October Q&A

08 October 2019
Presented by Adam Murphy.

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It's Q&A time! This week - is AI a threat to humanity? What’s a panic attack? And why does being scared make your legs wobble? We’re answering your questions about science, technology, and medicine with our panel of experts. We’ve got university of Cambridge AI specialist Beth Singler; Naked Scientist and host of Naked Genetics Phil Sansom; Olivia Remes to chat to us about anxiety and mental health; and physiologist Sam Virtue, also from the University of Cambridge. 

In this episode

A bunch of cilantro

00:44 - Meet the panel: captcha and coriander

Adam introduces the team answering your questions...

Meet the panel: captcha and coriander
Beth Singler, Phil Sansom, Sam Virtue, Olivia Remes

Adam introduces the team answering questions this month. There's AI aficionado Beth Singler, gene genius and Naked Scientist Phil Sansom, mental heath expert Olivia Remes, and physiology fanatic Sam Virtue...

Beth - Yeah. So I find it really fascinating that people quite regularly use those CAPTCHA devices for Internet security where you check the box say I'm not a robot. You know these.

Adam - Yeah.

Beth - Yeah. And that's short for Completely Automated Public Turing Test. So obviously from Alan Turing, who set up this idea of how we choose to see whether something's A.I. or not. But what a lot of people don't know is that when you're filling in some of these forms or selecting on an image, what is and isn't a crossing on the road, you're actually educating algorithms better in their machine vision systems, so actually the humans are performing a service for the A.I. in doing these CAPTCHA tests.

Adam - So all these things have come around on “pick the road signs” we're helping the cars learn.

Beth - Yeah. The funniest one I think is when you have to pick out all the ones where it's Sarah Connor from the Terminator series or not, so we're actually helping the A.I. identify Sarah Connor and find her.

Adam - I mean, it's preparing for the future I suppose. Brilliant. We also have fellow Naked Scientist and host of Naked Genetics, Phil Sansom. Hey Phil, so what have you brought in? You've got something on the desk there for us.

Phil - Yeah. I've brought some show and tell. I'm gonna do some quick Foley work.

Adam - Oh, love it.

Phil - This is a bag of coriander. And the reason I brought it in is because I don't know if you guys are aware, but for different people supposedly coriander tastes and smells very different. I've got Beth and I've got Sam next to me. I'm just gonna give you guys a sniff if that's all right. What do you think?

Beth - I don't like coriander. Doesn’t smell particularly nice to me.

Sam - It smells great to me. Makes me think of a delicious curry.

Phil - I wonder, Beth does it smell like soap to you?

Beth - No it smells like dirt.

Phil - That's interesting because some people say soap, some people say dirt. Some people say delicious curry.

Adam - Yeah I'm fairly much in the camp that it tastes like washing-up liquid.

Phil - Yeah, well, me too. I hate the stuff. Good thing I brought it in. But the reason I wanted to talk about it is because, that there was a study that took place in 2012 where they analyzed around 15000 people's whole genomes. And in this set of people, they'd had data which was like: “Do you like coriander? Do not like coriander?” And what they found is that there's a certain single base change on a certain chromosome, that was really really strongly linked with whether or not people like coriander, and that little base change is in a gene that codes for a smell receptor in your nose that detects a chemical called aldehydes and aldehydes are part of what makes coriander smell like coriander but they're also in loads of detergent products and washing-up liquids, and also insects, hence dirt and cleaning products. Now the caveat to this is that there's only 10 percent of the variability that is down to the genes, but it is quite a cool thing to think that that can affect something at such a big level.

Adam - And that's why for years I thought my wife was mad because she liked the taste of soap.

Phil - That might be something else.

Adam - Oh yeah. Could be. So we've also got, also from the University of Cambridge, Sam Virtue here with us, so Sam, what do you want to bring to the table about physiology that you'd like to talk about?

Sam - So I’m going to actually debunk a myth, and at least according to my local supermarket it is Halloween tomorrow, so I thought I would bring in a bit of a macabre myth, which is about something that happens after we die, or more accurately something that doesn't happen. So there's a long standing myth that your fingernails and hair continue to grow even after you've died. This is just not true. Once you die your heart stops, you stop pumping blood, and the cells that make the proteins that make our hair and make our fingernails are also all dead. But this myth may have came about because another thing happens after we die, which is we dehydrate, so the fingernails and hair look longer because the rest of us is smaller, not because they're actually getting longer.

Adam - So it's prunes as opposed to zombies going on.

Sam - Indeed.

Adam - Brilliant. And finally Olivia Remes is here to chat anxiety and mental health with us, so you also have a myth that you'd like to bring to the table don't you?

Olivia -  I do. I do. So a lot of people think that you know, when they're feeling very anxious, and especially if they've had anxiety for a long time or if they're worrying a lot, they think that it's just part of who they are it's their personality trait. You know, they're just a born worrier or just extremely shy. But actually it's not part of who you are. It's a diagnosable condition which can be treated. And that's really important to know because anxiety is one of the most common mental health problems in the world. One in 14 people are affected. Women are twice as likely to have anxiety as men and young adults are also most affected. And the thing is anxiety, if you have it, it can lead to suicide to depression to substance abuse. But there is treatment and there are things that we can do to help ourselves to overcome it.

Adam - So serious people don't have to just say they're just a worrier. There's help out there.

Olivia - Exactly, exactly. You can you know put your worries out of your mind especially if you know if you worry a lot, if you have excessive uncontrollable worries which a lot of people with anxiety have.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

What is AI?

The University of Cambridge's Beth Singler took on this question for us...

Beth - It's quite a slippery term, and some people use it when actually what they're talking about is not necessarily Artificial Intelligence. And one of the ways to understand the term and where it comes from and what it means is to think about the history.

And the term was first sort of coined and used at a particular conference in 1956 at Dartmouth College. About 8 very intelligent people have been working computer sciences got together and decided there was this thing that they could create called artificial intelligence where they could create machines that could do all the things that humans could do basically. Perceive things, understand things, make decisions, be broadly intelligent by their understanding of what intelligence could and should be.

And since then the term has really been applied wherever some machines seem to be doing something that’s smart. Under that umbrella term you do get things like machine vision systems, expert systems, robotics gets lumped in with A.I. as well. And a lot of the time when people point to something and say “that's artificial intelligence” it might not actually be in the same category as those original thinkers were talking about. It's become something that's very applicable to lots of different places.

At the very simplest level, it's the use of algorithmic systems to make deductions that then become part of the data set, that then go back into the algorithmic systems of that kind of iterative process and it can do some very spectacular things. So if you've been watching the news about a particular A.I. game systems like Alpha Star and Alpha Go from Google Deep Mind, it can be very very super intelligent and very narrow field. So playing computer games particularly well because it's iteratively learned how to play computer games very well on this algorithmic process.

What it can't necessarily do is decide it's going to stop playing the computer game. So it has that very narrow form of intelligence that isn't directly mappable onto human intelligence in the way that the original founders, those eight gentlemen in 1956, thought. And by the way they thought they'd fix this whole problem of artificial intelligence in about two months, over summer with a 10 man team. “We'll just get it we'll get it done”.

So now A.I. is something that has been applied to lots of different things, partly because of our conception of it from science fiction as well. So our ideas of what it is and could be are very much influenced by sci fi tales and you know a lot of companies now say that they're using artificial intelligence and they might not necessarily be using exactly the same thing. They might be doing advanced statistics or as one chief technology officer said “I'd just rather say we did maths” and leave it at that.

But A.I. has this kind of glamour around it. So as I say it's a very slippery term. It's hard to kind of pin down to some people what it actually is.

Adam - So your computer might be very good at doing video games but it's not going to be able to, say, diagnose patients with a heart condition?

Beth - Exactly. So there are A.I. systems that can do diagnostics in that way, look at images, machine vision imagery, and they can check that and make a diagnosis. But no it can't be doing a broad range of things at this stage, although that is the ultimate goal - Artificial General Intelligence - for a lot of people.

Phil - If the criteria for an A.I. is that it can't stop playing a video game then a lot of people out there might be included.

Beth - True yes. So that's one of the interesting things seeing the comparison between A.I. systems playing computer games and humans playing computer games. And some of the world's best games players are exactly those people who have played hours and hours of games against other players.

But what A.I. can do exponentially better is play against itself. Millions millions of times to improve. And again that's a very narrow usage of A.I. Alpha Star can play Starcraft 2 fantastically well. But they discovered you know initially it was beating humans but that was when it was capable of seeing the whole map. Once they could see the map as a human sees a map, bit by bit through the fog of war, it lost to a human player. So these situations are also set up for A.I. to show off what they can do as well.

A test tube containing a blood sample

Can you analyse DNA at home?

Paul asks, via the forum, "can I analyse my DNA at home?" Naked Genetics host Phil Sansom had an answer...

Phil - You see... I've been having a think about this one, and it's a tricky one. Obviously you can get all these direct-to-consumer, I guess you call them, DNA testing kits. There's actually a whole suite of them at this point. And you can send off a bit of blood or something and get back your results. And that's sort of from home, right? That's about 100 bucks, I think they’re currently going for now, 100 dollars? And you can get details of your heritage, and also a health screen. And I think the key to answering this question actually is in the word analyse, right? Analysing DNA is very, very tricky. It's a whole field. And when you get your results back from Ancestry, or 20andMe, or whatever, they've done a quote-unquote “analysis” for you. And the results of that analysis need interpretation to actually make sense. For example, with the stuff like your heritage it might say you're 7% Irish. Cool. Great. What does that mean? What it actually means is that you share 7% of that heritage in common with Irish people today. It doesn't mean 7% of your ancestors were Irish, if that makes sense. So they're comparing it to the current DNA profile across the world. If someone says, “oh yeah, I'm 7% Irish”... mm, are you really?

Adam - I'd hope I'm a little more than 7% Irish!

Phil - I couldn’t tell! But when it comes to the analysis part… there's so many caveats when it comes to genetics. And even this coriander thing I was just telling you about, that one single base pair difference, that was only responsible for 10% of the variance. And if you don't have that kind of analysis there in front of you, then you haven't really treated the DNA as it should be treated: as just one piece of a huge puzzle. The other part of the question is: can you buy the huge DNA sequencing machines? And yes, and they cost about 20 grand.

Adam - So yeah, just stick on one your kitchen top. It’ll be fine.

Phil - Just sell your car.

Adam - Easy.

Phil - Easy.

Adam - Well, thanks very much. The home technology DNA kit is only 20 grand away.

The word 'anxiety' spelled out in scrabble tiles.

13:03 - What kinds of anxieties are there?

And how do you distinguish normal anxiety from anxiety disorder?

What kinds of anxieties are there?

Olivia Remes from the University of Cambridge is here to answer Dee's question about anxiety...

Olivia - Yeah. So there are different types of anxiety disorders, but the most important thing that we need to distinguish is, what is normal anxiety, from, what is an anxiety disorder. Because you hear this word so much, people are talking about anxiety so much, but there is a difference between normal and abnormal anxiety. So normal anxiety is just a human emotion that we all have when we're in stressful situations. It helps us to deal with challenges and to overcome obstacles. So for example, if you're out in the woods and you encounter a wild animal, you're going to start feeling anxious and this rush going through you. So that's normal anxiety. Or, you know, the deadlines that you have at work. But if you take this normal anxiety to the extreme, and especially when it arises in situations which don't pose a real threat, then that's when you might have an anxiety disorder. There are different types. One of the most common anxiety disorders is generalised anxiety disorder, and this one is marked by, you have this excessive uncontrollable worry about anything that is going on in your life. You can worry about very small things to major matters, anything really. The worries can keep you up at night, you might feel restless, irritable, you might find it hard to concentrate... and it can be very impairing and disabling for some people. There are other anxiety disorders as well. This is just one of them.

Adam - How do we distinguish between what is normal and what isn't? Because normal is a varying baseline for different people.

Olivia - Yeah exactly. So for some people, they're so anxious that they find it hard to leave their house, they find that they need to quit their job because of all of this anxiety that they're feeling, and they might not know why they're feeling like they're about to have a heart attack for no reason. Or they start sweating in social situations, when they're talking to other people they feel like they can't hold it together. When they feel this distress, then some people go to the doctor for that, and the doctor can diagnose you according to this manual - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. And this manual has got all of the symptoms of each disorder there, and the doctor uses that and other questionnaires to see if you meet criteria for one of these disorders, and then you can get treatment for that.

Adam - Thank you very much Olivia.

A woman in a white dress standing in a forest, shown from the waist down.

Why do your legs go wobbly when you're scared?

On twitter, @pejw7 passed on this question from their son, who asked it after getting scared by a sudden ambulance siren. Sam Virtue is here to tackle it...

Sam - So this is quite a nice question to follow on from the one Olivia just answered, because what we're talking about here is the sensible physiological responses that we have to something that frightens us. And so you may have heard of the fight-or-flight response. Well actually there's a third component to that, which seems to have got lost in general usage, which is the fight, flight or freeze response. And so we can think about this, when you're presented with a threat your body can respond in different ways. So one of the ways it can do, and this will happen subconsciously, you're probably not going to be making this decision, is you could decide whilst this is a threat, I reckon I can defeat it and your body pumps out hormones to make you better able to fight and you will attack it.

Equally you may look at the threat and think whilst this is a big scary threat, I can probably run away from it and you will run away. But the third form is that you may freeze, because there is a chance if you freeze and it's better than moving, that the predator or the threat may not see you and you might get away from it. And interestingly the wobbly legs is probably a manifestation of this freezing response, because you don't actually want to give yourself away, so your body can just freeze entirely and you don't even then have conscious control to move. And it's interesting that size is a very important part of how you perceive threat, and children are small so they're much more likely to have the freezing response to a threat which would manifest in a slightly less extreme form than wobbly legs. But the truth is there's nothing actually wrong with your legs. They're perfectly able to work, it's your brain telling them how to behave.

Adam - Why is freezing useful? What's going on there, that would be beneficial?

Sam - So if we think about something really small like a mouse, and it's being threatened by something like a bird of prey, it has absolutely no chance of fighting it because it's about 50 times smaller and it's essentially going to lose against a load of talons and beaks. It can't run away because the bird can dive over 100 miles an hour and catch it. But if it stays really still when it hears the bird there is a chance the bird might not see it. So that's how it can evolve

A robotic-looking woman's face behind a wall of computer code.

19:35 - Is AI a threat to humanity?

Maybe it's not the Terminator - but some of AI's problems are very real...

Is AI a threat to humanity?

Mariana was concerned enough to ask this question, so AI expert Beth Singler helped to break it down...

Freckled face

24:53 - What are the genetics of freckles?

Why do some people get freckles but not others?

What are the genetics of freckles?

Adam has a vested interest in this question, so Phil Sansom is here to shed some light onto it...

Phil - Yeah I looked into it. Genetically it's actually, has all these things are not clear cut. So there you go. Freckles are little spots where your melanin is getting produced a lot, a lot, and your melanin is of course, your pigment that makes your skin or your hair darker. And the gene that's responsible in this case is one called MC1R, and that's what controls the protein that goes on the cells that make melanin, the melanocytes, and the protein is what responds to the UV sunlight coming in. It goes: “Ah! I've got to protect the skin!” And then creates this melanin, absorbs all the UV, stops you getting damage to your skin, all sorts of nasty stuff. Now when humans as a big group left Africa, we didn't need all that melanin all across our bodies as much because the sunlight and the UV was less strong. That means in terms of evolution there's less pressure to have the version of the MC1R gene that makes lots of melanin all over your body. When that selection relaxes like that, you get different variants of the gene popping up, so now there's all sorts of different what you call alleles, different versions of that MC1R gene. Here's the caveat, as usual some versions are responsible for freckles. We don't really know why. Which ones? It's a few that are like, linked to it but then there's cases of people in Japan who don't have any of those versions and have freckles anyway that are linked to a different gene. So again a complex picture but we think a large part of it is this MC1R gene. We just don't know why they appear in little patches.

Adam - Stupid science not being clear cut.

Phil -  I'll tell them to get on it. Get them to sort it.

Adam - So does it make you better at dealing with sun or less good at dealing with sun?

Phil - Supposedly in those spots better.

Adam - Okay.

Phil - There's the other thing as well just quickly, which is that it's also linked to red hair, which is the MC1R gene rather is linked to red hair. If you have two copies of a certain allele of the gene you'll have red hair. But if you have one copy of that allele you'll get freckles. So that's a really weird interesting case where the two are linked and it's one allele. That’s the dominant trait on that allele is freckles, because it'll happen even if you only have one copy of it but the recessive trait is red hair which is super strange and also going on a lot in Ireland.

Beyonce

29:03 - Quiz: from Beyonce to Zeus

It's quiz time! Who will emerge victorious?

Quiz: from Beyonce to Zeus
Beth Singler, Phil Sansom, Sam Virtue, Olivia Remes

It's that time of the show, where Adam Murphy is putting the panel to the test. It's artificial intelligence-researcher Beth Singler, Naked Scientist Phil Sansom, metabolic scientist Sam Virtue, and mental health expert Olivia Remes... which team will push through three devious rounds to emerge victorious?

Adam - Let's take a break from the questions and put a quiz to our panelists. And if you want to play at home, please do. So let’s split you up in two teams: Phil and Beth, you’re team one, and Simon Olivia, you’re team two. So round one, question one: What kind of animal was named Scaptia beyonceae, after the singer, based on certain follicle similarities. Was it a horse fly, a cat, or a crustacean?

Phil - Follicle similarities?

Adam - Follicle similarities, yes.

Phil - I’ve pronounced the word similarities wrong there.. That's bizarre. I feel like having a horse fly named after Beyonce is a bit insulting. I don't think anyone would do that.

Beth - But it’s unlikely that anyone's discovered a new cat.

Phil - But like a wild cat somewhere out there? What was the third option?

Adam - It was a crustacean.

Phil - Do crustaceans have follicles? What do you think?

Beth - I don't know..

Adam - So what do you think - A, B, or C?

Phil - I want to go cat.

Beth - Okay, I’ll bend to your decision.

Phil - Oh no...

Adam - Okay. We'll go with cat. I'm afraid the answer is a rare species of horse fly. It is found in Queensland Australia. It was named after the American singer in January. Scientist Bryan Lessard says it was "the unique dense golden hairs on the fly's abdomen that led me to name this fly in honour of the performer". So…

Beth - He knows more about her abdomen than most people do.

Adam - We'd be worried but instead we will move on and we will go to Question 2 for Sam and Olivia. What kind of long extinct animal is named Psephophorus terrypratchetti, after the author Terry Prachett: is at a Pteranodon, an ancient rodent, or some kind of prehistoric turtle?

Simon - What do you think Olivia? I think, if I remember the Discworld books, my wife's read more, I have read them, the whole world is on a turtle, so maybe it's a turtle? What do you think?

Olivia - Yeah let's go with that answer. I don't know what else to say, I think I'd go with that.

Adam - Yes and you are completely correct in your reasoning Sam.

Olivia - Oh, awesome.

Adama - So in the Discworld Terry Pratchett novels, the world is suspended on the backs of four elephants which sit on the top of a great turtle called Great A'Tuin.

Phil - Frustratingly, Beth knew that one.

Beth - Yeah, I knew that one, I’m a big Terry Pratchett fan.

Adam - But, we’ll give you a chance to come back now. So we're at 0-1 but it’s Round 2 - Question 3 and we are moving into space. So despite Saturn having a radius of nearly 70,000 kilometres, the rings are only a hundred metre thick at their thinnest. True or false?

Phil - Could this be one of those where the actual answers is that they're even thinner.

Beth - Oh, I know.. second guessing. I don’t know.

Phil - Well, you have to answer this one because I answered the last one. That’s the rule.

Beth - Okay, hmm

Adam - That's good teamwork isn't it?

Beth - Yeahh, this is all on me this time. I'm gonna go with true.

Adam - I’m afraid you should have listened to Phil there.

Beth - I listened to him last time!

Adam - I was being exactly that brand of sneaky. The rings of Saturn at their thinnest are only 10 meters thick.

Beth - Okay.

Phil - Oh wow, I even got it right.

Adam - Yeah. So we're two down, unfortunately. We will move on to question 4 for our team 2. If I say that a black hole ten times heavier than the Earth is about the size of a bowling ball, is that true or false?

Olivia - I'd be tempted to say false, but I'm not sure. What do you think?

Sam - I don’t know, I mean, my suspicion is it would be even smaller than bowling ball so I'm going to go with your answer as well Olivia. Let's go false.

Adam - OK you're going false. No, it is about that, it is about the size of a bowling ball. A 5 Earth mass black hole would be about the size of an orange. So really really small but not quite as small as you were thinking. Right so you have you have room now. We're only we're only at 1-nil. So back to Phil and Beth. What are there more of: trees on earth or stars in the Milky Way?

Phil - Wow, good question.

Beth - Yeah, is this like pre- or post-humans, ‘cause we kind of cut down quite a few.

Phil - Okay, stars in the Milky Way. That must be like tens of thousands. I bet there's more trees than that. But we're working together on this one because we each answered the others individually.

Beth - I don't know. No, you choose!

Adam - Great teamwork over here!

Beth - I want to be able to blame him again.

Phil - Great. Umm.. trees on Earth. More trees on Earth.

Adam - More trees on Earth? Yep. There are quite a bit more than tens of thousand stars but two hundred and fifty billion stars in the Milky Way.

Beth - Yeah, I didn’t think that was quite right, the tens of thousands.

Phil - I was still right.

Adam - Phil is still right - there are about 3 trillion trees on Earth.

Phil - You're joking.

Adam - That's what the research says. So it's a one off. It all comes down to this final question. So, Olivia and Sam, what are older: trees or sharks?

Olivia - That's an interesting question.

Adam - Well, thank you!

Sam - What do you reckon Olivia?

Olivia - Trees or sharks. Let's see. It's like what came first the chicken or the egg.

Sam - Trees generally don't make shacks but yes.

Olivia - Let's just say.. Trees?

Sam - See, I would go sharks. But I reckon… All right.

Olivia - I don’t know, I don't want to get it wrong.

Sam - No, well one of us is going to be.

Adam - I'm going to need an answer.

Sam - Oh oh

Olivia - What should we do?

Sam - Go with your answer.

Olivia - Okay, trees.

Adam - Trees?

Olivia - No, I don’t like the sound of that.

Adam - Sharks are older by about 200 million years. The oldest sharks emerged before the trees did.

Olivia - Darn those sharks.

Adam - I know. Mean mean sharks. But now that means..

Sam - Tiebreak!

Beth - Penalty shootout!

Adam - Oh, this could this could get interesting and violent. So here's our tiebreaker question. The title of ‘Tallest dog ever’ was given to Zeus The Great Dane in 2014. To the nearest centimeter, how tall was he from ground to shoulder? We'll go with Team 1. Team one gets to answer first.

Phil - Well, well dang.

Beth - In centimeters?

Adam - Yes.

Phil - Where do you think it came up to on a person?

Beth - I don’t know, shoulder height.

Phil - I feel like if it was the tallest ever..

Beth - Oh okay.

Phil - Yeah, yeah, I agree.

Beth - Shoulder height on a bloke maybe like 5 foot, which is...

Phil - Oh, I can’t convert to centimeters.

Beth - No, that's the other problem.

Phil - Oh no we're experts.

Beth - Yeah, this is really not my degree is in.

Adam - So we're going to need a number, apparently thrown out at random.

Phil - I have currently thrown out 170, but it’s your turn to answer.

Beth - No no no. You have a number. Let’s go with that.

Phil - I’ll get it wrong. 170.

Adam - One hundred and seventy. All right. Simon, Olivia, what do you think?

Sam - I think 170 is a very big dog. I think it’s going to be less than that. We'll say 160 centimeters.

Adam - 160 centimeters is … closer. Yeah. So it is team 2 who win our tiebreak. It is still a very big dog because Zeus was 112 centimeters which is about this tall. I think you might have thought the dog was standing on someone's shoulders.

Olivia - Several dogs on the dog.

Phil - I really did good with my 10 meter Saturn one, and then I've got every number wrong, by so much.

Adam - Yeah. Sam and Olivia, congratulations for winning, and to you at home, congratulations if you got any of those right!

A stylised screaming person in front of a swirling void.

What’s a panic attack, and what causes them?

Olivia Remes is here to answer Katie's question...

Olivia - A panic attack essentially, is this sudden burst of intense anxiety that you feel coursing through your body. It peaks within minutes and you don't know what is happening with you, you might feel like you're going mad, losing control or about to have a heart attack. You might also have symptoms like sweating. You might feel faint. You might have heart palpitations, you might find it hard to breathe then you may feel like you're choking. So it's something very difficult to deal with. And the more that these panic attacks happen to you, so let's say for example that you're on the bus, and the first panic attack happened to you on the bus, next time you might feel more scared to go on a bus again or using public transportation because what if you will again get a panic attack on a bus. You know, the more these happen to you sort of start avoiding places in which these panic attacks occurred, and then you also start to worry well if I go out in public and if I have a panic attack happening to me then, is there anybody that's going to be able to help me.

So it might limit you from going outside, and this intense fear that might develop the more often that these panic attacks happen. So fear of you know, what's going to happen to me once a panic attack arises, where am I going to get help. The fact that this can kind of limit the places that you go to and can make you want to stay inside the home this can lead to agoraphobia. So it's it's something really really tricky and really difficult to deal with. And you know the second part of the question, what causes it, so a lot of times a panic attack isn't caused by anything, it can just arise out of the blue for absolutely no reason, but sometimes certain events or situations can trigger a panic attack. So for example, let's say you're about to have a stressful meeting at work. You might have this panic attack coming on to you because you've already kind of got this stress going on in your body. So then the anxiety can just course within your your body within minutes, and all of these symptoms can take hold and manifest in a panic attack

Woman holding a tissue to her nose.

Why do people sneeze multiple times in a row?

Sam Virtue has the answer to this bit of fascinating physiology...

Sam - OK. So there are a few theories about it, but to sort of think about we need to think what are we doing when we're sneezing. And so what happens when we're sneezing and why we sneeze is because there is something that is got into our nose that's irritating our nose, it's irritating something called the nasal mucosa, and this triggers the release of a chemical called histamine, and that signals to nerves and that initiates the sneeze reflex. And what we're trying to do is expel this thing that shouldn't be in our airways, out of our airways. And so if it's something that's actually irritating us like an allergen or something, we may have to sneeze repeatedly to actually get it out of the nose and stop irritating us. And the interesting thing, is that some people who may sneeze two or three times in a row, other people may actually end up in these huge sneezing fits of 10, 15 sneezes in a row.

And it may be, and this seems a bit of a cruel way of phrasing it. They may be weak sneezers, but this doesn't actually mean that they're physically weak, but actually not everything's properly lined up so they don’t actually manage to expel the allergens as well as a strong sneezer. It's also notable because this is more an allergen based thing, when we have something like a cold which I have at the moment, we tend to sneeze less frequently and we don't generally tend to have the bursts as frequently with a cold, which actually is pretty good for the viruses because it means you can sneeze once in this room. And as I currently have a cold I can then walk outside and sneeze over a load of other people and infect them as well.

Adam - So keep your sneezes to a minimum or at least to one place.

Sam - Yep.

Phil - Can how strong you are of a sneezer change as you get older?

Sam - I don't know. I mean it's an interesting question but there does seem to be some sort of anecdotal evidence that older people do seem to have more sneezing fits I don’t know if this is just a media thing or if this is really true. But it'll be quite interesting to know.

Phil - It's interesting, I feel a bit bad for saying this on the radio, but my Dad, as he's got older has increased the number of sneezes he does in a row. And it used to be two and then it went to three now it's like 4. So I feel like it's just gonna keep going up in number

Olivia - It’s exponentially going up.

Phil - Yeah soon it’ll be like 100 sneezes.

Robot

41:28 - Are there any silly things being done with AI?

What's the most ridiculous use of artificial intelligence?

Are there any silly things being done with AI?

Beth Singler has some answers to this question from Suzanne...

Beth - Yeah, I think the silliest area for artificial intelligence is usually in robotics, where you get a physical form that can be doing a task that might be inherently silly. I mean that's debatable, what’s silly or not silly. But I think it's really interesting how many spaces robots are being introduced to that they aren’t utterly in. So I just saw a story about a robot golf caddy; so it can use its systems, its machine vision to follow you around and make suggestions on which golf club… I mean, what's wrong with a human caddy? And golfing might be intrinsically silly in itself. But I think examples like that, where you get a restaurant full of robots, there's a few of those around; there's a robot hotel I went to in Tokyo, if you heard about this at all, you may already know this; but the concierge, when you come to sign in, the robot there is a dinosaur - a velociraptor in a waistcoat and a hat. And that's fairly silly.

Adam - That's my new favorite hotel. I love it.

Beth - You should go! But actually one of the interesting things about the silliest examples of AI is how often they aren't actually AI. So in talking to the people at the hotel, often the reactions that the robot is doing to kids and so forth, and scaring them, is someone in the back room with a button pressing it every time a kid gets close. And likewise, some of the silliest examples of AI-generated text - where someone online says, “look, I fed an artificial intelligence machine learning system a hundred hours of olive garden adverts, and this is what came out,” and you read it, and you’re like, “this is absurd, this is silly, but it makes coherent sense still while being silly” - it’s just written by human who wants to parody AI.

Adam - That really pulls the rug out from under the dreams I had.

Beth - Most common uses of AI people know about have humans in the loop at some point, still writing the stuff that's really difficult to write, or reacting to things are difficult to react to.

A molecular model of a fragment of DNA

44:23 - How can all DNA be encoded with four molecules?

Only four nucleotide 'bases' make up the code for all life...

How can all DNA be encoded with four molecules?

Phil Sansom shed some light onto this 'basic' problem...

Phil - It's a good question, because there really are only four molecules at the most fundamental level. They're the four nucleotides and between those four, obviously billions of those four, but that makes up all life as we know it. Now four doesn't seem like that many, but to be honest it's actually two more than all computers use, all the stuff that Beth here has been talking about, which is just ones and zeros right. That's only two components of your code. So actually for especially when you consider how many of them there are, maybe that's all right to have like, such a small set of fundamental units.

Now there's another question here, which is: Why four? Why not two? Why not six? Why not five or three for example? That's still up in the air but there's an interesting theory that came out a couple decades ago in a research paper which relates to something called a Grover Search. Now a Grover Search is a mathematical concept that uses quantum mechanics to determine a way to search a given set of options for one that you're looking for. With this Grover search that uses the quantum effects, you can search through a number of options in fewer steps than if you weren't using quantum mechanics. Now the reason this is relevant to DNA is if you're doing a 1 step Grover search then the optimum number of things to search between is four, if you're doing a three step Grover search the optimal number of things to search between is 20. Now that's kind of weird because there's three nucleotides and those nucleotides code for amino acids and there's actually 20 amino acids. So in this paper that came out a couple decades ago someone was like: “Hmmm? Interesting?”

Adam - Spooky!

Phil - Spooky. The numbers are the same. Perhaps when these molecules or these things that whatever, are searching through nucleotides to find the right one, or searching through amino acids find the right one, maybe they're using this Grover search with these quantum effects and that's the reason that these numbers, four and 20 exist in nature. Not definite science but could be cool. Look out for that one.

A woman stands in a washed-out, ghostly crowd.

How do we treat anxiety, and how can we cure it?

We put this question from listener James to our mental health expert Olivia Remes...

Olivia - There are a number of things that you can do if you have anxiety. A lot of times people are given medication, and although it can help in some instances, many times people relapse, or symptoms come back and you're just where you started from. There's also cognitive behavioural therapy which has been shown to be very effective; it essentially changes your thinking patterns, and it teaches you new ways of looking at life, of coping with things, so it's extremely helpful in dealing with anxiety.

At the University of Cambridge I actually conducted a study looking at how you can cope with it. This study showed that people who had faced extreme circumstances, who had been through hardships; if these people had certain coping mechanisms, they didn't have anxiety. But people exposed to the exact same hardships and stressors, without these coping mechanisms, had high levels of anxiety. One of them - I will just mention one of them - it's feeling like you're in control of your life. People who feel like they're more in control of their lives have better mental health. And research says that if you feel like you're lacking in control in life, then you should engage in experiences that give you greater control. And basically... what do I mean by this? And a lot of times people have trouble making - especially if you have anxiety - making decisions, getting started on things, procrastination plays a big part into this.

And I will mention one other coping mechanism - it's not based on my study, but a lot of people like this one as well - and it is called ‘wait to worry’. It is practical and very easy to use: next time when you have a worry, instead of worrying about that thing then and there, postpone the worry to a later time, to a worry period. So let's say you pick everyday at 4 o'clock, “I'm going to worry for 10 or 15 minutes.” And the reason that this is so effective is that our thoughts actually decay if we don't feed them with energy, and when you come to your worry period later on in the day you see that whatever you were so bothered about initially doesn't cause you as much anxiety when you get to it later. So wait to worry. Try it out. And as for a cure, I definitely do think that it's possible to overcome anxiety. It's just a matter of, you know, you hear these coping strategies, but actually applying them on a daily basis.

Adam - Brilliant. Thank you for that - I will try having a ‘worry o'clock’.

Ginger cat face

49:21 - What does a cat see?

How similar is a cat's vision to ours?

What does a cat see?

Physiologist Sam Virtue got his claws into this catty question from James in Australia...

Sam - OK, so first of all, cats can see better than us in some ways, but in other ways they're not so good at seeing as us. Because what has happened with cat vision is that it has evolved to let them do two really major things. The first is to hunt really effectively, and the second is to see in the dark because that's when they like to go out and hunt. So actually if you have a cat on a warm, sunny day they'll have a much more limited color palette than us, so they won't see as many hues and as many different types of color. They're better at seeing in the blue spectrum. They wouldn't be able to see red things quite so well so their vision will be quite different. They're also unable to see as well in the distance as us. So for example they would have what's classed as 20/100 or 20/200 vision, which means that a cat would have to be at 20 meters from something to see as well as we could see it from 200 meters away.

So in Australia, let’s say you are looking out at something like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the cat would not be able to see it from being stood on the shore of the bay. Cat vision isn't necessarily better than ours, and what they can see is more limited during the day, but at night they come alive. They have far better vision at night and they have a special membrane called the tapetum lucidum, which the reflective membrane that gives the cat's eyes that wonderful property of reflecting light when it’s shone on them. And this is all designed to make as much of the low light levels we have at night available to the cat so it can see better. And then that enables it to see its prey, and in the case of my cats, that's quite a lot of mice that get brought in in the morning.

Adam - And in my cat it tends to run more into running into the nearest wall.

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