Meet our panel of experts!

Four specialist scientists are taking on your questions this week
04 February 2022

Interview with 

Olivia Remes, University of Cambridge & Greger Larson, University of Oxford & Becky Smethurst, University of Oxford & Thor Hanson, Science author


Julia - Let's meet this week's panel of experts. First off, we have a mental health and wellbeing researcher, Olivia Remes. Olivia is based at the University of Cambridge where she has studied anxiety and depression, as well as understanding the best coping strategies to help people thrive. These methods are documented in her book 'The Instant Mood Fix'. Olivia, as we are just coming out of January, what are some methods for lifting our mood during the winter months?

Olivia - One thing that I would say is turning to mindfulness meditation exercises. Something else that I would encourage people to do is to think of how you can incorporate a dose of positive emotion into your life. A dose of positive emotion can come from something that gives you pleasure that you enjoy, whether that's going outside for a walk in nature as being in nature is so good for our mental health and wellbeing. But also how can you get a dose of positive emotion in the home? A practical tip is to get into the kitchen. Cooking is great. Trying a new recipe changes how you feel about yourself. When you are successful with a dish, this can boost your self-esteem. These are all small steps that you can take to boost your wellbeing in these cold, dark winter months.

Julia - Yeah, I know. I definitely try to get myself outside when it's light and try to see the sun, but I love that about cooking a meal, especially a nice warm meal on a cold night. It sounds wonderful to me. Next up we have professor of paleogenomics at the University of Oxford, Greger Larson. Greger's research focuses on how we have evolved alongside other animals like chickens, pigs, and dogs. Greger, paleogenomics is a bit of a mouthful. What does that mean?

Greger - There's genomics, which is the sequencing of genomes, which every organism on earth has a genome. And paleogenomics is just trying to extract and amplify and sequence the genomes from things that have been dead for a while. As soon as you die, your DNA starts falling apart, just like the rest of you. What we are able to do is go and find some archaeological specimens, paleontological specimens, and many museum specimens. Then we're able to isolate the DNA usually from bone and teeth, but from just about any other substrate as well, including coprolites, which is like half-fossilized poo, but we can also use hair, plant remains, seeds, and all kinds of things. By extracting the DNA, we're able to then sequence and compare it against other living and dead populations to see what changes took place through time and space in order to try and piece that whole picture of evolution together over the last 50 to 100 thousand years.

Julia - I didn't think we'd be talking about fossilized poo, but here we are. Onto another evolution researcher now, but this time it's out of this world. Astrophysicist Becky Smethurst also based at the University of Oxford is with us. Becky studies the co-evolution of galaxies and the supermassive black holes and shares physics news on her YouTube channel, 'Dr Becky'. Becky, this may be a weird question, but what is your favourite black hole and why?

Becky - I think I'd have to say TON618, which is a very poetic name. TON618 is the biggest, supermassive black hole we've ever found. It is 68 billion times heavier than the sun and the really cool thing about it is we think it's reaching the biggest that supermassive black holes can ever grow to. Which is a really weird concept for people to wrap their heads around because people picture black holes like 'the endless Hoovers of the universe'. I like to say that black holes are less like hoovers are more like couch cushions. They're just very unassuming. You're not dragged towards them or pulled towards them, but if you lose anything down there, it's gone for good.

Julia - The couch is well and truly saturated. It's like that point where you're sitting on it, it's lumpy and you're like, 'Oh my goodness. There's so much stuff down here, but still I can't get anything out of it. I can't get anything out.' Finally on the show today from all the way across the Atlantic is conservation biologist and author, Thor Hanson. Thor shares incredible insights into all things wild and how our activities are influencing the creatures around us documented in his new book, 'Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squids'. Thor, what is a plastic squid?

Thor - The plastic squid is a marvelous story that comes to us from the Gulf of California. There has been a traditional fishery targeting the humble squid, the jumbo squid which is a squid that can grow to 4-6 feet or almost 2 meters in size. But a few years ago, after a series of climate-driven marine heat waves swept through that area, people stopped catching these squid. They just disappeared. Everyone assumed that, like so many creatures on this planet, the squid had responded to climate change by moving elsewhere and looking for the conditions they're used to. It wasn't until some scientists went down to do some surveys that they realized that the squid were still there. Instead of responding to the increase in temperature by fleeing, they had responded with what biologists call plasticity. The squid were living half as long. They were eating different foods. They were reproducing in half the time. And under those constraints, their bodies were reaching only a fraction of their previous size. Too small to bite upon the hooks that fishers had previously been using to catch them.

Julia - Wow. So plastic in the sense of they've adapted to their environment, not in the sense of they look like a plastic bag.

Thor - Exactly. Plastic, meaning they are flexible.


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