Covid to Climate: Dissecting Science News

We're answering your questions, and picking apart the science behind the headlines...
15 September 2020
Presented by Chris Smith
Production by Katie Haylor.


image of a newspaper and a globe


This week - a show with a difference! Space journalist Richard Hollingham and space scientist Katie Mack join Chris to probe the science behind the headlines, talk to other guests along the way, and answer questions that you’ve been sending in.

In this episode

Sunrise over the rim of a planet seen from space.

01:02 - Lunar Gateway and The End of Everything

Space scientist Katie Mack and space journalist Richard Hollingham talk space science with Chris Smith...

Lunar Gateway and The End of Everything
Richard Hollingham, Boffin Media; Katie Mack, North Carolina State University

Space scientist Katie Mack talks to Chris Smith about The End of Everything, and space journalist Richard Hollingham fills Chris in on the lunar gateway...

Chris - Richard, you've got a bit of a celebration, because you have become part of an exclusive club of people who've made it into their pod century. You've gone past a hundred episodes of the program [Space Boffins] now.

Richard - We've actually made way more than a hundred, but we're not quite sure how many, because we started making them. And then we started counting. So we know we've officially done a hundred podcasts, which I think is quite an achievement, but I think it's also testament to the fact that people are fascinated by space, and what is going on in space. And now is just the most exciting time for space exploration, for exploring the cosmos, but also for human space exploration and the return to the Moon. So I kind of feel we're on a wave here, of interest.

Chris - It's all going to kick off with the lunar gateway. Because you know, people are often saying, why have we not been back to the Moon? And now we're able to say, well, we are going back to the Moon, because that's due, or was due to be next year. This whole idea of creating a space station, orbiting the Moon.

Richard - Well, the Americans are sticking. NASA is sticking to the goal of putting a woman, the first woman, on the Moon by 2024. I mean, this will inevitably drift, because the spacecraft that's going to get them there, the rocket that's going to get them there, the space launch system, SLS, I mean the first launch of that won't be until probably next year. It was due a couple of years ago. And no one's tried out with a crew yet, the Orion capsule, which they'll travel in, but there is a momentum there. Absolutely. And this will happen. And Gateway is the space station around the Moon that they'll go to. And then they'll use that as the sort of base really, to get down to the lunar surface, although no one's built the lunar lander yet either. So I mean, there's quite a long way to go, but I think crucially for this, because we've heard a lot about going back to the Moon in the past, crucially for this, the money is in place. The money has been accounted for. The budget is there, the astronauts are being trained, so it will actually happen.

Chris - Katie. You're also kind of celebrating, because you got a book out. Tell us about what The End of Everything, which is its title, is all about.

Katie - So it's a book about the end of the universe. It has the subtitle, astrophysically speaking, just as a way of showing that we are being very literal. When we talk about the end of everything, it really is everything. And it goes through five different ways, what those would look like. And also just puts it into the context of what we know about the beginning of the universe, how we study the end of the universe, and how physicists and astronomers are figuring out the evolution of the cosmos.

Chris - I suppose people will say; well actually reading a book about the end of the universe is something of a welcome break from learning about the end of civilization as we know it from coronavirus.

Katie - A lot of people have told me that actually. That it is a very calming thing to contemplate these big questions of the universe, of cosmology, of this very broad perspective, when everybody's sort of huddled into their own little spaces, and you know, seeing all these difficult and stressful things happening around them, just being able to stop and think about this much, much bigger picture can be a sort of comforting thing.

Chris - How long do you think we've got left then, if you assume one of your scenarios, how long have we got left?

Katie - Yeah. Generally speaking, the universe is not going to end for a very, very, very long time. We know that our Earth has maybe a hundred million, maybe a billion years of habitability, and then the Sun will destroy the Earth or at least destroy the possibility of life on Earth, and then much, much longer than that is when the universe will start changing in any appreciable way. So probably so many trillions of years in the future, you can't even find words for it. There are a few possibilities that could happen sooner, which is interesting and exciting, but it's not an immediate threat.

Chris - That is a big relief. I'm sure you'll agree Richard. Tell us about what the Chinese are up to though. Because there was this mission, it was announced that they sent something into space. It was a very short lived mission, but they didn't say what it was, but they described it as a big success. What do we know?

Richard - Well, we don't know much more than we've got from the state run news agency. They said the successful flight marked the country's important breakthrough in reusable spacecraft research, and it's expected to offer convenient and low cost round trip transport, for the peaceful use of space. So I mean, let's unpick that a little bit, because we haven't even got pictures of the launch. No one was even allowed to take pictures of the launch. There are pictures of the spacecraft itself. You can see those on social media and the BBC website, and it's got this huge casing at the top. So obviously what they launched is something quite substantial. Reusable space planes, I mean you think about something like the space shuttle, well that had a crew of seven, so a modern space plane's not really like that.

You had the Soviet space plane Buran, which flew, but without a crew. But that was more or less a copy of the Space Shuttle. Since then, though, there was a secret American X-plane that flies up into orbit, stays in orbit for quite a while. And normally delivers satellites or in inverted commas, payloads. So I mean, this is all secret and military. And so the Chinese one, well I'm imagining, and certainly reading about it. It looks like it's an uncrewed space plane, probably a robotic space plane, probably very similar to the American one that can go up into space, maybe deliver a satellite, or maybe take some pictures of other satellites, or take pictures of the Earth. And they can come back down to Earth, and can be turned around quickly and launched again. There are advantages of this. Reusability is the key thing. And that's the key thing with space now, is if you can send something up, you can bring it back. You can do a little bit of refurbishment and use it again. You're massively dropping the costs of that. So although this is military, there is also very much a commercial side to any reusability or reusable technology in space, which means you could launch satellites cheaper.

Person running, jogging and stretching

07:47 - Exercise under lockdown

Harvard University human evolution expert Dan Lieberman tells Chris Smith about the origins of exercise...

Exercise under lockdown
Dan Lieberman, Harvard University; Katie Mack, North Carolina State University; Richard Hollingham, Boffin Media

Chris Smith is joined by human evolution expert Dan Lieberman to talk exercise, de-conditioning and what we mean by fitness...

Well back down here on Earth, and putting his feet on the ground very much. Excuse me. Dan Lieberman, professor of human evolution at Harvard University. I hope you'll excuse those terrible puns, but you're celebrating too. You've got a new book out, it's called Exercised. That's Exercised with an E not an O, although we are feeling rather exercised in the present climate aren't we? Tell us about your book.

Dan - It's basically a natural history of physical activity, and the punchline really is that although we evolved to be very physically active, we never evolved to exercise, which I define as voluntary physical activity for health and fitness. And so I use, in the book an evolutionary and anthropological approach to, kind of demystify and debunk all kinds of myths about physical activity that make people feel confused, and embarrassed, and shamed, and blamed, and basically irritated by people like me who try to get them to exercise.

Chris - Well, I did ask you when we were doing a sound check before the program, what did you have for breakfast? And you said a run.

Dan - No, I said I like two breakfasts. So yeah, I like to have sometimes a little bit to nibble before I head out, go for a run and then come back, and then I like to have a second breakfast, just like Bilbo Baggins. So I think he had the right idea.

Chris - Katie, are you a fitness freak or couch potato?

Katie - I am somewhere in the middle, I think. I do exercise a lot, and since the whole pandemic thing started, I've been doing a lot of running. Before the pandemic I was into rock climbing in rock climbing gyms, which all closed for a while. I was running for a couple of months and now it's a little bit less than that, but just to be outside, I think I'm much more sane when I'm moving and, you know, getting regular exercise. So, I do something a few times a week, at least.

Chris - Same for you, Richard?

Richard - I think I'm one of the few people in the world who's lost weight since lockdown, because similarly I started running, ignoring the pain in my knees and there's an exhilaration to running. I'm not sure I enjoy running. I enjoy having run. And I had a question to Dan about this. What point in history do we think we realised we weren't doing enough physical exercise in our daily lives, or we were eating too much and we had to actually discipline ourselves to take exercise, to actually do something separate on top of our normal day to day lives.

Dan - I mean, your observation is absolutely correct. It's a very recent phenomenon, because until recently people had to be very physically active in order to survive. I mean, until 600 generations ago, all our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. They didn't even have anything they grew in a field, right. And then from many hundreds more generations, our ancestors were simple farmers. And it's only recently with the rise of, you know, different social classes, and machines, really the industrial revolution, that large numbers of people could live without being physically active. And now we have this very strange inversion whereby people who are wealthier actually, are more likely to be physically active than people who have a lower socioeconomic status, because they actually now have the time and money to pay for gyms and, you know, don't have to take long commutes and stuff like that. So exercise is really, you know, for most people, really an industrial, post-industrial phenomenon.

Chris - Indeed, because parkrun has come back. This is the organisation that encouraged people to just go out and not do competitive, aggressively fast running, go and have sort of, fun running. And you can't really, they say, underpin, or underline, or underscore, strongly enough, the health benefits of exercise. Is running actually that good for us though? Because there must be a cost to this repetitive impact on your joints?

Dan - Well look, everything has cost and benefits. And when people try to advertise exercise as a magic bullet with no negative potential, you know, I think that's part of the reason that people have a kind of a BS-meter, and they realise that they're being sold a bit of an overly optimistic prescription. But we evolved to run millions of years ago. And I believe that running is a skill, and that many running injuries, not all, but many running injuries are caused by the fact that people don't know how to run properly. You know, we teach people how to swim properly and how to throw properly. But we just tell them to lace on a pair of shoes and go running and surprise, surprise, a fair number of them get injured.

Chris - I wanted to raise the point that was made to me by one of my colleagues the other day, saying that during lockdown, we've got this situation now where a lot of old people haven't been out much. They haven't been taking the same sort of exercise that they naturally would have done just going shopping, which is a form of exercise. If you take yourself out, down the street, up and down the stairs a few times it builds muscle mass. She made the point to me that we're probably going to see another wave of people who die this winter. Not because they die of coronavirus, but because of coronavirus, because they've become so deconditioned, their muscles have wasted. They're less steady on their feet. They're more likely to fall over, more prone to things like hypothermia.

Dan - You're absolutely right. I mean, people evolved to be physically active, right. Again, we should distinguish between physical activity, which is just the activity, any activity that you do, any kind of moving. With exercise, which is sort of, planned voluntary physical activity for health and fitness. So we know that for most people, this is a worldwide average. And of course it depends on your age, but 150 minutes a week of moderate physical activity. So a brisk walk for example, reduces your relative risk of dying by about 50%. But it doesn't happen immediately, those negative effects accrue very slowly.

So there's no question. We know that the lockdown has decreased people's physical activity by approximately 40%. And it's happening because they're not going anywhere. They're not going to the stores. They're not doing all the things that they used to do. And the end result is we're going to have more hypertension. We're going to have more metabolic syndrome. We're going to have more cancers. We're going to have more heart disease. Those negative effects are going to accrue very, very, very slowly over decades, actually. So they should also be added to the toll of this pandemic. Absolutely.

Chris - Couple of very quick questions for you if I may please, Dan. Kevin asks, as we get older we can't seem to achieve the same level of fitness that we did when we were younger. So what actually, he asks, is fitness?

Dan - Well, of course, fitness is defined differently by all kinds of different folks. And people in the physiology sort of exercise world define fitness as basically how much oxygen you can get in and use, just basically your aerobic capacity. So a common measure of fitness is your VO2 max, the sort of the maximum level of oxygen you can suck in and use in your muscles. And it is true that as we age our VO2 max inevitably declines, and there are a number of reasons for that. You know, we lose mitochondria in our cells. Things stiffen, you know, ageing takes its effect. But we also know that people who are even moderately physically active slow the rate at which their fitness declines enormously. So one of the most important arguments that I make in my book is that it's actually kind of a chicken and egg question, which is that humans are one of the few species that evolved to live past reproductive age, and we become grandparents. And we know that for thousands of generations, the grandparents were important because they would forage and hunt for their children and grandchildren. But in turn that physical activity turns on repair and maintenance mechanisms that keep us from ageing and keep us fit. And so in a way we evolved to be physically active, but physical activity also evolves to help us live long. And so as we age, keeping up activity becomes ever more important in order to slow the rate at which we lose fitness, slow the rate at which we lose functional capacity, slow the rate at which we accrue various kinds of chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease and even cancers. And the good news is you don't need to do a lot, just a moderate amount has an enormous benefit. You don't need to run marathons.

Chris - Someone once said to me that if you could turn exercise into a pill, it would be impossibly powerful compared to all the other drugs that we've ever invented. Ross is wondering, though, what can sometimes cause nausea after exercise, I've had this myself, if you go and have a fierce bout of exercise and then you feel pretty sick and you think, well, why did I do that? Clearly exercise is not good for my health.

Dan - Well, I mean, nausea can be caused by so many different things. I mean, sometimes it can be caused by dehydration. It could be caused by you know, muscle contractions, it can be caused by electrolyte imbalances. But you know, most people when they go out and go for a run or a walk or climb a mountain for fun, or go for a bike ride, nausea is not really normal. I mean nausea tends to occur from intense physical activity, intense exercise. And again, I think we have by commodifying and medicalising exercise, people think they have to go to extremes in order to get benefits to the point that they get nausea or they get cramps or various other kinds of problems. And I think that's part of the problem. Exercise is a kind of 'virtue', you know you line up on one line and run 26 miles to another line. And somehow that makes you virtuous about it. It might be fun. And I like to do that, but you don't need to do that to get the benefits of physical activity.

Chris - There you go, Katie, you're on good form with your climbing and your running.

Katie - That's great to hear!


Brain schematic

17:58 - Mental health and the Covid pandemic

Psychiatrist Paul Blenkiron talks about mental health in the current Covid crisis...

Mental health and the Covid pandemic
Paul Blenkiron, NHS psychiatrist; Katie Mack, North Carolina State University; Richard Hollingham, Boffin Media

NHS psychiatrist Paul Blenkiron joined Chris Smith, Richard Hollingham and Katie Mack to reflect on how we're doing psychologically under the current Covid crisis...

Now, as we just heard from Dan about keeping physically fit during the pandemic, there's another aspect that's our mental fitness. Paul Blenkiron is a consultant psychiatrist, he's based in York. So Paul, I suppose that exercise is one thing that does make you feel actually more sane. Katie was saying just now that it makes her feel more sane when she does exercise. So is it just that we're not taking enough exercise? Is that why people are saying they're feeling miserable at the moment?

Paul - Well, I think it's become clear to all of us, hasn't it? That this COVID crisis is more of a marathon than a sprint if I could use that exercise analogy. So yes, certainly being active and keeping active is going to be a really important part of that. If you're working from home, I would certainly be doing a bit of structure to the day. Don't keep it all the same. And certainly don't take work home with you, metaphorically speaking, you know, leave those emails alone, do something active, whether that's mental or physical, it's going to be good for you.

Chris - There's been quite a big surge though in people reporting symptoms of mental illness during lockdown, hasn't it? I mean, the rates have increased a lot. There was a paper in the journal of the American medical association recently saying - I mean they were looking at people using internet search engines and looking at how often certain terms were cropping up. The number of searches for panic attacks and anxiety attacks has gone through the roof.

Paul - Yeah, certainly has. And I've just been reading about a study from the mental health foundation in England, they've been tracking people since the start of the pandemic and the latest figures from July show that about half the population had felt anxious in the previous two weeks. About one in five had felt lonely, and even 10% had had suicidal thoughts. And interestingly, those were more common sort of symptoms in certain groups. So people like women, the unemployed, students and those who already had a health condition such as anxiety or depression. So we’ve got to watch out for those.

Chris - Are these amongst people that have pre existing problems or these what we dub de novo cases, people who previously didn't regard themselves as having any kind of mental health issue and suddenly they have?

Paul - Well, it's difficult to know, isn't it? It's a mixture of the two I think. I'm looking at the Lancet study, which compared how people were doing before and after the start of the pandemic. And certainly by about late April, that was about a month after the lockdown in the UK, we had about 30% more cases that were clinically significant problems. So I think it's increased by about a third above what it would normally be, but we've also got all these other cases who already have the problem, which has been magnified by the pandemic.

Chris - And Katie, how has the scientific community coped? Cause there've been scientists and doctors like me that have been at the coalface and it's been so busy that we haven't noticed that we could possibly get stressed because it's been too demanding to worry about anything other than sorting out coronavirus. But for people that can't get into their lab, can't do their normal science, it's been, I would say, horrendous.

Katie - I'm a theorist so I don't need to go to a lab to do my work, but it's been a very big shift in how I work and in how my colleagues are working. And the biggest thing that I've found is suddenly a huge disparity in who is able to work and what the pressures they're facing are. So my colleagues who have young children at home for example, are completely stressed all the time, trying to take care of the young children and also balance their teaching and their research and everything. And then others who don't have young children at home or who have more support in other ways are able to continue working. And that big disparity has been very noticeable. And so that seems to have had a really strong effect on who's coping well and who's having a lot more trouble.

Chris - What about from your perspective, Richard, from the journalism side - are the people you're speaking to, are they so busy that actually they've found that the chance to retreat at home and be a bit theoretical like Katie has actually been welcomed and they've actually kind of enjoyed the break? Or are people saying they're actually getting quite itchy fingers to get back into work?

Richard - See people seem to divide it into two and I think this is across the board because I'm very careful about saying I've got too much work on, I have a lot of work on, cause I do have a lot of work on, but I've got similar colleagues, similar experience, similar backgrounds with nothing on. And that seems to have been this divide between people who are very busy and people who really don't have much or losing their jobs or, you know, all those horrors. And I had a question to Paul really about the change. So in the UK we had the big first lock down in April and it was a very stressful few weeks. And then we kind of settled into it and that was the new normal. Then we've had an easing, and this is true across the world, easing of these restrictions. And then that becomes the new normal with social distancing. But you can go out to the pub or anything. And then we just had a, not calling it another lockdown, but it's another retreat back and that's stressful. And I wonder about the change aspect of this Paul, whether that's a key factor - that you can settle into a new normal if you'd like, but it's that trauma of the change.

Paul - Yeah, exactly. I think a lot of people, myself included, at the beginning, thought this is going to be three or four months, we'll be back to normal. But it's become more clear now that we know less about this virus than we thought we did originally. Certainly the thing about immunity is uncertain. Where I work, the staff that have volunteered for antibody tests, about 11% of them are seropositive. That means most haven't converted even though lots of people think they've had it. And I would go back to your question about attitudes and adjusting to this in the long term. It's probably best not to think of this as a second wave coming, as this tsunami that's heading our way. Maybe just as sort of inevitable, local outbreaks, temporary restarting of partial lockdown rules just to keep the virus under control until it eventually goes away or we do get a vaccine.

Chris - Katie, are you doing a lot of teaching?

Katie - Thankfully not doing teaching this semester, which is hugely helpful because I know that the teaching situation is extremely challenging right now.

Chris - Where I was going with that is that we've all ended up kind of square-eyed because of staring at screens, doing Zoom meetings, I mean, obviously other other sorts of platforms are available. Paul, do we know how people respond to long term exposure to these sorts of things where you're in contact with people, but you're kind of not at the same time. And that must have a bearing on especially young people.

Paul - Yeah I can only quote for my own personal experience. I've got some children here. They've gone back to school this week, much to the relief of many parents. And I can say that in terms of academic progress, it's fine to go on a laptop. But the thing that the children really miss is that social contact, no matter how much contact they've got via screens. I think the same is true of adults. It does vary between each of us doesn't it really. We've got, in the mental health service in the UK, we've revolutionised how we speak to patients and we are doing a lot more video contact, a lot more phone contact, but whether that's really the same thing as that personal touch, only time will tell I think.

Chris - Phil was wondering, will there be a pandemic-specific stress disorder from this? In other words, are we going to end up with kind of a big spike in people who have a range of mental health problems off the back of this and what sort of provisions are being made for that? Because presumably we are going to see people with consequences because of this in the long term.

Paul - Well, certainly previous pandemics, thinking of SARS and the swine flu, have led to an increase in things like stress disorders, post traumatic stress disorder and depression. So we're expecting people to have more cases like that. People are facing lots of different situations now, more domestic abuse and violence because they're stuck at home. Most people who've been ventilated because they've had COVID, they can get more post traumatic stress from being in intensive care units. So I think at the moment, certainly the national colleges, all kinds of GPs and psychiatrists are well aware that this is sort of a second wave, psychological wave, that is upon us now, really. We're certainly seeing an increase in referrals to the service and we have to be prepared for that really.

Chris - And Katie, what's the experience in the US like?

Katie - One of the things that I'm really concerned about is that the death toll in the US has been just staggering. And when there've been other major events with a huge number of people who have died there have been memorial services, there have been national grief exercises and so on. And that doesn't seem to be happening in the US despite the astonishing number of people who have died. And I'm wondering about the psychological impact of all this grief that has nowhere to go, where we're not having big memorial services, we're not having big national prayer things, or whatever, the ways that people usually deal with massive loss. And I'm curious about how that's going to impact people, just the weight of this sort of unexpressed grief of so many people lost.

Paul - That's a really good point, actually. And certainly the way people have been, in the early days, not allowed to attend funerals, which is sort of a tragedy really. It's almost a double whammy. You lose your loved one and then you can't even say goodbye. I think it's really important we do prioritise people being able to see people who are very ill, people who are dying, I think that's being recognised more. Another point I'd like to make about this, just this idea of managing uncertainty, because we're in this for the long haul. And we can go through our lives thinking; what if this happens, looking for the next tragedy, or the next lockdown. And yet we need to get on with our lives, and basically manage it in the here and now. If you've ever driven a car across a busy road, there's risk in our lives every day. And I think the best thing to do is to accept the risk, take the usual precautions, but just get on with things in a very practical way.

Chris - Any other tips you can offer for people who might be feeling vulnerable?

Paul - Yes. Well, you're not in this alone really. I think a lot of our therapies for anxiety problems would be well applicable to the COVID epidemic - cognitive behaviour therapy, for example, helping people to change the way they look at the situation. For example, you might say, well, you know, I've got a risk of getting COVID or I've got symptoms. My sort of tips there would be to say, if this is true or realistic, is it a helpful thought to have. If you're a rock climber or a tightrope walker who constantly thinks 'if I fall off I will die,' is that really going to help you to live your life? And those people who are stuck inside and they've put things on hold to the pandemic goes away, I would say, well, suppose we can guarantee that this pandemic's only going to last another six months, what are going to be your goals for that six months, what are you going to be doing during that? And if six months is not the right thing, what about two years? I'd like people to plan ahead, really just get on with what they can do within the current scenario, rather than waiting for some day when it's all going to be over.

Chris - One very nice piece of advice that someone who works in the psychiatry space said to me once was that they try and write down a few good things that have happened to them, or at least think of those things, every day before they go to bed. And then you at least go to bed on a positive note and you dwell on the positives, not the negatives.

The coast of Antarctica from a bird's-eye view.

30:06 - Melting Antarctic and wildlife decline

Chris Smith speaks to climate scientist Ella Gilbert about climate science in the news this week...

Melting Antarctic and wildlife decline
Ella Gilbert, British Antarctic Survey; Katie Mack, North Carolina State University; Richard Hollingham, Boffin Media

"If Antarctica did melt, what would that do to sea levels around the world?" Chris Smith talks climate science with Ella Gilbert from the British Antarctic Survey, with further reflections from space scientist Katie Mack and space journalist Richard Hollingham...

Chris - It's also been a big week for climate change this week. Ella Gilbert's a climate scientist, she's at the British Antarctic Survey. Ella, thanks for coming on the program. Lots of headlines this week! This is off the back of the report from the Zoological Society of London's biannual Living Planet Report with the World Wildlife Federation: they say, on average, global populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have plunged by 68% between 1970 and 2016. Two years ago that figure was only 60%. We've got the stories about record levels of melting ice from Antarctica; new models about how warm water is being forced into Antarctica to melt the ice there at an alarming rate. If Antarctica did melt, what would that do to sea level rise around the world?

Ella - If the entirety of the Antarctic ice sheet was to melt, it would raise global sea levels by an astonishing 58 meters. Now that's not likely to happen anytime soon, but it's a really vast amount of water that would completely inundate, essentially make coastal areas around the world virtually uninhabitable.

Chris - Yes, I did read somewhere that many of the major cities, because they're all situated on rivers and rivers by definition tend to be in quite low places, most of the world's major cities that we all cherish would be at significant risk. What sort of timescale would that risk come over though? When are these cities likely to become vulnerable?

Ella - Most major cities tend to be at quite low level, which means that any degree of sea level rise is likely to have an impact. It doesn't necessarily require 58 meters of sea level rise to start seeing the effects of climate change and sea level rise. We're already seeing them. Within the next century, within the next few centuries, we're likely to start seeing quite intense effects of sea level rise. And of course that's exacerbated by intensifying extreme weather events, and storm surges, flooding, that kind of thing. And obviously there's the uncertainty associated with what future trajectory our climate takes, whether we start mitigating climate change sooner rather than later, and what we actually do to combat it.

Chris - There was a paper in Nature Climate Change just recently: they found that the rate at which the polar ice caps - including the Antarctic - are melting, actually are following our line of worst trajectory prediction. In other words, we said "worst case scenario, best case scenario, we expect to be somewhere between those two margins," and actually it looks like, the rates we're measuring, we're on the worst case scenario; which doesn't really bode well.

Ella - No. I read that paper the other day and yeah, it's quite clear and stark in its conclusions. It shows that the rate of observed sea level rise is on track to completely... I mean, it's virtually indistinguishable, the line between the worst case scenario and observed sea level rise, essentially. So that isn't good news. And that's largely because of surface melting in Greenland, which is mostly caused by temperature rise and the kind of heat waves and extreme weather we've seen there in recent decades; and then also by what we call dynamical change in Antarctica, which is basically bits breaking off and glaciers speeding up.

Chris - Richard, getting into space has played a huge role in our being able to make the sorts of measurements that the Ella is relying on when she's doing her research. People actually weighing Antarctica from space using satellites.

Richard - Absolutely. Earth observation, as it's called, which are these satellites that observe the earth, which essentially... they started off as spy satellites, but now are just crucial for our understanding of weather, of climate, of the makeup of the earth, of the amount of ice on the earth. And CryoSat for instance, the satellite from the European Space Agency, is measuring ice coverage continuously using radar across the globe. So we have a pretty good idea now of what's happening. And you just look at, as we were saying, these horrifying headlines: wildlife in catastrophic decline, the fires in California, what they're calling the Doomsday Glacier in Antarctica; and I guess I wonder there how you stop from being overwhelmed, and how we can... can't be positive about this, but there must be positive action we can be taking based on the science?

Ella - Yeah, that's a question I often get actually. I find that I've become relatively desensitised to these sorts of terrifying headlines, having engaged with them for very many years. I think you have to focus on the positives, like you were saying, thinking about the good things that have happened to you in the day; possibly thinking about the small wins that we do see, the things that are less bad than we expected, or the solutions that people are coming up with. I do take lots of encouragement from the really cool net zero technologies that are being developed, and the projects that you see that are using innovative solutions to actually combat climate change, and the sorts of huge changes, and the rise of popular awareness and passion for climate mitigation: for instance, the citizens' assembly on climate change, or the proliferation of protest against climate change. Everyone is talking about it and that can only be a good thing.

Richard - It's interesting you mention that citizens' assembly because that was ordinary people - if you want to put that in inverted commas - but people from across the country coming up with, "well, the policies that the politicians put into effect, what policies should those be?" And I think politicians have been quite surprised that they're really quite emphatic that we need to do something about it, and it needs to be led by governments; not just the government, but governments around the world.

Ella - Yeah, it's really amazing to see that people are actually taking democracy on climate policy into their hands and that it needs tackling on a vast scale, it needs to be national level and it needs to be international level; which is something that I suppose has been talked about for a long time, but to have the mandate from people who, like you say in quotes, are "ordinary", is really strengthening.

Chris - Katie, what's the mood like in the US? Because of course your country has been hit by a lot of the consequences of these things, with intensifying hurricanes, there's been quite a lot of storm activity, and then of course the wildfires that we've seen raging on the west side of America; has that shifted people's thinking?

Katie - I think there is a general shift where more people are understanding that these kinds of big events are connected to climate change, and more common because of climate change; and I think that that is getting into the popular consciousness. Unfortunately on the federal government level climate protections are just decreasing in the last few years, and there's backward action at the moment from the top, but I do think that there is more of an awareness. And one of the things that I was wondering about, Ella, if you wanted to comment on this: there's been quite a lot of interesting innovation in remote connection, remote conferences - I've attended a few remote conferences and some of them have been really very good - and a lot more remote work and so on. Do you think that the developments that have been happening because of the pandemic, and more of this remote work, more of these remote meetings; do you think that will substantially cut down on people flying all over the world within academia, and other industries, to meet with each other? Or do you think this is just a temporary blip and it's everybody's going to hop in airplanes again as soon as they can?

Ella - That's a super interesting question. I was actually speaking on a panel where this came up before, and...

Chris - You didn't fly to that panel did you Ella? Just asking…

Ella - It was on Zoom! Yeah, lots of organisations I think are trying to decarbonise; and that inevitably includes cutting down on flying, and carbon expenses, and getting to conferences, which are of course a vital part of academia and knowledge sharing; but can, as we've seen, be done remotely in a really successful and effective way. So I think it's been a kick up the backside for a lot of organisations. The proof of concept is there, we can see that these vast conferences, with normally 20,000 attendees or something in that vicinity, can be done online, and that people still engage with them. Of course there's going to be tweaks to be done, but I think the fact that we've successfully managed to do it so quickly just demonstrates how easy it will be, and I do think that it's going to be something that we see more of in the future.

Ampoules and vials of vaccine

39:48 - Covid vaccine trial on pause

Immunologist Clare Bryant joins Chris Smith to answer some of your Covid questions...

Covid vaccine trial on pause
Clare Bryant, Cambridge University; Richard Hollingham, Boffin Media; Katie Mack, North Carolina State University

To reflect on the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine trial pause, Chris Smith is joined by Cambridge University immunologist Clare Bryant, space journalist Richard Hollingham and space scientist Katie Mack...

Now back to the perennial sujet du jour: the subject of the day has to be coronavirus. It's been quite interesting week because of the vaccine aspect of this grabbing headlines all around the world. The hopefully temporary cessation of trials for the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine, regarded as one of the leading candidates to vaccinate against coronavirus; this trial was temporarily suspended this week after one subject developed an adverse reaction. To explain a bit more: Clare Bryant, immunologist at the University of Cambridge. Clare, how often do these sorts of adverse reactions happen in clinical trials? Is it normal practice to just suspend a clinical trial like this pending investigation?

Clare - Hi Chris. Yes it is. The Oxford vaccine is the Phase 3 stage, so it's going into tens of thousands of people. And we know that vaccines can produce side effects: for example, the flu vaccine that we have every year can have side effects. But what's central here is the risk-benefits, so if you're going to have an adverse event, it needs to be a very rare one. Now we don't actually know if the incident that's happened is actually to do with the vaccine itself - it may not be. It may be that a patient who's received the vaccine has an unrelated problem that's occurred during this trial, but you have to then stop or pause the trial at that point to investigate whether or not the incident that has occurred is due to the vaccine or is completely unrelated. And that is obviously important; if it's unrelated, then that means the trial can carry on and progress; but if it's related to the trial then you need to take a look, a serious look, to understand what's happening, because clearly if you're aiming to vaccinate the planet - which we are, that's many millions, billions of people - then you obviously can't afford to have an adverse event that's occurring commonly, because then the risk-benefit of having the vaccine versus the side effects becomes lost. But on the positive side, there are currently, when I last looked, 32 clinical trials of vaccines currently ongoing. We know the success rate for a good vaccine is approximately one in 10, so we should potentially have three usable vaccines against COVID - if vaccination is going to work.

Chris - Katie, what's the mood, apropos vaccination, like in the US? Because obviously, Donald Trump has been making some suggestions that it's going to be pretty soon that America is going to have access to a vaccine. And then a whole bunch of pharmaceutical companies have all signed up, probably in response to this, saying, "well, we're not going to have any vaccine until we're all completely comfortable that it's safe".

Katie - It's a very interesting situation because there is a fairly large anti-vaccine problem in the US. Just for ordinary vaccines for things that where we know the vaccine is safe. There are situations where there's a lot of hesitancy and Donald Trump has, at some points sort of fueled that fire. And now he has this programme to try to very quickly put out a vaccine. And there's a lot of concern that he wants to really hurry it through in order for it to be a factor in the election. There's a lot of nervousness around the vaccine because there's not a lot of trust in the way the federal government is doing this. And then also in other ways, not a lot of trust in vaccines, in general, in certain communities. And so I think a lot of us are just very nervous about how this, how this is all playing out.

I did have a question about this vaccine situation. There is some concern about reinfection or whether or not a vaccine is going to be fully effective. I know that there are a lot of vaccines that we have out there, like flu vaccine, where there's some protection, but it's not perfect. Not everybody who gets the vaccine is actually protected, but it's enough to make a pretty big dent in the amount of transmission. And I'm wondering, are we optimistic that if a vaccine does work as expected, that it will give most people immunity? Enough that we can go about our lives? Or are we going to be wearing masks and doing distancing long after a vaccine is available to everyone?

Clare - Worst case scenario obviously is that we don't have a vaccine at all, but there are different grades of potential protection. So we could have a vaccine that stops you, the patient, getting the disease, but it doesn't stop you carrying the virus and shedding the virus. So if that was the case, then we probably would still have to wear masks because not everybody can be vaccinated. So people, for example, who are receiving immunosuppressive drugs for maybe cancer or for horrible immune diseases, they're not going to be able to generate a response against a vaccine. So what we would ideally aim for is a vaccine that would mean that you don't carry it, as well as you being protected against the effects of the infection and disease. And we just don't know at the moment where we are. And this is one of the concerns. So for example, somebody from Hong Kong, who had the infection and then was reinfected, that person had no symptoms, but they could still isolate virus from him. So potentially that person could still shed virus into the population. So this speaks to the concept of herd immunity - how many people do you need to be protected in order to stop the very susceptible groups of people actually getting infected. And these are all the unknowns.

Chris - Clare, this question of reinfection, and this obviously has rung some alarm bells, because people are saying, "well, if catching the virus sufficiently badly to put you in hospital doesn't then result in long term immunity and you can catch it again three months later, (which is what happened in a couple of cases that have now been written up), is this not a danger sign that a vaccine has got so much heavy lifting to do to make you long term immune that actually a reasonable proportion of people might not respond to it, which may be another fly in the ointment?"

Clare - Yeah, absolutely Chris. And I think that is a concern. And I think one of the problems, particularly with this virus, is the individual variation in the response to disease. So for example, some people that had a severe infection, most of those people tend to be older. Older people don't generate as good an immune response as younger people. And that might be part of the reason. And are we therefore going to be able to generate a vaccine that will generate protective immunity in these people if they're not protected after having a primary infection? Very difficult to say at the moment, the knowledge isn't there.

Chris - I was thinking of you earlier, Richard, when I was reading the headlines -

Richard - It always scares me when people say that!

Chris - ...because isn't it interesting that Donald Trump has taken a space analogy. They've got Operation Warp Speed to come up with this vaccine that's going to rescue the US and hopefully the rest of the world. And Boris Johnson at the 10 Downing Street press conference used the word, my Moonshot for a very ambitious programme of testing, both of which are obviously aiming to control coronavirus. I wonder why they're using space names. Do you think that's kind of, because it's ambition, it's kind of everyone getting together, it's enthusiasm and they're trying to garner some of the positive support around space?

Richard - Well, possibly, but I think that I would say the main reason is because space, again and again, with mission centered space exploration, has proved effective teamwork. Has proved a huge diverse group of people working together - with the Apollo programme to put people on the moon, tens of thousands of people involved, all working together. We've seen it with the Mars missions. We see it again and again in space. So I think they want a bit of that.

Chris - What do you think the sort of sentiment on the street is, in terms of people's enthusiasm for a vaccine? We've made mention of vaccine hesitancy. Do you think that damage has been done to the vaccine drive now by the fact that they've come out and said, "we're going to stop this trial", albeit temporarily, or do you think that people will find that reassuring? That proper checks and balances are being done?

Richard - I hope they find it reassuring. I mean the anti-vaccine movement, which Katie mentioned, has been around since the middle of the 19th century, it just has a louder voice, I would say, now. I think we should all be reassured that there are 32 groups around the world working on a vaccine. All those groups of scientists are not going to release anything until it's proved effective. So I think we should be reassured and frankly, oh, I would love a vaccine. I would love an effective vaccine. I want to go and hug people again. And I'm not the sort of person that likes hugging people.

Chris (to Clare) - I've got some questions here. Richard has been in touch and he says, when COVID-19 was first prevalent, we got told to maintain social distancing, wash hands frequently, avoid touching faces. He's saying it must be several weeks since he last heard anyone dwell on that advice. Has the advice changed, or is it just that people have got hand washing fatigue in terms of their messaging? And they've moved on to something else now Clare?

Clare - No, the advice hasn't changed. And in fact, I think Grant Schapps was on the radio this morning saying exactly that, that we need to remember to maintain the hand washing, not touching your face and so forth. Nothing's changed.

Chris - Got this one from Steven. And he's asking about the question of viral load. What he's referring to is how much virus you're deluged in when you're exposed to someone who's got the infection. And he says, um, it's been said that in some instances where symptoms are bad, the sick person has probably received a high viral load. Presumably this could be lots of close contact with sick people or a lot of fluid from just one individual, very sick person. So if you reverse this logic, will the receipt of a very low viral load mean someone is less sick or does it not work like that?

Clare - That's an interesting question, isn't it? I mean, it's certainly something we've talked about and that has been talked about a lot, but the problem is with that is that you're assuming that everybody will respond the same to a dose of the virus. And we know that there are some people who are super susceptible and some people who are not. So it would be a little bit like Russian roulette saying, "do you want to try this or do you want to not try it?" Um, it's not really an experiment I particularly want to participate in. I'd rather wait for a vaccine. Thank you.

Katie - I've been reading a lot about aerosol transmission and the controversies around what we mean by aerosol what we mean by airborne and so on. It seems to be that there's a kind of consensus growing that indoor spaces are particularly dangerous because the virus can be sort of floating around in the air. What's your perspective on that?

Clare - Yeah. I'm inclined to agree. I mean, it's a confusing space and, you know, we've thought about it a lot, particularly in drawing up of course, risk assessments for work. It's reasonably clear that outside spaces are safer than inside spaces because of airflow and much better ventilation. Obviously when you're in an inside space, particularly depending upon your building, a lot of buildings now require air recirculation, and you can anticipate as you recirculate air, if there's no direct connection with the outside world, then you're getting an accumulation of viral particles in a space where an infected person might be. So I think that's about the only thing I feel reasonably comfortable with, being outside is safer than being inside. This data will emerge over time. As we learn more about the virus of course, we learn more and more about the problems that are there.

Someone shining a light up from a mountain at the stars and Milky Way.

51:34 - Will we run out of light elements?

North Carolina State University's Katie Mack answers our listener questions...

Will we run out of light elements?

Chris - This one says, does the equation E=MC2 hold for dark matter and dark energy as well?

Katie - Well, for sure it does for dark matter because that's a kind of matter. And we use that equation as a way of counting up the energy density of stuff. And we don't know what dark matter is. So we don't know if it's a particle or, or whatever, but when we talk about what dark matter could be, we do talk about it in terms of its mass, in terms of its energy. And so that conversion between matter and energy as a way of accounting for how much stuff there is, is just everywhere in physics. As for dark energy, dark energy is a little bit of a more complicated thing because it might just be a kind of property of the universe and, whether or not you can reasonably talk about that in terms of mass is a whole other thing. But for dark matter, we use that conversion factor all the time.

Chris - Here's one relevant to The End of Everything. This person says "since light elements are transforming into heavier elements in stars. Is it true to predict that one day there will be no new star being born?"

Katie - Yeah. And it's not necessarily that we're going to run out of light elements. I think that's the question that's being asked. What's really going to happen is that there will be fewer ways for the light elements to come together in enough density to form new stars. So the stars in the Milky Way will die. And there won't be processes that compress the gas enough to form new stars over time. And in the rest of the universe, everything will be getting farther and farther apart. And so there will be fewer stars forming just in general, out in the cosmos. And so it's more a matter of the fact that in the dense places, the stars will form and die and scatter elements, but the places where we normally have star formation in little clumps of gas in galaxies, or in violent events of mergers of galaxies, those kinds of events, those kinds of environments will become less common.

Chris - And lastly, before we let you take a well-earned break, this person says, "do you think aliens would use lasers rather than radio telescopes to attempt to contact with us here on Earth?"

Katie - It really depends on what they're trying to do. And we have used all sorts of technologies to try to search for alien life, you know, aliens communicating with us or communicating with each other or anything like that. And the nice thing about a radio telescope, depending on how it's built, you might be able to search a large part of the sky. If you're trying to transmit something then you might do better with a laser, cause you can have a very, very strongly collimated beam and just aim at one thing in particular. But if you're, if you're aiming at one thing in particular, you have to know that there's something they’re receiving. So if there's an alien civilization out there, if they know we're here, then using laser to try to communicate with us would probably be a pretty good idea. Using a radio transmitter of some kind might be better if they're trying to sweep a broad region.


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