Nature Podcast

This is a transcript of the 14th May 2015 edition of the weekly Nature Podcast. Audio files for the current show and archive episodes can be accessed from the Nature Podcast index page (http://www.nature.com/nature/podcast), which also contains details on how to subscribe to the Nature Podcast for FREE, and has troubleshooting top-tips. Send us your feedback to mailto:podcast@nature.com.

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Kerri Smith: This week, the latest results from the Large Hadron Collidor, but is it the shakeup that physics needs?

Leonie Mueck: Let's hope that they will find something that deviates from the standard model because that's where the interesting physics actually begins.

Noah Baker: And the unconventional life of neurologist, Oliver Sacks.

Tim Radford: He managed to knock off a bottle of Aquavit, in the course of reading and this is the heroic bit, in the course of reading James Joyce's Ulysses which says to yourself this is not someone who does things by halves.

Kerri Smith: Plus scientific successes and struggles in India. This is the Nature Podcast from May the 14th 2015. I'm Kerri Smith.

Noah Baker: And I'm Noah Baker.

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Noah Baker: The Large Hadron Collidor is getting ready to power up again after two years of upgrades. But during its downtime, physicists haven't been idle. They have been analyzing data from its last round of experiments. Nature this week publishes some results from a team of thousands at the LHC and as Adam Levy has been finding out what they really want to do is kill the standard model, the best theory of how our universe works. Nature (2015); Nature (2015)

Adam Levy: The Large Hadron Collidor or LHC is one of the grandest scientific experiments ever created. It's a 27 kilometre long underground loop, its job is to accelerate two beams of particles close to the speed of light in opposing directions and then smash them together in a head-on collision. This may seem like wanton destruction but the aim is to create new particles and study never before seen interactions. What the LHC finds could transform how we think about our universe. For decades our best theory of particle physics has been the standard model. The standard model explains all the subatomic particles known and three of the four forces. Leonie Mueck one of Nature's physics editors joins me in the studio now to talk about a result that has a bearing on the standard model. Welcome Leonie. It seems like the standard model can explain a lot about our universe, is there anything that it isn't able to explain?

Leonie Mueck: Most prominently, we're not quite sure how gravity ties into the standard model. There's other things for example, dark matter. We know there is or we suspect there is dark matter but the standard model doesn't really have a place for it. Also the standard model predicts that there is antimatter. But why do we see so much more matter than antimatter is a very good question and that the standard model doesn't really account for that.

Adam Levy: Those seem like pretty big omissions. So the LHC is currently looking for anything that doesn't match up with the standard model's predictions. This would help us go beyond the standard model and work out some kind of new theory. How big a deal would a result like that actually be?

Leonie Mueck: Let's hope that they will find something that deviates from the standard model because that's where the interesting physics actually begins. Any sign of physics beyond the standard model would be a sensation.

Adam Levy: Well one candidate that physicists have been talking about is the decay of a particle called the Bs0 meson. The LHC can make Bs0 meson's by colliding particles together. And physicists now want to know where the Bs0 mesons could decay into particles called muons. The standard model predicts that can happen but it doesn't exactly happen all the time, does it?

Leonie Mueck: I think the exact number is 4 in every billion. You need to produce those B mesons which is very, very difficult. In its own right, they're just very weird particles, they're not like the electrons or protons that you have in regular matter.

Adam Levy: Okay, so those are pretty slim odds, but if we saw muons being created from Bs0 mesons more or less often than this, it could help point out where the standard model is going wrong and how we need to expand it. So two of LHCs particle detectors that LHCb and CMS have teamed up now to search for this decay and to try and quantify it. Leonie, we'll be back with you in a minute, but let's turn now to Marc-O Bettler from the LHCb detector team. I asked Marc-O why this search is so exciting.

Marc-Olivier Bettler: People have been looking for this decay since over three decades. If they have seen this, at the range that was much higher, then that will have been very interesting, in the sense that, that will have been a very clear clue that the standard model is not enough and that you have to have something on top of that to explain their nature.

Adam Levy: But your results show pretty much exactly what the standard model says we should get, there's about four decays per billion. Isn't this a bit of an anticlimax?

Marc-Olivier Bettler: As an experimental statistician, what I was really really glad about and excited about was to see these decays, if you want, and then of course if we have measured it at the rate that would have been incompatible with the standard model, that will have been an enormous cherry on top of the cake of course.

Adam Levy: Well, I also spoke to Joel Butler, who is at the CMS detector and asked him whether he found it surprising that we haven't found any experimental hints of inconsistencies with the standard model.

Joel Butler: I don't know whether it's surprising, it's maddening. There are so many ways in which the standard model could be wrong and yet everywhere we've looked, it seems to be what's happening with nature. Nature is telling us that the new physics doesn't disturb the standard model in some sectors. We're sure that sooner or later we'll find where it does and these results which you would say are negative are really quite positive because what you are doing is you're eliminating options and narrowing things down to the truth that you're seeking.

Adam Levy: That was Joel Butler and before him Marc-O Bettler. Leonie back to you now, this isn't the first time that we've found a new result and that it's been completely compatible with what the standard model says should happen, is it?

Leonie Mueck: Almost everything that we've found so far is compatible with the standard model. I mean, you don't only have to look at very high energies, to find, to search, in the search of deviations of the standard model, but everything we've found so far I think has been quite confirmatory in the sense that it confirmed standard model.

Adam Levy: Well, when I spoke to the physicist, Joel Butler, he seemed pretty confident that eventually we'll find some hint, some clue, but where do we look for that clue, where do we go now?

Leonie Mueck: The LHC's answer to that I guess is higher energies. So we very much hope for this new run to uncover unexpected physics, unexpected experimental results.

Adam Levy: I mean, what happens if we keep on looking at more decays and finding things to higher precision and everything is consistent with the standard model?

Leonie Mueck: I mean, even if they only find that the standard model holds up, that's a result in itself isn't it? It means that the theorists have to go back home and come up with new ideas, but yeah, let's hope that there will be some inspiration (Laughs).

Kerri Smith: That was one of Nature's physics editors, Leonie Mueck and before her Adam was talking to two of the thousands of collaborators from the CMS and the LHCb detectors.

Noah Baker: Coming up a memoir from Oliver Sacks, the Beat poet of the science world.

Kerri Smith: But first, it's time for the best science from elsewhere, it's the research highlights with Adam Levy.

Adam Levy: A species of bird has outperformed monkeys in a test of understanding abstract concepts. The Clark's nutcracker was shown pairs of pictures and got a reward for spotting matching images. Many animals can do this, but maybe they're just learning which pictures give a reward, rather than understanding that the pictures must match. So researchers changed the set of pictures halfway through the test, even monkeys struggle with this, but the nutcrackers could still spot matching pictures. In the wild these birds have to remember where they've stored thousands of nuts for the winter, which might help them with tricky tasks like this. For the full paper, see Biology Letters. Published 13 May 2015The activity of human genes can vary with the seasons. We've known for a long time that gene expression can vary on a 24-hour cycle, but this is the first time researchers have seen it vary over the year. In fact, a quarter of all genes show seasonal variation in their expression, which may explain why some diseases like some cardiovascular and psychiatric disorders affect people more at certain times of year. It could also help time vaccination programs when they're likely to be most effective. The paper is out in Nature Communications.

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Kerri Smith: In late 2013, the latest in a string of countries got ready to send a spacecraft to Mars. Nature 521, 144–147 (14 May 2015)(Voice of spokesperson for India's space program)About 51 missions have been undertaken to Mars and the failure rate is over 50%.

Kerri Smith: This is the spokesperson for that country's space program, talking just before the launch.(Voice of spokesperson for India's space program)China and Japan attempted it but failed. India is very near its destination of reaching Mars. If India does it on its own, it'll be very, very significant.

Kerri Smith: And they made it. The Indian Mars orbiter reached the red planet on its first attempt.

T.V. Padma: (Voice of spokesperson for India's space program)So, India is no longer a place of snake charmers. This is a country which can do sophisticated, interplanetary travel and do it all on its own.

Kerri Smith: India has had some stellar scientific successes, the Mars orbiter among them. But it's also a place of challenges. Almost a 100 million people live without safe drinking water. Infectious diseases are a big public health scourge. India has the world's highest rates of TB and among the highest malaria cases. Is science doing enough to help with these too? To get a handle on India's scientific gains and its biggest struggles, I called science journalist T.V. Padma who's written a piece for Nature about science in India. She first told me about India's proudest scientific moments including that Mars mission.

T.V. Padma: It was the first time a country made it to the orbit in its very first attempt, which was a little surprising even for us, but there are other missions that have also been doing pretty well. For example, India had announced a nanotechnology and a nano science mission in 2007. And in April, the Indian government cleared a national mission on supercomputing. And under this mission, the country plans to build a high speed network which is expected to make a difference to its projects in climate change and weather prediction. So there are these areas where India has been doing well.

Kerri Smith: Why is now a good time to write about Indian science?

T.V. Padma: Well, this month May marks the completion of one year of a new Indian government, led by Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Now Narendra Modi took over with this image of a man who gets things done, a guy who can just go around fixing problems and who can see the country's economy develop. Against this backdrop it was a good time to review what exactly happened in Indian science more so because Indian science is not just seen as an esoteric activity, but as an activity that has a crucial role in the country's development.

Kerri Smith: So, far we've talked about a Mars mission, nanotechnology, supercomputing, and none of those are really to do with on the ground problems, but has India been doing well at developing its own science base to solve problems that the country has?

T.V. Padma: Well, I would say there's been a bit of mixed success on that front. India's success in generic production has gone a long way in affordable healthcare and affordable medicines in the country. Having said that there are a lot of typically tropical neglected diseases, where the country could have taken a leap in drug discovery and research and it has not really made a huge dent in new drug discoveries in these tropical diseases. India ranks appallingly in the human development index. Its rank is about 135, I think, in the latest index out of 187 countries. And it has not yet been able to solve its basic problems of sanitation, of maternal and infant mortality, of drinking water. The Department of Biotechnology at least has begun to acknowledge some of these problems and pay attention to them. They have similarly a grand challenges program in the sanitation sector, and hopefully these kind of activities could help change some of this.

Kerri Smith: Given this overall picture of science in India, what's happening at a policy level then to shore up science?

T.V. Padma: Well, funding has remained static now. For over a decade, we have been hearing promises from successive governments and prime ministers about how they would like to increase the funding to about 2% of the gross domestic project, but this funding has remained static at 0.8%.

Kerri Smith: That was science journalist T.V. Padma on the line from New Delhi. There's a Nature special on India this week, find Padma's article and many others at http://www.nature.com/news.

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Noah Baker: Oliver Sacks is quite the overachiever. A highly respected professor of neurology, he has been practicing for more than 50 years. In his spare time, he has published numerous bestselling books covering topics spanning all of neurology from hallucinations to migraines. But his latest book is not about his field. It's about his life. It's a memoir, the publication of which has been made even more poignant by the news that in February this year, Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The book is called On the Move, and it's has been reviewed in Nature this week by journalist, Tim Radford, who has come in to the studio to tell me a bit more, I notice you moving there. Nature 521, 158–159 (14 May 2015)

Tim Radford: Yes, in response to really a memory of journeys, it's a strange thing. This is a book in which everyone will find what they find what they want to find. It's not a perfect book. My definition of a perfect book will be a book in which you wouldn't want one word more or less and I would've liked a little less of some things and a lot more of others but that's not important here. What's important here is that it enables people to confront his life with a little context from themselves too because we all of us have our own experience of adventure.

Noah Baker: So Sacks was born in Britain, but he spent much of his life working in America.

Tim Radford: He was a Londoner who went to America. This itself is not unusual. I've actually heard European scientists say that they'd never met another European scientist until they went to Berkeley. So going to America itself wasn't a surprise. He didn't however go to America as a scientist, although that was a subtext, science was a subtext all the way through this, he goes there as a young man in search of adventure.

Noah Baker: I have a copy of the book in front of me and on the cover is a young Sacks astride a motorcycle in a leather jacket, looking, you know, altogether ruggedly handsome and maybe even rebellious, not necessarily something people would usually associate with a professor of neurology.

Tim Radford: We all wanted to look like James Dean or Marlon Brando in the '50s and '60s. No, what the adventure in his particular case was his determination to not only do things but overdo them. So it's not enough for him just to enjoy weight lifting, he actually has to break a Californian record.

Noah Baker: Sacks actually talks about this in the book quite a lot doesn't he? We've actually got some excerpts that he's read himself. Here's the first one.(Excerpts from On the Move read by Oliver Sacks)This was to serve as my introduction to the power lifting world. Weight lifting record is equivalent in these circles to publishing a scientific paper or a book in academia.

Tim Radford: When he writes, he writes at enormous speed and sometimes far too much. There's one story of him presenting his tragic and stricken publisher with a manuscript of 400,000 words, which has to be boiled down to about 60,000 which is the kind of ideal length for a Sacks' book.(Excerpts from On the Move read by Oliver Sacks)After working in the migraine clinic for a year, I went back to England for a holiday and to my own great surprise, proceeded to write a book on migraine over the course of a couple of weeks. It spilled out suddenly without conscious planning.

Tim Radford: All of that are the drinking, we all tried drinking when we were 16 or 17, I gave up after two glasses of sherry but he managed to knock off a bottle of Aquavit in the course of reading and this is the heroic bit, in the course of reading James Joyce's Ulysses, which says to yourself this is not someone who does things by halves.

Noah Baker: I wonder if this sort of excessive nature that he has in his personal life is something that's reflected in his science that he has done as well.

Tim Radford: I don't think I'm qualified ever to talk about neuroscience. I find it one of the great puzzles that this is the science that happened while I wasn't watching. I don't know how much he has contributed to our understanding of neurology itself. I think that will be continuously re-evaluated. But what he has done is he's actually changed the attitude to the patient. Nobody now, anyone who's read Sacks could ever think of the patient as simply a case, you know a strange and bizarre case of a hostile and possibly sad victim, when he writes about patients, they become humans and they become people who are as good as and as interesting as himself.

Noah Baker: It strikes me that a lot of these things that we're talking about, the sort of wild, sort of hedonistic character, these adventures that he goes on, the experiments with drugs and alcohol, it all sounds very much like bit of Beat poet to me and you know this book is called On the Move which seems strikingly like On the Road, Jack Kerouac's famous book.

Tim Radford: In my review, I actually I think I would suggest that Easy-Rider breezes into the world of John Steinbeck, It reads like excerpts from a novel that was never actually written, it reads particular like the kind of 50s novel in which the hero or the protagonist of the novel becomes a bull fighter and a truck driver and a poet. There are “hang on a moment” bits of this book. It's not a full biography by any means, it's a series of carefully chosen self-portraits from aspects of his life, we're grateful that he's told us what he has.

Noah Baker: Why do you think that Sacks has written this memoir now?

Tim Radford: There are two reasons. One is that he clearly is the sort of person who can't stop writing.(Excerpts from On the Move read by Oliver Sacks)Over a lifetime, I've written millions of words but the act of writing seems as fresh and as much fun as when I started it, nearly 70 years ago.

Tim Radford: I can warm to this. I too understand that, although not to the degrees that he describes. The other one of course is that he has clearly reached the end of something. I hope it's not the end of writing, but it's certainly going to be the end of an active weightlifting life. I say in my review that there's a valedictory note to this book. It represents a kind of farewell to all that, a “Good-bye to All That” to quote Robert Graves. And perhaps people will have this urge to sum up a life somehow in words, in which case he's done it very readably indeed.

Noah Baker: That was Tim Radford. Also featuring excerpts from On the Move read by Oliver Sacks. Tim's review of the book can be found at http://www.nature.com/news/booksandarts and Sacks' memoir is hot off the press in all good book shops now.

Kerri Smith: News time now and joining me in the studio, Richard van Noorden, news editor. Hi Richard.

Richard van Noorden: Hello Kerri.

Kerri Smith: There's been some news in the UK recently about the election that happened and we now have a Conservative majority government for the first time in a while. Nature

Richard van Noorden: Yeah, scientists weren't expecting to know who their Science Minister would be and who the government would be by this time, but it all came out surprising well for the Conservatives, an outright majority. So David Cameron returning as Prime Minister has named all of his cabinet and all of his ministers and we can now speculate on what this means for research in the next five years.

Kerri Smith: Now science research, they weren't really platform issues in this election, everyone just talked about austerity quite a lot and balancing the books, but there is some news as you say on science and on climate change because ministers have been appointed for each of these positions already, we're only a few days in.

Richard van Noorden: Yeah on science, the new Science Ministeris Jo Johnson, who listeners will probably know of as the younger brother of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, himself now a member of parliament. Joe Johnson is well connected, he has the ear of George Osborne, the Treasurer, so he might have some influence on the UK budget which could be important because no doubt in the Tory government, we will see a focus on austerity, which may mean that the science budget which was already frozen for the last five years in full in its real terms probably means that it won't go up. However, the Tories do understand the importance of science, so what we'll probably see, our pundits suggest is a focus on the economic value of science and a push towards the economic applications of research.

Kerri Smith: And for that reason they've not found it necessary to appoint an actual scientist.

Richard van Noorden: Right, Johnson's not actually a scientist and his dad actually told a radio station in London that his son knew nothing about science, but he is renowned as being very clever, certainly able to get to grips with science in higher education in his brief. Now interestingly, it's just come out as I speak, that he won't be attending cabinet, which means he won't be attending the regular meetings that Cameron holds with all his influential advisers. His predecessors, Greg Clark and David Willetts did go to this meeting and that meant there was always a voice for science and higher education. So there's a worry that by demoting this post, the Tories have somehow signaled that science or higher education is not so important to them or Johnson won't have enough influence. So, we'll have to see how that play out and it may be that Johnson's superior as it were, the new Minister for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills which is where the Science Minister sits, Sajid Javid, might play that role. He might speak up for innovation at cabinet meetings but it is a bit of a shock when previous science ministers have attended cabinets.

Kerri Smith: The other post of course that scientists and researchers are particularly interested in has to do with climate change and energy.

Richard van Noorden: A solid choice here, Amber Rudd as Energy and Climate Minister, she was already a Climate Change Minister which is a more junior role before this election and she's already spoken of the need to seek a strong deal at the UN climate negotiations in Paris and that pledge was actually also in the Conservative's pre-election manifesto. They also promised to encourage expansion of nuclear power but also to encourage expansion of fracking for shale energy which Rudd is also in favour of and to end support for onshore wind farms which they see as too expensive. So, there is a fear that the previous government, we had a coalition of the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, it was widely thought that the Liberal Democrats who held the position of this Energy and Climate Change Minister with Ed Davey, it was widely thought that they had sort of forced or persuaded the Conservatives to give more attention to renewable power. Now we don't have the Liberal Democrats, so maybe we'll see what happens, but let's be fair to the Tories, their manifesto has clearly shown that they are strongly persuaded by the need to act on climate change.

Kerri Smith: Okay, well there's been a lot established in the first few days of the new government and I'm sure there'll be more updates as the five years of conservative reign progress. Now we're moving onto a quite startlingly different topic now and we're going to look at how some researchers who flew plane through a thunderstorm found some antimatter. I feel like I've just randomly selected those words for that sentence. Nature 521, 135 (14 May 2015)

Richard van Noorden: This is kind of an insane story. Joseph Dwyer who's at the University of New Hampshire in Durham flew an aeroplane, a Gulfstream V Jet plane into some thunderstorms and in the middle of the thunderstorms they say that they found a massive cloud of antimatter of positrons. We know that cosmic rays plunging into the atmosphere can then hit other energetic particles and can produce short-lived showers of gamma rays, these highly energetic particles. We also know that storms produce positrons and gamma rays can also be created when positrons, antimatter annihilate with an electron matter. So, Dwyer's team wanted to find these gamma rays which could have come from cosmic rays or from antimatter, but they accidentally flew into a thunder cloud, when they meant to be flying into what looked like from the radar profile to be the coast of Georgia but actually turned out to be some thunderstorms. So that was a bit of a shock for them and he said the plane rolled violently back and forth but while this was happening, they also picked up three spikes of gamma rays an energy which has to be from a positron annihilating with an electron. So within this thunder cloud, they calculate that a very short-lived cloud of positrons, one to two kilometers across surrounded the aircraft within this cloud. They actually did this flight in 2009 six years ago and it's taken them until now to publish a report on what on earth was going on.

Kerri Smith: To try and figure out whether these positrons were just some kind of near death experience of flying through a thunderstorm, I bet. So it's very unusual isn't it to see records of antimatter, so what on earth were they doing in the middle of a thunder storm.

Richard van Noorden: It may be that the positrons were originating from cosmic rays, these particles from outer space that come in and we know that they produce positrons and also gamma rays and what's really puzzling is why this cloud of positrons surrounded the aircraft rather than being a light drizzle as is everywhere in the world all the time, and perhaps there was some mechanism that somehow steered the positrons towards the plane, perhaps the wings were electrically changed producing extremely intense electric fields around them or perhaps the wings were electrically charged and that intense electric field caused within the vicinity of the plane electrons accelerating and producing gamma rays and then the gamma rays might hit other atoms and generate an electron-positron pair, which annihilates. You can see from this cascade how complicated it gets. The answer really is they haven't the foggiest for why they would see this cloud of antimatter.

Kerri Smith: Nice weather pun.

Richard van Noorden: Thank you very much. So close to the plane, and they are actually, they want more observations of thunder clouds. So the US National Science Foundation is going to fly a particle detector on an A-10 'Warthog', an armored anti-tank plane that can withstand the extreme environment inside a thunder cloud to try and work out whether they can see more of these antimatter clouds. I should say that other physicists say that the estimate of the size of this cloud of positrons is not convincing and maybe it was smaller than this one to two kilometre estimate. So this observation and near death experience has thrown up more questions than answers.

Kerri Smith: Alright well Richard van Noorden thank you very much and for more on antimatter clouds and clouds of politicians as those two stories suggest, go to http://www.nature.com/news.

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Noah Baker: That's all from us, we'll be back next time with a real-life take on Breaking Bad. I'm Noah Baker.

Kerri Smith: And I'm Kerri Smith.