NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Quantum physics adds a twist and festive fun

Join Benjamin Thompson and Ali Jennings for a special end of year podcast.

The Nature Podcast’s 2018 end of year special.

In this episode:

01:03 Generating torque from thin air

Researchers have shown that the quantum ‘Casimir effect’ can be used to twist crystals. Research Article: Somers et al. News and Views: Elusive torque sensed by liquid crystals

06:27 Unto Us a Child is Born

The first of our science-themed festive songs, about a recently discovered hominin who was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan. Scroll to the transcript section below for the lyrics.

07:56 Barb’s books of 2018

Barb Kiser, Nature’s Books and Arts Editor, picks a few of her favourite science books of 2018. Nature’s Books and Arts section

14:56 I Had a Little Rover

Our second song is about the Martian explorer ‘Opportunity’ that got stuck in a storm on the Red Planet. Scroll to the transcript section below for the lyrics.

16:30 The 2018 headline quiz

How well do our reporters know Nature’s 2018 headlines? Not very, it turns out.

23:53 News Chat

We hear about some of the names on Nature’s 10 list this year. News: Nature’s 10: Ten people who mattered in science in 2018

30:52 Hark! It’s Hayabusa2

The last of this year’s songs is an ode to a lander that touched down on an asteroid millions of miles away from Earth. Scroll to the transcript section below for the lyrics.

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Transcript

The Nature Podcast’s 2018 end of year special.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, we’ll be finding out how quantum forces get things in a bit of a twist, and testing out our reporters’ knowledge of this year’s science headlines.

Host: Ali Jennings

Plus, a round-up of some of this year’s top science tomes, and some sensational science-themed seasonal songs. I’m Ali Jennings.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson.

[Jingle]

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So Ali, it’s your first time on hosting duty, and what a show to do it in – our special festive edition of the podcast.

Interviewer: Ali Jennings

Agreed – it’s the perfect Christmas present. Especially looking forward to hearing those special science songs on a bit. First up though, on this week’s show I want to put a bit of quantum in your Christmas. I’ve been finding out how quantum fluctuations can create a turning force on some objects, seemingly out of thin air. Down at the smallest scales – the nanoscopic world of viruses and proteins – quantum effects start to exert forces on matter. One of these effects is called the Casimir torque. The Casimir torque exerts a turning force on an object. To measure this in a lab, researchers put two metal plates in a vacuum and then bring them very close together. In a vacuum, photons pop in and out of existence all the time, creating electromagnetic waves reflecting between the two plates. To induce Casimir torque, the plates need to be optically anisotropic. That means they reflect light differently depending on how you rotate them. Rotating the plates also changes the energy of the reflected light. Here’s Jeremy Munday, a researcher from the University of Maryland, to explain how this causes the plates to turn.

Interviewee: Jeremy Munday

So, nature likes to minimise the energy of the system, and so what it would do is it would cause one plate to rotate with respect to the other, in order to minimise the energy of this system. In this rotation that’s the torque, that’s the torque that’s induced by these quantum fluctuations.

Interviewer: Ali Jennings

Jeremy’s team wanted to measure the strength of this effect, but to generate enough torque to measure, you need to make your surfaces as large and as close together as possible. Although, large in a quantum context is still quite small.

Interviewee: Jeremy Munday

So for example in our experiment, the surface area that we’re looking at is about 1-cm². We’re then bringing in another 1-cm² surface that is only 10-100 nm separation between the two.

Interviewer: Ali Jennings

That’s roughly the equivalent of dangling one free-spinning football field directly above another football field, whilst keeping both separated by the width of a human hair. And even if you manage that, the torque generated is still small, very small. So how do you find something sensitive enough to measure it?

Interviewee: Jeremy Munday

So rather than looking at two anisotropic plates, we use one anisotropic plate and one anisotropic fluid. And so, what that allows us to do is take the first plate, the solid plate, put on a thin coating and then we bring in that second material. And so what we’re using is a liquid crystal and now this liquid can rotate however it wants to in order to align its optical axis, based on this torque.

Interviewer: Ali Jennings

So, the liquid crystal can rotate freely and has a large surface area that’s only nanometres from the solid crystal. Now the liquid crystal can turn when it encounters the Casimir torque. But the team didn’t let the liquid crystal move completely freely. They held the top of the liquid crystal stationary. Now, in the bottom of the liquid crystal rotated, it put a twist in the crystal. Then the team shone polarised light through the twisted liquid crystal.

Interviewee: Jeremy Munday

And what the liquid crystal also does is it rotates the light. So if we send through polarised light, it rotates that light, so depending on how much the light is rotated, we know how much the liquid crystal is rotated and from that we can work out what the torque is.

Interviewer: Ali Jennings

When the team shone polarised light through the liquid crystal and saw the light’s polarisation change, they knew they were twisting the crystal with Casimir torque, and they could see this happen with the naked eye. The light shining through Jeremy’s apparatus makes a delicate cross on a screen. As torque is exerted on the crystal, the lines of the cross broaden or shrink. So what’s it like to actually see a quantum effect in action?

Interviewee: Jeremy Munday

It was exciting because the idea, I mean usually when we’re thinking about quantum effects I mean these are really small things so you have to use an atomic force microscope or something like this. But now with this we’re doing something that’s on the scale of millimetres, and you can just pick up a sample and take a look at it and say there’s a torque here that’s causing these things to rotate. So, for me I thought that was a really exciting way to see kind of a macroscopic manifestation of this.

Interviewer: Ali Jennings

We are talking about a tiny amount of force here – no more that nano-Nm per m². This is so small that it could be easily overwhelmed by other factors, like the turbulence from flowing fluids for example. So what could we usefully so with newly measured Casimir torque?

Interviewee: Jeremy Munday

I wouldn’t expect any Casimir torque-powered cars in the near future, but we’re hoping that by better understanding these effects, there will be implications for liquid crystal displays, and also for nanomechanical and micromechanical systems where you’ve got kind of small-scale parts that can move around that are influenced by these quantum fluctuations, either forces or torques. I hope that this gives kind of a new nod for controlling those.

Interviewer: Ali Jennings

That was Jeremy Munday from the University of Maryland. You can read his paper over at nature.com/nature.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well listeners, it’s that time of year when the podcast breaks out into song. Up first is ‘Unto us a Child is Born’, all about the discovery of an ancient hominin who was half Neanderthal and half Denisovan. I’ll put the lyrics up on the show’s page over at nature.com/nature/podcast and you can sing along at home.

Unto us a child is born

A first generation

Hybrid of two distinct groups

Our ancient relations

Our ancient relations.

Unto us a girl is giv’n

She’s half Denisovan

Also half Neanderthal

Genes all interwoven

Genes all interwoven.

Ninety thousand years ago

They were busy mating

But to understand our past

Well we are still waiting

Yes we are still waiting.

Host: Ali Jennings

That was ‘Unto us a Child is Born’, performed by the Girls’ choir at the Simon Langton Boys School. The lyrics were by Shamini Bundell and it was directed by Emily Renshaw-Kidd. Stay tuned – we’ll have more songs coming up later in the show.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Ali, ‘tis the season where I’ll be taking a lot of very long train journeys to see my extended family who obviously, I love dearly.

Host: Ali Jennings

Obviously. But what are you going to do on these arduous journeys? Start another TV series you’ll never finish, distractedly peck at your phone until the battery light flashes, stare listlessly out of the window as the bleak midwinter races past?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Um, I actually was thinking about maybe reading a book.

Host: Ali Jennings

Oh yes, books. Good shout. But which one? There are so many.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, that is a fair point. But luckily I was joined in the studio earlier this week by somebody who has picked a few of her favourite science books of 2018. It’s time to talk science books, and who better to talk about them Barb Kiser, Nature’s Books and Arts editor. So, 2018 then Barb, and you have covered hundreds of books. Has it been a strong year for science-related reading?

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

It’s been a huge year, and that make it incredibly difficult to winnow down the ones that you really love.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you’ve chosen three of your favourite books of 2018, Barb. What’s the first one?

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

Okay, so this book is by the science historian Patricia Fara, and it’s called A Lab of One’s Own. So, she takes a really interesting tact towards the whole history of suffragism in Britain and also in the United States. She looks at it all through a science lens. This is a book that’s bulging with stories of women who, many were either scientists or they were students of science, who struggled in the 19th century to be accepted, to even have the opportunity of studying in university, and of course they were denied degrees, really for decades after.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And so some stories of some early pioneers then?

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

Exactly, so Fara gives us the backstory. She gives us the women in science who were leading the way and who were out there sometimes on the streets protesting, and she takes us through the process of the First World War, and she illustrates the aftermath which was a very mixed bag. So for instance, she isolates an amazing story. there was a physiologist called Mabel Purefoy FitzGerald and at the age of 100 in 1972, she was finally awarded her degree. This was three quarters of a century after she studied – it’s ridiculous. There was also Dorothea Pertz. She worked with Francis Darwin who was Darwin’s son – he was a botanist – and she published papers and lectured at Newnham College, but she was never formally recognised. So you can imagine the kind of tremendous frustration that women felt at that time.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So this is clearly a history book, but does it sort of compare and contrast and look at some of the issues that are going on now?

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

To a degree. I mean, this is definitely a history, so Fara is concentrating on the difficulties at universities that were experienced by these early women science students. She states that the battle was lost and we see that. We see countless reports of how difficult women in many fields of science still find it, so of course advances have been made and of course progress is there, but we’re just not where we should be with women in science.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s move on to your second pick, Barb, and it’s about neuroscience. Now, I have certainly used the phrase, ‘The brain is the most complex machine in the Universe that we know about,’ but perhaps this book is discouraging that thought.

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

I wouldn’t say it’s exactly discouraging it. It’s recontextualising, reframing. So Alan Jasanoff is a neuroengineer, and his book Biological Mind is a kind of takedown of what he calls the “cerebral mystique”. So, you know, as you trawl scientific literature, you’ll often see images of brains glowing, and it’s all very gasp-inducing and marvellous, but what Jasanoff is trying to say is that these are manifestations of skewed thinking. We know that the brain is in the skull, we know it’s in the body, but we increasingly view it in isolation, and this is becoming problematic actually in many social ways, and it even skews our thinking about some of the research. So, because here’s a neuroengineer, he’s obviously looking at the mechanics of how the brain works, but what he does in this book – and I really like this book and I think he’s a wonderful writer – is he reminds us that the brains are just organs. So they’re messy, they’re gummy, they’re fatty, you know, and although they’re obviously nothing like the kidneys, they’re obviously nothing like the stomach, they are still awash with fluids, they’re in the body, they’re connected to the body, so that’s the beginning of his takedown.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s talk about your final pick of 2018, Barb, and being a microbiologist myself, I am delighted that this one has made your list.

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

I loved it. It’s David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree, and it’s the story of how Carl Woese and a group of other extremely radical biologists for their time basically took Darwin’s little idea, which was his tree of life, and ultimately added another branch to it.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And this turned out to be, well, a pretty major branch, very close to the base of the tree.

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

Yes, this is the archaea, the single-cell microorganisms that were originally thought to be bacteria, but were found to be distinct.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, the story goes back, you know, several decades. How did Carl Worse go about sort of discovering this?

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

Woese was very interested in early genetic sequencing. So in the 60s, he and his team started to extract and sequence ribosomal RNA but what we forget now – some of us anyway – is that it was a Herculean task back then. It was hell. It involved years of perusing pieces of film with these sort of smudgy bands. That alone took hours and hours a day, but there were also all sorts of other aspects of lab work back then like the use of radioactive materials, and Quammen really sort of paints this amazing picture of people in the lab handling all this stuff rather cavalierly, so health and safety wasn’t a big deal back then.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

I mean, Barb, it does seem like this is a book about sort of phylogeny or the lineage of organisms which potentially could be quite a dry subject.

Interviewee: Barb Kiser

Quammen makes the wonderful aspect come alive. I think a summation of science that was considered outré, bizarre, beyond radical, ridiculous at the time, and then is finally accepted. I think it’s important because this happens in science, and to see Woese, who never won a Nobel and I think was embittered by that, sort of honoured in this way, is a really good exercise.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, nice one Barb, thank you so much for joining us. Listeners, if you’d like to read our latest Books and Arts reviews, get yourself over to nature.com/books-culture.

Host: Ali Jennings

Time for another seasonal song. This time, we’ve got ‘I Had a Little Rover’ about a certain plucky little Martian explorer called Opportunity.

I had a little rover

I sent it far away

And when it got to Mars

My rover roamed all day

Oh rover rover rover

Exploring Martian clay

But when the skies turned dusty

Got lost so far away

It has a lovely body

with legs so short and thin

It landed nice and safely

And got all settled in

Oh rover rover rover

Exploring Martian clay

But when the skies turned dusty

Got lost so far away

My rover’s awful hopeful

Called Opportunity

it loved to collect samples

And worked diligently

Oh rover rover rover

Exploring Martian clay

But when the skies turned dusty

Got lost so far away

Oh rover rover rover

Exploring Martian clay

But when the skies turned dust

Got lost so far away.

Host: Ali Jennings

That was ‘I had a little rover’, performed by the Simon Langton Boys’ School choir, with lyrics by Lauren Morello and Noah Baker. It was directed by Emily Renshaw-Kidd.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Right then everyone, I have dived into the props cupboard and dusted off my sparkliest jacket once again because it’s time for our annual quiz. We have an absolute dream team gathered here in the studio today. To my right I’ve got Lizzie Gibney. Lizzie, thanks for joining me.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Hello Ben. Thanks for having me. I am feeling festive and ready to go.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Are you ready to have your science knowledge tested?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Always.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Across from me, the one, the only, Shamini Bundell. Shamini, how are you today?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

I’m feeling ready for whatever this is.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And last, but by no means least, is Charlotte Stoddart. Charlotte, thanks for coming along.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Thanks. I’m guessing I’m here to get all the answers wrong because I spent most of 2018 sleep-deprived with two very small people.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So, for this year’s quiz, I’m going to be testing our guests’ knowledge of some of the headlines that have appeared on nature.com/news in 2018.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Oh no.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

In front of me I have a selection of headlines but some of the words are missing. Charlotte, Lizzie and Shamini, all you have to do is tell me what the missing words are. Listeners, you should of course play along at home too. Easy, right?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Yeah, definitely!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s find out with our first headline and this is one that is particularly timely, given that the film has just come out in the UK. Your headline is: ‘Stand back, Aquaman: Harpoon-throwing BLANK takes aim at BLANK’. What are the missing words?

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

I reckon this is going to be some kind of crazy animal behaviour story. So it’s going to be a harpoon-throwing…

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Is the Aquaman part of this relevant?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

What does Aquaman look like?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

He’s that guy from Game of Thrones but with scales on.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Does he have fins?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Is he a mermaid? I don’t know!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Oh my goodness. I think we’ve gone slightly off beam on this one. I will say Aquaman is a bit of a red herring – it’s nothing to do with the animal kingdom at all.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Okay, how about a lander that is going to do some kind of space experiment by throwing a harpoon at something?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you’re definitely getting warmer. It is a space story.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

I’ve got it! Space junk.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Absolutely right, Lizzie. The headline is: ‘Stand back, Aquaman: Harpoon-throwing satellite takes aim at space junk’, and this is a story from September about an experimental space mission called RemoveDEBRIS, which sent a small satellite up into a low Earth orbit. So far, this satellite has used a net to snare some space junk and next year, will be firing a harpoon to see if it can snag some more. Space junk is a real problem – apparently the US military tracks around 20,000 objects in orbit that measure between 5 and 10 centimetres across and as they’re travelling at, what, several kilometres per second, they could do some real damage to spacecraft and what have you.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

I was thrown off by the Aquaman. I think whoever writes these headlines is a lot more in touch with popular culture than me.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

That may be the case Shamini, but let’s see how you get on with this next headline: ‘Dive-bombing hummingbirds add a BLANK to impress mates’. So what’s that missing word?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Loop-the-loop?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Yeah, I’m thinking backflips. Or the other thing I was thinking of was poop.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

That’s not impressive though, is it?

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Or is it?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Well, it depends if you create like poo art in the air. I thought it could look quite good.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

A bit like the Red Arrows, you mean?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Yes, streaming out behind them.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Spelling perhaps the name of their love. That would be nice, wouldn’t it, in the sky.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So that’s the answer you’re going for – mid-air poo?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Does no one else think that poo was that…

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Do you know what, I’ll put you out of your misery here everyone. The answer is ‘twist’: ‘Dive-bombing hummingbirds add a twist to impress mates’, and this headline is from a story we published back in April about male Costa’s hummingbirds. While male North American hummingbirds woo females by diving at them head on at high speeds, the Costa’s hummingbirds quite literally add a bit of a twist. The males twist their tail feathers at the last moment of the dive, which creates this high-pitched sound which they can direct at the females, like sort of a megaphone and apparently the faster the dive, the higher the pitch.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

We would not impress female hummingbirds is what we’ve learnt here, pooping on them…

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

They would be thinking this is a disastrous night out.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Let’s do another headline and see how you get on with this one: ‘100 BLANKS and a long dark tunnel: One neuroscientist’s quest to unlock the secrets of BLANK’.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Are the 100 blanks the same as the last blanks?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

These are different blanks.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

I mean is one of them brains? It’s neuroscience. Something to do with brains, isn’t it?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Neurons, it’s a fair guess, yeah.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

It definitely is a neuroscience story, Charlotte, I’ll give you that, but if we could maybe be slightly more specific and then we’ll be fine, right?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Is it mice?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

It’s not mice, no.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Is it an animal?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

It is an animal.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Worms?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Oh, could be worms. Those worms where we know every neuron that they have.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

C. elegans?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah. It’s not worms. I’ll give you a bit of a clue. We talked about Aquaman earlier, and this headline also is kind of related to another superhero, and some people call him…

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Batman! Bats, bats, 100 bats!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

100 bats! Well done!

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Wait a sec, we made a film about a load of bats in a tunnel.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Oh Shamini.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

This seems relevant.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

And their brains?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Oooh, echolocation!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

No. I’ll tell you what it is though everyone because you’re very close: ‘100 bats and and a long dark tunnel: One neuroscientist’s quest to unlock the secrets of 3D navigation’.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

Ah, okay. So it is echolocation.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So this headline comes from a feature published in July, and it’s about a team who are trying to learn more about navigating in 3D space by looking at the brain activity of Egyptian fruit bats as they fly down a very long, dark tunnel. And team, there is light at the end of this tunnel, let’s do one more story and this is a lovely story actually and I think it’s terrific. See if you can guess the words missing from this headline: ‘Amateur astronomer catches first glimpses of BLANK’.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Is it something to do with the International Space Station?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

It’s not, Charlotte, no.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

It’s not the comet, the interstellar comet is it?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Oumuamua, no, it’s not actually, Lizzie, that was last year I think, but this time it’s something different.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Is it a moon?

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

It’s not a moon.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

A black hole?

Interviewee: Benjamin Thompson

Nor is it a space station. Shall I tell you what it is?

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

I feel like we should be able to get this!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

‘Amateur astronomer catches first glimpses of birth of a supernova’.

Interviewee: Charlotte Stoddart

Wow!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, so this is a story about amateur astronomer Victor Buso and back in 2016, Victor was pointing his telescope at a spiral galaxy called NGC 613. He saw on some images that he took a rapidly brightening blotch of light. It turns out that this light was probably from the very early stages of a supernova, and the chances of seeing something like this are apparently like winning the lottery twice in a week or something. Victor is a locksmith by day and an amateur astronomer in the evenings, and he was very modest about his finding and is quoted as saying, “Many times you ask yourself, why do I do this? Now I have found the answer.”

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

That’s lovely.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Aw.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well everyone, there we have it for another quiz, and great work to the team here. Listeners, I hope you did as well – probably better – than the competitors here in the studio, but to my mind you’re all winners.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

Yeah, it’s Lizzie, isn’t it?

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

I’m not sure I was. I will be adding it up when I listen back to the podcast later, don’t worry.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, listeners, if you’d like to read more about the stories we’ve covered today and hundreds of other ones, head over to nature.com/news. Well, speaking of news, it’s time for our last News Chat of 2018, and I can hardly believe it. I’m joined here in the studio by Richard Van Noorden, Features Editor here at Nature. Richard, thanks for joining me.

Interviewee: Richard Van Noorden

It’s a pleasure to be here Ben.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well it’s great to have you. So, it’s that time of year where we publish Nature’s 10. Richard, for our listeners who perhaps aren’t quite so familiar with it, what is Nature’s 10?

Interviewee: Richard Van Noorden

Nature’s 10 is a list of ten people who mattered in science this year, and they really help to sum up a lot of the big policy debates and research breakthroughs that happened in science in 2018.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you and I are going to go through a few people on the list today, Richard. Now, last week was COP24, the UN’s climate change conference, which was held in Poland in Katowice, and there was lots of discussion about the IPCC’s very alarming report that was released back in October. One of this year’s Nature’s 10 played a key role in this report.

Interviewee: Richard Van Noorden

Yeah, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a French climatologist, she had a key role in that report. She’s co-chair of the IPCC working group that assesses the physical science of climate change and she helped to get all the authors together, coordinate the work, and get the report approved by governments. And these kinds of massive assessments normally take years to put together, but this special report in October which was about what would the consequences be for the world if we could limit warming to 1.5 °C instead of 2 degrees °C, that came together very quickly and it even incorporated research published just weeks before the final draft was submitted for review. And people might remember this got a lot of news media attention. It was presented in a really clear way – the difference between 1.5 °C and 2 °C and also the social, governmental and technological policies that could foster change without exacerbating inequality and poverty. And the researchers on this report worked a little bit differently than they often do for IPCC reports. Researchers from different disciplines worked together on every chapter to try and break down silos. And the people we talked to singled out Masson-Delmotte’s work to improve diversity among the author list, so women made up just 22% of the author team on the last assessment. On this one it was 40%. And she also worked to elevate the role of early career scientists and researchers from the global south.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And diversity and inclusion are of course very important, and particularly so to another member of Nature’s 10 this year.

Interviewee: Richard Van Noorden

Yeah, we also highlight Jess Wade, a physicist in the UK, who started writing a Wikipedia page every day to highlight scientists from underrepresented groups. And she took up this page a day habit when she learnt that 90% of Wikipedia editors are men, and only 18% of people profiled on the site are women. So, by now she’s created about 400 pages, and she hosts loads of ‘edit-a-thons’ in which people create and edit new content. And that’s created huge visibility and momentum around the world for recognition of underrepresented groups in science. And Wade was also in the spotlight this year – people might remember this one – when she spoke about her engagement work at a conference at CERN. That conference was where the physicist Alessandro Strumia delivered a presentation questioning women’s ability in physics, and as people may remember, Strumia was suspended from his work with CERN after that presentation which Wade highlighted on social media. So, she’s a real champion of diversity which is why we picked her this year.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, something that you and I have chatted about on the News Chat before, Richard, is Plan S, and somebody very central to Plan S has also made the list.

Interviewee: Richard Van Noorden

Yeah, we selected Robert-Jans Smits who is the veteran bureaucrat at the European Commission who was given essentially one last mission, should he choose to accept it, which he did. So he had one year to get funders to demand instant open access to scientific articles, and he rallied European funding agencies to start demanding that their articles from their research be published outside of paywalls, and that’s Plan S. And it’s made a huge difference because he coordinated a lot of funders together who otherwise might have been reluctant to mandate such a policy. So far, 16 funders have signed up to Plan S and many others have said that they will support it. It’s a bit too early to know what this will ultimately mean, but it will improve access to research and it’s caused a huge furore and discussion about science publishing, and is it possible to get all research open, and really Smits has been corralling all of that. It’s just a one-year thing, so next year he’s off to Eindhoven University of Technology which is in his native Netherlands, and he told us, “It’s time for me to leave the commission at what I consider my height,” which I love that quote.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s do one more for this Nature’s 10 roundup, Richard, and this is a subject we’ve covered on the podcast before, and it’s about graphene and it’s about superconductors.

Interviewee: Richard Van Noorden

Yeah, we picked Yuan Cao who published two massively exciting papers this year, where if you have two sheets of graphene that are a single-atom-thin layer of carbon, and you just twist one of the sheets by 1.1 degrees compared to the other, you can turn this material from a conductor into an insulator, or into a superconductor where electricity can flow without resistance. Now, this is all at very cold temperatures, so we haven’t got useful superconductivity yet, but it’s incredibly exciting because that immediately suggests some curious physical mechanism that’s opened up all kind of new avenues for physicists looking at other twisted 2D materials. Perhaps it might tell us how other more complex materials do superconduct at higher temperatures. I mean it’s just incredibly exciting and all the more amazing when you conside than Yuan Cao himself is just 22 years old.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Richard, thank you so much for joining me today. Listener’s, that’s just four of Nature’s 10. To find out more about them, and the other six who made the list, head over to nature.com/news.

Host: Ali Jennings

So that’s it for our 2018 festive show. Thank you so much for joining us everyone.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, and thanks to all the researchers and reporters who took the time to talk to us here on the show. And finally, thanks to you Ali Jennings. Listeners, I’m sad to say that Ali will shortly be leaving Nature, after making some terrific podcast pieces and videos. Ali, where can the listeners find you and what will you be up to next?

Host: Ali Jennings

Well, I’ll be doing a monthly video roundup of science news for the online news organisation Inside Science, as well as presenting various bits and bobs about the brain on television, and I might still pop up on the podcast from time to time.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So listeners, this is our last regular podcast of 2018, but I’ll be back next week with a special end of year clips show. Look out for that. But to play us out this week, we’ve got one final song. Performed by Steve Waterman and Kim Collman, with lyrics by Noah Baker. This is ‘Hark, it’s Hayabusa2’ about a space mission to land on an asteroid millions of miles away from the Earth. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Ali Jennings

And I’m Ali Jennings. Thanks for listening.

Hark! It’s Hayabusa2

Landed on Ryugu

Left from earth on its voyage

to a nearby asteroid

JAXA hope that it will be

The mission we need to see

Th’ origins of life on Earth

samples are what proves its worth

Hark! It’s Hayabusa2

Landed on Ryugu

Hark! is that a hopping rover?

bouncing all around the place?

One of four precious payloads

Three with cameras, out in space

fourth is MASCOT, it has been

Built by France and Germany,

Specially designed to make

Measurements of surface data

Hark! it’s Hayabusa2

Landed on Ryugu

Now here comes the main event

For which all the Yen’s been spent

Landing that is hard enough

But then they’ve got to blow it up

To collect these samples three

Returning them back to see

If the asteroid holds clues

too the start of me and you

Hark it’s Hayabusa2

Landed on Ryugu.