The Sounds of Science

The hunt for Bigfoot, how a beer or two can boost attractiveness and the brain basis of imagination go under the lens this week when Ben and Diana also meet the chemist-turned-...
17 August 2008
Presented by Ben Valsler, Diana O'Carroll


Acoustic and Electric Violins


The hunt for Bigfoot, how a beer or two can boost attractiveness and the brain basis of imagination go under the lens this week when Ben and Diana also meet the chemist-turned-rapper behind the contraceptive pill and the "Superheroes of Science" a concept album where science mixes with music. Plus, in an Olympic Kitchen Science, Ben and Dave tune in to a baseball bat's sweet spot...

In this episode

Wheat beer. Beer brewed with, surprisingly, wheat.

01:57 - The Beer Goggles - Does Alcohol make people more attractive?

People have long suspected that drinking alcohol makes people seem more attractive, but now, scientists at Bristol University have proof of the 'beer goggle' effect...

The Beer Goggles - Does Alcohol make people more attractive?
with Marcus Munafo, Bristol University

Ben - Drinking alcohol makes everyone appear more attractive. Not just members of the opposite sex. Marcus Munafo was one of the researchers involved. Marcus, how did you actually test this out?A glass of Wheat beer

Marcus - We studied social drinkers. Relatively young social drinkers who were mostly in their twenties. We brought them into the laboratory and randomised them to receive a drink which either contained alcohol or didn't. Then we asked them to rate 20 male and 20 female faces for how attractive they found them. We were interested in the effects of alcohol but we were also interested in whether or not the effects that were there might be specific to opposite sex faces. For that reason we explicitly recruited people who reported themselves as being heterosexual.

Ben - It seems to me that when you give someone a drink and you tell them that this is an alcoholic drink there may be a placebo effect. They assume that drinking alcohol seem more attractive so maybe that affected things. Did you control for that placebo?

Marcus - We did as best we can. We conducted the study double-blind so people received a drink which was either vodka and tonic with lime flavouring or just tonic water with lime flavouring and those drinks were chilled so that in fact when you're drinking the drink, whether it contains alcohol or not, you're not actually able to tell. The experimenter was also blind to the conditions. In that respect we did what we could to avoid expecting the effect. The problem is that when you're dealing with a drug like alcohol half an hour later the effects become apparent. It's difficult for participants to remain blind to which condition they're in over the course of 45 minutes or an hour. Certainly when they were consuming the drink they didn't seem to be able to tell the difference between the two.

Ben - What did you actually find?

Marcus - We found what you might expect which is that people in the alcohol condition rated faces on average about 10% more attractive than people in the placebo condition. We found a couple of interesting things. One was that actually the amount of alcohol that we used was relatively small. It was equivalent to maybe a large glass of wine or maybe a pint of beer. That was enough to elicit this 10% difference in rating attractiveness. That occurred without people showing any changes in their self-reported moods. We are seeking to also rate how they felt in themselves: happy anxious and so on. There was no difference between the alcohol and placebo conditions in ratings of mood. The other interesting thing was no effect specific to opposite sex faces. Men rated other men as more attractive as well as women. Women rated other women as more attractive, as well as men.

Ben - Could this be a general thing in that alcohol makes us more receptive? Does it make everything more beautiful? We know there are parts of the brain that specifically look for faces but would this also make a painting more attractive?

Marcus - This is something that we'd like to follow up. We didn't include a control condition of pictures of animals, pictures of landscapes that people could meaningfully describe as attractive. In future studies it would be interesting to do that. To see whether or not the effect is specific to faces or not. Clearly an interesting question is, as you say, the extent to which this effect is specific to facial expressions or a more general effect on how we process visual stimuli in the environment and so on.

Ben - So sociologically what does this mean for us when we drink even a small amount of alcohol we find people both of the same sex and the opposite sex more attractive?

Marcus - This is part of a broader programme of research which is looking at the way in which alcohol affects processing of faces and in particular the processing of emotional cues in faces and attractiveness. The reason we're interested in that is because certain behaviours become more common after alcohol. They include sex, aggression and so on. Some of those behaviours have an impact on society. It's worthwhile understanding what mechanisms give rise to the increased likelihood of those behaviours. Our hypothesis is that if alcohol is affecting the way in which we interpret faces that might drive these behaviours particularly because facial expressions are a strong component of social interaction. Given that there are effects on ratings of facial attractiveness even at quite small doses that could in part explain why people drink alcohol in the first place. It may make the world around you a more pleasant place, it may make you more likely to drink in certain environments or when you're around certain people. It also might explain why people are more likely to engage in particular behaviours such as unsafe sex, for example.

Ben - So does the fact that we appear to process faces differently account for why we become more violent? You'd have thought if we think things are more attractive then in fact we'd be more attracted to them and less likely to become violent?

red wineMarcus - There are two aspects to that. One is that we have a separate series of studies which is explicitly looking at how we decode emotional expressions faces and we're finding some interesting results there. For example, if you have ambiguous facial expressions which are a blend of anger and disgust then after alcohol consumption it seems you're more likely to interpret those ambiguous faces as representing anger (as opposed to representing disgust). Those effects seem to be specific to male faces. There could be parallel effects. Alcohol could both be affecting how we'd rate the attractiveness of faces but also how we decode emotional cues in those faces. Those are not necessarily the same thing. They could be dissociated. A further line that we want to pursue is the extent to which social cues and social context modify the effect of alcohol. For example, in the present study we found that everyone rated everyone as more attractive but in more ecological studies that have been conducted in less controlled conditions but in a more representative environment in bars the effects do seem specific to opposite sex faces. It could be that there's a general effect of alcohol on how we process facial expression. When that occurs in a particular social environment or context it becomes targeted on opposite sex faces. The interaction of the pharmacological effect of alcohol and the social effect of the environment is really where we'd like to go with this.

08:45 - Treating Age-Related Macular Degeneration

Age-related Macular Degeneration, or AMD, remains the most common cause of blindness in the UK, with little hope for treatment. The London Project to Cure Blindness are researching stem...

Treating Age-Related Macular Degeneration
with Pete Coffey, UCL, and Lynden da Cruz, Moorfields Eye Hospital

Meera - Recently I went to the Globe theatre in London for a special event organised by the London Project to Cure Blindness. The event aimed to increase awareness about therapies currently in development to age-related macular degeneration or AMD, the most common cause of blindness in people over 60. Given how common this disease is there are currently few treatments available with one form of the disease having no treatment at all. The director of the London Project is Pete Coffey from University College London. I spoke to him at the event to find out more about the therapies he's working on and also to find out just what age-related macular degeneration is.

Pete - It's a disease of the eye which affects the elderly, typically over the age of 60. ItVision with AMD affects the cells at the back of the eye. That's the seeing part of the eye. These cells in a very small area, known as the macular which is where your highest visual acuity is deteriorate, die and then no longer support the retina. The retina starts to die as well and that's when the person goes blind. There's a form called 'wet.' The reason it's called wet is that during the disease process vessels at the back of the eye start to grow into it and become very leaky. There's a dry form in which you get the cells dying but you don't see that bleed into the eye typically. The largest population is the dry form and the dry form today doesn't have any clinical therapy available. What this project is trying to do is to replace those cells.

Meera - How many people are affected with AMD?

Pete - In Europe about 14 million people suffer from some form of age-related macular degeneration; in the UK typically 25% of the population over the age of 60. This is a huge problem: much bigger than neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Meera - What are some of the major problems experienced by someone with AMD?

Pete - They're unable to read in the first instance. They find it very difficult to read text even when it's magnified. They then lose the ability in all the central vision so they can't even recognise faces, they're own family to the point where very blurred peripheral vision is the only thing they experience.

Meera - What are you hoping to look into with the London Project?

Pete - The London Project wants to use stem cells, turn the stem cells into eye cells and replace those dead cells at the back of the eye. The way in which we aim to do that is to deliver a patch of cells which can be placed into a patient's eye surgically within a 30 minute surgical procedure.

Meera - Why are stem cells good for this?

Pete - Stem cells are very good for this because they are very young. They are very plastic. Because the eye in the elderly patient is aged, it's diseased we can replace them with healthy, young, new support cells.

Meera - Do you have any idea of the success rate hoped for?

Pete - At the moment in late stage disease when we've used the patient's own cells we're getting about 25% success rate. We hope to improve that and perform the operation much earlier in the disease which will give a greater success.

Meera - You say you've used the patient's own cells, form their own eyes?

Pete - From their own eyes. The cells have been harvested from non-diseased areas. You take those cells from an area which they won't miss vision from so very peripheral and you place them under the very high acuity area which is the macular.

Meera - What happens to the region which you've just removed the cells from?

Pete - The region from which we've removed them from does actually go blind because you've taken those support cells away. It's very peripheral and the patient doesn't mind that as long as they can see where they're going, what they're eating. They are more concerned their high visual acuity rather than their peripheral vision.

Meera - One of the current treatments involves taking some healthy support cells from the undamaged region of an AMD patient's eye, usually cells from the periphery and transplanting those healthy cells into the same patient's damaged macular region to restore central vision. This method isn't possible in patients with severe damage and isn't always guaranteed. With the London Project the team are researching possible treatment using human embryonic stem cells. These stem cells can be guided into becoming support cells and create a small patch of these cells that can then be put straight into a patient's eye where they then support the retina and potentially give the patient their sight back. It sounds promising but have they got any evidence with stem cells to prove that it's really possible?

Pete - We've shown that they have the profile we would want them to have as eye cells. We've managed to put them on patches. We've managed to place them in animal models of the disease. We've also gone through a surgical procedure exactly the same way as we would do it in the clinic and it's been very successful.

Meera - That night I also met the surgeon who was hoping to make this all happen. Dr Lynden da Cruz from Moorfields Eye Hospital. He told me how in practice these stem cell patches are going to make treatment for AMD easier.

Lynden - These stem cell patches we hope to be delivered much more simply by a larger number of surgeons and might be available across a greater number of people such that we could create thousands of the patches and then have them available.

Meera - Part of the problem you were saying when it comes to treating the dry form is that there's quite a narrow window because you don't want to do it to early before because the procedures are complex. If you do it too late it's too late, basically. How is this stem cell procedure going to help with that timing?

Lynden - That's a good point. In wet degeneration which we've been treating people would lose their vision over a very short period of time, maybe a week or even two weeks. That flagged up the period from when they went from a normal retina to a retina they couldn't see with. That meant that the retina was pretty healthy. We could do our transplants or translocations and we have good results. With dry degeneration it progresses over months or even years. That means the vision is slowly being lost. We often end up doing the operations very late. This means the chance of getting good recovery's low. By creating a stem cells patch, a much simpler operation with lower risks we'll be able to do the operation much earlier in the disease and hopefully rescue a lot more vision.

Meera - Research into the potential use of stem cell patches to be transplanted into the eye could lead to treatment for a disease that not only affects so many in our population but also currently has no treatment available at all. The therapy has only been verified in animals so far but if the research continues to develop it could potentially help and entire generation to live a lot more comfortably.

15:23 - Chemistry Rap and the Contraceptive Pill

Carl Djerassi was one of the team behind the contraceptive pill developed in 1951, but now, he's critically acclaimed for his science playwriting and even science rap!

Chemistry Rap and the Contraceptive Pill
with Carl Djerassi

Meera - World-renowned chemist, Professor Carl Djerassi gave a tadrama iconlk at the Royal Society in London. Carl's quite a legend as he was the creator of the first steroidal contraceptive pill but he's retired from the world of chemistry now and mastered the profession of playwriting. Occasionally even using rap as a medium to communicate science. His event in London was titled 'Washing dirty labcoats in public.' I met up with him to find out what exactly he was trying to portray in his talk.

Carl - When one talks to the general public about science one usually talks about the science that has been done: the discoveries, the inventions. I wanted to talk about the behaviour and culture of scientists which is totally unknown really to the general public, or else exaggerated as Frankensteins or nerds. I am sure that we are human beings with all of our qualities as well as foibles. I try to illustrate this both in my novels which I call Science in Fiction and in my plays which I call Science in Theatre.

Meera - Would you say you're trying to get people to see the darker sides because there's not enough of that shown in the public as it is or are you trying to show it as the culture as a whole? Both the positives and the darker sides?

Carl - Absolutely the latter! I come from that culture and I cannot shed it. I think it is really the most cooperative of human endeavours and the most brutally competitive at the same time. That is the unusual thing. It is important that people realise this. I think the unrealistic thing is to put scientists on a pedestal. The other thing is, since I'm talking to a woman, it's one of the evolving issues in every one of my plays and novels that they were all of modern women in a male-dominated discipline. There's a very phallo-centric nature of science which is expected because it was created exclusively by men who established the rules of the game. Now that women are getting those chairs and professorships of departments so I'm writing about this. I'm writing about the barriers.

Meera - It's interesting that you talk about the role of women in the world of science. Some of your earlier discoveries had an effect on the place of women in society to begin with. You obviously were one of the inventors of the first steroidal contraceptive pill. Is that something that has resulted from things like the pill?

norethisteroneCarl - I was involved in the first chemical synthesis of the oral contraceptive pill. I'm a chemist. That we did in 1951. Norethindrone was the first kind of oral contraceptive to be synthesised. The recognition and impact that oral contraceptives would have on women in the world, I think one would be lying if one said, all these people knew that in the 1950s. No one expected women would accept it that quickly and on that huge scale. The implications which also happened, people forget this, in the 1960s people say the pill caused the sexual revolution. In the 1960s was the decade of rock and roll, music, the hippy culture and most importantly the women's liberation movement which really moved in the middle and late 1960s, particularly in The States. It was that mixture, even though the chemical was done in 1951, the approval in the United States only came in 1960. It came at exactly the right time.

Meera - Are you quite proud what's happened as a result of you creating such a steroid?

Carl - Absolutely. If I could do it all over again would I do it? I say the answer's yes.

Meera - You had a very flourishing career as a chemist. What made you want to start writing plays to show the culture of science today?

Carl - It was a remarkable transition because through the work on the pill there was a lot of lecture and teaching and directed research in this area for a number of years. I realised there what I really was talking about was the culture and psychological, legal aspects which are much more complex. I'd decided to become an intellectual smuggler. Really smuggle information that people either don't want to hear or they're afraid of it or they've no opportunity for it in the guise of fiction. That's why I call it science in fiction rather than science fiction but hide it within an interesting story so people would continue to read and turn the pages. When they did get to the last page they'd learn something they didn't know before.

Meera - You said you use some things like a rap in order to get our information across. How well have those been received?

Carl - That went fantastically well. These two raps that I commissioned, I didn't do them - nor did I sing them, I commissioned for Oxygen and NO. I did this rap yesterday, one of them - the Oxygen rap at the Royal Society. There weren't any young people there but they were all beaming and bouncing. Rap is a very interesting style. If you think about even some vicious rap it has some interesting pedagogical information transmittal aspects. It's a very modern form of music and it's unusual to do it on the concept of science. I will, of course, give them unusual names so people get interested and to see if they'll absorb some information.

Meera - What part of your career would you say you've enjoyed the most? The part as a chemist or the part as a novelist playwrite?

Carl - What I'm doing now is one play that I'm writing now, again some non-fiction in dialogic form and giving lots of lectures, particularly in Europe. I enjoy that now, no question. One of the reasons is because I am entirely, totally 100% involved in this without any infrastructure. As a scientist in a team you have to write grant applications, this, that and so on. Things move on even if you don't do anything. Well, now if I don't write no one else is going to do it for me. I enjoy that most.

Meera - Even if anyone else did do it for him I don't think they'd do it as well. Karl's now written over ten plays and even more novels which have all had success world-wide in portraying the culture of science. I'll leave you with another insert of his modern method of chemistry education.

32:08 - The Power of Imagination

What is imagination, and what's it for? We find out how imagination lets us learn from mistakes we've never made, and how things are never quite as bad as we imagine...

The Power of Imagination
with Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University

Daniel - Imagination is the ability to conjure in our minds events that aren't happening and that didn't happen in the past. That usually means events that might happen, could happen or that will happen.

Meera - What's the purpose of imagination?

Daniel - Without imagination we're stuck in the moment. Our ability to imagine the future allows us to imagine which futures will be better than others. As such we're able to select the good ones and avoid the bad ones. I don't have to chew a mouth full of thumb tacks to know that it's a marvellously bad idea. I know that a wedding is going to be more enjoyable than a divorce, a promotion more enjoyable than a demotion. The reason I know all of these things is because I can use my imagination to play them out. Imagination allows us to be the animal that learns from mistakes we've never made.

Meera - When it comes to imagination in our memory what have you been looking at with your team?

Daniel - My collaborators and I for the last ten years have been trying to understand how and how well people can predict their own hedonic reactions to future events. By that I mean what pleasure or pain they'll get from events in the future. What we've found is that people don't do this all that well. They make systematic errors. They mis-predict how intense their emotional reactions will be and how long those emotional reactions will last.

Meera - How have you been testing this?

Daniel - There's a whole variety of studies on e can do. Most of our studies are behavioural. They're very simple, we ask people to make predictions about how they'll feel in a certain future situation. You wait for the situation to come about or you bring it about in a laboratory. You measure how they really do feel and then in a stunning act of mathematical complexity you compare those two numbers. If they're not the same numbers something interesting is happening. Indeed, they're almost never the same number. People rarely feel precisely the way they expect to feel. This is even with regard to events that are quite familiar to them.

Chocolate chipsMeera - You say familiar events so one of the tests you've been doing has been with potato crisps and chocolate.

Daniel - Yes, we've a whole variety of events ranging from the sublime to the mundane. Eating a potato crisp is one of the simplest hedonic experiences we can have. We put it on our tongue and we experience a certain amount of pleasure. People can reliably report how much pleasure they're experiencing. What we've found is they can't reliably predict how much pleasure they experience even moments before they put it on their tongue. Some of the things that influence their predictions, we're finding don't influence their experiences, for example. If you're in a room with chocolate which most people consider to be far superior to potato crisps they expect the potato crisps not to taste as good because they're mentally comparing them to the chocolate. In fact potato crisps taste just as good when you're looking at chocolate as when you're not.

Meera - That's quite a hands-on particular experiment. What other ways have you found about how people predict how they'll feel about a situation?

Daniel - We've done experiments that range from laboratory experiments to field studies. In the field we at degeneration and disillusion of romantic relationships. How people think they'll feel if they fall in love and how they think they'll feel if they break up. We look at people getting promotions and getting fired. We look at people winning and losing elections. We've looked at many common events and what's interesting is that the kinds of things we see with potato chip eating in the laboratory we see exactly the same sorts of results when we look at the field. The kinds of big events that human beings really care about.

Meera - So no matter what people are always going to have a different reaction beforehand and after? They always say about something devastating it's going to be a lot worse than it is at the moment.

Daniel - That does tend to be the form of most errors. Most people overestimate how bad they'll feel if bad things happen and how long they'll feel that way. They also overestimate how good they'll feel when good things happen and how long they'll feel that way. The fact is most events don't affect us for very long. Most things become quickly irrelevant to our emotional well-being.

Meera - Why do you think people are like that?

Daniel - There's a lot of things about our emotional system that we just don't know. For example, we don't understand the speed with which we tend to adapt. Human beings are remarkably resilient creatures. They adapt to almost anything. This seems not to be something they know about themselves and so they mis-predict the speed of their own adaptation. People are also remarkably good rationalisers. When something bad happens they usually find a way to frame it so it's not quite so bad. The moment the fiancée throws the engagement ring back in your face you suddenly start thinking about all the things you really never had in common and how you probably shouldn't have gotten married in the first place. There's a widespread ability, we all recognise it in our friends and we snicker a bit when they do it. We somehow don't realise that we also do this and that this will make it much better when bad things happen.

Meera - One thing you mentioned yesterday in conference was about, say yesterday when you were at a restaurant and you've got lots of things on the menu people always worry that when they do finally make a decision that's going to affect how they feel about the meal when it comes to it. Is there a difference if someone's got a large amount of choice? Does that affect how they feel at the end?

Daniel - We really think when we have choices between many things that the thing we choose and the thing we don't choose will determine how happy we are. What our experiments reveal is that it's really just the thing we choose. The things we leave behind become quickly irrelevant. Most of the time when we're driving our new car we're not thinking about the other car we might have bought.

Meera - What about if the thing you could have had is in front of you? Say if someone else ordered the meal that you were thinking about having or the car you thought about buying?

Daniel - That changes things tremendously. If the person you might have married but didn't moves in next door you're in real trouble. You're probably going to spend a lot of time thinking what your life might have been. In most cases in life the alternatives that we don't choose, unchosen alternatives kind of disappear. We move away from them. Most of the time when we choose something we discard the alternatives. You're quite right. Occasionally those unchosen alternatives are there to haunt us. In most cases they do make a big difference to the experience we're having.

Meera - What are you hoping to look into next?

Daniel - We're trying to understand how to make these errors go away. We spent over a decade demonstrating these errors, understanding their sources. Then we're doing some very exciting research to try to find how people better predictions of their own future emotional states. One of the best ways to predict how you're going to feel in the future is simply to find out how other people actually do feel when they experience the same thing.

38:53 - The Importance of Monster Hunters

It's easy to dismiss bigfoot hunters as crackpots, inhabiting the 'lunatic fringe' of science - but, just like the amateur naturalists of the 19th century, monster hunters...

The Importance of Monster Hunters
with Brian Regal, Kean University

bigfootKat - Brian Regal is Professor of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Kean University in New Jersey, USA. He's investigating the phenomenon of monster hunting, the search for creatures such as Big Foot. I started by asking him what first got him interested in these strange creatures and the strange people that study them

Brian - I guess I was always interested in the more unusual aspects of history. As a doctoral student I was working alone on the history of evolution theory. That's what I've mostly published on. As I was doing that I was finding often the corners of the history of evolution, these unusual stories about people and unusual ideas. I came across monster hunting. As I like the stranger aspects of history I was immediately attracted to it. The more I looked into it the more I saw as a historian there was materials available in libraries and archives around the world that could allow me to do serious scholarly research into this field that had been essentially passed over by traditional historians of science and had become like monsters themselves; the domain of passionate amateurs. I saw immediately the similarities between the history of monster hunting and the history of amateur natural history study in general.

Kat - What sort of monsters are we talking about? Can you give us some names we might be familiar with?

Brian - I use the term monster as a generic term. Mostly what I work on what I call anomalous primates. Human and primate-like animals that show up in places that conventional wisdom says they shouldn't show up: the yeti, sasquatch, bigfoot, orang pendek: there's about 100 different names for animals around the world that are sort of monkey-like, kind of human-like. They have traditions of being mythical animals, of scaring the local populous and kind of existing in places where science normally says they shouldn't.

Kat - If science has been looking at this and says they shouldn't be here what sort of tack are amateur scientists taking?

Brian - The thing that's interesting about the amateurs is that they tend to ignore what the mainstream scientists tell them. The mainstream scientists generally, not all. There are some mainstream scientists now and in the past who thought these animals were real. Generally speaking most biologists and zoologists say that from an evolutionary point of view these animals don't make any sense. The amateurs as being amateurs, not having that kind of formal training, just say, "Well we don't care what you say about this theoretically. We have the evidence. We've seen these animals, we've seen their footprints. We've taken pictures of them, we've interviewed hundreds of eye witnesses and we're going to base our opinion on the fact of this evidence that we have and ignore what theory says: shouldn't be there."

Kat - So we have theory on one side saying no. We have evidence on the other side saying yes, things liek bigfoot do exist. What do you reckon? Where do you think the balance lies?

Brian - Well, you see I have an easy out for all of this. I'm not a zoologist, I'm not a biologist, I'm not a scientist of any kind. I'm a historian. I can step back with a historian's eye and watch both sides and I have no interest really in proving one way or the other. My research is not geared towards saying yes they exist or no, they don't. I will let better, more qualified people make that decision. In fact, if it doesn't exist it's to my benefit because then I get to ask question like well, if this thing doesn't exist why do so many people believe that it does? If it does exist that sort of takes a bit of the interest out because no one is amazed that people believe in bears. No one gets amazed when someone says I just saw a hawk fly by. If someone says I was just looking out my back window and bigfoot walked by then all of a sudden people are interested.

Kat - As a scientist one of the things you dread hearing is, "I'm no scientist but..." What does your kind of research tell us about maybe the role of amateur scientists? Can we ever find agreement? How can scientists and amateur scientists work together?

Brian - The role in amateur science is extremely important in the history of science in general, especially in the West. It goes all the way back to the late 1400s here in England when the first amateur naturalists appear. What you see happening is that if you look at the history of natural history and the role of amateurs in it you see that a pattern emerges. Whenever some knowledge domain which has the potential to generate genuine scientific knowledge appears what will happen is slowly but surely members of the amateur community will become more professional. Outside professionals will become more interested. A kind of displacement occurs where as more and more genuine information is generated and mainstream science, for lack of a better term, becomes more interested in this topic more professionals will get involved and they will push out or displace the amateurs until you reach a point where the amateurs have been pushed out completely. It becomes a professional scientific discipline. We've seen this over and over again with fossil hunting, with ornithology and bird watching, with plant collecting, botany, marine biology. Whenever some field is begun by passionate amateurs and it has the potential to generate genuine scientific information it will eventually professionalise and the amateurs get kicked out.

Kat - Are there any field where you see this happening now? For example, the search for big animals or maybe UFO studies?

Brian - I suppose they have the potential but they haven't quite reached that point of critical mass yet. Because with all due respect to the amateurs who believe otherwise there really hasn't been any evidence of flying saucers or ghostly spirits or bigfoot produced that makes most of the scientists in the mainstream sit up and take notice. That is sort of a two-edged sword of these kind of fields because the amateurs want very much to get scientists and the mainstream interested but in the back of their minds they known that the moment the mainstream does get interested that marks the beginning of the end of their involvement. The day somebody comes in to a major university and throws a sasquatch carcass on the dissecting table it's all over. It's no longer fringe science. It's no longer pseudo science or any of the other words that are sometimes used to describe this. It's now anthropology. The amateurs, the crackpots are out and the eggheads, the professionals take over. That's the end of the story.

Is the world much brighter than we see?

Sarah - First of all, what we need to say is the world is constantly bathed in light from the sun, most of which we can't actually see anyway as it's in the ultraviolet or infrared ends of the spectrum. We'll concentrate on visible light for now. Your retina does have a range of brightnesses over which is works best so your eyes are always adapting to let in just the right amount of light - this is why when you look at someone in a dark room their pupils will be really big and dilated. When you're outside on a sunny day they shrink to very tiny points. In fact your eyes do something even more exciting than this. You may have noticed when you go inside from being outside in the bright daylight that it takes your eyes a while to adjust to the darker light levels. This isn't just the time it takes for your pupils to dilate. It's actually something to do with what's going on in your retina. When you see light a chemical called rhodopsin which is in the cells in the back of your eye changes to a different shape which is how we see the light. As this gets converted into this different shape it gets used up and you can't convert it back very quickly. When you're sitting outside in a bright light it's getting converted really quickly and it's really quickly running out so when you go into the dark there's not enough of it left for you to be able to see really well in the darkness. So the controlling factor is not the mechanical opening up of your pupil but the chemical change in the back of your eye.

Really the answer to Brian's question is that you are seeing slightly less light than the world produces but it's because your eyes and your brain have evolved that way to get the best out of them.


Why do some people blink more than others?

Most people blink once every two-to-ten seconds. Blinking can be triggered by dust or pollen, such as if you get hay fever in the summer like I do. It's controlled by nervous impulses from the brain. Everyone has a sort of blinking pacemaker in their brain and everyone's is different everyone's is set slightly differently.

This area of the brain is known as the chordate nucleus and it controls your blinking by sending impulses down the nervous system into the muscles around your eyelids.

There are of course other things that can affect your rate of blinking, like fatigue and also some diseases like Parkinson's and nerve disorders.

What's quite interesting is that, when we blink, we don't actually notice that we're blinking because our brains filter out the signal.

It's the same as when you move your eyes around a room - your brain cuts out the signal of when your eyes are moving so that you don't get confused and feel like the world is spinning. It's called "corollary discharge".

I suppose if you blink a lot it's probably because your brain makes it that way or you need to get more sleep!

50:15 - Superheroes of Science

Superheroes of Science is an experimental concept album, where each track is based on the life and work of a different scientist. Due to be released for free later on this year, we were...

Superheroes of Science
with Barney Brown and Rob Fisher, Intercontinental Music Lab

Ben - Barney Brown and Rob Fisher are part of the Intercontinental Music Lab, a loose collection of musicians from as far apart as Tokyo, Sydney, Milwaukee and Cambridge. They came together to create an album inspired by science and scientists. Due to be released for free later on this year we were treated to a sneaky preview.

The Intercontinental Music Lab LogoBarney - The idea for the album is to create something when you're in a position when you're not creating anything. You've got friends around the world who also want to create things and they're also not doing anything. I decided I'd come up with a concept for an album and we would all record backing tracks around that concept. Then we'd all swap them round and record vocals over those backing tracks. Hopefully we'd have a cohesive album within the space of about three months. From that point onwards it was a case of choosing a topic which we could all write music about and it seemed obvious to choose science and the world of science. We've got the interesting emotional journeys of scientists but also the intricate and bizarre details of the science they were performing or discovering.

Ben - Quite often you find that science-inspired music is educational. It's there to try and sell the message whereas this isn't. This is merely music inspired by scientists.

Barney - That's right. In some cases the scientists came first followed by the music and in other cases the ukulele came first and then it was a case of discovering the scientist that may have a ukulele in his backpack. In the case of that we discovered an organisation in the pacific who were looking after some islands and trying to protect them from invasive species. It seemed to be a nice mix for a solitary ukulele and a scientist sitting against a tree and counting birds.

Ben - The scientists that you have aren't necessarily scientists everyone will have heard of. You're not going for Einstein and Darwin. Some of them are a little bit obscure. What was it that drove your choice of scientists to include?

Rob - I think everyone took very different approaches. In some cases they started off with a scientist, perhaps the scientist particularly appealed to the or the scientist gave them a wide range of opportunity for the lyricist to record stuff over. In other cases I think the backing track came first and they tried to find a scientist to kind of fit it over. With the two songs I did one was one approach and the other was the other approach.

Ben - Which two scientists were they?

Rob - I did Ignaz Semmelweis. For him I found the scientist first and then recorded the backing track. He's a Hungarian scientist who discovered a link between producing childbed fever and washing your hands. He was ridiculed by the medical world. They didn't believe him and it drove him to drink and ultimately to death. There seemed a lot of opportunity for the lyricist in there to come back round.

Barney- It occupies the darker palette of the album.

Rob - It's on the darker side! On the lighter side I wrote a track without any scientists in mind with a banjo. That's quite a happy little marchy tune. I spent a long time trying to find a scientist to fit its speed, so to speak. It ended p with John Muir because there just seemed to be a sort of nature vibe to the track. I just had this picture of John Muir marching through Yosemite bidding good morning to the birds and bears and everything.

Ben - So far you've mentioned Hungarian folk music and bluegrass but there's lots of different styles of music. Were these all inspired because all the scientists you have are international? You have scientists from all over the world?

Barney - I think musically we all come from similar and different backgrounds. We've tried our hand at various different genres and I think knowing that we're going to record a piece of music and hand it over to our so-called friends. In some cases we decided our music would perhaps be difficult to write vocals for. It set a challenge because at the centre of this project is trying to encourage creativity. The different styles of music I think was probably more of a creative journey for the musicians rather than the scientists inspiring it. Although, like I say the ukulele very much found a scientist to accompany it. Similarly, as Rob said John Muir found a slide guitar in his back pocket.

Ben - A lot of these scientists have fantastic stories. It seems an untapped resource of incredible life stories. A lot of the songs as a result are quite biographical. Were there any stories that really stood out?

The inventor Alberto Santos DumontBarney - I had to write some lyrics about Alberto Santos-Dumont who made Paris his home. He was very much interested in flying machines. Both personal flying machines but also flying machines for the mass market. He really believed that through flight he could unify people around the world and wars and such like would become obsolete as people used flying machines to visit each other and settle their differences. He worked through twenty different models of his flying machine. He used to fly to a particular bar in Paris and tether his flying machine to the lamppost and then enter the bar and then entertain and then hop back into his flying machine and fly home. That was quite wonderful, really.

Ben - It seems to be more the characters of the scientists themselves than the science that has inspired this. Is there any particular track that's inspired by a particular act of genius or a particular discovery?

Barney - I think probably the discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen. Olly Ahast and his kids did a wonderful job of explaining x-rays and also the humble character of Wilhelm who didn't want to be the subject of the x-rays. Hence the name not being Wilhelm-rays or Conrad-rays.

Ben - What do you think the future is for science-inspired music?

Barney - I think we've only started tapping at the seam. Hopefully it will inspire others to do a similar experiment. The whole thing is really a musical experiment. In a way we are scientists.


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