Cambridge Science Festival: Battle of the Brains

This week we ask six Cambridge scientists to battle it out for science supremacy.
15 March 2016
Presented by Chris Smith


This week is a Cambridge Science Festival special with the Naked Scientists coming straight from the Cambridge Science Centre alongside a very lively audience! But that's not all, it's battle of brains as six of Cambridge's finest researchers strut their stuff in a competition of mind, matter and ultimate cool. From freeze-dried blood to turbo charged wheat who will come out on top?

In this episode

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03:01 - Is freeze-dried blood the future?

Could we dry blood so that is could be stored forever and transported with ease?

Is freeze-dried blood the future?
with Dr Krishnaa Mahbubani, The University of Cambridge

What if you could send soldiers to war with a packet of their own blood in theirBlood Donation Sticker backpack? Ready to use at a moments notice? Dr Krishnaa Mahbubani is working on this becoming a possibility and like a Pot Noodle, you just add water. She brought along a selection of foods to help explain...

Krishnaa -   Today, I've brought some freeze dried blood, some actual blood and also some tomatoes and dried pineapples.

Smith - What are you going to make - a pizza?

Krishnaa - Well not exactly.  I'm going to show you how and why I freeze dry blood.  So I've got some tomatoes here that are similar to your red blood cells; they're round, they have a membrane on the outside of them and they're full of liquid inside.

Smith - They're also in a plastic bag!

Krishnaa -   Well that's more just so they're easier to carry around - just like your blood vessels. So, I have some tomatoes there, which I then froze.  As you can see here they're kind of solid.  You can have a little feel...

Smith - They are pretty hard!

Krishnaa - I then allowed them to thaw out and what I had now having frozen and thawed out my tomatoes; they kind of look quite grim and grose and they're...

Smith - If I give these a squeeze, they're quite squiggy.

Krishnaa -   Yes, they're pretty much not going to be there pretty much.  So, this is the problem with trying to freeze thing. If you don't freeze them properly and carefully, when you thaw them out they just turn to mush.

Smith - Why does that happen?

Krishnaa -   Well that's because when water freezes, it actually expands.  So all the water inside your cells expand and cause the membrane on the outside to explode.

Smith - You make big ice crystals inside the cells which busts them open?

Krishnaa - Absolutely.  So that's pretty much what happens when you freeze them and when you thaw them, the same thing happens.  As you thaw them, the water expands when it comes up to about 4 degrees, and that causes any residual cells that hadn 't quite exploded before to explode again.

Smith - So I can see the problem with blood.  If we just took a blood sample from a person and put that in the freezer, all the blood cells would basically bust open and the blood would become useless.

Krishnaa - Absolutely!  All you'll have is the red material inside your blood, which is the haemoglobin, which really does work by absorbing the oxygen onto it but, without the cell around it, it  won't go anywhere in your body, so it's kind of useless.

Smith - Why do we need to freeze blood at all?  Why would that be useful?

Krishnaa - Blood at the moment when we take it, we put it in the fridge and it can only be stored for a very short period of time and that means we can't really store it; we can't move it to places where we need it as well.  So when people are at war and we want to transport blood out to them, we can't really do that because it's very tricky to keep the temperature constant so that the blood stays where you want it to be and in best condition.

Smith - And also, it's better to have your own blood isn't' it, if you can?

Krishnaa - Absolutely!  If you have the opportunity of wandering around with a bag of your own dry blood in your backpack, if anything were to happen to you, you'd just mix the pack together so the liquid mixes with your dried blood and then off you go.  They can, actually medically put the blood back into you and you're good to go.

Smith - Have you got it working?

Krishnaa - Well... not quite there yet.  Chris loves to ask me this question but I'm not a big fan of answering it.  I'm still working on it and it's getting better.

Smith - Okay, so what are you doing to try to make it so that blood can be frozen and what is this in front of us?  Is this examples of it?

Krishnaa - Yes, so here's some examples of it.  So I've got some blood that I tried to freeze dry rather than just freeze alone, which is quite tricky.  What I do is I freeze the in small little vials because, obviously, I don't want to use loads of it initially when I'm doing different tests.  So I freeze small amounts of it and then what I do is I pull the pressure down so I make it very cold and make it very low pressure and what that does, it changes the boiling point of water within the blood.  So, at that pressure I'm able to boil the water out even though the temperature is well below zero.  So, as a result, I can end up with a very dry cake and they use this technique for fruits and vegetables.  I have here some freeze dried pineapple which Chris can have a little taster of.  It's quite crunchy...

Smith - Okay so this is just literally chunks of yellow stuff and they don't look that appetizing but I'll eat it.

Krishnaa - They don't look very tasty but they're actually fine.

Smith - Okay yes, it's pineapple.

Krishnaa - It does taste like pineapple and the idea that I'm using for my freeze dried blood is that you can just add water.  So what we did earlier was add some pineapple into a jar and then we added a bit of water into it and now we just let it re-hydrate again and what you have are swollen up looking like quite regular pineapple....

Smith - It doesn't look great but it does look like pineapple.

Krishnaa -   It does actually look like....

Smith - Does it taste alright?

Krishnaa - Yes. It actually tastes like pineapple.

Smith - Mmm.  But you wouldn't want to inject that into somebody would you? That wouldn't make a good blood transfusion.  So how do you turn the pineapple trick into blood that will work?

Krishnaa - So what have are little cakes of blood and the idea is we'll have two packs next to each other so you can actually just mush the liquid straight into the blood...

Smith - Is that a scientific term - mush?

Krishnaa - Well not really, but the idea is it's going to be in soft packs so you can actually squeeze the two packs together to allow the whole mixture to come together.  What we do is we add it together...

Smith - We've got a little bottle here and it's got... It looks like a big pill actually - a sort of browny red stuff in the bottom - and you just added about half a bottle in this little bottle of water...

Krishnaa - Yes.  So what it is is just a cake of blood because it's effectively just the blood dried up with all the water removed, and now all I've done is add a bit of water to it, and I've shaken it up and it's gone back into its liquid form.  Now here here it looks much darker than the red blood; that's because I haven't oxygenated the water to make it go red which is what makes your blood nice and red.  So it's a bit darker just because it's not much oxygen in it.

Smith - And if I put this reconstituted freeze dried, or previously freeze dried blood, under the microscope, do I actually see blood cells in there or do I just see a mess?

Krishnaa - No.  You'd actually see quite a few blood cells in there...

Smith - Quite a few... or like how many?  What percentage - come on?

Krishnaa - About 8% of blood cells in there compared to the regular - what I started with.

Smith - So there's a little way to go but the fact is, when I spoke to you a few years ago it was much worse than that so you've actually made quite substantial progress.

Krishnaa - 8% is a significant improvement already but I've got a fair way to go.

Smith - And how have you made that difference?  What have you done to mean that you're now getting almost one in ten of the cells you freeze actually coming back to life?

Krishnaa - So what we've done is we've added different materials into it, known as cryoprotectants or lyoprotectants. We add these things to stop the damage happening during the freezing and during the drying process. We're starting to look at different things we can add to the blood that are not toxic and are not bad for us so that when we do transfuse them back into ourselves, we don't have to remove them and that is helping the keep the cells stronger and alive. It's also maintaining the chemical structure within the cells.

Berrow - I've got a very important question and that's how far are we away from being able to freeze dry a whole person?

Krishnaa - We're actually a very, very long way away from that.  And that is very simple. It's because ice, when it forms, is an excellent insulator so when the ice forms on the outside, the inside of you doesn't freeze up fast enough and so, because you're a very large person (you're not a tiny little cell), it's going to take a very long time to get you to freeze all the way down the middle and it's going to take a very, very long time to get all of that water out as well.  So, right now, not really possible.

Cambrideg Science Festival Logo

10:02 - Cambridge Science Festival

What makes Cambridge Science Festival so special?

Cambridge Science Festival
with Lucinda Spokes, The University of Cambridge

It's time to take a little break in the competition because this show is just one of Cambrideg Science Festival Logohundreds of events at Cambridge Science Festival. Festival coordinator Lucinda Spokes explains just how big the festival really is...

Lucinda - We ran for 14 days; we have, this year, 350 events and we hope to reach at least 45,000 people.

So the theme is data and knowledge; we're collecting and generating so much more data than we've ever done in the past so, an interesting thing about whether all the data we collect makes us perhaps, cleverer.

It allows us to show some of the amazing science that we do here in Cambridge.  It allows us to work with partners from both within the University but also external to the University, and we hope that the University of Cambridge and all of our partners show the amazing scientific community that is here in Cambridge and allows us to share it with thousands of people.

What actually the festival gives is space, and a safe space for people to discuss scientific issues. We firmly believe, this is not us telling people about science, it's about engaging in a two-way conversation. So the things that are concerning people, the things that are interesting people, and subjects that concern and interest people, and giving people a face and a time to actually voice their opinions, their views, their excitement, their worries about some of the big advances in science that are happening today that will, potentially, change our future.

Rowing Team

12:16 - Synchronising society

Synchronising comes naturally to humans, from the way we breath to the way we walk, is it the secret to our success?

Synchronising society
with Gabriela Pavarini, The University of Cambridge

Chris Smith's first contestant may give his team a bit of an advantage as she Rowing Teamstudies teamwork for a living: it's psychologist Gabriela Pavarini who wants to start with a bit of an activity...

Gabriela - Yes that's right.  So we're going to be doing some movements together and that's going to create the sound of rain.  And I'm going to go through the movements with you and Chris is going to describe them for you. Okay...

Smith - Okay and so the first movement. Rubbing your palms together like you want to warm them up.  Good okay.

And we're clicking fingers and thumbs. Okay.

Now you're tapping two fingers from one hand on two fingers of the other hand.

Now you're just having a clap.

Now you're clapping your palms against your thighs.

Jumping on the spot.

And that's the lot.  Okay that's what we're going to do.

Gabriela - Yes.  So we're going to go through all those movements and then go backwards.

Smith - So reverse the order?  Do them again but in reverse order?

Gabriela - Yes, that's right.

Smith - Off you go - it's over to you...

Gabriela - So we can start right now...

 Smith - Very good.  I think you can give yourselves a round of applause... Right.  Okay, what did that prove?

Gabriela - That's a demonstration of the type of research I do.  So my work is focussed on behaviour synchrony.  Basically, what I study is our ability to entrain our movements with the movements of other people and that's called "entrainment" or "synchrony."

Smith - Why is that important?

Gabriela - We find that when people engage in those types of activity; this could be either music making, drumming, dancing together etc., they tend to like each other more and they cooperate more, they feel closer to each other, more similar to one another so, basically, it's a mechanism to facilitate cooperation and social bonding.

Smith - Many people say that's not rocket science.  If you give people instructions, you can get them to copy it.

Gabriela -   I mean, we synchronise naturally so people tend to fall in sync with each other from very early on in life. When we listen to music we're going to move to the sound of music so that's a very basic human capability.

Smith - Are you saying then that hardwired into all of our brains is the ability to fall into step with each other whether we like it or not?

Gabriela - Yes, that's right and those types of activities, they are seen everywhere so regardless of what type of society it is, how big it is, how small it is, how complex it is.  They alway stop at some point to single dance together, which is quite interesting.

Smith - Well Chris, is a musician.  Is this actually part of the reason why, when we go and see a big orchestra play, people can all keep time with each other?

Gabriela - Yes, that's right.  So music is very related to that.  Music gives the possibility of a big group bonding together because they're all following a common beat.

Berrow - It was interesting.  Your were almost conducting everybody like a conductor conducting an orchestra, for example.  It did seem very much like that and I definitely see the transfer.  Is there other implications with sport as well?  Does this transfer over to sport?

Gabriela - Yes for sure.  We did some studies with rowers, for example.  We asked them to row in synchrony versus our to synchrony using an indoor machine and then we see some convergence, when the convergence in terms of motion of states when they row in synchrony with one another.  There is also other research showing that if you synchronise then you cooperate better.

Smith - Now that all sounds like good stuff doesn't it.  We're getting together, playing sport really well, playing music really well.  Are there any examples of where it's a bad thing?

Gabriela - Yes, it's certainly not all good.  For example, there was one study that I ran in the lab in which people synchronised with each other with a simple tapping task like the one we did right now.  Half of the participants did that activity in synchrony, so they listened to the same music and they were tapping some cups together and then the other half of the participants did the same but out of synchrony so they were listening to different songs. After that, they were asked to drink some quite nasty drinks and then we asked them about the taste of the drink, we recorded their facial expression and we asked them how reluctant they were to taste that new beverage. If they had been in synchrony with the other person they reported they were less reluctant to drink and for some persons who were quite sensitive they expressed less disgust toward the drink when they had been in synchrony with somebody else.

Smith - So that might explain why school meals, despite being disgusting are nonetheless eaten on mass.

Gabriela - Yes, that's true so you might need to get the kids all the synchronise before you send them out for break.

Integrated circuit chip

17:36 - Bendy circuits for smart food

Can we make circuits that are more flexible than silicon?

Bendy circuits for smart food
with Dr Stuart Higgins, The University of Cambridge

Silicon is great but what if it could be cheaper, bendier and printable? Maybe then Integrated circuit chipwe could get our food talking to our fridge. Naked Scientists regular and circuit bender extraordinaire Stuart Higgins is trying to make smart food a reality...

Stuart - In my left hand I have a silicon wafer; it's like a shiny blood colour; it looks very metallic and it's hard and, if I were to drop this, it would smash like glass.

Smith - It's a disk.  It's what 4 or 5cms across and thin, shiny - it's like a CD really.

Stuart - Yes, it looks very similar to a CD.  It's got the same kind of rainbow colours if you look at the surface of it.  This is silicon, so if you think in terms of your phone and the chips inside your phone or your computer, this is what they're made on  - this is this hard material.  Now that's great but, as I said, if I drop this it's going to smash - it's not going to be so good.  What if there was a way we could make electronics using plastic, with the benefits of plastic but also with the electrical benefits of silicon.

Smith - Why would you want to do that?

Stuart - Has anyone ever dropped their smartphone?  So if you drop something like a glass screen or if you drop something that's a hard crystal substance like silicon, it's going to smash - it's going to shatter to shatter into lots of pieces.  So I'm looking in my research at ways of taking new materials that are based on plastics that can also be semiconductors; can also be electrical in their nature.  So we often think of plastics as insulators; that's why we make our plug sockets out of them; that's why we make our cables out of them because we don't want electricity to get through.  But, actually, it turns out that there are special kinds of plastics that can act as conductors; they can conduct electricity and they can also act as semiconductors and a semiconductor is something that, in the right circumstances, turns into a conductor.

Smith - And that's what you've got here is it?

Stuart - Yes.  So in my right hand I have this flexible piece of... well it's a piece of plastic.

Smith - Okay.  So this is about the same size as the wafer of  silicon.  I can see through it; it's completely transparent, thin piece of... looks like cling film but a bit thicker and it's got some coppery coloured stuff on it.

Stuart - Yes, so what we're looking at there - actually it's gold. So if you look closely at this substrate you see this kind of pattern of gold wiring, essentially, and all of these wires are connected together with little devices called transistors and a transistor is a switch.  It's like an electrical switch where you press it and turn it on and you turn if off and it's the fundamental building block inside every microprocessor.  So when your computer does calculations, it's transistors that are switching on and off.

Smith - How might we make that?

Stuart - The benefits of plastics are that you can actually turn them into inks so, if you're doing something like silicon, you have to use very industrial processes - it's a very hard material to work with.  But, if you've got a semiconductor that's also a plastic, you can dissolve it, you can turn it into an ink that could go into a printer, for example.  An inkjet printer like we have at home. So one of the things we look at is ways of printing circuits on plastics.  We send the design from the computer to the printer and it prints out the circuit on the piece of plastic and in that way we're looking at ways of building up layers and creating these kind of flexible circuits.

Smith - What sorts of things could you make that do with that same technology because I know what my phone can do but, am I close to having a roll up phone?

Stuart - You're a little away from it yet because the silicon technology is so far developed; it's had many, many years of development.  The phone inside your pocket has a billion transistors in it - incredibly complicated.  This piece of plastic I have here has 120 transistors.  We're still years and years behind but one of the things we are looking at doing is incorporating it into other kinds of products.  So, in my particular research I look at radio tags and I'm interested in seeing whether we could make a flexible radio tag.  A bit like your smart card or you security card when you swipe it on a door and looking at ways we can make that onto a flexible substrate.  And the reason for doing that is if you can make things flexible, and you can print circuits, and you can do that cheaply and easily, then you could think about putting circuits where you wouldn't normally find them, for example, maybe on packaging.  So, as you referred to earlier, imagine having a milk carton in your fridge that's talking to the fridge itself and can actually tell you when the milk is about to go off.  Or that you know by looking at your smartphone, what's in your fridge when you're out shopping so you know what to buy next.

Smith - It would be food for thought, wouldn't it?

Stuart - Exactly. That's where the idea is that if we can develop new materials and we can develop processes and ways of making these circuits that do that, then it opens up a huge new range of technologies.

Smith - It's an obvious question.  Why aren't we doing it now?

Stuart - Well, the problem is that these plastics, while they're good, is there not that good.  They're still quite a lot worse than silicon and, in particular, the charges, the electricity going on inside this circuit is moving a lot slower than it would in silicon.

Smith - Now I asked you for a bit of a demo to show us the speed of these things.   What demo have you got lined up for us?

Stuart - So, I'm trying to illustrate here what happens if you've got a slow transistor; if you've got a slow switch that turns on and off.  Now, in some ways, if you've got your smartcard talking to the reader and it's kind of speaking very slowly and you've got the reader speaking very fast in return and trying to get things really quickly, those two can't talk to each other, they can't understand each other, and particularly if you've got transistors that can also be used as an amplifier.  If that amplifier can't see all the frequencies then you start to miss information.

In this first clip I'm going to play a spoken recording and it's going to have all of the high frequencies cut out as if the transistor wasn't switching fast enough.  So, we're going to listen to that and try and understand what's being said and see how difficult it is to hear what's happening.  After that I'm going to play the second clip with all the frequencies present so we can hear what it says.

Smith - Let's do it...

Audio - [Muffled]

Audio - I am sometime able to eject a very fine spray of saliva out of my mouth. Why are we evolved to do this?

Smith - Right.  So why do they sound differently intelligible between the two?

Stuart - So, in that first clip we were hearing only the low frequencies and actually, in order to gain all the information and for our brains to be able to interpret it all, we need to have at least some of the frequencies there.  We need to have as high a range of frequencies as possible so in the second clip when we can hear everything, it's much clearer.

Once upon a time

24:29 - Science fact or science fiction?

It's time to test the scientists' general science knowledge with a round of fact or fiction.

Science fact or science fiction?
with Stuart Higgins, Krishnaa Mahbubani, Hugh Hunt, Howard Griffiths, Suchitra Sebastian, Gabriela Pavarini. The Univeristy of Cambridge

It's quiz time! Team Berrow and team Smith go head to head in a round of scienceOnce upon a time fact or fiction - can they tell knowledge from nonsense? Team Berrow start first...

Smith - Just like humans, British cows moo with regional accents.

Stuart - We're going to go true.

Smith -   They're going science Fact.

Berrow - I'm afraid it's Fiction.

This was widely reported in UK press in 2006 with quotes from farmers like...

Farmer Lloyd Green, from Glastonbury: "I spend a lot of time with my ones and they definitely moo with a Somerset drawl."

But apparently it was all a huge misrepresentation of a Professor of Phonetics at University College London, who, when asked about it said "you could not entirely rule out the possibility" - the press decided that this meant it was true.

That said, some other animals do have regional accents, including whales, although they don't have welsh accents...

Smith - ...Ants can survive a spin in a microwave.

They're saying science Fact

Berrow - Fact

Microwaves are actual waves, and they're wide enough, about 5cm  that ants can literally run away from the hotspots in the microwave to cool areas and dodge the microwaves.

Smith - ...Diamonds are made from peanut butter.

They're going science Fact

Berrow - Fact

This is true! Scientists from the University of Bayreuth, Germany use pressures higher than those found at the center of the earth to turn peanut butter into diamonds! They're not pure, and sometimes explode, but they form part of experiments which could tell us a lot about the formation of the earth.

Smith - And Team berrow, you have scored 2 points.

Now team Smith, you have 2 points to beat; here we go:

...Darth Vader, Beyonce and Donald Trump all have animals named after them.

Okay Howard have you got a verdict.

Howard - We'll go True

Berrow - Fiction

This is  FALSE - while Darth Vader and Beyonce do have animals named after them, Donald Trump is yet to have this scientific accolade.  Scaptia beyonceae is a horse fly with a glamorous golden abdomen, and darthvaderum is a type of mite. BUT - There IS a caterpillar called M. opercularis which is sometimes called the Trump caterpillar because it looks like his hair.

Smith - ...It takes a radio message from Earth about 1 day to get to the New Horizons probe out near the dwarf planet Pluto.

Smith - They're going science Fact

Berrow - Fiction

Radio waves travel at the speed of light, which is about 1 billion kilometres per hour; Pluto's about 6 billion kilometres away, so messages from here take about 6 hours to get there! A long time, but it's not a day!

Smith -   Right you've got to redeem yourself on this one or it's totally in the hands of the audience for the end and you musn't let me down my team.  Okay, here we go...

...There is a donut-shaped asteroid that scientists have named after Homer Simpson.

Smith - They're going Science Fact

Berrow - Fiction

While asteroid belts are often the shapes of donuts, no donut-shaped asteroids have ever been seen... Yet.

Smith - And Team smith, you have scored 0 points.

So the winners at this halfway stage are: 2 points to 0: Team Berrow!

A variety of foods made from wheat, which contains gluten.

31:06 - Can you turbocharge your porridge?

Wheat yield has plateaued as our population increases, could genetic modification help feed the planet?

Can you turbocharge your porridge?
with Professor Howard Griffiths, The University of Cambridge

Food security is a pressing issue, our population is rising whilst climate change is Figure 6: Wheat is used in a wide range of foodsbattering our agriculture. On top of that wheat, one of our staple crops has hit a brick wall in yield increase - is it time to get turbo charging? Howard Griffiths thinks so, as he displayed something that looked suspiciously like the contents of a cornfield to Chris Smith...

Howard - Well, it is the contents of a corn field and what I'd like to do is hand out some of these to some of these youngsters here...

Smith - What are you dishing out?

Howard - Well I'm giving out some ears of wheat that I collected from a field and it illustrates... How many of you like toast for breakfast?

Audience - Yes!

Howard - Excellent.  Well wheat is a staple product of the world; it feeds and it gives us a huge amount of protein. The ears that I'm holding up in front of you contain little grains and those little grains - you can pull them apart and have a look - those are the seeds of the wheat and having sown one of those seeds in the autumn, the farmer was then able to grow all these ears of wheat.  Well these are the ones that are left behind that he didn't quite manage to harvest.

Smith - What proportion of the world relies on this simple stuff - this cereal crop?

Howard - A huge proportion of the world relies on this as a staple diet.  It's one of the major protein inputs because it's go so much nitrogen in it but there is a problem with it because, over the last 10 or 15 years or so, the yields from wheat have begun to plateau.  They've reached a stable level; they're not increasing as much as they used to do over the previous 30 years since the green revolution.

Smith - Why is that a problem?

Howard - Well, that's a bit of a problem because the world's population is increasing and also we're likely to get a change in climate in the future which will mean, increasingly, crops won't be as productive as they have been in the past.

Smith - You're saying then we could be facing a hungry future?

Howard - Yes indeed. I mean there are other issues that we need to tackle; not just about increasing the productivity of the wheat, we've got to minimise waste. For instance, these ears I've picked up, the farmer hadn't managed to harvest them and all around the world there's a huge amount of food waste that we need to try and minimise...

Smith - So you stole that?

Howard - Well - I helped myself.  I liberated it, that's the word we tend to use. Also, of course, we've got to improve our distribution of these sorts of foodstuffs so that it helps people who don't have food but also doesn't destroy their economy by distributing it in a way that would upset the national product of a particular country.

Smith - So we have a situation where yields of this very important food crop are not going up.  The human population is going up; we also anticipate that the environment's going to change because of things like climate change so that may also dent the yield.  So what's your solution?

Howard - Well there are other sorts of plants.  How many of you like cornflakes?

Smith - I'd say Kellog's are not doing very well in this room.  There's only about two or three hands up..

Howard - There are other versions of cornflakes available from your local supermarket - you do realise?  So, cornflakes are made from maize corncob - do you all know what a corncob looks like?  Each one of those little granules on a corn cob, that's where your cornflakes come from.  Now they come from of a plant that actually have a higher rate of productivity and they're what we call turbocharged, so naturally this is a plant that has managed to increase its productivity by force feeding the enzyme that fixes carbon from the atmosphere.

Smith - This energy that comes to us from wheat, we get effectively from the sun don't we?  Because this plant captures the energy from the sun through the process of photosynthesis and it stores it chemically in a form that we can then eat?

Howard - Absolutely.  Plants are magnificent; when you think they take that amazing energy we get from sunlight for free and they turn it into the products that feed us, they clothe us...  How many of you are wearing cotton at the moment?  And they also fuel us.  If you came in a car, that's fuel that was laid down by plants millions ,and millions, and millions of years ago.

Smith - How can we therefore, make that plant better at being a natural solar panel then?

Howard - Well, one way would be to take that pathway that we get in sweetcorn and maize and encourage staple crops like wheat or rice to see if we could adopt that pathway into them as well.

Smith - Right.  So basically, take what the maize is really good at and confer that same science on the wheat?  Why doesn't the wheat do that already?

Howard - It hasn't had to because it evolved in a wet and cool environment, whereas maize comes from a tropical environment where it's hot and often water limited, so that's the advantage of that crop as well as having this turbocharger.

Smith - How can you put this turbocharger, as you put it, into the wheat?  Is that feasible?

Howard - That is a real problem because it means that we would have to find wheat that had a slightly different structure within their leaves which would allow us to put that pathway in.  We have an alternative solution and that alternative solution... You can see here I'm holding up a vial of green cells...

Smith - I thought it was a urine specimen.  It's in one of those pots the doctor give you Howard.

Howard - Chris - if your urine has got that colour I think you do need to see a doctor.

Smith - I did have a patient with that once and he was on a certain drug that made his wee go green.  But why does it look green then - what's in that pot?

Howard - This has got a microscopic algae in it; it actually grows in soil and solutions.  Many of you have buckets in your gardens that have been gathering water all over the winter , I bet they've gone a bit green haven't they - yes?  So that algae is all very close relatives of it.  Other sorts of things grow in ponds and in buckets and in soil.

Smith - And they're plants are they?

Howard - They are plants indeed.  Well, they're related to plants and they also have a mechanism which turbocharges their photosynthesis and they do it in every single cell.  So what we are wondering is, they have a much simpler mechanisms for concentrating that carbon dioxide and improving the efficiency of the enzyme, could we try to persuade all the cells in a plant like wheat.  If they could adopt that mechanism,maybe that would improve their photosynthesis and that would help us increase that yield of wheat, and rice, and so on by 10 or 20%, which is what we will need to do over the next 50 to 100 years

Smith - You're saying, take the machinery from the stuff that makes the pots in your garden go green and put that into wheat, and it would like putting a Porsche engine into a Lada?

Howard - Indeed, that is the sort of idea - yes.  I hadn't quite thought of it like that.

Smith - But is it feasible?

Howard - It is feasible.  We have actually managed to get parts - little microscopic components that help to pump the carbon inside the cell walls of the algae to work inside plants.

Smith - And if you do this, what sort of increase in productivity of normal wheat might we be able to see?

Howard - Well, we would hope to see a 15% increase in wheat yield, I would imagine would be the sort of thing that would maintain that stability for the future.  In the short term, of course, we're going to rely on traditional genetics, traditional breeding that will help to bring in new traits and help to maintain pathogen resistance but, in the future, perhaps we could get away with this mechanism.


38:11 - FameLab: 3 minute science stars

How can scientists become great communicators? FameLab can help.

FameLab: 3 minute science stars
with Katheryn Muir, University of Cambridge

There are clearly lots of brilliant science communicators out there, but how doFameLab most early career scientists get an opportunity to dip their toes in the engagement pool? Fame Lab is an initiative that offers that opportunity and this year's Cambridge final was held a few days ago - here's some of the contestants and organiser Kathryn Muir...

Contestant 1 - We can now predict the future of our planet's climate and our existence on earth.

Contestant 2 - And then as you look longer you realise that each spark lives for about a second and in that second it moves along a little curly path and then pops out of existence.

Contestant 3 - Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to one of the greatest model organisms in biology the worm C. elegans.

Kathryn - It's an international competition and it's an opportunity to try and find the science communicators of tomorrow by getting people working in research both within academia or within industry to speak about their research for three minutes in front of a public audience.  So it's all about describing what you do in laymans terms in such a short amount of time.  Similar competitions are run all over the world from Egypt to Vietnam, Thailand, so people are all competing in their own countries and then they come to the UK to compete in the International final.  It's open to anyone over the age of 21 that's working in science or engineering or maths, so that can be within academia or within industry.

Contestant 4 - Let's imagine that these balloons are going to represent future possible you.

Contestant 5 - Stem cells, when kept in the correct conditions, can live forever.

Kathryn - Why we hold it within the Science Festival is the educational, just, getting people interested in science but it's also really valuable for our researchers and local people working in science to be able to build their skills and communication, and build their confidence in talking about their own research to a public audience.  If they want to carry on with their research, it's a really valuble skill.


40:38 - The height of helium

How much can helium actually lift? Could it lift a giant hose into space?

The height of helium
with Professor Hugh Hunt, The University of Cambridge

Professor Hugh Hunt wants to stop the arctic melting, and as strange as it mightBalloons seem - the giant floating helium balloons he brought wih him have got something to do with it, but what?

Hugh - Well they are balloons - helium filled balloons and it's all about buoyancy.  You might remember Archimedes and he got into a bath and he famously announced "eureka."  He understood buoyancy...

Smith - He was the first naked scientist - Hugh.

Hugh - Yes - one of the first naked scientists.  So I have this apple here and when I put it into the water it floats and that's because the density of the apple is less than the density of the water.  Now with a helium balloon, the density of the helium is less than the density of air which is why the balloon floats.  What I'd like to do is to measure how much this helium balloon lifts, so I've got some scales here - turn the scales on - and this apple... Who'd like to come and measure the apple - would you like to come up?

Berrow - What's your name?

Emily - Emily Warren.

Hugh - Emily.  So Emily, how much is that apple weighing there?  I've put the apple on there, that's how many grams?

Emily - 135.

Hugh - Right - 135 grams. Then when I put the apple into the bag here which is being lifted up by the helium balloon it's...

Emily - 132 grams.

Hugh - So how much has it got lighter?

Emily - 3 grams.

Hugh - 3 grams. So this little balloon here is lifting only 3 grams.  Thank you very much.  Now here I've got a bigger balloon, and you can see that this big balloon, well it has already got one apple in there, I can put a second apple in there...

Smith - When you say big - it's 3ft wide.

Hugh - Well yes, it is quite big - about 80cm wide, and what's interesting is, this balloon is about four times bigger than the small balloon.  But because the volume goes up as the cube of the size, it's four times bigger, but 4 cubed is 64 - 64 times bigger in volume. And 64 x 3 - it's about 200 grams.  Now 3 grams - 200 grams.  One apple was only 120 grams.  2 apples - can't quite hold two apples but you can see how that works. Now it's interesting with volume.  We can demonstrate how things go up with the cube.  I'd like to have a volunteer - who'd like to volunteer?  What's your name.

Johnny - Johnny

Hugh - Come here Johnny.  I'd like to do a little experiment because I want to prove that volume - your weight goes up with your size cubed.  Now your height is about  150cm and my height is about 182 cms and if we do 150 divided by 182 and cube that, then that should be the ratio of our weights. 150 divided by 182 and we cube that and that tells us the ratio of our weights is about .55, and I'm 80kg so you should weight about 45kg - let's see if this works.  Right Johnny are you going to stand on there.  I reckon you should be about 45kg.

Berrow - So on the scales now of course.

Hugh - Okay 34kg but you should try this.  If you work out your weight it goes as a cube of your height.  So someone who's half your height will be ⅛ of your weight. Now this is really important...

Thank you Johnny, you can sit down now.

This is really important because one of things I'm interested in doing is trying to refreeze the arctic.  Because we know about global warming but the arctic especially is getting very, warm and one of doing this is to spray tiny particles up into the stratosphere.  That's what volcanic eruptions do when they put tiny particles in the stratosphere and that helps to cool the planet.  Well, we could do this artificially and we might need a very big balloon to hold up a very big hose to spray these particles up.

Smith - And what particles are they that you want to put up?

Hugh - Well, we know that volcanoes would put up sulphur dioxide but maybe there's other particles like titanium dioxide or silicon dioxide.  Tiny particles about half a micron in diameter - that's under a 1000th of a millimeter which is about the wavelength of light, which is why these particles are good at scattering light.

Smith - What - so you want to put them up there and they will reflect light...?

Hugh - ...And they will reflect light back into space.  We only need to reflect a tiny bit of light and that will help to cool the planet.  Getting the particles up to a height of maybe 14, 16, 18 kilometers - we could do it with aircraft but that in itself is quite damaging to the environment.  So instead, if we have a big balloon, then we can use the big balloon to lift up a hose and one of the things about the hose is that trying to do that safely... If I have a hose - well there's a cable here...

Berrow - So it looks like you're attaching the chain from a bath plug to a 3ft wide pink balloon at the moment.  That's fairly accurate I would say?

Hugh - Yes, so I've now got this balloon on the end of a chain and then what happens is, when you start to have the balloon going high up into the sky, the wobbling of the chain may well cause the chain to break.  This chain will be a pipe to pump stuff into the atmosphere and we've really got to get the engineering right to make sure that all doesn't go terribly wrong.

Berrow - So something like wind would have a huge effect on this because, obviously, it's going straight up into the sky?

Hugh - Yes, wind is a real problem.  The high winds in the jetstream and big storms. And actually, thinking about how we might cool the north pole is a very pressing problem for us to deal with right now.

Berrow - Does it matter that we're thinking of putting particles at that level when people talk about the ozone layer and the fact that it's going away?  Does it matter that we're starting to try and tamper with things like that?

Hugh - Well it really matters, and there's huge questions about whether we should be meddling with the atmosphere, meddling with the climate in this way, but we are already pumping 35 billion of CO2 into the atmosphere.  Unless we stop doing that in a hurry and it doesn't look like we will, we may not have any choice.

Berrow - So this is possibly the answer?

Hugh - Well very reluctantly it may well be the answer but hopefully in the next five or ten years we will have figured out how to reduce our CO2 emissions.

Levitating Superconductor

47:47 - Superconducting for super energy

Energy transportation is far from ideal and lots is lost along the way, how can a levitating superconductor help change this?

Superconducting for super energy
with Dr Suchitra Sebastian, The University of Cambridge

Suchitra Sebastian is a Cambridge University physicist on a mission to transformLevitating Superconductor the way we use energy globally and she's planning to do it all with the help of a type of material called a superconductor. She starts off by explaing what the problem is that she's hoping to fix...

Suchitra - I'm trying to work towards a world in which we use less energy. If we'd like to move to renewables like solar energy.  This is made in the middle of the desert where not many people live, so to get the electricity from there to the most crowded cities, this is not easy to do.

Smith - It's a big transmission problem. You've got to move the electricity from where the sun shines to where the people live, and they're not the same?

Suchitra - Yeah so if we used regular electric cables like we have here that you plug into the wall, we actually lose quite a bit of energy.  So if you put electricity through we waste quite a bit as heat so, if we were to extend this to over thousands of kilometer, you'd end up wasting a lot of that precious energy.

Smith - So you're saying it might be possible if we can make the transmission system not lose all that energy along the way?  To make lots of energy, electrical energy where it's sunny and transport it much more efficiently to where we need it?

Suchitra - Absolutely, and for this the kind of material which I'm going to be talking about is perfect.  It's known as a superconductor- it's a perfect conductor.  So you're familiar with metals, conductors in which electricity is not transported because electrons (the little objects that transport electricity), they're bumping into each other and bumping into the crystal walls, so there's a lot of energy lost because of these kinds of processes but in superconductors, the electrons all move perfectly in sync.  So, when you take a superconductor, you cool it down gradually at some special temperature and they suddenly, almost by magic, all become aware of each other and all click perfectly into sync with each other. So over giant distances, over hundreds of kilometers, you get perfect transmission of electricity.

Smith - It's a bit like rather than having a contraflow on the motorway and everyone's going here there and everywhere, and changing lanes, and bashing into each other; we've got everyone in the same lane, no HGVs and everyone's going along at the same speed?

Suchitra - Absolutely - no traffic jams!

Smith - Is this feasible?

Suchitra - I can actually show you today an example of a superconductor and some of the unique, and particularly exciting, effects of a superconductor.

Smith - Right let's do it - what have you got?

Suchitra - What I have here is a container; this is about -200OC so yes, it's quite cold.

Smith - In there is a clear liquid which is bubbling away - that's what?

Suchitra - This is liquid nitrogen, and this is a very effective way of cooling down whatever's in this liquid to -200O.

Smith - Sitting in there are two very thin black squares, maybe 2 inches down each side of the square, bubbling away at the bottom - what are they?

Suchitra - These are actually pucks made of superconducting material.  So I'm cooling them down in order for these materials to be perfect conductors, they have to be cooled down so that the electrons start behaving in sync with each other.

Smith - And when we've got them really cold, what are we going to do with them?

Suchitra - Okay.  So what you see here is a giant ring - well when I say giant- it's about 1m across.  It's a ring with shiny little squares that are very strong magnets.

Smith - Right, so all the way around - it looks like a glass coffee table actually - but all around the outside rim of the coffee table are little silver squares and those are powerful magnets?

 Suchitra - When I put the superconductor over the magnet you will see what happens.

Smith - This does look magical actual, because what we've got is this glass coffee table like thing with all these magnets around the edge and this flat sheet of material (the superconductor) that we've just put onto it is literally wizzing around following the path of the magnets in a circle and it is floating about an inch off the surface.

Suchitra - It's floating, it can go in any direction...

Smith - You give it a nudge with the forcep...

Suchitra - Yes...

Smith - ... And then off it goes?

Suchitra - Yes.  I give it a nudge in one direction and it goes round and round in that direction and the only thing that would slow it down is friction...

Smith - From the air?

Suchitra - Yes, friction from the air or if it were to get warmer.  As it will gradually get warmer you will see it descending slowly.

Smith - Right - now the hard question.  Why is it doing that?

Suchitra - To put it as simply a I can, it's because currents are set up on the surface of the superconductor...

Smith - Electrical currents?

Suchitra - Yes, so when perpetual currents are set up on the surface of a superconductor, it creates a magnetic field that repels a magnetic field from these very strong magnets, and since this magnetic field of this superconductor is repelling expelling or the magnetic field from these very strong magnets, it's floating on top of this.

Smith - I get it.  So, the magnetic field makes an electrical current flow in the superconductor which makes it's own magnetic field which repels the magnetic field from the table, and the two oppose each other and it just bobs there forever?

Suchitra - Yes, exactly.

Smith - Until it warms up, obviously?

Suchitra - : Yes, that's right.  Yes.

Smith - And the practical application of this if we wanted to use this practically to solve the problem that you were saying at the outset, which is getting electricity around the world and that kind of thing.  How could we do this?

Suchitra - The levitating effect that I showed you, for example, is used in magnetically levitating trains to reduce friction with the track.  But actually, these transmission solutions are really important for the world's energy problems and they are already used in some parts of the world; so a kilometer long superconducting transmission line is used in Germany for example.  Actually, if you've actually had your head inside one of those MRI machines, that's a superconducting magnet so it's not so alien that you only see it in the laboratory but, what we really need to do to help solve these big energy problems, we need to cool it down.  At the moment, the superconductors that are best known, we need to cool them down.  This is okay in an ice cream tub in a demo or over a kilometer, over hundreds of kilometer this is quite challenging and also, the material you see here...

Smith - It would be a big ice cream tube, wouldn't it?

Suchitra - Yes, you would need a lot of cooling yes.  Lots of ice cream or superconductor cooling.  And also what you see here the superconductors - you can come up and look at them - they're quite brittle; they're not actually shiny like a metal; they're not malleable.  So they're not great to make into wires and they're quite expensive so, really, we'd like to find better superconductors.

Smith - So if you do want to improve them, how can you make them better?

Suchitra - We're not that great at building superconductors from scratch (so designing them), but what we do is to take existing materials, for example, there are magnets which are very close to being superconducting.  We put giant pressures on them, like the pressures near the earth's core that Chris was talking about.  You can create a diamond from peanut butter. Just like that you can take a magnet, put a giant pressure on it and make it into a superconductor and so this is what we're doing to design superconductors in the laboratory and hence work to a better superconductors, which you don't need to cool, which are cheaper and that we can make these transmission lines out of.

Smith - They'd still be cool though - wouldn't they?

Suchitra - They would be cool.


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