Explorations in the world of science.
Patient zero: Spillover in suburbia
Episode One: Spillover in Suburbia
A horse mysteriously falls ill in her paddock, and before long dozens of other horses from her stables are sick. As the horses start to die vicious, painful deaths, their trainer falls into a coma and is placed into intensive care. The race is on to figure out what's making both species sick, and where it came from. What they find will resonate throughout the following decades and might help us uncover the origins of COVID-19.
Presented by Olivia Willis
Patient Zero is a production of ABC Science, Radio National, and the BBC World Service.
Picture: Wild horses, Credit: Phil Copp/Getty Images
The noises that make us cringe
Why do some people find noises like a fork scraping a plate so terrible? asks Findlay in Aberdeenshire. Rutherford and Fry endure some horrible noises to find out the answer.
Warning - This episode contains some horrible sounds
Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, has run experiments to find out the worst, most cringe-making sound. He divided horrible sounds into three categories: scraping sounds, like nails down a blackboard; disgusting sounds like a snotty sniffy nose; and sounds that make us cringe because of what we associate them with, like the dentist’s drill. All horrible sounds have some sort of association whether it’s a primal scream or fear of catching a disease, and they’re dealt with in the ancient part of the brain – the amygdala.
Professor Tim Griffiths is a Cognitive Neurologist at Newcastle University’s Auditory Cognition Group. He has been studying people with misophonia, a condition where ordinary, everyday sounds, such as someone eating or breathing causes a severe anxiety and anger response. Misophonia may affect around 15% of the population and Tim thinks that different parts of the brain – the insula and the motor cortex - are involved in this fight or flight response to seemingly innocuous sounds.
Cat Thomas’s job is to make horrible sounds. She is a foley artist at Boompost. If you watch Call the Midwife or Peaky Blinders, all the incidental sounds are created by Cat and her team. She also created some of the sounds for the horror film Camilla, which involved evisceration and disembowelling with the aid of some squishy oranges and bananas. Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry try their own horror sounds when they chop off a finger with the aid of some large pasta shells, an orange and a knife.
Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford
Producer: Fiona Roberts
The Hamster Power Hypothesis
"How many hamsters on wheels would it take to power London?" asks Judah from Virginia in the USA. Rutherford & Fry return with engineering, ethics and economics to answer this electric query.
Smart grid engineer Lynne McDonald helps keep the lights on for 8.3 million homes and businesses across London at UK Power Networks. She explains how the kilowatt hours we see on our electricity bills relate to the thousands of gigawatt hours required when thinking about powering the whole of London. In theory, a hamster in a wheel might be able to produce about half a watt of power – enough to run a small LED light bulb.
Whilst the doctors argue the case on the resultant practicalities and ethics of even considering such a scenario – as, for example, the required cubic kilometre stack of hamster habitats would cover Canary Wharf – Royal Veterinary College researcher Zoe Davies points out some biological and anatomical home truths. As an expert in biomechanics currently investigating athletic performance in racehorses, she walks Adam through the impossibilities of using pretty much any animal, bird or insect as a source of power.
There may be one exception though: humans. Veteran lecturer of undergraduate chemistry for biologists and cycling enthusiast, Andrea Sella discusses whether human power might realistically work. We consider what this or other more realistic sources of renewable energy could mean for the future of our national grid.
The Martian Mission
What would it take for humans to live permanently on Mars? asks Martin in Weston-super-Mare, UK. The doctors dig into requirements and possibilities of a long-term Martian outpost.
We know that many missions to Mars have failed, for a range of reasons – malfunctions, crashes and even a mix-up between imperial and metric units. Getting to Mars – let alone decelerating from 30,000 miles per hour to a safe landing speed in about seven minutes – is not straightforward. Aerospace engineer Anita Sengupta helped land NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars. She knows first-hand the challenges of putting a robot on the red planet.
But getting robots to Mars is an easier proposition than doing the same for humans. Even if we work out how to survive the radiation exposure on the eight-month journey and the pulverising descent, Mars’ surface isn’t easily habitable. Principal investigator for NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN) Bruce Jakosky describes the conditions on Mars: Freezing, with an atmosphere containing mostly carbon dioxide and very little water, and subject to annual global dust storms.
However, this isn’t deterring space agencies and private companies from researching the challenge. The European Space Agency and Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems focussed on finding out the physiological and psychological tolls by selecting six candidates to spend 520 days in a simulated spacecraft and landing module. Diego Urbina explains the personal challenge of taking part in the Mars500 experiment.
Some private company owners have gone even further. As well as making technology based on the current physical conditions, could those constraints themselves be altered? Could Mars be terraformed, or warmed, for easier human survival? Bruce Jakosky shares just what that would take – and compares these requirements with what’s actually available.
The equal rights stuff
In 1976, Nasa launched a campaign to help recruit the next generation of Astronauts. It was fronted by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, as part of an effort to ensure the astronaut corps represented the diversity of the United States.
When they were revealed to the press, the 35 members of the new astronaut group included six women, three African American men and one Asian American man. All were appointed on merit.
The selection of the first women caused quite a stir. As the ‘first mom in space’, Anna Fisher was asked by the press whether she was worried about her child (none of the fathers were asked). There were also jibes about separate restrooms and whether the women would ‘weep’ if something went wrong.
Meanwhile, Nasa’s engineers suggested developing a zero-g makeup kit and the first US woman in space, Sally Ride, was issued with a long string of tampons (joined together like sausages) for a six-day mission.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the first Shuttle launch in April 1981, astronaut Nicole Stott speaks to some of these pioneers and hears how Nasa has since aimed to become a beacon for diversity.
Contributors also include astronaut Charles Bolden, the first African American to head the space agency and – as Nasa prepares to land the first woman on the Moon – its new head of human spaceflight, Kathy Lueders.
(Image: Sally Ride. Credit: Nasa)
Producer: Richard Hollingham
Lithium: Chile’s white gold
The Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2019 was awarded to John Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akira Yoshino "for the development of lithium-ion batteries." These rechargeable batteries are in our phones, and in our laptops. And they will be the batteries powering electric vehicles which we are being urged to use in place of ones fuelled by gasoline and diesel. Jane Chambers finds out how the element lithium has become so important in the world today. She lives in Chile, where lithium is called the country’s white gold, as it is the source of much of the world’s supply. Jane travels to the Atacama Desert and visits the SQM mine where lithium is evaporated out of huge brine lakes.
She talks to Professor Clare Grey of Cambridge University about her research into improving the efficiency of lithium ion batteries. And Dr Paul Anderson of Birmingham University explains what needs to be done for more lithium to be recycled.
Editor: Deborah Cohen
Picture: Lithium plant in Atacama Desert, Chile, Credit: SQM