Quick fire science questions

We fire off as many questions as possible to a panel of diverse expertise...
05 May 2022

Interview with 

Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi Ltd & Emma Chapman, University of Nottingham & Sidarta Ribeiro, Federal University for Rio Grande do Norte & Frans de Waal, Emory University


Person surrounded by question marks


Harry Lewis presents your burning questions to Raspberry Pi developer Eben Upton, astronomer Emma Chapman, neurologist Sidarta Ribeiro, and primatologist Frans de Waal...

Harry - We've heard from all our wonderful experts, but they have so much more juicy science to smell and it's time for a quick fire round to squeeze yet more facts into any brain space you might have left. Eben, where is the most remote location that your computer has travelled to?

Eben - It's certainly been used in Antarctica for photographing penguins over Winter, in Antarctica, which is a pretty brutal environment. The other one's the International Space Station. Actually, the International Space Station is pretty close, if it goes over your head a lot closer than Antarctica, but it's certainly an even more extreme environment.

Harry - What is it doing on the space station?

Eben - We've had two pairs of Raspberry Pi's on the station. The first ones went up with Tim Peake a few years ago. They're being used to run computer programs written by school children. The Raspberry Pi Foundation runs a program called Astro Pi in partnership with the European Space Agency, and tens of thousands of children now have a chance to run their code on the ISS.

Harry - With those kids that are running code on the Raspberry Pi, are there any other cool projects? I imagine there's a whole list, but what are some of the coolest things that you've seen your computer involved in?

Eben - There's an engineer in Japan who used a Raspberry Pi to build a cucumber sorter. His parents own a cucumber farm and they're getting on in years. Japanese cucumbers apparently have 23 grades, depending on how straight, green, and spiny the cucumbers are. They were not enjoying spending their later years sorting cucumbers, so he built an automated system around the Raspberry Pi to do that for them. It's a silly example, but it's kind of emblematic of the sort of creativity that the Raspberry Pi platform has unlocked in individuals and in businesses.

Harry - Next up, Emma, we've spoken about your radio telescopes, do you listen to stuff or do you see stuff when you're using a radio telescope?

Emma - I think you can say both. You're using lights, so we're used to using "see" in conversation, but you can also plug in your headphones and actually listen to the hiss. That's how we first discovered the galaxy and radio waves. We heard a hiss on the telephone line.

Harry - Amazing. Whereabouts do you need to place these? I imagine it's got to be quite quiet in the environment you put them in.

Emma - Normally, yes. I'm helping to build one in the Western Australian desert. I've just visited one in the North California mountains. But the one that I work with mainly is in the Netherlands called Lofar. There, we just have to be very clever about how we remove the noise.

Harry - What happens if your mobile phone goes off?

Emma - It swamps out the galaxy entirely.

Harry - Does that mean you have to put them somewhere special?

Emma - Yeah. Ideally you turn them off completely, but then you can get rooms that are Faraday cages, which means that electromagnetic waves just cannot get out. These telescopes are seriously sensitive. The one that we're building, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), will be able to detect the equivalent of an airport radar on a planet 10 light years away.

Harry - Wow. In Australia you are doing a project, you just said, what does that consist of?

Emma - That consists of 130,000 antennas. They look like Christmas trees if you imagine a Christmas tree about 2 meters tall made of wire, that's what it looks like. 130,000 of them. We are joining them all up this way and that, and it's the equivalent of a gigantic telescope. That's what we're using to listen for the first stars.

Harry - 130,000, that's outrageous. Sidarta, what impact does a lack of proper sleep have on our ability to plan for the future and make decisions?

Sidarta - Not having a good night of sleep is a liability in the short term, as well as in the long term. The next day you'll have cognitive trouble, you'll have difficulty remembering easy stuff, you'll have difficulties learning new stuff. You also will be emotionally impaired; you won't be able to deal with negative stimulants the same way you would if you had your full night of sleep. And of course, there's this snowball effect. If you have a job that prevents you from sleeping properly, for whatever the reason, you cannot get your good night of sleep every night, you're gonna have a compound effect that's actually very detrimental to society. Now, in down the road, you're talking about depression, you're talking about diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and many, many years later Alzheimer's disease. It's really a bad thing to skip a night of sleep.

Harry - And do you have any sort of method for helping us rescue our dreams so we can better remember them?

Sidarta - Yes. I have 3 steps. Before you go to sleep, think about it and make an intention in your mind that you're going to remember your dream and record it. When you wake up, don't move from your bed. Don't talk to anybody, don't do anything, but remember. Try to remember and bring those images together and recreate this narrative, and then write it down or record it in audio. Then the 3rd one, which is something a few people do, is bring that dream into your life, into your waking life. Tell it to your spouse, to your family, to your friends, to your co-workers, and make it part of your own internal conversation. If you keep a dream diary, it's like getting many, many pieces of a puzzle. At some point, you will stop seeing just the data points and you'll see a trajectory. You'll see how things are going. To have this kind of insight is very important to understand the fears and desires and challenges that we have, but it's also important for the community. This is a word that Frans brought to the conversation today. Dreams were always in the human lineage, not just about having an individual experience, but about sharing that experience.

Harry - Frans over to you. We've spoken a little bit about homosexuality and sexuality, and you mentioned bonobos, are there any other species in which we see these kind of behaviours?

Frans - Well, homosexual behaviour is found in many, many primates and many other species as well, but the extent to which the bonobos do it is exceptional. I think the only species that does quite a bit too, is the dolphin; The bottlenose dolphin. I don't think it's accidental that all mammals have a clitoris, a mouse and elephant, all the females have a clitoris, but the biggest ones are in dolphins and Bonobos. That must be that female & female sex which is very prominent in both species, must be made pleasurable and that's the way it was done.

Harry - Do you think, or does there even need to be an evolutionary mechanism underneath that? Is there a reason why this trait persists across a lot of species?

Frans - I think for the dolphins, I'm not sure that I can answer that question, but for bonobos clearly homosexual sex between the females has a political function. The females dominate the males, but they do so collectively. An individual female bonobo is smaller than a male, and cannot do that. But the females as a group, they dominate the males. As a result, they need to do a lot of bonding and sisterhood and hanging out together and sharing food and the sex is part of that. The sex is a bonding mechanism and the females actually have more sex I think with females than with males. There's now also some indications from oxytocin studies in the field that they get more out of the sex with other females than with males. Females are probably emotionally more affected even by sex with females than with males.


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