The Naked Scientists ditch the lab coats for artistic overalls. From coding musical compositions to the jeans that remove air-pollution, we take a look at how art has helped science. Plus, in the news, the most powerful rocket ever built takes to the skies, we breakdown Bitcoin and there's evidence that vaping could give you a chest infection.
In this episode
00:52 - Zika goes under the radar
Zika goes under the radar
with Kristina Adams Waldorf, Washington University - Seattle
The emergence of Zika virus in Brazil in recent years has led to millions of people becoming infected. The majority of them had no symptoms at all, but some individuals were pregnant and the infection led to devastating damage to their baby’s brains and caused a condition called microcephaly. But this only affected a small number of them so did the other infants escape harm? A new paper published this week suggests not. Chris Smith spoke to obstetrician Kristina Adams Waldorf, who says that Zika virus infection can still do lasting damage to the developing nervous system without causing obvious microcephaly.
Kristina - Early 2016 I was reading a newspaper and it showed an infant with a very small head in Brazil and the question was, on the front page, could this be related to the Zika virus? I knew immediately that my life would change and we began to study intensively whether Zika virus could, in fact, be causing small heads in infants that were exposed to Zika virus in-utero.
But how was Zika virus actually infecting the foetus, and what was the spectrum of injury, and could we detect some of the early signs of this injury in the foetus? For the study we used a non-human primate model - a pig-tailed macaque - which we could use to model a Zika virus infection in pregnancy by inoculating Zika virus under the skin of the mother, and then we could follow what happened with ultrasound and then see what happened at the time of delivery in the foetal brain.
Chris - Did the virus get into the foetuses in these monkeys?
Kristina - It did. And we found that Zika virus did indeed cause significant damage to the foetal brain even when the head size was normal, and the regions in the brain that were hardest hit were areas that generated new brains cells. One very important injured part of the foetal brain was something called the hippocampus and cells in this part are very important for memory and learning, and they contribute to brain health through at least adolescence. So loss of these brain cells is expected to cause problems with learning, memory, behaviour and may not show until the child might be even one or two years old.
Chris - Are you saying then there might be a sort of clinical iceberg here where we know that there’s the dramatic effect microcephaly - small head small brain, and we know that happens in 5% of cases where there’s been an infection, but there may be this enormous burden of diseases out there that we don’t know about where there has been some subtle injury to the brain during development and that may not manifest until the individual starts to miss developmental milestones or starts to show deficits once they grow up a bit?
Kristina - Exactly. We think that this is akin to an iceberg type of phenomenon. And what it also means is that our current clinical criteria that we use, such as head size, to diagnose the Zika virus related brain injury really fails to capture this more subtle, but very significant, brain damage.
Chris - Does this mean then that we urgently need to be going and appraising cases where there wasn’t overt, obvious michrocephaly but there was evidence of infection having occurred, to follow up those kids and see if they do end up with some kind of deficit along the lines that you’re suggesting?
Kristina - Absolutely. And not only do we need to follow children where we know that they had a Zika virus infection, but also in cases where we weren’t so sure. We need to look for neural cognitive delays in learning and neurological disorders that develop over time. I think that a broader segment of the population that are exposed and at risk for Zika virus should ideally be screened in this way over a longer period of time.
Chris - What should parents look out for then if you’re someone who has been exposed because they didn’t have the benefit of knowing what you’ve shown in this study beforehand? They’re probably quite worried.
Kristina - There are neurocognitive specialists that have testing that can be performed in young children to assess for delays in learning, changes in behaviour, and things that we can actually pick up in this way. Unfortunately, these specialists don’t exist in large parts of the world where Zika virus is locally transmitted but, to the best that we can, we should try to make some of these tools available. I think that we need to also be sure to let paediatricians know that the infant’s head size at birth should not be the main criteria for determining if a child had a brain injury related to Zika. Many children might not then benefit from these developmental and neurocognitive tests to identify deficits.
05:54 - Space X: Uplifting Engineering
Space X: Uplifting Engineering
There was a very “uplifting” engineering achievement this week. As Georgia Mills has been investigating...
Falcon Heavy, the world’s most powerful rocket, launched this week from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Space X, led by Elon Musk, live broadcasted the event to millions, both the launch of the rocket and then a live stream of the bizarre payload – a bright red car with an astronaut-suited driver, David Bowie’s Starman blaring from the speakers and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references added into the mix.
So what was the purpose of this stunt? Audacious showmanship, or scientific gamechanger? Well, it’s a bit of both. A couple of things make Falcon Heavy special. Firstly, it can carry about double the cargo of its nearest operational competitor. That’s 64 tonnes that can be blasted into space – roughly equivalent to 10 elephants.
Instead of elephants, thankfully, they used a Tesla Car, one of Elon Musk’s other creations, along with a dummy driver called Starman at the wheel.
They achieved this great lift partly because Falcon Heavy is actually three Falcon 9 rockets, stuck together. They blasted off into low earth orbit, and then the upper capsule, containing the payload, detached and fired into space. Then comes the unusual part, the rockets can be reused.
Most spaceships have the rockets crash land, and this means each new launch has to practically be built from scratch, but if Falcon Heavy can reuse the rockets this would cut the price significantly. Musk claims his method will reduce the cost of a launch by two thirds. But it didn’t go perfectly to plan. Two of the rockets made it back, with beautifully controlled synchronised descent, which wowed people around the world. Unfortunately, the middle rocket, which aimed to land on a separate platform in the sea, overshot and smashed into the ocean at nearly 500km an hour.
And Starman and his car may be looking fabulous, but overshot their target of Mars, and are now headed to the asteroid belt, where it’s quite possible they will be smashed to smithereens.
Despite these setbacks, people are lauding the event as starting off the new space race. It was a spectacle, and may inspire future generations to go into science, galvanise competition from businesses and further funding from governments. The technological developments mean we can send bigger things into space - such as satellites, telescopes or even robots on missions to Mars.
But one of Space X’s biggest ideas is for the tourism industry. In fact, they want to take two tourists around the moon this year. This might lead to a brave new world, or worlds, of space tourism and planetary exploration. But there are concerns. Should the new space race really be in the hands of private companies? What are the carbon costs of repeated launches of this size, and could we be increasing the chance of littering space debris around this planet and others?
Whatever your thoughts on the new launch you’ve got to admit, they certainly know how to put on a show.
10:16 - Is there life on TRAPPIST-1?
Is there life on TRAPPIST-1?
with Amaury Triaud, University of Birmingham
Last year, astronomers came across a planetary system called TRAPPIST-1, in the constellation Aquarius. It’s 40 light-years away; that’s about 370 trillion kilometres. The star at the centre of the system is only about 10% the size our sun, which makes it much easier for astronomers to view the 7 planets in orbit around it. These planets, at first glance, are very similar to Earth so over the last year astronomers have been scrutinising them in detail. Izzie Clarke heard how from Physicist Amaury Triaud from the University of Birmingham.
Amaury - Our uncertainties were pretty large. What we did not know then was exactly what mass or what radius the planets were. We had an idea which allowed us to call the Earth-like but those properties are some of the most fundamental properties of a planet. The mass and the radius combined tell us about the density, and the density of a planet tells us about what it’s made of. For instance, a planet like the Earth has a certain density and it’s telling us that it has at the centre something made of iron and nickel, and on top is a big layer of rocks. So by comparing our planets to the Earth we can deduce what’s inside of them, how they were built, how different or similar they are to what we know.
Izzie - But one thing was certain, the TRAPPIST-1 system was bright, allowing scientists to study it’s planetary atmospheres. But, before they could start exploring, it was important to turn their attention to the star at the centre of the system…
Amaury - What we measure always in relation to the star, we always measure the mass of a planet compared to the mass of the star; the radius of a planet compared to the radius of a star. If we get the star wrong, we get the planet wrong so we started by the most obvious - what is the star? Then we observed more as the planet passed in front of the star casting a shadow, and from how deep the shadow was we could measure more and more precisely how big the planets where.
Then we tried to measure the mass, and we did that by measuring how early or late they came in front of this star which was a reflection of the forces that are acting between the planets themselves.
Finally, we did a reconnaissance observation trying to find out if any of the planets had an atmosphere made of hydrogen or helium, something that would be similar to Uranus and Neptune. Mind you, we did not know whether those planets were really Earth-like or more like Neptune, but now we can say, with a fair amount of certainly, that they must be rocky.
Izzie - Our own home, planet Earth, is also a rocky planet, so are Mercury, Venus and Mars. But how similar is this system compared to our own?
Amaury - They're remarkably similar. When we had large uncertainties it meant that the planets could have any mass or radius within those uncertainties and it could have fallen anywhere. But we find out that TRAPPIST-1c is almost a copy of Venus. We find that TRAPPIST-1d looks really much like the Moon, and TRAPPIST-1e is by far the most interesting. It’s the most Earth-like planet we’ve identified so far with an inner composition that seems to match our planet.
Izzie - So things are looking up with this fourth planet. It’s density is almost the same as Earth’s meaning that the inner cores must be similar. But what about those all important signs of water?
Amaury - TRAPPIST-1e, at the moment, we still do not know. The amount of water that is on Earth is minute - 0.02% of the mass of the Earth is made of water. With this little amount it’s hard to measure it on TRAPPIST-1e. However, we do know that there is a lot of water around. TRAPPIST-1b, the planet closest to the star seems to have a vast amount of volatiles. A volatile is something that is something that is not solid. If it is water then it would have 250 times more than the Earth has. Having a lot of water in a system bodes well for water on TRAPPIST-1e.
Izzie - And, given ten years, Amaury suspects that we’ll even know what TRAPPIST-1e’s atmosphere will be like. So, could we humans ever set foot there?
Amaury - With imagination only I think. They’re really close astronomically speaking, sadly, astronomical distances are astronomical in nature; they’re enormous, extremely vast. The system is 40 light years away and that may sound far to travel there, but it’s among the 300 closest stars to the Sun, so it’s close in astronomical terms. But, despite this proximity, I doubt that humanity will look at this world anytime soon. Although I do hope our discoveries inspire the next generation of physicists to find a way to bring us there.
Breaking down Bitcoin
with Peter Cowley, Angel Investor
Digital currencies have been in the news a lot recently. Some banks have stopped customers using credit cards to buy cryptocurrencies, amid concerns they could run up too much debt. Last month, a family was held at gunpoint over a type called bitcoins. Our go-to Tech Guru and Angel Investor, Peter Cowley, was able to give Katie Haylor the lowdown. Starting with, what is a cryptocurrency?
Peter - A cryptocurrency, put simply, it’s a digital currency which doesn’t have banknotes or coins or a virtual currency, but it’s encrypted. That’s a very simplified version.
Katie - What is a bitcoin?
Peter - A bitcoin is the first cryptocurrency that was invented by a lady, chap, or group of people called Satoshi Nakamoto back in 2009. It was invented using blockchains which we’ll come to later. There are 1400 or so different cryptocurrencies available at the moment but bitcoin is by far the best known one. Bitcoins have been mined for about ten years and so they are in quite common usage.
Katie - Okay. We’re talking about what actually bitcoin is. Are we talking about data here - is a bitcoin a packet of data?
Peter - Yes. The point about the cryptocurrencies is they’re a public ledger so, basically, all transactions that have ever occured are in the public domains - anybody can see that. The bitcoin itself is a chunk of data within that chain, within that blockchain.
Katie - Right, okay. We’ll come onto what blockchains are. How does bitcoins work?
Peter - A bitcoin is a chunk of data which is associated with currency i.e. something that’s to do with money. There are blockchains used for many other purposes. Let’s take the example of you and I, if I want to pay for something you've done for me, maybe you’ve done some music or you’ve written a book or something, I can pay you with a cryptocurrency. So I transfer a chunk of data, which is not a whole bitcoin because they’re worth thousands of dollars, to you and then you will receive that, and then you can use that.
Katie - The difference here is that we’re cutting out the middle person right? So instead of a traditional bank transaction where you might give money to your bank, they give money to my bank, they give money to me, we’re passing money just between the two of us, so that’s the difference?
Peter - Exactly. It’s fully decentralised so that every single transaction that’s going on is available for everybody to see so we’re not relying on a middleman.
Katie - Where do bitcoins come from?
Peter - Bitcoins are mined; mined as in found by running through an algorithm - it takes a lot of energy. A bitcoin algorithm which was designed many years ago, but can be changed in the future, is actually set to mine no more than 21 million of them, which the current calculation is about 2140. Somebody has some computing power somewhere mining these bitcoins. Then they go into circulation. It costs, at them moment, probably a low number of thousands of dollars to mine it just using computing power - using electricity to drive computers.
Katie - So you can make bitcoins?
Peter - Correct.
Katie - Why bother to use them, this virtual currency, over conventional money?
Peter - Originally it’s because the founders didn’t believe, didn’t trust the banking system, so they wanted something that was decentralised, so it was effectively in the public domain where effectively it could be lost. It was always there. That’s why it was done originally. I imagine it was just done for interest initially rather than necessarily the fact that it’s grown so rapidly into a currency that’s used in a 100,000 places round the world.
Katie - This blockchain, this public ledger, this public account of where the data’s going between which users, that is blockchain? We here that bitcoin is associated with quite a lot of criminal activity, why is that? What makes it vulnerable to that?
Peter - The banking system doesn’t know about it, so obviously the banking system and the governments are worried that things could be happening that they don’t know about. If you were to obfuscate something, these transaction although it’s in the public domain, you would disassociate your wallet ID, which is how you get at this currency, from yourself, then it could mean that money is transferred around that is non-traceable. So that’s the concern and it does happen. There are a lot of criminal activities using this.
Katie - So even though this blockchain is a public ledger, you can make yourself or the transactions or who you’re transferring money to anonymous.
Peter - Yes. But you’ve got to compare it say with 100 dollar bills. There are trillions worth of 100 dollar bills around. Those aren't traced are they? They have numbers on them but people don’t write them down. So there are plenty of ways for criminals to transfer money around.
Katie - But the key point is that bitcoin isn’t regulated, is that the case?
Peter - It’s not regulated. It’s also very easy to transfer. If you’re moving large amounts of currency around it weighs something. This can be done with an electronic transaction.
Katie - I see, okay. Can bitcoin go from this digital medium to physical?
Peter - It has to really because, if you think about it, in the end people can transfer and buy services and products within bitcoin. But, at some point, you want to bring it out to say pay the rent, or to pay the food bill, or something like that. But there are ATMs, in fact there are about a hundred or so in the UK - there’s five or so here in Cambridge - where you can put in a £20 note and get some bitcoins out or visa versa. So they do translate into real or what we call fiat currencies.
Katie - Ah, okay. Finally, do you think this is something that will last?
Peter - I’m absolutely convinced. Being in the investment scene, there are plenty of companies that are proposing blockchain and, to some extent, cryptocurrencies. Blockchain I’m sure will do. There are a number of reasons why it’s better than having other ways of doing it. Cryptocurrencies? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ve got a bit too much grey hair to believe that enough trust will occur. I suspect it will do in time and there are signs that the Swiss government and other governments are starting to regulate in such a way that they will become the norm. I don’t know when though.
21:30 - Vaping: A sticky situation
Vaping: A sticky situation
with Jonathan Grigg, Queen Mary University of London
E-cigarettes: Public Health England suggests they should be available on prescription; some people are taking them up for fun, while others are using it to help them quit smoking. In all cases there’s a strong belief that vaping is the healthier alternative to cigarettes. But a study out this week suggests that the inhaled vapour from e-cigarettes can make the cells that line our airways much stickier and increase the odds that bacteria like the pneumococcus - that can cause chest and other infections - can gain a foothold. Chris Smith spoke to Jonathan Grigg, a respiratory consultant at Queen Mary University of London.
Jonathan - Vaping is increasingly popular as a smoking cessation aid, and youngsters are taking up vaping itself, so it’s important that we understand the effects on the lung. What we’re looking at is the risk of developing a serious infection, that’s with a bug called the pneumococcus, and that causes pneumonia. We know that if you smoke cigarettes, you’re at a significantly increased risk of pneumonia, and the mechanism is that bugs just stick more to the airways and they can get a little niche and they can get a foothold in the airway and cause infection.
What we did is we put vape onto the human airway cells. We sort of expected not to see very much but, in fact, the cigarette vapour significantly increased the stickiness of the bugs to the cells in the same way as cigarette smoke.
Chris - Do you know how it makes them stickier?
Jonathan - The mechanism is really interesting. What the bug does is it hijacks a normal substance that’s expressed on the cells as a receptor so it uses it a trojan horse. It sort of sticks to that receptor and then as the receptor normally gets into the cell, the bug just moves across into the cells, so it’s like a hijack literally. What we saw was that vaping increased the amount of receptor on the cell and more bugs stuck to that receptor.
Chris - That’s in cells in a dish. But how confident are you that that represents what’s going on in one of your patients?
Jonathan - To address that, what we took was a group of vapers. We took little scrapes of the cells from their nose before they vaped during their normal vaping session and one hour after that. We looked for the expression of this receptor that the bugs can hijack and we found that the receptor was significantly increased at least a two or threefold increase after vaping.
Chris - Does that end up reflecting an increased risk of infection? Obviously you can’t do that with human patients, it would be unethical. Because, at the moment, all you can say is that it appears the cells get stickier, it appears that this is secondary to the vaping, but can you put the whole puzzle together and say vaping causes more infections?
Jonathan - You’re quite right. We haven’t translated that into a risk. It really needs large scale what we call epidemiological surveys to be able to do that in the same way as smoking. But what we did do is, in an animal model, we exposed animals to vape and infected them with the pneumococcus, and we found increased amounts of pneumococcus in the nose of vape exposed animals. So, at least in that situation, we saw an effect.
Chris - What about, I’ve classically heard it said if you go and wander round in London you may as well have smoked a packet of cigarettes if you walk down some streets because the traffic pollution is so significant, how do you quantify, qualify and standardise what you call vaping and the infection risk arising from it, and compare it to say just occupational exposure or day to day exposure to pollution?
Jonathan - I think that’s a very very important point. We’ve looked at various other exposures in our model which are known to be increased risk of pneumococcal infection and, as you say, diesel exhaust particles increase the risk, especially in young children, of bacterial pneumonia. Welding is an occupational exposure that increases that and in our model we see those effects. I think yes, just walking around a polluted environment is increasing your risk, as we know, but that doesn’t of course mean that vaping can be dismissed. This would be an additional risk to what is an unacceptable level of pollution we have in our cities.
Chris - Do you think it makes a difference what the composition of the vape fluid is because they come in lots of different flavours don’t they?
Jonathan - It potentially does. And what we can do now with our model is to play around, if you like, with the vape composition. We can make our own vape, we can look at the effect of just a major component which is propylene glycol, which is like a food additive on its own. We can add in the flavourings and, as you say, there are many hundreds of thousands of flavourings. So we can start doing these sort of experiments to scale and really nail down what are the components which are causing it. As yet, we think nicotine isn’t the major player although it has some effect, but what it is in the nicotine-free vape is unclear.
27:00 - Creating code to make music
Creating code to make music
with Sam Aaron, Sonic Pi
Given the right tools, you can almost make music from anything. Pots and pans, conventional instruments, and people have even made whistles out of hollowed out carrots. But what about making music from computer code? One such software, Sonic Pi, was developed by Cambridge University’s Computer Lab, to get children into coding. The creator of Sonic Pi, Sam Aaron, joined Katie Haylor and Georgia Mills in the studio.
Sam - It’s one of a many line of what we call “live coding systems.” These things have been around for many years, but it’s attempting to try and make coding really accessible, really fun, and really engaging by not essentially teaching sorting algorithms but teaching music and using that as a means of engagement to try and get kids and everyone really making code.
Katie - How does it work?
Sam - It’s very simple. You write some text, you press the run button and, if the text is correct, the computer does some interesting sounds, hopefully.
Katie - Do you have to be a coding genius to be able to use this?
Sam - I think that you don’t have to be a genius to do anything. I think it’s really important that you have an open mind and you’re interested, and you just have a go and you’re happy to take risks. And you’re happy also to realise that the first things you do aren’t going to be the best things ever, but if you pick up a violin for the first time it’s not going to sound beautiful. It takes many years to practice and hone those sounds.
Katie - My mother would seriously attest to that with my music instrument playing. Can you give us a couple of very basic examples of coding commands that translate into musical sounds? How do you change the pitch?
Sam - For example, the simplest command is play, and that’s to play a different note, and the number you choose is the pitch. So a higher number will result in a higher pitch and a lower number a lower pitch.
Katie - Can you take us through how it works - maybe give us some code?
Sam - Very, very simply, yes. You download this thing called Sonic Pi - it’s free. It runs on Mac, Windows and Raspberry Pi computer. It opens up with a very simple interface - it’s a blank screen and you put some text inside. The first piece of text you can write, the simplest thing, is the word play to have some fun and a number. In this case I’m going to write play 60. And then higher numbers produce higher notes. And lower numbers lower notes. At this point we can make any note, any pitch and if you write two chords to play, you get chords. If you run play then sleep, you can get a melody. Now that’s very simple but we have the basic of western notation here. We can play note at any time, so we can essentially play any melody, any Daft Punk, any Mozart with these two commands. And the cool thing - is children do.
Georgia - Now, some of us at The Naked Scientists HQ have had a go at Sonic Pi. We spent a couple of hours seeing what we could come up with and we thought you could judge our efforts maybe Sam.
Sam - Fabulous.
Georgia - Here’s the first one [Katie’s music]. Quite understated that one. That’s was by Katie Haylor.
Katie - Thanks very much.
Georgia - Next we have this one [Lewis’ music]
Katie - It’s definitely more beautiful than mine.
Georgia - That was by Lewis Thomson, who is in a band. And finally….[Georgia’s music]
Georgia - Very skillful with the little record scratches there. Sam, what are your thoughts?
Sam - They’re all wonderful and it’s lovely to see that. I assume none of you had played with Sonic Pi before much?
Katie - Could you tell?
Sam - No, I’m just guessing that. No, not at all. My skill would be not to look at the music but to look at the code and to see what kind of code structures you’ve used, and to see what amenability the code has for other kind of modifications.
Katie - Okay. So who was the most inventive. Let’s park our efforts at the Naked Scientist office and talk about kids because Sonic Pi was designed to help kids get into coding - is that right? So how is it being used in schools?
Sam - Absolutely. It’s first rendition was to focus particularly on the new computer science curriculum that the UK introduced a few years ago. The schemes of work they had created were crazy titles like “Have Fun with Sorting” and “Give Binary a Try,” which was supposed to excite children into making computer code be interesting and I don’t think it worked. I think that the music aspect provides a motivational force for the children to actually do some programming. They don’t realise they’re programming, they think they’re making music but, actually, they’re coding. This system’s been used all around the world to teach basic computer science and computational thinking. It’s really a great way to get started because it has such a low barrier to entry.
Katie - If you’re going to start coding, is it better to do that when you’re younger because it’s like learning a language?
Sam - I think it’s best to do it when you have an open mind and, typically, children often have very open, very experimental minds, and they’re happy to take risks.
Katie - What kind of music though have people made with this?
Sam - A whole range of different things. I make my own weird dance music, but I’ve heard pieces of music from Baroque classical music to opera, to Indian tabla style music to even rock music.
Katie - Is there anything that you can play us?
Sam - I can play you some crazy dance music if that’s what you want. Let’s get something going…
32:56 - Painting a picture of human history
Painting a picture of human history
with Jo McDonald, University of Western Australia
They say a picture paints a thousand words, right? Well, sometimes it can tell us even more. Paintings on rocks have helped scientists solve the mystery of when the first modern humans settled in an area, how they diversified over time and even if they had different accents. Chris Smith spoke to Jo McDonald, Director for the Centre of Rock Art and Management at the University of Western Australia.
Jo - We’re involved in a project at the moment on the dampier archipelago - that’s known as Murujuga Aboriginal people that live there. It’s in the coastal Pilborough, so that’s about 1500 kilometres north of Perth. Since 7,000 years ago it’s been an archipelago but before that it was an inland range.
Chris - How long do we think modern humans have lived in Australia?
Jo - We are pretty sure that modern humans got here about 50,000 years ago. We’ve got archaeological sites all the way across the top of Australia which are increasingly coming up with that date range between 45 and 50,000. We’ve also got caves with similar aged occupation in Tasmania so people got there and moved around pretty quickly and occupied almost the entire landscape.
Chris - They sure did. And they left a lot of very impressive paintings and those paintings have been added to over many years, so tell us how you study them?
Jo - We record what’s there and in different parts of the country we can obviously see different signs of what people have done through time. We, at the moment, suspect that when modern humans got here they did settle fairly quickly across the majority of the continent. But because they were basically moving into a naive continent, one that was not used to dealing with humans that they had a pretty open signaling system and they had a homogeneous set of art styles which we find across most of Australia.
Chris - Is that just founder effect that they probably brought in some artistic styles as the first incomers to Australia but then, as the population diversified, because this place is huge there wouldn’t have been the same communication on the same timescales that we have today obviously? Then it would in the same way accents evolve - you have a different accent to me - that would have led to different art styles?
Jo - Yeah, exactly right. The genetics is now showing, and we’ve suggested before in our modeling that regionalisation probably occurred in the pleistocene because you have some of these earlier engrave styles which show diversification. The genetics is now coming out as wel. By 25,000 years ago Aboriginal populations in Queensland had different accents to people in Western Australia.
Chris - Can you date the pictures to work out what’s in the art and how those styles relate to different time zones in that migration process?
Jo - We are getting much better at dating the pictures. We still have quite a lot of difficulties with engravings because they are, of course, they don’t have anything organic in them. But pigment art and art that occurs on surfaces that forms geochemical crusts we are getting really good at getting very small amounts of the pigment out and dating that. Or using uranium, thorium and various other techniques to actually mine in and find layers of systems that can be dated in these crusts.
Chris - So when the pigments are put on the rocks, chemical changes over time begin to happen and you know what rate that sort of happens at so you can trace back to when we think the art was first put on the rock?
Jo - We are beginning to understand that. There’s a team from Melbourne University who’s working on that in The Kimberley at the moment and they are beginning to be able to demonstrate that these are closed systems. That you can in fact get isolated uranium threads, if you like, in the crusts and they can go in an mine those and get individual dates and see how much of the crust was there before the pigment, where the pigment is, and then what has happened subsequently. So you can actually date a sequential lot of actions on the rocks on the rock surface, yeah.
Chris - What story’s emerging when you look at this?
Jo - I think what we’re beginning to see is that people have seen the landscape very differently through time. They’ve obviously always marked it in a way. I think humans are inveterate doodlers, if you like, and we have writing now that Aboriginal people had used rock art as a way of, in fact, telling information about themselves. Telling information which would distinguish them from others, and I think people have always liked producing beautiful things. And I think Australian rock art is a really good example of this extraordinary aesthetic which is incredibly full of information and can tell us all sorts of things about the people who made it.
Chris - But critically, talking to modern day Aborigines because, obviously, what they have is a rich history which they pass on through generations, can you tie what they tell you to what’s written in those pictures?
Jo - Well, yes you can. We’ve been working with the Martu in the western desert who only made their first contact with white people in the 60s and 70s. They, therefore, still have a connection and a whole set of narratives about that landscape which sometimes engage with rock art, sometimes don’t. But certainly, where you can see these dreaming mythologies going across the landscape, and you can see the rock art, you can see patterns archaeologically which engage with that set of narratives and allows you to see how people have, in fact, changed that focus on the landscape through time and have marked those places differently through time and that rock art is recursive. People will come to a location, an important water hole for instance in the desert, there will be all this rock out there for them. It won’t necessarily be part of their current marking system but the Martu say that the engravings have been there and been left by their ancestors. So these things which are there and which are pictures of people or animals and various different things or tracks, they say have been left by the ancestors. They recognise that they were done by people other than them but they’re part of their narrative. It allows them to understand how different people have moved across that landscape and have engaged with them.
Chris - One big question that we just don’t know the answer to yet is when these individuals, the early ancestors, first came to Australia they did so 50,000 years ago or so, but then no-one came since - or did they? Because the genetics and other archaeology seems to suggest that one bunch of people came and they were the founders, and no-one came afterwards. Do we know why only one group of people came?
Jo - I don’t think we do know that. I think certainly the genetics is suggesting that that’s exactly right that we don’t have multiple waves, and that was certainly the original hypothesis about how Aboriginal people look very different in Northern Queensland to Southern Tasmania that there were obviously different waves of people through time. It’s been disproved by the most recent genetics. Obviously there is contact between Southeast Asia and Northern Australia. We’ve got indications that Macassans came to harvest Trepang - the sea cucumber - that’s the last 6 or 700 years; it’s not very long. But there is that contact so people could have come between once boat travel was the way to do things.
Chris - Dogs turned up, and we know dogs came after people.
Jo - That’s right. And that’s about 4,000 years ago so there seems to be some sort of introduction by people at that stage, but there doesn’t seem to be any major influx of new genes at that time.
Chris - Until us lot turned up?
Jo - Till us lot. That’s right. Came and messed things up. Yeah, that’s right.
40:12 - Chemistry hits the catwalk
Chemistry hits the catwalk
with Tony Ryan, University of Sheffield
It’s time for science to hit the catwalk. One project called Catalytic Clothing is adding nanoparticles to our attire. These extremely small particles stick to the fabric fibres undergoing a series of chemical reactions to create a very reactive molecule - called a radical - that breaks down air pollution. Georgia Mills spoke to founder and Physical Chemist, Tony Ryan from University of Sheffield, to hear more about the project.
Tony - What we’ve done is make a technology work with clothing such that people can be perambulating environmental cleanup agents. We can make people wander around in their clothes, cleaning up.
Georgia - How does that work?
Tony - There are reports in the newspapers regularly about a) the level of pollution, and b) the effect it has on human health. The invisible killer in terms of air pollution is nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is a lung irritant, but if you convert it into the acid or the nitrate it becomes water soluble and it washes out of the air.
Georgia - Is this what your material does?
Tony - Yeah. It’s exactly what it does. What we’ve done is put some tiny particles - nanoparticles of titanium dioxide, titania - on clothes. The nanoparticles sit on the fabric, the sunlight hits them. It splits oxygen molecules, they react with water to make this hydroxyl radical. Then the hydroxyl radical reacts with the nitrous oxide to make nitric acid which is then soluble in the water vapour that’s in the air. The great thing is because your kind of hot and damp, so the particles are bathed in warm damp air, the particles deal with the pollution and then your physiology carries it away.
Georgia - How would it work in practice? How would you convert a piece of clothing? Say I wanted a nice hat that did this, how would we go about making it work?
Tony - I have a couple of pairs of catalysed jeans and some catalysed tee shirts and we do it in the lab by using a spray, like a diffuser spray that you’d use to water plants. We put a solution of nanoparticles into a hand spray device and then literally just spray the clothes, and when the water evaporates the nanoparticles are left on the clothes.
To do it at scale, what we’d like to be able to do is present the technology in the laundry detergent or in fabric conditioner because this fantastic chemistry goes on in the washing machine and you’d be able to wash it into your clothes.
Georgia - Okay. I’ve got my catalytic hat. How much of an effect will this have on the air around me?
Tony - What I’d need to know to tell you that is how much the hat weighs? Then that allows me to calculate its surface area because I know the diameter of the fibres. Once I know its total surface area, then I can work out what the loading is of the nanoparticles, and then I can calculate how much nitric oxide it would take out. I know the numbers off by heart for a pair of jeans.
Georgia - Okay. Let’s go with jeans then to make life easy.
Tony - A pair of jeans would take out about 5 grams of nitric oxide. The average car produces about 12 grams of nitric oxide in a day so a pair of jeans takes out the pollution from half a car. If everybody in London wore one item of catalytic clothing, then you’d be able to remove about half of the nitric oxide burden on London.
Georgia - Oh wow! I know London frequently goes over its limits for the year within about the first couple of months, doesn’t it?
Tony - Yeah. It already went over the limit in January for the whole year.
Georgia - Woops!
Tony - Yeah. Woops indeed!
Georgia - What’s the catch. This sounds like a great idea so what are you hoping is going to happen next?
Tony - We’ve not quite got to market. There’s a couple of frightening things for people: the first is the word nanoparticle; the second is the nanoparticles can’t tell the difference between a good smell and a bad smell. For example, not only will they oxidise body odour, and another that the particles will oxidise you know as perfume. We produced some tee shirts for a literary festival and all the stewards wore these tee shirts. I asked them had they noticed anything and they said well, yeah, they stay clean. You can spill tomato ketchup on catalytic clothing and it will disappear in a day or so. But, a young lady said “my perfume just goes”, and I was delighted to hear that because it meant the technology was working. But it also means that laundry companies who basically sell the idea of freshness as a fragrance, lose that fragrance if they have technology in the washing powder that cleans up pollution.
Georgia - I see. Does wearing one of these pieces of clothing directly benefit you or is it more the city you live in?
Tony - Therein lies a problem for marketing. No, you don’t get a benefit from your wearing of catalytic clothing. I guess, unless you walk down the street backwards. But everybody else does because you leave a trail of cleaner air behind you so it’s more of a herd immunity affect. If everyone wore catalytic clothing we’d all benefit, but if one individual wears catalytic clothing there’s hardly any difference.
Georgia - Are there any other applications you could have for this particle?
Tony - One of the things we did was it works on any fabric. It worked really really well on posters and at the literary festival where I found out that the perfume was taken away, I spoke to Simon Armitage, the poet, and he was so inspired by what I told him that he wrote a poem called In Praise of Air. We had that printed on a 20 metre by 30 metre banner that went up on one of the buildings at the University of Sheffield and that took out the pollution from about ten cars a day. You see flags all over cities and this technology works really really well in the urban environment. We have been working with advertising companies around putting catalytic air pollution solutions onto advertising awnings.
Georgia - I suppose you’d be an advocate for art and science working together then?
Tony - Completely and utterly an advocate for art and science working together. My research has been improved by my collaboration with artists, and we’ve been able to do some inspiring art that makes people think about their environment and how they live their lives.
47:17 - Gaming and the brain
Gaming and the brain
with Seb Wride, University of Cambridge
Videogames are an artform that also links closely with science. An obvious link is that with advanced technology comes advanced graphics, but one group from the University of Cambridge are actually using video games to measure how we learn. Georgia Mills was joined by Seb Wride from the Adaptive Brain Lab at Cambridge University
Seb - Previously, in the lab we’ve looked at the ways that people learn and in particular we’re looking at how people predict what’s coming up in the environment that they’re in. Particularly in uncertain environments, this is a particularly important function of the brain. We have discovered that there seem to be these two strategies that people use to predict the incoming situation and we are interested in what it is that makes a person pick one of those two strategies.
Georgia - Okay. Just thinking about this way of learning; for example, I’m in a new situation. Let’s say I’m playing American football for the first time and the ball is coming towards me and I need to adapt to the situation, what are the two strategies I might use?
Seb - Perhaps a better way of looking at it would be rules of American football itself. You might try to memorise all of the rules of American football and get them down so that you make no mistakes whatsoever. Alternatively, what you could do is just memorise the most important rules such as I need to run the ball to that end of the pitch. These would effectively be the two strategies: are you just taking in the most important information to save processing power perhaps, or are you taking in all the information to save on accuracy. We are interested, in particular, as to what would make you pick which of those strategies.
Georgia - I see. How does your video game do this?
Seb - In the video game we submerse people in a new environment in which they are trying to communicate with aliens who are speaking a language that you can’t understand because it doesn’t exist. You are presented with a string of symbols and you have to pick the next one in sequence, and you pick either according to whether you’ve memorised all of the symbols up to that point or what you think is most likely to come next all the time.
Georgia - So how well a player does basically tell which strategy they’re using?
Seb - Yeah.
Georgia - I actually had a go at your game and it’s quite fun. You’re in this little rocket and you meet these aliens and then they fire a load of symbols at you. Then you’re rather confused and just have to hit one of them and hope they give you some fuel. So looking at people’s responses, this is giving you actual data to do your science?
Seb - Yeah, absolutely. And we’re combining this with some survey information that we get from everyone who takes part which will tell us a little bit about their backgrounds, their personality perhaps, and some other psychological tasks which will tell us more cognitive traits such as working memory, risk taking, and other things like that.
Georgia - Who is the study aimed at?
Seb - We are targeting as many people as we can possibly, but we’re also looking, in particular, at an adolescent group so people aged 13 to 17 because this is a vastly understudied group in the literature. We’re wondering if perhaps there are different strategies that adolescents would use to learn something than adults.
Georgi - Right. Is this new method of collecting data, I suppose, letting you reach this target demographic more easy?
Seb - Sure, That’s the intention. Getting it out there, particularly seeing as everyone these days has access to some kind of mobile device or the internet at least. They should be able to take part in this study and that will get us far broader than just the people who can make it into the lab for a day of testing.
Georgia - What’s that statistic? More people have access to a smartphone than to a toilet or something like that.
Seb - Exactly.
Georgia - This is designed to get data and it’s helping you do your science but are there any benefits to playing video games in general?
Seb - This is a very interesting area of research there’s a lot of people looking into right now. Video games, partly because of the way that they’re such an immersive environment that you get involved in and because you are interested in getting reward from these environments, you want to win the game, you want to do better, this leads the brain to develop. As a result we seem to find that people who play a lot of action video games, in particular, where there’s a lot of fast-paced interaction between the person and the machine. People tend to be able to track things visually. Where most of the population would be able to track four visual objects, gamers can track up to seven, maybe in excess of. It also seems to show that there’s this level of plasticity or flexibility in the brain which only really occurs in this immersive environment, which they’re using to treat stroke patients where, perhaps, part of the brain has been damaged and the only way to overcome that is to change the connections in that area.
Georgia - So would you say art has helped science and was it, when you were designing this video game were you like “oh, as a scientist I’m finding this a different kind of skill set now”?
Seb - Yeah. I think art is definitely helping science in this circumstance. It allows us to reach more people. It definitely makes it a little bit more fun to take part in psychological experiments. And it allows for this generation of entirely new environments which wouldn’t be possible without it.
Georgia - I’ve got to say some science studies can have you looking at the clock. But make it a video game and people are only too happy to play.
Seb - Exactly.
Georgia - Sam Aaron from Sonic Pi, would you agree then? Would you say science and art make good bedfellows?
Sam - Absolutely. I could almost argue that they don’t have that much difference at all - they’re both founded in creativity. Science is an approach which is fundamentally principled on having a hypothesis which is a guess, which is creative itself. I think they’re both tools we use to explore the society around us and ask questions that we don’t necessarily have answers to. They’re very different tools and they allow us to explore different questions but, ultimately, they’re about communicating whether or not we’ve found those answers or whether the questions are worth exploring further and I think to put so much force behind one and not the other is actually detrimental to humankind.
Georgia - Maybe we shouldn’t really be pigeonholing these two separate ideas of art and science and just squidge them together in one big brilliant thing.
Sam - I think if you look throughout history there are large periods of time where we didn’t have a separation at all.
QotW: Do lobsters feel pain?
Georgia Mills has been simmering down to this question from Steve.
Switzerland has now banned boiling lobsters live. Do they experience pain; how do we know?
Georgia - Lobsters don’t have brains so it’s reasonable to assume that they can’t experience pain like we do. But how can we find out for sure? Well to help us out, here’s Professor Bob Elwood from Queen’s University, Belfast…
Bob - Animals face hazards that cause tissue damage, and most animals have reflex responses to protect them from such damage. Some have also evolved the capacity for pain experience. Pain is an unpleasant experience that causes changes in physiology and behaviour and makes creatures more likely to avoid danger in the future.
Georgia - Let’s take an example: if you put your finger in a candle, the sharp burn makes you much less likely to do it again. This feeling of pain is an important survival tool. But, like Bob said, some animals just have reflex responses, like when a hammer taps your knee. This still results in them avoiding a fire but lacks the conscious awareness of the pain. So is there any way to tell which one is going on?
Bob - My lab has focused on whether responses of various species of gastropod crustaceans, a group including lobsters, are just reflexes or if they are more complex and consistent with what we’d expect if they do really feel pain. We have shown through the application of potentially painful stimuli, like electric shocks, that they experience physiological stress in response, rapidly learn to avoid the stimulus, and show complex prolonged rubbing of the specific site of the stimulus application. This is reduced by local anaesthetic.
Hermit crabs, given a small electric shock within their shell, remember that for at least 24 hours and quickly move to another shell if one becomes available. Many other decapods pay a high price to avoid shocks by giving up valuable resources. Finally, they make complex decisions regarding painful experiences and an electric shock might cause a hermit crab to abandon its shell, but less so if the shell is of high quality or if the predator is present, which indicates some kind of central processing.
Thus, so many of the expected criteria are fulfilled, it is likely that these animals feel something akin to pain. Although total proof of pain is not available for any animal, we should err on the side of caution when that is warranted.
Georgia -So, if you want a guilt-free lobster thermidor it’s probably better to be safe than sorry and ask for it to be killed humanely before you start cooking it. Thanks very much Bob for putting the lid on that query for us.
Next week, we’re reaching dizzying heights to answer this question from Matt:
If I fell out of a building I would die. But, if like a squirrel or a cat fell out of it I think it would be fine. So how big does something have to be before fall damage will kill it?