March Quiz: Women in History Month

How well do you know women in science?
24 February 2022

Interview with 

Kanta Dihal, University of Cambridge, & Lou Ignarro, UCLA, & Rob Dunn, NC State University & Colin Stuart


Astronaut and physiologist Jessica Meir


It’s that time where we take our wonderful panelists and pit them against each other in a battle of wits, competing for a prize beyond price: the Naked Scientists big brain of the week award. The month of March marks women in history month, so that’s our theme…

Chris - Our teams are Kanta and Rob team one, Colin and Lou team two. You are allowed to confer, but you mustn't try to put off the opposition. There's no naughty tactics allowed here. Question one, this is for team one, Kanta and Rob, as of November 2021 to the nearest 10, how many female astronauts have undertaken space flight? Is it A) 250 B) 100 or C) 50? What do you think?

Kanta - Hmm. I'm guessing it's not more than 50. Probably.

Rob - Yeah, I would agree on that.

Chris - Going 50?

Rob - Yep.

Chris - Quite right. There've been 502 men and 50 women. So far the longest space flight yet was a whopping nine hours. Now that accolade does go to women, that was pioneered by Susan Helms in 2001, I could say Hemed by Susan Helms in 2001. Wow. Also another claim to fame, Naked Scientist, contributor, Jessica Mayer ended up walking in space. A lot of big names appear here on The Naked Scientist. Okay. Over to you, question two for team two, one of the unsung heroes of paleontology is Mary Anning. In 1811, she found a fossil unlike any other that had been seen before in Lyme Regis, it was 5.2 meters long, but what was it? A) Pterodactyl B) Megalodon or C) Ichthyosaur? What do you reckon Colin and Lou?

Colin - Pretty sure it's C. I've been down to the Jurassic coast before and yeah I think it is an Ichthyosaur.

Chris - Solid, confident answer, and you're absolutely right. It is an Ichthyosaur. That word means fish-lizard. These were the reptile inhabitants of the seas Pterosaurs glided in the air, dinosaurs walking on the land all around at the same. Ichthyosaurs looked a bit like modern day dolphins, except they had absolutely massive teeth. The smallest one was about one meter long, the biggest one, a Shinosaurous, wonderful name, 23 meters in length. But loyal listeners to the program will remember us reporting just last month discussing the largest Ichthyosaur that's now been found in Britain. It was over 10 meters long. A fearsome beast, right? We're level pegging, both teams on a point a piece, onto round two. This is on Nobel prizes. One of our team members might have an advantage here. Question one. This is for team one Kanta and Rob. Four women have won Nobel prizes in physics since 1901, Andrea Ghez the latest female to be awarded the prize. She got that in 2020, but what did she discover? Was it A) the black hole at the center of the Milky way B) the creation of a chirped pulse amplification also known as a CPA Or C) did she discover the mass of a neutrino? What do you think?

Rob - I'm just gonna be guessing Kanta, any ideas?

Kanta - I think it was black hole that she did.

Chris - Are you going black hole? Yes. Andrea Ghez received the 2020 Nobel prize in physics, alongside Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel for their work on black holes. Her work and Genzel's work provided the most solid evidence yet for the existence of a super massive black hole, we call it Sagittarius A*. It's ironic. You put a star on a black hole name, but that's at the center of the Milky way galaxy. Another point, over to team two who are Colin and Lou Marie Curie won the Nobel prize for the discovery of the highly radioactive elements, radium and polonium, but which of these would give you the biggest dose of radiation? A) living in Cornwall B) a chest x-ray or C) a bag of brazil nuts?

Colin - There's quite a lot of mining down in Cornwall. There's a lot of stuff down there that could provide a dose of radiation. You'd think it probably wouldn't be the chest x-ray right? So, it's either the Brazil nuts or Cornwall, what do you reckon?

Lou - Brazil nuts have a lot of selenium, but I don't know what that has to do with radioactivity. I would have to go with the first answer.

Chris - Quite right. Living in Cornwall is the biggest risk factor on that list, but they're not all nuts, if you excuse the pun. The average UK citizen gets about 2.7 millisieverts, which is a measure of radiation, per year just from natural sources. A chest x-ray and a bag of brazil nuts actually give you about the same dose of radiation. It's about 0.01 millisieverts. But here's the kicker. If you live in Cornwall, your dose annually is about 6.9 millisieverts. So, nearly three times your background exposure across the UK. That puts you on par with having an annual chest CT scan, which is a very big dose of radiation. Back to team one who are Kanta and Rob for round three, question one, Sylvia Earle was a pioneer of ocean exploration and she was the first hero of the planet to be named by Time magazine. She accrued over 6,000 hours underwater, but which of these is the only true fact about scuba diving after 10 meters down? A) You can't see yellow or red B) nitrogen narcosis otherwise known as the bends kicks in at 10 meters underwater or C) the buoyancy of air in a scuba tank means that divers need a weight belt to hold them down underwater? Which is the true answer from those three?

Kanta - As a scuba diver, I know that nitrogen narcosis doesn't necessarily kick in at 10 meters. It's not guaranteed. It's not the air in the tank, but mostly the air in your lungs and suit that creates the buoy.

Rob - So, what does that leave us with the first one?

Kanta - 10 meters seems very early to stop seeing colors.

Chris - You're gonna have to pick one.

Rob - Let's go with the nitrogen narcosis one.

Chris - The answer is actually A) you can't see yellows and reds properly. Once you get more than 10 meters underwater, you'll appear to be bleeding a black color. The reason for this is that water strongly absorbs light at the red end of the spectrum. The bond between water molecules is strongly attenuating red wavelengths. As you go further underwater, you remove more and more red light from the light that's coming through the water. This means there's virtually no red light left to bounce back at your eye from the red in your blood, making anything that's that color look black. Nitrogen narcosis does kick in from about 20 meters. You're sort of right there, as soon as you go underwater you're beginning to dissolve more nitrogen in your bloodstream, but most people are all right until they get to at least 20 meters. Good physics on the last question, you're quite right, the air in the scuba tank is very heavily compressed, which means it actually weighs more than the water that the tank is pushing out of the way. It's actually negatively buoyant.

Lou - Really good science

Chris - Team two you may, Colin and Lou, have a chance to clinch this one. Jane Goodall is best known for her time spent studying chimpanzee families, but what name other than troop do we give to a group of baboons? Is it A) a flange B) a sleuth or C) a coalition?

Colin - Lou there's a famous Rowan Atkinson sketch where he called them a flange of baboons. I think they actually adopted the name flange from the Rowan Atkinson sketch.

Lou -Then let's go for it.

Chris - You're absolutely right. I love the logic that Rowan Atkinson educates the world in science. Very good. It's a flange of baboons. It is a sleuth of bears and a coalition of cheetahs.

Lou - Cheetah.

Chris - I think it should be a deception of cheetahs myself, but then that's just me! That means you guys got three out of three and The Naked Scientists Big Brain of the Week award goes to team two, very well done. Let's give them a round of applause.

Lou - It was mainly Colin. Thank you.


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