The Q&A Line-up

Let's meet the fine minds featuring in this Q&A...
10 January 2023

Interview with 

Tom Mustill & Ems Lord, University of Cambridge & Matt Bothwell, University of Cambridge & Leor Zmigrod, University of Cambridge


A microphone


Chris - With me to help answer the questions that you are sending in is Tom Mustill. Now, he's an award-winning natural world filmmaker. He's directed some David Attenborough, including 'Giraffes - Africa's gentle Giants.' He's also an author. And I gather recently you've been diving into the underwater realm. Tell us more.

Tom - Well, I spent the last four years spending a lot of time with people designing underwater robots and using artificial intelligence to try and decode the communications of whales and dolphins.

Chris - Whales?

Tom - Well, yeah. I've got a quite weird link to whales. In 2015, I was kayaking and a humpback whale breached on top of me and dragged me and my friend underwater. And we were fine and the whale was fine, but I was already quite interested in whales. But that definitely made me more interested in whales.

Chris - My goodness. Because there was some very famous footage that made the internet of some people getting body slammed effectively by, because they weigh a lot, I mean, they are tens of tons, aren't they? Or was this a big one?

Tom - This was a big one. It was a humpback, it was an adult. The rule of thumb with humpbacks is you get about a ton per foot. And it was about 30 feet. So about 30 tons.

Chris - <laugh>. And do you know why it decided to come down on top of your kayak?

Tom - Well, this was the thing that I found most interesting as a zoologist by background and then a wildlife filmmaker was, when a whale jumps out of the water, it releases the equivalent of like 30 hand grenades worth of power. And no one knows why they breach. There were a lot of theories, but really they're just conjecture at the moment. We don't know why they breach at all. And the only thing we really know about that incident when it landed on us was that it probably wasn't on purpose because scientists analyzed the trajectory of the whale and they found that, in mid-air, it looked at us and it turned away and, intentionally moved away from squishing us and that's why we survived

Chris - Well, it's interesting that it would've had a concept that this would be potentially lethal for you had it splatted. Or was it thinking It was self-preservation - 'I don't wanna hit that hard looking thing.'

Tom - I think like the scientist in me thinks, well, the most rational thing is it sees a new object and wants to not hit it. But humpback whales in the last few years, there's over a hundred incidents where they've come to the aid of other species when they're in trouble and I witnessed this. I witnessed humpbacks pushing killer whales off a dead gray whale calf that the killer whales had hunted. And all over the world in all the oceans humpback whales interfere to try and preserve the lives of other species. So maybe there is some altruism in there too.

Chris - Well, Tom Mustill is with us, he's the author of 'How to Speak Whale.' He's brought a copy of his book in and he'll be answering questions and telling us about how whales communicate later on in the program. Next up, Leor Zmigrod is a psychologist. She's at the University of Cambridge. She's got a broad expertise in psychology, but she's very interested in extremism. Specifically, what are you interested in? Is this the area of sort of susceptibility to extreme beliefs? Are extremists sort of born, not made, or do they get converted by hearing the wrong thing? Is that the area you're interested in?

Leor - That's right. In psychology, we use a lot of methods from social sciences to try to understand what factors make people susceptible to radicalisation or to taking ideologies to an extreme degree. But I'm actually interested in the brain and what characteristics of your brain, of my brain might make us susceptible or resilient in the face of extreme ideologies.

Chris - So that's Leor Zmigrod, who is coming up later in the program. If you have any questions, obviously about that, you can put them to her. Matt Bothwell is also in, he's the University of Cambridge's public astronomer and he's also an author. 'The Invisible Universe - Why There is More to Reality Than Meets the Eye' is Matt's book. Now you were on this program almost the same time last year, Matt. And the conversation we were having then was the debate in your house about turkey and tinsel versus telescope because it was just after Christmas and the James Webb Space Telescope had launched and you said you sued Queen, you sued the Christmas table and you watched the telescope go up. So what's on your radar for 2023?

Matt - Well, more James Webb, t.o start with the last year has been a fantastic one for James Webb. Listeners might have heard that one thing that we were really concerned about as astronomers was the amount of fuel left for operations. Because it was the same fuel tank that was doing the launch and then would have to be up there steering the telescope. And it turns out that the launch was so precise we might have as much as two decades of James Webb and the first year has surpassed all expectations and we have lots and lots of exciting things coming in 2023. I think for me personally, I'm most excited about a satellite called Euclid, which is going to be launching sometime in the summer. It was gonna be launching earlier except it was gonna go up on a Russian rocket and sort of geopolitics intervened. But sometime between June and September I think Euclid's going up. And what it's going to do is measure the acceleration of the universe more accurately than ever before. And that's gonna give us all kinds of important information about how dark matter works and how dark energy works. And hopefully give us the keys to some very, very big questions indeed.

Chris - This is the issue that the universe, if we look far enough away, we see things retreating from us and the farther away we look, the faster they're going away. Evidence the universe is getting bigger all the time and it's understanding in more detail what is going on and putting some numbers on this.

Matt - Exactly. Yes. Wel it's a little bit more than that. So we've known that the universe is getting bigger and bigger all the time for about a century now. But around the year 2000 or so, scientists tried to measure exactly how fast the universe was getting bigger. We expected it to be slowing down, right? Like something slowly grinding to a halt. But it turns out it's the opposite. Something has its foot on the accelerator of the universe. The universe is getting pushed apart faster and faster and faster by some mysterious force that we don't understand. We call it dark energy. Astronomers use the word dark to mean I have no idea what this thing is, right? So, yes, we're trying to understand more about this mysterious force that seems to be pushing the universe apart.

Chris - One physicist said you put the word dark in front of anything you want a grant for.

Matt - <laugh>. It works very well.

Chris - <laugh>. Oh, well good, you said it. Thank you very much. Matt Bothwell also with us is Ems Lord who is the director of Enrich. She is Cambridge University's maths outreach program director. That's really relevant to you, I would think, what Rishi Sunk has said this week and wants to turn us all into a nation of mathematicians, he wants everyone studying maths to be 18. What do you think about that?

Ems - Oh, well, I mean, what a great week to be a mathematician. We're suddenly front page news. It's great that there is this conversation going on about mathematics and the study of it, but then you take a step back and just say, how will we deliver this? Where are the maths teachers for a start? We already have a shortage. Where are we gonna find them from to quickly deliver this? But also when you look at some of the research reports about why people don't carry on with maths, there's one in particular that really grabs the attention and the title 'I Would Rather Die' <laugh>. This is a study. Seriously, this is a study among teenagers, 16 year olds about why they don't wanna carry on studying maths and they would rather die.

Chris - They'd rather go boating with Tom.

Ems - <laugh>. So yeah, they don't mention the whales <laugh>, but you know, this is issue we have, it's the curriculum, the maths curriculum. We're teaching things that we maybe taught 50 years ago, that were relevant. And now we've learned through covid how important it is to have data literacy

Chris - Is he confusing numeracy with maths? Because when I saw, with the example you just gave and I saw umpteen newspapers on the last day since the Prime Minister said 'I want people studying more maths.' They're all giving examples of what I would call numeracy. The ability to understand when you are being ripped off, to understand how to get a good deal, how to work out how much carpet you want in your living room, but that isn't maths, that's an application of maths. That's being numerate. Maths to me is when you try to explore the relationships between numbers and interesting concepts, that's slightly different. So are they kind of selling this as maths and it's not?

Ems - Yeah, they're talking about numeracy and some very basic examples. What they're not talking about is understanding statistics. So if you hear a survey, 90% of people think this is a great idea. How many was the 90%

Chris - Yeah, How many people? Because if they interviewed 10 people and it was nine out of 10, okay, meaningful. If you interviewed two people, it's how you get to 90% for a start, and you know, it's going to be wrong.

Ems - And nowadays isn't that such an important skill to have when we're being bombarded with these images and these surveys. These things weren't happening 20, 30 years ago. We had a few years ago, Michael Gove going into schools when he was the minister.

Chris - This is the guy that said 'I want the majority of kids to be above average', right?

Ems - Exactly. Yeah. And this guy was so taken with the long division and how he learned at school. We suddenly have primary schools now teaching long division again, and yet we have calculators. Let's think about the numbers we are producing and have the number sense to interpret the data and use it to make good decisions. So if we're talking about having maths and becoming data literate, that's fantastic, but we need the funding and we need the teachers to make it happen.

Chris - I think we're gonna have a good programme and a bit of fun this week. So that's our panel. Thank you Ems, by the way


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