Extremely Fast: The Science of Speed

From fast acting venom to vehicles, speedy space to tennis serves, we kick off a month of extreme science.
04 June 2019
Presented by Izzie Clarke, Katie Haylor


Lime-green McLaren 600LT Spider driving on road


This week, we’re kicking off a month of science at the extremes. From fast acting venom to vehicles, speedy space to tennis serves… We’re getting up to speed on Extreme Speed. Plus, in the news, weaponising a fungus to stamp out malaria, the smart glove that’s taking a hold of touch technology and we celebrate an important centenary in the world of physics.

In this episode

The image shows a mosquito biting a human.

00:54 - GM fungi to kill malaria mosquitoes

Scientists combine a spider venom gene with fungi to tackle malaria-carrying mosquitoes...

GM fungi to kill malaria mosquitoes
with Raymond St Leger and Brian Lovett, University of Maryland

Hundreds of millions of people pick up malaria every year; and faced with rising resistance to the chemicals used to control the infection, the World Health Organisation have been looking for new ways to stamp out the parasite itself, or the mosquitoes that spread it. Well, step forward two scientists from the University of Maryland, Raymond St Leger and Brian Lovett, who've taken a strain of fungus that naturally infects mosquitoes, and weaponised it by inserting a gene used by spiders to make the venom that kills their insect prey. Working in a special facility in Burkina Faso, they smear the fungus spores on a dark sheet, and, when the mosquitoes land, the fungus invades, activates its spider venom gene and quickly despatches the insect. Chris Smith spoke with both Raymond and Brian...

Raymond - We used to be able to treat mosquitoes with insecticide-treated bed nets, but recently mosquitoes have become increasingly resistant to chemical insecticides. And so we developed this biocontrol as it's called. We’re using a natural enemy of the mosquito, a fungus called metarhizium, which just targets the mosquito. But the fungus is very slow to kill, so we've engineered the fungus with a spider toxin specific to insects.

Chris - And Brian tell us a bit about the fungus. What is it and how does it get into a mosquito? How does it spread, how does it kill, normally?

Brian - Metarhizium is a genus of fungi, and these fungi act as contact insecticides. So if they land anywhere on the outside of the insect, then they can burrow through the cuticle into the blood of the insect, and from there the fungus changes form and starts growing as a yeast. And when it changes form, it also expresses genes that are only expressed in the blood of the insect, so we can take advantage of this biology to produce strains of metarhizium which can deliver new proteins only into the inside of the mosquito.

Chris - And Raymond, you've sort of weaponised that process with a spider toxin so that when it gets in, you’re absolutely certain to kill?

Raymond - That's right. Now the fungus would kill the mosquito anyway eventually, but it takes its time about it. But we need the fungus to kill the mosquito quickly, so the mosquito can't spread disease. So what we've done is we've engineered the fungus with this what we call a transgene, that's a gene from another source, in this case a spider, we put that gene into the fungus so it's only turned on in the insect blood.

Only mosquito blood gets the fungus to make this spider toxin. Basically, we've converted the fungus into a hypodermic. The fungus is going to penetrate into the blood and then respond to the blood by producing this toxin.

Chris - And Brian, have you got to the stage where you've actually been able to test this?

Brian - We have tested this in the lab. This engineered fungus kills the mosquitoes quicker, it kills more mosquitoes, but what you find in the lab doesn't always translate into field conditions. So a major driver of the study was to answer the simple question “is this technology as effective in field conditions?”

Now because this was a transgenic technology, we needed to test it in containment. So in order to do this, we built a really large facility, called a mosquito sphere, which allows environmental conditions in, but prevents our experiments from getting out. So what this facility is is essentially a really large greenhouse, but instead of having glass it has a double wall of mosquito netting, and this allows us to test whether or not this is effective at controlling mosquito populations.

Chris - And is it?

Raymond - One of the things we really wanted to do was to produce a product which would be easy for the local community to exploit. Now mosquitoes, after they feed they're attracted to dark surfaces so we bought black cloth, easily available. We bought sesame oil, easily available. We put the fungus in the sesame oil, and then just smeared that on the black sheets and then we just hung those black sheets up in these experimental huts.

As a food source for our mosquitoes, we introduced little male cows (bullocks) into each of these huts and our transgenic fungi killed the mosquitoes very quickly. And basically, it meant that after a couple of generations the mosquito populations had collapsed.

Chris - But Brian, is there not a chance though in the same way, as Raymond was saying, bed nets are no longer effective because mosquitoes are not killed by them, is there not a chance that the mosquitoes are just going to sidestep it, they're going to evolve to become resistant to it?

Brian - I certainly wouldn't be comfortable telling you that resistance could never occur. But we have studied this fungus for a very long time and people have tried to force insects to become resistant to these kinds of fungi in the lab and have found that it's very difficult.

And one of the reasons why is because a major difference between chemical insecticides and this fungus is that this fungus wants to kill these insects and has been co-evolving with insects to kill them. So when you look at the evolution, there's an arms race going on where insects may develop a way to try to prevent these fungi from infecting, and these fungi will come up with a work around.

Regarding our toxin, it is also unlikely that the insects would develop resistance to that toxin because the toxin targets two different channels on insect neurons, the calcium and the potassium channel, and insects would need to evolve resistance to both of those channels simultaneously to be resistant to the toxin that we’re delivering to their blood.

Chris - Does this mean that you could, potentially, go to the field with this?

Brian - No. And the reason why is because the evidence that we reported in this paper is primarily scientific evidence. When you're talking about developing a new technology, particularly one that you want to introduce into people's homes, you need to have more than just scientific results to back up taking that next step.

So other factors that we would have to consider are regulatory approval and also community engagement. Even the very best technology, the most effective technology, if it doesn't have acceptance from the local community, is not going to be successfully implemented. So in order to take this out into the field we're it going to have to have a long period of dialogue with the community and local stakeholders to make sure that they understand what we are offering to them, and also address any concerns they might have before we start testing this in the open field.

Woman speaking on a mobile phone over coffee

07:30 - What is 5G?

The UK’s first ever 5G network has just been launched but how does it work?

What is 5G?
with Paul Beastall, UK5G Advisory Board

You might have heard that the UK’s first ever 5G network has just been launched. With growing coverage across major UK cities, it promises faster speeds than ever. But what actually makes it different from previous networks? Izzie Clarke and Katie Haylor were joined in the studio by Paul Beastall, member of the UK5G Advisory Board, but what is 5G?

Paul - 5G simply is the fifth generation of mobile phone technology.

Izzie - Oh, and that's what the G stands for. I've actually never really thought about it. What is it and how is it different from 4G?

Paul - It's the latest evolution. It brings a number of technologies together so it uses higher radio frequencies that allow us to get more information through a given radio channel. It brings computing further out towards the edge of the network which means we can reduce latency so we can do services with far less delay. And it's also designed to cope with very, very high densities of simple terminals to allow us to connect everything in the long-term.

Izzie - We're seeing it rolled out in UK cities, is it anywhere else?

Paul - The UK's one of the leading countries, but it's certainly not the first. There's some deployments in the US, there's quite a lot of activity in Asia. From a technology perspective, most of the radio innovation is coming out of China, Japan, and Korea, but some of the applications are being developed in the UK, so we are still innovating.

Izzie - What's it capable of?

Paul - If we want to think about numbers, so we’re thinking about bit rates, targets of up to 10 gigabits per second which means you can download a DVD in 10/15 seconds, something like that in the best conditions possible, so not everywhere. For me, more interestingly, it means the latency, the delay across a network can drop down to only a millisecond, so a thousandth of a second, which means that when humans are interacting with networks we can have information overlaid on the top of what we’re doing. So you could do things like remotely control robots in real time doing very delicate and challenging tasks or use augmented reality to give our eyes more information than we can see ourselves.

Izzie - How is 5G able to hold so much more information than 4G?

Paul - There's two reasons. The first one is by going up in radiofrequency to higher parts of the radio spectrum there's more bandwidth available, so we can use more bandwidth for each radio channel which means we can just put more data through that. The other thing is it includes a technology called massive MIMO which allows us to actually send beams targeted at individuals users. At the moment, if you're on a radio base station on 4G, normally what you find is that capacity is shared among everybody else who's in the same street as you, with 5G we can literally point beams of radio energy at individual users.

Izzie - Paul, how is this all connected?

Paul - Effectively what we have, we have a radio in a handset or a terminal that’s in an embedded device - something like a car, and that makes a radio link to what we call a base station and all versions of mobile technology use this same architecture with base stations. And then from there it actually goes over optical fibre or fixed network connections back to what we call the core network which manages security and billing, and just make sure that everything works. Things like international roaming gets managed that way as well. So unlike Wi-Fi, which is just a short connection and then straight out to the internet, there's a whole network behind cellular technologies as well.

Izzie - Oh, wow. Are there any disadvantages to 5G compared to 4G?

Paul - Yes. At the moment it's expensive, it's new technology, it will take time to evolve. We see that with all new technologies so it's not going to be that we get all the benefit immediately. The millimetre wave frequency, these very high frequencies we're using have some challenges that they don't go through human bodies, they don't go through walls so actually, you need to be quite close to the base stations to get the service that you need. So we’re talking about smaller coverage areas, much greater performance.

Izzie - Do you think you could see those base stations incorporated into everyday life? Like could we have one, say, on a traffic light because we know that they're so useful when we have them everywhere?

Paul - Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's the change, so we’re going to go from network where we have 20,000 base stations per operator in the UK to potentially a million. 5G will enable some of the autonomous driving communication so I think street furniture, traffic lights, street lights are going to be really really important.

Izzie - Do you think this will ever take over 4G? Is this the end of 4G, essentially?

Paul - Not for a very long time. My iPhone does 2G, 3G, 4G. 2G's still not turned off here, it is in the US. So 4G will end eventually, probably, but not before 2030 at the earliest.

Smart glove

13:09 - Smart glove takes hold of touch technology

Will this new invention help to design the prosthetics of the future?

Smart glove takes hold of touch technology
with Subramanian Sundaram

A “smart glove” that can register how we grip objects has been developed by scientists in the US. It’s an ordinary yellow glove fitted with a pressure-sensitive material, and they hope it will help to build better prosthetics, as well as touch-sensitive arms for robotics. Phil Sansom heard how from inventor Subramanian Sundaram.

Subramanian - It's sort of been a long standing quest for the field of robotics to understand how humans grasp objects. There's never been a quantitative way to fully understand the tactile signals involved in the grasp until now.

Phil - Why not?

Subramanian - It's because it's been very hard to build a sensor or a sleeve that goes on top of your hand without actually interfering with the way you hold objects itself.

Phil - What's it made of?

Subramanian - The smart glove is a sleeve that you can wear on top of your hand that records pressure at many different points. Not just where your hand is touching, but also the intensity with which its touching an object. So the heart of the glove is basically a force sensitive material that responds to force by a change in the electrical resistance. The first major challenge was to figure out how do you route these wires in between fingers? And the second challenge was how do you effectively interface with these electrodes, so a lot of the electrodes in the glove are made using conductive threads.

Phil - And it is something that I could make at home if I really wanted a smart glove DIY?

Subramanian - Yeah, absolutely. You can make one set for about 10 American dollars.

Phil - That's bizarre that you had this thing that no one could figure out how quite to manufacture and you've managed to create it by buying things on eBay?

Subramanian - That's exactly right.

Phil - I know then that you went on to do some pretty cool science with it, what exactly did you do?

Subramanian - We took this glove and we had a user wear the glove, and the user then interacted with about 26 different objects. Holding these objects, grasping them, lifting them, objects like mugs and a ball. One of the objects was a ball, we had a pen, we had a spoon, we had a stone sculpture of a cat, and these are often objects that I just found on my desk before I started the project actually. In the end we were left with around five hours of continuous interactions with these different objects, so by the end we had over 135,000 tactile frames or pressure maps as we try to move these objects.

Phil - Oh, hang on. Just to clarify, all of those points across the hand creates a map and you had 135,000 of those?

Subramanian - Exactly, that's perfectly right. So we then took these set of tactile frames that we collected and split them into two separate batches. One of them was used as training data and one of them was used for testing. The training data was fed onto a machine learning algorithm, so we essentially told the algorithm this tactile pattern corresponds to a user holding a ball, for instance. So we were then able to train the machine learning algorithm to associate these patterns with particular objects. We then fed in the test data that we had, data that our network has never seen before and then we asked the network to predict what objects the user was interacting with. And we were able to show that the network was indeed able to identify these objects from these tactile pressure maps.

Phil - Really. it could take a look at just what the hand was touching and figure out what that object was?

Subramanian - Yeah, that's exactly right.

Phil - Does this all mean that that's sort of a clue to how our brains figure out what we’re holding?

Subramanian - Yeah. And I think in terms of neuroscience research it has been shown that there's a lot of similarities in the way the brain processes information from sort of these tactile domain and the way the brain looks at visual images.

Phil - Does this have any implications for the way we design maybe robot hands in the future?

Subramanian - Yeah, absolutely. And this is one of the most exciting aspects of the work. I think one of the key results that we showed in the paper was sort of the collaborative nature of the human grasp. Different regions of the hand come together to perform a grasp. Say you were a prosthetic designer, you can use the data that we collected to effectively pinpoint where these few sets of sensors that you have, what are the most efficient places to put them?

Image of the Sun's halo as moon passes by

17:30 - Celebrating 100 years of Eddington's eclipse

May 29th 1919 marked an important day for the world of physics and a young scientist called Albert Einstein.

Celebrating 100 years of Eddington's eclipse
with Carolin Crawford, University of Cambridge

May the 29th marked an important Centenary for the world of physics: on that day in 1919, Cambridge Astronomer, Arthur Eddington, led teams to two continents to take what are now some of the most famous photographs we have. The results sent the scientific world into turmoil. Newton’s laws of gravity, that had stood unshaken for hundreds of years, were overturned by a young German scientist called Albert Einstein. To hear how it happened, Izzie Clarke headed over to the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, to see space scientist Carolin Crawford.

Carolin - The dominant law of gravity was, of course, Newton's laws of gravity - which he had devised, and which proved a very accurate description of the way objects moved on the earth, and how the planets move round the sun. It was only during the middle part of the 19th century that it was clear that there was one thing it didn't quite account for, and that was the way that Mercury's orbit moved round the sun. But Einstein was the first one that could account for everything that Newton could account for - that we saw in space and on Earth - but could also justify what was happening to Mercury, due to an extra curvature of space-time in the proximity of the sun.

Izzie - This idea of space-time was at the heart of Einstein's theory: that space and time can be considered as one entity. I know, it's quite a lot to get your head around, but bear with me. Say you need to pop to the shops. You could say that they're 10 minutes away - or equally a few kilometres away. You can describe that journey in distance and time, because you know how fast you walk. There's a similar thing with space-time: that both space and time are interchangeable because you know the speed of light, and the speed of light is the same everywhere. And what Einstein then said that is so different from Newton is that this space-time could be distorted by massive objects like our sun - that they bend the shape of space, which creates that key difference in Einstein's theory of gravity.

Carolin - Light likes to travel in a straight line. But if you had the light from a distant star, a light ray, and it just grazed the surface of the sun - because the sun is the nearest large mass we have around - it would just deflect that light a little bit and cause a tiny shift in the apparent position of the stars, but it was so small it wasn't practically observable. The difference was that Einstein made a prediction that when you take into account the curvature of space you actually double the amount of that deflection, which brings it into the realms of observability; and it also provides a very nice discrimination between what Newton says and what Einstein says, if you could measure this deflection.

Izzie - But how can you measure the deflection of light from a distant object if your own giant fireball, i.e. our sun, is in the way? It would be impossible to distinguish the light from the two sources. The idea was proposed that pictures of distant galaxies could be taken during an eclipse, where the Moon blocks the light from our sun.

Carolin - So it wasn't a new idea to make this measurement, but the exciting thing was there was a particularly good eclipse coming up on 29th May 1919. It was good because it was of long duration, about six minutes or so, which gives you plenty of time to take your images. And also, quite unusually, the sun would be right in front of a very bright nearby star cluster - it's called the Hyadas, is in the constellation of Taurus - which meant that during the eclipse the sun would lie in a region surrounded by fairly bright stars, which would enable the observations. So Arthur Eddington, who was a director of the observatories here at Cambridge at the time, he was one of the few people who fully understood the theory to study Einstein's ideas. And it was Arthur Eddington and also particularly Frank Dyson, who was the Astronomer Royal at the time, who realised that this was a particularly momentous eclipse for doing this. What they decided to do was to make two expeditions. There was one that was led by Andrew Crommelin from the Royal Greenwich Observatory which took equipment to Sobral in northern Brazil, and they would catch the start of the eclipse. And then the path would move right across the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side you'd have Sir Arthur Eddington and his small team who would do the same observations on an island off the coast of West Africa. They're carrying out the same experiment in both locations, and the ideal thing about having two locations, of course, is that you're never quite sure of the weather; and indeed, both expeditions had problems. In Principe, off the west coast of Africa, Eddington had terrible weather; and so they took plenty of images, but in most of them there’s too much cloud in the way. And in Sobral, in Brazil, they had problems with the equipment - there was vibrations, which just ended up blurring some of the images. And in fact the really important data from Brazil were from a sort of backup telescope they'd just taken as a spare. But the true and precise measurements don't happen until they come back to the UK, and then the results are announced in November in 1919 at a very special occasion at the Royal Society in London.

Izzie - And what did they find?

Carolin - They found that their results vindicated Einstein's predictions of what should happen under his theory of gravity, rather than Newton’s.

Izzie - And how important was that finding, and what did that do for the field of physics?

Carolin - Well, it has revolutionised physics. I mean, at the time it was hugely important because very few people had really taken notice of Einstein's theories, and this idea of the whole curvature of light is quite a conceptual leap. And, to be quite honest, for a lot of scientists - and we have this in notes and letters - there is a resistance to having to use a more complicated theory. You know, if Newton's laws were sort of good enough, why not use those? But the point is, once this announcement is made, Einstein's relativity is proven as the better description of what happens on earth and in space - and at that point Einstein becomes the celebrity genius.

Izzie - And so Einstein's theory of general relativity was accepted: that what we perceive as the force of gravity in fact arises from that all-important curvature of space and time.

Carolin - Relativity is part of our general understanding of physics, so it's crucial to how we use physics. Now it may not make much difference here on earth, because Newton's laws are good enough. Where it becomes important is in more extreme situations - and so the closest thing to earth that people might run into everyday is of course your GPS satellites. If you didn't take into account the relativistic corrections for the fact that they're travelling in a reduced gravity field - and also faster compared to the surface of the earth - they would start to give you inaccurate results. Within a couple of minutes they'd be 10 km out per day. That's an immediate result that people might be able to relate to. I will say though, it's incredibly important for astronomers, because relativity gives the only good description of what happens where you have very large masses - and in astronomy, of course, you're involving the largest masses possible.

A tennis player throwing a ball in the air

25:34 - Tennis: The science of fast serves

With Wimbledon just around the corner, Izzie Clarke picked up her racket to explore the quick pace of tennis.

Tennis: The science of fast serves
with Mat Timmis & Sally Pearson, Anglia Ruskin University

When it comes to fast humans, you might be thinking of sprinters like Jamaica’s Usain Bolt or America’s Flo-Jo... Florence Griffith Joyner, but given that we made a show about running earlier in the year, we thought we’d bring you something different. Anyone for a spot of tennis?! This speedy sport involves players sending a ball flying at dizzying speeds, often quicker than your brain can process. With Wimbledon just around the corner and the French Open in full swing, Izzie Clarke picked up her racket and went to explore the quick pace of tennis.

Izzie - Tennis serves up some serious speed. In 2012, American player Sam Groth sent a ball flying with a serve at 163.7 mph, that's 263.4 km an hour and remains in the history books as the fastest tennis serve on record. But how on earth can and opponent try and return the balls at such fast speeds? I met up with sports scientist Mat Timmis from Anglia Ruskin University at a local tennis club to try and find out...

Mat - The first service, typically associated with a very fast powerful shot, hit the ball so hard that the returner doesn't have chance to get to it. Obviously, you're looking to generate a huge amount of power. Now if we think about the fundamentals of the action of the actual server you'll notice that the tennis server doesn't stand square on, they do stand side on. So as they toss the ball in the air they then go to hit the ball and then this rotational perspective that they generate allows them to generate more linear velocity, hit the ball faster, to hopefully get past their opponent.

Izzie - Right, so I'm taking that on board. Hopefully, all things go well, that then travels to an opponent, what should an opponent be looking out for in order to return a fast serve?

Mat - If you think about the speed of the fastest tennis serve that's been recorded in the length of the tennis court an individual will have about 0.3 of a second before the ball's passing them. So thinking about the time it takes typically to process and react to visual stimuli of about 0.15 to 0.2 of the second, then you've got very little time to actually do anything if you were waiting until the tennis ball had been hit before you make your response. So that clearly shows that we need to do something before the tennis ball has actually been hit and this is when it gets really exciting and really interesting that a lot of my research considers where do expert, novice performers look when making decisions prior to a tennis serve being made.

And what researchers found is the novice tennis players are a lot more distracted by irrelevant features within the environment so they attend or look to, for example, the head and the arms, legs, which don't give a huge amount of information with regards to what's going on. Now the experts or elite tennis players focus much more on the shoulders, the trunk, the hips, and this gives a lot of information with regards to the direction of, for example, a tennis serve. So these are the key differences that help the experts perform better because they're more likely to work out where the tennis ball's going to go.

Izzie - Now how do you actually explore all of this, this visual system?

Mat - We have really a nice bit of kit called and eye tracker, so that allows us to record where somebody is looking within the environment and then allows us to breakdown the analysis into step-by-step phases and look at okay, at ball contact where's our participant looking?

Izzie - Now I gather that you have brought this bit of kit with you?

Mat - Yes, I have.

Izzie - Shall we give it a go?

Mat - Absolutely Izzie.

Izzie - Mat led me into a busy sports hall. Three courts were taken up by children but on the fourth distant tennis court stood my opponent, Sally Pearson from Anglia Ruskin University who's also a county tennis player. And there was also a laptop and a very odd pair of goggles resting on a bench.

Right, so the goggles have just gone over my head. The goggles themselves look like a ski mask but without the lens. There was a tiny high definition camera at the front of the goggles and inside of them, just at the bottom of the frames, were an infrared beam on each side. This was responsible for tracking the actual movements of my eye. A wire out of the back of the goggles then fed all this information into a small laptop.

Mat - We're now able to map where you are looking onto the scene camera and seeing where you are seeing.

Izzie - I popped the laptop in a rucksack and picked up my racket, and all that was left to do was for speedy Sally to serve my way...

Pff, I'm tired. Some excellent serves Sally.

Sally - Oh, thank you. I tried my best.

Izzie - Very consistent. And I was quite consistently rubbish!

Right, let's go and see what the results show.

Mat - We've loaded up the data, and what we've got on the screen in front of us on the laptop is there's a red crosshair, and this red crosshair denotes where you're looking within the environment. So we've got the video where we can see Sally just about to serve, and we can see straight away that you are looking quite high within the environment, so you are clearly getting a little bit maybe distracted. You'll notice that as Sally strikes the ball, you've actually shut your eyes.

Izzie - That's probably not ideal I would imagine. I'm no expert.

Mat - Yeah, it's probably far from ideal if I'm being polite shall we say. Then you also, one of the things I noticed is, you don't actually look at where the ball bounces. Now the ball bouncing provides a really key bit of information with regards to the spin, the direction that that ball is going to bounce when it comes off the tennis court. We need to look at where that ball bounces because it gives a lot of information with regard to where the ball's going to go after that bounce.

Izzie - Safe to say, I didn't do very well. But there was one very mild improvement...

Mat - When you faced your first few serves from Sally you were very close to that baseline and you were really struggling to get your racket onto that tennis ball. So you took three or four big steps back, you clearly thought flipping heck, this is travelling really quite fast.

Izzie - I could not keep up, it was quite intense.

Mat - Absolutely! And this is something that we observed, you're giving yourself just that little bit more time to react to the speed that Sally had when serving the tennis ball towards you.

Izzie - Okay. Fair enough, blinking while Sally serves is not an ideal practice. What should I be doing going forward to try and return such fast serves and keep up with Sally?

Mat - There's a lot of research to show the importance of mental training on mental quickness to help people attend to key features. For example, if you were to track a red ball moving around a screen and there were lots of blue and green balls, your ability to almost filter out the unnecessary stimuli, to really attend to that key bit of information in a chaotic environment helps just to tune that information to then hopefully transfer towards something like this where you're going to be a little better at picking at the key features. And obviously, practice is a key element of improvement in any sport.

Izzie - Right. Well I better get back in there get practising.


Snake on Pavement

32:55 - Speedy snakes and their venom

There’s not a moment to lose when it comes to catching prey, why not bring them down with poison or venom?

Speedy snakes and their venom
with Steven Allain, University of Kent

A lot of dangerous animals have speed on their side and there’s not a moment to lose when it comes to catching prey or defending your patch. And what better way to do so than producing some fast acting venom or poison to survive in the animal kingdom. Steven Allain from the University of Kent and member of the British Herpetological Society joined Katie Haylor in the studio.

Steven - Okay. A herpetologist is somebody who studies reptiles and amphibians. The word is Greek in origin. The root word is herpetós and essentially it means to creep.

Katie -  Okay. So we're talking reptiles and amphibians?

Steven - Reptiles and amphibians; snakes, frogs, lizards, all that sort of stuff.

Katie - Before we get really into this subject, can you just explain the difference between a poison and a venom?

Steven - Certainly. This is a question I get asked a lot and the main difference is that a poison needs to be ingested or it can also be taken through the skin, where a venom has a delivery mechanism such as stinger, a barb, or fangs.

Katie - Talking of poisons and venoms then, what are some of the most fast acting - this is a show about extreme speed - fast acting, most poisonous, venomous animals?

Steven - Some of the fastest are animals such as the box jellyfish which, its venom can act within 2 to 5 minutes of being stung, although not always, that leads to death by cardiovascular collapse. And then you also have dart frogs with a very strong toxin that also acts within a handful of minutes as well.

Katie - So what's going on then in the bodies of the prey in both of those cases, but also in the bodies of the ones inflicting the trouble?

Steven - In the body of the prey or the person or the animal that has been envenomated or poisoned, the main change is that their nervous system is shutting down. The neurons aren't firing, or they're overfiring which then causes issues with the cardiovascular system which shuts down your lungs and your heart, and then you unfortunately die. In the predators or the envenomaters, they are producing toxins in specialised cells or glands. And in the case of the dart frogs, they sequester their poisons through their diet, and so when you take them out of that natural setting - keep them as pets - they're no longer as toxic because they no longer have the specialised beetles or ants where they get these toxins from.

Katie - And we mentioned the box jellyfish. I imagine that probably lives in the sea, right? Where are we talking?

Steven - It does, yes. It lives in the seas around Australia and although they are extremely dangerous there are very few deaths from box jellyfish stings a) because people avoid them, and b) because there are relatively quick emergency response action plans in place to deal with them if they do occur.

Katie - One animal, I guess, may be stereotyped, or people think of when they think of poison is snakes. So how fast are snakes then at envenomating people?

Steven - When it comes to snake venom it can act very fast. Black Mamba venom, it takes about half an hour to act and then after that you're pretty much done for, unless you seek immediate medical attention. Again, it's a neurotoxin so it acts on the nervous system, although other snakes have venoms that can breakdown blood or create clots which have different effects but are more long ranging and also take longer to undertake than shutting down you nerves.

Katie - We're talking about extreme speed in this show and I guess there's the speed at which the venom or the poison gets to work, but there's also that speed at which you're actually causing that damage, right, so how quickly do snakes spring into action?

Steven - A lot of research has been done on this and it doesn't matter whether you're a venomous snake or a nonvenomous snake, all snakes seem to strike around the same speed. And to just put that into perspective, rattlesnakes have been clocked at going 2.9 metres per second which is 6 1/2 mph. It doesn't sound like much, it's just faster than a brisk walk, but in an enclosed space that's pretty fast. It means that in a strike zone, a snake can strike you in about 75 milliseconds, a human blinks in 200 milliseconds, so they can strike you almost 3 times in the time it takes you to blink.

Katie - So why do snakes need a) so much venom, and b) to be able to get it in someone so fast? What's the point?

Steven - You have to think that a lot of species feed on fast moving prey, particularly quite small prey and the amount of venom and the strike speed has all evolved to be able to immobilise that prey immediately, or extremely quickly so it doesn't wander off and die hundreds of metres away from where the snake is. So it can just get its item of food and disappear off in the undergrowth away from the risk of predation or being exposed to the elements.

Katie - This is pretty extreme stuff we're talking about, what are the chances of survival then? For instance, for human beings, what do you do if you're in this very unfortunate situation?

Steven - If you do suffer a snakebite and you are envenomated by a venomous snake it is imperative that you seek medical attention immediately, and it's also important that you identify which species of snake that envenomated you. There are antivenoms which can counteract the venom of a number of species and these are found particularly in areas such as India where you have a number of species that are highly venomous. But in other countries there's only one or two species where you could come across a snake that may cause damage and so you have more specific antivenom to that one species.

Katie - How do you actually make an antivenom, because you need to understand the venom, the way the chemistry and biology is working? Does that mean you have to extract some out of the incredibly dangerous animal?

Steven - It does, yes. You have to take a lot of safety precautions when it comes to handling venomous animals obviously. And depending on whether you’re working with a snake or a spider there are different procedures to extract that venom. And in terms of creating the antivenom, traditionally sheep or horses are used. Because they are quite large, you can inject quite a lot of venom in them and it doesn't really have any negative effects apart from shortening the lifespan, unfortunately, and then you extract the antibody that's produced from the blood and that goes into the anti-venom.

Katie - And finally, how far away are we from a 'catch all' antivenom then? Is it possible to make something that you could give to someone who had got any particular venom or, indeed, poison?

Steven - At the moment that is impossible, no. Although the World Health Organisation is pumping money into that problem as we speak. They've just announced global snakebite is a neglected tropical disease and they're trying to fund a universal antivenom for anybody around the world by any snake species to be able to treat that by using HIV antibody technology. At the moment is still in its infancy, but it does show some promise for the future.

Katie - So we should be watching this space then?

Steven - We should definitely be watching this space, yes.

McLaren 600LT Spider parked on a racetrack with the doors open

39:32 - Fast cars: Full throttle with McLaren

Just how fast is a McLaren super car? Buckle up, Izzie Clarke went to find out...

Fast cars: Full throttle with McLaren
with Dan Parry Williams, McLaren Automotive

In 1895 the first proper automobile race took place in France, where the winner made an average speed of 24.14 kph. Nowadays, the record set by a formula 1 car was 372.6kph and a lot of research goes into developing race cars to be as fast as possible. So buckle up, because I went to visit McLaren, who are at the cutting edge of car racing technologies...

Izzie - Now, we can do a show about speed without exploring race cars. Drivers of these lightweight speed machines really push the laws of physics to shed those all-important seconds off lap times and personal bests. But how do they actually work. I visited Dan Parry Williams, Director of Engineering and Design at McLaren, to see a McLaren supercar for myself.

[In background]

Which one are we going in?

Dan - That green one behind the van over there I think

Izzie - God, that's amazing! Outside of their garage was a range of impressive cars and aunt me over to a lime green 600LT. Safe to say, it's nothing like I've ever travelled in before.

How do I open the door?

Once I'd figured out the fancy car door, I sunk into the leather passenger seat and Dan and I drove around the local roads at the less exciting legal speed limit...

[In car]

Now this is something called a supercar, so what is so different from this car compared to what people might be familiar with when we look at a Formula 1 racing car?

Dan - Okay. While the Formula 1 racing car is first of all is a single seater designed for a specific formula, i.e. Formula 1, and it can only be used in closed circuit racing. Whereas obviously the car we are in today and all the McLaren automotive cars are roadgoing cars, albeit with a very strong track heritage, and they're designed for track use as well as driving on the road. So we’re going to a small local track, it's a safe place where we can let the engine rev a bit more in safety and can actually hear what the car really sounds like when you get the opportunity to open the throttle a bit.

Izzie - Cars like this can reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. Once we arrived at the test zone, Dan and I sat down to go through the design of the fast car.

Dan - Well, essentially, where applicants physics so the principles that underlie performance are all really defined by Isaac Newton. He developed his equations of motion and essentially we need to think about force at the wheels, so we need to think about weight, and we need to think about aerodynamics as the very fundamental principles.

Izzie - The force at the wheels are important to keep moving, and one such force is torque, which is generated by the engine. If you get a large torque working on a rapidly rotating engine axis, then you got a lot of power to get your car moving... and quickly.

Another force that racing enthusiasts might be familiar with is downforce.

Dan - Yes. The best way to think about downforce is to imagine the wings on an aeroplane. On racing cars, we just invert that wing.

Izzie - That's where those spoilers, that inverted wing, often found on the back of your car come into play.

Dan - Also, in many cases we design carefully the underside of the car in such a way that we, instead of generating lift, we generate downforce from those aerodynamic surfaces. The point of that is in order to be able to increase the force on the tyres so that they transfer more load onto the road surface and generate more grip when the car's going round corners.

Dan - We're working hard all the time and trying to improve not only downforce but also drag. You just have to stick your hand out the car window when you're travelling at 70 miles an hour and you can feel that resistance. Anything going through that fluid is generating drag and anything we can do to reduce that will mean that there's less energy required to push that vehicle through the air. So as well as the downforce, we need to do a lot of work with the overall shape of the car to make sure that it's as slippery as possible.

Izzie - And then we get to the tyres. The only point of contact between the car and the road. Racing cars will have tyres without tread to maximise the point of contact on the ground...

Dan - The better the tyre the more torque can be transferred to the road because that's the only way we can get performance.

Izzie - And then, what are some of the other design techniques that you can use to make sure that your car can go faster? I guess the material that is made from is incredibly important.

Dan - We employ a lot of carbon fibre in our cars. Carbon fibre is a material that first appeared in the aerospace industry and found its way into Formula 1 racing, and now we have exploited that material for supercars and we are using increasing amounts of it. It's a very rigid and very strong material for its weight and it also has really good properties in terms of energy absorption in a crash. So it's a great material to use for the structure of a high-performance car because we can make the car rigid, we can make the car strong, and we can make it light.

Izzie - And, therefore, the focus is on the power I guess?

Dan - Yeah. So having made it as light as we possibly can we then try to make it as powerful as we possibly can, and that's the starting point for a high-performance car.

Izzie - So can we actually go in the car?

Dan - Yeah, let's go. Are you ready?

Izzie - I am very much am. Here we go…

[car races off, engine roars]

Oh my god! My heart is absolutely racing.

Rays of lights travelling outward from a point

46:11 - Light: The speed limit of the universe

When it comes to extreme speed, there’s one thing that takes the crown; light.

Light: The speed limit of the universe
with Matt Bothwell, University of Cambridge

We’ve covered humans, animals and cars but when it comes to extreme speed, there’s one thing that takes the crown; light. Light is the fastest thing in our universe but how do we know that? And what happens when we get to such a high speed? With Izzie Clarke and Katie Haylor is Matt Bothwell from Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy. Just how fast is the speed of light?

Matt -  Very fast is the answer. The number is 299,792,458 metres per second.

Katie - You're going to have to put that into context for me.

Matt - Yes, of course. That's a number that's so big it doesn't make any sense, right. It's so fast you can get to the moon in about one second and you can get to the sun in about eight minutes even though that's 150 million miles away.

Katie - Right. Well whilst I wrap my head around that, how do we know that the speed of light is the number you've just quoted?

Matt - Right. So there's been lots of attempts to measure the speed of light over history. Galileo tried to do it by shining lanterns from hillsides and timing it but as we know now, obviously, the speed of light is far too fast for that to be effective. The first person to have a decent stab at measuring the speed of light was a Danish astronomer called Roemer. He was observing the moon Io, that's a moon of Jupiter, and we can see Io orbiting Jupiter and when it goes behind Jupiter that's an eclipse. What he noticed was that when the solar system is configured that the earth is moving towards Jupiter, the eclipses seem to happen more frequently than when we were moving away from Jupiter and that can only happen if light has a finite speed and we were catching up with the signals, if you like, when we were travelling towards Jupiter.

Katie - So crucially, the distance that the light was having to travel was changing depending on where the earth was?

Matt - Exactly. And it was taking either more time or less time depending on which way round.

Katie - How well did he do in terms of getting the answer?

Matt - For a historical experiment he got pretty close to the actual answer, yeah.

Katie - And crucially, the speed of light is constant, right?

Matt - That's right. It's actually quite a bizarre thing to get your head around. It doesn't behave the way we expect speeds to. If you imagine, if you could throw a tennis ball at 50 mph for example, if you were to stand on a moving train going 50 miles an hour and throw the same tennis ball, the speed of the tennis ball would be 50+50, a 100 miles an hour because the speeds add together. The speed of light doesn't behave that way. The speed of light is about 300,000 kilometres per second. If you were to stand on a train and shine a torch out in front of you, that light is still going at 300,000 kilometres a second. It’s not the speed of light plus the speed of the train. The speed of light is always the same no matter how you measure it.

Katie - So are we getting into the realms of relative motion versus what light does which is something different?

Matt - Right, exactly, yes. In order for the speed of light to be constant in every reference frame, space and time themselves need to distort to keep this so it's so. So basically this is the time dilation and length contraction that people might have heard of.

Katie - Oh, my gosh. By reference frame, do you just mean from any point in time, space, the universe?

Matt - Exactly, yeah. If I'm sitting at my bedroom and I measure the speed of light, I'll get the value it says in the textbook. If I'm shooting off in a rocket to the stars at some phenomenal speed and I measure the speed of light, I’ll get the same results.

Katie - So you talk about time dilation, is this the idea that because the speed of light is constant, to get a certain distance time has to change to compensate? Is that kind of what we're talking about here?

Matt - Exactly. The way it works is that if an object is moving very very fast then an external observer will see time for that object as moving more slowly. So if you take a clock and then you fling it off at some phenomenal speed and then you watch the clock it will appear to be running slowly, which sounds very theoretical but that's an experiment we've actually done. We've taken atomic clocks and put them on jumbo jets flying around the world, and the clock that flies around the world ends up slower than the clock that was sitting on the ground.

Katie - Wow! So this isn't just my perception of time?

Matt - Yeah, it's not a perceived thing. Time really is going slower.

Katie - Apart from light obviously, which travels at the speed of light, can anything else travel that fast?

Matt - Yeah. There are a few things that travel at this speed and so we call it the speed of light - it's actually a lot more general than that, it’s just the maximum speed of the universe. And anything that is massless, any particle that is massless, will travel at this speed. The most famous ones are photons right. They are particles of light, they have zero mass and so they travel at the speed of light. But there are other particles like gluons, they are little particles that glue protons together, they are also what we call massless particles so they travel at the speed of light. The force of gravity travels at the speed of light. Yes, so it's not just limited to light itself.

Izzie - Things that are massless travel at the speed of light so why is that mass relationship so important?

Matt - Anything that has mass in the universe like a person, or a star, or a ball, or anything takes energy to move it. If you want to move a person it going to take energy to give them a shove. So anything with mass takes more and more energy the faster you want to go. And then to take anything with mass and make them travel at the speed of light would take an infinite amount of energy, but anything that has zero mass travels at the speed of light automatically.

Izzie - Ah, I see.

Katie - Back here on earth, are there any applications for understanding the speed of light that we might use every day?

Matt - There are definitely applications. We used the speed of light to define the length of a metre. In the past, metres were defined in various different ways including the size of the earth and they had a natural physical object which was a metre. Nowadays, we use the speed of light to define a metre so that number that I gave before the speed of light is exact, there is no uncertainty because that's how we define our metre.

We have to deal with the speed of light in various ways on earth. Often it's an obstacle to workaround; for example, when you're designing computer chips the speed of light is the limit to how fast signals can move around and they have to design them accordingly. And even in fields as far off as finance for example, the speed of light is important. So with high-frequency trading selling stocks and shares at fantastic numbers of times per second, price information can only get sent out from places like London and New York at the speed of light, it can't go any faster. And so companies that do this high-frequency trading will want to get as close as possible to the centre so that the speed of light can reach them as soon as possible and shave off some crucial milliseconds.

Katie - Ah, so geographically as close as possible. Does milliseconds really make a difference, milliseconds?

Matt - They do, yeah. You wouldn't think it but yeah, with supercomputers running algorithms on the stock market milliseconds is where it counts.

Plane creating a sonic boom

53:58 - Sounding out the sonic boom record

As it’s extreme month, we’re bringing you an extreme record of the week

Sounding out the sonic boom record
with Adam Murphy

This is the part of the show where we usually tackle your questions for Question of the week, but as it’s extreme month, we’re bringing you an extreme record of the week - and no that’s nothing to do with avant garde music. Here’s Adam Murphy to sound out the sonic boom…

Adam - One of humanity’s first extremes of speed was to travel faster than sound (which is 767 miles per hour in air). So when did we accomplish it. The 19th century? 20th?

Well, the first human made invention to break the speed of sound is likely thousands of years old. That sound a whip makes when it cracks, that’s a sonic boom, a telltale noise that signals supersonic speeds.

But when did a human first push past the sound barrier. During World War Two there are lots of unconfirmed reports of fighter pilots doing it, as they pushed their planes to the limit. But most of these are probably just misreading the instruments.

It’s a hard thing to do, travel that fast. As you push up against the sound barrier, the sound waves your plane is making are all bunched up alongside the plane, they’re not travelling off ahead of you. All those sound waves bunched together make a shock wave, with messes with any plane you might be flying.

In October of 1947, an American plane, the Bell X-1, with Chuck Jaeger in the cockpit, was the first confirmed super sonic flight. The Bell X-1 had a load of special design quirks. A pointy nose, which could cut through the air better than a round one, and shorter wings, to lower the risk of damage due to a shockwave.

Once we learned what was going on at that speed, we got pretty good at breaking it. Fighter pilots in the 50s did it routinely, and we even had a supersonic passenger jet, Concorde in the 90s.

Only one land vehicle has ever broken the sound barrier, the Thrust SSC. It looks like a missile with wheels that has two jet engines strapped to it. In 1997 It broke the sound barrier in a flat bit of desert in Jordan.

But we can go more extreme than that. A human has broken the sound barrier, all by themselves.

In 2012, Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a helium balloon, 24 miles up. As he was falling, before he opened his parachute, Baumgarnter travelled fast enough to break the sound barrier, without being in any kind of vehicle.

Which is pretty extreme.


Add a comment