Science Interviews


Sun, 16th Mar 2008

Sonic Screwdrivers, Spiderman and Skateboarding Scientists

Dr Paul Parsons, Dr Johnathan Wood, Dr Basil Singer

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show Cambridge Science Festival Highlights

Kat - Dr Whoís been capturing imagination for decades but is it all just fiction? Dr Paul Parsons thinks not as Ben found out.

Ben - Iím here at the Science festival with Dr Paul Parsons, author of the Science of Dr Who. Is there really any science in Dr Who or is it all fiction?

The TARDISPaul - Actually thereís a surprising amount of science in Dr Who not just the obvious topics like regeneration and space flight and things like that. There are actual real science screwdrivers being used in modern factories, There are protective shields for tanks that are being developed that can dissolve projectiles just like the Daleks did back in the first three series. Thereís all kinds of things going on. I was just staggered when I started ringing up scientists and finding out this kind of thing because I thought it was going to be quite limited, the kinds of stuff that I could talk about. I was literally blown away by how much there is out there.

Ben - So if weíre using sonic screwdrivers now is that a case of art influencing science?

Paul - I donít think they were already in action when they started including them in science fiction. They probably didnít result from science fiction. I think this is just something that people have developed. I say sonic screwdrivers, theyíre kinda sonic tools. The use sound energy for soldering electrical components in place and that kind of thing. You can use them for cutting fabrics and that sort of stuff, you know. Theyíre little side beams Ė to make something with as much oomph as the Dr has would be a lot harder. Back in the old series he blows up landmines with the sonic screwdriver from a distance of about 20m. Getting something powerful enough to do that, youíd probably need a nuclear generator which a modern Tom Baker could probably fit in his pockets. Probably a little way to go before you have a real sonic screwdriver like we see in Dr Who. The basic sorts of things are being used, yeah sure.

Ben - Surely the laws of physics donít let us have a thing like the Tardis where itís actually bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Paul - Itís something you can do in principle actually. There was a guy back in the late 90s came up with a way of arranging this special type of material. He calls it exotic matter because it has negative pressure which means if you blow up your car tyres with the stuff they actually get flatter which is quite bizarre in itself. This chap Chris van-den-Broeck at the University of Cardiff figured out a way of using exotic matter in just the right way that it would actually bend space and time into this bubble which was actually bigger on the inside than it was on the outside. The trouble is you need probably about 10 million billion kg of exotic matter to do this which is about the size of a medium-sized asteroid. Itís not something weíre going to do anytime soon. Itís possible in principle.

Ben - If these things were to be possible what would be the one thing from Dr Who that you would like to see in common use?

Paul - Thatís interestingÖhmmm. Time travel would be good but thatís probably maybe a bit obvious, One thing I would like, there was an episode of Dr Who called Nightmare in Eden where there was this machine which was kind of like a virtual safari park where it could capture locations from all around the universe but then project them but project them as a hologram. You could actually go in and walk around. You could visit places virtually, if you like, without having to get on planes and pollute the environment and all that kind of thing. I think Iíd have one of them.

Ben - It does sound like a very good way to cut down on your carbon footprint!

Paul - Yes, Dr Who can have the carbon footprint licked. How clever is that!

Ben - Also at the science festival is the editor of materials today, Jonathan Wood. What have geckos, spiders, sharks and daffodils got to do with materials?

Jonathan - Well, I thought that was a good question too but it turns out that all of those things have come up with amazing engineering solutions that we can learn from and make new materials for ourselves. For example, a shark has got dimples on its skin that breaks up the flow of water over its skin, reducing the drag so it uses less energy. Speedo reckons it can make better swimsuits making its swimmers go faster using something similar.

Ben - Should we expect to see Olympic athletes in shark suits?

Jonathan - The all-in-one body suits that make them look so hi-tech now, they are based on what Speedoís learned from sharks. We can argue whether they achieve all that Speedo says or not. Certainly there doesnít appear to be the change in world records that you might have expected if it really worked but itís interesting science nonetheless.

Tokay GeckoBen - In Olympic sports itís the tenths of hundredths of a second that make the difference.

Jonathan - Absolutely, the tenth of a second is going to mean the difference between a medal. Even if it helps just a little bit, even if you canít quite show it by science, thatís going to matter totally to the swimmer.

Ben - With daffodils, theyíve inspired some beautiful paintings, some poetry but how have they inspired science?

Jonathan - Well, daffodils are interesting. When the wind blows a daffodil doesnít blow over like a tulip might. Instead it twists and turns its head out of the wind. Itís got this strength in the stem but itís also inbuilt this type of flexibility that allows it to twist and keep its head up in the wind. We tend to want to do something different when we build something strong. We want it to be stiff. Thatís an example where natureís done something different because it has different priorities than we do.

Ben - What do geckos have to do with Spiderman?

Jonathan - Geckos are amazing and sticky. They can scurry up the smoothest wall without a second thought. The way they do it is buy having hundreds of thousands of tiny hairs on their toes and these hairs make use of a tiny sticky force called a Van der Waals force. Itís tiny on one hair but if you add it up over the hundreds of thousands of hairs itís really sticky. They can cling to walls like Spiderman did but they can hold their weight maybe 50-100 times over. Itís a remarkable thing.

Ben - Have we developed the technology based on this effect?

Jonathan - We can now make materials that are hairy much like a geckoís foot. If you create a plastic film with lots of plastic fibres sticking out of it and you make them close enough you can make something stick purely like Van der Waals forces. Weíre not as good as a gecko yet but we may be able to scale the Empire State Building soon.

Ben - Also at the festival is extreme scientists, Dr Basil Singer.

Basil - Hello. Howís it going?

Ben - Very good thank you and you?

Basil - Very well. Itís an amazing event this year, youíve got so many people here. Itís the most packed-out Iíve ever seen it. Carol Vorderman is on form. Whatís more, youíve got the sight of Dr Who. The queueís really long. Iíd love to get in and see it but queueís all the way out the door, around the building and up the block. Itís proved to be a massive hit.

An attempt to ollie over a barrier on a skateboardBen - Well your own show was on the science of extreme sports and that had queues all the way out and down the river. To be honest, itís the only science show Iíve seen where you had five kids on stage, on skateboards. What inspired you to use skateboards just to demonstrate physics?

Basil - Why not? Mechanics essentially can be taught as such a dry subject. Itís just the physics of motion. What better way to use analogies than through extreme sports to describe those physics of motions and the dynamics that occur when youíre doing some cool sports?

Ben - Do you find that people get distracted by the fact that there are skateboards around or do you think that they take the physics in?

Basil - I like to think that the kids take the physics in. Iíve talked to parents after the event before and the parents have come up to me and said, Ďer I donít think you really got this idea across because I was distracted by that.í And the children say, Ďwhat are you talking about? Angle of momentum Ė I totally got it! I totally understand moment of inertia now and why I speed up when I bring my hands in when Iím speeding.í The kids just really do, I hope anyway, relate to what Iím saying.

Ben - Other than snowboarding live on stage and bringing your own snow dome what do you think youíll do next? Whatís the best way to demonstrate physics to kids?

Basil - Thatís a very good question. I think Iím going to continue doing this physics of extreme sports lecture because itís a great way to explain mechanics. Iíd also like to branch out into sound and music. How does sound travel through the air? How do different instruments make those different sounds? I could bring in a guitar and do a massive rock riff. I could bring in my drums and have a mash away at the drum kit. I think that could be really interesting.


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