This week we're taking a look at the industry that transports 90% of global trade but most of us know very little about - shipping! We're all at sea as we navigate our way through driverless ships of the future and how to make an industry that is currently producing the same amount of emissions as Germany, a little greener. Plus how testosterone hardens your arteries, are drones getting out of control, and can a spoon in the bottle stop your sparkling wine going flat?
In this episode
00:58 - Why do men have more heart attacks?
Why do men have more heart attacks?
with Dr Vicky MacRae, University of Edinburgh
Heart disease affects one in three deaths worldwide. It's caused when arteries that supply blood to the heart become narrowed and stiffened and men seem to be particularly vulnerable to this. Now new research suggests that the male hormone testosterone might be partly to blame by transforming the muscle cells found normally in the walls of arteries into bone cells, which build up calcium and stiffen the tissue. Vicky MacRae explains more about the study, which was carried at the University of Edinburgh, to Chris Smith...
Vicky - So this study shows that testosterone, which is one of the main hormones in men, can act on blood vessels and valves in the heart to increase the hardening of this tissue, and this is important because the hardening of the tissue can be linked to increased likelihood of a patient getting heart disease.
Chris - So, is it fair to say that this goes some way towards explaining why men might be more at risk of heart disease, which they are, than women?
Vicky - Definitely. The hardening of blood vessels has been previously been correlated with increased risk of heart disease and it's been shown that men are more susceptible to heart disease, so I think this really fits well with this theory.
Chris - So how did you show that the androgen, the testosterone, that men have, makes the vessels harder? What did you actually do?
Vicky - We used samples from patients who have hardened valves and hardened blood vessels and we studied these. We also looked at cells that we'd taken from the walls of arteries and we put these into dishes in the laboratory and studied these by adding testosterone and other agents that cause the cells to harden in a similar way to that that happens in the patients.
Chris - Do we understand what actually causes the hardening? Why are things getting hard in the first place?
Vicky - Well the main difference is you've got your cells in your arteries becoming more bone-like. So they're undergoing this transformation to become more like bone tissues and you actually see molecules that are associated with normal bone development and bone growth turning on in these diseased tissues. So it's the process of the blood vessels actually almost becoming like another tissue which is enabling this process to happen.
Chris - And the calcium we associate with the skeleton, does that build up there as well?
Vicky - Yes, so you get formation of little crystals which are a mixture of calcium and phosphate in the blood vessels and in the valves so calcium plays a very important part in this.
Chris - And your experiments using the cells in the dish that you then add the testosterone to them, that's making those cells become more bone cell-like, is it - that's how they respond?
Vicky - That's right. So when we culture ourselves in a dish, we add phosphate which mimics the conditions often seen in chronic kidney disease where the patients have higher levels of phosphate which causes these cells to change into a more bone-like structure and then, on top of this when we add the testosterone, this accelerates this effect.
Chris - But do you understand or have any insights into why the lining of a blood vessel needs to pretend it's a bone? Why should it respond to testosterone in that way?
Vicky - In general, one idea actually is it's a protective mechanism. The tissue is becoming very damaged, the cells are dying and the tissue actually calcifies to almost stop any more degradation happening and to kind of stabilize the area. But, at the moment, it's a very understudied area - there's a lot more to find out, and a lot more research to do.
Chris - What are the implications of this Vicky because, obviously, half the population are male so they're going to have high levels of testosterone? Also, a proportion of the population, probably illegally, are using anabolic steroids. These are forms of testosterone that are there to bulk up muscles, but are they going to have the same sorts of effect?
Vicky - This research certainly highlights the potential dangers of abusing steroids and the fact that adverse effects of steroids on your cardiovascular health. In terms of preventing this obviously, at the moment, there's no real way to prevent vascular calcification or hardening of your arteries. There's no drug to stop this at the moment so the best way forward would be to have a healthier lifestyle, taking regular exercise, have a good diet. At the moment, research is still ongoing to try and understand the pathways behind the process and ways that we might be able to stop it from happening.
Chris - And can you reverse it?
Vicky - That's really the gold standard of the kind of research field that we're into at the moment. At the moment a lot of studies focus on can you prevent it from happening in a model where you know where it'll develop but once it's actually developed, to reverse it is very difficult. And so I think a lot more research needs to be done and a lot more understanding of the pathways, to make the bone go away is a very difficult thing indeed but, hopefully, in the future that would be the aim.
Chris - And could we use it as a screening test? For instance, are there markers that we could use which tell us: ah, this persons at a higher risk of this happening, they're at higher risk of hardening of their arteries and having a heart attack - we need to intervene with other heart sparing procedures?
Vicky - Definitely. I think it could be brought in with a whole range of other potential risk factors that you could study. It's possible to image calcification at really high resolution now as well, so you could see tiny specks that might then develop into areas of calcification which, to the naked eye, you wouldn't be able to detect. As imaging techniques become more and more sophisticated this could definitely become part of that profile.
06:36 - Dementia rates falling
Dementia rates falling
with Professor Carol Brayne, The University of Cambridge
As more people live into old age, the prevalence of some diseases, like dementia, has been predicted to rocket. But those suggestions may paint a gloomier picture than the reality. Public health researcher Carol Brayne has looked at similar groups of people in two large studies 20 years apart and found that fewer people - and particularly men - are developing the disorder than they were two decades ago, Chris Smith went to find out more..
Carol - In England, we have found that the incidence of dementia has dropped by around 20% in the population if we look at people aged 65 and over compared with people of 65 and over 20 years ago.
Chris - Now why is that a revelation? You're saying that fewer people are developing dementia in that age range now than they did historically but, aren't we all getting healthier?
Carol - We didn't have any reason to believe that dementia would be one of the disorders that changed as population health changes. The fact is that we didn't know whether dementia is changing in the population, so whilst we can look at heart attack mortality or stroke mortality from routine statistics in many countries, we can't do that with dementia. You have to go out into the population and measure it and see how many people have dementia in a given population and how many people develop dementia over time in a given population. So you have to that one time and then in order to test whether it's changing, you have to then repeat that at a sufficiently long interval to see whether it's changed.
Chris - Where did the initial idea that is was going to be more common or, indeed, it was more common 20 years ago come from?
Carol - Because of health improvements and public health improvements in general, we've had a remarkable extension of life across the globe and that's continuing now, and it's continuing within the older age groups as well. Governments around the world and in Europe began to be aware that this longevity was going to create perhaps a problem for society and we ought to be studying it and working out what were the consequences of having a much older population, and those consultations led to and investment into dementia studies. Studies looking at dementia in the population, and risk factors, and what might mitigate dementia in the population, and the size of the problem in order to try to plan services and model into the future.
Chris - How did you do this study?
Carol - So 20 years ago we out to the populations in multiple sites and recruited them through General Practice lists which are whole populations lists. So it was people aged 65 and over...
Chris - How many of them?
Carol - Over 18,000 then. And we interviewed folk with comprehensive interviews from which we can extract a study diagnosis of dementia and we followed people over time. From those sites we selected three (Nottingham, Newcastle and Cambridgeshire), and we repeated the same methods, as far as we possibly could, 20 years later.
Chris - Critically what do you see when you compare those two groups you've seen this drop but, if you drilled down into the data, what are the trends in there?
Carol - For the prevalence in both men and women, the proportion of both sexes who meet the criteria of dementia has dropped.
Chris - By how much has it gone down?
Carol - 23%. For the incidence...
Chris - These are new cases. Incidence means new cases cropping up in the two years you follow people up afterwards?
Carol - Yes exactly. The observed over expected has dropped by 20% and it's almost entirely driven by the drop in men, which is effectively a 40% drop with about a 1% drop in women.
Chris - That's a huge difference and for such a big bias in the sexes. How do you account for that?
Carol - Probably because the men don't survive for as long and even once they develop the condition, don't survive as long. So that if you have heart disease or if you have particular conditions, often it's seen that men die at an earlier stage.
Chris - But politicians, David Cameron included, have put dementia at the top of the agenda saying this a huge problem and, within the next 50 years, we might be facing a third of the population of western countries who are afflicted. So this flies in the face of these predictions. Could it be a blip? Could it be that the people you're looking at are those people who came through the Second World War, they have actually had a very healthy diet a lot of them, they haven't had all these other risk factors like putting on lots of weight and actually my generation coming along next, we're actually going to be the ones that will have a much higher rate of dementia?
Carol - That may be the case. We're seeing similar changes in other European countries and the U.S. and we are seeing such effects as the flin effect, which is that I.Q. is going up across time, and there are factors such as increased education which is a protective factor. So it is a question of how does each generation experience risks and protective factors across their life course. Do you have a healthy birth, do you have an adequate early nutrition to nourish your brain, and so on. Do you then have sufficient physical activity and a good diet, as you said. And then are you exposed to an environment in which smoking is very common. So all these things probably influence how we age. The fact is that we are still seeing increases in life expectancy. We can only know what's going to happen across time by continuing to conduct the kinds of studies that we have just done. In ten years time it would be sensible - we've only got two time points here and you really only begin to understand trends when you get three plus.
12:52 - Drone danger?
with Peter Cowley
Last week an aeroplane at Heathrow was struck by what the pilot thought was a drone. Or maybe it was a plastic bag as subsequent reports have suggested... But it's probably only a matter of time before it happens for real... So exactly what are the laws around drone flight and how much damage could they do? Our resident technologist Peter Cowley joins Chris with a little example...
Chris - Indeed, we're actually outside so we can have a go at flying this...
Okay so Peter, for the benefit of people at home: what are we watching whizz round the car park?
Peter - We've got a drone here. It's just a little hobby drone that costs about £50 and weighs about 150 grams. It's going to hit the ground rather hard... oh look at that - that landed just about OK.
So a drone is a small unmanned aircraft that doesn't weigh very much and, obviously, this size is just for something to play with. It could have a camera on it or not so if someone wanted to look at it. They can be very small - as small as just a few grams. In fact there's one out there that's only one cubic centimetre - it costs about £30.
Chris - You didn't distinguish yourself with your flight path there but are they actually relatively easy to fly?
Peter - No. Definitely not! I got this yesterday and spent about half an hour trying to work out how to fly it in my garden and now we're out in a car park where there's more room, I should get it better but there's a bit of wind here and it's not easy to fly at all. Now it might be because I'm old and perhaps if I gave it to one of my children it would work fine.
Chris - Now the question of whether or not they can interfere with flight paths of aeroplanes and things. Can they go high enough to do that kind of thing?
Peter - This one not, because this has got a range of about 60 metres from the controller and then it won't go any further. There is I think it's a global limit of 400 ft (120 or so metres) which you can't fly anywhere in any country, but if you had a bigger drone that costs maybe a £1,000, you'd probably get that up to 1,000 metres or more, so then it would be illegal and in the flight path.
Chris - And could it physically do damage if something of that sort of stature hit an aeroplane, would it damage it?
Peter - This 120 gram one very unlikely. I can't imagine that would do anything even if you hit one of the props. And you don't have to have a licence in the U.K. until it weighs 20 kilos. So let's imagine a 19 kilo drone hitting a small aircraft - almost certainly. Hitting a large aircraft like a jumbo - probably not actually. The jet engines are actually tested with deep frozen turkeys going through them, i.e. a bird at high altitude and that's fine. It should be OK, I hope, but...
Chris - Apart from hobby purposes, what are people exploring these in terms of industrial or other applications - what are people trying to do with them, the drones?
Peter - A lot of positive things. So it will be great when there's legislation and society will be used to using them. So things like journalism, movies, aerial surveying, planning, conservation, anti-poaching, etc., archaeology, cargo possibly - I've seen Amazon talking about that. Obviously law enforcement, search and rescue in the hills, surveillance. There's loads of positive things. Now the negative things, of course, are crime, moving drugs around, spying, potentially bombing and then, depending on one's view about military or not, it could be classed as negative or positive.
Chris - You invest in emerging technologies. Have you got any investments in this sector?
Peter - I do. I have just agreed to invest in a company that will allow multiple drones to fly simultaneously. So this means it's for surveillance reason initially so that when the drone is running out of battery it can come back in again and another one can go out for coverage. And they also have a project potentially with landmines, so actually trying to find landmines.
Chris - So people are literally putting their money where their mouth is and it's quite big business?
Peter - It will be very big business but it does need sorting out because there's a lot of negative press should the drones be doing the wrong thing.
Chris - What about the legislation about this? Where are we - where do we stand in terms of what the law says we can and can't do at the moment?
Peter - Well there's two issues here. Security as in for crime; privacy as in consumers. And also safety because if one of these things - if that thing hits us on the head it would be quite unpleasant but if it weighed 19 kilos. The rules vary a bit round the world but the rules in the U.K. basically are: you must be in line of site, it mustn't be more than 500 metres from where you are, it must not be higher than 400 ft, and it mustn't be any closer than 50 metres from a building if it's got a camera on board, and that goes up to 150 metres if it's hovering over a crowd, say at a pop concert or whatever.
Chris - Now to finish off Peter - shall we have another go and we'll test your piloting skills or, better still, can I have a go?
Peter - OK. So this one here's the throttle so if you push it forwards...
Chris - I'm holding something that looks a bit like the controller say for an X-box or a computer game.
Peter - Correct.
Chris - So this knob on the left is the throttle...
Peter - Yes. And the right one is turn left and right.
Chris - OK lets go. OK, I'm going up in the air and I'm just going to go right and left...
Peter - Oh you're doing a lot better than...
Chris - Let's see how high it goes now Peter. I'm going to try and put it onto the...
Peter - Are you going to replace this? This is my £50. It's gone up to about...
Chris - It's almost out of sight.
Peter - 10/15 metres. I must say you're a complete natural; you must have done this before.
Chris - It's too many computer games Peter, that's what it is. Now I'm going to try and bring this down without...
Peter - ... down without breaking the legs!
Chris - ... We'll just give it a little bit more umph just to give a really gentle...
Peter - Oops it's bouncing a bit. Oops battery compartments come open!
Chris - And we have touchdown - there you go.
Peter - That was brilliant! Well done Chris!
18:19 - Does a spoon stop champagne going flat?
Does a spoon stop champagne going flat?
with Dr Kat Arney, Naked Scientists
Now it's time for this week's mythconception, where we take dodgy science to task and this week Kat's cracking out the bubbly...
Kat - Now it's no secret that I'm a fan of the finer things in life - including champagne. Or cava. Or prosecco. Or even that weird fizzy stuff that might actually not even be made of grapes at all. And, perhaps, so is our listener Elizabeth from South Africa, as she's emailed in to ask us to investigate whether hanging a metal spoon - particularly a silver one - in the neck of a bottle of opened sparkling wine will stop it from going flat.
I'll just start by saying right now that I was unable to test this personally, as I'm incapable of leaving any champagne in the bottle. But in the unlikely event that you have any fizz left in there, will popping a spoon in the top help?
According to Stanford University chemistry professor Richard Zare, who has actually looked into this problem scientifically - as well as the TV show Mythbusters - a spoon in the neck of the bottle will do nothing to keep the fizz in.
Back in 1994, Zare put the idea to the test with a panel of 8 amateur testers, including his wife and some lucky colleagues. In a blind test, they slurped their way through samples from five pairs of temperature-controlled bottles of sparkling wine, which had been treated in various ways - opening the bottle just before the test, opening it the day before and either leaving it uncorked or putting a cork back in, or opening it the day before and putting either a silver or stainless steel spoon into the neck.
Weirdly, they found that while the spoons did nothing to help the booze keep its fizz, they actually found that re-corking it made matters even worse, although other experts suggest that this is actually the best way to trap the bubbles in your bubbly. And Zare himself notes that the testers' judgement may have become impaired after a while...
There's also a good scientific explanation as to why a spoon in the top of an opened bottle won't help, and why a cork in the top might. The bubbles in sparkling wine are carbon dioxide, produced by yeast feasting on the sugars in the drink as they ferment it. As long as the bottle is corked, they're trapped in the liquid, but as soon as that familiar pop happens, they can come rushing out. And because there's a lower concentration of carbon dioxide in the air outside the bottle than inside, it'll tend to rush out, leaving your fizz flat.
But if you've managed to inexplicably end up with leftover champagne that you'd like to drink another day, is there anything you can do to keep your fizzy busy? The main piece of advice is to keep it cold. The lower the temperature, the less likely the carbon dioxide gas is to come out of solution and escape. So pop your bottle back in the fridge or on ice at every opportunity.
You could also try and re-cork it, but please do be very careful and be sure to use a specific champagne stopper rather than any old cork, as the buildup of carbon dioxide gas could shoot it out and cause a nasty injury. To avoid that, just as our listeners have a thirst for knowledge, the best thing is to have a thirst for champagne too and make sure you polish off the bottle. Or send it over to me!
21:45 - Are you really lactose intolerant?
Are you really lactose intolerant?
with Dr Mark Thomas, University College London, Anton Emmanual, University College London
Research is out this week that may suggest that some of us who think we're lactose intolerant- that's about 2/3s of the world's population, have it wrong, and could be missing out on important dietary nutrients for no reason. But what does this mean? Georgia Mills has been investigating, but first wanted to know more about humanity's history with milk...
Georgia - Milk has a very important part to play in growing up. All mammals rely on it when they're first born; it provides them with rich nutrients from their mother. Babies can digest this milk easily as they produce an enzyme called lactase which can break down the sugar in milk which is called lactose. Then, as you grow up, most animals stop producing this enzyme meaning if you drink milk it can cause digestive problems. This is what's known as lactose intolerance. But plenty of people drink milk without any trouble so what makes us so different. To find out I spoke to Dr Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at UCL about the story of when we first started drinking milk, which was around 7,000 year ago shortly after we'd started farming cattle and a single mutation happened in our DNA which meant we produced this enzyme into later life...
Mark - And what's more extraordinary is that it spread very quickly. Now a new genetic variant - they arise all the time - and they can spread a little bit but this one spreads so fast that it cannot be explained just by chance. It requires an extra kick and that kick is, of course, very, very strong natural selection.
Georgia - How strong are we talking here?
Mark - Breathtakingly strong! So it's probably the most strongly selected single genetic trait that's evolved, at least in Europeans, in the last 10,000 years and that's also the case in some African and Middle Eastern populations who also continued to produce this enzyme throughout their adult life.
Georgia - What's going on here - why is this such an advantage to be able to digest the sugar and milk?
Mark - I'm glad you asked me that - I don't know. We have lots of ideas but, to my mind, there isn't a single explanation that explains those unbelievably massive selective advantages.
Georgia - What are some of the ideas we've got for starters?
Mark - OK. So the oldest one is related to the whole story of calcium and vitamin D. Most people in the world get most of their vitamin D, not from food, but from the action of sunlight on the skin. Now you need vitamin D to absorb calcium and we all know that calcium is a good idea for bones and various other things. The problem is that if you're at high latitude, then for most of the year, you actually don't get enough sunlight to make decent amounts of vitamin D. They have a problem and that problem gets a lot worse around 10,000 years ago - that's the period when we switched over to farming.
Prior to that we were hunter gatherers. Now hunter gatherers, they do get decent amounts of vitamin D, especially if they're eating a lot of fish but now these early farmers, they've switched over to mostly cereals and cereals are very, very poor in vitamin D. So the argument goes that milk, which has got some vitamin D and lots and lots of calcium, somehow supplemented their diet and it gave them an advantage but that advantage was only there if they could drink it comfortably. And so, evolving the ability to drink milk comfortably by being able to digest the sugar in it, enabled people to drink more milk and, therefore, to supplement their vitamin D requirement.
Now the problem with that theory is we also see strong selection for continuing to produce lactose throughout our adult life. We see strong selection for it in the Middle East, in Africa and in Southern Europe where they definitely have enough sunlight to make enough vitamin D.
Georgia - What other theories are there that might be able to explain that?
Mark - Well, another one is that milk is actually a relatively a good source of uncontaminated fluid. Milk is relatively parasite free and so one idea is that it was a much cleaner fluid and that idea may well be important and, I would suspect, is more important in arid regions, so in desert regions or in regions that don't have much water.
Georgia - So, for whatever reason, it seems that drinking milk gave you the evolutionary edge in many parts of the world but, not everyone can drink milk. In fact, one in five people in the U.K. say they're lactose intolerant but research from China this week suggest it may be something else entirely people are reacting to which could mean they're cutting dairy out of their diets for no reason at all. Dr Anton Emmanual is Senior Lecturer in Neurogastroenterology at UCL and he has been looking into the research...
Anton - The background to this is that a lot of people feel that they can't tolerate milk products and they label themselves as being lactose intolerant. And what we find when we formally test for that is that a lot of people aren't and what this study does is to illustrate something which there is something else in milk other than lactose. There's lots of things in milk but one of those things could be a particular protein which can cause problems.
Georgia - What's this protein?
Anton - So the protein is something called the A2 protein. It's part of something called casein and that protein is something some people can digest perfectly and some people probably don't digest as well.
Georgia - And so some people not digesting this might just identify themselves as lactose intolerant when actually it's something else going on.
Anton - Yes, there's many things in milk as we say and one of those things could be this protein which could be the thing that's causing problems and, when that is not digested properly, that can result in very similar symptoms to lactose intolerance. So things like diarrhoea and rumbly tummies and so it's easy to see why people can readily mistake the two.
Georgia - OK. So how did this study try and separate these two problems?
Anton - There is a variant of cows which can produce this casein in a form which is not a problem to digest and that's the so-called A2 type products. And what this study does then is take both patients to either normal milk, called A1 milk, or this milk which has just got the A2 protein in it. And it did this in a so-called crossover design so patients, unbeknown to themselves, had one or the other in random order and then had the various measurements and symptoms quantified after each exposure.
Georgia - What did they find?
Anton - What they found was that there is a cohort with this patient group who can tolerate the milk fine and if they were exposed to normal milk, in other words when they took A2 milk they were fine, but when they took A1 milk they had the symptoms of diarrhoea, and rumbling tummies, and they had objective measurements of rapidity of movement through their gut. And their cognitive state, in other words the way their brain processes things quickly, that was impaired when they took the A1 milk but not with the A2 milk.
Kat - Important stuff. That's Anton Emmanual, and before him Dr Mark Thomas. That research was published this week in the Nutrition Journal.
29:21 - 90% of everything
90% of everything
with Rose George
This week we're immersing ourselves in an industry that impacts all of our lives but few of us ever encounter: the world of shipping. And here to help us launch this ship of a show, is Rose George; she's author of the book Deep Sea and Foreign Going, and she spent five weeks aboard a container ship...
Rose - I departed from Felixstowe on a Friday, which is traditionally bad luck. Also being a woman on a ship is bad luck so it was a really good start. And we travelled to Singapore over 39 days calling in at a few ports in Europe and then going down the Suez Canal, through what was then known as the high risk area because it was infested with Somali pirates. Then down the coast calling in at Sri Lanka and then finally I disembarked at Singapore, very reluctantly.
Chris - Oh you were obviously enjoying then. So what was the sort of stature and scale of this ship? Just paint a picture of it for us.
Rose - Well, when I was standing on the quay at Felixstowe, I was looking up at this ship thinking it's absolutely enormous. But my journey was in 2010, even then it was just a midsized ship. She carried about 7,000 TEUs which is a 20 ft equivalent unit, which is what most of us would know as a container. A shorter container than you're probably used to seeing on the back of trucks on motorways. But now she would be considered tiny because shipping has grown in stature and the ships have grown in stature, even since I went to sea. She was a pretty new ship - about 4 years old - called Mursk Kendal and I grew very, very fond of her although she's been renamed and reflagged and we can talk about that because that's what happens in shipping, so she no longer really exists.
Chris - The SI unit of sizes of things appears to be football fields. Did you play football on the deck of that ship just to give people an idea as to how big this thing is?
Rose - It was 300 metres long.
Chris - So pretty big then. Now in terms of the amount of cargo that moves around the world, what proportion of the world's cargo movements is shipping and how much stuff gets moved by sea every year?
Rose - We rely on shipping to bring us only about 95% of everything. Other countries - it can vary but generally worldwide it's 90% of everything - 90% of world trade travels by ship. And when I was looking into doing the book, and researching the book, I asked my peers and my friends and people on twitter - how much stuff do you think travels by ship and the answers were just wrong. All of them were wrong. So it was 20%, 30%, 40% and the trouble with shipping is it's so efficient that people have kind of lost sight of it and there are other reasons we've lost sight of it as well. But it just comes and goes every day - 80,000 to 100,000 ships bringing us all this trade from the other side of the world, very cheaply, very efficiently, and by people we don't tend to encounter any more because the role of seafarer is now taken by countries in the developing world usually. And so we don't tend to encounter working seafarers in the industrialised world any more.
Chris - And are those people treated as well as someone who would expect employment law to be implemented in terms of what we would define good employment?
Rose - Well it varies. To give you one statistic, the International Transport Workers Federation which is the main seafarer union, every year has to claw back 30 million dollars in money that should have been paid in wages to seafarers but isn't. So the thing with shipping is because of how it's made up because 60% of ships now fly what's called a flag of an open registry or a flag of convenience. And what that means is once you're out on the high sea, the ship is governed by the state that operates that flag and you can switch flags very easily, and some flags are better than others. And they control labour laws and wage levels and so, if you want to be unscrupulous and operate or ownership, it's quite easy to be that. Luckily most people aren't but there is still a lot to be cleaned up in shipping and not just welfare standards. That said, there is a law that came into force a couple of years ago which has been called the "magna carta for seafarers", and it's hopefully going to change things. But it's such a disparate and vast and wide industry with so many nationalities involved, and ships going through jurisdictions and having a flag from one country and an operator from another, crew from yet more, and boxes from all over the world. There's really no industry like it.
Chris - It doesn't sound like it. What are the other problems with shipping? We often dwell on things like climate change and greenhouse gas emissions when we're talking about sort of land based movement, what's the equivalent for shipping - are they well regulated - is it well monitored?
Rose - People often talk about something called the "lawless ocean" or the "lawless sea", and I usually say there are plenty of laws regulating the high seas. The I.M.O. (The International Maritime Organisation), which is the agency which oversees global shipping, is constanting giving new regulations and new laws. The trouble is is enforcement, and that's where a lot the problems arise because of, again, a very disparate and multinational mobile nature of shipping it can be very difficult to enforce something.
Chris - Now you mentioned you were very sad to get off your boat when you had to depart in Singapore, so what's your most memorable experience, just very briefly, in our last 30 seconds?
Rose - It was probably when we hit the pirate area and suddenly the ship changed. Somebody had gone around and cut out cardboard boxes from the bond stores (the kind of tuck shop). So, suddenly, all the portholes and the windows were covered with pictures of rosy apples or Benson & Hedges cigarettes cartons and that really changed the mood on the ship.
35:43 - Are driverless boats the future?
Are driverless boats the future?
with Oskar Levander, Rolls Royce, Jonne Poikonen, University of Turku, Mika Hyvönen, Tampere University of Technology
As Rose mentioned, one of the big problems with shipping currently is the welfare of the workers on board some of these ships. To deal with this we could of course improve legislation, but a more radical move would be to take people off ships altogether, which would also save money. The idea of driverless ships might sound far fetched, but it's something that the UK-based multinational specialist engineering giants Rolls-Royce are actively developing. Connie Orbach went to meet the team in Helsinki, Finland, where the work is taking place...
Connie - That is the sound of ferry pulling into Helsinki harbour and, of course, there's staff driving and operating the ship - but what if there weren't...
Let us take you on a journey to this same port 30 years from now where huge unmanned ships come to dock...
Oskar - First of all we can imagine that, especially the cargo vessels, they will be fully unmanned.
Connie - That's Oskar Levander leading the charge into the future as Vice-President of Innovation in Rolls Royce's Marine Division..
Oskar - Operating mainly autonomously also with a bit of remote control. Especially in port, they will be supervised by some shore based central and otherwise when they go out to sea they will be driving by themselves or automatically.
Connie - These ships then, the fully automated ones, would look a bit different. There would be none of the infrastructure that is put in for people. No mess house, kitchen, sewage works or aircon. Just a solid body for carrying cargo. But onshore things will change too, as some operation of these ships would be remote from a control centre.
Oskar - You could have a control centre here or, actually, the control centre might be on the other side of the world. You never know - that is the beauty. If it was night time here you might want to operate the ship from another time zone where it's daytime, so that nobody has to work during night times.
Connie - Why do we need to do this Oskar? We've got some lovely boats out here, they all seem to be going on alright. Why do we need to make this change?
Oskar - The main driver for this is really lies in the economic. This is all about making shipping more efficient and, at the same time, safer. If we go towards unmanned ships, the cost of transporting 1 ton of cargo 1, nautical mile will drop more than 20%, just by going unmanned.
Connie - Well that all sounds pretty tempting, but how feasible is this and what do we need to do to get there?
A ship sets sail for America but there's no-one on board. So how does it find it's way without any eyes? Well, there's a technological equivalent as leader of Technology Research, Jonne Poikonen from the University of Turku explains...
Jonne - Basically we need the technology to perceive the surroundings of the ship. We'd need different kinds of sensors to guarantee that we can operate in all different kinds of weather conditions and even kinds of situations. Because, for example, cameras don't work in the dark, they don't work in bad weather conditions and they don't give distance to targets, whereas radar give you distance that works in any condition but you cannot really recognise the optics from the radar data so you have to combine both. The best properties of different types of sensors.
Connie - With its huge number of sensors combined to make one almighty super eyeball, my boat can now see everything. But there's something ahead - what is it and how does our ship know what to do? Divert, go on forward, what? Here's co-lead, Tampa University of Technology's Mika Hyvonen...
Mika - We first, of course, need to classify what they are and we need to recognise where they are based on the maritime rules, so how we need to react.
Connie - The data is all collected in and based on many past experiences and thousands and thousands of photos, an algorithm matches it to buoy or whale...
Mika - How we need to react then defines the method we select and those methods are already available. Those algorithms, of course, they are in aviation and autonomous cars, and when the situation is defined you have to react like this and then you need to ask permission from the ship intelligence.
Connie - OK. That sounded fairly straightforward - just follow the algorithms. And loads of this stuff has already been developed for cars, so it's just a case of repurposing. But then again, a little car on the road seems like a bit of a different beast to a massive great container ship in the middle of the ocean. Jonne again...
Jonne - The most crucial thing is reliability and reliability under every weather condition and every situation. This is something that hasn't been really demonstrated in the automobile side. On the sea it's even worse because the conditions are usually worse than on the highway. On the other hand, because the number of ships in any case will be much smaller than the number of cars, we can also apply the connection to remote control centre which can monitor a ship and aid it if it cannot perform by itself. I can see that this is something that cannot really be done in cars. You cannot have a control centre for million and millions of cars but you can have that for ships. So, in some cases, it might be easier to implement this, in the short term at least, in the marine side than for cars.
Connie - That's the technology side of an automated ship sorted then. There's still a lot of work but it's mainly finetuning. Back to Oskar - I can imagine there are a few other things we're going to need to consider...
Oskar - We also need to have a legal frameworks. So, if you want to make these ships reality, we need to define the rules, so to speak, that apply to them. And the thing is, with today's rules, they are not always written in a way that sees the possibility of unmanned operations. So we need to clarify the regulation and the law and also liability. The normal marine liability for the ships are really more shifted towards a product liability case.
Connie - A similar thing needs to be overcome for automated cars as wel.
Oskar - Exactly. Similar problems or topic but, of course, the challenges are a little bit different.
Connie - And, I guess, when people think about this they're going to be slightly worried about the safety as well. I mean it sounds a bit scary having all these giant automated ships running around the world with no-one to control them.
Oskar - I would actually say the opposite. These ships will be safer than today's ships and, actually, bringing better technology and creating a better situation of awareness and adding some automation on top of that, will improve the safety of vessels. We need to remember that today most marine accidents are related to human error. That would between 75 and 96% depending a little bit on which study you look at. And a big part of these human errors are basically due to fatigue or just the crew not concentrating. So we can, basically, improve the safety because we need to remember a machine does not get tired - that's the beauty of it.
43:38 - Can shipping get greener?
Can shipping get greener?
with Professor Sandy Day, Strathclyde University
What about the environmental impact of the shipping industry? Well, it's pretty significant. Global shipping currently has the same size carbon footprint as Germany, and the International Maritime Organisation (or IMO) has predicted that this figure will rise by up to 250% by 2050. At a recent meeting of their Marine Environment Protection Committee in London, the IMO failed to reach agreement on a plan to kerb future emissions. All the same, what can we do to make boats greener? Professor Sandy Day is Professor of Marine Hydrodynamics in the Naval Architecture Ocean and Marine Engineering Dept. at Strathclyde University is here to take Kat Arney through it...
Sandy - Well, as Rose already said, ships are already very, very efficient. They're a very, very efficient way of moving large amounts of material around the world, relatively slowly. So, if you want to make ships better, most likely you're not going to get a 50% improvement, but what you can hope to do is to get a few 5%, maybe 6, 7% improvements and maybe add a few of these together and, with that, you may be able to make some substantial inroads.
Kat - It's the sort of 'every little helps' approach to it?
Sandy - Aggregation of marginal gains as some of the sporting people call it.
Kat - So how can we do this? How are some of the ways that you and other people looking at to make ships more efficient?
Sandy - The most obvious thing you can do is try and reduce the drag of the ship - how much force you have to apply to it to push through the water, and there are a number of ways that you can do that. One of the things you can do is try and reduce the friction between the hull and the water. And you can try and do that by making the ship surface smoother, particularly by stopping marine fouling.
If you get heavy growth of something like barnacles on the boat that can add 10%, certainly 12% to the drag and that can grow quite quickly, especially if you're in warm waters. So, improving paint coatings so that the barnacles build up more slowly can make a significant difference to the environment impact of the ship, and the energy efficiency.
Kat - What about when we see things like olympic swimmers; they have these special suits that enable them to move through the water that are based on shark skin. Could a boat be built like that?
Sandy - Well, in principle, yes it could. And if you look at the very highest levels of competition. If you look at things like the America's Cup yacht races, people have explored some of these textured surfaces, nano surfaces, some of these things but, on a ship, the problem is first of all the environments pretty harsh. You've got to be out at sea for extended periods between cleaning and a ships just very, very big - 300 metres long maybe, I don't know, 40 metres on the beam, maybe 10 metres on the draught. You're talking about thousands of square metres and these hi-tech coatings are generally expensive and generally quite sensitive to dirt so it's not something you're expecting to see on a large ship.
Kat - And what about thing like the engines, the propellers, even the fuel that's being used. Is there anything that can be done to make that more efficient?
Sandy - For the propulsion systems, yes, there's lot you can do with the propellers. You can improve the flow into the propeller. You can try and extract some of the wasted energy in the flow behind the propellor. Try and improve the interaction between the propellor and the rudder, so there's lots of the things you can do with the hydrodynamics (the flow of water) around the propellor. Again, most of these things you'd be expecting single digit improvements, of course, it depends where you start. If you've got a very old ship with an propeller, you'd expect to get a better improvement.
Kat - So given that there are all these ways that we could make shipping more efficient, what is the motivation, what's the encouragement for the people that own ships, the people that run ships to actually do any of it?
Sandy - Well, of course, the main motivation is to save money because, if you make ships more efficient, you spend less money on fuel and big shipping companies can spend a billion dollars or more a year on fuel so, even a relatively small percentage change can make a big difference. But one of the problems is that people don't typically own a ship for 25 years and then scrap it at the end. People generally operate ships for fairly limited times and that means that if you want to invest some money in energy saving, you have to pay that money back quite quickly which means, typically, you're looking for quite big gains and that can be difficult.
Kat - Are there things that people can do, maybe re-routing shipping routes to make them more efficient?
Sandy - Absolutely. There's a number of operational things you can do. There's a lot of work going on with people trying to improve weather routing so that you can try and avoid storms. You could avoid adverse winds, for example, and bigs waves because that tends to use up a lot more energy in the ship.
Kat - It sounds like there's quite a lot of complexity in this. You've got to get your ship working as efficiently as possible, you've got to get shipping as a business working as effectively as possible and then what about the role of legislation? We've talked about the International Maritime Organisation - is there anything that the law can do to try and improve efficiency?
Sandy - As Rose mentioned earlier, that shipping's governed by the I.M.O or the International Maritime Organisation which is essentially a U.N. agency, and it's difficult to make a change for existing ships. But what they've done is they've legislated for new ships and they've used an energy efficiency standard, which is called the EEDI or the Energy Efficiency Design Index. And what that does is it's a formula that estimates in a bit of simple way how much CO2 is generated by a ship to carry any given ton of cargo one mile. The idea of this is that there are prescribed target values for different types ships and different ship sizes which you have to meet when you design a new ship and those target values are going to get more challenging over time. And the intention is that by 2025 that any given ship will have 30% less CO2 emissions, compared to a typical ship that existed between 2000 and 2010, so there is some legislative push ther.
Kat - This all seems like quite long term, slow moving stuff. Is there hope that there can be any immediate or quick efficiency changes to be made because we've had the Paris agreement; climate change is something people are very concerned about and if feels like now, now, now is the time?
Sandy - Yes. It's very difficult with ships because first of all you've got this huge stock of existing ships and even if somebody invented some fantastic new ship, which did have some enormous improvement, it would take many, many years to replace the existing ship stock. But the other problem is, basically, a political problem. It's very difficult to get agreement between the 171 member of the I.M.O., so there's quite a lot of inertia in the system and things tend to, unfortunately, happen rather more slowly than you might like.
50:39 - Hoist the sails for wind power!
Hoist the sails for wind power!
with Alex Geldenhuys, New Dawn Traders
So it seems that, in the world of shipping, there's not going to be any huge green revolution but aren't we missing a trick here? Because ships were around long before the industrial revolution and managed to make it all the way around the world without burning any fuel. They used the power of the wind - so does the future of shipping lie in its past? Connie Orbach met with one entrepreneur who certainly thinks so...
Alex - My name is Alex Geldenhuys and I am a rum broker, currently.
Connie - That's such an exciting title.
Alex is founder of New Dawn Traders, a company whose motto is 'fair trade by sail.'
Alex - We work with a sailing ship, an engineless sailing ship, called "The Tres Hombres". [For clarification, New Dawn Traders do not operate the Tres Hombres, they buy their rum from the company that does - Fairtransport] It's a square rigged brigantine about 75 ft long. It's been working for the last 7 years sailing across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and back bring cocoa, rum and coffee. We import some of those barrels of rum and cocoa beans into Cornwall, where we make chocolate and bottle our rum and I'm now taking that to market.
Connie - Now, of course, there was a certain amount of energy required to build the ship in the first place, and there's transport at either end, food for the crew, etc. But, by using a ship with no engine at all, Alex and her team get about as close as possible to zero emission cargo transport.
So, Alex, tell me a bit more about this boat?
Alex - It's not that old; the hull was built in the '40s - it's a German minesweeper - and the rig was actually designed afterwards during the refit, but designed according to the old fashioned square rigged brigantines. So she's incredibly efficient, actually, and she's built to travel with the trade winds which is what has traditionally carried ships across the Atlantic for hundreds, if not more, years.
Connie - The term trade winds refers to the passing of winds from the tropical high pressure belts in the north and southeast of the globe to the low pressure zone at the equator. They can take you from Africa to the Americas and from there onto Asia. With these winds at your back you're onto a winner but, move against them, and you're well... a little stuck.
Alex - Yes, completely. I mean the sailing technology is obviously designed to work with the winds and square rigs are specifically designed to take on the full force of the trade winds, which carry the ships across the ocean but within that they're quite maneuverable. But, obviously, if we hit the doldrums we have to sit and wait.
Connie - And I bet that causes havoc with your speed?
Alex - Well we work out a schedule at 4 knots, but she actually does a lot better than that, averaging around 6 to 8 and then in strong winds even up to 12 knots.
Connie - So how does that compare to a boat with an engine?
Alex - Well, it's totally different. A container ship can go about 20 knots so it's a real steamer.
Connie - That definitely does sound like a bit of a drawback to me. Perhaps sailing boats just don't have the power of those with engines...
Alex - Actually, the last of the commercial sailing cargo ships (the clippers), they could match that speed of about 20 knots on average and that's actually what inspired The Tres Hombres (the three guys that the boats named after), to look at sailing cargo again. The potential there but, as we're working with this concept, we're constantly re-evaluating how we approach it.
Connie - OK, yes. A sailing boat can go pretty fast when it needs to but you're still fairly controlled by these trade winds making some part of the globe pretty much a no-go, unless, of course, you want to take the long way round. So why go back to the bad old days?
Alex - Well, I guess we're reaching bursting point in this bubble of having everything immediately for absolutely no cost at all because it's not true to how the nature of the planet works. These ships are highly polluting and, regardless of even how polluting the ships are, it's what they carry in them that causes a huge impact on the environment as well. So we are really looking at the entire supply chain and rethinking every single step of it and building a parallel system that, even on this small scale, might not have a big impact globally. We can experiment with the way of really zero compromise and so we're finding the highest quality product, transporting them in the most eco-friendly way and also thinking about how we take that to market and to create a complete system that's as good as it possibly can be.
56:13 - How fast can an elevator go safely?
How fast can an elevator go safely?
Graihagh Jackson put this question to Cambridge engineer Dr Philip Garsed...
Philip - A typical express lift can travel at speeds of up to 22 miles per hour, although this year we'll see the first high speed lifts capable of traveling at over 40 miler per hour.
Graihagh - Now, what confuses me is that trains can travel at up to 360 miles per hour, lifts go at a measly 22 miles per hour on average. I wanted to know why elevator engineers haven't quite cracked this nut. So come on Philip - explain yourself...
Philip - The main difference with a lift is it goes up and down. Because the Earth's atmosphere gets thinner as you go higher, a person in a lift experiences a change in air pressure as they travel. On a fast lift this changes rapid enough to cause notable pressure differences in the body.
One of the most sensitive parts of the body to changes in pressure is the ear. This is because the inner ear is quite well sealed and air has to travel along the thin tube, known as the eustachian tube, to leave or enter. As a result, it can take a while for a change in pressure to equalise across the eardrum, and a pressure difference across the eardrum causes it to bulge and that's uncomfortable at best and can even be a painful experience. It just so happens that this pressure equalisation works better if you're ascending rather than descending and this is because the walls of the eustachian tube are a little bit floppy, a bit like the neck of a balloon. Air comes out easily when it's inflated but it's a lot more difficult to get air in and, if you've been in a plane, you'll probably have noticed that landing is much more painful on the ears than takeoff even though the aircraft ascends much faster than it descends.
Graihagh - And it's the same with lifts. They can go fast on the way up but have to go slower on the way down.
Philip - The maximum speed of ascent and descent is set by how much the pain the passengers can reasonably bear. Lift manufacturers can get round the problem a bit by pressurising the lift but, even so, the new and fancy 40 miles per hour lifts can only go up the building at that speed, they come down at a much more sedate 22 miles per hour.
So, yes you're right, a lift does have different limits on its speed depending on whether it's going up or down but it's our biology that prevents us from going faster, not our engineering!