Turkey, Trees and Teslas: Surviving Christmas

What do turkeys get up to, before they end up on your plate? How do Christmas trees survive the cold?
23 December 2018
Presented by Katie Haylor, Chris Smith
Production by Katie Haylor.


Here is The Naked Scientists’ guide to surviving - and thriving - at Christmas, including our top scientifically-tested tips for cooking turkey and making the best roast potatoes. Plus, a healthy helping of crappy cracker jokes and advice on how to avoid a festive family feud...

In this episode

00:54 - Gadget gifts

Tech tips for a stress-free Christmas and New Year...

Gadget gifts
with Izzie Clarke

Izzie Clarke’s got a few tech tips up her sleeve that might help to take the stress out of Christmas and the New Year, and she spoke to Katie Haylor.

Izzie - One device I found, which is a little bit different from you know your iPads and any other tablets is a smart notebook. It looks like a normal notebook but actually it’s got this digital paper-like screen, you write on it and it’s attached to all of your cloud services. So if you want to jot down a list or a little reminder or perhaps you are in the arts and it’s quite creative and sketches, it automatically sends anything you’ve written on to one of these cloud services. But bizarrely to clear your notes there is one model which you put in the microwave and that seems to just erase all of your drawings.

Katie - This is an electronic device that you ping in the microwave?

Izzie - Yes I’m not quite sure what the point of that is. Another one is that you get a drop of water and you rub it across the surface. That could get a bit confusing if you sort of accidentally pick up a tablet thinking it’s your Smart Notebook. Put some water on it. I don’t think that could be the best!

Chris - A friend of mine’s daughter dropped a telephone down the toilet. That sort of thing happens doesn't it? You don’t need a drop of water to erase it, you just put in the loo!

Izzie - I don’t know why you wouldn’t just use a normal notebook to be honest. Maybe people like to have everything on all their multiple devices.

Chris - It does sound like a technology in search of a function if I’m honest. Are you going to get one?

Izzie - I’m not convinced to be honest. I just quite like collecting notebooks. I use half of them. You know, new year new notebook! What's not to love?

And this might be one for perhaps the day after Christmas, maybe Boxing Day, maybe New Year's Day. This is a portable breathalyzer, it's a breathalyzer that goes on a key ring. What it does is this little digital alcohol sensor, it's got a folding tube and optional mouthpieces maybe in case you want to check grandma and uncle are okay to get home.

Chris - Of course on the continent, in France, it's compulsory to have a breathalyzer in your car isn't it. You're not allowed to drive without one. It's interesting that you know clearly people do realise the benefit of having access to something like that because you know you reach for your car keys but why not put something on your car key ring that will remind you have you been drinking? Maybe you should check before you get behind the wheel.

Katie - How effective are they though?

Izzie - From all of the reviews on it, actually people seem very happy with this. It makes sense now that quite a few of the comments were from European users.

Katie - We've actually got a breathalyzer here in the studio that we're going to put into use a little bit later. Thank you very much for giving us the tech yesses versus tech nos for Christmas and the New Year. Will you be buying any of these products yourself?

Izzie - To be honest I think the breathalyser one has caught my eye just purely because it's better to be safe right? Better safe than sorry.

turkey christmas dinner

04:05 - Turkey tips

The science behind cooking a delicious turkey...

Turkey tips
with Marcus Bradford, The Gog Farm Shop

Turkey is a traditional Christmas staple on the dinner table. But how much do you know about these delicious creatures? Katie Haylor spoke to turkey expert Marcus Bradford about how best to cook one, and also about what they get up to before they end up on our plates...

Katie - Turkeys. An import from the North American continent. The story goes that these wild fowl made their way over to the UK in the 1500s, and started to compete with goose and other meats for a place at our Christmas dinner tables. Apparently Henry VIII was rather a fan, but perhaps this isn’t surprising, as rumour has it he did like a feast or two. But before they become “oven-ready” as it were, what do turkeys actually get up to? Are they as dumb and, I'm saying it, as dry as some of us think? I went to meet turkey expert Marcus Bradford from The Gog Farm Shop in Cambridgeshire to find out.

Marcus - An average day for our turkeys would be; wake up in the woods have a mooch around and they love looking for grubs. They’ll eat pretty much anything they can see. They love picking at anything different, so if we put CDs in their pen, they'll like the lights reflecting off stuff and like, little bottle tops are really good because they keep pecking them. So things to keep them entertained. As it gets dark, they go to roost either on the ground or in the low branches and trees. They can get quite high if they want to. Yeah and then they wake up at dawn. Same again.

Katie - So it doesn't sound like they have an awful lot on their plates and perhaps they're not quite as mean or ugly as they seem.

Marcus - A lot of people don’t like turkeys because they think they’re ugly. They’re related to the vulture so they’ve got that, kind of, hooked beak and some pretty big talons, and they can look quite scary or mean. They're lovely. I mean they will peck you but not in a vicious way.

Katie - They sound quite curious.

Marcus - They're very curious, but they're not vicious or malicious in any way. If you drive the car into the pen they'll jump in the car, they jump in the front seat. They’re also beautiful.

Katie - Really?

Marcus - Yes, they are. Other people think they're ugly but they have this funny little snood round the neck which okay, that is a little bit gross, but the rest of them are beautiful. The bronze turkeys particularly have a really beautiful iridescence.

Katie - Being a flock bird, they're pretty sociable as Marcus explained. You don’t often find one turkey without some others.

Marcus - We were watching the Grand Prix and a turkey came into the porch of the house, which was pretty bad because we know that you never have one escape on its own.

Katie - Uh-oh.

Marcus - Yeah, so we had 1000 turkeys all over the farm yeah, and because they’re quite inquisitive they're going to go see movement. They’re attracted to movement, attracted to noise so they walked up to the road to see what was going on. So we had about 200 turkeys but they’re not stupid enough to walk onto the road. So they’re all just in a line, just stood there on the A1307 just looking at what was going on. So fortunately we had some pretty clever dogs and we stopped watched the Grand Prix,  ran up there and go shooed them all back.

Katie - That must've been a pretty odd sight for passers by. But back before the days of mass transport, how exactly did farmers get a whole host of turkeys to market?

Marcus -  The Norfolk turkeys would be walked overland and because 1700s-1800s, the roads obviously wouldn’t have been busy, but also fields weren't divided up as much. So it would have been pretty easy to just walk a flock of, you know, however many hundreds of turkeys across land, common land, and then they would walk and they would feed off the stubble and that’s when they would eat any drop grain and they'd all be foraging off stuff. You can’t walk them too quickly because if you walk them too quickly they'll be too lean.

Katie - Ah, not enough dinner, come Christmas Day.

Marcus - Yes, you need to have enough fat on them. So you have to walk them at the right speed. Just nice and you don’t want to wear them out because they'll get tired and they'll lag behind. So yes, just they can casually walk and eat enough food to put on weight so they're ready by the time we get to London.

Katie - And finally when these birds are oven-ready, any tips for cooking?

Marcus - So turkey isn't dry. Badly cooked turkey is dry, in the same way badly baked cakes are dry. So if you do it properly, none of this night before cooking. A four kilo or five kilo turkey is two hours in the oven. Even a nine kilo turkey would be three hours in the oven. Cook it to 65 degrees let it rest for a good hour. It will not go cold. Supermarket turkeys don't tend to be reared in the best conditions. They’re a little more susceptible to disease or problems. So it's best to cook those turkeys to 80 degrees. Cook a turkey to 80 degrees, tastes dry. It takes ages to cook at that temperature. Also don’t cover it in foil.

Katie - Oh. Oh no, I’ve been cooking turkey wrong!

Marcus - Yeah. Everyone's been cooking turkey wrong. If you put foil over it, it’ll steam and it’ll go all soggy and horrible. So no foil, just two hours. Done. Let it rest.

Christmas wreath

Festive plants
with Beverley Glover, Cambridge University Botanic Garden

What's the point of being an evergreen plant? And how does holly put off hungry herbivores? Chris Smith spoke to Beverley Glover, the director of Cambridge University’s Botanic Garden. First, Chris asked, what do we actually mean by "evergreen"?

Beverley - Well they do keep their leaves all year round, Chris, so that's what we mean. They might drop a leaf off from time to time when that leaves old and past its lifespan but there'll always be green leaves photosynthesizing on that tree.

Chris - How did the two different types of tree come about, the ones that do drop their leaves and the ones that don't?

Beverley -  Well actually I think there are three different types of trees. Because there are two different types of being evergreen. So if you start at the tropics and think about trees, they're evergreen, they can photosynthesize all year round there's always lots of sun it's warm everything's great. As you move north in the northern hemisphere or south in the southern hemisphere you reach an area like Britain where it's a bit cold and miserable in the winter. You're not going to get much photosynthesis done, there's not much light and your leaves become a big risk because if it's windy they create a big surface area. And so having a deciduous habit where you drop those leaves starts to become evolutionarily sensible it's a good adaptation to survive the winter by dropping the leaves and regrowing them in the spring. But if you carry on North in the northern hemisphere or south of the southern hemisphere you reach a point where the growing season is so short that actually the regrowing new leaves each spring in order to photosynthesize wouldn't make sense. And there's an added double whammy in there which is that the soil temperature is so cold that there's not much fungus around. It's hard for leaves to break down and there's not much mineral nutrient available in the soil. And so for those trees there really isn't time and energy and resource to build new leaves each year and so they have to go back to the evergreen habitat the tropical trees had.

Chris -  So which came first then in evolution? Did the trees that had leaves all year round come first and then they turned into evergreens over evolutionary time or were there evergreen type plants first and they turned into deciduous trees?

Beverley -That's a difficult question because what we now see as trees aren't the first trees that we would have seen in evolutionary time, so ferns and some plants called lycophytes, which are now just little tiny things 30 40 centimetres tall, used to be the trees that we had before we had the current seed plants, and those trees would have been evergreen. They were mostly tropical. And then as the trees started to spread out in the Permian into colder and drier areas then they started to form these deciduous habits and then again the new evergreen forms evolved.

Chris - What's interesting though is that the trees that do drop leaves tend to have big flat leaves whereas the evergreens like Christmas trees have gone for needles. So are needles effectively just modified leaves? And if so why are they like that?

Beverley -  Yeah so that's exactly what needles are and they definitely evolve at a point in evolutionary history where the world gets colder and drier. So the needle form is about protecting yourself against two things: one against a big surface area that the winds can blow through and potentially pull the whole tree over. But secondly against water loss so you're minimizing the surface area of the leaf. The stomata, the pores through which the plant breathes and loses water, are held in channels usually along the needles and so they're sort of below the level of the leaf surface and that reduces the amount of water that's sucked out of them. So it's all an adaptation to retain water and to not get blown over in a cold, dry habitat.

Chris - And do the plants to anything else to tolerate extremes of temperature because a lot of these these evergreens grow in places as you pointed out where it's really really cold for part of the year.

Beverley -  Yes, so lots of plants have different antifreeze type defenses. They'll have cold tolerant proteins that they express when the temperature is particularly cold, that changes the osmotic potential in the vacuole. So that's a big sack of liquid in the middle of a plant cell - plant cells are very different from an animal cell in having a big bag of water sitting in the middle. And if you change what you put in there you can change the temperature at which it will freeze. They also have things like waxes on surfaces which give them an added layer of protection against cold and against drying out. So they've got lots of different things going on at different levels.

Chris -  Other festive plants for a second Beverley, so things like holly and that kind of thing. Tell us a bit about them.

Beverley -  Well holly's a great one because obviously after Christmas lunch you need to get out in the garden get some fresh air and everybody likes a bit of science after lunch!

Chris - In your house perhaps, our lot want to watch the Queen and pass out.

Beverley - Surely everyone wants to see some experiments after lunch? If you go find a nice holly bush in the garden and you can set everybody in the family a challenge count the number of spikes per leaf one foot off the ground, two feet off the ground, three feet off the ground. You should find a statistically significant reduction in spike number per leaf as you go up the plant, which of course is about who's eating those plants, it's an anti herbivore defence designed to protect the plant against rabbits, small deer, grazers at sort of low level!

Chris -  Really?

Beverley - I’m not having you on, go and try it.

Chris - How does the plant know how high up each of the leaves is?

Beverley -  Well that's very clever and it's not just needles, arctic willow for instance puts defensive chemicals in its bark just up to the height an Arctic hair can reach if it stands on its back legs and no higher.

Chris - But obviously the part of the plant that is browsing height when it's growing is quite different than when it's a big mature tree,  so is that an acquired thing as it gets bigger it starts to put more needles lower down and fewer higher up.

Beverley - It's quite a long live tree, holly. So it's got time to sort of acclimate as it ages and there's an element of this which we think has induced in response to where it's been eaten most during its lifetime. But part of it seems to be part of the basic growing design.

Chris - It’s quite literally once bitten twice shy, or twice spiky!

Beverley -  Exactly. Bet you don't know, Chris, that holly is one of those plants that, like animals, comes in male plants and female plants, whereas most plants of course are both. And so if you've got a Holly in your garden that never makes berries it's probably because it's a boy.

Chris -  Is that the only way to tell?

Beverley - You can look at the flowers if you know what you're looking for it's not difficult you should see four stamens on a male and just one stigma on a female. But the best bet is berries.

Chris -  So why has it done that then?

Beverley -  Well it's a bit of an evolutionary dead end we think, about 4 percent of flowering plants go down this route, 96 percent go for the sensible hermaphrodite approach to life. We think they're doing it as an extreme adaptation to prevent self pollination, self fertilization, it's hard for a plant to avoid getting its own pollen on its own stigmas in the flower. This makes absolutely sure you don't, but of course it also means unless there’s another one of you in the same place then you’re not going to reproduce and since they cant move around then reliant on somebody else carrying that pollen for them - that’s quite a risky strategy.

Chris -  It is. And higher up in some trees, especially around here I’ve seen quite a lot of it, is mistletoe. How did that get there and what's special about mistletoe?

Beverley - Its a hemiparasite. So it does do some photosynthesis but it doesn't connect into the soil at all. So it gets all its nitrogen phosphorus from the tree that it’s plumbed into. Too much of it of course and it will weaken a tree over time and it produces those berries at this time of year. And in this country in the UK mistletoe is quite an interesting example of climate change because it didn't used to come very far north, it was always of southern England habitat only, and say here in Cambridgeshire we wouldn't have seen mistletoe 40 years ago. But the berries are spread by Black Caps. Birds that used to not overwinter in the UK, go south to Spain and Northern Africa for the winter. Now the Black Caps are overwintering, they're eating the berries spreading them around and the plant is steadily spreading north across the country with the Black Caps.

Chris - So why did people decide they needed to kiss under it.

Beverley - Well that's not clear. I mean it's some pretty nasty toxins that'll stop your heart quite quickly so maybe there’s a sinister side effect.

Chris - The kiss of death!

Beverley - That kind of thing. Somebody you don’t really fancy but feel you have to kiss.

roast potatoes

17:50 - Battle of the roasties

Are you team goose fat or team olive oil?

Battle of the roasties
with Eva Higginbotham

Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without some tasty roast potatoes. The Naked Scientists have been debating in the office how best to make them and, being scientists, we of course had to do the experiment! Armed with fat, potatoes, and an oven, Eva Higginbotham and Katie Haylor threw their hats into the ring, to see whose roasties would come out on top. Katie was team goose fat, and Eva team olive oil...

Katie - Everybody, in front of you there are two plates of roast potatoes. One has been made by Eva (and are insubstantial!) One has been made by Katie, me. Eva’s made hers with olive oil. I have made mine with goose fat. Question is: which one do you prefer and which one do you think is which? Beverley, you’re a vegetarian, so I think you might want to sit this one out. There are forks in the middle. Please if you’re feeling brave enough have a taste.

Chris - We don’t know whose is whose yet. This is a blind tasting.

Katie - Well before we get the tastiness verdict, here’s how we made them...

Katie - Roast potatoes. Everybody knows they are a staple at Christmas dinner. Everyone also knows that goose fat will trump olive oil.

Eva - It's not the first time I've made roast potatoes and it's not going to be the first time I've made the best roast potatoes. So sorry Katie, but I don't know how much luck you’re going to have here.

Katie - Well let's see shall we. Step one: peel the potatoes.

Eva - Step two: chop them into roughly similar sized pieces and I decided to rinse the chopped potatoes to get rid of any excess starch.

Katie - Step three: heat up the water with the potatoes in to boiling and leave for about 10 minutes. I added a rather over-generous amount of salt as well. Now for me it was time to heat up the goose fat. It looks pretty gross to be honest. Right, my two trays are coated. They are going in the oven, which has been preheated to 200 degrees.

Eva - But for me, none of this preheating the fat nonsense. Step four: drain the parboiled potatoes and then slather in olive oil.

Katie - Well I disagree about the olive oil, but step five was to put those potatoes in the oven and roast for at least 20 minutes. Listen to that, that’s lovely.

Katie - Clare you're looking quite quiet in the corner.

Chris - She’s eating.

Clare - I am eating, yes.

Katie - Which one do you think you have eaten?

Clare - I think the one with rosemary is the one with goose fat and the one with garlic is the one with olive oil.

Katie - Which one do you prefer?

Clare - I like both of them they're just different.

Katie - Caitlin have you had any?

Caitlin - I have. I had a try of each and I would have to say I prefer the olive oil. I would say they're the one on the left with the garlic.

Katie - Rishi have you been brave enough to try these roast potatoes?

Rishi - I've taken one off each plate. I'm going to go with the ones on my left which are the non olive oil ones as my favourite.

Chris - I'll give you a vote for that too. I love those ones and I think those are the goose fat ones. They are definitely superior.

Katie - Marvelous. Thanks Chris. Eva put us out of our misery, which is which?

Eva - So mine are the ones with olive oil and they've got garlic on them and they're the ones on the left and I do think they're better personally. The goose fat is a bit of a strong flavour for me but there you go. So some people preferred yours, some people preferred mine.

Katie - But everyone accurately told them apart.

Eva - Yes that's true. Everyone did guess correctly which is which, which goes to show the flavour of the fat of each of them must be quite strong.

Katie - We had a little conversation about this, well we had an argument about it in the office, let's be honest. I added salt to my water when I was parboiling the potatoes and I don't really know why. I wonder if it’s a bit of a mythical thing, I've been told that this is something that's good to do. Is there any science behind it?

Eva - To be honest, some people say you should add salt to water when you’re boiling vegetables, and maybe there's something to do with flavor in there, but with roast potatoes you’re going to season loads of them afterwards. One of the other reasons people think you should add salt to water when you’re boiling things is it actually raises the temperature at which water boils. So that means that when the water is boiling away really hard with your potatoes in there. It’s actually boiling at a higher temperature. So the idea is that if you add the salt then potatoes or whatever vegetable will cook faster because the water's hotter. But it is only a 2 degree difference. I don’t know what that works out mathematically but its not going to be that much quicker is it. So I never bother putting salt in with mine.

Katie - So unless you have to make the speediest dinner imaginable maybe there’s not much point.

Eva - Exactly. That's my opinion anyway.

Katie - Now we used different oils. I still maintain that goose fat taste better, but they have different smoking temperatures don’t they? As I understand it goose fat has a bit of a higher temperature at which it will smoke compared to virgin olive oil, which is what you used. Does this have any scientific relevance when it comes to making roast potatoes?

Eva - Well people tend to say that when you’re roasting something you want to use a high temperature and that means you want to use an oil that’s able to cope with a high temperature without smoking up your oven.

Katie - This is because you want really crispy, delicious, golden brown roast potatoes right? Not mash?

Eva - Exactly. With the goose fat having a higher temperature, that means that you should be able to turn your oven on a little bit higher, a little bit hotter which will give you perhaps a more crispy outside. Whereas olive oil, if you have it at that same temperature it’s going to start smoking a little bit and maybe change the flavour as well as not giving you the nice crispy coating.

Katie - Maybe it'll mess your oven up as well. Chris are you convinced of the science of our roast potatoes?

Chris - Yeah. It’s also not so good to have certain oils at very high temperature either is it, because then you actually begin to damage the integrity of the oil. Olive oil is very good for you when taken as raw virgin olive oil, but when you bake with it I think it becomes potentially quite bad for you because it oxidizes and so it’s actually better to cook in lard I think.

Katie - So, are you saying scientifically I win?

Chris - Well we were doing a taste test rather than the scientific credibility test. But I mean flavor wise I personally really like very fluffy very bad for you tasting potatoes because I don’t do it very often. They were both really nice but for me the goose fat ones were nicer but that wasn't equalled by or agreed on by everyone here was it.

Katie - Okay well let’s call it a tie. That’s fair. That's just Christmassy. Eva, thank you very much and thank you for bringing the roast potatoes. I'm going to try and not drool for the rest of the programme!

Chris - We let you have one eventually Beverley once you knew what you could eat.

Beverley - It was great, really good thanks.

Christmas cracker

Crappy cracker jokes
with Georgia Mills

When did we start telling jokes? What makes something funny? And what makes cracker jokes so awful? Georgia Mills gave Katie Haylor the lowdown...

Katie - I rather fancy a cracker, don’t you Chris? We’ve got some, I'm told they are of pretty poor quality. So apologies.

Chris - Thanks for pushing the boat out for me.

Katie - Merry Christmas Chris! I think we should all try one, why not, there’s six crackers. Beverley why don't you open them up, we’ll pass them around and see how bad these crackers really are.

Chris - Okay here we go. We'll all have to try and somehow do this.

Katie - Are we going to try this at the same time?

Chris - Three two one, go on then! Well they're certainly explosive, not! Okay Rishi. This is for you, right. So how many chimneys does Father Christmas go down?

Rishi - I have not a clue there.

Chris - Stacks! I thought that was quite good actually. Caitlin?

Caitlin - Knock knock.

Katie - Who's there?

Caitlin - Mary.

Katie - Mary who?

Caitlin - Mary Christmas!

Katie - Classic!

Chris - Predictable. Beverley?

Beverley - Why does Father Christmas go down the chimney?

Chris - I don’t know why does Father Christmas go down the chimney?

Beverley - Because it “soots” him.

Chris - Terrible. That is horrible!

Katie - That is awful. Okay well we've been talking about food, so here’s a foodie one. What do snowmen eat for lunch, Clare I’m directing this one at you.

Clare - I have no idea what does a snowman eat for lunch?

Chris - Ice Krispies?

Katie - Ice burgers.

Chris - Aw close!

Katie - So what makes these Christmas cracker jokes quite so awful? Naked Scientist Georgia Mills has popped in to the studio to tell us. Hello Georgia, Merry Christmas! First up what actually makes something a joke?

Georgia- A joke is actually quite hard to nail down because they're all so different. But there are some things that seem to be constant across jokes. So a linguist Robert Hetzron gave this definition, so it's; a joke is a short humorous (we'll see about that) piece of oral literature in which the funniness culminates in the final sentence, called the punch line. In fact the main condition is that the tension should reach its highest level at the very end. So you always have this setup and a payoff in a joke. There's usually this punchline, especially the written ones, and the other thing that seems to be true across all jokes is that they're false, they're never true statements. But apart from that kind of anything goes.

Katie - Okay so you're setting a situation up that defies your expectations. It’s not actually true. And hilarity, or not, ensues. When did we start telling jokes?

Georgia - It's not clear when we did because they've never been what's considered the height of culture I guess. So we haven't made good records of when jokes began but the oldest one people have found so far is from 1900 B.C. We’ll see if it gets a laugh from the table. The joke goes; something which has never occurred since time immemorial. A young woman did not fart in her husband's lap. I’m really getting a lot of blank stares. So that's from a Sumerian proverb collection. Sumeria’s now what southern Iraq is, and it seems to be some kind of joke about farting, which I think has pretty much survived until now. We also find toilet humour very funny. The oldest British joke on record... 

Chris - This is more a caca joke than cracker joke.

Clare - Oh dear.

Georgia - The oldest British joke is from about 1000 years ago and it is; what hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before?

Katie - I don’t know.

Georgia - The answer is of course a key. So I think what we have here is that jokes have, since the very beginning been a bit naughty really but we think that we started telling jokes because they help people bond together they reduce stress and anxiety and they unify people they help us be more social.

Katie - Okay so whether or not you thought those jokes were funny, I guess it’s open to interpretation! But are there any objectively funny jokes? What makes something funny?

Georgia - I think any comedian will tell you that there are no objectively funny jokes. If there were their jobs would be much easier. But there are a lot of people trying to get to the bottom of what actually makes something funny and it is kind of a hard thing to break down. The oldest theory of humour is the superiority theory. If a joke makes you feel superior to a group of people it will be more funny and if you think about a lot of jokes they often make fun of neighboring countries or a type of person like a blonde or a lawyer or a priest. And often they involve some kind of serious misfortune. So if you, the listener of the joke, feel superior to that group of people it makes you feel sort of happy and laugh, and humorous.

Katie - That's not very nice.

Georgia - Most jokes if you look at them involve something really bad happening to someone. Another theory is the relief theory, which Freud had something to do with, and this is the idea that humour comes from relieving tension. So you could interpret this as the tension is you not understanding where the joke is going. And then the punchline is resolving that tension. And lots of jokes also deal with very serious issues like taboos and death and so it's kind of a safe environment to hear about some nasty things and that causes tension, and then the tension is relieved by it being a joke.

Katie - And if we go back to the jokes that we heard in these crackers, I mean, pretty much everyone groaned. What makes some jokes so bad?

Georgia - The thing about cracker jokes, they've got to be clean you can’t get any dirty innuendos or sort of violent imagery.

Katie - They have to be family friendly right?

Georgia - Which often means you can’t say some of the things that we naturally find quite funny, we've always found toilet humour quite amusing. So they usually rely on things like a play on words or a pun. And this fits in with another theory of humour which is called the incongruity theory, which is the idea that we find a mismatch between our expectations and reality funny. But the thing about cracker jokes is they're actually not meant to be good. They're written to be bad because they unite us all with anger against the person who wrote the cracker joke. So they're actually a really good social glue around the table because if they're kind of good, some of you might find them funny some of you might find them bad, but if they're intentionally bad, A) it's easier to write them and B) you have this fun part of Christmas where you're all making fun of this poor person.

Katie - Got to ask. Favourite joke?

Georgia - Seeing as I'm talking about what makes a joke a joke. What's the difference between a good joke and a bad joke timing.

Chris - Beverley is raising her hand. Can you beat that?

Beverley - Bit of physics. Did you hear the one about the photon who checked into the hotel? The concierge asked him if he could handle his luggage and the photon said “No, I'm traveling light.”

Katie - That's an excellent joke.

Chris - Rishi, the singing scientist, you must have some gags!

Rishi - I should point out I only got the icebergs joke like, five minutes later...


32:16 - Relationships at Christmas

Navigating the stormy seas of festive family relationships...

Relationships at Christmas
with Caitlin Hitchcock, Cambridge University

For many of us, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year. But being in a confined space with your family for days on end can occasionally lead to bust ups. To help us navigate the stormy seas of festive family relationships, Cambridge University clinical psychologist Caitlin Hitchcock spoke to Katie Haylor and Chris Smith. First up, Katie asked Caitlin if it's really true that more arguments happen at Christmas...

Caitlin - Well Christmas can be associated with a number of different things that do actually result in heightened argument. So for example as you mentioned we spend a lot of time with people that we may not see much of during the year, so there can be tensions that have been carried and that have been successfully avoided during the year which are harder to do away with when we’re in close spaces.

But people also tend to drink alcohol and things a bit more which can reduce our inhibitions, perhaps you’re more likely to say things that perhaps we should leave alone.

Katie -  That's very tactfully put I think. Are there any sure fire ways to avoid those Christmas arguments?

Caitlin - Well I mentioned a couple of things before that might make you more likely to argue, say for example, alcohol can be something that might make each and every one of us say things that again we might usually leave alone.

Katie - Are you going to say we have to lay off the Christmas booze?

Caitlin -  Not what I'm saying at all.  I'm saying that you need to be aware of what your triggers are. So for example if you know that politics, religion and some of those various topics that were the subject of the jokes we're talking about earlier, some of these things might be likely to set off an argument, perhaps you might want to think of that.

Also recognising that if you get into certain sorts of conversations with people for example around cleaning up or your aunt asking when are you going to bring someone special home for Christmas. Good to know if that's something that's going to set you off to have a plan for how you might respond to that!

Katie - Okay so if these things do arise, if you haven't done the washing up you said you were going to, your parents get annoyed for instance. Any tips on resolving conflicts?

Caitlin - Well the first thing that you should perhaps keep in mind is to respond to the situation rather than just react. So if we react in the moment it's usually based on our emotional response which can tend to lead to over-exaggerated responses or again emotional responses. And whereas if you take a moment to collect yourself and then respond to the situation at hand, you’re more likely to kick your executive function back into gear, and  inhibits some of those things that perhaps might need to be left alone and respond in a way that's more appropriate.

Chris - And do you do this with aplomb in your house in or did you fall into all the same traits.

Caitlin - I think it's important to keep in mind that no one is perfect, we're human. We argue we have conflict. To have conflict isn't necessarily a bad thing it's how we got that resolving it. In fact there's research that demonstrates that in relationships a conflict can actually make your relationship stronger if you're able to resolve that conflict.

Chris - What about though, say you have all the rellies round and it reaches that time of day when quite frankly you’ve had enough. How do you diplomatically get rid of them?

Caitlin - Well I think if you're of the mindset that your family might be one of those families that sticks around a bit long, see if you can set an expectation earlier.

Chris -  Turn the lights off?

Caitlin - You can start before people get there by letting them know in advance what time you'll be hosting to and you can try diplomatic responses such as “I'm going to start cleaning up” or “it's getting late I am feeling a bit tired”.

Chris - Being more serious for a second though, when we get to the times of the year when everyone's celebrating, everyone appears to be having fun. If you're not one of them it can be quite isolating can’t it? So what should you do if you find yourself in that position so you don’t end up sort of succumbing to the woes of “Oh dear I feel a bit down because you know friends are having fun and Im not”?

Caitlin - Yeah that’s a really important thing to point out that Christmas isn’t always a fun and fantastic time. And in fact we can place a lot of pressure on ourselves and we see a lot of that in advertisements and things to be able to have the perfect Christmas. So if you are not spending time with people this year, make sure that you have a plan it doesn’t need to be a lonely time of year. There are lots of charities and things we can go and get involved and connect with other people.

If there are people you’d like to connect with, send Christmas cards or messages or phone calls if you’re away from loved ones. If you are going to be spending Christmas by yourself it’s important to have a plan so for example know what you can do for the day, will you cook yourself a nice meal, perhaps plan a film that you’d watch, just to make sure that you don’t end up not having an idea of what you’d like to do, because that cause that can sometimes be the loneliest.

Chris - And memory of your biggest Christmas row?

Caitlin - Mine all tend to be over games that we seem to play. Someone usually flips the Monopoly board or something.

Christmas fizz

37:51 - Festive fizz

Can you tell the good stuff from the cheap stuff?

Festive fizz
with Clare Bryant, Cambridge University

Christmas dinner is done, you’re more than a little full, and perhaps now you fancy a glass of wine. Clare Bryant from Cambridge University took Chris Smith through her recommendations on what to drink at Christmas...

Clare - So I will be drinking a bottle of Cornish fizz, English sparkling wines are wonderful and I think at the moment they outrank any sparkling wine from anywhere else in the world. And then with my goose I will be having a very nice bottle of Burgundy. Burgundy is made from pinot noir. So very very nice red wine. Actually making it to putting wine is a bit of an ordeal for me because by that point I am half asleep, but if I make it a point having a pudding wine I will probably have a sweet German Reisling or possibly a sweet Muskat from France which has a nice citrusy orange flavour and goes very well with Christmas pudding.

Chris - Now when planning a wine for a dish, how should one approach that?

Clare - Well for red meat you would normally have red wine, for white meats, it's debatable sometimes a light red wine. For vegetarian dishes, you can have a choice of anything really so if it's a robust vegetarian dish very cheesy then you probably go for a red wine something from the Rhone Valley would be nice, for a lighter dish you might want to go for a Reisling. There are various rules but rules are there to be broken.

Chris - You’re picking all Old-World stuff though!.

Clare - No not at all. Actually I think some of the South African wines are absolutely fantastic at the moment and really good value for money. Californian wines are really beautiful but some of them are a tad overpriced for my for my liking. I've recently also been to Australia for a couple of weeks and had some of the most fantastic wines there as well so I will drink wine from anywhere as long as it's good. But the best quest of all is trying to find a good value wine for money and that's the biggest challenge actually. South Africa probably ticks the box though at the moment.

Chris - It's really interesting you brought up cost because you can pay a lot for wine but equally you can pay not very much for wine. Now is it a given that if you buy something really expensive you are going to taste the difference or not?

Clare - It depends. First of all the actual cost of wine with respect to buying bottle is there are a variety of very fixed costs, the cost of the bottle, the cork cost,  the VAT and costs of the import duty which is what we pay in the UK. So if you drink a five pound bottle of wine you're probably spending about 50p on the wine inside. Whereas if you buy a 10 pound bottle of wine you're getting considerably more wine for your money so you'll see an escalation in quality accordingly.

Then it's about wine maker reputation so certain wine makers and this is particularly true in France. It's also true in Australia and California as well. It’s sold on the name again and that’s useful because a good wine maker will make a consistently good wine but then a good wine maker will only have a limited amount of wine to sell. So it's supply and demand. So there are a variety of factors involved but basically you need to be paying at least a tenner to get something halfway decent.

Chris - So if I gave you a five pound bottle of wine and a 20 pound bottle of wine are you confident you could probably tell the difference?

Clare - It all depends whether you like it, quality is as you perceive it, at the end of the day. So that's my way of saying if you're going to try that one on me Chris I will accept it if I get caught out!

Chris - Well we did do the test, we asked Eva to go out into Cambridge armed with two different brands of fizzy wine and she had a go at trying this on the general public.


These are the two wines that we took out on the streets. Can you just tell us what they are and what you think of them?

Clare - Well so one is a champagne which will be a dry champagne and I'm just looking to see which grapes were involved. There's a sort of depth and complexity to champagne. They don’t necessarily get with other wines but that's not always true. The other bottle is a cava. It's actually a very well-known cava and it is made in Spain because Spain makes carvas. So in Spain it's obviously hotter than it is in Champagne so you get a different complexity to the wine and that's part of the kind of interesting thing because actually champagne and cava are made in a similar way. They're both fermented in the bottle. I would expect I would prefer the champagne but without actually tasting them I don’t know and both the bottles are empty!

Chris - So what did you pay for those two Katie?

Clare -  I would guess you probably pay to eat three to four pounds maximum for the cava.

Katie -  And just to put this in context, these are 20 centilitre bottles.

Clare - So yeah probably two to three pounds for the cava and probably four or five pounds for the champagne.

Katie - It was three pounds for the cava and a tenner champagne.

Clare - That doesn't surprise me because the price differential not least because champagne has champagne on the label.

Katie - So interestingly nine out of 10 of the people we asked actually preferred the champagne but it seems people thought we were trying to trick them a little bit as they thought they liked the cheaper one actually they preferred the more expensive one.

Clare - Yeah I well I think that's because in wine tests there always something to say if you're going to catch them out. And people like to think that they will like the bargain but it does show the difference you know, champagne is a brand that is generally a good brand and I guess that would support the French view that they make the best sparkling wine in the world.

Chris - The last thing I want to talk about we've got a bottle here of alcohol free wine. We can try this. Do you like it?

Clare - No.

Chris - Why?

Clare - I think actually there is a lot of potential to make good alcohol-free wines but apparently it's very expensive to actually take the alcohol out of the wine. So the way you do it is you either pass through a filter, which then you end up with a low alcohol wine as opposed to alcohol free. Or you do a distilling process and that the problem is I think to actually do that and not affect the flavor of the wine is actually quite challenging. I mean there is something to the alcohol that enhances the taste as well but you know in the long run there's got to be a lot of potential for making the de-alcohol wine. It's just I haven't had one I liked yet.

People are thinking about it a lot especially the small health conscious era and the beer guys have certainly done a really good job. I think it's just a question of time. For example there's a big wine house in Spain or Tores which make actually very halfway reasonable low alcohol wine. And there's also probably mileage because some wines are naturally low and alcohol so German wines from the Moselle region for example are naturally lower in alcohol. So I think it's just a question of time and it's kind of important because some of the big wines from hot countries from Australia for example can come in at anything between 15 and 17 percent alcohol which is almost the same as Sherry  and Port and that’s a serious amount of alcohol.

Chris - That's really crept up in recent years as well hasn't it? Is that a reflection on climate and hotter summers?

Clare -  I suspect it is a reflection on global warming and it is going to cause a problem.


46:27 - Drunken Christmas pudding

Can a boozy Christmas pudding get you drunk?

Drunken Christmas pudding

Who can’t resist a large helping of Christmas pudding? A lot of booze goes into a traditional Christmas pudding, so what does this dessert do to your alcohol level? For science, Katie Haylor volunteered to put this to the test...

Chris - Well it puts it up quite a bit apparently. I was looking on the internet at this. There have been a number of investigations into how much your blood alcohol can rise and allegedly 2 big portions of tiramisu is enough to put you over the drink drive limit, a very large helping of sherry trifle allegedly will also do this. If you have a particularly sweet tooth 150 liqueur chocolates would also potentially put you over the drink driving limit!

But that's why we thought we'd ask you to eat that cake which I must say I am not very impressed. Katie you've only got half of the Christmas pudding.

Katie - It serves 4 Chris! I like my food but that's a bit ridiculous.

Chris - Well potentially there should be enough in there to bust a breathalyser.

Katie - Will eating half of it will have made a difference? Well we’ll find out. Yeah I just happened to have a handy breathalyzer here.

Chris - There was a lady about 15 16 years ago who was stopped by the police because she had been weaving all over the road. She was found to be over the limit on breath alcohol and her defence in court which was accepted by the court was “I'd had two rather large helpings of Christmas cake” and it was soaked in whisky so she she was successfully let off. She said “I take drink driving very seriously I didn't realise” so Christmas cake can indeed put you over the limit so be careful.

Katie - So this is a mini alcohol breathalyzer for Europe apparently. So it's a small tube. It looks a little bit like a vial that you might get your blood put into if you are having a blood test that sort of shape. It's got a little scale on the side. The percentage scale is zero zero point two zero point five zero point eight percent. And if I follow the instructions correctly…. now I need to take a deep breath and exhale into any side of the tube twice for 10 seconds and then will have a little chat because after 4 minutes you'll compare the colour change against this colour change on this chart. So I will start the breathing.

Chris - Well you’re certainly going red!

Christmas santa band

49:39 - Singing science at Christmas

Let's have a science sing song - it's Christmas!

Singing science at Christmas
with Rishi Nag, Wellcome Genome Campus

Dinner's over, presents have been exchanged, so let’s sit back and enjoy some Christmas music. Singer and scientist Rishi Nag from the Wellcome Genome Campus in Cambridge shared his science song about surviving Christmas....

Rishi - Professionally I am working with an organization called the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health. We’re about getting standards for big databases of genomic data to be able to talk to each other and take into account security and things like that.

Chris - So if I've got a whole lot of DNA data and so have you, we want to be able to share that data between us but without risk of breaching confidentiality, breaking anonymity etc.

Rishi - Yeah that's correct. Making it available for research so researchers can run their algorithms over it, but still preserving the patient's confidential information.

Chris - So is that largely a computing problem.

Rishi - It's a mixture of both. I mean on one side, the volume of data provides a computing problem. On the other hand, you've got regulations and things like that that provides a different kind of problem in terms of legal issues around Europe and USA and things like that.

Chris - When you say it's a storage problem, how much information are you trying to store?

Rishi - The paradigm we're using where say there were 1000 genomes donated for research is changing. Genomics England and the NHS are getting 100,000 genomes. So you are storing petabytes of data.

Chris - Every petabyte is a thousand big hard discs you find in your average family computer.

Rishi - Yeah. And because you're talking about sequencing populations rather than just sort of a selected group of individuals now.

Chris - Yeah. So how did the singing scientist come along then?

Rishi - I was working in the plant sciences department a while back. One of the hard working plants there was something called the Arabidopsis thaliana and I sort of one day wrote a song comparing it to roses, using it as a metaphor for how like scientists are hard working but not recognised necessarily within society, whereas you get the reality TV stars being like the roses, who are not so contributing but high publicity and things like that.

Chris - How did that go down? Was that successful?

Rishi - Yeah that went really well actually. Then I started writing science songs purely for science.

Chris - And now? What does the singing scientist do these days?

Rishi - This year I was offered a grant from the public engagement team at the Wellcome Genome Campus. What I had was a mismatch of songs from different scientific areas that had been of interest and one of the comments had been let's turn this into a story. So I came up with the idea of ‘Genomics the Musical’ and one of the important things when you’re doing these science songs on stage is to have videos to help explain what's going on. I had the first live performance of this in November.

Chris - How did it go down?

Rishi - Really well. I had a bit of trepidation when I saw a large number of like six to 10 year olds walking through the room, so I made some last minute adjustments on my slides to sort of include the word poo on them to make sure they were entertained through the 45 minute set.

Chris - And you're going to do us a song?

Rishi - Yeah. I tried to think back about what was my most wow moment of the year from the science world. I think it was the sight of the Tesla going off into space and then these Falcon Heavy rockets, those booster rockets, that landed simultaneously. I used that as a framing for this idea of a song on the theme of surviving Christmas.

Chris - We will hear about that in just a second. How are you getting on Katie? Have you got your breathalyser result? Are you still safe to drive?

Katie - I am as safe as I could possibly be. Either the test doesn't work or it's made no difference.

Chris - You haven't eaten enough cake. You have to eat another one.

Katie - I’ve got to try harder.

Chris - If we record the programme again, you just eat another one. Eventually we'll get a reading.

Katie - I might be asleep by that point Chris.

Chris - Right, Rishi, over to you!


Rishi - I’m dressed in red flying through the sky, my presence opens wondrous eyes as they gaze into the night. But I am no Santa Claus I am a product of a Space X launch. A Falcon Heavy flying up so bright.

I’m a Tesla Roadster supercar, sent by a man who wants to get to Mars. Driving round really fast, orbiting the sun as my star. As I float around in space, I get hit by cosmic rays. I am a car it spoils my paint but it really would ruin your face. If that didn't get you, you would die up here it's minus 105. So don't complain it's cold outside, baby if you wanna survive Christmas 2018, stay on Earth next to a tree, just make sure, you’re not the starman driving me.


My launch was meticulously planned as well as the Insight lander which will show us what’s deep down inside of Mars. Curiosity managed to survive the Martian dust all planet sized. Opportunity wasn't quite so hard. So don't send it a Christmas card. 12 days of Christmas to celebrate. Then 12 years to stop climate change, making Christmas 2038 something strange in a different place. Surviving Christmas ‘18 will seem easy compared to stopping frozen poles turning greasy. If this season's about the best of humanity, there's nothing more be better than for the planety!

I’m a Tesla Roadster supercar, sent by a man who wants to get to Mars. Driving round really fast, orbiting the sun as my star. As I float around in space, I get hit by cosmic rays. I am a car it spoils my paint but it really would ruin your face. If that didn't get you, you’d still die up here it's minus 105. So don't complain it's cold outside, baby if you wanna survive Christmas 2018, stay on Earth next to a tree, just make sure, you’re not the starman driving me.



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