Quantum Mechanics, the Science of Spiderman and Condoms

25 January 2004
Presented by Chris Smith.

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Condom factory in Brazil conserves rainforest, superglue from the sea, what babies hear when inside mum, bone-conduction mobile phones, mosquito attractant discovered, beetle love-nest, dog DNA fingerprinting and interview guests Harry Witchel discussing "The Science of Spiderman", and Jim Al-Khalili talking about "quantum mechanics".

In this episode

Condom Factory Conserves Rainforest

The factory, in Xapuri, a remote province in the north-western state of Acre, aims to produce 100 million condoms a year by 2005, and 200 million by 2006. As well as helping to tackle the Aids virus, it is hoped the factory can spearhead sustainable development to the area, too. The latex extracted from the rubber trees in Xapuri has been tested successfully for condoms, and the factory will use only this latex. Currently, Xapuri extracts rubber only to make tyres, which is a totally different process. You will not only raise the price of rubber - adding value to it - you will at the same time tackle the rubber trees' destruction," Jose Maria Barbossa Bakierno, of the National Rubber-Tappers' Council, told Science In Action.

Superglue From The Sea

Superglue inspired by seashells could lead to new surgical adhesives and could help to stop barnacles growing on boats. Chemists have unravelled the secret of how mussels glue themselves so firmly to rocks on the sea shore - the natural glue is made out of crosslinked protein molecules and the key ingredient is charged atoms of iron (Fe3+) that sets the glue solid. The glue itself, or a synthetic version, could be useful for surgeons, because it's compatible with biological tissues and forms a strong bond in wet conditions. And by understanding how mussels stick themselves to surfaces chemists may soon be able to develop new ways of stopping mussels and barnacles from growing on the bottom of boats. Marine foaling as it's called is a major problem for the shipping industry, and at the moment the only line of defence is to use poisonous paints, containing copper, which kill the animals before they can attach themselves. But the problem is these paints are highly toxic so hopefully this new superglue discovery will lead to more environmentally friendly coatings, which could be designed to release specific chemicals that interrupt the glue setting process.

- What Can Babies Hear Whilst Inside Their Mothers?

New research reveals how much babies can hear in utero...

What Can Babies Hear Whilst Inside Their Mothers?

Researchers in America have discovered that the unborn baby can probably hear a lot more of what we say than we thought previously.

Ken Gerhardt and Robert Abrams, from the University of Florida, implanted a tiny microphone into the inner ear of a lamb developing inside its mother, and then played 64 recorded sentences on a loudspeaker near to the mother sheep. For comparison they also placed microphones in the uterus (womb) and in the open air next to the sheep.

Thirty human adults were asked to listen to the recordings from the various microphones and repeat what they heard. The volunteers understood all of the sentences recorded in the open air, about 70% of the sentences recorded in the womb and 30% of the sentences recorded in the fetal sheep's inner ear.

On the whole, the researchers found that low-frequency sounds were heard better than high frequency ones. Lead researcher Ken Gerhardt said [the intelligibility of sentences] was "actually much higher than we anticipated,". As for music, "they're not going to hear the violins, but they will hear the drums." 

This research is important because it has implications for babies born prematurely and placed in noisy baby units where there tend to be lots of high-pitched sounds which a baby of that developmental age would not normally be exposed to.

Boy singing

- Bone Phone

Bone-conducting mobile phone...

Bone Phone

Japanese telecom carriers, pioneers of Internet-capable and picture-snapping handsets, have now come up with the world's first mobile phone that enables users to listen to calls inside their heads — by conducting sound through bone. If the user holds the handset to the top of the head, the back of the head, cheekbone or jaw and plugs his or her left ear, the call will be heard internally on the left side. The new phone is equipped with a "Sonic Speaker," which transmits sounds through vibrations that move from the skull to the cochlea in the inner ear, instead of relying on the usual method of sound hitting the outer eardrum. One woman, in her 30s, said she was interested in the cell phone but was self-conscious. "What troubles me is that I may look weird if I'm talking with the phone pressed between my eyebrows," she said.

Researchers Discover Mosquito Attractant

Researchers have discovered how female mosquitoes home in on us for a meal. The scientists from Yale University, led by John Carlson, have found that the antennae of Anopheles mosquitos – the type that spread malaria – contain receptors that respond to the presence of one of the chemical compounds found in human sweat. Called 4-methylphenol, the sweat chemical is said to smell like a stable full of horses. Crucially, only female mosquitoes, the ones that bite and spread diseases, have the gene for the sweat-chemical receptor. After they have had a satisfying blood-meal, the gene is then switched off, suggesting that it plays a major role in helping mosquitoes track down their victims. Researchers hope that a better understanding of the mosquito sense of smell will lead to improved insect repellents, for people and animals, and the perfect mosquito-bait for traps. The ultimate goal is to reduce the huge annual death toll caused by malaria and other mosquito-spread diseases.

Hot Flowers Make Perfect Love Nest For Beetles

Beetles on the look out for a hot love nest have everything they need in the flowers of a tropical plant found in South America called Philodendron solimeosense. It's nice and warm in there, there's great food to eat and for a beetle it smells fantastic. The metabolic rate of the flower is about as high as that of a flying humming bird and can raise the temperature inside to as much as 350 °C - scientists used to think that these flowers generate heat to help vaporise the scent and attract insects, but now it seems that the heat also benefits the insects directly. By snuggling into a warm flower it means that the beetles can save valuable energy that they would otherwise have to use warming themselves up so they're ready for activity. Groups of beetles congregate in these flowers to mate and feed throughout the night and rest during the following day, and when they leave they help out the plant by carrying pollen stuck on bodies and transferring it to other plants. So if you're a beetle looking for hot loving, these flowers are definitely the place to be.

Dog with Lion Hat

- Dog's DNA Fingerprint Used To Nail its Owner

Murderer found through pet dog's genetic fingerprint...

Dog's DNA Fingerprint Used To Nail its Owner

In the first case of its kind, police have convicted a killer using his dog's DNA fingerprint. Samples of Bull Mastiff Sasha's hair and DNA were found on the murder victim, and inside a van belonging to the killer, proving that the murdered man had been in the van.

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