NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: The life of a new Nobel laureate and organised ants

Shamini Bundell and Noah Baker bring you the latest science news.

This week, what life is like when you've just won a Nobel prize, and how a vestigial organ helps ants get organised.

In this episode:

00:46 Donna Strickland

The third woman to win a physics Nobel talks lasers and gender.

07:20 Research Highlights

Quick-cooling superconductors and medieval worms. Research Highlight: Tapeworm DNA hints at discomforts of life in a medieval trading hub; Research Highlight: How to persuade a reluctant metal to take on a superpower.

09:29 Organised ants

How a vestigial organ turned out to play a key role in ant castes. Research paper: Abouheif et al.

15:54 News Chat

The trouble with Hubble and a 1.5 °C world. News: IPCC says limiting global warming to 1.5 °C will require drastic action; News: Hubble telescope stops collecting data after mechanical fault

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Transcript

This week, what life is like when you've just won a Nobel prize, and how a vestigial organ helps ants get organised.

[Jingle]

Host: Shamini Bundell

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, we’ll be hearing about what life is like when you unexpectedly win a Nobel Prize.

Host: Noah Baker

And learning about some surprisingly useful vestigial organs in ants. I’m Noah Baker.

Host: Shamini Bundell

And I’m Shamini Bundell.

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Host: Noah Baker

First up, in case last week’s Nobel News Chat didn’t include enough prize pronunciations, we've got more loquacious laureate lines for you now. Donna Strickland, one of this year’s winners in Physics, tells reporter Lizzie Gibney about high-intensity, ultrashort lasers and what life’s like for a new Nobel laureate.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

So first off, congratulations!

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Thanks very much.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

I understand that if we take you back to last Tuesday, the call from Stockholm was something of a surprise?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Of course, it was a total surprise, yes. And it was also 5 in the morning, so…

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And the research that you won for was done in 1985, while you were a PhD student experimenting with lasers. What was it that you were trying to achieve at the time?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

My PhD project was actually doing something that required a high-intensity laser. It was supposed to work in a way that many, many photons of light would interact with an atom all at the same time. And to do that you need to have all of your photons squeezed into small volume and that means you focus it with the lens down and you also squeeze in time. And so that’s what we were trying to do, but unfortunately, if you do that inside your laser it blows up. And so the idea came around to say okay, what we have to do is not squeeze all the pulses first, stretch them out so that it’s over a great big volume, amplify it up and then when we have all of the photons in the great big volume, you can squeeze it back down to a small volume, and now you have a really intense source of light.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And why is it that you wanted to improve the intensity of the lasers?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Well we wanted to interact with atoms in new ways and this type of laser can now have a force on an electron that’s bigger than the force that holds the electron to the atom. And also, it can be done very shortly and so the electrons simply fly off the atoms when they’re inside these laser fields.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

So, if they’re a greater intensity that’s useful both in physics but also for applications including corrective laser eye surgery?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

So, when people get this corrective surgery, people would actually scalpel off the outside part of the cornea, and then they would use the UV laser to reshape the cornea into new shape so that you could see and then put the flap back. What the ultrafast laser does is that because it doesn’t have to just cut from the surface, it’s only at the intense focal point that it does this damage where the electrons come off the atoms, you could actually put your laser and scan it over your cornea and it would cut underneath that. Instead of using a metal scalpel you can use a laser.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Sounds like a much less painful process.

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

That’s right, and it can be very precise with the laser.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Now, I wish we didn’t have to talk about gender. I’m sure that’s a topic that you’ve spoken about a lot this week, but as you’ll be very well aware, you know, you’re of course just the third woman to win a Nobel Prize in Physics. I guess first off, do you think that women are currently underrepresented among the Nobel laureates?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Well, 3 in 100 years or something – I think there are a higher percentage of women doing fantastic science than that, so probably we are underrepresented by the Nobel Prize, yes.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Lots of people have asked you about being a woman in physics, and I think that you said so far that you have always been treated fairly and paid well.

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Actually, the University of Waterloo is always very careful. At one point, I got this letter, you know, saying that, “We look into making sure that women are paid equal but we realised…” And then a whole long line at the very end was, “And you were being treated equal so you won’t get a raise.” And I went well too bad because I would have liked the raise but at least I’m being treated equal! So that’s the way it is.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Well that’s really good to know. And much has also been made of the fact that you are an associate professor rather than a professor, and I think you’d said that you’d never applied, is that right?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Yeah, now I really wish I just had. I had colleagues that were saying, “Why aren’t you applying, you should be applying.” And I sort of just said, “Okay, I’ll probably do it next year.”

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And to get a bit meta, obviously, you know I started these few questions by apologising for asking you about the very fact that you’re a woman. How has it felt over the past few days answering so many questions on that topic?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

I do hope that we do get to the point, we all hope we get to the point where this just becomes not discussed anymore. I mean, so hopefully soon there’s enough women and enough people of colour and enough of every group out there that feels that they get the recognition they deserve, and then we don’t have to talk about it anymore.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Any suggestions on how we can reach that point, either what advice to younger scientists or even to the Nobels as to how to make the system work better?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

I think we’ve been pushing for a lot of years and I do feel like women’s lib was talked about a lot in the 70s and I certainly always felt that, you know, as a woman, I could do whatever the heck I wanted. You know, and maybe a lot of women who felt that got out there and did it and maybe we let it slide again. Certainly, this is a moment in history where women around the world aren’t letting much slide anymore, so I think things are changing again, fairly quickly again. Question is whether we can consistently keep moving forward until it’s all done.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And Donna, you now have an incredible platform from which to speak, being a Nobel laureate. How do you plan to use that?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

I don’t know! It’s kind of a scary kind of thing because I am somebody who just talks a lot without thinking and people have been quoting me back and I think did I actually say that? So that’s got me a little scared. I will have to practice not just saying the first thing that comes into my mind.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

And how has your life changed since becoming a Nobel laureate on Tuesday?

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Oh, completely! This is just completely crazy and you know, I got to talk to the Prime Minister of Canada for the first time ever and he was very nice about it because I said, “This is like your life all the time.” And he said, “No, I don’t always get to speak to a Nobel laureate.”

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Wow, well enjoy it! It sounds like it’s hectic but congratulations again.

Interviewee: Donna Strickland

Thank you very much.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That was Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Canada, chatting with Lizzie Gibney. You can find our Nobel coverage over at nature.com/news, along with all the other top science news, some of which we’ll be covering in the News Chat later in the show. So, stick around to find out why people are worried about the Hubble space telescope.

Host: Noah Baker

But right now, Anna Nagle has arrived and bought some Research Highlights with her.

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Interviewer: Anna Nagle

What can tapeworms tell us about the bustling port of Lübeck in medieval Germany?

Throughout history, humans have been afflicted by a dizzying variety of intestinal parasites. A team from the University of Oxford in the UK sifted through soil samples from centuries-old cesspits and retrieved the preserved eggs of parasitic worms. Then they extracted DNA.

They found that tapeworm species in Lübeck shifted over time, possibly indicating a sharp change in the residents’ diet around the 14th century. They also found that parasitic whipworm populations were more genetically diverse in historic port cities than in cities that were less-well-connected. The researchers say this field of archeoparasitology could be more widely used when digging into the historical record. Uncover that research over at the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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Interviewer: Anna Nagle

Researchers have gotten around a longstanding problem with super-cold superconductors.

Extreme cold is enough to transform some materials, like certain metals or ceramics, into superconductors, allowing them to carry electrical current with no resistance. But there are some metals that don’t become superconductors when they get really cold. Instead, they enter a competing state where their electrons are arranged in a way that prevents superconductivity.

But Japanese researchers have found a workaround. By applying a pulse of electrical current, they heated a piece of metal slightly before flash cooling it by hundreds of degrees in under ten microseconds. This cooled the metal so fast that the competing state didn’t have time to form and the metal retained a stable, superconducting state for more than a week. The authors say the technique could reveal more superconducting materials that can be predicted with conventional thermodynamics.

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Host: Shamini Bundell

Here at the Nature Podcast...

Host: Noah Baker

Next up today… oh I thought I was introducing the next piece?

Host: Shamini Bundell

No, no because you did the last one so this one is me.

Host: Noah Baker

Oh, okay, sorry.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Here at the Nature Podcast we’re a well-oiled machine where everyone knows exactly what their role is.

Host: Noah Baker

Definitely.

Host: Shamini Bundell

A bit – one might say – like an ant colony.

Host: Noah Baker

I wouldn’t say that but carry on.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Where so-called different castes have different jobs, all working together for the common good.

Host: Noah Baker

Fine.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Ants have evolved ingenious ways of controlling and regulating these different caste populations. Now, new research from Nature has found a surprising mechanism for how this might work. Reporter Anand Jagatia spoke to Ehab Abouheif about the work, and started by asking him more about the makeup of ant society and in particular of a genus called Pheidole.

Interviewee: Ehab Abouheif

You have winged castes and wingless castes. The males and queens, they have wings, and they use their wings to go up on mating flights, but the worker caste is completely wingless. There are 15,000 species of ants and there’s not a single case where the workers have wings. So, most ants, all the workers look roughly the same, but in the genus Pheidole, they evolved this soldier caste, this soldier subcaste. So now, the worker caste is divided into minor workers and soldiers. The minor workers do most of the tasks, and the minors are largely for defence of the nest and cracking seeds.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

Okay, so neither nor soldiers have wings, but your paper was about these kind of little rudimentary wings called wing discs that pop up during development in the soldiers. Can you tell me more about that?

Interviewee: Ehab Abouheif

So, for most of my career I actually thought they were useless. I thought they didn’t have a function, and I think that’s a fair kind of assumption because, you know, the idea of rudiments that pop up in development is absolutely a general property of all organisms. For example, in humans there are gills that pop up and then disappear. We had known about these rudiments for a long time, since the time of Darwin and even before Darwin, but the idea is that we thought that this is just evidence that all of life is connected together by common ancestors, until one day, I actually decided to ask, ‘Well, I wonder what these rudiments are actually doing?’

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

How did you go about then investigating that? What kind of experiments did you do?

Interviewee: Ehab Abouheif

So, we tried to select the gene that was specific to the wings, that was, you know, largely expressed only in the wing discs and then we knocked it down. And the second way is that we actually went in physically and we ablated the disc with a technique called electro-surgical ablation.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

And what did you find when you kind of knocked out the formation of the discs genetically and kind of physically?

Interviewee: Ehab Abouheif

When we first saw the phenotypes, our jaws dropped. This was something that I felt not only redefined my own research but just redefined the whole way I look at this whole class of biology, of these rudiments and all these organisms. All of a sudden, when you knock down this little rudimentary wing, you now change the size of the head and the body of the ants.

The reason why I’m so excited is because if you think about ants and their diversity, most of the diversity is in their head size and their body size. So, most of the evolution and their diversification has happened in those two traits and so you’re changing actually the scaling of the head to the body. You generate a whole range of phenotypes, from things that look like as small as minor workers, to things that are almost the size of soldiers to all these intermediate ranging variants that you never see in nature.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

So is your thinking then that these rudimentary wing discs could have a role in determining that so that that’s what determines basically whether an ant becomes a soldier or becomes a minor worker is somehow involved in that process.

Interviewee: Ehab Abouheif

Yes, exactly. So, with the growth of these rudiments, yes, it’s determining the soldier subcaste. So, when these discs start growing, they must be sending out regulatory signals that start to coordinate head and body development or growth. One of the major discoveries of the paper, I think also is just crazy, is that the ants themselves evolve the capacity to control the growth of this rudimentary wing disc, to maintain the balance of minor workers and soldiers and the minor works are about 95% and the soldiers are about 5%, so when there are too many soldiers, the soldiers themselves can actually halt the growth of this rudimentary full wing disc.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

As in they halt the growth in the other larval ants that are kind of still growing?

Interviewee: Ehab Abouheif

That’s right. So, what they do is they have this inhibitory pheromone that they emit, and the inhibitory pheromone is sensed by the larvae and somehow then that goes in and it stops the growth of this little rudiment that pops up in the last phase of larval development. It’s one of the first examples that shows the really widespread regulatory control that these rudiments can have and that this can affect evolution to produce novelty that really shows this so nicely.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

So, do you think then that this idea of rudimentary structures being able to have much bigger impacts than we thought, is that something that could apply, you know, across lots of other kinds of organisms as well? How general could this effect be?

Interviewee: Ehab Abouheif

This is what I think is the really exciting part. Every organ or trait has to coordinate its proportions with others, and so at a minimum every trait has to have at least two functions. One, its original function so if it’s a limb, it’s having its function as a limb, but it also has to coordinate its proportions with other parts of the body, so it has to have a communication function. And so, if you lose the limb and you have these limb rudiments that pop up, they still have communicative functions that could potentially play regulatory roles in development, and I think that’s an absolutely general property that you know, nobody’s really looked at and so we now have to go out and explore. You know, this is opening up possibilities far beyond our own field that it’s very exciting, and who knows where this will go. We have no idea.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That was Ehab Abouheif from McGill University in Canada, talking to Anand Jagatia. Find Ehab’s research at nature.com/nature.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And finally this week, it’s the News Chat and joining me here in the studio is Josie Allchin, our Social Media Engagement Editor. Josie, welcome.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, we have two stories to talk about this week, one of which has been quite a long time coming. I was lucky enough back in 2015 to be in the room in Paris when the gavel went down on the 2015 Paris Accord for Climate Change, and one of the things that that accord said is that we were going to try and aim for 1.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels. Now, that took many scientists a little bit by surprise, didn’t it?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, it really did, and a few are sort of wondering about its feasibility and it will really be a mammoth task to get even anywhere near that target.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Tell me, what exactly are we referring to when we say 1.5 degrees of warming?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

We’re talking about 1.5 degrees above what pre-industrial levels were. So, we’re standing at about 1 degree warmer. The world is on track to reach around 3 degrees by the end of this century.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Once this target was set, then scientists scurried away and thought, ‘Hey, we probably better do some science, some research to try and find out what a 1.5 degree world might look like.’ It was something that hadn’t really been studied up until that point.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, so the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) were sent away to do some research and this culminated into this report that was released on Monday, and it really gives governments around the world kind of a better idea of what they will actually have to do to achieve the 1.5 limit.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So much of this recent report was based on the comparison between previous estimations for things like a 2 degree world and then what might happen in a 1.5 degree world. How might those worlds differ?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

So for example, in a 2 degree world, we’d see rates of extinction for species of insects really increase, but in a 1.5 degree world those rates would halve. In a 2 degree world, the Arctic would experience ice-free summers once every decade, whereas in a 1.5 degree world, we’d see ice-free summers every century. Even with a 1.5 degree limit we would still see some noticeable changes. For example, heatwaves, even this year the European heatwave was really a very good example of climate change in action, we would see more wildfires as well, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes and storms.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, a 1.5 degree world is a considerably better-off world than a 2 degree world, although there are still some problems. How likely is it that we might be able to achieve this 1.5 degree cap on warming?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

It will be incredibly difficult. There are steps that the IPCC recommended. It was noted that they did sort of sidestep the feasibility of this but they did make some suggestions. For example, a massive increase in wind and solar power, planting bigger forests and more forests to kind of naturally pull in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They suggested technology by which we pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and then pump it underground, although it should be noted that the technology for that is in its very, very early stages and scientists are still not yet sure on a global scale how that would be achieved.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

The previous IPCC report which focused around a 2 degree world as this number that they were really looking towards, that predicted that the world was going to hit 1.5 degree somewhere in the early 2020s. Now, that has been revised slightly in this new report that’s looking more specifically at 1.5 degrees.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, so we have maybe 10–30 more years than scientists previously thought, but that shouldn’t detach from the focus that this is still a very, very severe risk.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

There appears to be two sort of conflicting factors here. One thing that comes out of this report is, ‘Hey guys, we’ve got a little bit longer than we thought.’ And the other thing is, ‘No, but there really is a very big problem here.’ What might that mean for policymakers?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, I mean it could mean that policymakers think that they can, you know, rest on their laurels for the next 30 years but really the consequences will still be there. One social scientist at the Max Planck Institute, Oliver Geden, put it quite nicely when he said, “It’s always five minutes to midnight, and that is highly problematic. Policymakers should get used to it because they always think there’s a way out.”

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, I suppose it’s a case of wait and see both whether or not the predictions made by the IPCC report play out/whether or not governments around the world will get off their bottoms and really make the policy changes that people say that we need. But until we find that out, there is another pressing problem that is currently not on Earth but in space, and that is some trouble with Hubble. Josie, tell me what’s been going on with this famed space telescope.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

The Hubble telescope hasn’t been able to collect data since last week, due to a problem with one of its gyroscopes which is the device it uses to turn itself onto celestial targets.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Okay, so a fundamentally pretty important piece of kit this gyroscope, but it’s not the only gyroscope on board Hubble and it’s also not the first time a gyroscope has failed on Hubble.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

No, that’s true. So, there are five others, there are six in total. In 2009, astronauts actually replaced all six of the Hubble’s gyroscopes and three of those were of a design that were meant to last a lot longer. Two of the older ones have failed before last week and actually when mission controllers went to switch one of the gyroscopes to the new design, it didn’t work as it was supposed to.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Okay, so it’s not worked when they’ve turned on, but at the moment those in charge of Hubble don’t seem particularly worried about it. They seem to think they’re going to be able to get it going again.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yeah, and in fact the director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which operates Hubble, Kenneth Sembach has said simply, “Don’t worry, Hubble has many great years of science ahead.”

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Which is important because if they can’t get it going again from the ground, there’s very little else they can do because Hubble was designed to be repaired by the space shuttle.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Exactly, and that was retired in 2011 so what would have been a fix that could have been carried out by an astronaut sent up there can no longer be done in that way.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Now, what might this mean for science if for some reason, Hubble can’t be switched back on again properly? You know, what happens if these gyroscopes can’t be fixed?

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

It would simply be a huge loss and it’s kind of been highlighted in the reporting of this story that it just goes to show that Hubble will one day die, you know, one day we won’t have Hubble and that will be a huge loss to astrophysics.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

In the meantime, we just need to keep our fingers crossed and hope that the ground-based teams can fix these gyroscopes and get Hubble up and running again.

Interviewee: Josie Allchin

Yes, I’m sure there are going to be lots of people in the astrophysics community who are really, really hoping that this isn’t the end for Hubble just yet.

Host: Noah Baker

Okay, thanks, Josie. And that’s it for this week’s highly organised science podcast fun, but as usual, nature.com/news has even more stories for you if you want to check those out. Thanks for listening everyone, I’m Noah Baker.

Host: Shamini Bundell

And I’m Shamini Bundell. See you next time.

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