Meet the Q&A team!

Joining us this week...
21 November 2022


A microphone and mixing desk


Chris - The World Cup starts this week, and we will kick off the show with a look at our lineup. Emma Pomeroy is an archeologist at the University of Cambridge. She has worked on our close relatives - those are the Neanderthals. And she's also interested in how susceptibilities to different diseases that we see today evolved in the past. Hello Emma, welcome to the programme. It's been a huge year for people interested in Neanderthals, hasn't it? Especially in the last few months because we've seen a Nobel Prize for the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, we also saw that amazing paper where genomics had been brought to bear against people living in two adjacent caves in Russia - those Neanderthal communities where they showed there was society there. Also, we've seen the first amputation of a person from about 30,000 years ago who survived. It's been a big year for your field.

Emma - Absolutely, and I think it always is. There are so many discoveries and new techniques. You might think of Neanderthals, of fossils. We are discovering new species, new things that we could never have imagined studying. Like you said, the relationships between individuals found in particular caves. So it's really exciting stuff.

Chris - Jonathan Kennedy is also here. Jonathan actually works for the global health team at Queen Mary University of London. He's got a book coming out next year. It's going to be called Pathogenesis. It's absolutely brilliant actually, Jonathan, I've really enjoyed reading this book. It's a beautiful exploration of some of what Emma's saying about our evolutionary origins and how diseases play out in the past and really take shape in the modern era as well. In your book, do you actually see how our past leads us to the risk of diseases and the way that they manifest in the modern era?

Jonathan - I think the whole narrative of the book is arguing that viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens have just had a fundamental role in not just the evolution of complex life and humans, but social, political and also economic life. So the meta argument is that we can't understand the world that we live in without looking at these pandemics that have affected humanity for over the last few thousand years.

Chris - In your book, you talk about going back a couple of thousand years, to Athens and the plague of Athens, and you can now begin to piece back together what that probably was. We think that was a flu pandemic?

Jonathan - Possibly, but this has been one of the tough ones to decipher. There was, about 10 years ago, a study that thought it was typhoid, but there were various problems identified with that paper. So it ended up not being accepted. Still the best evidence we have is the description by Thucydides of the disease and scientists have gone by that.

Chris - So we think that Covid was a big problem for us in the modern era, but our ancestors were also grappling with pandemics even thousands of years ago. Also here is Rosemary Williams. Now Rosemary's a budding astronomer and astrophysicist. She's been an intern with NASA not once, not twice, but actually three times. And she's also worked with the Griffith Observatory in California. She's now over here at the University of Edinburgh where she's studying for a masters in science communication. So you've slewed sideways from pure science into how to get science across to the general public. Why the transition?

Rosemary - I think I realised that I loved talking about science more than I loved actually being in the lab and studying it. And so I realised I should probably transition out of that unless I wanted to be writing grant proposals for the rest of my life.

Chris - It's a big year for people interested in space science as well, isn't it? Because we are embarking on trips and forays back to the moon where we haven't been for nearly half a century.

Rosemary - Very exciting.

Chris - Space continues to appeal to people very much. It always grabs attention straight away. When we put the call out for this programme saying there's going to be a space scientist along, about 4/5 of the questions, straight away, astrophysics, black holes. Andrew Morris, now. Andrew's a physicist by training and background who then became a teacher and now he still teaches but in a slightly different way because he has written a book. It's called 'Bugs, Drugs and Three Pin Plugs'. I've got a copy of that in front of me. I really enjoyed reading this as well, Andrew. And the reason I enjoyed it is because what you've tried to do is put into plain, simple language a lot of the questions that grownups probably get asked by kids and and currently say, "ask your teacher."

Andrew - Well, I used to be a regular teacher in a sixth form college, in a further education college teaching physics and maths. But I always felt, going back to my own teen age, that I was just interested in asking questions about the world around me. And I've always felt sure that most people are like that. They are curious even though they might find science at school difficult. So I set up this experimental idea of trying to run groups, teaching in an adult education centre in London, in which I took the risk of just inviting people to ask questions. They might be outside my field or they might not, and to see if a discussion could evolve. And without necessarily having the answer to their precise question, I could use this as an entry point into some of the basic ideas about science: molecules, cells and so on.

Chris - I always make the case when we're doing shows like this, if people ask us a question and we don't know the answer - because at the end of the day, the reason scientists are employed as scientists is because we don't have all the answers - often the answer "I don't know", is as valuable because you can then use it to explain to people how we might go about working it out. We did this show up in Edinburgh. Someone in the audience went to this Q and A show and said, "how many protons are there in a star?" And I don't know if they thought they were being funny. The person they put it to was initially a bit scared, and then I said, "well, we could work this out actually."

Andrew - I mean I think that's a very detailed example, but I think that approach of modelling, trying to not exactly answer precisely a question, but to think of the process by which you would get at an answer, estimating, is a particularly important aspect of scientific literacy.


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