A quick note - sorry for the delay in posting this final edition! Technical issues have been numerous but hopefully this will be worth the wait...
Episode 4 - A new hope
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... Ok, fine, last week in Bradford, we brought you the final edition of the x-change! The programme included nuclear physics, astrobiology and bees - but don't take my word for it, have a listen and re-live the fun!
What. A. Week! During the past four days, we have been sprinting around the British Science Festival to find and book the cream of the speaker crop. This culminated tonight in our final show in which we had a heady mix of photography, nuclear physics, women in science, honey bees, and astrobiology - something for everyone!
But first, we started off with a little competition. Our host, Richard Hollingham, invited the audience to come up with their favourite science joke during the show. These would be read out and judged at the end, with a prize going to both the best and the worst.
While the audience mused this over for a while, the first guests took to the stage. Sally Hoben and Jon Wood from Aston University presented us with the story of a grand photography cover-up. With the help of a – rather nervous looking – volunteer holding up a Victorian camera from 1889, Jon and Sally took us through the history of this scandal. It is thought that photography was not first invented in 1826 by Joseph Niepce, but in fact much sooner than that by members a Birmingham-based lunar society. There is evidence to suggest that members of this society were taking photographs as early as the late 18th Century. In particular, one photograph – which was handed around to the audience to see – showed Soho House as a two storey building. This doesn’t seem to be of much significance, until you learn that the house underwent renovations to turn it into a three storey building…in 1789! This means that the photography must have been taken before that date – a full 37 years before Niepce is supposed to have “invented” photography.
So why cover up such a revolutionary technique? It was the efforts of portrait painters to stop them from losing business. They petitioned to have the development of photography stopped, and even got figures such as the Earl of Dartmouth involved in the protest.
Overall this was a very entertaining account of a great Victorian cover-up. Hopefully further research will be able to uncover more evidence, and perhaps soon the history books will undergo a renovation themselves!
Next up was something completely different – Dr. Lewis Dartnell from the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL took to the stage to give us a brief overview of life beyond our planet. Lewis took us on a dizzying journey through the solar system, stopping off at different planet s and moons along the way, to explore their potential for harbouring life. Unfortunately for any E.T fans, life in this case is very unlikely to be bug-eyed aliens. In fact, life on other planets will probably be in the form of tiny photosynthetic cells.
First up: Mars. Since the environment here is far too harsh to support life, astrobiologists are looking for clues that life did once exist using probes and rovers. Beyond Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan is looking more promising. Fluid has been found on this moon, but it is liquid mercury, not water. This means that if any life was found it would have to be methane-based, and we don’t even know if this is possible. Working with mercury in a lab is very difficult since it is a very bad solvent, and has a tendency to blow up in your face! However, there is a chance that there is also water on Titan – frozen because the moon is so cold. A core of molten ice would enable water-based life deep within Titan – this could mean a biosphere that is methane-based on top, and water based underneath. Exciting as this is, it is still merely speculation. Finally, there are two other possibilities – Enceladus and Europa, two more of Saturn’s moons. Enceladus has been found to have salty geysers that could be originating from a large sub-surface sea, whilst Europa has also been found to have a salty liquid water ocean.
Questions from the audience raised issue of whether all the searches are for carbon-based life. Lewis confirmed that they are, mainly due to the fact that we know carbon-based life definitely works. Although silicon is just underneath carbon in the periodic table, silicon-based life seems to simply fall apart.
Finally, we were all left feeling slightly insignificant by the point raised by a member of the audience that perhaps we are looking for life in the wrong scale. Life could be so small that we would never be able to locate it, but it could also be much, much bigger than we imagined. All together, this was a hugely fascinating talk. Lewis truly baffled us all with the possibility that we might not be the only living organisms in our universe.
Next, we welcomed renowned physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili to the stage. Jim gave us a brief overview of his views on nuclear physics before Professor Bob Cywinski joined him. He stated that the problem with nuclear power is that there is a difference between what scientists think and what members of the public feel. Despite this, there was a positive response by the public to a recent survey, with 41% of respondents strongly in favour of nuclear power. In Jim’s opinion, this surprising result is due in part to people favouring security over safety – in brief, members of the public want to be sure that when they flick a switch, a light will come on. It seems that people are coming to terms with the fact that the future of our environment and national security is reliant on having nuclear power as part of the mix.
Bob then joined Jim on stage to speak about the benefits of thorium for nuclear power. This method of producing power was sidelined due to the fact that it doesn’t produce enough plutonium to meet military demand. Thorium is four times more plentiful than uranium and there is enough in existence to last us for 10, 000 years. The major disadvantage is that thorium is fertile rather than fissile and needs a seed to start the reaction. However, the major advantage is that it produces much lower amounts of toxic waste thanks to it lasting much longer than uranium.
This discussion was hugely interesting, and gave the audience faith that the future of our energy production was in competent hands. It is important to remember that there are risks involved with all methods of producing power, and nuclear is no exception. However, it will be refreshing when the stigma attached to nuclear power becomes less pronounced, and it can be viewed in a more balanced way.
Our next speaker was Dr. Nazira Karodia, who had been part of an “Inspiring women in Science” event earlier in the week. She gave an entertaining account of her career, and how being a woman affected her choices. This was an inspiring story that highlighted the challenges that women may face in a scientific career, and how determination can help to overcome them.
Our final speakers - Dr Riddhi Shukla and Professor Anant Paradkar- gave a short presentational about the health benefits of propolis, a sealant made by honey bees and used to secure their hives. This is hugely important in protecting the hives, which is actually very important for us too; as Riddhi pointed out, without bees the human race could only survive for around 4 years. This substance also has antiseptic, antibacterial and analgesics properties (to name but a few) so is very valuable in medical research. Despite propolis being insoluble and – to be frank – quite smelly, in the lab it can be made in products such as mouth ulcer gel.This was a very enlightening talk that showed the audience just how clever these stripy insects are.
After an entertaining and varied show, it was time to end. But not before the results of the joke competition were revealed. The prize for the worst joke went to:“A man walks into a bar and orders a pint of energy. Here you go, said the barman. That’ll be ATP.” Say it out loud: groan-worthy indeed!
The grand prize for the best joke went to a truly nerdy joke: “There are 10 groups of people in the world; those who understand binary, and those that don’t.” Lost on me, but luckily our audience was full of binary connoisseurs who found the joke wildly amusing.
And then that was it – the end of this year’s X-Change. The team had a really fantastic time, and had the honour of meeting many inspirational speakers.
A massive thanks goes to the National Media Museum for providing the venue and ridiculously helpful staff, and also to the British Science Festival for providing a feast of events from which we could pick our speakers. Finally, a big thanks to the all of the team:thanks to Toby, Amy and Alice for looking after us all; to Richard for being a charismatic and witty host; and to my fellow X-Changers; Jack, Hayley, Naomi and Jenni for making it a great week. See you all next year!