The Science of Lasers, Light, Kung fu and Archimedes

02 October 2005
Presented by Chris Smith.

In this show Symon Cotton joins us to discuss how Raman Spectroscopy can be used non-invasively to diagnose malignant melanoma, Russell Cowburn describes how laser scatter effects can be used to genetically fingerprint a banknote, Sam Reay chops his way through a 3-inch block of concrete to highlight the physics of Kung fu, and Uwe Bergmann describes how synchrotronic x-rays are helping him to read the 1000 year old Archimedes Palimpsest.

In this episode

How Music Is Good For The Heart

We've all heard the saying "music soothes the savage breast", and now scientists in Oxford have been studying how different types of music can affect your breathing and circulation. The researchers tested twenty four young men and women with different types of tunes, including raga (Indian classical music), Beethoven's ninth symphony (slow classical), the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (rap), Vivaldi (fast classical), techno, and a piece by modern composer Anton Webern (slow "dodecaphonic" music). The team found that faster music speeded up the circulation and breathing, regardless of whether it was techno or Vivaldi. Also, Indian raga music had the opposite effect, providing the greatest amount of relaxation. Intriguingly, the researchers found that during gaps in the music, people became more relaxed than they were before listening to any music at all - especially if they were musicians. Music has also been found to have unusual benefits in the past, such as boosting milk production in cattle. But I'm not sure how good cows are at dancing.

An End To Being Browned Off By Burnt Toast

Cambridge-based company Magnetic Design have developed a device that, with the help of a little radiation, promises to deliver "perfect toast every time". By combining a smoke detector with a toaster their new kitchen must-have can tell automatically when it's time to pop up the perfect slice. It works by sucking in particles of caramelised bread, which are released as the toast cooks, and blowing them into a stream of radioactive particles similar to those found in a smoke detector. The toast particles mop up the radioactive particles, reducing the number picked up by an adjacent sensor. The more singed the toast becomes, the more particles it emits, and the greater the amount of radioactivity that gets mopped up before it can reach the sensor. By setting the toaster to switch off when the radioactivity drops to a certain level you can guarantee that your toast will always be cooked to perfection, no matter how brown you like it, and regardless of whether you start with warm, cold or even frozen bread.

Getting To The Bottom of The Quick Sand Question

What is quick sand, how does it work, and are you likely to sink into it without trace ? Moreover, what's the best way to escape if you do find yourself stuck? Writing in this week's edition of the journal Nature, these were the questions bothering Dutch researcher Daniel Bonn when he recently wandered around some Iranian quicksand pits which, local legend has it, have been known to swallow camels from time to time, and for that matter anyone who cared to disagree with the local regime. To solve the riddle he recreated some Iranian quicksand in his lab and used the resulting model to figure out how quicksand works, and that it's actually impossible to drown in it (as long as you don't do something stupid), indeed you should only sink to waist depth. But don't try to pull a stuck person out - because the force needed to extricate just a stuck foot is similar to that needed to move a medium sized car, so you might inadvertently pull the person apart ! Instead, the best way to escape is to turn the stuck body part in small circles to resuspend the sand particles in water, withdrawing gently as you do so.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

It's Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, but why is it so important to be aware of breast cancer? It's because there are 40 000 cases of breast cancer each year in the UK, which amounts to around 750 each week. Cancer Research UK are hoping to raise money for research into the causes of breast cancer and finding new ways to treat it. And to do this, they're hosting a range of events, including sponsored walks called 'All Walk Together', and Pink Parties where everyone wears pink. If you want to get involved, go to or you can phone the hotline on 08701 602040. Get involved, raise some money, and have a good pink time this October.


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