Oxygen Shortages, UFOs & Nuclear Waste

It's the science behind the latest headlines! Oxygen shortages, the man who found the Titanic, and more...
01 June 2021
Presented by Chris Smith
Production by Phil Sansom.


Tanks of oxygen.


We're diving into the science behind the latest headlines - including the oxygen shortages occurring in the wake of COVID outbreaks; the nuclear waste deep inside the wrecked Chernobyl reactor threatening to reignite; and we’re meeting the man who found the Titanic, to talk about his new mission. Plus, a dive into science fiction with author Max Brooks, author of World War Z and the new novel Devolution...

In this episode

Blackburn town centre from Shear Brow area.

01:02 - COVID vaccine uptake: how to establish trust

Matt Hancock has blamed COVID hotspots on low vaccine uptake. Is he right?

COVID vaccine uptake: how to establish trust
Stephen Reicher, University of St Andrews

Even as UK citizens return to the cosy indoors of pubs and restaurants, the Indian variant of the coronavirus remains a threat across the country and more than 50 others worldwide. And in UK hotspots for the variant, like Bolton and Blackburn, there have been mixed messages from the British government about what people need to do. So what’s the problem? Are some of us refusing the vaccine, confused by the advice, or just succumbing to a potentially more transmissible variant? Stephen Reicher is a psychologist and behaviour expert from the University of St Andrews, and he gave his analysis the situation to Chris Smith...

Stephen - The simple answer is we don't know. We do know that the B.1.617.2 - the so-called Indian variant - is more transmissible, but whether that transmissibility is due to the characteristics of the virus itself or the behaviour of those who have the virus, at this stage we don't know. It's one of the key questions we need to sort out before we can be quite sure about just how dangerous or how safe this new variant is.

Chris - Well the Health Secretary Matt Hancock... he's got some thoughts, hasn't he, because he told Sky News last week that the reason is all down to vaccination...

In Bolton, where we've seen a number of people in hospital with this new Indian variant, the vast majority of them have been eligible for a jab but not taken the jab.

Stephen - Hmm. I do think that his intervention was really very unhelpful. In his statements he has, in effect, blamed people for not getting vaccinated. I think it's inaccurate - when you look at vaccination rates in for instance, Bolton, they're very, very close to the national averages...

Chris - And what is that national average?

Stephen - It's different for different age ranges. So you could look at the graphs for all the different ages and they're basically on top of each other.

Chris - And your interpretation would be: if the graphs match what they are for any part of the country, then everywhere in the country should be equivalently affected. It's not, so Matt Hancock's point that it's all down to vaccines - that can't be the whole story.

Stephen - It can't be the whole story. But the other point is - blame is a way of alienating people. Yes, it's perfectly true that some people haven't got vaccinated, but one of the things we do know is the most effective way of getting people to vaccinate is to engage with communities, which means going to communities, talking to people, trying to establish trust. And if you alienate communities, if you hector them and blame them, that's highly counterproductive.

Chris - We know that we are at that point where people who've run vaccination campaigns traditionally say you get problems - once you get north of about 70%. Now why is that? And having anticipated that it's coming, what can we do to counter it?

Stephen - This has to do with the levels of vaccination you need in order to make sure that you can't transmit within communities, leading to what's sometimes called herd immunity. One of the problems with this discussion is it talks in terms of overall vaccination rates, as if the population is homogenous. And the problem is here that in different communities you get different levels of vaccination. So even if you had a 95% vaccination rate overall, if you had pockets where there's much lower vaccination, then the danger is you can have outbreaks in those areas. That not only leads to inequality, it leads to social tension - because people start blaming those communities for those outbreaks, and you begin to see anger, conflict, even violence between communities. So one of the problems we have at the moment is that there are lower vaccination rates in certain communities. And not surprisingly they're those communities which on the whole are more marginalised, more vulnerable, have a more problematic relationship with authority and with the state - in certain ethnic minorities, particularly the black community. So as I say, talking about the overall rate doesn't help us if there are pockets where vaccination rates are lower.

Chris - Conspiracy theories abound, though, don't they. I mean, when I had my vaccine, I had a bunch of people approach me on social media and send me the circuit diagram for the microchips that have been injected into me alongside the vaccine. I actually looked up the circuit diagram - it was a wah pedal for a guitar.

Stephen - The first thing is not to deny conspiracy theories, because there are conspiracy theories - I too have seen them - and they must be taken very seriously. However it is important to respect people and not treat people as a problem. Because again, if you're trying to engage with people and you start off by presupposing that they are irrational, they're stupid, they're pre-modern, that they don't believe in science, that they believe in strange myth, it's not going to help to engage with them. And when you look at the reasons for vaccine uptake, on the whole the literature points to three factors which are critical: the three Cs. Complacency is the first. You're not going to do things unless you think there is a risk and a need to do them. The second factor is convenience. If you're asking people to go a long way away, especially people who don't have a car who might have to take two buses to get to the vaccination centre, it becomes more difficult. If you're asking them to take time off work; if they're concerned that the day or two after they get the job, they might feel a bit under the weather - not serious side effects, but actually rather common minor side effects, but enough to affect work - what's that going to do to them financially? And the third factor is confidence: belief that these things are safe. Now sometimes people have got very real and very valid concerns, very real questions. One of the problems historically with vaccines is not enough minorities, not enough black people, have been involved in the trials. So people are concerned as to whether the types of conditions that those communities have are affected by the vaccine. So again, having people go along who are qualified to talk to people, to listen to their concerns, to answer their concerns, is really important. But of course there are going to be some people who don't just have questions, who aren't hesitant, but who are opposed because they do believe that this is some sort of conspiracy. And I think that is a different kettle of fish. It's important, but it's important not to lump it together with the majority of people who I think we need to treat as sensible, reasonable, and whose questions we should embrace and answer with grace.

A sketch drawing of a female head.

07:32 - Conspiracy theories and your mental immune system

A new book argues that our minds have their own version of an immune system - one that weeds out bad ideas...

Conspiracy theories and your mental immune system
Andy Norman, Carnegie Mellon University

Philosopher Andy Norman from Carnegie Mellon University has been looking deeply into the subject of conspiracies and disinformation. As he told Chris Smith, he’s just written a book called Mental Immunity, about how to combat bogus facts and bad ideas...

Andy - Yeah, there's a great deal of what Stephen said that I agree with wholeheartedly. My book is about an emerging science that's giving us a new way of thinking about conspiracy thinking, vaccine denial, science denial more generally. And here's the idea in a nutshell. We know that our bodies have immune systems that protect us from infectious microbes. Well it turns out that our minds have immune systems that protect us from infectious ideas. And these systems can function very well, and they can also function extremely poorly, and a good bit of the contemporary craziness - political, religious, anti-scientific - I think is driven by mental immune systems that have been compromised.

Chris - Is that mental immune system actually driven by education, or is there more to it than that?

Andy - Well, I think there's a good deal more to it than that. Traditionally we've regarded our resistance to bad ideas as a function of critical thinking instruction. It turns out though that the critical thinking paradigm only alerts us to a small fraction of the things that can be done to strengthen our resistance to bad ideas. And when we develop a detailed understanding of how these systems work, we start to understand why they fail and how we can make them work better. My book is full of insights from both philosophy and psychology that actually help us strengthen mental immune systems in ways that the critical thinking paradigm never anticipated.

Chris - Why I liked your book and it struck a chord with me is because at a time of a pandemic, when we're very familiar with the transmission of an infectious entity, you actually turn this around and say bad ideas are like parasites, basically. They're looking for a susceptible brain to hijack, and then once they're in there, actually they've parasitised that mind and it then becomes an amplifier for that parasitic bad idea, and those people then spread it around like a super spreader. And it's directly what we're seeing with coronavirus actually, isn't it?

Andy - That's exactly right. There's something of a change in perspective that you need to take on to grasp the full potential of this science of cognitive immunology. And it starts with the recognition that bad ideas have all of the properties of parasites. They need a host. They can create copies of themselves within a host. They can induce behaviour in a host that spreads the bad idea to other minds. And of course it's part of our concept of harmful parasites that they do damage to the prospects of the host itself. And there's absolutely no question that there are ideas that circulate at our expense as human hosts.

Chris - One of the points you made, which I had never really thought about - and it made me realise actually that we are perhaps cruising for a bruising in this regard - is that we seem to have engineered society in such a way that no one wants to offend anybody else. So the 'speaking up' notion, "I don't agree with you," has fallen out of favour. Where previously people would have opened their gobs and perhaps they would have upset some people, but probably truth would have outed in the end, we've ended up in a situation where no one wants to say what they really think for fear of someone being offended or being upset. And is that in some respects actually making these parasites - even in this modern era with more access to information and more education than we've ever had in our lives - does that mean we're actually making ourselves paradoxically more susceptible because of the constraints of society?

Andy - Absolutely. So when you study our current predicament, our post-truth predicament, through the lens of these concepts of cognitive immunology, you start to see ways in which we've actually been abusing and neglecting our mental immune health for decades. So one of the concepts at large in our culture is that everyone is entitled to their opinion. Now people embrace this idea to prevent governments from trying to regulate what we think. And that's all well and good. But when we interpret that principle as a license to believe whatever we darn well please, we end up having an excuse that allows us to justify irresponsible thinking. And so for at least a couple of centuries now we've allowed the idea that our cognitive rights supersede our cognitive responsibilities, and when rights and responsibilities get out of balance, you start to see irresponsible thinking spread through cultures. And if you look back at history you find that civilizations have been torn apart when norms of accountable talk aren't taken seriously.

Chris - Stephen Reicher - do you think we should be sending a copy of Andy's book to Number 10 Downing Street?

Stephen - That assumes that Boris would read it! There's a lot of social psychological research on conspiracy theories. One of my colleagues Karen Douglas has written a lot of really interesting work, and one of the points she makes is: at the core of nearly all of them is the notion that somebody is trying to control us. So in many ways, what you're getting from conspiracy theories is a statement about people's perceptions, and in particular their relationships to authority. And one of the reasons why you might find, say, in certain communities there is more purchase of these conspiracy theories is because they have greater historical experience of control. So one of the arguments, for instance, about why in the black community there is a lower vaccine uptake and more reticence is because black people do have a historical experience of being misused. And what that says to me is that in many ways, the answer has got to be at the level of asking: what has led to that sense of authority being 'other' - of them doing things 'to' you and not 'for' you? The question is, how can you create a positive relationship? And if you can begin to do that, you undermine the fundamental logic of which many of these conspiracy theories feed. It's not about the content - it's what it's saying about a social relationship.

Chris - Andy, just finish us off then with just some tips. What can we all do to improve our mental immunity - give it a boost, if you will?

Andy - It turns out there's many, many things we can do to improve our mental immune function. One of them is to learn to listen to your doubts. Doubts are the mind's antibodies. At the same time though, you can't take your doubts at face value. Sometimes our doubts become hyperbolic and run away from us. And just as you can be too trusting, you can be too suspicious. And many conspiracy theories are driven by an over the top distrust of authority and many of the institutions. The second thing you can do is: always make sure that you're reasoning to find out rather than reasoning to win. There's now a good bit of research that suggests that highly partisan thinking actually compromises your ability to think clearly. And if you find that you're actually becoming a cultural warrior and using reasons as weapons, back off and learn to reason collaboratively, because you're not serving your own interests very well. I'll mention just one more short one: avoid wilful belief. It turns out that when you indulge in wilful belief in one area of your life, if you believe things because you want them to be true in one area, it turns out that often spills over and compromises your ability to distinguish truth and falsehood in other areas of your life.

Stephen - Andy, as a Spurs fan, I want to believe that we can win the league! I'm in a bad way then, it's really dangerous.

A part of abandoned Pripyat, near Chernobyl.

16:52 - Chernobyl: nuclear material may be re-igniting

Deep inside the old power station, monitors have been picking up increasing signs of life...

Chernobyl: nuclear material may be re-igniting
Neil Hyatt, University of Sheffield

35 years ago the world saw one of its worst ever nuclear disasters: the explosion and meltdown of one of the reactors at the Chernobyl power station. In the aftermath, the destroyed but still smouldering and intensely radioactive reactor core was encased in a concrete sarcophagus, which has since been strengthened further with the addition of a £1B 36,000 tonne tornado-proof steel dome designed to last a century. But, from within, there are signs that the radioactive remains of the reactor may be spawning new nuclear reactions: monitors have begun picking up increasing signs of life inside that could lead to another blast. Neil Hyatt is a nuclear materials chemist from the University of Sheffield, and he explained the readings to Chris Smith...

Neil - In one particular room - 305/2, which is underneath what remains of the Chernobyl reactor in Unit 4 - the neutron counters have been picking up a steady increase in neutron production since about 2016, and the rate of neutron production has increased by about a factor of two. And this has been observed in other areas of the shelter in the 35 years since the accident also.

Chris - And why are neutrons a worry?

Neil - Well, the concern is that what's giving rise to the neutrons in the current hypothesis is some residual fission. So the breaking of uranium, plutonium atoms inside that residual fuel material.

Chris - Can you paint us a picture, then, of what the environment actually looks like, and where that material is, and what sort of form it's in? Because obviously there would have been the core of the reactor that was stuffed full of radioactive uranium that was powering the reactor; the reactor exploded; what did that ultimately lead to, that we've now got this mess there that's radioactive?

Neil - In the course of the accident, the fuel material heated up; reacted with its cladding - its corrosion proof wrapper - and the reactor internals, and then also with the concrete surrounding, and materials that were dropped onto the burning reactor, sand, some lead. That all sort of mixed up (that's perfect glass forming material if you're a glass scientist) and then flowed like lava out from the reactor room into the basement of the reactor building. It's distributed in sort of clumps, the most famous being the elephant's foot formation towards the bottom of the basement. It's intensely radioactive even still because of the presence of the highly radioactive fission products.

Chris - And then the worry is that because there is all that uranium in there, if enough pockets of it are in close enough contact with each other, they could do what they were doing in the reactor under controlled conditions. But obviously there are no controls now, and they could therefore start the chain reaction or promote the chain reaction in their new venue, which is the elephant's foot and other parts of this debris. What could happen as a result of that then?

Neil - So that's the concern, and it's probably a good idea to differentiate between this room, 305/2, and the rest of the formation. So in the rest of the formations, it's very unlikely that they could ever find themselves in a configuration with enough water, which is also crucial to sustaining a fission reaction, to be able to do that. In room 350/2, our knowledge is a bit more patchy. So what we think is that there's a lump of material which is richer in fuel material - so uranium, plutonium, and it's covered by more friable lava material - and we don't really understand in detail the configuration of that material and how much water has ingressed. So there's an uncertainty as to whether that could sustain fission in the future. We think it's highly unlikely, because the calculations suggest that there's unlikely to be enough fissile material there to have a self-sustaining fission reaction. But we don't know for sure. You also asked me what the environment was like inside the shelter, and it's pretty grim...

Chris - Have you been in there? Have you been inside the new steel dome?

Neil - I haven't been inside the New Safe Confinement, but I've been to Unit 3, which is the one next door to Unit 4. And I think when you go on that tour, you're about 20 metres from the elephant's foot at the closest point. I worked with a team who work inside the concrete sarcophagus and it's wet; in the summer it's quite humid; dark bits of wall have fallen down, concrete piles, bits of metal, trying to trick you up and stick in you. And then on top of that you've got the radiation field. So it's a very challenging environment to have to work in.

Chris - What are the prospects of an explosion then? You've said that it's unlikely, but what might make that happen? And if it did, what would be the consequences?

Neil - It's difficult to say. If you draw parallels, for example, with natural fission reactors that were observed at a place called Oklo, water migrates in, sustains the nuclear reaction. The reactor then heats up and that dries out the water, the reactivity then dies down. And then once it cools down the water migrates and again, and the fishing reaction starts. So probably the worst case scenario is some kind of oscillating low power reactor producing steam. You've got an increase in temperature and that begins to sort of degrade the surrounding structural environment. So it's undesirable. There are things that we could do to try and quench that if we wanted. So for example, spraying in a gadolinium containing solution or boron containing solution to get the reaction quenched, if that indeed is the mechanism.

Mount Rainier in Washington.

22:55 - Max Brooks: disasters, politics, & Devolution

Max Brooks is a disaster preparedness expert - who is also the author of zombie cult classic World War Z...

Max Brooks: disasters, politics, & Devolution
Max Brooks

Max Brooks is a disaster preparedness expert who also is the author of zombie cult classic World War Z - in turna Brad Pitt movie. Max joined Chris Smith to talk about disasters, politics, and survival - first, what happens if Neil Hyatt's nuclear fuel reignites...

Max - Well, I'm not a nuclear scientist, but I think I can assume that it's not exactly a blast as a meltdown. That's two different nuclear reactions. And I can say right now, the best preparedness that we can all do is understand that what affects one of us affects all of us, and what Neil was talking about perfectly personifies that. There are no real local problems anymore. A runaway nuclear reaction in Ukraine is going to affect the rest of the world. And we all need to understand what we can do, and more importantly, I think our complicity in all of these disasters. Because the Soviets, I think, made one critical mistake when it comes to Chernobyl, which was not making cheap stuff that we all need so we would all apologise for them. Because that's the Chinese model, as we've seen with COVID.

Chris - It's interesting that you bring up coronavirus, because of course your book World War Z - "zed" - that was actually made required reading by the US National Security Council, because it was judged to be such a realistic depiction of how a pandemic would hit society and would affect our infrastructure...

Max - I'm not sure if it was required reading on the National Security Council, but I do know in American national security circles, my book has been circulated because I based it on real research. The zombies were fictional catalysts, but the solutions were all factual.

Chris - Yes, we should explain - this is a sort of a zombie apocalypse, where a virus was spreading through populations, and it actually began in China in your book, didn't it? What gave you the idea for that?

Max - Well, I based it on the first SARS outbreak.

Chris - So that was 2002 to 2003, wasn't it?

Max - Correct. And the Chinese government essentially said, "nothing to see here, don't worry about it. Go look at something shiny." And we did. And before we knew it, it was sprouting up all over the world. So I think that the lesson of my book, and I think the lesson we should all take from this latest pandemic, is that democracy, free and open societies, are integral to good public health. Because if you don't have a system of checks and balances, and if you don't have the ability to watch the watchers in power, then you have the ability for a Chernobyl or a pandemic to spin out of control.

Chris - Interesting you say that, because if one looks at the subject we were just talking about with Neil, which was the disaster at Chernobyl, the same thing happened in some respects, didn't it? There was this enormous explosion, nuclear accident, but the message from the government initially was, "it's a fire, nothing to see here, carry on!"

Max - And I will say that that's not the first time that happened. The Soviets got away with it once, because what most people don't know is that there was a biological Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, in a city called Sverdlovsk, where Western intelligence was suddenly aware of a massive anthrax outbreak. And when the Soviets were questioned, they wrote it off as contaminated meat. So it was a simple natural outbreak. And it was only in the nineties when Boris Yeltsin admitted that it was an accident at a biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk. But you had a system where they had the power to say, "nothing to see here," and they had the power to lie to the world. And if it had stayed in the Soviet Union, either in Sverdlovsk, or specifically in Chernobyl, that would have been one thing, but their lies affected us. And so we have an obligation to protect ourselves by demanding that countries that can hurt us be honest with us.

Chris - Do you see a situation then where people will actually, as a global population, will turn around and say to everybody, so not just picking on China, but to everybody, "right, we need a situation where there is a lot more transparency, because there's only going to be a greater risk as we go forward of more pandemics, because of all the factors that have caused this one, population probably being the number one cause." Are we honestly going to see that happen because jurisdictions like China, they'll just laugh, won't they?

Max - They might laugh, but then they laugh at their own expense because I don't need to tell you that we can do this. I can tell you that we have done this. Because when I was a kid in the 1980s, there was a country called South Africa that had a system called apartheid. And the world initially argued that, "well, we can't boycott South Africa. They have gold and diamonds, rare earth. They have minerals that we all need." So we are victims of our own greed, but eventually it got around that we all said 'enough'. Not only did our boycotts work, but as someone who's been to South Africa, I can tell you from what I've learned on the ground is preventing their soccer teams from playing in the World Cup, that had a huge impact. We all have economic levers that we can pull as customers. And that is what we can do and what we should do.

Chris - You've got a new book out - talking about movies, that'll probably turn into one won't it? Your last one did all right. It's called Devolution, this one - what's it about?

Max - Well, that is a monster story. And whereas now we've been talking about being critical of authoritarian regimes, I'm very critical of our tech industry, because we don't hold them accountable either. And what I can tell you in the book is that we are looking at a high end high tech community nestled in the Cascade Mountains that believes that it is the new green revolution, where you can live through technology in nature. Until Mount Rainier erupts, and they are trapped. And there is no backup plan. And the creatures that live in the woods are very, very hungry.

Tanks of oxygen.

30:23 - COVID's oxygen crisis

COVID-19 patients need huge quantities of oxygen to survive. But many countries are running out...

COVID's oxygen crisis
Leith Greenslade, Every Breath Counts Coalition

Oxygen has been crucial in the fight against the coronavirus, which damages the lungs and leads to dangerously low blood oxygen levels. But massive demand means many countries around the world are now facing severe oxygen shortages, to the point that it’s threatening to compromise their healthcare systems. So how have things become so bad? Leith Greenslade runs the Every Breath Counts Coalition, which supports national governments to try to end pneumonia deaths by 2030. She explained the situation to Chris Smith...

Leith - It's India and Nepal at the moment that are oxygen hotspots. I think most of us have seen the images from India, particularly families in parking lots of hospitals trying to give their family members CPR. There is no oxygen. There are no doctors. They scream for help. Nobody comes. They're unmasked. Some of the doctors in India are telling us they have never experienced anything like this in their working lives.

Chris - And why is this happening?

Leith - It's happening because health systems are not equipped with medical oxygen. This is a pre-COVID problem. Many health systems across Africa, Asia, Latin America, even parts of central Europe simply didn't have enough oxygen. It wasn't something they prioritised. And we know many of them are cash strapped, but still, oxygen was underestimated. And now you're seeing the tragic consequences of that in India, Nepal; we saw it in Brazil, Peru, Colombia; and we're all very nervous we're about to see this move into Africa.

Chris - And of course, coronavirus does cause pneumonia and hence the problem with oxygen. But you're coming at this from a bigger viewpoint, which is that pneumonia can be caused by a range of different infections. And if you get bad pneumonia and you get low oxygen in your blood, you're going to die. And that's eminently soluble by supplementing people with a decent supply of oxygen.

Leith - Yes, if you get really sick with COVID anywhere, oxygen is the basic thing you need. And the quantities of oxygen required by COVID patients was something even the doctors in the UK, Europe, and North America underestimated; the sheer quantities of litres per minute that COVID patients need are extreme. So this is like a perfect storm for health systems in many low- and middle-income countries. Not only did they not have much oxygen, but they certainly didn't have the vast quantities required to keep COVID patients alive. And you're right, it's not just for COVID patients. Oxygen throughout the health system is needed from the tiniest newborn, often born needing respiratory support, right through to elderly people with chronic diseases like COPD. There's a lot of applications for oxygen and health systems. Just that at the moment, all eyes are on COVID.

Chris - Is this problem soluble, at least in the short term? Because you mentioned India as one of the worst impacted places. Partly, India is a serious problem because they've got 1.4 billion people there, but half the population of that country don't even have access to a toilet, let alone an oxygen cylinder.

Leith - It's so soluble though, because if you go into industry in India, if you go to the oil and gas industry or the steel industry, they have beautiful oxygen. You should go and see some of the systems in industry. But the poor old public hospital down the road has nothing. So this is about national priorities for sure. And we know the government in India underspends on health. Many governments underspend on health. Health has not been seen as an investment, but an expenditure. So I think COVID has shaken everyone up about this. And I think governments need to look at health more as an investment. And if they're doing that, they need to be investing in oxygen in their health systems, at least to the extent that you find oxygen available in industry.

Chris - They have been sending oxygen from the steelworks down the road, in some cases haven't they? I have seen footage where people have been quite surprised. They don't realise that you could do that, but they have been redeploying oxygen destined for industry into healthcare in India.

Leith - They have done that and that was the right call. They could have done it a lot earlier. Most of the governments that are in a crisis like India with oxygen, it's the first thing they should do; work out what capacity industry has and get that diverted to the health system as quickly as possible. But that comes at a cost to industry as well. The best solution would be if countries made sure their hospitals, particularly their large hospitals that deal with a lot of critical care patients, have their own oxygen on site. So plants on site are the best solution for big hospitals, even in India. This idea of getting it from industry is not optimal.

Chris - Which countries? Because thinking along the lines of 'prevention is better than cure', which countries are potentially in the firing line next? Who should be gearing up, taking your advice to heart, and planning so that they're in better shape than India is?

Leith - This is the big question. So we built a tracker, a COVID-19 oxygen needs tracker online, a kind of open source tool. Anyone can go on and click and see what's happening with oxygen needs every day in every low- and middle-income country. And we put a trend, a three month trend on that so you can see if it's ticking up or down. So from that data set, we have a list of 40, there are 40 countries now that are either experiencing or at risk of experiencing oxygen shortages. There's a huge cluster in Latin America; pretty much all of the South American countries have a high oxygen need and it's moving into even Central America, Costa Rica, and Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba. And then coming across to Asia: all of the countries that border India are going to be in trouble, and Nepal we've seen already, but watch out for Pakistan. Sri Lanka is already in trouble, and watch out for Bangladesh really closely as we see this variant sort of seep across the borders. So we're very worried about those nations. And then the Middle East, there's clusters across the Middle East; and then Africa. So in Africa, we're all watching South Africa at the moment, which is just starting to tick up. Everyone's been sort of scratching their head because no one can figure out why COVID in Africa is... It just hasn't really taken off in the way we've seen in other parts of the world. People think that's a bit of a ticking time bomb, and it's only a matter of time before we see in Africa what we've seen in India. And that's why the focus of our coalition at the moment is to help prepare those countries so they can get ahead of the curve, because they can't be blindsided like India.

A patient on a ventilator in a hospital.

36:36 - Meet Scotland's sickest COVID patient

Grant McIntyre spent 128 days in hospital suffering from COVID-19. He tells us about his recovery...

Meet Scotland's sickest COVID patient
Grant McIntyre

Grant McIntyre is a Dundee orthodontics professor who - after an unbelievable 128 days in the hospital with COVID-19 - managed to almost fully recover. He’s become known as ‘Scotland’s sickest COVID survivor’, and he and his wife have just written a book about the experience called Dying to Live: The Last Roll of the Dice. He told Chris the full story...

Grant - The journey started towards the end of March last year in the first wave of COVID in the UK when I became progressively unwell. It suddenly became pretty clear that I was indeed suffering from COVID, and after three hospital administrations, things took a turn for the worse and I spiralled towards critical illness. For the first 50 days of that, I was unaware of what was going on. Not only did the COVID attack every corner of my body, but my own immune system mounted what was called a 'cytokine storm'. I'd never heard of this before, but it's where the immune system goes into overdrive and effectively attacks every corner of the body as well. At the same time I went to multi-organ failure. Just about every organ in my body was being destroyed. Up to this point I'd been on all sorts of oxygen therapy, and I have no idea just how much oxygen I've used during my treatment, but I'm guessing having just listened to Leith's very interesting interview that it must be quite a significant amount.

I was then put on to, in essence, a heart lung bypass machine. I had acquired a significant number of blood transfusions, and even with the oxygen machine pumping in vast quantities of oxygen into my blood, for some reason my body wasn't able to retain that oxygen and my blood oxygen levels would plummet on a regular basis whilst on the life support. The doctors were running out of options pretty rapidly, and after over a month of being on the ECMO life support machine, it was decided that the only thing left to try would be a massive dose of steroids over a significant number of days. I'm very fortunate for the doctors making that decision, because that was the turning point. And after 39 days of being on life support, I was apparently able to move an eyelid, and by day 42 to lift a finger on command from the medical and nursing staff.

Chris - How long did it take you to get your muscles back and be able to actually stand up? Because when you've been flat on your back or flipped over prone onto your front - which is how a lot of COVID patients are being nursed, because we're finding that actually it translates into better lung function that way - you basically are not doing any exercise. In your case, you're in a coma for two months. So how long did it take you before you could even just do trivial things again?

Grant - The physiotherapist told me that even despite the fact that he had been moving my muscles, I'd lost a quarter of my body weight by the time I came out of the state of unconsciousness. I struggled to even lift my hand up to feed myself initially, but after 36 days of rehabilitation, I was finally able to stand for the first time. And OK, it was only for two seconds that day, but that was a triumph. And around about 10 days later, I was finally able to take my first footsteps again, but I still needed the help of a wheelchair/walking stick/a zimmer frame and all the other gadgetry to help me get about. And I had gone from being a fit and healthy 49-year-old patient who had effectively walked into a hospital to being partially disabled. And I had to accept the fact that my mobility had been compromised by the length of stay that I had spent in intensive care.

Chris - Leith, Grant's talking about how much oxygen it took to sustain him when he was in intensive care. I mean, do we have any actual figures to put on basically how much oxygen an intensive care unit nursing COVID patients is getting through, and therefore, really, how to do these sums for the world population who's vulnerable?

Leith - Yeah, so it can be 40 to 60 litres per minute of oxygen that a COVID patient will need. And the average stay in hospital can be up to 14 days. In Grant's case, it was much longer. We actually measure the amount of oxygen that's needed every day, just to treat COVID patients in low- and middle-income countries. Today, for example, it's 22.5 million cubic metres in every lower/middle-income country. That's the equivalent of about 3.2 million of those large cylinders. 3.2 million every day. Now we have nowhere near that, which is why so many people are dying now in the south for lack of oxygen.

Chris - Grant, do you touch on these sorts of considerations in the book or is it chiefly focused on your clinical and psychological journey?

Grant - The book is really about our own personal journey of that and my wife and my family. But also we do touch on some of the events that happened around the world and indeed how some of the other countries have suffered as a result of their relative economic situation in comparison to the UK.

Chris - Are you back to normal now or are you still recovering?

Grant - I'm still on the journey. It's been an absolutely amazing journey in many ways. It's been an opportunity to reflect on what's important to me in my life, but interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any end to the eventual journey. Although day by day, things get better; I'm stronger, fitter, back to work, back cycling, back doing a little bit of golf, doing some other sport. I don't have the energy levels that I would have had pre-COVID, but I have learned to live with the fact that my breathing will be abnormal for the rest of my life, and that indeed I have one or two other long COVID symptoms. But I'm very much a glass-half-full person, and it's about making the best of what I've got in life from now on.


43:04 - UFOs: Pentagon to release report

UFO sightings by US Navy personnel have sparked a wave of interest - ahead of an upcoming Pentagon release...

UFOs: Pentagon to release report
Kate Dorsch, University of Pennsylvania

Last December in the US House of Congress passed an omnibus bill that included a strange requirement: the Pentagon and other intelligence agencies had to report everything they knew about UFOs. They’re expected to release that report at the start of June. This has sparked an enormous wave of interest in UFOs in America, coinciding with new videos of supposed sightings leaked from the US Navy; even former president Obama confessed in an interview that records of them do exist. So what’s really going on? Chris Smith heard from Kate Dorsch - she’s a historian of science, and pseudoscience - at the University of Pennsylvania…

Kate - The sightings that were focused on here, and are drawing so much attention - and perhaps even driving the call for this intelligence report from US intelligence agencies and the Pentagon - are sightings that were made by US Navy pilots in 2004 and again in 2015, some of these really specific videos.

Chris - So therefore one would judge them to be more reliable than just someone who might've smoked a few funny cigarettes, or consumed a few beverages?

Kate - Yes, that is underlying so much of the hype and so much of the attention and the scrutiny.

Chris - But they are supported though, these sightings, by independent objective digital evidence, aren't they? In some cases they've got video, they've got other radar measurements or so on that seem to corroborate what the people are saying?

Kate - That would appear to be the case. However, there is a historical context for some of this. It has always sort of been the case that yes, pilots see things when they are flying planes. And also sometimes we get sensor returns from our technology. And it is traditional, especially among the ufologists and the UFO true believer crowd, to point to sensor returns, to radar returns, photographs, video, et cetera, and say, “here's objective evidence that confirms the pilot's sightings”. However, yes, the radar return, or in this case, footage, photographs or video, do add evidence, but it is also important to keep in mind that our technology is not infallible either. I wouldn't immediately jump to saying that this video or the sensor returns are proof positive that some sort of aircraft was there.

Chris - Okay. What did the people actually say they've seen?

Kate - As usual, and as we should expect from pilots, very few of them have been certain. There's this reluctance to say, for sure, I saw a flying saucer, or I saw a Chinese surveillance drone. But the suggestions tend to be - they like to suggest that they have seen some sort of what might be a technology that either surpasses our known capability, represents some sort of new technology, either foreign or domestic. As always there's lots of caution around discussing what may or may not be there.

Chris - Do you think they really believe in aliens? Or are they creating a smokescreen and they're going to bury some big, bad news they've got coming and we just don't know what that is yet?

Kate - I don't think it's a smokescreen for any further news. I think that the UFO investigations... because when they are done by the United States military tend to be highly classified, very, very difficult to access, because they are buried in all the national security infrastructure and so on, it provides a space for congresspeople to sort of appear that they are standing up for the little guy. I think it's a way to say, "we're keeping our eye on you". I don't think anybody believes it's aliens. And I don't think that it's a sort of distraction from anything bigger or more serious.

Chris - Now, when I introduced you, I said that you are a historian who studies the science and pseudoscience of UFOs. Why are you studying this? What's your own personal interest in it?

Kate - I am really invested in these questions, and this UFO thing has become very interesting to me because it combines so many different groups of people and has been, since its inception in 1947, not just a scientific hot button issue, but also a political hot button issue. And not just a political issue, but also a scientific issue. People are seeing things, they are having experiences and those experiences are real and valid. I truly believe that these Navy pilots have had experiences that they cannot explain, and that perhaps we don't have enough data to truly and fully explain away. I'm not here to say that people are hallucinating or exacting hoaxes on us or anything like that. I think people see things all the time that they can't explain. And when it comes to Navy pilots, for example, our Air Force pilots, I think their respective branches of the service have an obligation to investigate those things. What I'm interested in is: what people do with those experiences, why we think we know what we are seeing when we see UFOs, what we consider to be enough evidence to make a claim, to say that, "OK, I know that I saw this thing and I have X, Y, and Z pieces of evidence, so I can say for certain that I didn't see an airplane. I know for sure that this wasn't a bird I was watching, it was off in the distance." UFOs are a particular kind of scientific object for me that really lets me get at some of these really interesting questions, which is why do people trust and not trust themselves and others?

An underwater view of the ocean surface.

48:52 - Ocean exploration - from the comfort of home

Bob Ballard discovered the Titanic in 1985 - and today is using 'telepresence' to visit the ocean's depths...

Ocean exploration - from the comfort of home
Bob Ballard, University of Rhode Island

And finally this week - from the mysteries of the sky, to the enigmas of the oceans. Bob Ballard is an oceanographer and explorer who is most famous for having discovered the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, as well as the Bismarck in 1989 and many others. He’s currently working on a new project exploring the vast underwater landscape of the Pacific, using satellites and what’s called ‘telepresence technology’ to visit the ocean’s depths from the comfort of dry land! Chris Smith spoke to Bob... 

Bob - Yeah, rumours of my death are greatly exaggerated - as Mark Twain said, in the state I live in, Connecticut. So I've been lucky to keep going. And I think the technology that I've been developing along the way has made that possible, quite honestly. I mean, I used to do things I can't do now.

Chris - Your biggest claim to fame must be the Titanic story. What was the actual reason for going about that mission?

Bob - Well, I wanted to do it, but I obviously needed sponsors, and the only sponsor I could find was Naval Intelligence that had wanted me to do something else that fortuitously was near the Titanic. We lost two nuclear submarines during the Cold War. I served in the United States Navy, and during the Cold War, we lost the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion, and in the case of the Scorpion we lost nuclear weapons. Ironically, the Titanic is situated between those two submarines. And so when they came to me I was developing this new technology of telepresence. Silicon Valley was heating up - microprocessing, digital imagery, fibre optics, all these things. Because I'm dyslexic and I sort of have an interesting way my mind works, I sort of imagined all of this technology coming together to create what I called a teleoperated robotic system, but I needed someone to fund it. And the Navy funded it if I would do some things for them. My commanding officer was really upset when I found the Titanic, he said, "you were supposed to look for it and not find it!" They thought the public would figure out that I was really doing something for the intelligence on nuclear weapons.

Chris - That telepresence technology now enables you, we were saying at the beginning, to basically explore the oceans from the comfort of your living room.

Bob - Yes. In fact, so can you. You can go live to my website on July 3rd, I'll be at sea with the same command centre behind me. So it doesn't really matter anymore where your body is, we're going to teleport you, and that's fundamentally what we're doing now.

Chris - Tell us how it works, then - so you've got a boat at sea, which is rigged up, but you're on land watching?

Bob - The ship goes to sea for 10 months a year. And on it is my technology, which is robotic. Instead of going up and down like a yo-yo in a submersible, six hours down, six hours back with this, you put it down, you leave it down. Our country has chartered us with the goal to map the 50% of our country, called the EEZ, that lies underneath the ocean. So I'm now going out with my ship, with my robots, to places we've never been.

Chris - Well, let me get this straight: you've got a boat, and it has underwater robots onboard that you control remotely so you don't have to be on them. You don't even have to be on the ship. How do you know where you're going to deploy the ship? How does the ship also get the data back to you in real time? Because obviously there's a lot of information that's coming off the robot from when it's deep underwater - how do you connect and talk to the robot?

Bob - My vehicles are on a fibre optic cable with a very high bandwidth so I can send everything - what they see, what they hear, everything they do, what they touch, our manipulators have force feedback - I can send all that information at the speed of light up to a command centre on the ship, and then on a satellite link back to me. And we send everything up to the satellite I then built at the Graduate School of Oceanography in Rhode Island, what we call the Interspace Centre, so think Houston for NASA. So we have this amazing command centre, it comes down to that command centre. We stand watches on both the ship and at the command centre, just like NASA explores Mars, we're doing the same thing, but on earth underwater. So then we crab along with our vehicles and we come across something. What is it? Well, it could be a shipwreck. It could be a new ecosystem. Whatever's down there - UFO! When we find the UFO, we'll give it to you live, OK!

Chris - This is like a new age in exploration really isn't it? Because you can lead missions, but you don't physically have to be there. Hence the 'telepresence' moniker that you have attached to it.

Bob - You can move your spirit at the speed of light, it's indestructible - so we simply move your spirit. This is my - I don't know if you saw the movie Avatar?

Chris - I have seen Avatar...

Bob - Well remember in the movie, there was the war veteran Jake, paralysed war veteran, his legs didn't work. They laid him on a slab next to a Na'vi - 10 feet long, blue-green - and then Jake wakes up in the Na'vi, right? And the Na'vi's eyes come on. What did Jake do the moment he realised he was in the Na'vi in the movie? He got up and ran out of the room. Here's my point - he didn't care that he had blue-green legs and funny ears, but he could run. That's my Na'vi. And I simply move into it, and I do it at the speed of light. So here's what happens: we always make discoveries at 2 o'clock in the morning somewhere on the planet. Right here we have a book with all of the doctors on call. "If you discover animals, call me," "if you discover a shipwreck"... so the watch leader simply picks up the phone and the person wakes up and we say, "this is the Interspace Centre calling. Could you boot up your laptop?" So they're in bed, they boot up their laptop, they're still laying in bed and we stream them the live discoveries at this second and say, "what do you think?" Almost 99.9% of the time, they say, "that's important! I'm out of bed!"


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