Nature Podcast

This is a transcript of the 16th October edition of the weekly Nature Podcast. Audio files for the current show and archive episodes can be accessed from the Nature Podcast index page (, which also contains details on how to subscribe to the Nature Podcast for FREE, and has troubleshooting top-tips. Send us your feedback to


The Nature Podcast brought to you by Bio-Rad's 1000-Series Thermal Cycling Platform. When you re-think PCR you think about how easy it can be. See how at

End Advertisement

Adam Rutherford: This week we get inside the head of one of the blockbuster fossil discoveries, a 375-million year-old beast.

Neil Shubin: The new data came about as our lab preparators really got to work on the underside of the head. The head is a real window into what a transitional creature Tiktaalik is.

Kerri Smith: And in Santa Fe in 1986, the seeds of a very big idea was sown.

Chales DeLisi: This was a really foreign idea for most people. The idea of sequencing the holy human genome and the project of this magnitude is something that just wasn't done in biomedical science.

Kerri Smith: We find out about the meetings that changed the world. This is the Nature Podcast. I'm Kerri Smith.

Adam Rutherford: And I'm Adam Rutherford.

Adam Rutherford: First this week, a team from the University of Washington has restored movement to paralyzed arms. Here's Natasha Gilbert with the story.

Natasha Gilbert: In recent years scientists have made some progress towards treating people suffering from paralysis, by experimenting with brain computer interfaces in monkeys. Back on May's podcast former Nature reporter Mike Hopkin told us about work by Andrew Schwartz from the University of Pittsburgh.

Michael Hopkins: So, what they've done with these monkeys is develop a device that can actually control a real robot arm in a real laboratory grabbing a real item.

Natasha Gilbert: New research appearing in this week's Nature takes these developments a step further. Chet Moritz and team re-routed signals from the brain to muscles in the arm, enabling movement of paralyzed limbs. Chet told me about the advances his team has made. Nature advance online publication (15 October 2008)

Chet T. Moritz: So previous research has shown very elegantly that by recording from a group of neurons in the brain, we can determine the direction of movement or the endpoint and that can be used to control cursors moving on a computer screen or control robotic arms or limbs. Now our study is different in that for the first time, we have shown that individual neurons can be recorded but then reconnected directly to paralyzed muscles in order to restore movement of the natural limb.

Natasha Gilbert: That sounds like a pretty big leap forward.

Chet T. Moritz: It still builds on the fundamentals of what has been done before, but we actually took a slightly different approach this time and rather than recording from a group of neurons, and decoding the intention of the animal or the desire to move, we just created direct connections from the brain to the muscles and let the nervous system of left the animal in this case figure out how to utilize those connections through processes that typically occur during motor learning.

Natasha Gilbert: So this is the first time that people have shown that you can control actual muscles rather than for example, in the virtual world like a cursor.

Chet T. Moritz: Exactly, so many studies have shown very elegantly that you can control a cursor either in two or three dimensions on a computer monitor or in virtual reality and also that you can control external devices such as robotic arms or prosthetic hands via this group of neurons. Ours is the first study to actually put those signals back into the body and show that you can control muscle activation directly.

Natasha Gilbert: So you have effectively wired a single neuron in the brain, to a muscle in the monkey's wrist, how did you then test if they could indeed move the muscle?

Chet T. Moritz: So then we proceed to introduce a reversible pharmacologic nerve block using lidocaine or chloroprocaine to stew local anaesthetics and that left the arm become numb and paralyzed for a period of several hours and during that time we have the unique opportunity to connect the activity of these individual neurons to muscle stimulation and test whether the animals can learn to restore movement about their wrists using the activity of these neurons stimulating otherwise paralyzed muscles.

Natasha Gilbert: And what did you find?

Chet T. Moritz: We found surprisingly that nearly all neurons that we connected could very rapidly be used to control the stimulation within about 10 minutes and certainly no more than 30 or 60 minutes, the animals were able to control all but one of the 44 neurons that we tested to control the stimulator and importantly it did not matter what the neuron was related to before we connected it to the muscle. All neurons could be used equally well to control the stimulation regardless of whether that neuron was originally related to the activity of these muscles. And this is important because it dramatically expands the potential population of neurons that could be used to control brain computer interface technology or a neuroprosthetic like the one that we have shown here.

Natasha Gilbert: And what will this mean for treating people with paralysis?

Chet Moritz: Hopefully, eventually it could lead to new therapeutic treatments to restore movements to individuals suffering from paralysis due to spinal cord injury or stroke for example. Of course there is still many technical challenges that need to be overcome and so an actual clinical treatment is several years or many years away. Some of those challenges are recording stable action potentials from within the brain for long periods of time, although our study has shown that these monkeys can learn very rapidly to control newly isolated neurons within several minutes as I mentioned earlier. So recording the same neuron for many weeks or months may not be a prerequisite for this type of clinical treatment.

Natasha Gilbert: What would one of these devices, these brain to muscle connectors look like?

Chet T. Moritz: So another benefit of using these direct connections to muscles or relatively direct connections is that we already have electronics which potentially are small enough to be worn in a shirt pocket or hopefully in several years actually implanted under the skin such as a pacemaker, rather than requiring several large desktop computers as does the algorithms for decoding the activity from 30 to several 100 neurons, we could actually implement this on a very small microchip in battery powered system which could be attached to the animals, something that's about the size of a cell phone.

Kerri Smith: That was Chet Moritz. Coming up in just a minute a computer that builds itself plus a round up of this week's science news, but first we take a look at how some of the most ambitious projects that science has ever seen was set in motion. For the past six weeks, Nature has been running an essay series looking back at the meetings that changed the world. Nature's acting opinions Editor Ehsan Masood masterminded the series and he joins me in the studio, but first to tell us about the beginnings of the human genome project, here's Boston University's Charles DeLisi. Nature 455, 876–877 (16 October 2008)

Charles DeLisi: Humans vary enormously in their susceptibility and resistance to disease, so how you get at that genetically seem to be an almost impossible problem. I discussed it with some colleagues, the idea of sequencing the human genome, this is back in 1983 or 1984. You know, I quickly dismissed it, not for scientific reasons but for cultural and social reasons. I just thought a project of that magnitude was totally foreign which it was to the biomedical sciences and I just totally forgot about it. Then a year-and-a-half later, I was asked to head the Health and Environmental Research programs of the Department of Energy; did not seem like a likely place for the sequencing the human genome; so it didn't enter my thoughts. When it re-emerged is when I read a document that was done on heritable mutations. Now at this point, we were very concerned about low levels of effects of various energy by-products, toxic by-products on the population. At high levels, when these things were at high levels, everybody is affected, everybody gets sick, whether it's radiation or chemical, but at low levels there is again an enormous variation. So the problem is exactly the same. It's problem of the genetic basis of variation and susceptibility and resistance this time to environmental contaminants and they decided to get a handle on what the larger community might think of the idea and that's what led to the Santa Fe workshop.

Kerri Smith: So how did you organize that then what was the format of it?

Charles DeLisi: It was 2 days, we had Human Geneticists, Molecular Biologists, we had leaders really leaders in the field.

Kerri Smith: And what was the atmosphere like there, I mean, was it excitement?

Charles DeLisi: It started out sceptical; this was a really foreign idea to most people, the idea of sequencing the whole human genome. And a project of this magnitude is something that just wasn't done in biomedical science. So immediately we got to think about whether the technology was available, whether it was just one of these drying, drying, drying and it was just dead work, it wasn't science, and I mean all of those sorts of those considerations came up. There were serious discussions. There were people who were very surprised; took them a while to accommodate to the idea. There was actually never agreement on how the project should be structured and organized, how it should be managed and that was continually consensus issue. There was disagreement about, you know, does it make sense to sequence the whole genome when you know 80% of it is non coding and you know, you have no idea what it does sitting in between genes. That was actually a major issue some people felt incorrectly that it was much more costly to do the whole things and you know we didn't know what we are going to find. It was a different way of thinking.

Kerri Smith: And the rest is history.

Charles DeLisi: Rest is pretty much history, yes.

Kerri Smith: So we have just heard from Charles DeLisi then about the germination of the human genome project. So how has that project had the effects that DeLisi predicted?

Ehsan Masood: Difficult to say, the thing that DeLisi didn't say, perhaps he ought to have said was that, the origin of this project came out of the second world war. This is partly why it was done by the Department of Energy and not the National Institute of Health. The DOE was very much interested in the effects of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and they were very concerned about whether or not heritable mutations will be passed on from generation to generation and that was one really important reason why they need a reference genome of a human being and initially whey they were so interested and so keen on spending so much money, 3 billion dollars in those days to do this. So in that sense it's totally changed. It's now the human genome project is very much about either personal genomics or genomics of other species. So in that sense I suppose what you could say it's rather serendipitous.

Kerri Smith: So what other meetings besides the human genome project did the series cover?

Ehsan Masood: We covered meetings that did two things. One, that they showcased exciting new novel science and that this science had some sort of world-changing impact. We had the meeting from 1951 which led to the creation of CERN, the European particle physics laboratory. We had a meeting in Bellagio in 1969 which was very very instrumental in the Green Revolution which set a food security in Asia. We had a meeting what we call China's coming up party, in 1985 in Beijing, where China scientists told the world for the first time that they weren't as backward, if I can use that word, as some people thought they were at that time.

Kerri Smith: And incidentally do you have a favourite?

Ehsan Masood: My favourite has to be first one. The 1951 CERN for all kinds of reasons; it was our oldest writer François de Rose was one of France's diplomats in New York and he is now in his 90s. So to be able to get him to write was absolutely fabulous. What was also really intriguing about that meeting was that the idea of a CERN didn't come out of Europe, it came out of America, where Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb was very concerned that after the war, Europe's scientific infrastructure had been decimated and he didn't want Europe scientists to have to go to the Soviet Union or America to do their science. You know, it's really important for Europe's physicists to stay in Europe and so he suggested this idea to a few people in New York and one of those people was François de Rose so France and America were on one side. Now who were the bad guys? It was the Brits. It was us, the British scientific establishment said that we have already got brilliant science and we don't need another new facility and you know we have got so many other things to do in post war reconstruction, why spend all these millions of dollars on building another physics laboratory. Everyone should come to Manchester or London or Liverpool.

Kerri Smith: It's like not signing the Beatles, isn't it?

Ehsan Masood: Yes, exactly.

Kerri Smith: So that fascinating slices of scientific history, but where these meetings scientifically led or were they financially led, I mean, I got the impression that some of them might have been the latter.

Ehsan Masood: They were, I mean, the thing that clinched for so many of them, especially those that were trying to build something like the human genome project or CERN or the Green Revolution, I mean they needed money and so in a sense they were led by scientists, the main people who had done interesting research or had access to interesting research but they did not have access to the funds and so they needed to come to a place where they could get politicians and financiers and bankers round the table and almost sell them the idea, so yes, finance was very very important.

Kerri Smith: Well Ehsan thank you very much for joining us.

Ehsan Masood: It has been a pleasure.

Kerri Smith: And that series of essays is available online at In just a minute we revisit a classic fossil to see what else it can tell us about our fishy ancestors, but first Geoff Brumfiel gets a beaker of liquid and cooks up a computer.

Geoff Brumfiel: If you're a regular listener to the podcast you probably associate my voice with the hard stuff, quantum mechanics, black holes that sort of thing, but this week I have got an easy one for you. A bunch of European physicists have figured out how to make a computer that builds itself. All they do is dump a circuit board into a special solution, shake it around a bit, pull it out and let it dry and presto, they've made a little electronic device. Okay it's not quite that simple. It took years of work to develop molecules that can turn themselves into transistors and its still has got a long way to go, but Dago de Leeuw at Phillips Laboratory in Eindhoven, The Netherlands explains, it brings us a lot closer to self-assembling computers. Nature 455, 956–959 (16 October 2008)

Dago M. de Leeuw: This some part of self-assembly is that you are trying to make something that forms itself automatically, so that you don't have to do anything. So you have molecules and they confine to each other and form a very well defined completely new entity. The nicest example is of course DNA. That is the basis of human life but also when you think about to display in your laptop various liquid crystals and it is also self organized. All the molecules have the same direction and when you apply an electric field, the molecules tilt a little bit that gives a different transmission and it is the basis of your display. And the second part is that the molecules do not result any intervention of some signals, so you don't need human intervention to make it to adjust to this beautiful properties.

Geoff Brumfiel: And people have been trying to do this for electronics for a long time now. Right, they have been trying to make a self assembling circuit?

Dago M. de Leeuw: Yeah, the holy grail is that you take a beaker of this liquid you dump in a little bit of the molecules and the molecules dissolve and they find each other in the solution and the end will be an integrated circuit, that's the real holy grail that's still extremely far away but that is what we would like to have.

Geoff Brumfiel: And what makes it so difficult to achieve, I mean, what's the problem?

Dago M. de Leeuw: First you need the semiconductor that transports the electricity and modulates the current that is the most difficult part to make, a semiconducting layer in an electronic device.

Geoff Brumfiel: I mean, what makes getting semiconductors, the cornerstone of modern electronics, difficult to assemble, I mean, what makes them hard to put together?

Dago M. de Leeuw: Most molecules are insulating and that's why you use them, use them to insulate an electrical wire for instance. But many years ago, people found molecules that can actually conduct electricity, so you can make organic molecules that can conduct electricity. Now the trick is that you design the right molecule that they can itself assemble on a substrate that can be used in a transistor.

Geoff Brumfiel: It sounds like you have made quite a breakthrough. You've managed to actually get some organic semiconducting material to form into transistors which are the building block of most electronics, is that right?

Dago M. de Leeuw: Yeah, that is correct. We started about a decade ago with the first molecules then with a trial and error procedure we could optimize the molecules and we could optimize the technology and the electrical transport until it has finally worked.

Geoff Brumfiel: So what did this look like, I mean, did you just take some liquid and pour into a beaker and shake it up and then all of a sudden you had a circuit or what?

Dago M. de Leeuw: Yeah in this case, because I cannot self assemble yet the electrons, so we make a substrate, lets say, it's called a printed circuit board that contains already the electrons, and that we dump in a beaker with the solution of the molecules; we let it stay and we take it out, we wash it and then it works.

Geoff Brumfiel: That's amazing. And it actually did something right, it was some sort of code-generator.

Dago M. de Leeuw: Yeah, we called them as complete integrated circuits, and in this case it was a code generator.

Geoff Brumfiel: What is it about these molecules that allow them to form into transistors, I mean, how do they know to do that?

Dago M. de Leeuw: The central part conducts the electricity, then we have a sort of a field that forces the molecule to, sort of, organize and that's exactly similar as the material in your liquid crystal display. Part of the material would like to crystallize and the crystal is nothing more than the very highly ordered system and that's actually what you are using here too.

Geoff Brumfiel: So they connect from electrode to electrode and they make transistors, sort of, across all these little electrodes, is that all there?

Dago M. de Leeuw: Yeah that's it. So they line up and the electrons can go from one contact to the other contact.

Geoff Brumfiel: So where do you see this going?

Dago M. de Leeuw: Because the molecule is very thin, the device is very sensitive for other molecules that fly around in the environment; so I can chemically bind the molecule on top of my self-assembled monolayer that gives a change in electrical transport properties, so in this way I can make it extremely sensitive sensors. We are trying it now for biomarkers in air.

Geoff Brumfiel: This should like a chip that you could have in the hospital that might detect some sort of flu virus or something like that.

Dago M. de Leeuw: Yes, that's also we are aiming for. For the coming years, we focus on sensors and at the same time, we will continue trying to make complete self-assembled circuits. Of course in the end, we would like to self-assemble the complete integrated circuit.

Kerri Smith: Dago de Leeuw nursing a sore throat talking to Geoff. He was also suffering from a sort of, man flu that day, both on the men now happily.

Adam Rutherford: Now before we round up the best bits of this week's science news, we turn our attention to our aquatic past. We like a good transitional fossil here at Nature Towers and a new study this week has given us the opportunity to revisit one of the very best. Back in 1999, a team led by Neil Shubin was airlifted into the Canadian Arctic and they spend 5 years on and off looking in Devonian Rocks for a missing link between fish and land loving beasts. As luck and shear hard graft will have it, they eventually came across Tiktaalik, a 375 million year-old creature that has many fish-like characteristics, but also a whole stack of traits usually reserved for land animals. Tiktaalik was introduced to the world in 2006, but the same team has now completed a follow up study on some of the finer points of Tiktaalik's head. Neil is on the line now from University of Chicago. Nature 455, 925–929 (16 October 2008)

Adam Rutherford: Can you remind our listeners why Tiktaalik was such an amazing find?

Neil H. Shubin: Sure, if you have the whole Tiktaalik in front of you, what you would see is a creature between 4 and 9 feet long and it has a skeletonous back and fins with fin webbing like a fish, but it has a head much like a land living animal and has a neck unlike any other fish. So that means is Tiktaalik is a very visual example of a transitional creature in evolution, you know, with some primitive fish-like characteristics and some external features that we see in all animals that were to live on land.

Adam Rutherford: And you have mentioned some of the key anatomical signs, can you just go through the process of discovering exactly what it was to make you think while this is halfway between a fish and a tetrapod?

Neil H. Shubin: Well, the first thing we saw was the structure of the head, back in the field, that is if you look at the head of a lobefin fish what you see is a very conical sort of thing, almost like cone shaped, very wide and the eyes are on the side of the head. Early land living animals have a flat head more or less with eyes on top, so the first thing we saw in the field was the snout of a flat-headed fish sticking out at us and as soon as we saw that it was a flat headed fish, we knew we were in luck, because obviously there is going to be much more in the land-living animal kind of thing. So it's really the shape of the head that was the first giveaway but the real trick here is, you know, we find these specimens in the field and they are embedded in rock right, and so they come home to the laboratory and people sit for months at a time with a needle and pin under a microscope removing the rock grain by grain from the bone and as we did that we saw a head, more of a flat-head, it had a neck and we were able to take the animal parts since we had bunch of specimens. We took the fin apart for instance and we found that it had bones that correspond to our upper arm or fore arm even parts of our wrists and then really importantly and the most difficult preparation was flipping the skull upside down and looking to the underside of the skull that took several years to do, but it was really well worth the effort.

Adam Rutherford: So you just been talking about the head and in the two years since you first published the paper in Nature, you have really been focusing in on the head. Can you tell us about the new data in today's paper?

Neil H. Shubin: Yeah, the new data came about as our lab preparators really got to work on the underside of the head. As we did that what we saw was that again like the rest of the animal, the head was a real window into how what a transitional creature Tiktaalik is. So the first thing you see is its proportions are very much sort of intermediate between fish and limbed animal, that is it's a very flat head, but it's also the head that has a very long front end before the eyes and a short back end. So, those general proportions has made a head that in general aspect that looks very much like a land living animal. So if you were to look at this paper what you see is a lot of detailed anatomy.

Adam Rutherford: There is some pretty chewy jargon in the paper.

Neil H. Shubin: Yeah, pretty so, yeah.

Adam Rutherford: The parasphenoid is perforated by a buccohypophyseal foramen that was my favourite.

Neil H. Shubin: Alright. We won't go there.

Adam Rutherford: So, tell me about what's actually happening in the environment that Tiktaalik is living which is driving these kinds of changes from being a water based fish into being a land-based tetrapods.

Neil H. Shubin: Sure, sure. You know, one thing that's really interesting here is that these bits of anatomy at the base of the skull are telling us a lot about how this animal likely lived. That's one thing we are pretty certain is that Tiktaalik is an animal that was breathing much like land living animals. That is, it was using mostly its mouth to breathe. Now what we are seeing is Tiktaalik is living in shallow fresh water streams, it's a creature that's able to live at the margins if you will, between water and land in the shallows really. And so what you have is, if you look at all the anatomy of Tiktaalik together and what it is telling us about this animal, it's an animal that's able to support itself on the ground doing much like a push-up, it's an animal that's able to move its head independently of its body, unlike fish, it's an animal that's able to gulp both water and air to breath and again if you look at it all together, it's an animal that's still tied to the water, but that's very much living in shallow fresh water environments.

Adam Rutherford: Which is exactly why it's such an important transitional fossil?

Neil H. Shubin: Exactly, it's a hugely important transitional fossil. Number one, first because this is a very visual evidence of evolution, you know, you can show it to kids and they will see that's part fish and part land living animal, but also importantly it gives, since we have a number of specimens, it gives us a way of looking at anatomy in a way which we couldn't otherwise. We can take it apart. We an actually prepare it and one of the reasons why it's many years between each Tiktaalik paper is because it takes us a number of years just to prepare it, to remove the rock and to expose the bones which happened to be quite beautifully preserved.

Adam Rutherford: Well to you and your staff, who spend absolutely, yes brushing away tiny tiny pieces of rock, I salute you.

Neil H. Shubin: Thank you very much, good talking to you.

Adam Rutherford: Neil Shubin from the University of Chicago. Finally this week, a spot of news from the world outside Nature. We are joined in the studio by online news editor Mark Peplow. Hello Mark.

Mark Peplow: Hello Adam.

Adam Rutherford: So what's been in the science news this week?

Mark Peplow: Well, forthcoming Mars missions are facing a bit of a cost crunch. This isn't to do with the financial meltdown that is going on around the world at the moment, but it's both North America and Europe sort of flagship Mars missions coming up which are actually running into some difficulties, partly because the longer the mission goes on the cost escalate anyway, literally if you could house the thing you are working on, you got to keep employed quite a sizable staff of incredibly skilled workers, so that in itself the longer these things take to put to together the higher the mission costs, but they have also added on various extras that they thought would be essential to this mission.

Adam Rutherford: What type of things are you talking about adding on?

Mark Peplow: I mean, we are talking about adding on extra instruments basically, you know if you are going to go to Mars, you might as well send as much as you can. In Europe they have an ExoMars Lander and the point is that they thought that this was going to be fine and Italy contributes nearly 40% of the cost of the ExoMars Mission and they did originally support this increase but last April there was an election and the government changed and they have changed their mind and now all the other partners, Germany and the UK are looking at these gamble, I am not making up the show full, it's not my business. So there is a crunch meeting later this month where all the key ministers from around Europe are going to get together and scratch their heads and look at this and the key thing is it's looking increasingly worrying that they will actually stump up the cash for this. It may end up pushing the launch date of this back by at least 3 years. I mean, we may be talking sometime around 2014 - 2016 when this actually gets off the ground which is quite a significant overwhelm.

Adam Rutherford: Okay, so that's the situation in Europe, now what about NASA?

Mark Peplow: Okay. So the Mars Science Lander is the NASA mission which is kind of the same, but it's bigger, it's more ambitious and I mean it's the size of a small truck really. Now the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have already had extra money to keep this thing going and when we spoke to Jack Mustard who is a planetary scientist of Brown University in Rhode Island, he summed up the feeling of many in the community which is that JPL hasn't been able to prove its ability to predict cost accurately. It's not uncommon for their missions to overwhelm like this and as he said, it was giving them more money is like enabling your drunken cousin. They have been given a little more leeway for now, but they have now a very hard deadline to prove really by the end of the year that they can get this thing build, on time on cost.

Kerri Smith: So much then for exploring other planets then financing that, but I gather there is a crucial fact that we don't even know about our favourite ocean dwelling species here on Earth.

Mark Peplow: Yes, have you ever wondered how you actually sex a dolphin, obviously you can put on a wet suit and go into the water and actually have a look for its genitals and you can also infer that a dolphin is a female because of its close association with the calf, but for conservationists trying to monitor a population of dolphins, this is already quite time consuming and it's simply because you know the important beds are below the water level. So now scientists based in New Zealand have come up with an alternative method which they published this month in Marine Mammal Science and it basically is based on an over-the-counter digital camera with a pair of laser pointers. Now what they do is go around and within a population of dolphins basically take photographs of their fins, their dorsal fins and with these laser pointers calibrated to put an exact 10 cm distance on the fin. Now all these images gets sort into a computer algorithm and processed and basically what they found based on the fact that males tend to have more scars and females tend to have more patchy skin lesions and you can use this to predict basically from the photos whether an individual is a male or a female.

Kerri Smith: So I mean it's staggering, I hadn't even realized this was a problem though, I mean, how good are they at doing this now.

Mark Peplow: Well even on the first iteration doing this they basically been able to predict correctly the sex of 93% of the 43 dolphins in the New Zealand population dolphins that they were checking this with.

Adam Rutherford: All right now science and adultery don't normally mix, but I understand that there have been two stories in the press this week in which that has happened.

Mark Peplow: Yes, that's right and Stephen Hawking is about to have the honour of a 3-meter high statute of himself cast in bronze, it's going to cost a quarter of million dollars apparently and it is going to be placed near the centre of the theoretical cosmology. We blogged about this on The Great Beyond blog, which is for rounding up science news from around the world. This is great from Cambridge news they said that the giant monument will depict the physics genius in his wheelchair upon a vortex rising out of a mist of water surrounded by a black hole. That sounds like a serious challenge for the sculptor.

Adam Rutherford: How do you make a black hole?

Mark Peplow: I don't know. I have seen like, miniature artists impression if you like of what this is going to look like, it looks seriously swirling.

Adam Rutherford: And do we think this is justified?

Mark Peplow: Well, you know, a lot of people said that Stephen Hawking is the greatest living physicist and in a sense he is a very good ad word for physics, so do we think it's just a flat world, you know, it depends where the money is coming from, if he is stumping up himself then go for it Steve, I would say.

Kerri Smith: So the Cambridge Cosmology Institute isn't the only place that Stephen Hawking is appearing this week.

Mark Peplow: Yeah, that's right. Jack Newton, a resident of Brighton has apparently decided to have his right leg decorated with the theoretical physicist's face.

Adam Rutherford: Is Jack Newton a physicist?

Mark Peplow: No he is not a physicist at all, in fact he says, 'I read a Brief history of time, to be honest I didn't understand a word, but I respect the man and that's why I got his face tattooed on my leg'.

Adam Rutherford: Well that's incredibly bold if a little bit foolish. Okay thanks Mark, more from the news team next week, that's all from us. In the next show some startling news about photosynthesis and an unusual source of x-rays. I'll give you a clue, you'll find this object in your stationery cupboard!

Kerri Smith: In the meantime, if you would like to get in touch with any queries, suggestions, profound thoughts, or fashion tips, drop us a line on I'm Kerri Smith.

Adam Rutherford: And I'm Adam Rutherford. Waiting for the great leap forward.


The Nature Podcast is sponsored by Bio-Rad, at the centre of scientific discovery for over 50 years. On the web at

End Advertisement