Bee-keeping scientists!

10 September 2019

Interview with 

Eleanor Drinkwater, Bobby Seagull, Fran Day, Dan Gordon

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Chris Smith introduces the team answering your science questions this month. University of York animal behaviour scientist Eleanor Drinkwater, exercise physiologist Dan Gordon from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge University physicist Fran Day, and Cambridge University mathematician and University Challenge icon Bobby Seagull! First up, Chris asked Eleanor what she's been up to...

Eleanor - Well, I’m a very keen beekeeper and I made the very rookie mistake of not zipping up my own bee suit the other day, and I can tell you that that was bitterly regretted the next day. But this is very much a mark of pride among beekeepers.

Chris - You're not a proper paid up beekeeper until you've had at least one anaphylaxis.

Eleanor - Hopefully no one has anaphylaxis, that's a bad thing when it happens. But if you work with bees you do occasionally get stung.

Chris - Yeah. How's it going, the beekeeping?

Eleanor - Really, really good fun. We've had an absolutely lovely queen in one of our hives at the moment, the other one's a bit more grumpy so they're a bit more of a... it’s true... I’m getting laughed at here.

Chris - My brother keeps bees, Eleanor, and he says the same thing. He said that as the queens get older, and also certain colonies just have a particularly aggressive behaviour, it's something to do with the queen squirting out pheromones that keeps everyone calm, and as the queen ages she makes less of them.

Eleanor - Yes exactly, that's exactly it. And then the character of the queen or, you know, the chemicals that she produces, that has a really big impact on the behaviour of all the other bees in the colony. So yeah. So if you have a really nasty queen then you can swap out for a really friendly queen and suddenly the hive becomes a lot more friendly to work with. So it’s really incredible.

Chris - And also honey?

Eleanor - Oh, yes, some, not as much as we were hoping, unfortunately, but yes definitely enough to be getting on with.

Chris - Eleanor, thank you. So any questions you have about insects perhaps even bees, bee stings and beekeeping, ask Eleanor. Dan Gordon is also with us. Dan's an exercise physiologist, he is at Anglia Ruskin University. He's also a Paralympian and he's got a world record. And there was a lot of coverage in recent weeks about athletes using sports drinks and it not being terribly good for their dental health.

Dan - Yes. It came about I think about 10 days ago. Quite a large ranging study that was looking at elite athletes and they reported that the dental health in elite athletes was far, far worse than in the general population. Although the paper didn't fully attribute it to it, one of the main conclusions was that they thought it was down to the kind of sports drinks that are consumed, which are mostly these high carbohydrate loaded with sugar. Yeah.

Chris - Yeah. How's your dentistry doing? Are you alright?

Dan - Well, I think I got away with it actually. I think so, yeah.

Chris - Why do you think you got away with it?

Dan - I think partly genetics. My parents had incredibly good teeth. I mean, my father who died about three years ago, he never had a filling. So he died at the age of 78, he never had a filling, he had really good dental health.

Chris - All his teeth? Or even just the odd ones missing?

Dan - No, no teeth missing, he hadn’t lost any. No, it wasn't like you've got no teeth. So he got incredibly good teeth. And actually when you look in his family and you look at his brothers and you look at his... going back at my grandparents, they all got amazing teeth. So I think actually I got away with it in that in that sense.

Chris - What are they advocating that sports practitioners do then? Because you can't not have energy to do the events.

Dan - No. And I think in the end, what they're really getting at, I suppose, is that there's got to be greater scrutiny of the health of the teeth in athletes. I mean, you know, when I was competing, one of the things we had to do before we went to the Paralympics, every athlete had to have a full dental check. Which sounds like a crazy thing to do. You're going to Olympic Games, actually, you wouldn't think that teeth are that important. But actually the worst thing you can have at an Olympic Games is...

Chris - Toothache, to ruin your day...

Dan - Is toothache, yeah. And so one of the things that's really being advocated now is that part of the athlete support program, part of lifestyle management, should be to actually monitor the health of the teeth.

Chris - So you think warning people that there is this risk, do you think they'll probably take more care about washing their mouth out to get rid of the extra sugar etc?

Dan - Yeah, I think so. I think more use of things like mouth rinses, cleaning the teeth more regularly for example, as part of the training routine.

Chris - So any questions about exercise, exercise physiology, how the body works, sports and sports fitness, Dan’s your man. Now next to Dan, is Fran! See what I did there? Wonderful. Fran is a Cambridge University physicist. She is an astrophysicist, a cosmologist interested in how the universe at large works... but you’re also a stand up comedian as well, isn’t that right? How is that going? I'm not gonna do the horrible thing where you come in and say ‘Oh go on then tell us a joke’. I won't do that. But how is that going?

Fran - It's going pretty well. I'm writing a new show at the moment about the philosophy of science and what we're really doing when we're doing science. So that has been a bit of a step back from the day to day of my research.

Chris - Are you poking fun at it, or are you kind of making light of what life as a scientist and a researcher is like? Is that the thrust of the show?

Fran - Yes, I'm poking fun at it. But there's also I think a serious element of it. And I hope people will come away knowing a bit more about... you know, I've been told I'm participating in the scientific method, but I never really examined what that meant until now.

Chris - You're gonna find out. You were also saying to me just before we started about the story that came out earlier this year, the first picture of a black hole or rather the first impression of a black hole. And that's actually going to be made into a movie rather than just a bunch of static pictures, now you're saying?

Fran - Yeah, that's right. So you might remember the Event Horizon Telescope published a few months ago the first image of a black hole or more pedantically, the shadow of a black hole I suppose. And they’re now gonna do a full color movie of the black hole which is going to be really incredible, both in terms of what it will teach us about astrophysics and general relativity, and also just that it's super cool. You can just be able to watch a black hole on YouTube.

Chris - Or you could just watch some telly programs which amount to much of the same thing. Just no content visible whatsoever. Thank you very much Fran. So anything to do with how the universe works and space, anything like that please send those questions in, Fran will be happy to consider those. Also with us, Bobby Seagull, who needs very little introduction. He's originally from Cambridge University, he’s a mathematician and teaches math... you teach kids maths, right, and actually you’ve been doing a telly program at the very moment, haven't you? Going around the country looking at inventions and things? How is that going?

Bobby - Yes, Eric Monkman, for those who maybe need a reminder, is the University Challenge icon. He is the icon of icons. I'm his friend.

Chris - Well you were pretty iconic on there as well. You're quite good.

Bobby - Thank you. I was very gregarious and outgoing. But we had a first series initially looking at “A genius guide to Britain”, so travelling around in a mini car... imagine Top Gear meets QI, but sort of exploring all the curious bits of Britain. And the new series is called “A genius guide to the age of invention”. So Eric and I get back in our mini car, go around the UK, but this time is quite chronological. So we're looking from 1750 to 1900 and exploring Britain's discoveries and inventions in that period.

Chris - Why did you pick that period? Because it's a particularly golden period or was there some other reason?

Bobby - I think it’s the golden nature of that period because obviously if you look before that, it is sort of like Britain is still pre-enlightenment, before industrial times, and then in that period, 1750 to 1900, lots of inventions, discoveries, chemistry’s been discovered, physics, science, you know the word science/scientist comes into being, Darwin, Thompson, so lots of great figures of science emerge.

Chris - Any particularly standout moments? Because there are when you're making telly programmes, they're always funny things that we never see on screen or other things that are just, well, moments that you never thought you'd find yourself doing.

Bobby - So one of my standout moments actually isn't a standout moment for me, but is a standout moment for the show. So we visit the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and we get to hold one of the original cathode ray tubes that J.J. Thompson used, but I was too much of a chicken to hold it. Genuinely I was like, no, I can't! It's like taking someone else's baby... you can look at it, admire it, but if you want to hold it... no no no, I don't wanna hold that, I'm gonna take a selfie, but I'm not gonna hold the baby.

Chris - It would be quite tempting to hold it and then go “oops!” Because the same thing sort of happened to me because when I was in South Africa, when I first went to South Africa I was at a conference, and this big American guy came up to me at the conference and he said, "tomorrow I’m gonna pick you up from your hotel and I'm going to take you somewhere and show you something that's gonna change your life forever!" Now, of course, if you’ve never met this guy, you think that could mean a range of things! And actually, he took me to the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, where he's Professor of paleo-anthropology. This is Lee Berger, who's now been on this programme a number of times and has discovered not one, not two, but three new species of early human ancestor! And he had in this wooden box at the university the face, the complete facial skeleton of the Taung Child, which is the specimen that is the Australopithecus holotype. In other words, all of the Australopith specimens that we have, these are early human ancestors, so maybe three million years ago or so, they're all compared to this one, which was discovered by Raymond Dart about 100 years ago now. And it's really fabulous. They've even got the endocast - the fossil remnant of the brain - of this thing. And I was holding this in my hands. It’s three million years old! It’s the only one in existence. And I did get tempted to go "whoops"! But Lee was very very cautious: he had his hands under mine all the time. Because, you think, this is just priceless. But I know exactly what you mean!

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