Science Interviews


Sun, 19th Mar 2006

The Cambridge Science Festival

Part of the show Invasive Species, Conservation and the Last Giant Tortoise

Chris - Here's a round up of what we got up to yesterday at the Cambridge Science Festival. One of the first people I spoke to was the person who opened the festival for us here in Cambridge, and that was Carol Vorderman. I asked her what she thought of last year's sudoku craze, which she was very much a part of.

Carol - I was addicted. Well I still am actually. I couldn't go anywhere without taking one with me and I've now managed to control my addiction. I've got it down to one or two a day but I think we should have sudoku patches being sold in the chemist, it's that bad!

Chris - What do you think makes them so addictive, Carol?

Carol - I don't know. I think they access a particular part of the brain. I've been trying to get people into number puzzles for decades now, and a lot of people glaze over when they see numbers. But sudoku seems to reach a particular part of the brain and to let all of those other thoughts escape. You can just have a sense of pure thought.

Chris - It's been a little while since you were in Cambridge studying. What did you actually do here?

Carol - I did engineering here and I was at Sidney Sussex college. I was one of the poorer students I have to say! I had a third in every year of the tripos and I believe the students now in honour of that call getting a third 'getting a Vorderman'.

Chris - But this kind of event wasn't happening when you were here. What do you think of it?

Carol - This is brilliant. It's the first time I've been and it's packed. People who've come aren't scientists and they're not at all associated with the university under normal circumstances. They're just here because they want to learn something, have a bit of a good time and see what's going on. It's brilliant.

Chris - Almost certainly minding her Ps and Qs, that was Countdown's Carol Vorderman, proving that not even a maths guru on Countdown can get a first class degree from university. Now sticking to the educational theme I then spoke to the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, Professor Alison Richard, about what the Cambridge Science Festival is really trying to achieve.

Alison - It's all about trying to increase the understanding of the deep incredible interest of science and its importance and how it can explain and illuminate the world. The mechanism whereby we're doing this is through really interesting experiments which are a lot of fun.

Chris - Why do you think it is so important to get the message of science out and tell people in the public domain what's going on in universities like Cambridge?

Alison - I think it's really important to capture the imaginations of children about the importance of science and the fact that they might grow up to study science and then go on to do something in science. If we have planted the seeds of that idea and that ambition into some of the children here today then that will have been a great thing to do. When you watch their faces, I've seen a lot of children this morning looking just so rapt with interest and attention.

Chris - That was Alison Richard, the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University talking about why the Cambridge Science Festival is so important for increasing public interest in science. Now one person who's already very much interested in science was found spinning on a chair in the middle of the lawn. Anna Lacey and Dave Ansell got her involved in some kitchen science.

Fiona - I'm Fiona and I'm 13.

Anna - And where have you come from today?

Fiona - I've come from Enfield in London.

Anna - Woah so we're getting people coming from all over the country to Cambridge this very day. So Dave, can you tell us, what has Fiona got to do?

Dave - Fiona's sitting on a chair that will spin really easily. I want her to take hold of these two bags of rice, one in each hand.

Anna - How are your muscles feeling Fiona?

Fiona - They're fine!

Dave - Ok, what I want you to do is to hold your arms out straight and stick your legs out forwards. I'm going to spin you gently.

Anna - So Fiona's now spinning around with her legs out.

Dave - Now I want you to pull your arms and legs in towards your body. Now put your arms back out again and pull them in again. Ok, we'll stop you Fiona.

Anna - Now Fiona, can you tell us what happened when you stuck your arms out and then brought them in?

Fiona - When I brought them in, I started to spin faster than I was when they were out.

Anna - Dave, what was happening?

Dave - Well if you think about how far the weights have got to go when you've got your arms out, it's like a great big circle. When you pull them in, you have a much smaller circle so it's much less distance for them to travel. So even if they were going at the same speed, it would take much longer for them to go around the big circle than the small circle. Also, did you notice that it was quite hard to pull the weights in?

Fiona - Yes.

Dave - When you pull the weights in, you're fighting against a pretend force called centrifugal force which gives the weights even more energy and you spin even faster.

Anna - So it's not only because you've got less distance to travel when you pull those bags in, but you're also putting in extra energy which speeds you up even faster.

Dave - That's right Anna.

Anna - Wow, that's absolutely amazing! And have you ever done any ice skating?

Fiona - Yes but I don't think that I'd be able to spin round for very long.

Anna - Did you feel sick at all?

Fiona - Yes.

Anna - Why do you feel sick Dave when you've been turning round really quickly?

Dave - Well the way your head knows which way up it is, is that inside your head there are lots of tubes called semi-circular canals. Inside is a liquid. If you start spinning for a long time, the water starts moving round and round the tubes. When you stop, it carries on going and your brain thinks your head is moving. The reason why it makes you feel sick is that there are lots of poisons which confuse these parts of your ears and so your body thinks that maybe it's been poisoned. In case you've eaten something bad, it throws up.

Chris - All in a spin. That was 13 year old Fiona with Anna Lacey and Dave Ansell finding out about the science of giddiness and why spinning round on a chair makes you want to throw up. Now speaking of throwing up, what about the science of dragons and throwing up fire? We got talking to Henry Gee from Nature magazine about his new book, the Science of Middle Earth.

Henry - I do two things. I talk about how you can make these things happen. How do dragons breathe fire? How do the balrogs, these demons, fly? How do orcs reproduce? Tolkein never talked much about sex but that doesn't mean that I can't, so I've had a lot of fun doing that.

Chris Well I've met some people who almost do have breath as bad as breathing fire, but how do you think dragons could have fiery breath then?

Henry - Well I thought it was actually not that difficult. All you need to do is have something that fumes a bit, has a very low critical point and ignites very easily if mechanically in contact with something. So I thought, easy! Diethyl ether! I had the most incredible ether fires when I was at school. All you have to do is tip it from one test tube to another and it ignites. So if you have a dragon making ether in its ether glands, all it would do is breathe it out across its teeth and you'd get a flame. As everyone who's had laboratory accidents know, a little ether goes a long way.

Chris - Well it is the Naked Scientists, so let's get back to the sex. Orcs and sex: tell us about that.

Henry - Well Tolkein said that there were boy orcs and girl orcs but then he lost the plot after that because no - one knows how orcs were made. I think that lots of orcs were parthenogenetic, in other words they're all girls and reproduce without sex at all. You think that they might look pretty male, but then so do female hyenas. They're so doped up with testosterone to go and do battle with other female hyenas. We don't actually know this with orcs because nobody actually sees an orc without its trousers on, so it has to remain in the realm of hypothesis.

Chris - Well let's hope it stays that way. Now from fiery breath and orc sex to eyeballs because I caught up with nine year old Euan at Crash, Bang, Squelch, one of the very hands-on activities at the Cambridge Science Festival and asked him what he thought about the prospect of cutting up a sheep's eyeball.

Euan - I think it's really fun and it's really exciting to be here for the second time.

Chris - So obviously it was good last year because you've come back, but what have you done so far today?

Euan - So far we've done Crash, Bang, Squelch and we've had a little look at some other things.

Chris - One of the things I've just seen you fiddling with is a sheep's eyeball. Tell us about that.

Euan - Well we learnt all sorts of things about the eyeball such as it's got black stuff inside the eye. With the black stuff there is jelly, which I never knew.

Chris - Did it help to get a real eyeball and chop it up for you to understand what goes on inside your own eyeball?

Euan - Yes it did, except a sheep gets more night vision because it's got colour in its eye.

Chris - There's a reflective layer on the back of the eyeball isn't there? I bet you don't know the name of it.

Euan - Um, no I don't.

Chris - Do you want to know the name?

Euan - Yes please.

Chris - It's called the tapetum lucidum. That's a Latin word and it means bright carpet.

Euan - Does it? I'd never have known that. Thank you.

Chris - And what would you say to anyone else listening to this thinking whether they should go to the Cambridge Science Festival?

Euan - I would say, go now!

Chris - You heard him. That was nine year old Euan doing the big sell on sheep's eyeballs. He was there at the Cambridge Science Festival's Crash, Bang, Squelch, and before that, you heard Dave Ansell our regular Kitchen Science guru doing a little bit on the science of giddiness.


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