters; what mosquito repellents actually work; the latest status update on Havana Syndrome; what it really takes to change your spaceship's direction in space; and what killed Ludwig van Beethoven. Let's dive right in!

Plasma foo fighters

Episode #924 was about the foo fighters — UFOs reported by World War II pilots. In the episode, we discussed a number of proposed explanations for what they were. Listener Chris wrote in:

This article was published a few months ago. I think it differentiates from St. Elmo's fire enough to make it a separate possible explanation of foo fighters. Thank you for fighting the good fight!

And he included a link to a news article about an upcoming publication about plasmas that exist in the thermosphere, between 100 and 600 kilometers up. They speculated that some of these plasmas may sometimes descend into the lower atmosphere, and that could be what the World War II pilots all saw.

Color me incredulous, but I think that's a horrible attempt at an explanation. For one thing, this is not something known to happen; for another, if this is indeed what countless pilots saw in World War II, then it would be a well-known phenomenon familiar to every pilot today and all atmospheric scientists would know about it. It's none of those things. It's an attempt to explain one unknown with another unknown — and though it can be tempting, you can't use this to make something true just because you want it to be true.

Lightning bullet, or ball lightning?

In the same episode, I mentioned a World War II German self-propelled anti-aircraft gun called a Kugelblitz and said that it means lightning bullet. Well, a lot of you — and I mean a lot — emailed to correct me, that it means ball lightning, and many of you even sent links to the term on machine translators like Google Translate — as if looking up the translation had never occurred to me.

The problem everyone fell into here is that kugel can mean either ball or bullet, depending on the context. In English, we use the term musket ball, because bullets used to be literally little round balls. We continued using the term for the Minié ball during the Civil War, even though it was no longer round. And throughout the English literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, you'll still find many cases where ball was used colloquially to mean bullet.

In German, they also said musket ball: Musketenkugel. They also said Minié ball: Minié-Kugel. And yet, the German scientific literature shows that the term kugelblitz was broadly used in theoretical papers about ball lightning as early as 1900. So when it came to the German anti-aircraft vehicle, I went online to German language military history forums and asked the question there: In the case of the Kugelblitz vehicle, was kugel used to mean ball or bullet?

The verdict? I'd say it was equally split. Some said it was a gun that fired bullets, so obviously kugel was used in the bullet sense: lightning bullet. Others said it was just a name, and they were naming it after a cool and dramatic phenomenon, ball lightning. Whoever originally named the Kugelblitz gun does not appear to have left any writings explaining the choice, so for now, I'm just going to leave this one as indeterminate.

Mosquito repellents

In episode #862 about mosquitos, I described DEET as "the only repellent that actually works decently." Listener Jonathan wrote in:

On your recent podcast on people being attractive to mosquitos you said that DEET is the only proven repellent. Isn't picaridin, a relatively new one, as effective as DEET? It has the advantage of being less oily and not damaging to plastics. Hence I like to use it for backpacking so a leak won't damage gear.

You are correct, sir. Most studies find picaridin comparable to DEET. You should be equally good with either.

Havana Syndrome still isn't a thing

Episodes #603 and #761 were both about Havana Syndrome — a name given by the press for the now-infamous 2016 event where workers at the American embassy in Havana, Cuba believed themselves to have been attacked by what they figured must have been some sort of acoustic weapon, of a hypothetical type that does not exist in reality. Although the vast majority of people who have studied this event now classify it as a nearly perfect textbook example of a mass psychogenic event, a few still cling to the belief that a type of new science-fiction weapon has been developed in secret by some power somewhere and is being used against Americans in embassies all around the world.

If you search the news archives since 2016, you'll find waves going back and forth where first some new study will find that the alleged victims all had a type of novel brain damage, proving the existence of this hypothetical weapon; and next some other study will be published finding that none of the victims actually suffered any effects at all outside of the expected symptoms of the acute stress they are all known to have been under.

So today I'm here to give the latest and greatest. Luckily, the news over the past year or so has been largely favoring the true version of what happened. This began in March 2023 when the National Intelligence Council published an unclassified assessment of what they're now calling "Anomalous Health Incidents" — it seems they've backed down from their earlier language calling the event an attack. The report surveys seven intelligence agencies, but does not name them. Finally now they are all in agreement that no foreign adversary attacked anyone:

  • Two agencies assess with moderate-to-high confidence that it's "very unlikely" a foreign adversary was involved;

  • Three agencies assess with moderate confidence that it's "very unlikely" a foreign adversary was involved; and

  • Two agencies assess with low confidence that it's "unlikely" a foreign adversary was involved.

The later news is that two large studies were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (here and here) in March 2024 finding no evidence that anyone suffered any injury of any kind: there were no significant differences between any of the affected individuals and control groups.

It's nice that the intelligence community thinks that probably no foreign adversary was responsible for this nothing that didn't happen; perhaps once they realize there was nothing for them even to assess, they'll raise their confidence levels on that conclusion.

How to change the direction of your spacecraft's movement

Episode #697 was on reactionless space drives, which are a science fiction concept that would allow a spacecraft to move itself in space without any equal and opposite reaction — a violation of Newton's Third Law of Motion. What I said in the episode was:

If I want to change the direction of my spacecraft's movement, the only physically possible way to do that is to expel a certain amount of mass in the opposite direction.

Yes, yes, generally that's true, but there are subtleties to be aware of. You may recall the so-called Pioneer Anomaly. In 1994, scientists began investigating why the Pioneer 10 and 11 deep space probes were decelerating more than the sun's gravity could account for. The answer turned out to be their power plants, radioisotope thermal generators, emitting thermal radiation. The generators' locations were on the side of the spacecraft opposite from the sun, so they were emitting photons of heat energy away from the sun. This caused thermal recoil. So radiating heat in one direction was changing the spacecraft's movement. But I said you had to expel mass to do that, and photons don't have any mass.

But mass and energy are the same thing, right? Mass-energy equivalence is literally what the equation E=mc2 illustrates. Much email debate ensued. Although many people weighed in with various explanations that ranged all the way to ferociously complicated, I think listener Leonard offered the simplest and clearest:

A better way to put the requirement for a rocket to work is to say that momentum must be preserved. "To change the rocket's momentum in a particular direction something with momentum must be expelled in the opposite direction." Light has momentum so the problem is avoided.

But wait, you might say: an object's momentum is a product of its mass and velocity. So how can light, which is massless, have momentum? And we're back again at mass-energy equivalence. Although we can definitely convert between a photon's energy and the equivalent mass, the photon itself has no mass as it's photoning along. So Leonard's statement is correct, and my original is — well, it's not quite incorrect, but it's oversimplified to the point that it gives the wrong idea.

I struggled whether to include this in an error correction episode or in a listener feedback episode. In the end I think an error correction episode would have been more appropriate; but we're here in a feedback episode primarily because we just had an error correction episode and this feedback episode was coming up. I am hereby due ten lashes with a wet noodle to square the accounts.

Beethoven's liver

Episode #561 debunked the pop-culture post-mortem of the composer Beethoven, which holds that he died of lead poisoning. Like the false belief that Mozart was murdered by his colleague Salieri, this story about Beethoven made its way into the popular consciousness via sensationalist media. A 2000 book and 2005 TV movie both claimed that analysis of locks of Beethoven's hair proved the lead poisoning.

Well, that's always been a fringe view, which is why it needed a book and movie to promote it. Beethoven's symptoms were nothing like those of lead poisoning, nor was there any reason to suspect Beethoven might have had more lead in his system than anyone else of his day and age. Doctors who have studied his symptoms and the circumstances of his death have always believed he suffered from chronic liver disease, probably accompanied by hepatitis. This was the main point of the Skeptoid episode.

And now a new study has just been published that basically adds evidence to — if not outright confirms — today's best medical analysis of what afflicted Beethoven. The study did genetic analysis, rather than chemical analysis, on genuine locks of Beethoven's hair. Published in the journal Current Biology, a team has found that Beethoven had a genetic predisposition for liver disease. They also found genetic material in his hair from the hepatitis B virus, indicating that he did indeed have hepatitis during the last months of his life.

And thus we conclude another episode of feedback and followups on Skeptoid. Keeping the the Skeptoid website as good a resource as it can be means keeping stuff current and updated, so we've always got that in mind as a goal. If you've got something to add, update, or correct — unless it's that your very reliable uncle told you his grandmother's poodle is psychic and she would gain nothing by lying about it and therefore we need to retract about half our episodes — then please get in touch: come to Until next time, keep thinking, and stay skeptical.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Fruitful Feedback and Followups." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 7 May 2024. Web. 21 May 2024. <>


References & Further Reading

Begg, T., Schmidt, A., Kocher, A., Attenborough, R., Kivisild, T., Krause, J. "Genomic analyses of hair from Ludwig van Beethoven." Current Biology. 24 Apr. 2023, Issue 33: 1431-1447.

Chan, L., et. al. "Clinical, Biomarker, and Research Tests Among US Government Personnel and Their Family Members Involved in Anomalous Health Incidents." JAMA. 18 Mar. 2024, Volume 331, Number 13: 1109-1121.

Newton, I. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. London: Jussu Societatis Regiæ ac Typis Josephi Streater, 1687.

NIC. Updated Assessment of Anomalous Health Incidents. Washington, DC: National Intelligence Council, 2023.

Pierpaoli, C., et. al. "Neuroimaging Findings in US Government Personnel and Their Family Members Involved in Anomalous Health Incidents." JAMA. 18 Mar. 2024, Volume 331, Number 13: 1122-1134.

Van Roey, K., et. al. "Field Evaluation of Picaridin Repellents Reveals Differences in Repellent Sensitivity between Southeast Asian Vectors of Malaria and Arboviruses." PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. 18 Dec. 2014, Volume 8, Number 12: e3326.


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