Dissecting Christmas Dinner

In a festive mood, this week the Naked Scientists meet their meat and dissect Christmas Dinner, but not with a carving knife! We also hear how scientists are able to re-create the...
20 December 2009


In a festive mood, this week the Naked Scientists meet their meat and dissect Christmas Dinner, but not with a carving knife! We also hear how scientists are able to re-create the acoustics of long-gone churches and cathedrals to appreciate how ancient musical compositions and carols would have sounded to an assembled congregation. Plus we also come face to face with a submarine volcano, dip into the story of a planet formed exclusively from water and find out why the skull is impervious to the effects of osteoporosis...

In this episode


Tracking genetic changes in cancer

The first comprehensive analyses of cancer genomes have been published in the journal Nature this week.

The research, led by teams at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, has been called "truly groundbreaking" by Cancer Research UK.  What's so exciting about this work is not just that they catalogue the mutations in each tumour, but that their technique enables them to work out the causes and history of the mutations.Looking at two patients, one with lung cancer and the other with melanoma, Mike Stratton and colleagues sequenced both tumour cells and healthy cells.  They could then compare like with like to identify which parts of the DNA differed in the cancerous cells.  By doing this, they discovered over 23,000 mutations in lung cancer, and in excess of 33,000 for the melanoma.

We've known for a while that these two cancers have very strong associations - with tobacco smoke for lung cancer, and with exposure to ultra-violet radiation in melanoma.  MelanomaBy looking at these mutations, and the genes around them, the researchers were able to identify a mutation signature for each risk factor.

For example, many of the mutations relate to chemicals in tobacco smoke that bind to and interact with DNA.  With melanoma, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute researcher Dr Andy Futreal said "we can see Sunlight's signature writ large in the genome".  They also found tell tale signs of attempted, but failed, DNA repair - suggesting that our bodies try, and often fail, to repair damage done.

This work further shows that there isn't a single triggering factor for cancer - the mutations build up over time and exposure, spanning years before the cancer itself becomes apparent.  Which of these mutations are responsible for making a cell cancerous is now a major challenge for the next few years.

Other cancers have less obvious risk factors, and sequencing genomes is neither quick nor cheap, so there is still a lot of work to be done.  But research like this, combined with the fact that sequencing is becoming ever cheaper, will help to change the landscape of cancer research, prevention and treatment.

 Bands of glowing magma, about 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, are exposed as a pillow lava tube extrudes down slope from a submarine volcano. The image shows an approximately three-foot section across in an eruptive area spanning 100 yards and which runs...

04:00 - Submarine Volcano: first eruption footage

Scientists photograph erupting underwater volcano for the first time...

Submarine Volcano: first eruption footage

For the first time, scientists have caught on camera an erupting underwater volcano...

The spectacular footage shows enormous glowing bubbles of lava, 1m across, bursting into the Pacific Ocean and lava flowing across the sea floor over 1km below the surface. It's a type of volcanic eruption - called a boninite eruption - only seen before in extinct, million year old volcanoes.

The West Mata Volcano was visited by the unmanned submersible vessel, Jason, as part of a major research project involving a huge group of collaborating scientists from across the US. Volcanic explosions are suppressed by the enormous pressure so deep down underwater allowing the vessel to get extremely close to the erupting volcano - up to a few feet away - much closer than is possible on land or in shallow water. There is a lot we can learn from this underwater volcano.

The detailed footage and samples collected will reveal many of the secrets of how ocean islands and underwater volcanoes are born, what goes on as one tectonic plate is subducted under another, and how heat, carbon dioxide and sulphur are cycled between the deep interior of the earth and the surface.

This is very important because it is thought that 80% of all the eruptive activity on earth takes place in the oceans and most, like this one, are in the deep sea and we know very little about.Surrounding this volcano are some of the harshest conditions on earth, and yet life has found a way.

Researchers found a diverse community of microbes living around the volcano despite the immense pressure and acidic waters: directly above the volcano the water was as acidic as battery acid or stomach acid. They also found shrimp thriving around the volcanic vent and have taken DNA samples to how closely related they are to shrimp species living on other submarine volcanoes thousands of miles away.

It all goes to show that there is still so much we don't know about the earth and how it works, and reminds us of what extraordinary things there are still waiting to be discovered.

Hypothetical super earth next to Earth for comparison.

Wet World - Planet made of Water

Over the last few years astronomers have discovered over 400 planets outside our solar system. Most of these are large gas giant planets similar to Jupiter or Uranus and most of them orbit close to their parent stars. This probably reflects the fact that planets of this type are much easier to detect than their smaller, more distantly-orbiting counterparts; but now instruments are becoming sufficiently powerful to enable astronomers to spot smaller planets, known as "superearths".

Hypothetical super earth next to Earth for comparison.There are two main ways of finding distant planets, either by looking at how their gravity moves their star around, or by looking for the dip in brightness as the planet moves in front of its parent star. The first method can tell you the mass of a planet and the second how large it is: bigger planets block more light.

Now, using both of these methods, a team led by David Charbonneau from Harvard University has discovered a planet called GJ1214b orbitting a red dwarf star. The measurements reveal that the planet has a mass about 6.6 times that of Earth, but its volume is over 19 times larger; together these results show that the density of the planet is only about 1.9 times greater than water.

The only way to explain these findings would be if the planet contained a small core with an enormous atmosphere, but this is thought to be very unlikely. Instead the team think that it may be small rocky planet surrounded by a massive ocean, thousands of kilometres deep.

Attractive as this sounds, hospitable it probably isn't. The team predict that the water temperature would be about 190°C, so possibly not the next beach-holiday destination!


Cultural difference between left and right

The way we remember dance moves reveals the incredible flexibility of the human brain, according to research published in Current Biology this week.

Daniel Haun of the Max Planck Research Group for Comparative Cognitive Anthropology studied the way that different cultures remember dance moves, inspired by previous research that shows how different cultures use different strategies for describing the world - for example - I might think that the microphone is in front of me, whereas a nomadic hunter-gatherer from Namibia would think of the microphone as being to the West.  

DancingThese two ways of encoding the spacial relationships of objects are called egocentric (based around you) and allocentric (based around everything else), and our brains use these two interchangeably.  However, the way the brain encodes the positions of our hands and feet, what's called proprioceptive space, is strongly egocentric.

Because of this, you might assume that the way we move our bodies would also be egocentric. - We would always base these movements around ourselves.  However, it seems that's not always the case. The team asked two groups of children to learn a simple dance - one group from Germany, and another from a group of San or bushmen, called Haikom.  The dance instructor stood next to the children and showed them a simple dance sequence that involved shaking clasped hands from side to side, starting with the right, then left, then right.

Once the children had learned the dance, they were asked to turn around, so they were facing the opposite direction, and do the dance again.

The German schoolchildren almost always moved their hands to the right first, regardless of what direction they were facing.  The Haikom children, however, would switch the movements depending on which way they were facing - so if they started on the right when facing north, they would start on the left when facing south.This shows that the way we code our body movements is not strictly egocentric, but in part defined by our culture - or as they put it "cultural diversity goes hand in hand with cognitive diversity".

This may sound like a fun experiment but it has a serious message about the way we study the brain - when we seek to understand cognitive function, it's vitally important to include a cross-cultural perspective - the brain does not exist in isolation.

Haun said "It's becoming more and more clear that we cannot simply extrapolate from investigations within our own population to others.  To understand the human mind, we need to widen our perspective and assume diversity rather than universality of cognition until proven otherwise."

Why koalas took to eucalyptus

Koalas, those dozy, lovable emblems of Australia, look like teddy bears but being marsupials are only very distantly related to real bears. A new study sheds light on the little-known evolution of koalas, revealing that the their ancestors didn't have the specialised teeth and jaws that would have allowed them to eat tough and somewhat toxic eucalyptus leaves.

It turns out that koalas only more recently Koala Femaleadapted to cope with this unique diet. Publishing in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, researchers from the University of New South Wales and the CSIRO in Australia investigated the fossilised skulls of two koala species that lived in the Australia in the Miocene, around 24 - 5 million years ago.

The team also found some striking similarities in the prehistoric and modern koalas. Both have a round hollow bony structure in the ear, which is a key to their ability to create loud and complex vocalizations. Koalas may be lazy but they can be extremely noisy, bellowing at each other across the treetops, something it turns out they have been doing for a long time and long before developing their eucalyptus leaf habit. Eucalypts only became abundant as Australia drifted away from the tropics, becoming drier with less rainforests.

Sadly, this week also saw news that koalas are among the group of species that are likely to be hit hardest by climate change. Scientists from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) highlighted the plight of a long list of species that will not fair well in the coming years, including clown fish, beluga whales and emperor penguins. Koalas may face starvation as the nutritional quality of eucalyptus leaves are predicted to decline as levels of carbon dioxide increase.

A human skull

15:28 - Why Skull Bone is Special Bone

Ian McKay discusses the differences between the bone in our limbs and our skull...

Why Skull Bone is Special Bone
with Dr Ian McKay, Queen Mary University of London

Ben -   Also on the news this week, scientists A human skullat Queen Mary University of London helped discover someof the fundamental differences between the bone in our skulls and the bones in our limbs.  And this could hold the key to tackling bone weakness and fractures in osteoporosis.  They have published their work in the journal PLoS ONE.  And we're joined by Dr. Ian McKay to explain a bit more.  Hi, Ian.  Thanks for joining us.

Ian -   Hello.

Ben -   So what does happen to bones over time?

Ian -   Well, there's a gradual and progressive loss of most bone structure and strength.  And that's what will ultimately lead to osteoporosis.

Ben -   And by osteoporosis of course it comes from from bone and pores or holes so essentially we think you have holes in the bone.

Ian -   That's right.  And it's so common, about 50% of all women over 50 are going to suffer from this condition in some form.

Ben -   So what is it that you've been looking at?

Ian -    Well, in one sense , it sounds like the science of the plainly obvious because we'll be comparing the bones from the skull to the arm.  But when you consider osteoporosis, what's interesting is that the skull really doesn't show the same vulnerability to osteoporosis as the rest of the skeleton.  What's more curious, you know, on that basis is that we know that you need mechanical forces to maintain most of your skeleton.  If you don't walk about, your bones will actually will dissolve and be less strong. But the same is not the case for the skull which doesn't actually experience the same mechanical forces as your arms and legs.  Probably, the forces on your arms and legs are maybe 20 to 30 times higher.  So it's rather interesting why the skull should be protected in this way.

Ben -   So is it not just the case that bones become weaker, such as the limb bones, because of the different mechanical stresses?

Ian -   Well, it is to a certain extent.  And you can maintain that by exercises as you get older.  But the skull really seems to be completely insensitive to that.  What we've been doing is looking at the genetic differences between the cells that make the bone in your skull and in your arm.  And we find that they are indeed quite different.

Ben -   So these are factors that occur in the womb, I assume?  So the genes, different genes are switched on.  Some say, "I'm going to make skull bone that will never end up with osteoporosis."  And others say, "I'm going to make arm bone.  It'll be under lots of tension.  And eventually, it may become weak."

Ian -   Well, yes.  I mean, I think this just emphasises the complex nature, people will look at a tissue like bone and they see its uniform over the whole body but in fact if you think about it, your arms and your legs actually are able to experience different forces and designed to respond to those forces differently.  And what we're looking at with the skull is a very dramatic difference between being very hard and protected in the absence of these normal mechanical stimuli.

Ben -   And as these are genetic factors, do they only really kick in the womb?  What happens when we damage our bones, and we have to grow back new bone to knit old broken ones together?

Ian -   Well, there's two aspects to that.  The first is that you obviously do,when regenerate bone, you regenerate bone in their appropriate character for the damaged tissue.  But another thing is that this mechanical responsiveness, that most of the skeleton seems to show, is something which seems to be acquired during development, before birth in the maternal environment. And there's increasing evidence that actually what happens before birth will determine your final mineral mass, your final bone density and strength when you're an adult.  And obviously the more bone you have, the less likely you are to be affected by osteoporosis later in life.

Ben -   And obviously this is something quite important for this time of year.  It's very icy out there, certainly in Cambridge at the moment.  And people will fall.  And when you're bones are weak, certainly in the elderly, you can do a lot of damage to yourself.  Are we learning anything from your work that can help to prevent this or help to protect people from damaging their bones?

Ian -   Well, clearly if there was a way of tricking or making most the skeleton, feel that they are a bit more like the skull.  Then we'll be able to improve and maintain mineral density.  But really we're at the very early stage.  I think it's quite as surprise to some people to show that these bone cells really are that different.  I think a lot consider that they are fundamentally the same.

Ben -   Well, it's fascinating.  So where should we go next?  Where's the next step for you?

Ian -   Well, I think the next important step is to find out when during development the mechanical responsiveness is being established.  I mean, there's quite good evidence  that you can direct or correlate changes in the maternal blood chemistry where the bone density of children who are eight or nine years old.  But what we don't know is when during pregnancy that very important set point is being established.

And I think that's the key element if we wanted to intervene and maybe manipulate bone density and this kind of the gene what we've done will identify some of the markers which I think will be important in that.

Mount Everest

20:48 - 2009's Naked Science in retrospect

For the final show on 2009, and the decade, the team look back on some of the year's "Naked-Scientific" highlights...

2009's Naked Science in retrospect

Ben - This is the very last Naked Scientists show of 2009.  So we thought we'd look back on a few of your favourite bits.  It's been a great year.  We've had some very interesting guests, been to some incredible places, and done some fantastic experiments.  But first, Helen, what's been some of your favourite bits?

Helen - Oh, well there's so much to choose from.  But I think something that stood out for me was when we had Dr. David Aldridge in the studio from Cambridge University.  And he brought with him some creatures found in freshwaters around the world that really shouldn't be where we find them.  So this was all about the science of invasive species.  And he brought some critters for us to look at.

Ben - And we can have a listen to that now...

David - I've got a little menagerie of goodies here.  And I've got some zebra mussels. Zebra Mussels I've got a signal crayfish from North America.  And I've got a Chinese mitten crab.  They're beautiful.  But unlike our native freshwater mussels which just sit in the bottom of rivers with their foot being into the mud, zebra mussels have a beard, a bit of thread which is like the marine mussels that you eat.  So zebra mussels are able to sit on solid surfaces.  And they can attach to each other and sit in dense layers.  So they can foul pipelines and drinking water supplies, cooling systems to power plants, irrigation systems.  But also they sit on our native wildlife and one of the things they really threaten, such as a specimen I've got in front of me, are our native mussels which provide a really good substrate and they choke them and cause them to die.

Helen - That's a huge mussel you've got there.  And I can hardly see it.  It's been covered in smaller zebra mussels.  That's incredible.  And the Cray fish you got there, that looks quite tasty.  Can we eat those?

David - We can.  And that's the reason they were brought over here.  The American signal crayfish was brought over in the 1970s as a commercial aquaculture food.  The problem with these crayfish is that they can walk over land so they escaped out of these little ponds they were put in.  And they can move into the wider environment, so they are very good at changing the ecosystem through feeding on the bottom rooting plants, the macrophytes.  And they dig burrows, which can cause sort of destabilisation of the banks. But perhaps of greatest of immediate concern is that they carry a fungus, something called crayfish plague, which kills our native crayfish species, but these American ones are pretty resistant to it.  So we've had, for instance, in the Cam in 2000, an outbreak of plague which wiped out native crayfish from about 20 kilometres of river.

Helen - That was Dr. David Aldridge telling us about some of the creatures that get into freshwater bodies and cause trouble where they shouldn't be.  And we had a look at some of them in the studio.  And that was quite fun.  That was great.

Ben - It's very nice to have our own innovation of invasive species.  It's not often people bring things into the studio.

Helen - I think we should do that more often.  And that's what we should do in 2010, is bring creatures into the radio studio.  Is that alright with everyone else?

Ben - Well we do have a cooked chicken with us .  But I think that's a slightly different way of thinking about these.  Now, speaking of species that we don't want around, there was also a lovely new story from earlier in the year about the love song of the mosquito.  Now if you listen very carefully to this, you could almost hear Dr Kat squirming in her seat.

A mosquitoChris - Now have a listen to this...  That is a male mosquito buzzing its wings at something like 600 hertz, 600 times a second. 

Now have a listen to the female mosquito; these are Aedes aegypti mosquitoes.  Here we go...

Now I won't subject you to too much more because Dr Kat has got her fingers in her ears but that's at about 400 hertz. 

But if you do what two researchers at Cornell did, that's Lauren Cater and Ben Arthur, they put one of those mosquitoes tethered to a pin with a piece of superglue to keep it in one place.  Then they bring in a mosquito of the opposite sex and record what happens to the wings of the two.  Have a listen to this...

And what's actually happening is that the two mosquitoes are adapting the beating frequency of their wings so that they harmonise.

Ben - Isn't that lovely, mosquitoes singing in harmony?  And I've never seen such a visceral reaction as Kat squirming in her seat like that.  But fair enough it's a horrible sound, the sound of mosquitoes.  But  I thinking of something a bit more pleasant.  We've had loads of great experiments in Kitchen Science.

I remember at the start of the year, we made some jelly to show how fruit enzymes can cut up proteins and stop the jelly from setting.  Although I think it may have just been an excuse to make lots and lots of jelly.  But, Dave, what else have you really enjoyed this year?

Dave - There are all sorts of things this year.  Ranging from videoing popcorn popping, watching they way...  It's absolutely beautiful the way it unravels because it's a really strong pressure vessel, you get it really hot and the water inside boils.  The pressure builds up and it breaks.  And it opens itself up almost all the way.  So I got a few minor oil burns from that one - it's not something you really want to try at home. 

We did all sorts of lovely things which I keep bringing out at dinner parties as well. There's one which I found from a guy I met at the British Interactive Group.  You just have a nut on one end of a piece of string and a mug on the other end, hold it over a pencil and just let go of the nut.  Despite what you'd expect, every time as long as you don't mess-up too badly, the nut runs wraps itself around the pencil and it doesn't hit the ground.

I also had one which actually got a proposal of marriage from my housemate which my girlfriend wasn't entirely impressed with, which was getting an orange peel, an especially good juicy orange peel and squeezing it next to a candle.  You get these huge fireballs, maybe five or six inches across.  It's absolutely beautiful especially in slow motion as well.

Helen - That's very cool.  I like that one too, actually.  But another one that sticks on my mind especially was when you soaked me in the studio.  I thought that was rather mean.  But it was great fun.  And I think we've got a clip from that one coming up...

Dave - So if you spin that nice and quickly...

Helen - Do I let go of it or do I try to hold on to it?

Dave - Just keep holding it and spinning it nice and quickly.

Helen - In one direction?

Dave - In one direction.

Helen - Oh!  Oh I see.  I see.

chris - That was fantastic.

Helen - I'm covered in water.  And that's the last time I offer.  So what happened is the waters flew out of the open ends of the straw.  I'd have another go but I think I might get the microphone wet.

Dave - Yeah, we should be careful.

Chris - That was really good.

Helen - It was awfully but  rather a beautiful fountain for a moment there.

Ben - Well, clearly that tickled Dr Chris.  Dave, did you know that was going to happen?

Dave - I'm afraid that fairly simple physics made it pretty inevitable that that was going to happen.

Helen - Ooh, I'm shaking my fist.  Oh well, anything in the name of The Naked Scientists, that's fine.

Ben - Of course.  And we didn't get any microphones wet, not at all.  We do never do anything that could in any way harm any of the equipment in the studio.  We wouldn't dream of it.

Now I've really enjoyed meeting some of the people I've interviewed this year.  I spoke to science minister Lord Drayson about why science is so important.  But a bit more fun was talking to comedian Robin Ince about how science and comedy are very closely linked.

Robin - What is happening is there's a huge, an accidental rational movement basically.  I think after we put together the show Nine lessons and carols for Godless people where we, on the science side, you had Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Richard Dawkins, then various musicians people like Jarvis Cocker and Darren Hayman, and then comedians.  And all of them are doing something on the rational world.  And you have people like Dara O'Brien, Chris Addison, Stewart Lee and Josie Long, all of them are approaching things from a rational spectrum. Especially Dara who has a physics background.  He's very excited about talking about science.  And I think that perhaps, I don't know, but perhaps TV isn't really pandering very much to intellectual programming.  So I think there has been an accidental rational/scientific movement start in comedy.

Dave - And we've also been to some amazing places this  year.  Laura Soul climbed to Everest base camp and reported back on how her body reacted to the low levels of oxygen.  It clearly wore her out somewhat... Mount Everest

Laura - Yes.  It's good to sit down.  I have a bad headache and so do most people.  I felt a bit sick on the way but I'm OK now.  Some people feel very sick.  The view from here is absolutely amazing.  You can see the Khumbu ice fall which is really beautiful with these huge big jagged peaks of ice.  It's been a very hard route to get up here.  But I'd say that it was definitely worth the climb.

Helen - I think you can just about feel kind of just how exhausted she is. It's amazing.  Well, I was rather, well I was a little bit envious, I have to say, of Meera's trip to South Africa this year and when she got to meet some cheetahs.  How lovely...

John O'Brian - Somewhere very nearby here is a cheetah on a kudu kill...there we go...

Meera - Oh my God!  Yeah.  Uh-oh.  It spotted us.  Does that matter?

John O'Brian - Oh, no, no, no.  They're very relaxed.  They're feeding so it's got other things on its mind.  And cheetahs aren't, animals that are dangerous or anything to humans.

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) with Impala (Aepyceros melampus) that it had recently killed, Masai Mara National Park, Kenya. Meera - So we've parked up alongside this tree.  And I can just see the cheetah's body and its head, and oh, its tails wagging now.  It is just quite literally having a feast down there, munching away.

Ben - You can hear how excited she is by that little gasp of breath. Really excited to hear that.  It's also quite nice to know that cheetahs are quite a bit like my cats at home and that once you gave them some food, they don't care about anything else whatsoever.

The Ospedaletto and Sopranos waiting to sing.

30:48 - Acoustic Archaeology

For hundreds of years composers have been creating beautiful and complex pieces of music, written to be sung by many voices in harmony. But if the buildings for which these movements were...

Acoustic Archaeology
with Prof. Malcolm Longair, Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge

Ben -  Now, as it's Christmas, there'll be plenty of carol singing either through groups knocking on your door or going to carol services in church.  But why is it that some places make a choir sound good while others can make them sound flat and lifeless.  Now have a listen to this.

We are joined today by Malcolm Longair who isOspedaletto and Sopranos waiting to sing. taking Sir John's College Choir to Venice to explore the acoustics of architecture and even indulge in some acoustic archaeology.  So what are we listening to right now?

Listen to this sample...

Malcolm -   What you're listening to just now is the magnificent performance of the Jean Mouton Nesciens Mater, performed by the gentlemen of the St John's College choir, in a tiny little chapel, the Emiliani Chapel, in one of the churches we were dealing with in Venice.  I should explain that this whole project came out of my wife's work.  She is professor of architectural history.  And since she's been working on Venice for almost 40 years, she wanted to understand exactly how music worked in the great churches in Venice.

So she was very fortunate to get a very substantial grant to study this, to characterise acoustically exactly what the buildings are like, to take the St John's Choir out to Venice to try all the possible positions and the various combinations, and also get the audience responses to what they were hearing.  So my role in this was very much secondary.  I was the person responsible for doing the acoustic and the scientific analysis of the data which appears as an appendix for Deborah's book which only came out just last week.

Ben -   Well, I'm pleased to hear that.  I think I sort of talked by your wife a little while ago.  And it is fascinating stuff but what is the relationship between architecture and acoustics?

Malcolm -   Exactly.  That's what it was about.  Now the reason that this project was so intriguing is that the Renaissance period was the time when new music was being written which required a very detailed understanding of polyphony.  So the split choir is where you want to hear 8 voices or some of Gabrielli's 15 part motets.  You have to have an acoustic which enable those who paid the money for the music to actually hear the 15 parts or the eight parts.

So that's a great acoustic challenge.  The architects such as Palladio and Sansaviudo, they were attempting to taken into account these requirements in the churches that they were building at the same time.  Now what we've been doing following the whole project went extremely well but with a bit of problem, which is when we try to simulate what they sounded like.  We were getting far too long reverberation times.

So what I've been doing with Braxton Boron, an excellent student who has joined me from the United States, we're building virtual models of all the churches from which we acquired The Ospedaletto.acoustic data.  And we're trying to reproduce the acoustic volumes virtually.  And the idea is that once we've done that, then we can change the nature of the buildings.  We can put in different roofs.  We can put in different hangings, different audiences, different clothes, everything and see how it will get to the proper understanding of what it must have sounded like in the 16th century when this is being done.  So it's an absolutely wonderfully, great-fun project.

Ben -   You've brought some samples with you today actually.  Now this first one, this is the real acoustics.  This is what it generally sounds like...

Listen to this sample...

Ben -   Where is this?

Malcolm -   Yes.  This is the most wonderful place in Venice which if you go to Venice, you can go into the Ospedalettoo.   It's got the most wonderful acoustics.  This is the sopranos from the Sir John's Choir singing from the organ gallery of the Ospedalettoo and being recorded in the middle of the day.  It's quite a small volume but a very simple shoebox-like shape.

Ben -   So it certainly sounds lovely. But how do you go about analysing the actual acoustics in there?  How do you find out why it sounds so good?

Malcolm -   Well, this is great fun.  What we did was to characterise acoustically using the most modern equipment, sourced different microphone positions.  And we did many positions within each of the churches so that we've got all the acoustic parameters that we need, the wave forms coming from all of these.

Once we've got that, then Braxton has built a virtual model of the church.  And then we run it through the most recent program, which is a program called Odeon, developed in Denmark, which enables you then once you put all the materials on the wall was marble, lathe and plaster and so forth to get what the response looks like.

And so once we've got that, we can check that we got this now the calibrated data for this existing church.  And we can then try to get this sound all the acoustic characters.  Now that we've done that just for the last two weeks.  Once we've done that, then we can put an anechoic recording of the choir through our virtual church and see if we've got back to where we are.

Ben -   So we have an accurate recording of the choir here.  Now this is in the room that just keeps down all echoes in it.

Malcolm -   This is done in West Road in the Music and Science Centre that Ian cross runs there.  And we've got the choir in it.  They hated this.  This was really terrible.  They did not enjoy this experience at all.  But you will hear what an anechoic signal sounds like...

Listen to this sample...

Ben -   Oh they certainly sound very capable.  But it does sound very flat.

Malcolm -   It sounds very, very dry.  Right?

Ben -   Yes.

Malcolm -   So what we now do, we take that same signal.  And we put it through our Virtual model of the Ospedaletto.virtual model of the Ospedalettoo.  And you can see what it sounds like...

Listen to this sample... 

Ben -   So all that beautiful reverb are really bringing certain music to life.  It's all fake.  It's all simulated.

Malcolm -   Well, Ben, it depends on what is real, what is simulated? Let me explain why we're doing this.  The reason for doing this is this is the simplest example that we could get.  And we wanted to find out the rules we have to follow to be able to do accurate reconstructions of the huge churches in Venice, things like San Marco, the Redentore, the San Giorgio Maggiore, which we will now begin to do.

But there we know that the huge volumes were very, very bad for acoustics.  We've got 68 second reverberation time.  So how did the people actually hear the wonderful polyphony that was being written by the Gabriellis, Bach, Monteverdi, and people like that?  Well what we believe is that by the time you put in all the decoration, the hangings, the large audiences, we will be able to bring down the reverberation time so that everybody could appreciate the genius of the polyphony.

Ben -   Well, that's fantastic.  I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there.  But that's Professor Malcolm Longair explaining how we can use acoustic modelling to recreate the sound of churches that have long since disappeared or changed their roofs or changed their dressings and find out really what the experience would have been like.

Oven-roasted rosemary chicken

39:02 - Dissecting Christmas Dinner

Dr John Brackenbury gets out his scalpel to reveal what the inner anatomical workings of a cooked chicken...

Dissecting Christmas Dinner
with Dr John Brackenbury, Cambridge University Vet School

John -  Now, the result is a lovely tasting bird but the muscles are completely useless for flying.  It's just too big.  It's lost all its natural strength.  And it's only good for eating.  Now, the other one we mentioned, the deeper one, that's used for the up stroke.  So that does the opposite movement.  When a bird wants to beat its wings back up but after the down stroke, it uses that smaller one.

So these are two pectoral muscles.  Roast ChickenAnd they're used in flying.  Now the other thing that we've exposed by separating the meat along the midline, very easy to do, are several things.  First of all, right in the midline, and if your Christmas listeners are doing this, you'll see a ridge, a ridge of bone.  Actually in this chicken, it's a ridge of cartilage.  It should be bone.

Helen - Oh, right.

John -   But nearly all chickens are slaughtered so early in their lives, all of them.

Helen - So actually because it's young, it hasn't become bone yet.

John -   Exactly.  It's not yet trying to turn into bird.  

Helen - Right.

John -  So it's just gristle.  So that's one thing.

Helen - Almost up to where the muscles are attached to.  Is that why it's there?

John - That's where they're attached to.  And that's why it is so deep.  It's actually about two centimetres deep because this great big great muscle is attached into it.  But anyway, that's one of the things we could see in the midline.  Now if we move towards the front, towards the neck of the chicken, we see something else which everybody well know: that is the wishbone.

Helen - Right.  That V-shaped bone.

John -  That V-shaped bone right at the front.  In fact, technically, this is called the little fork or forcula.  I mean, it is a fork.  It's shaped like a fork.  Anyway, that's one of two sets of collarbones the birds have.

Helen -   Oh, so this is the bird's collarbone.

John -   That's right.

Helen -   Right.

John -   That's the little collarbone.  And actually, it doesn't do much.  But deep down under that second layer of muscle I mentioned earlier is a second set of collarbones.  These are much stronger.  And they're essential for flight.

Helen -   Is there two collarbones because there's two sets of muscles?

John -   There are two collarbones because the wishbone itself is a bit of an apology.  It won't really do the job, which any flying bird needs to, which is to stop its shoulders crunching towards its breast when it makes a powerful beat.  And the function of that deeper collarbone is to stop that happening.

Helen -   So would we get an even better wish if broke the inner collarbone?

John -   I knew we would.  You would be.  It takes a bit of getting to.  And I think by then, you'll be so tempted to eat this thing that I think you would have forgotten the functional aspect.

Helen -   Well we certainly  are getting into the grips of this chicken.  And if we were looking at a turkey, would it be very different, or would it have a structurally very similar once you get inside them, or goose, or a duck?

John -   Yeah.  There are differences, many on accounts of size.  Now the turkey's going to be very similar to the chicken whereas the goose is going to be quite different.

Helen -   Right.

John -   The turkey and the chicken have white meat.  It has a distinctive taste because it's full of something called glycogen.

Helen -   And that's what makes... So we have white and red meat.  Is that right?

John -   That's right.

Helen -   Yes.  Why are those different?


They're different as I say, the white meat has glycogen.  And they're tend to be used when a muscle beats very quickly but exhausts very quickly as well.

Helen -   So it's for a very, very fast moves.  Right.



Should it not be "feed a cold TO starve a fever"?

So thank you so much for that, Douglas. That's not something we'd heard of. It sounds highly plausible that it should be feed a cold TO starve a fever because, as we have pointed out previously, you need to eat properly to mount an effective immune response, without which you might well develop a more severe fever.

Why is unhealthy food so tasty?

Helen I have something to protest about this. Vegetables can be very tasty. I bet in fact made a very nice nut roast this weekend. So I disagree on that point but I'm afraid of nasty food and not everyone agrees with me.

Ben - I think you're right. I certainly agree with you. I think especially fresh vegetables, when they still got all of the lovely taste straight from the garden, are really tasty. But I think the deep fried, the fast food, the high-calorie stuff I think that's probably a bit of an evolutionary throw back. I think our body rewards us for taking in lots of calories. And so when we do this, as it used to be essential to find food, we get a molecular reward in our brain that says, "Well done! You've found some good rich food that will keep us going throughout the winter."

So we get that sort of pleasure sensation. Nowadays finding food isn't really a major pressure like that, but we still get this reward. So when we eat something that's full in calories, this brain mechanism still kicks off and we think that we've really enjoyed it. He also asked, and this is a very interesting one, "Is there any deep fried food that's better than others?" Now, Helen, I'm not sure how you serve your vegetables?

Helen - Tempura vegetables are quite nice, aren't they? And that's a form of deep frying. I mean, I'm sure a deep-fried piece of broccoli is slightly less good for you than that piece of nice, fresh, unfried, lightly-steamed broccoli. But you're still, if you haven't overcooked it, getting lots of the nutrients and the vitamins that are so important in vegetables if you do that kind of style of cooking. So that's not too bad, I should say.

Ben - That was exactly what I thought because, with the tempura food, the food is still very fresh. And it's fried only for a very short time. You're supposed to use ice-cold batter - apparently that's why it's so fluffy and tasty. Basically, the food isn't overcooked. And I suspect actually that boiling carrots for 10 minutes will probably get rid of more of the nutrients than deep frying them for one minute.

Helen - Yeah. I quite agree actually! Yes! If school dinners could be more "tempura vegetables" instead of carrots boiled to death, then that would be a good thing, I think!

Christmas tree bauble

Why are scientists celebrating Christmas?

Dave - I think this is very strange that we're promoting an ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, when everyone used to get drunk because it was the winter solstice. People used to eat lots because of all the animals were going to have to be slaughtered anyway because there wouldn't be enought to feed them in winter, especially in northern latitudes. Basically, it's the holiday which every religion, seems to use.

Helen - I actually think it's that strange, in fact. I think maybe it harks back to a really important part of human social evolution which is wanting to belong to a tribe. We want to belong. We want to feel we're part of a group, because that was beneficial and it meant we could do better things in a group compared to just on our own.

So I think that's maybe part of the reason we all join in to celebrate Christmas: we're celebrating the same thing, and you know, whether it came from a different religion or not. And why not?

Dave - And of course it's also depressing at this time of year in those high latitudes. They wanted something to cheer them up whatever religion, so Christmas was ideal!

So scientists are just following the crowd!

A terrier pet dog

51:38 - Why is chocolate toxic for dogs?

This week we ask why chocolate is not a good Christmas present for a dog...

Why is chocolate toxic for dogs?

We put this question to Sorrel Langley-Hobbs from the Vet School at the University of Cambridge...

Yes. Chocolate, unfortunately, is toxic to dogs. And the reason for that is because it contains a compound called theobromine.

Theobromine and caffeine are both present in chocolate, but theobromine is the problem. They're both methylxanthines.

In dogs, theobromine is very long lasting - so it's got a very long half-life of about 18 hours - whereas in people, the half-life is only two or three hours. And people readily absorb the theobromine.

I think it's just a fact that every species has a different metabolism. We see differences between dogs and cats with certain drugs, say for example, you shouldn't give a cat paracetamol whereas dogs can tolerate paracetamol. So it's just a species difference; probably down to different enzymes that are present in the system.

So how much theobromine is toxic, you might ask yourself.? If a dog eats a couple of M&Ms, that's not going to cause any problem. The toxic levels vary from 20 mg per kilogram of theobromine to about 150 mg per kilogram of theobromine. So what does that mean in reality? Well, putting into a typical scenario, if you got a labrador and that ate a 200 gram bar of dark chocolate, that, potentially, is enough to kill your dog. So it's actually not very much.

The big problem at this time of year is someone gives you a box of chocolates, wrapped up, and you put it under the Christmas tree... and the dog eats the box of chocolates. If that happens, you certainly should call your vet as soon as possible.


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