Meet the panel!

We introduce the band of scientists here to answer all your questions...
20 September 2022

Interview with 

Jonathan Reisman & Kathryn Harkup & Risa Bagwandin & Peter Haynes


A microphone and mixing desk


Before we start crunching through conundrums, let’s meet this week’s panel, Kathryn Harkup, Jonathan Reisman, Risa Bagwandin and Peter Haynes...

Chris - First up, we have chemist and author Kathryn Harkup. Her latest book is called 'Super Spy Science: Science, Death, and Tech in the World of James Bond' and it focuses on the science and technology involved in that world famous super spy series. She's also written on the subject of poisons that have been used in fiction, such as those featured in Agatha Christie and Shakespeare and I have to ask you this, obviously. Kathryn, what is your number one James Bond gadget?

Kathryn - I always lean towards the villainous side and I think my favourite gadget has to be Rosa Klebb's poison tipped shoes. Genius.

Chris - How does it work?

Kathryn - It's very simple. It's just like a button release: you get this very sharp stabby thing turn up at the end of your shoe. And then of course you lace it with something that will kill you allegedly in 12 seconds. I doubt there's a poison that will do that, but I'm afraid that the henchman who gets kicked with it is as good as dead because they're not helping him.

Chris - Something similar happened with risin in an umbrella though, didn't it?

Kathryn - Yes. There was a famous murder in London on Waterloo bridge that was allegedly a poison filled pellet that was fired into a man's thigh, Georgi Markov's thigh, an adapted umbrella. I'm not sure the umbrella bit is true, but he certainly was poisoned with ricin and it took him three horrible days to die. Not quite the 12 seconds that Spectre manages.

Chris - What came first, Ian Fleming doing this with the shoe or the umbrella?

Kathryn - No, Ian Fleming got there first. I don't know if anyone was picking up tips, literally. Though, there has always been the idea of poison tipped weapons. There is nothing new to that. There's arrows have been laced with all sorts of nasty since time immemorial just to kill off various animals for food. So I don't think Fleming can be held responsible in any way for informing on Georgi Markov's death.

Chris - One of the things you wrote in the book that I must admit I was amazed by was you were describing - I can't remember exactly which film it was - it's where James Bond is swimming underwater, using that amazing thing he plugs into his mouth. And you say in the book that one of the spy services rang up the producers to find out how they did it.

Kathryn - That's true. That is how the story goes. Apparently some secret service agency had been interested in developing something similar because it has obvious uses in the secret services. And so they were fascinated, like they'd cracked the problem that they'd been tackling. And so they got in touch with the producers and the producers had to confess that this device that you see on screen was actually two soda syphon capsules glued together, and the actors were holding their breath.

Chris - So it doesn't work after all.

Kathryn - Well, it does. Now, this is one of those weird things I do wonder if someone has watched a James Bond film and thought, you know what, that's what the world needs. You can now buy rebreathers. They don't quite work the way they're described in the films. They kind of filter oxygen from the surrounding water a bit like fish gills. And it will give you some oxygen whilst you are underwater. So I do wonder if Bond has inspired a rather cool gadget.

Chris - Are they not huge?

Kathryn - They are bigger than the soda syphon capsules, admittedly, but they're still quite small. It's not like swimming around with a huge tank on your back.

Chris - Thanks, Kathryn. I'm amazed.

Chris - Well, next up, we've got physician and author Jonathan Reisman with us. Jonathan's got a great deal of information to impart about internal organs, everything ranging from inspecting them through to eating them. You can learn about that from his book, which is The Unseen Body, that delves inside our insides and navigates its way through the wonders of our internal systems. Jonathan, you say in your book that the throat is foolishly designed. Why?

Jonathan - As we all know, when things go into the back of the throat they can either be swallowed down the oesophagus into the stomach, which is certainly the route that all food and drink and saliva and whatever else we're swallowing should take. There's another route for air to go through the windpipe or trachea into the lungs. And if anything that should be swallowed, such as food or drink or saliva, gets into that airway, one small slip up and you can die or become gravely ill. And yet those two entrances for air and for everything else are right next to each other with just a few millimetres separating them. And every time we swallow the material that we're swallowing comes within a hair's breadth of going down the wrong pipe and killing us. So it seems less than ideal design though it does work and we swallow daily for decades without dying. So that's good.

Chris - Well sitting alongside Jonathan, we've got Risa Bagwandin. Now, Risa's a PhD student. She's studying Chemical Biology at the University of Cape Town. She's focusing on the diagnosis of tuberculosis. It's pretty special, actually, that you're here. So why don't you tell us how you came to be here?

Risa - So I met Dr Chris Smith in Durban, South Africa at a conference called BIO African Convention in 2019. It so happened that the conference organisers along with Chris presented a science communication fellowship award, which was awarded to the best science communicator. You had to attend a science communication workshop and present in front of a large audience that was attended by ministers.

Chris - Well, we thought we needed a good test. So we gave the three fine finalists at the workshop the challenge: they had to stand up at the conference dinner in front of a thousand people and tell them in three minutes what they were working on. And as Risa says, there was the minister for health there and a few other high level dignitaries. Congratulations.

Kathryn - Seriously, that takes some doing.

Chris - And so they thought she did a jolly good job and, even better, the South African government agreed to pay to send her here. So we are very privileged to have you with us for about eight weeks. And so we thought given we've got a big chemical brain in the room, we would use it this week. Sitting next to Risa is Peter Haynes. Now Peter's a mathematician and you work on the climate. What are the challenges that people like you are trying to solve? Having got weather forecasts that work rather well, what are the unknowns or the less good at bits that we are trying to improve on?

Peter - Well, of course, weather forecasting is only part of the story, right? And one of the challenges we face is thinking about climate change, how things will change on a longer time scale. We're not talking about individual weather events. We're talking about whether the weather will be systematic, warmer, or wetter, or colder for a year or a decade. The fact is that the weather and climate are determined by a whole set of complicated processes and whilst our models and the way we do those sums, those calculations, have improved a lot, they can still be improved further, and also they can take into account more observations. So we've got many new observations of the atmosphere from satellites and radar, and also all of these things can be exploited. So it's a continuous 'can do better'. A must do better kind of topic.

Chris  - Was it Neils Bohr who said "Prediction is always difficult, especially when it concerns the future."

Peter - Exactly. That's right.

Chris - So anything mathematical and possibly weather related, that's all coming your way!


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