A Year of Naked Science!

31 December 2019




In this week’s special episode, Katie Haylor, Adam Murphy and Phil Sansom take a trip down memory lane, month by month, reflecting on some of our favourite moments from a whole year’s worth of sensational science sought out by The Naked Scientists office in 2019...

In this episode


00:52 - Pick a pint glass

Could the shape of your pint glass influence the speed at which you drink your pint?

Pick a pint glass
Marcus Munafo, University of Bristol

Drinking excessively and smoking cigarettes are major health problems. But can the physical environment around booze and cigarettes impact our behaviour? Katie Haylor spoke with University of Bristol psychologist Marcus Munafo, who's been looking into this. Firstly, Katie wanted to know what goes on in the brain when someone decides to have a 2nd, or maybe 3rd, drink...

Marcus - Well there are a lot of things going on. There are different influences coming from different places. There's the environment that you're in, for example. You're in a social context, you are presented with lots of different cues that might encourage you to have a drink, for example. But then when you have a drink the drug, the alcohol, is having an effect on your brain itself and the disinhibiting effect of alcohol might mean that even if you intended to only have one or two drinks you end up having three, four or five. So you've got this set of competing influences that are acting on different parts of the brain, on the reward centers, on mechanisms that manage to control those impulsive behaviors, and that complicated interplay of effects on different brain regions is difficult to understand, but really important if we want to get a handle on how and why people drink

Katie - Is it a pretty similar picture, if I was to come out of the pub, step outside, and have a cigarette, for instance?

Marcus - Different drugs have different effects. Some of the effects are common to different drugs, some of them are unique to specific drugs. But generally speaking you have this same issue of a range of different influences working in different ways on different parts of the brain, and there are some similarities between different types of drug but there are also some differences as well. So we do need to look at each one individually.

Katie - How are you using neuroscience to understand our behavior around things like smoking and drinking, habits we may want to change?

Marcus - Most neuroscientists tend to start with the brain and understand how the brain works and therefore how that might influence how we use different drugs, for example. Our approach is slightly different, in that we start with cues in the environment that we have reason to believe might be influencing our behavior, and then use human laboratory studies to try and understand how that works. There's been a lot of work done on branding on cigarette packs and how that captures the attention of people who are looking at those cigarette packs. There's also been work done on the design of glasses that you serve beer in and how that might influence drinking behavior. So we're trying to understand what it is about the features of cigarette packs and glasses and so on that influence behavior through those cognitive mechanisms in the brain, to then be able to reverse engineer that knowledge and change people's behavior in a healthier direction by targeting those features.

Katie - Let's hone in on the glasses, then. What is it about different types of drinking glasses that might make us more or less likely to drink?

Marcus - Well, if you go into a bar now you'll see that certainly if you order a pint of lager there'll be an array of different glasses that that drink will be served in depending on exactly what drink you order.

Katie - Sure. So, you've got your standard pint glass which actually isn't straight, is it? It kind of comes out a little bit at the top. You've got the really fancy Belgian beer glasses, a whole array.

Marcus - That's right. So they're shaped so that most glasses are curved. They will often, certainly if they're being used to serve lager, will have a nuclear nation stamp on the inside, which is texture on the inside of the glass that promotes bubble formation that keeps it fizzy, that keeps the head on your lager, and so on. There's branding typically on the glass, so depending on which brand of beer you're drinking you'll be served that beer in that specific glass, and all of those things have been introduced for a reason, or might have been introduced for a reason. So, understanding what impact they have on how fast you drink, or whether or not you'd like the taste of the drink, is important if we want to then be able to decide which of those features we might want to modify to promote healthier behavior.

Katie - And is there evidence to suggest that those kinds of aspects of the glass really do make a difference on someone's drinking behavior?

Marcus - Well, there is some evidence. It's still quite early days, but we ran one laboratory study where we brought people in and we randomised them to drink from either a curved glass or a straight glass. One of the things that we did was look at how people judge the halfway point on different shaped glasses using psycho-physical techniques. If you've ever had a hearing test, you have taken part in that kind of study where you have a staircase procedure, in the case of a hearing test where you have sounds that are getting louder and then getting quieter, and that going up and going down allows you to detect very precisely the point at which people can and can't hear something, and you can use a similar kind of approach when you ask people to judge where the halfway point is in a glass, for example, by presenting images that have more or less liquid in them. We found some evidence that when they were drinking lager they tended to drink faster from the curved glass than they did from the straight gl ass. The reason that we think that's happening is because when you look at the glass and try and judge how much is left in it, that's easy to do in a straight glass but much harder to do in a curved glass because the side of the glass is what your eye follows. But actually the volume changes at a different rate to what you might expect from just following the shape on the side of the glass. So in other words when you think you've got to half way in your drink you've actually drunk more like two thirds of it.

Katie - Okay, so if you're saying ‘oh no I'm going to steady myself, I'll have half a pint in half an hour’, actually it's much more difficult than that.

Marcus - Yeah, because by the time you get to where you think it's halfway actually, another couple of drinks and you finished the thing. So, that might have an influence on how fast you drink and we did find some evidence that the greater the extent to which people misjudged how much was left in the glass at the halfway point, the faster they drank. If that's the case, then it suggests ways in which we could reverse engineer that knowledge and shape behavior in a healthier way. We could either put markings on the side of the glass so that people have a clearer cue as to how much of that drink was left. Or we could encourage people to drink from straight glasses because it's easier to make that judgment in a straight glass.

Katie - So that's booze. What about smoking?

Marcus - Well, one of the things that we've been looking at in a series of studies is how branding information, and also health warning information, on packs influences where people look. We used a range of techniques but principally eye tracking. We would have people look at a screen where we presented images of different types of cigarette pack and simply tracked where they were looking and did that for nonsmokers and for smokers. Now this was interesting in the context of the legislation that was introduced a few years ago in the UK, which has required packs to be standardised so that the most prominent feature of cigarette packs now is the health warning and there's very little brand information on them.

Katie - They can be pretty graphic, can't they? Pictures of lungs that look pretty horrible. Well, I would assume, to be fair, as a non-smoker, that they would make a pretty significant impact.

Marcus - Well, there is some evidence from tobacco control research that health warnings do have an impact. Not a huge impact, but as part of a comprehensive tobacco control policy to have a part to play. But we were interested in what happened when you take away the brand information. What we found was that amongst nonsmokers, the presence of a graphic health warning meant that people's attention was captured by that, but amongst smokers they tended to actively look away from the health warning. Even when there was nothing else to look at they would rather look away from the health warning than look at that.

Katie - Wow. So, they actually go into quite a lot of effort to avoid looking at these health warnings.

Marcus - Yeah, it looks like it. It's not necessarily a conscious effort, but they were diverting their attention away from that. So when we looked into that a little bit more deeply and it seems like health warnings are actively pushing the attention of smokers away, and if they're not looking at the health warning then of course there's a limit to the extent to which that health warning can be effective. And that kind of approach can then perhaps give us some insight into how we should design these health warnings, what information we should put on them, how prominent they should be on cigarette packs, and also whether we need to combine that with other approaches like providing a direct piece of information that allows people to take actions. Rather than just saying smoking is bad for you, you could frame the message more positively by saying ‘stopping smoking is good for you, and here's a way of doing that’, with a link to some kind of support website, for example.

Katie - Can these cognitive neuroscience approaches share any insight into resilience? Because it does seem, like in the case of smoking and alcohol, the social environment plays, I would say, probably a massive part, right?

Marcus - Well, I think that's one of the areas where cognitive neuroscience really can tell us something. So, for example, I mentioned earlier the prefrontal cortex is a region that is interesting in the context of drug use, substance use and behavior generally, and that is the region of the brain involved in executive functions, these top down control functions that that inhibit our more impulsive responses, for example. Of course people are different in terms of those functions and therefore different in terms of their ability to inhibit those behaviours, so understanding those mechanisms can give us some insights into why people respond differently, because no two people are the same. Getting a handle on how and why people are different, and how that relates to behaviour, is a big part of this.

Brain schematic

04:36 - Our brains on running

What happens to our minds when we run?

Our brains on running
Henriette van Praag, Florida University

What effect does running have on the brain, how good is it for us? Georgia Mills spoke to Henriette van Praag, an Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences at the Brain Institute at Florida University...

Henriette - Well running has extensive effects on the brain. In humans overall the effects are very beneficial. What we see is that there's benefits for our ability to think, manage time, pay attention, plan. We also see benefits for our ability to remember events, places, people and how they are linked together.

In addition to that we see actual changes in brain structure with exercise. So there is an increase in what we call the grey matter, the part of the brain that contains the neurons, and also white matter which consists of the external pathways that connect cells to each other. And we see also an increase in particular, in the size of the brain area that's very important for learning and memory, called the hippocampus. Incidentally this is the same brain area that is often affected in neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease.

And what happens with exercise is that there is an increase in the volume of the hippocampus and we also see up-regulation of blood flow in that area and in other areas of the brain. And then if we talk about things such as mood or anxiety is that with exercise there's a reduction in anxiety. There's improvement in sleep quality, reduction in stress hormone levels. So these are the kind of the things we know in humans.

Georgia - Why do we think you get these benefits in the brain?

Henriette - With exercise there are neurochemical changes in the brain. So there are changes in neurotransmitters and some of these neurotransmitters are called monoamines and they include dopamine, serotonin norepinephrine, and that family of neurotransmitters is strongly implicated. Exercise up-regulates the level of monoamines. In addition exercise will also up-regulate a protein called Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF.

This is a very important growth factor in the brain which is important for survival, growth of neurons. It influences their complexity, it also influences the ability of neurons to communicate with each other. So it's been shown that if levels of BDNF are low there can be increased anxiety and there can also be learning and memory problems. But other things we can see in terms of measures of anxieties, for example stress hormone levels, such as cortisol in the bloodstream, those also go down with exercise over time and may lead to a reduction in anxiety and depression.

Georgia - But Henriette and her team had an idea. Perhaps not all of these changes were originating inside the brain

Henriette - Not just the brain is running, your whole body is running, you are recruiting you know your heart, bloodstream and of course skeletal muscle. So one of the things that we are very interested in is what is released out of skeletal muscle that might influence brain function.

Georgia - Henriette and isolated muscle cells and treated them with compounds to activate energy pathways, basically engineering exercise in a dish. They took the metabolic soup that came out of the cells, found the compound of interest inside and then added it to brain cells to see what the effect was.

Henriette - You can see an increase in endurance if you give these kind of compounds and you can also see improvement in memory function, suggesting that this kind of pathway of activation may be one of the sources of the effects of exercise on the brain.

Georgia - Right so something that sort of leaks out of our muscles while we exercise makes its way into the brain and we think could be potentially causing some of those benefits?

Henriette - Yes, or at least setting a cascade of events in motion that links to all this plethora of effects that I just described.

Georgia - Does this mean that we could, if we know that factor, could we sort of bottle up exercise and put it in a pill, for maybe those of us who on able to go?

Henriette - Oh no, no, no, no. That would be extremely dangerous! Good try but unfortunately those kind of factors are very tied to our physiology and if you have too much it could be detrimental, too little it’s also not good. That said, it's not completely out of the realm of possible that if we learned more about these factors and know how to potentially modify them, let's say chop off a little bit of the sequences that are potentially involved in detrimental effects, that we could harness them. But then I would probably think only say in cases where you know somebody is incapacitated, cannot walk well, and help to kind of transition back to an active lifestyle. But it would definitely not replace the complete package of the benefits of exercise on our brains, on memory function and on mood.

Sword sitting in a forge's embers

09:56 - The science of making swords

We visited a blacksmith's forge to explore the science of sword making

The science of making swords
Magnus Sigurdsson, Blacksmith

One of blacksmiths' roles in days gone by was making weapons and armour from steel. And although the blacksmiths didn’t realise it, when they were beating a piece of metal, they were driving atoms of carbon from their forges into the crystal structure of the iron, turning it into a hard steel. Jack Tavener went to speak with Magnus Sigurdsson, who still makes swords and other historic implements the way that traditional metal workers have been doing for centuries...

Jack - Swords and armour were our best friend for thousands of years, both weapons of war and means to protect families and possessions. And though we may not use swords any longer modern armour and blades are still very relevant and they were all made with steel, a metal that can be shaped into almost anything.

Now safe to say, it’s pretty hard to find a local blacksmith these days, but Magnus Sigurdsson is one of only a few people in the UK who can make traditional swords, daggers, armour - you name it. I went to meet him at his forge and he showed me the traditional method of making a blade. To start we simply needed the all-important piece of steel...

Magnus - Iron is incredibly difficult to harden. If you turn it into steel, which is just actually iron and carbon, and yet you can vary the amount carbon and the different types of heat process, it can be used for most things from making cooking pots to decent blades to suits of armour. The other thing is, of course, iron ore’s a lot more common than copper and tin so it easier, it's more available, it’s more out there.

Jack - A lot of positives to using steel then. But it's reliant on the carbon content within the iron to make it hard. To understand how carbon does this, imagine a cup of tea and adding a sugar cube, creating a solution where the sugar particles are evenly dissolved throughout. The carbon in the steel is just like the sugar in the tea, the carbon fits in the gaps of the iron's crystal structure preventing the crystals from moving and increasing the hardness of the whole material.

Magnus - It’s difficult in that time because of the smelting process to get good quality steel that's high carbon content all the way through a homogenous piece of steel with good quality carbon all the way through - evenly dispersed. So you can control it to a limited extent on a charcoal powered forge by just heating it through and stacking it. You get to a temperature before the carbon is burnt out but that it will absorb carbon. If it's in basically a stack with almost no oxygen, at the right temperature it will absorb the carbon before it burns it out.

Jack - So that's the point, you bury it in all this charcoal?

Magnus - Yep. You heat it up nice and slowly.

Jack - All the carbon transfers and then that's what gives you that hardness that you're looking for?

Magnus - Yeah. I mean this is the way that they would have done it, you know, through the Medieval period.

Jack - The  forge was already lit, so we stoked up the heat using bellows that filled an entire room next door to blow air through the fire and crank up the flames until they glowed a bright bluey purple colour. Magnus buried our bar of steel into the ferocious charcoal fire at 1,300 degrees celsius. Temperatures this high cause the steel to glow bright orange and become soft so that it can be worked into the shape of our blade. He pulled it out of the fire and started beating it with a hammer over his anvil - that's right, that large chunk of metal often dropped from the sky in the cartoons, and this continuous bashing has a lot of benefits.

Magnus - It’s moving it into a different shape. It's also refining the structure of the steel as you work it, so it's making the structure finer so you're actually improving the quality of the steel. What you're doing here is making the crystals smaller and finer so you've got a small and finer grained structure. You're also working by the feel of the metal and the sound. If I hit where it's colder it rings more, if I hit where it's hotter -  a duller sound. So you can actually feel by how it's responding, how it's working. Everybody thinks it's actually the hammer that's doing a lot of the work but you're actually using the anvil to keep the surface smooth and get rid of the hammer marks. As you can see now it's really lost colour very very quickly. If the steel got a fair amount of carbon in you don't want to work it cold, it will crack the steel.

Jack - And so, it was back into the flames of the forge, then reheat the steel, bash it some more and essentially repeat the process until you've got a sharp edge.

Magnus -  We prefer to refine most of it on the forge, and in the forge on the anvil and not grind it because again, I'm not wasting steel, which they wouldn't have done years and years ago because steel was way too expensive to just grind most of it off. And I feel we get a better quality product; as I said you refining the structure of the steel all the way through so why just grind most of it away.

Jack - how do they know how to make all these different materials?

Magnus - Trial, error, inspired guesswork. At the time they weren't sticking all this under an electron microscope and looking at the structure and things like that, and what they found worked they stuck with. And there were rituals that each blacksmith; he'd have water or his brine at a certain temperature because that worked for him and everything else. I mean if he had an amazing day and did everything perfectly well and he tripped over the step coming into the forge that morning, he would then try and make that part of the ritual. We know in a lot of cases, they carried on using processes where only one bit of the process gave them what they wanted, but because they discovered it by using the other processes, they kept the other processes in. I mean how was iron, bronze first produced? It wasn't a bunch of people sitting by a campfire and noticing that they'd melted metal. So you start off with a copper period; copper's mined very closely to arsenic. If you've got any arsenic in the smelt with the copper, you get bronze. The first bronzes were not copper and tin, they were copper and arsenic which was really good for everybody!

Jack - Hmm, maybe not! Poison aside, it was then time to dunk our blade into some water, otherwise known as quenching.

Magnus - What this has done is suddenly caused all the vibrating particles to actually lock solid. You're trying to get hard and tough. You get hard it snaps, tough is slightly softer so you actually run through several heat cycles to actually get the effect you want. And it's called tempering where you heat it up, quench it, and let heat back into the blade. And different heats and tempering processes give you different qualities in different types of steel.

Jack - Okay. So you trying to make, I guess, a hard edge on the blade but not so that it snaps like a ruler or something? Very easy if you bend it to much it breaks, you wouldn't want that on the battlefield?

Magnus - No, it's a fine line. You've got to work out what you need for what we’d call a working edge. You know, what is this tool or weapon going to be used for and use a heat process that will give you, if not exactly what you want, as close as physically possible can the achieved with the materials you've got.

A European hedgehog being held by a carer

16:15 - Visiting a hedgehog hospital

Helping our spiky friends at a hedgehog hospital

Visiting a hedgehog hospital
Alex Masterman, Shepreth Wildlife Conservation Charity

We’re taking a stroll into the garden, where if you’re quiet enough, and lucky enough, you might get to see a hedgehog worming its way through the undergrowth. Once a familiar sight in British gardens, these animals are sadly disappearing. But some places are working to help out our spiny friends. Adam Murphy made the trip Shepreth Wildlife Conservation Charity to chat to Welfare Officer Alex Masterman about their hedgehog hospital...

Adam - Hedgehogs, the spiky little mammals that like to roam around our gardens snuffling out insects. They like hedges and they have little pig like snouts, hence... hedgehog. They're adorable little things that mean none of us any harm. Sadly, hedgehogs are in decline. Their habitats are getting walled off into gardens, and they often fall victim to parasites and strimmers. One place helping them out is the Shepreth Wildlife Conservation charity Hedgehog Hospital here in Cambridgeshire. I spoke with Alex Masterman, welfare officer at the charity who first of all showed me one of their adorable little patients...

Alex - So this is Rosemary.

Adam - So what's wrong with Rosemary; what happened?

Alex - I'll have a little look at her chart and I can tell you. Yeah, so Rosemary was out during the day several times so she was brought in. They thought she might be quite old and she had fleas and she was quite lethargic. And then when we checked her she had capalarya and crenosoma, so lungworm and roundworm, things like that. She was about 500g when she came in and she is now much bigger than that, she's now in the 1200g range so she is doing really well. She's actually on our ‘clean shelf’, which means that she is now completely parasite free and were actually looking for a home for her to be released into now.

Adam - And when I was finished fawning over the hedgehog - the first one I'd ever seen in the flesh I'm ashamed to say, I wanted to know how you treat something whose first instinct is to curl into a ball of spikes...

Alex - Some hedgehogs are more prone to curling up than others, especially our older ones, if you pick them up sometimes they won’t curl. Rosemary is doing quite a good job of when you pick her up she will. One of the ways we can kind of see underneath them so for like our general first-aid when they come in, we want to make sure there's no cuts or injuries underneath is if you sort of wheelbarrow them like that, their instinct it's sort of put their feet down and that will make them uncurl.

Adam - Nearly onto their heads?

Alex - Yeah. That sort of gives an opportunity to look underneath and check their bellies are nice and fluffy and things. Some of them, especially the new young ones when they come in, you’ll put them down and they’ll curl into a ball and they won’t uncurl, and then to get them to do that you can just tickle their back here and if you sort of lightly brush the spines they will slowly curl. No idea why!

In terms of the medication we give here, it all goes into the skin, none into the veins or the muscles, and for that we actually like them to be curled up into a ball. What we do is we put them on their back and there's a ring of muscle around the front and that's how they curl up. If you just take some of the spines around the edge and gently pull out, and what that does is exposes some of the skin - tense it - so then we can get the needle and put it in parallel to the body and just get it under the skin.

Adam - What kinds of things are their pokey patients treated for here?

Alex - I'd say the majority is parasite burdens. Things like lungworm and B. Erin and the stuff can make them unwell. Ringworm as well which causes them to lose a lot of their spines and fur and obviously, that's no good because they lose their main defence mechanism. We also do get injuries - a common one is strimmer victims. Early in the season, we have one at the moment that, luckily, just avoided a strimmer and has just had some of her spines taken off. All sorts we get ones coming in with missing limbs; ones that are blind. I'd say that the majority is definitely parasite burdens.

Adam - But what is the state of hedgehog kind? Why is a hospital like this necessary?

Alex - So, hedgehogs in the UK are actually on the same decline as tigers. They are really struggling and experts reckon that in the next 10/15 years we could no longer have hedgehogs in the UK, and that's largely because of population loss and fragmentation. A lot of people close off their gardens and obviously there's new roads being built and things like that, and it just means that hedgehogs can't move freely and breed. As well as that people think they are vermin and pests and they’re really not, they’re actually very useful for us in our gardens because they obviously keep down insects and things like that.

Adam - What can we do to help them?  If we wanted to make it easier for hedgehogs what's the best thing to do?

Alex - One of the easiest things you can do to just create 'hedgehog highways' in your garden. So making holes in your fence just to allow hedgehogs to pass through and that just makes it a lot easier for them to move about. Also putting out food and water, so hedgehogs will eat cat and dog food, wet and dry, as long as it's not gravy or fish based because that can give them an upset stomach. But especially at this time of year when they're waking up from hibernation they can often be dehydrated and really appreciate some food and water.

Adam - And when the inpatients are ready to become outpatients, how do you put a hedgehog back into the wild?

Alex - We have people on record that are release sites. So when we have one that's ready, we always try to get them back to or as close to where they come from as possible. So when someone brings in a hedgehog we will try and talk to them about being a release site, if not, we will find someone in the same area or the same postcode. And then we do what we called a 'soft release'. The hedgehogs go into like a rabbit pen for a few days and get fed in that garden and then after no more than six days, they get let out and people often still feed them. They're really good just getting back into the wild, they don't tend to have any issues at all.


20:41 - What's buggier: beards or fur?

Which actually has more bacteria lurking inside: dog fur, or a human beard?

What's buggier: beards or fur?
David Williams, The Queen's Veterinary School Hospital

A shortage of veterinary scanners means machines for humans are increasingly being used to image our pet dogs, leading some people to wonder about infection risks. But which actually has more bugs lurking inside: dog fur, or a human beard? To sniff out an answer, we let Naked Scientists Ben McAllister and Ruby Osborn off the leash to investigate. In the interests of confidentiality, the names of some of the furry subjects in this report have been bleeped to protect their identities...

Ben - Recently, there's been a lot of hullabaloo about the relative cleanliness of dogs and humans with the study from the journal European Radiology finding that, on average, men's beard hair contains higher populations of bacteria than dog fur.

Ruby - That's interesting and a bit gross, but why was a study in a radiology journal we hear you shout?

Ben - And if they aren't shouting it, I certainly am. So please enlighten me.

Ruby - The study was initially trying to determine whether it was safer and/or cleaner to get an MRI...

Ben - Which is a common type of medical scan also known as a Magnetic Resonance Image.

Ruby - ...in a machine that was shared by both humans and dogs compared to a machine that was just used by humans?

Ben - Shared at different times I expect.

Ruby - Who's to say.

Ben - Well, what did they find?

Ruby - Ben, surely you remember that we contacted the study author, Dr Andreas Gutzeit to find out more. Sadly, Dr Gutzeit was not available for an interview but they found that the MRI shared by humans and dogs in fact contained fewer bacteria than the MRI only use by humans. The shared machine was carefully cleaned after every doggy patient meaning it actually got cleaned more often than the human only machines.

Ben - It seems that the conclusion of the MRI thing is that whether you've got humans or dogs in your scanner you should probably just clean it out regularly.

Ruby - Yep. But let's not gloss over their results about facial hair versus dog fur.

Ben - That's right. They swabbed dogs fur in 30 dogs and people fur in 18 adult men and compared the bacteria found in each.

Ruby -  Dr Gutzeit commented that the study showed that humans and animals are very similar and the paper explains that they actually found slightly higher populations of bacteria, on average, on the men's faces.

Ben - And the astute of us will note at this point that I know how to grow facial hair.

Ruby  - And I know how to test for bacteria.

Ben -  So given this shows called the Naked Scientists and not just the naked people who talk to you about stuff, we went to the Queen’s Veterinary School here at Cambridge University to see how I compared to a dog.

We’re here with…

David - David Williams. I'm veterinary surgeon here.

Ben - And well, who else is with us Ruby?

Ruby - I have my two test subjects. I have beep, the black labrador and also Ben and Australian man.

Ben - And we are going to find out who's got more bacteria. David, who do you think is going to have more bacteria in their hair? Do you think it's going to be beep here or do you think it's going to be me?

David -  Well, I would have thought it would be beep, because beep doesn't wash herself on a daily basis, and I hope that you might.

Ben - That makes some sense, but I guess, proof is in the swabbing, so let's get down to it shall we.

Ruby - I'm going to swab beep's neck. Come here darling, there we go. Good girl.

Ben - Okay. One sample down... And swab number two -  I'm very nervous about this one...

Okay, all done.

Ruby - As well as Ben's beard, I also swabbed his hairless cheek to see if it's really the beard that's the problem or just human's faces.

Ben - And we made one more stop at the Animal Hospital's MRI machine to see how clean that was?

We are here in the radiology department with...

Mari - Mari Ode.

Ruby - So how often do you clean your MRI machine?

Mari - We'll be cleaning our MRI machine between every patient, and at the end of the day we’ll be giving it another clean.

Ben - Right. So that sounds  quite clean and I'm expecting it's going to have less bacteria than I'm gonna find a human MRI machine which, apparently, aren't cleaned all that thoroughly all the time. You work with animals quite a lot I expect?

Mari - Yeah, every day.

Ben - All kinds of different animals or?

Mari - All kinds, every sort of species. Our main species are cats and dogs but we will have all sorts. We've had tigers, we've had many cheaters, we've had lots of different animals.

Ben - And, so given your vast experience of different animals, who do you think is going to have more bacteria on their face? Do you think it's going to be beep, the black Labrador who we swabbed or do you think it's going to be me, a 25 year old human man?

Mari - Uh, oh. I think the interesting question will be, also, what kind of bacteria? Do you have more dangerous bacteria or do you just have more as a human being compared to an animal?

Ben - I did wash it this very morning.

Ruby - I was about to ask if you'd washed your beard.

Ben - Well, I suppose only time will tell. So were about to swabbed the MRI machine.

Mari - And this is the coil that the animal sits in.

Ben - It sounds like they clean that thing a good deal?

Ruby - Yep. And that was supported by our swab results which showed a very low levels of bacteria.

Ben - Our doggy helper also showed low amounts of bacteria, actually lower than any of the dogs in the original study.

Ruby - And then there's Ben...

Ben - Oh dear.

Ruby - Ben's beard did in fact contain high levels of bacteria. Five times more than the moderate amount on his cheek.

Ben - Even though I'd just washed it that morning!

Ruby - So it seems our little experiment...

Ben - Which is not very rigorous, by the way, with just one person and one dog.

Ruby - Stop trying to get out of it Ben! Our little experiment supported the paper's findings that human beards contain more bacteria than dog fur. A secondary aspect of the study that was in addition to having a higher density of bacteria overall, the density of human pathogenic bacteria, or bacteria that can harm humans was slightly higher in men than in dogs.

Ben - It's important to note that the secondary result of this paper didn't reach what is called "statistical significance," which means it wasn't clear from the data that human hair does contain more harmful bacteria than dog fur, and we can't really draw that conclusion with any confidence. That being said, even if it is true, perhaps it's not surprising then humans carry more human-related bacteria than dogs given we're well -  humans.

Ruby -  There's also the question of if bacteria being present in dog fur or human fur is really that big of a problem to begin with?

Ben - Bacteria are everywhere.

Ruby - Keyboards.

Ben - Phones.

Ruby - Doorknobs.

Ben - Handrails.

Ruby - You get the idea. Whether or not bacteria are denser in human beard than in a dog's fur, a beard is probably not the only bacteria dense in you'll come across in your day-to-day life.

Ben - The study authors even said there's no reason to believe that women may harbour less bacteriological load than bearded men. So leave us beardies alone! We are no worse than the rest of you.

Ruby - Yep. Beards are fine. You should probably still wash them regularly though.

Ben - I do!

Ruby - Well then, it's fine.

Ben - Some would say - cool - even.

Ruby - Some might, although our research found no evidence to support that assertion.

Ben - Oh!


25:12 - Tick tock body clock

Should our biological sleep differences be factored into working life?

Tick tock body clock
Malcolm von Schantz, University of Surrey

What exactly is a body clock? And why do these clocks differ between people? Malcolm von Schantz is a body clock expert from the University of Surrey, and he spoke to Katie Haylor... 

Malcolm - I think we need a cultural change in that we need to recognise sleep as time well spent. One interesting example of that is going from the American East Coast to Europe and you have a choice between taking a day flight and a night flight. Ninety percent of people will take the night flight because oh, that will save myself a day, but actually the night spent in your own bed at the end of that day is worth a lot. So, I think we need to schedule sleep and plan for sleep just like we plan for waking activities.

Katie - A very rough guide is you need to get about eight hours of sleep a night. But that's a big oversimplification and it varies between individuals, so why does it vary?

Malcolm - Well it varies as almost any biological factor varies like our height, for example. So, there will be a certain component which is genetic, and a certain component which is environmental. We use the term heritability to describe the part of the natural variance which is created by genetic variability so that could vary from zero percent to a hundred percent. Now if we look at some key factors relating to sleep, we can actually analyse this heritability by either comparing twins, identical and non-identical twins, or by looking at extended families. For example, sleep apnoea has about 25 percent heritability; insomnia has about 20 percent heritability; preferred bedtime and rise time it’s about 40 percent heritable; how much sleep we think we need has a heritability of about 30 percent.

But what is really stunning is what we call the sleep architecture, so that is the pattern of brain waves that your brain produces during sleep, that creates a very very specific fingerprint. Brainwaves, or what we would call an electroencephalogram, so this is something that you can study by putting electrodes on the scalp of the person, measuring the patterns of electrical activity during the brain which we can do in different stages. And in sleep, the pattern of neuronal activity changes very very specifically and very dramatically, and what is really striking is that exactly the pattern of these brainwaves, if you will, is very very specific to the individual. 96 percent of the sleep architecture, as we call it, of an individual is determined by genes and is actually your individual inherited pattern. And it's almost like a real fingerprint in that it can actually, with very high confidence, then be attributed back to the same individual again. So, we all sleep in our own individual, and in subtle ways, unique way.

Katie - Where does this concept of the body clock come in then?

Malcolm - So the body clock is a clock which ticks away inside our bodies and inside our cells and keep internal time, in principle independent of the 24-hour day and the change between day and night around us, that actually helps our body to anticipate the changes which occur across 24 hours of a day and the night, rather than reacting to them. So for example, our body clock makes us prepare for waking up even before we wake up, so it raises our body temperature, it brings up our blood pressure, it brings up levels of certain hormones so that even before we actually physically wake up our body has already started preparing for wakefulness. And a similar thing happens in the evening that the body clock starts essentially preparing you for the night. And this body clock essentially interacts with what we call this sleep homeostat, which is the body's way of counting your sleep need. So as we wake up in the morning and obviously we hopefully will have had a good restful night's sleep and then over the day we will accumulate what we call sleep pressure that will be maximal in the evening and that will make us sleepy, and then as we sleep this sleep pressure dissipates and goes down again to a level which means that your sleep homeostat is satisfied, you're ready to wake up again. It's a way of describing a biological need which in many ways is similar to hunger and thirst, for example.

Katie - Why might my biological clock be different to my partner's then?

Malcolm - Again, this is due to this biological variation that we have, to a significant part due to genetic differences. To put it simply, we have body clocks which tick a little bit faster or a little bit slower than other people's and, of course, then there's many of us who are somewhere in between. So, a fast body clock would make us what we call a morning type, or a lark, who naturally wakes up early and prefers to go to bed fairly early as well. And the opposite of that will then be somebody who has a slower body clock who is what we call a night owl, so this would be an individual who has a natural propensity to stay awake longer and to sleep in longer in the morning.

Katie - We've known about these body clocks and the differences for a while now, so what new research is coming out about the health consequences of not necessarily paying attention to those body clocks, because in modern life it can be actually quite difficult to find time to switch off or switch on, as it were, at the appropriate time of day?

Malcolm - Indeed. We know from a number of studies that sleep deprivation is not good for your physiology. Sleeping out of synchrony with your body clock is also not good for you, such as in jetlag or in shift work. But there's also a growing body of evidence that people who are night owls naturally have a bit of a raw deal in terms of health outcomes. So, there is a number of reports showing that, on average, night owls have a higher risk of having poorer mental health and poorer cardiovascular health, and also a higher risk of diabetes.

In a report that we published last year we used data from the UK biobank where middle-aged people when they signed up for this study, they answered a question about are you a morning type or an evening type on a scale with five steps. And what we found is that people who describe themselves as definite evening types, during these seven years they had a 10 percent higher risk of dying than the definite morning types. And it's really important to note that we have no reason to assume that there is something intrinsically unhealthy of being an evening type. What we think is happening is that evening types who are essentially forced to live in a world which is designed around the preferences of morning types, they have a difficult time because if you find it hard to fall asleep until quite late, but you still have to get up as early as everybody else, then you will start accumulating a sleep deprivation which, in the longer term, is detrimental to your health. And equally you can end up with something called social jetlag, which we often see in an evening type, and that means that in the weekend they essentially try to make up for having to sort of live against their natural inclination by almost sort of travelling to a different time zone by moving their activity patterns over the weekend and then back again on Monday, and that also is not good for the health.

Katie - How can we better accommodate these sleep differences then?

Malcolm - It is really important that we have an open dialogue about this in society and that we recognise that this natural biological variation is nothing to do with whether you are industrious or lazy or anything like that, it is just our biological background. Now there are, of course, some professions where there is no flexibility but in many professions it is possible to have flexible working hours, and fortunately people are now openly discussing flexible working hours for reasons such as care responsibilities. It should absolutely be an acceptable reason to ask for flexible working hours, if it is not detrimental to your availability for meetings etc., why would your employer not what you working during the eight hours when you are at your peak?

Katie - Now, napping is something we tend to associate with kids or babies. Is there any evidence to suggest the benefit of an adult nap, if your body clock doesn't necessarily complement the standard 9-to-5?

Malcolm - Well, if you need a nap then get it. It's not as good necessarily as getting the sleep at the appropriate time, but there's lots of evidence showing that even a short power nap actually can help us function better for the hours subsequent to that.


29:31 - In space, no one can hear you scream.. right?

"In space, no one can hear you scream....". Well, we wanted to test this for ourselves!

In space, no one can hear you scream.. right?
Dave Ansell, sciansell; Omar Gad, Konstantinos Banitsas & Tim Pilgrim, Brunel University

On 29th June, The Naked Scientists and engineers at Brunel University, London, launched a balloon into space. They say that in space, no-one can hear you scream, but we wanted to test that for ourselves. So, after months of testing, we attached a loudspeaker and a microphone to a helium balloon and sent it up to one hundred and twenty thousand feet. Chris Smith explained the story...

Chris - Well the idea of this is to send a balloon to the edge of space, and the reason for doing that is that we want to test the theory that in space no one can hear you scream. The rig has been built by Dave Ansell...

Dave - So there's a square based pyramid made out of dowling, held together with cable ties. From this is suspended on springs a loudspeaker at the square end, and a little bit further down, a little tiny microphone in a lump of brass to try and give it a bit more mass.

Chris - So they are hanging in space but supported by the springs and the elastic. They’re not connected to each other, they can see each other, but there's no way for the vibrations to travel out of one and into the other. The rig’s been built by Dave Ansell and the software has been written by Omar Gad...

Omar - The biggest challenge for me was getting the device small enough and getting a power source that can power all of this.

Chris - This thing has got to get to a hundred and twenty thousand feet - it would easily go over the top of Mount Everest - so we need to make sure that whatever we do, we can cope with low pressure and low temperature. We bought a cheap speaker off the internet, and then we went bought a microphone that cost about £8. And pretty quickly realised that an £8 microphone was not going to cut it because it was rubbish, so we went bought an £80 microphone and that was much better.

Omar -  And so I recorded myself screaming. That was recorded with the mic, and now we're going to play what the mic recorded.

Chris - So it's playing the audio of the screams and it's also recording the audio and we're also recording other things like temperature, pressure. There is also a satellite transponder on it, because we need to track this thing and we need to know where it's going because we’ve got to go and retrieve it, and we have no way of controlling where it comes down apart from watching the weather and following it.

Omar - That noise is coming from the receiver, and the receiver is receiving data from the transmitter. So that noise is actually ones and zeros being sent across the air. And then on here you actually start to see here look, it says temperature and it will then give you the temperature, altitude, latitude and longitude.

Chris - The weather for this is critical. When something is going on a four hour flight, all the time its up in the air it subject to wind, but it's pretty windy up there regardless. So it's definitely going to travel across the country. So we may have to do a bit of driving to catch up with this thing. If the wind suddenly changes direction and turns west then the whole lot’s going to go in the ocean and we’re going to lose everything. I'm dead excited about this. I don't think anyone’s done it quite the way we are trying to do this before so this is quite cool. It's a first. Do you know, it's been really good fun.

Chris - Right, well it's Saturday, 29 June. We've just got in the car and we have to go to the West Country to launch the balloon because the prevailing wind direction is towards the east, so this balloon should go down somewhere over Birmingham-ish. I'm optimistic. Buoyant.

Chris - Yes, so now we’ve finally arrived. We’re here in this field.

Omar - It is my birthday, yes. I am launching a balloon into space on my birthday.

Chris - We've got a very large cylinder of helium which is what we're going to put into the balloon...

 Three, two, one, go...

Konstantinos - I'm Dr Konstantinos Banitsas from Brunel University. This is a project that has a thousand things that can go wrong and only in one scenario you can actually retrieve it. Everything has to work right.

Chris - We've got the device we've built which is in a big polystyrene box which the balloon is going to carry up to a hundred and twenty thousand feet.

Omar - We're going to have two mobile phones in there and a Gopro to actually take videos. So we’re going to put those in last. We have to be absolutely sure that everything is secure because we can't tell how crazy the weather might get up there.

Konstantinos - Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop! 

Omar - Yeah, we’re ready. We’re ready to launch now..

Crowd - Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, lift off.

Konstantinos - Yes, yes! That's perfect.

Omar - 1047 metres, after probably about five minutes? I’m now going to run the prediction now that we’ve launched it to see exactly where it’s going to end up. Okay. It's going to land in a place called New Cross near Wolverhampton. One team should now get going and we will probably clear up and chase after it.

Tim - Well I’m Tim Pilgrim at Brunel University, and I’m the press officer that originally helped Omar get in contact with Chris to set up this whole thing. So we've now reached the outskirts of Birmingham and we’ve just received some exciting news that the balloon has started to come back down again, so we've obviously reached peak. Fingers crossed, we should be at the landing site before the balloon gets there…

Tim - Oh, it’s already landed?

Omar - It’s in a field right next to a river.

Tim - Oh, fantastic.

Omar - You guys are probably going to be the first ones there.

Tim - Cheers!

Omar - Bye.

Tim - Oh, that’s exciting.

Omar - Yes! We got it!

Tim - Where is it?

Konstantinos - We found it! Exactly where we were supposed to find it. This is the best case scenario: it just lands in a field somewhere. No danger at all. And it's here!

Omar - Here it is, the payload. In the middle of a field. We actually lost telemetry. Had it not been for the Find My Phone app, this is actually how we found the device.

Chris - Well, we did it. We have succeeded. We actually got our device up to the edge of space and we got it back again, and we’ve got all the data. What did we find? Well, if we look at two screams, here’s the first one: this one was recorded at the ground…

Children! Come and clean your room!

Chris - ...and you compare that with this, which was recorded at 33km up just before the balloon popped where the pressure is 10 millibar, so only about one one-hundredth of the pressure at the Earth’s surface…

Children! Come and clean your room!

Chris - ...you can hear that the two are dramatically different, the second - where the air is very thin - is really quiet. So the logical conclusion is, were we to have carried on going up even further, the air would have continued to get even thinner; we would eventually have reached a point where there would be so few air molecules bashing into the microphone, it would barely move and you wouldn’t be able to hear it. Case closed. But we have made a special page on our website with all of the raw data and the recordings, as well as other measurements we made, and you can go and take a look at that. Interestingly we’ve got the profile of the carbon dioxide levels as we go up, and we think on our graph you can see the effects of the M4 motorway and the city of Bristol just upwind of where we were taking off. If you want to go and have a look at it, it’s nakedscientists.com/balloon.

A rocket, with space shuttle attached, blasting off from Earth

36:39 - Liftoff: How to launch a rocket

3, 2, 1, LIFTOFF! The Naked Scientists launch their own rocket with the help of some friends.

Liftoff: How to launch a rocket
Hugh Hunt, University of Cambridge

The distance from Earth is not always the same – it varies because the lunar orbit is not circular, but elliptical. At its closest, it’s about 356 000 km away, and at its farthest: 407 000 km. But, either way, travelling to this rocky destination really is rocket science, as Izzie Clarke learned from Hugh Hunt from the University of Cambridge.

Hugh - We're here in the Engineering Department of Cambridge University which is where I work. And it's the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of the Saturn V rocket that took the Apollo 11 spacecraft up to the moon. Now that launch is going to happen - 50 years ago - in about three hours’ time.

Izzie - So it is… we are recording this on the 16th of July, so exactly 50 years ago. So tell us about the rocket. What type of rocket did the crew go up in?

Hugh - Well the rocket itself was the Saturn V, a huge great big tank of fuel. The fuel was basically kerosene; more or less the same, a bit like petrol, bit like diesel fuel, nothing particularly special but with liquid oxygen. And to this day the rockets SpaceX are using are exactly that, they have kerosene and liquid oxygen. It turns out to be a really efficient fuel. A million gallons, 4 million litres of this fuel; boy, it was like, that’s an explosion waiting to happen. That takes the rocket up to the upper edges of the atmosphere, at which point that stage falls off and falls to the ground. There's a couple more stages left which are hydrogen- and oxygen-fuelled stages. It's important to have different stages because you don't want to carry the weight of your fuel tanks all the way to the moon. And they did this 50 years ago! These engineers were just fantastic.

Izzie - And why is oxygen so important in this launch?

Hugh - If you burn a fuel in air, air is 80% nitrogen, and nitrogen is like a waste of... it's just added weight. If you really want to get fast, energetic combustion you need to have pure oxygen. Pure oxygen is what's needed for the fastest, rocket-type combustion. Now aircraft use air, they don't carry pure oxygen with them, and that's why aircraft just don't quite go so fast. So rocket-propelled machines - it's all because of the oxygen.

Izzie - And so what's going on in our rocket to make sure we get to whatever our destination might be?

Hugh - So the rocket is employing Newton's Third Law, which is that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Izzie - It's a bit like when a rifle is fired. The bullet rockets out of one end and the gun kicks back into your shoulder, just using the expanding gases caused by an explosion. Just not quite on the scale of a rocket.

Hugh - Now a rocket is throwing out the exhaust from burning the kerosene and the oxygen at a really high speed. The faster you propel this stuff out the more thrust you'll get. Lots of fuel going at high speed propels you up.

Izzie - Because I think a common misconception is that when a rocket goes up it's literally pushing against the ground.

Hugh - A rocket when it goes up doesn't push against the ground. Even in outer space you get thrust. When they were orbiting around the moon they were able to eject thrust with little rockets to accelerate the lander, and all sorts of things to manoeuvre the spacecraft.

Izzie - Enough theory. Time to launch some rockets. But we needed a crew for this and thankfully… we had some help from St Paul's Primary School in Cambridge. So what's the mission plan? We set up our own little launch pad in the courtyard. We placed our long thin pointed tube rocket, made from cardboard, on the pad; sitting it on top of a thin cylinder of some compressed air, just waiting to be shot skyward. A trusty bike pump would compress the air down and hold it in a chamber. All that was left to do was push an exciting-looking red button to unleash the air and launch the rocket.

Schoolchildren - Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Whoa!

Izzie - Alright! It's coming back down, it’s coming back down.

Hugh - Wow! That was high.

Izzie - That was really high!

Hugh - That was really high! That was twice the height of the building!

Izzie - Safe to say it went well. But what makes a rocket a good rocket, like our one?

Hugh - A good rocket has to have a propellant which is ejected at the highest possible speed, and it's got to be quite heavy as well. But it's a tradeoff. You don't want to carry really, really heavy stuff with you. So it's the mass flow rate times the speed that gives you the biggest thrust.

Bruce the black lab puppy

40:33 - Will It Sequence: Bruce!

He's fifteen weeks old, he chews on everything, and he's chock full of genes...

Will It Sequence: Bruce!
Ursula Arndt, Illumina

Dogs are hugely diverse. They can be as big as great danes or as small as chihuahuas. Their fur can be brown, white, or even dark blue, and they can be anywhere on the spectrum of short-haired to massive fluffball. What's going on inside their cells that gives them such a range of shapes and sizes? We went to gene sequencing company Illumina to find out. In this first edition of Will It Sequence, we're trying to decode the genome of Bruce the black lab puppy. 

Ursula - Hello this is Ursula Arndt, I’m a scientist at Illumina. And what's your name?

Amelia -  I’m Amelia and I own Bruce, the young puppy we’ve got here.

Ursula - Excellent, so Bruce… obviously an incredibly adorable black Labrador puppy. We’re going to take DNA from the inside of its mouth. And what we have is a swab. So we’re going to see if we can get him to keep it in his mouth and we’re going to rub it around his cheek for a couple of minutes.

Amelia - What are you picking up from inside of the mouth with that swab?

Ursula -  Mostly saliva, but what we should be getting is a lot of dog cells as well. And what we're hoping for actually, that we’re not just getting dog, but we might be getting some of the bacteria that might be in his mouth as well.

Amelia - And what will you do with those?

Ursula - Sequence them on one of our sequencers, and then we can tell you a lot more about Bruce.

Amelia - Bruce!

Ursula - Bruce! Nom nom nom. So right now I'm trying to swab the inside of his cheek and not just his teeth, without him eating the entire tube. And right now he’s really trying to chew on my hand as well. Okay, I think we’re good Bruce. So I’ve now turned the swab around, and so the piece that looks like a Q-tip is now inside of the liquid, and that’s gonna take the DNA from the swab and hopefully preserve it.

Amelia - And what happens next?

Ursula - So tomorrow morning we’re gonna take this liquid that contains his cells. We’re gonna break up the cell, and we’re gonna keep the DNA and throw away everything that's protein or that’s cell parts, cell walls, everything that's not DNA. We’re gonna sequence all of his genome and then we’re gonna, actually, our biostaticians are going to look at how much wolf is in the dog, I think that's one of our main questions. Then we see what else we can find.

Amelia - How big is the DNA code of a dog?

Ursula - I think it's essentially the same size as human, almost.

Amelia - How long will it take to sequence the DNA of him?

Ursula - So we plan to do the DNA extraction, and then the library - we call it library prep, that makes the DNA ready for sequencing - we’re gonna take just under a day, and then the sequencing is going to take a day and a half. OK, so we’re gonna take a couple of hair samples now. I know you’re really... OK. OK, so I’m trying to get the dog to not wiggle, because I don’t want to cut him while he's moving. But I’m gonna take some hair just from the back of his neck. Can you hold on to your dog for me? Yeah, that should be plenty of hair here. That should be more than enough dog in this tube. Thank you so much Bruce!

Amelia - Bruce? Bruce? Biscuit?

Interacting with digital computer interfaces

43:21 - How accessible is technology?

How easy is modern day tech to use for those with accessibility requirements?

How accessible is technology?
Adi Latif, AbilityNet

Today, we’re analysing the inclusivity of tech. How easy to use are the apps and websites that modern life demands that many of us use every day? We’ll be seeing what’s fit for purpose, what needs to change, and how science can help. With us is Adi Latif who works for AbilityNet, a charity that supports people living with disability to use technology. Adi is blind, and he came here today by train and had to book a ticket online. First up, Chris Smith asked Adi, how do you go about booking a train ticket online if you're blind?

Adi - Well it's amazing now as a blind person. I have an iPhone and I'm able to access most of the features on the iPhone. I turn on something called VoiceOver - It's a setting in the phone. And it sounds really weird, but as I move my finger over the screen things are read out to me. And I have it really fast so it talks really fast, and that allows me to use apps on the phone, and that's how I tried to book my train tickets.

Chris - Now we asked Adi to document his experience and record his interaction with the website on which he booked his ticket. Here’s how he got on.

Adi - Open ‘thetrainline’.

VoiceOver - Trainline. Help. From: Departure Station. Text field: K I - I N - N G. King’s Lynn. King’s L-- King’s L-- King’s L-- Kings Norton. Dalston Kings-- London Kings Cross. Seven Kings. London Kings Cross.

Adi - London Kings Cross going to Cambridge.

VoiceOver - Next field: Cambr-- Cand-- B F Q. W Q. Cambr-- Cambr-- Cambr-- Cambrills. Cambridge North.

Adi - Yes! There we go.

VoiceOver - Open return. Outbound. Saturday 12th October.

Adi - Saturday…

VoiceOver - Sunday 13th October.

Adi - Sunday 13th…

VoiceOver - Find times and prices.

Adi - Fantastic. So up to this point this has been quite event-free. Let’s see what happens next. So live times and tickets...

VoiceOver - Close button.

Adi - Oop, it’s doing something.

VoiceOver - Mobile tickets are now available to Cambridge North. No more queues or fumbling for tickets.

Adi - No more queues or fumbling for tickets. How does it know I’m always fumbling for tickets?

VoiceOver - OK. Got it.

Adi - OK, got it.

VoiceOver - How to get your ticket. Heading.

Adi - How to get your ticket.

VoiceOver - Collect from station.

Adi - Collect from station.

VoiceOver - Read from a ticket machine using a payment card. Button.

Adi - No.

VoiceOver - Ticket collection info. Button. Collect from station. Collect from station.

Adi - I thought it said no fumbling for tickets and now it’s telling me that’s the only option…

VoiceOver - Total amount to pay: 12.20 British pounds.

Chris - Well you made it... was that a good interaction? Was that a good day?

Adi - It was a typical example of something kind of working, and then me getting stuck. So as you can see, or listen, I got so far and I wasn't able to get a mobile ticket. And then when I got to the end it wouldn't actually allow me to book. I put in two different cards and it just wasn't working for me.

Chris - I find it hard enough, Adi, to buy stuff online, and I can see all these buttons and boxes I'm supposed to tick and click. Does it not make you exquisitely nervous when you're thinking, “I’m parting with credit card details onto a webpage that I can't see, and I don't really know what it's doing with any of the data”?

Adi - Weirdly enough if I get that far, if I'm actually able to give them my money, I'm the happiest person in the world! Because over 90% of apps or websites don't work for me. So I'll get so far, I’ll have filled in a form to book a flight or to buy something, and I get to the end and the button doesn't work for me. So if I'm able to give someone my money then I'm really happy to do so.

Chris - I find it really surprising and quite frankly shocking. We invent computers, we invent computer programmes, and ostensibly this is all about making life better for us. And we've never had it so easy in terms of being able to make something and mould it, and turn it into something that we need. And yet we seem hell-bent on actually making computers the masters and we're their slaves. And when it comes to people who actually have disability, we make them even harder!

Adi - And I think the digital world - and this is the most exciting thing - that digital world inherently is barrier-free. And it's just unfortunate if we don't look at a methodology such as inclusive design, if we don't think before we make something that, you know, “will this meet the needs, is this fit for purpose for society,” then we unfortunately create these barriers that are just unnecessary.

Chris - What success stories have you come across though? In what way have you seen your life change as a blind person thanks to the digital revolution that we've had in the last couple of decades?

Adi - Well there's so many things that a blind person can do. Twenty years ago I couldn't read the papers, I wouldn't be able to flag a taxi off the street in a train station, I wouldn't be able to find out what platform my train is leaving from, so there are just some examples. And all that is possible now. I’ll load up the Uber app and I can book my taxi in the train station; I can refer to the app that tells me what platform the train's leaving from; and obviously we've gone online with newspapers and books, so I can have access to all that information now. So in a way technology has given me what medical breakthroughs couldn't: it's given me independence, it's given me access to information. That's why it's really exciting.

Chris - If it didn't quite work out then Adi, how did you get here then? Because you fell down at the last hurdle, it wouldn't take your money.

Adi - Absolutely. So it didn't take my money, so I decided I would just go to the station the old-fashioned way and find some assistance in the station, and have someone help me use a machine. And as you can see, the difference there: there's so much relying on other people just because the digital was not working for me.

Chris - Can I ask you something about other aspects of everyday life? Because we heard something relatively straightforward, in theory: buying a train ticket. Increasingly governments and so on are pushing us online for everything. Pensions. Tax returns. Benefits and so on. What's the experience with things like that, from your perspective? Do they work well?

Adi - They're getting much better now. There's a lot of regulation now, recently there's a regulation that came out, the public sector’s Website and Mobile Applications Regulation, so it really states that public sector services, digital services, have to be accessible. And pretty much online government services are pretty good. However there are a lot of challenges; I've not used a lot of the services that you've mentioned, so I don't have firsthand experience, but usually there's a lot of guidance and a lot of accessibility considerations taking place with government. With the NHS, on the other hand, I'm really thrown into the dark ages when it comes to the NHS. Everything is paper-based, I get my prescriptions on paper, get important results from the hospitals on paper, so all the independence I’ve received using technology is stripped away. And what's more important than managing your healthcare? So that's really an area that really would benefit from being accessible.

Chris - And dare I ask, have you had a look at nakedscientists.com to see how we're doing? Is our website any good?

Adi - Do you know, I have not had a look. But I'm so thrilled with the show, just being here today and listening to the exciting stuff on the show, I'll definitely have a look and get back to you on that.

Chris - Yeah do, and if we can improve it... because obviously our programme is full of audio. It's a website that actually, lots of the content is audio, but we transcribe everything with the intention that actually screen readers and things should be able to either play them to people or read them out to people. I'd be just really interested in your appraisal.

Adi - Absolutely. I will be gentle but I'll be honest.

Parker's Tavern Chef Tristan Welch demonstrates how to make a proper egg custard

Making egg custard with Tristan Welch
Tristan Welch, Parker's Tavern

Whether it’s hot or cold, like most of us get our custard by making it from custard powder, or straight from the tin. But, to a purist, neither of those are actually custard at all. The real stuff involves eggs, cream, and careful cooking. And to find out more, Phil Sansom went over to Parker’s Tavern in Cambridge to meet head chef Tristan Welch...

Tristan - Custard is probably up there with my top three sauces of all time!

Phil - Why does it rank so high?

Tristan -It's home memories, it's childhood memories actually, it is a very comforting creamy sauce that reminds me certainly of great family occasions.

Phil - Why don't you show me a little bit about how to make it? Let's start off!

Tristan - Yeah absolutely. So let's start by making a really classical custard or the French might call it "Creme Anglaise". All we need really is egg yolks, cream and sugar with an infusion of vanilla.

Phil - At a fundamental level, is this what custard really is?

Tristan - This is the complete definition of custard. This is what every other custard has been based upon. 

Phil - Eggs, milk, cream, and sugar with a bit of vanilla.

Tristan - Custard is the building block. One of the foundations of the modern world's desserts and anything else to do with a kitchen, a quiche for instance.

Phil - No.

Tristan - Of course the quiches are custard.

Phil - I don't believe you.

Tristan - Yeah a quiche, a flan and ice creams and other custards actually.

Phil - Ice creams a custard?

Tristan - Yeah absolutely. Actually what we're doing here is a classical custard base but if you take this custard and you put it in ice cream machine - you've got vanilla ice cream!

Phil - Is it still custard though?

Tristan - Of course.

Phil - I'm finding out that a lot of things are custard but I didn't realise everything is custard!

Tristan - It all comes down to custard.

Phil - Let's make a start on this. You've got your pan here on this induction stove, this mini almost hot plate.

Tristan - That's basically ticking away with our milk, cream of vanilla and creating an infusion. Now in this bowl here, I'm mixing sugar and egg yolks and that's going to give our milk and cream consistency, because when the egg yolks cook the proteins coagulate a bit it creates a viscosity, so a thickness to the milk and cream and that is really what we know as custard. So, are milk and cream has been infusing with our vanilla for about 20 minutes a gentle simmer. The aroma is just fantastic! It's like childhood memories coming back. It's like a sweet shop. Now I've got eggs and sugar, I'm gently going to pour on the milk and cream - this is called tempering the eggs. This is really important. If you pour the eggs into the milk and cream, it will scramble them. So you pour about half of the milk and cream onto the eggs. Then put that into the pan safely without splitting.

Phil - And what do you mean by splitting?

Tristan - Basically if you cook the eggs too fast, it looks a little bit like scrambled eggs floating in water.

Phil - And if I understand correcrtly, custard is all about cooking it to the point before it splits and you get the scrambled egg horribleness?

Tristan - Absolutely. The magic temperature here to get it in to is about 82 degrees centigrade.

Phil - You can see now it is already thicker.

Tristan - Yeah. Absolutely. Mmm. Never trust a chef who doesn't eat his own food.

Phil - Is it my turn?

Tristan - Yeah. You have a taste!

Phil - That's gorgeous.

Tristan - Shall I show you how this goes wrong?

Phil - Yes.

Tristan - Ok. Let's overcook it goes completely. This goes against my DNA! By the way so what I'll do, I'm going to take out half of it now. So only ruin a part of it! I'm just taking it above a safe level to cook at for an egg. So I'm essentially going to boil it and you can see the bubbles coming up there now.

Phil - Oh no. There's little solid bits forming in this beautiful lovely custard.

Tristan - There you go. Watery. It's like essentially is curds and whey! It has started to look disgusting, starting to smell disgusting.

Phil - So Tristan. How often do you make custard in your kitchen?

Tristan - More than daily. Our pastry chef probably makes a custard about 12 to 15 times a day.

Phil - That's a lot of custard.

Tristan - It's a lot of custard.

Phil - A lot of eggs! Now I know that if someone couldn't eat eggs for whatever reason, this would be a good custard alternative. What are you making now?

Tristan - So this is custard powder. This was the first custard that I knew and it's the first custard which a lot of people knew in the U.K.

Phil - It's custard as I would make it.

Tristan - So this is a custard powder. Basically the recipe is vanilla extract, corn flour and colouring. We actually use this in some of our recipes in the pastry kitchen, instead of cornflour because it is so high in corn flour.

Phil - Now how can it be custard, if it doesn't have that crucial ingredient the eggs?

Tristan - It's like vegetarian burgers without the beef; poetic license is allowed, I think.

Phil - How does it work then if it's mainly corn flour?

Tristan - Because it's got the corn starch in it. You have to mix it with the cold milk and you bring it gently up to the boil. So what I'm going to do here, I've got a custard powder and you've got to add a little bit of sugar to it and our milk. I'll just mix those. You have to keep it stiring, otherwise what may well happen is the corn starch will fall to the bottom of the pan and then start to cook before the res of it does - that will get you lumps again! I can feel it now on the whiskthere, I can feel it getting slightly thicker. If it was green you'd think it was slime right? Well that is our powdered custard.

Phil - The powdered custard has a lot more yellowy colour and thicker texture.

Tristan - Yeah I think the colours are a little bit lighter. That's really dependent on the type of egg yolks used that you use as well. So if you buy the bright yellow egg yolks, that will change the colour but the consistency is something else. I mean an egg custard is a real occasion. It's expensive compared to Bird's Custard it really is, but it's really delicious. It's a bit like a Rolls Royce vs. a Ford Cortina. You know when you go egg custard, it's very difficult to go back.

Phil - You've done all the cooking. I guess I'm on washing up duty?

Tristan -Yeah. Now please!

A hungover man collapsed face down on a table cradling a bottle.

53:14 - The perfect hangover cure

Scientists have tested all sorts of food in the lab to see which breaks down booze the best...

The perfect hangover cure
Alex Thom, University of Cambridge

Now that the office party season’s in full swing, here’s some crucial research results: chemists in Mumbai have been searching out the perfect hangover cure. They’ve tested all sorts of fruits, foods and vegetables in the lab to see which ones help break down the nasty by-products of booze. And while it might not actually represent what goes on inside your body, they did come out with quite an interesting concoction. Phil Sansom went to get the opinion of a - slightly hungover - scientific onlooker: theoretical chemist Alex Thom…

Alex - So they found that various fruits and vegetables actually changed the way alcohol is degraded in the body.

Phil - Are we talking about treating a hangover?

Alex - Basically? Yes. I mean it's the products when you drink alcohol and it ceases to be alcohol and it turns into some nasty things, and then eventually turns into fat.

Phil - Okay. Explain how they investigated this.

Alex - Okay. So they didn't actually use any live subjects. They got some of the enzymes that are used in alcohol degradation called dehydrogenases. One that turns alcohol into acetaldehyde and that works fairly slowly, and a second one that takes acetaldehyde and takes it to acetate. And it's the rate of the two fighting against each other which keeps a steady state of this acetaldehyde, which gives you the hangover. If you make acetaldehyde faster than you get rid of it, you get a build up, and so they did separate tests on these two enzymes with all manner of different fruit juices and vegetable juices.

Phil - What fruit juices and vegetable juices?

Alex - So they went down to the local market in Mumbai and picked up basically everything they could find from pineapple, papaya, carrots, coffee, spices, coconut milk and coconut water.

Phil - Sounds like a horrible hangover concoction if you mix it all together.

Alex - They did them separately, but then they tried to work out what would be the best combination, and they had a panel who decided whether or not this concoction they were going to make was pleasant. The panel universally said that anything involving vegetables wasn't a very nice drink.

Phil - That makes a lot of sense to me. How good is this science? Is this actually testing whether these things are good hangover cure?

Alex - Probably not, because they're doing this in vitro, in glassware, rather than in the liver. All manner of other things are probably going on in the body, so take this with a pinch of salt as to actually whether it does the same thing in the body is in the test tube.

Phil - What was the weirdest thing that they tried, in your opinion?

Alex - So they tried cheese as a hangover cure.

Phil - Cheese?

Alex - Cheese, yes, and it actually appears to be a hangover cure. What was an interesting one I found was that coffee, which they tried, actually has the opposite effect on hangovers. That it causes your hangover to get longer.

Phil - That's mind-blowing. I always drink coffee when I'm feeling any sort of headache.

Alex - Same here. So I've deliberately avoided a coffee this morning.

Phil - Have you got a hangover this morning for the sake of science, can I ask?

Alex - I'll say I had a relatively late night at a friend's birthday. So, I wouldn't say I'm entirely fresh this morning.

Phil - Right. Well this is the ultimate test because you're in the perfect state. Now, did the scientists find what they think is the perfect hangover cure?

Alex - They found their best combination that would get rid of the acid aldehyde quickly, and it was a combination of pear, sweet lime and coconut water. So we've got three different liquids here. So there's some pear juice, freshly squeezed, some lime juice, freshly squeezed, and a little bottle of coconut water and we're going to mix them together. I have a little cocktail shaker here just for science, and let's. So it involved a bit more pear juice. A third of the same quantity of lime juice is probably about that much.

Phil - It doesn't look too appetising yet.

Alex - Yes, it's got a slightly murky brown colour. And the same amount of coconut water.

Phil - Well, it's still murky brown. All right. Bottoms up.

Alex - Bottoms up. Actually, it's quite nice. The lime really gives it a zing and it's certainly waking me up at the moment. I could just drink this for breakfast, actually.


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