Q&A Quiz!

How will the panellists fare against our science quiz?
10 January 2023

Interview with 

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


Fish with a question mark overlaid.


Chris - We are putting your questions under the microscope this week, and with me to do that, our nature filmmaker Tom Mustill, psychologist Leor Zmigrod, astronomer Matt Bothwell, and mathematician Ems Lord. Coming up, we'll find out a bit more about whales and how they communicate. We'll ask whether we can vaporize space junk and we'll learn a bit more about the mathematical marvel that is modeling and that's modeling the numbers, not with the human body, which will be bad in my case. Now it is time to test the mettle of our teams, because we do this in the middle of these Q&A shows where we go off piste and test the general scientific knowledge of our participants. And you are competing, you lot, for a prize beyond price, which is the Naked Scientists Big Brain of the Month award. Team one is going to be Matt and Leor. Team two are Ems and Tom. And, to our two teams, we actively encourage you to confer. Now, Matt and Leor, first question number one - who won the inaugural Nobel Prize for physics in 1903 for discovering x-rays? Was it Walter Muller, John Sealy Townsend, or Wilhelm Röntgen?

Matt - I think it was Röntgen. I think he x-rayed his wife's hand and there's this really famous picture where you can see her wedding ring really standing out. So unless I'm thinking of the wrong one, I think it was Röntgen.

Leor - Okay. I think that the fact that you're a physicist means that we should definitely go with that. And I like the story, so that sounds believable to me.

Chris - <laugh>, you're going with Röntgen and it is a <Ding> bing bong for there. You're absolutely right. I had an interesting run in with X-rays, in fact, because about 15 years ago we won an award in the late noughties in those days when the Naked Scientists won awards and they flew us to LA to go and get this award. And while I was there, I'd read this paper in one of the big science journals the week before. This chap at the University of California, Los Angeles had said he could make x-rays with sticky tape. And while Wilhelm Röntgen did it by exciting electrons in wires, what Carlos Camara was doing was unwinding reels of sticky tape in his laboratory in a vacuum at very high speed in order to produce x-rays. And he just discovered this by accident. And we walked into the lab and he's got piles of scotch tape boxes up to the ceiling. And he'd got this metal sort of vat, which he'd created this device to have a sticky tape reel on one spindle, another one on another, so he could wind sellotape on and off of the spindles very, very quickly in a vacuum. And they could produce this intense beam of x-rays out the top of this thing. And they were doing it so well, they could do exactly what Röntgen did and take x-rays of their hands. And, and I then looked up and I said, well, 'you are on the ground floor. Who's in the lab up there?' And he sort of looked at me and smirked a bit and said, 'I dunno, but I doubt they're fertile anymore.' <laugh>, these x-rays going through the floor. One mark to Matt and Leor so far. Well done to you. Question two, this one is to team two Ems and Tom. Which of the following types of electromagnetic radiation has a shorter wavelength? This round is called 'X marks the spot', So we're talking about Xs. Which of the following types of electro maintenance radiation has a shorter wavelength than x-rays? What do you two think? Gamma is A, ultraviolet is B or microwaves C.

Ems - Oh wow. This is definitely not my area of expertise apart from probably the length of the wave.

Tom - I mean, the only wavelengths that I know are one's in the sea.

Ems - Okay, I mean we can do it the mature way - Scissors, paper, stone.

Tom - <laugh>

Chris - Gamma rays, ultraviolet, or microwaves. A, B, C, which do you think it is?

Ems - We go for the first one?

Tom - I'm with you Ems.

Ems - Okay, we'll do this very scientifically and just go for the first one.

Chris - The scientific guess. It's a scientific guess and it is <DING>

Tom - Yes!

Chris - Not that you're competitive or anything.

Tom - No, it was just relief.

Ems - We're just trying to keep up here.

Chris - Good. So we are level pegging as we go into round two, which is called 'Elementary, my dear Watson.' And that's because this round is all about the periodic table of elements. So Matt and Leor, your question. There are two letters that don't appear as symbols on the periodic table. Q is one of them. What is the other letter? It's not Q, there's one other. Is it J, W, or Y? What do the pair of you think? Which letter is not represented? J, W, or Y? Other than Q?

Matt - It's not Y. I think Yttrium starts with a Y, right? I, I can't think of a J. Can you?

Leor - I cannot think of a J. What was the other, what was the third one?

Chris - J, W, or Y.

Matt - I feel like some of those ones down the bottom in the period on the table, one of them has to have a W in it. I dunno. <laugh>.

Chris - So you're going for...?

Matt - I don't know. My vote is J, what do you reckon?

Chris - Leor, J?

Leor - Okay, let's go with J.

Chris - It's a good idea because you're absolutely right. Plus one for you. Yes, it is J. J and Q are not used as the letters in periodic table elements. Y is Yttrium, you were quite right there. Actually W does exist. It's not one of the rubbish bin category actinides and lanthanides at the bottom. It's Wolfram, which is what was originally Tungsten. And Tungsten got rebranded by IUPAC, the organization that gives the chemical elements their name. About seven decades ago. The Americans lobbied to change the name to Tungsten, which is actually Swedish for heavy stone because the Swedes who discovered tungsten and called it Wolfram got it out of a heavy stone. Tungsten <laugh>. And so they called it Tungsten and then it got called Wolfram afterwards, then back to Tungsten again. So you're quite right, it was indeed J. That's not the other one that's in there. Right, plus one to you two. Ems and Tom, Team two. A synthetic element. A synthetic element is one of the 24 known chemical elements that don't occur naturally on earth, or they're only present in minuscule amounts. So, what was the first such artificial element that was created - A, uranium; B, americium; or C, plutonium?

Tom - Is uranium actually naturally occurring in some places?

Ems - You mean uranium, I'm thinking back to the Second World war.

Tom - Would you have thrown any actual real non-synthetic ones in there? Would that be a sneaky thing that is feasible?

Chris - I'm pulling my poker face

Ems - Cruel.

Chris - Is it A, uranium, B, Americium, or C, plutonium.

Tom - I've never even heard of Americium.

Ems - Same here.

Tom - But it makes it sound like it's going to come later and two of them are radioactive. So maybe one of them, the answer is one of the radioactive ones.

Ems - Okay. I kind of like reasoning.

Chris - Going to have to rush you.

Tom - This is a psychology of question setting rather than any chemical knowledge.

Ems - First thing you talked about was plutonium. Should we go for that?

Tom - I don't don't want it because I think I'm gonna be wrong, but sure.

Ems - Okay.

Chris - Plutonium? <DING>

Ems - There you go.

Chris - Oh, there's a high five going on.

Tom - My chemistry teacher is turning in his grave right now.

Chris - Most well known for its use in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, Uranium is naturally occurring. And in fact it was used as early as 79AD by the Romans who were using uranium to color glasses. They made beautiful glasses with that. Americium, you said 'I don't even know what that is'. Americium is artificial. It's in smoke detectors. You'll find it's an alpha source, which is in pretty much every home in developed countries now where it's used to detect the particles of smoke, which get in the way of the alpha particles it's giving off.

Ems - A sneaky question, but I think we've just learned a lot there.

Tom - Yes.

Chris - Excellent. Well you're doing well because it's level pegging. So we're onto round three and Matt and Leor it's back to you. This one's a tough one, excuse the pun. A rhino skin makes up a quarter of its body weight. Is that true or false?

Leor - I can imagine. Do you have an intuition?

Matt - <laugh>. I can imagine it being true. Because I know human skin makes up a surprisingly large fraction of our body weight, right? And you know, rhino skin is more substantial than human skin, so it doesn't seem crazy on the surface. I can imagine it being true.

Leor - Do they also have tusks? That would be really heavy though.

Matt - That's true. Yeah. No, well they have horns, right? But I don't know if they weigh a quarter.

Leor - Yeah, I mean I think it sounds plausible.

Matt - I'm happy to say yes because I want it to be true.

Chris - So you're going, true.

Matt - Yes.

Chris - I actually get to use a different button now. <BZZT>

Matt - Oh no.

Chris - You got boobed I'm afraid. No. Do you think it's bigger or smaller? The number?

Tom - Oh, is It bigger?

Chris - Well, it is, yeah. We are told by Will Tingle, who is our producer. <affirmative>, I said have we fact checked this because I was skeptical. Apparently 43% of the weight of a rhino is it's skin.

Matt - Oh wow.

Chris - Do you know what the equivalent is for a human? Tom? You're the animal person. So what is the equivalent for a human? The proportion of your body weight that is skin, would you say? No bonus points.

Tom - Well, it depends on how deep down you go, but maybe like 4%, 5%.

Chris - Apparently it's 12.4% for the average mammal. Maybe in Wales, because of all the blubber it's gonna be a bit more, but yeah in the average mammal it's 12.4%. you didn't get it on that one. So it all depends on you. You could take this Ems and Tom, if you're able to pull this one off. Herewe go. So, this question also in numerically speaking round three, what is greater - the number of nerve cells in the brain or the number of stars in the Milky Way galaxy?

Ems - Ooh. Now if we can only recruit another team member temporarily, we would be well here.

Tom - Yeah. Have you got a good feeling about this? Have you? <Laugh> I mean, a fact that I always find a bit frustrating is that people say that the human brain is the most complicated thing in the universe, which I always find frustrating because sperm whale brains are much bigger. I mean, I'd be tempted to go with brain. Do you reckon there's a lot of them packed in there?

Ems - There's certainly a lot packed in there because you see all the problems that happens when these things start failing us as we age, don't you?

Tom - Yeah. Not my brain. Can we have the brain of an 18 year old university student? Yep.

Chris - Yeah.

Ems - Yeah. A fresher.

Chris - A fresher, okay, so what are you going to go for? Brains or stars, have got a bigger number of things.

Ems - Let's go brains.

Tom - Yeah, yeah.

Chris - You're going to go brains. Yes. Oh <BZZT>

Tom - No!

Chris - Oh no. It's actually A, stars. We estimate, and Matt will hopefully corroborate my figure, that there are somewhere between a hundred and 400 billion stars in the Milky Way. We're not entirely sure, but we have a closer idea about the brain because we can actually look at that more easily. It's a more practical problem. There's about 86 billion neurons.

Tom - So you are saying we don't totally know that.

Ems - It's an estimate. They're using their number sense.

Chris - It's a guesstimate.

Tom - I'd say the number is still out there. You need another noise

Chris - Well, what's out there is the opportunity to play for this tiebreaker, which everyone's involved in. Now don't confer because you'll give the game away to the other team. I will, at the end of a 30 second thinking period, after giving you three clues, come to each of you in turn and the first person to get it right is gonna clinch it for their team. So here we go. In which year did the following scientific breakthrough occur? Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Summit Everest for the first time. Any takers so far? Don't say the answer. Just say it if you think you know the answer. Leor, have you got an idea?

Leor - Nope.

Chris - Matt thinks he might have the idea.

Matt - If we get it wrong, do we get another go?

Chris - You don't get another go, but do you guys reckon you know, or do you want a second clue? You're going to take a chance? You guys okay? Tom? Would you reckon?

Ems - Yeah? We think it's '53

Chris - And you are absolutely right. It is 1953. Bravo.

Tom - I remember the magazine cover <laugh>

Ems - It was the coronation year as well.

Chris - So the big brain of the weekend month award this month goes to Tom and Ems. Very well done. We'll give you a round of applause. They were very impressive. <Applause>

Ems - Thank you very much.

Chris - Well done indeed. Right, let's get back to the questions.


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