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  • NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Sci-fi's relevance in the 21st century, festive fun, and AI in Earth Science

This week, our end of year special, featuring Earth science AI, a news story quiz, and science fiction in the modern era.

In this episode:

01:01 Environmental AI

How can artificial intelligence help us protect Earth? Comment: The case for technology investments in the environment; Lucas Joppa

07:31 As students watch their plots by night

The first of our festive science carols is dedicated to all the graph-making grad students. The Simon Langton Music Department

10:26 Sci-fi scientists

Two science fiction authors tell us how they think think the genre fits into our modern world. Nature Books and Arts: Science fiction when the future is now

16:10 In the bleak mid-future

Our second carol marks yet another year of climate change. Richard Navarro

20:16 End of year quiz

The podcast team try to guess science stories by asking only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions. Nature News; Nature Podcast archive

27:49 Nature 10 News Chat

Nature Podcast takes a look at the people who influenced research in 2017. Nature 10: Ten people who mattered this year

35:50 Single cells

Our final carol wonders at the cutting edge techniques that enable researchers to study individual cells. Steve Waterman

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03291-z

Transcript

This week, our end of year special, featuring Earth science AI, a news story quiz, and science fiction in the modern era.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Hello and welcome to a packed edition of the Nature Podcast. This week, we’ll be asking writers their thoughts on the relevance that science fiction has in the modern era and what relevance AI has to earth science.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Plus, you’ll hear three fantastically festive science-themed carols and we’ll be testing the pod team’s knowledge of this year’s biggest research stories. This is the Nature Podcastfor December the 21st2017. I’m Adam Levy.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Adam Levy

It's no secret that the 21st Century presents some immense challenges for our societies. And many of these, from climate change to food security, are deeply connected to how we use our planet. Earth sciences are grappling to uncover the implications of these crises, as well as to propose solutions. In a Comment piece in this week's Nature, Lucas Joppa argues that Artificial Intelligence might be one essential solution. Lucas is Chief Environment Scientist at Microsoft.

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

To my knowledge it's the first Chief Environmental Scientist position in the technology industry.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Lucas is keen for progress in AI to be used to tackle Earth's challenges. I gave him a call to find out what he feels is missing from the Earth Sciences, that AI might be able to offer…

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

I think that if you look at what the technology sector has done for our ability to monitor and model our own human systems, it’s incredible. The amount of data that we collect and the amount of insights and actions that we are able to make recommendations about, just in your day-to-day activity. Everything from online shopping to calendar recommendations – Artificial Intelligence and the information age just saturates our daily lives but when you look out there there’s this massive data gap, or data drought, in the environmental sciences. One of the early examples I like to use is if you ask what we actually know just about earth’s natural resources, so things like where’s our water, where are our trees, where are our forests, our fields, and things like that. Well here in the United States, one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, our best available land covered maps, they’re at 30 metre resolution and they’re almost seven years old.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

You mention that you feel like we need more information to manage these issues we’re facing. Specifically what issues do you have in mind?

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

We’re being faced, as a society, with one of our biggest if not the biggest challenge yet, which is how do we mitigate and adapt to changing climates, ensure resilient water supplies, sustainably feed a population rapidly growing to nine or ten billion people, and so there’s a big challenge ahead of us but I think where I’m trying to go with this Comment piece in Natureis to say that yes we have a big challenge but we have a big opportunity as well.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

I think most people will be sympathetic to the idea that we need more data. In every field everyone always says we need more data but what could AI specifically actually add to this? What’s your vision for AI in Earth Sciences?

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

So, AI can really help change how we observe or sense natural systems and then that’s also where AI can help us – helping us optimize, make optimum decisions over that exponentially increasing the amount of information that’s streaming in from these data collection platforms.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Is there a concrete example of AI being used in Environmental Sciences already in a way that you think of as effective and positive?

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

Yeah, for sure, I think I feature one of my favourite applications in the Comment piece and this is an organisation called iNaturalist. And, iNaturalist is one of the world’s largest citizen science platforms specifically focused on biodiversity observations. What iNaturalist is out there trying to do is empower non experts to do the job of an expert scientist. Most people who are non-experts can’t identify most species that they see. Well, we can do that with AI in a few different ways. One of the most obvious ones is to train up a deep neural network to be able to recognize over five thousand species that they currently have.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Could you explain how that might potentially be able to translate to something like observing the climate?

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

There is one example that I like to think of. If you look at the way that general ecosystem models or general climate models produce their results, they usually produce results on the order of a hundred to several hundred square kilometres. Well, that’s fantastic if you’re looking at global patterns, maybe even national patterns. But it’s not really helpful if you’re down at the level of a city planner trying to understand the infrastructure that you might invest in over the next 50 years and there are researchers recently that used outputs of global climate models and down-scaled them using a technique called super-resolution. It’s an algorithmic technique that came from trying to take photos that are being taken by potentially low budget smart phones, for instance, and sharpen those photos so that they look a lot better using algorithmic techniques. They can take that same approach and apply it to these precipitation outputs from global climate models and bring those spatial resolutions – these predictions – down to about ten square kilometres.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

So how do we get to this point where Artificial Intelligence is more widely used in the environmental sciences?

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

It’s time for technology companies to step up and start paying attention, start investing and start building dedicated programmes.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Now AI, I guess like everything, is imperfect. Do you think there are any risks in handing more of this information-decoding over to artificial intelligence?

Interviewee: Lucas Joppa

Just like all applications of artificial intelligence, we have to make sure that these earth applications that I’m talking about are trustworthy, transparent and fair. But that’s not new to this space. Quite frankly I think that the risks of not doing anything far outweigh the risks of the alternative. Time is too short and resources are too thin to achieve the environmental goals that we’ve set out as an international community without some sort of exponential breakthrough.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

That was Lucas Joppa who's based at Microsoft in Redmond, USA. To find out more about Lucas's vision of AI in Earth Sciences, make sure to read his full Comment piece. Find it at nature.com/news.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

As has become something of a tradition around these parts, it’s time for a carol… ‘tis the season after all. First up we’ve got ‘As students watched their plots by night’, which is going out to all of you graduate students who are working hard over the festive period. Now, Adam, I have been at work on Christmas Eve in the past. I think I was growing out some cells and I’m sure you have too.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Yeah, definitely. I think I’ve spent a Christmas Eve and a Boxing Day trying to correct some plots. I was subtracting November from December instead of December from December. We’ve all done that.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

You know, Adam, I didn’t do a great deal of that in my PhD but I think I and some of you listening at home, can empathise. Speaking of those of you at home, if you’d like to sing along, check out our Twitter channel @NaturePodcast which will have all the lyrics to today’s songs

Contributor: The Simon Langton Boy’s School choir

While students watched their plots by night,

Still working all alone,

Their supervisor’s voice came down,

By email and by phone.

Did you collect that data yet?

He asks their tired minds,

The deadline still approaches and

Results you still must find.

They set to work at once with zest,

No thought of annual leave.

With coffee fuelling their new stress,

At work on Christmas Eve.

All glory be to science on high,

They never shall be free.

Til’ all the data must be wrought

Into a PhD.

Sweat and tears must play their part

In making humans wise

And thesis impact may include

A shiny Nobel prize.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

That song was performed by The Simon Langton Boys’ School choir led by Emily Renshaw-Kidd, with lyrics by Shamini Bundell, Anna Lewcock and Lizzy Gibney. Stick around for some more carols later in the show but before then, Shamini Bundell’s been speaking to some science fiction authors about the genre’s place in this rapidly changing world.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

The popularity of the science fiction genre which really took off in the 19thand early 20thcentury shows no sign of abating. In the cinemas this year we’ve had Alien Covenant, Blade Runner 2049and The Last Jedi. Star Trekis back on TV again. But the world of real science increasingly seems just as wondrous with new discoveries, global climate changes and societal shifts as a result of scientific development and ubiquitous technology. A series of essays in the Books and Arts section this week asks is Science Fiction still relevant in an increasingly surreal world? To find out I spoke to two Science Fiction writers, both former scientists who contributed essays to this week’s issue. The first is Hannu Rajaniemi, who has a PhD in mathematical physics and is best known for his 2010 novel, The Quantum Thief. I started off by asking him how he came to be interested in both science and science fiction.

Interviewee: Hannu Rajaniemi

My interest in science was actually sparked by Jules Verne when I was seven years old because I kind of wanted to build a submarine or a vehicle or a spaceship of some kind. I think it certainly informed the writing to the extent that I do have access to quite a broad range of weird ideas from physics. What’s interesting is that in my career the feedback in the past has gone both ways so my previous company did quite a bit of research work for the UK MOD and one of our major research projects was actually sparked off by the programme director reading The Quantum Thiefand picking up on some ideas there.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And do you think that’s common, that scientists are inspired by things in science fiction and it’s sort of a feedback loop of each pushing the other forward?

Interviewee: Hannu Rajaniemi

I think that’s right. So, probably the most famous example is the atomic bomb. So, H. G. Wells wrote a book called The World Set Freewhich features a suitcase-sized device with enough explosive power to destroy an entire city that can be dropped from an aeroplane and he actually calls it the atomic bomb. What science fiction is very good at is creating these images that give everybody a common understanding of what we could aspire towards, or in the case of a dystopian science fiction, try to stay away from.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Technological changes are happening so fast all around us, not just within science fiction, and that was something that was mentioned in the essays. What is science fiction’s role anymore in this world where technology seems to be almost more fabulous and dream-like?

Interviewee: Hannu Rajaniemi

I think science fiction in a world like that where things are changing faster and faster is absolutely essential because I think it is the only form of literature or fiction that really deals with the possibility of the world changing. So I think really immersing ourselves into the idea that the way things are today is not necessarily the way things are tomorrow is absolutely crucial. So I think as things move faster and faster, science fiction can serve as a prophylactic against a sort of future shock, that sense of being overwhelmed.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Thank you Hannu Rajaniemi. The second author I spoke with was Alastair Reynolds who worked for the European Space Agency before he decided to pursue writing full time, and who has since published several novels and short stories, including the Revelation Spaceseries. Alistair has a slightly different take on the place of science fiction in our rapidly advancing and increasingly sci-fi-like world.

Interviewee: Alastair Reynolds

Well I always take slight issue with that premise that we are living in a time of unusually rapid development. I always think that that smacks to me of assuming you have a privileged view point. Just looking through the inventions and discoveries that have happened between about 1900 and 1917, it seemed to me that the world was changing at just as breathless a pace then as it is now and I wonder if that’s perhaps why science fiction, as a mass cultural phenomenon, it emerged in the sort of early decades of the 20thcentury precisely because of that challenge, of meeting that sense of ever increasing social and technological change.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And trying to be prescient and have these possible ideas about the future… is that kind of the point of sci-fi? Is that why you think people enjoy it?

Interviewee: Alastair Reynolds

There are a number of lucky hits where science fiction predicted things that came true but there are probably vastly more misses where science fiction failed to predict what seems in retrospect to be the blindingly obvious. Classic example is very little science fiction literature written before the 80s came anywhere close to predicting the internet and instant communication as well. Very few science fiction books predicted anything like the cellphone.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And do you worry about having too much of an optimistic view of a technology or too much of a pessimistic, dystopian view of a technology?

Interviewee: Alastair Reynolds

I’m trying to build futures that feel real enough to me to suspend my disbelief for the time that I’m writing them. And whatever future you’re living in, it’s probably not going to feel like a dystopia, it’s probably not going to feel like a utopia. There are many aspects of life in 2017 that would feel both utopian and dystopian to someone from a hundred years ago. They would be amazed by some of the capabilities we have. But at the same time they’d say you’ve got all that but you’re sort of willfully messing up the environment, you’re destroying your climate and you’re living with this spectre of nuclear Armageddon. For us that’s just the way the world is. Interviewer: Adam Levy

That was Alastair Reynolds talking with Shamini Bundell. Before him you heard from Hannu Rajaniemi. Their essays, along with several others, can be found in the Books & Arts section of this week’s Nature. Hannu has a book called Summerlandcoming out in 2018 and Alastair’s new book, Elysium Fire, is due out in January.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Time now for our next carol which marks another unenviable year for climate change. 2017 is projected to be the second hottest year on record, topped only by 2016. Plus carbon emissions are increasing again, having held constant for several years. So, without further ado, here’s ‘In the Bleak Mid-Future’, performed by Richard Navarro , with lyrics by Noah Baker and Shamini Bundell.

Contributor: Richard Navarro

In the bleak mid-future

El Nino winds will blow

Earth stands hot and barren,

Lakebeds dry as bones

Rain will melt the ice away

From on the mountain range,

In the bleak mid-future, thanks to climate change.

These forests cannot hold it,

Nor the earth sustain,

Glaciers will melt away

As cows all burp methane.Ice caps are still shrinking,

Sea levels will rise,

Our beloved fossil fuels,

Lead to our demise.

But hope it is not lost, no,

The future can be saved,

Stem the need for oil,

A new roadmap to pave.

Wind and solar on the rise,

A chance for earth to heal,

Lowering consumption,

And the Paris Climate Deal.

What can I do to help?

Poor as I am?

If I were a CEO: a sustainability plan,

If I were a president, I would do my part,All I have is science,

But knowledge is a start.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

That was Richard Navarro. You can hear some of his non-carol music by Googling his name. Navarro is spelt N-a-v-a-r-r-o.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Right then everyone, I’ve donned my sparkliest quiz show jacket because it’s game time here in the Nature Podcaststudio and I’m joined by a host of podcast stars both past and present. To my right here, the one and only Adam Levy. Adam, how are you doing?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

I’ve got a cold but I feel pretty pepped considering.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Sitting next to me and looking incredibly Christmassy, Lizzie Gibney. Lizzie, thanks for being here.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Thank you, I’m very hyped. I’ve had three espressos so I’m ready to go.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And to my left, the one, the only, the undisputed champion of the Nature Podcast, it’s Kerri Smith. Kerri, hello.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Hi, it’s not a competition, is it? But if it was you would win with your sparkly jacket which is awesome.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

You’re very kind. Finally, making up this awesome foursome is Shamini Bundell. Shamini, how are you feeling right now?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

I love games. I’m so excited.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

My guests in the studio today are going to try and identify some of the biggest stories from 2017. In front of me here I’ve got my hat which contains a selection of sticky notes, each with a science story written on it. I’m going to choose one of these at random, stick it on the head of a contestant so they can’t see it and have them try to guess what the story is by asking simple yes or no questions. Shamini, you’ll be going first today. Let me choose you a story.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Okay, Ben has now stuck a post-it on my head.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

You can only see out of one eye.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

I can mostly see.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Disconcerting.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

I don’t need to see you, I just need to ask questions to work out what the story is and hope I remember things that happened in 2017. I’m going to start with… is it a physics story?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

It is not a physics story. Both me and Lizzie are disappointed to say.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Okay, good. I think I might be a bit better at biology. Is it a biology story?

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Roughly.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Yes.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

‘Ish’. Okay, interdisciplinary maybe. Is it to do with cells?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

No.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

No.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Oh no. Is it to do with genetics?

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Yes.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Okay, something maybe to do with maybe genes and DNA. Is it to do with one of my favourite topics, gene editing?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Mmmm, no gene editing here.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Sad times.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

It is one of my favourite topics though.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Oh, that’s a good clue. Is it to do with the brain?

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Oh, sorry that’s one of my other favourite topics.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Oh damn it! What else does Kerri Smith like other than brains? Is it about kittens?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

It might be.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Wait, what?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Yes, it is about kittens.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

In a way.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Okay, something about genes and kittens. Oh I know. We made a video about cat ancestry where they looked at their DNA and worked out where cats came from.

Interviewer: Adam Levy and Kerri Smith

And where do they come from?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

The Middle East?

Interviewer: Adam Levy and Kerri Smith

Yeah!

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Your post-it note says ‘cats come from the Middle East’.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, that’s right. This story centres on some work studying the DNA of cats from several archaeological sites that in some cases dated back over 9000 years. The results suggest that our feline friends originated in Egypt and the Near East. The team here have made a lovely video about this which you can find over at youtube.com/NatureVideoChannel. Next up, we’ve got Adam Levy. Adam hold on one second, I’m just going to very gently stick this to your head.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Okay, is it a story in the physical sciences? Good first question.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Yes.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Is it a climate change story?

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

I’d go for climate change.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Might be.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Debatable.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

What, really?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Is it related to the cryosphere?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

What’s a cryosphere?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

The frozen bit, the frozen bit.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

What frozen bit?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Of the planet.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Oh, that’s the cryosphere? Yes, yes it is.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

It is related to the cryosphere?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

There’s some frozen bits in it, yes.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

If you mean the frozen bits of the planet, yes.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Yes I do.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith and Shamini Bundell

No.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

It’s the frozen bits of this planet? The cryosphere, as its referred to.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

You’ve discovered none of us knew the word cryosphere.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Is it related to Antarctica?

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Yes.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Yeah.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Is it the Larsen Sea Ice Shelf?

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

I believe so.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

It’s not specified by name. You’ve gone one up from the level of detailed required for this post-it.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Unfortunately it just says ‘giant icebergs’.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Have I done it? Giant icebergs from Antarctica?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Cleaves off Antarctica.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Well actually that might have happened with or without climate change so you were right to be hesitant in that answer.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Thanks Adam.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes Adam, that’s right. This is a story about the trillion ton iceberg, A-68, that broke from Antarctica’s Larsen Sea Ice Shelf back in July after hanging on by its frozen fingertips for some time. Next up then, Kerri. Are you ready? How are you feeling?

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

I’m so ready to have a post-it note on my face.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well let’s do it then.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Right, is this a story that revolves around an inanimate object?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell, Adam Levy and Lizzie Gibney

No.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

So does it revolve around a living thing? It must.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Yes.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

A person?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell, Adam Levy and Lizzie Gibney

No.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Okay, something from the animal world?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell and Lizzie Gibney

Yes.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Firmly in biological territory… Is it something primate-y?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell and Lizzie Gibney

Yes.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

So a story about something primate-y.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Just run us through some primates.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Okay. Well, there’s Jimmy the primate. He’s a new species of…. gibbon?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell, Adam Levy and Lizzie Gibney

No!

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Orangutan.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes that’s right Kerri. This story revolves around a new species of orangutan found in a forest ion the Indonesian island of Sumatra. A report of an isolated population of orangutans was made way back in the 1930s but it wasn’t until this year that tests and observations proved that Pongo tapanuliensis was in fact a new species. Sadly though, this population is already under treat from habitat destruction. Moving on then, our final contestant today is Lizzie. Let me just find you a story.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Thanks Ben. Well stuck to my forehead. I’m getting some pretty puzzled looks from around the table. Is it about something that’s alive? Or was ever alive?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell, and Adam Levy

No.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Good. I’m on better ground then. So it’s a physical sciences story.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Yes.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Deffo.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Is it physics specifically?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Let’s go with yes.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Did they measure something?

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Yes they measured something. This being a science podcast, some measurement was relevant to this story.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Okay.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

But that’s not the essence of this story.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Okay, is it something that happened in space?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Yes, because you love space, Lizzie Gibney.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Your face lit up when you found that out.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Okay, is it something that happened in our solar system?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell, Kerri Smith and Adam Levy

Yes.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Oh is it that interstellar asteroid?

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

That would have been a fun one but no.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

…Whose name I can’t pronounce. Okay. Is it something that happened at Saturn?

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Totally.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Is it Cassini just going ‘kaboom’ into Saturn?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell, Kerri Smith and Adam Levy

Yes.

[Laughter]

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Simple answer is the correct one…

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

The post-it has gone from the rather more sedate, ‘visits’… Cassini probe visits Saturn.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Aggressively visits.

Interviewer: Kerri Smith

Aggressively visits!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, congratulations indeed Lizzie. In September this year we waved goodbye to the Cassini probe before it crashed into Saturn, having spent 13 years orbiting the planet and flying by a couple of its moons. The mission also successfully landed a probe on Titan and overall it taught us so much about the planet and about its moons. So there we go everyone. Congratulations to all my contestants for doing so brilliantly. I’m sure those of you playing along did just as well. If you’d like to learn more about these and about other science stories head on over to Nature.com/news.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

And, speaking of news, it’s time for our end of the year News Chat, and I’m joined on the line from New York by Brendan Maher.

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

Hello Adam.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Now, Brendan is acting Chief Features Editor and every year we publish in Naturethe Nature 10which is the top 10 people who were influential in science in the preceding year. Is this a hard list to collate?

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

This is an extraordinarily hard list to collate. We are trying to capture a cross section of the most important science and the most important things happening for scientists in one year and pick people who represent and embody or were instrumental in making those things happen.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

And you don’t just come up with that by yourself, right?

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

Absolutely not. This is a huge team effort. All of our reporters who have been out in the field studying these stories and researching these stories throughout the year are feeding back to us and telling us who the most important people in their particular beats are.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Well one pretty obvious omission from this year’s list was Donald Trump.

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

We didn’t cover him directly but we did cover some of the activities directly relevant to the scientific community and directly relevant to the environment and that was his choice of Scott Pruitt as the head of the EPA and he is pretty much a self-declared enemy of the Environmental Protection Agency for the United States. So, to head up this agency that he has sued, I think, 14 times, was kind of interesting and pretty telling of what was in store for science for the Trump administration.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Another topic that I suppose has been absolutely dominating the news cycle not just in science but across the spectrum this year has been sexual harassment, of course, and one of the Nature 10reflects that.

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

You’re absolutely right. Ann Olivarius is sort of a veteran in the fight for gender equality in academia. And she’s worked to expose for decades the perpetrators of sexual abuse and harassment and the ways that university systems tend to protect these abusers. So she’s been instrumental in a couple of cases this year, trying to see that the universities and the people involved are held accountable.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Now, one topic I wasn’t necessarily expecting to see reflected in the Nature 10was North Korea, but of course there’s been increased concern about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities this past year.

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

That’s right. We looked at the North Korean situation through the scope of a person named Lassina Zerbo. He’s the head of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation and he’s been a longtime proponent of, essentially, nuclear non-proliferation. But the particular way that they’ve gone about that is trying to ban the testing of nuclear arms and that’s what North Korea did this year. They had one of their largest ever tests of a nuclear weapon. And the interesting association with science beyond just the fact that as scientists we all would like to not be killed in a nuclear attack, he was kind instrumental in setting up this worldwide network for detecting tests. And that network has actually proven quite useful to scientists in different areas, particularly geology and oceanography because it’s such a rich sensor network that can be actually useful to them. He sprang to action when he heard about this North Korean test and was on the phone with world leaders within moments, trying to quell the tensions that let such things rise and keep the proliferation of nuclear arms down.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

This list doesn’t just sort of touch on the political stories of the year. There are names on it which are very important to fundamental research and I suppose maybe the biggest fundamental research story of this year was another LIGO story

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

This year with the addition of the VIRGO detector, LIGO and VIRGO together were able to detect the collision of two neutron stars and they alerted this network of traditional optical observatories and then through that were able to visualize this neutron star collision in unprecedented detail and one of the people notable for bringing that network of astronomers together with the gravitational wave detector community is Marica Branchesi. So she was one of our choices as the Nature 10.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Another name that the physics communities have been talking about a lot this year is Pan Jianwei who’s taken a kind of fundamental test of quantum theory to whole new levels.

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

China has really taken an amazing lead in the field of quantum communication and Pan is largely credited for having pushed China into that position. He was able to show that you can communicate between ground based systems and satellites, showing the quantum state of a single photon and that’s going to be extremely useful in the development of long distance ultra-secure quantum communications and the eventual development of a quantum internet.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Now, I’m not going to make you go through every last name on the list Brendan, but before I do let you go I wonder if you could tell us about the youngest member of this list who I think is probably younger than our typical Nature 10entrant.

Interviewee: Brendan Maher

Well a lot of really interesting things happened this year and one of the ones that really excited me as a person that’s just generally interested in biology was the approval of new CAR-T therapies. It’s a type of immunotherapy for cancer and there are so many people involved in the development of this so who we decided to highlight in this was Emily Whitehead. She was actually the first child to undergo treatment with this innovative cancer therapy and she showed up at the FDA approval hearings with her father in a very moving gesture, presented herself as the living testimonial for what this therapy can do. It will be really exciting to see the next year and in the years to come, what scientists do with this approach to treating cancer.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

Well that’s it for our wrap up of Nature’s 10but if you were counting you may have noticed that didn’t quite add up to ten so to find out the last few names and for all the extra write ups of the people you’ve just heard about, make sure to head over to nature.com/news.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

So that’s it for our special festive show. If you’re in the lab, or revising or writing a grant over the next few weeks, we’re there for you. We’ve an archive of over 500 podcast to keep you company, not to mention a whole host of amazing videos over at youtube.com/naturevideochannel. Thank you to all of you for taking the time to listen to us this year. It means a great deal to us.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

And thank you to all the researchers and writers for giving us something to talk about, and some people to talk to. I’m very much looking forward to finding out what ridiculous research 2018 has in store. This is our last regular podcast of 2017, but that doesn’t mean we’re done for the year just yet! I’ll be hosting an end-of-the-year backchat, featuring discussions of Donald Trump, the perils of physics, and the papers that no-one cites.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

To play us out we’ve got one final jazzy treat for you, performed by Kim Collman, Steve Waterman and Jon Reeves with lyrics by Richard Van Noorden and Noah Baker. It’s called ‘Single Cells’, and it’s an ode to the genomics techniques of the moment. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Interviewer: Adam Levy

And I’m Adam Levy. See you next year!

[Single Cells song]

Contributors: Kim Collman, Steve Waterman and Jon Reeves

Dashing through our cells

Their genes and RNA

One by one we go

Sequencing on our way!

Our body’s atlas mapped

Each cell-type unique

Expensive – yes, we know it is,

But what a cool technique!

Single cells, single cells,

Packed with RNA,

Oh what fun it is to run

A one-cell gene assay.

Oh single cells, single cells,

Packed with RNA,

Oh what fun it is to run

A one-cell gene assay.

Now the future’s bright

Although the field is young,

Take the chance tonight

And analyse each one!

More data every day

Sequencing at speed,

Every lab’s competing now,

So, Go! Who’ll take the lead?

Single cells, single cells,

Packed with RNA,

Oh what fun it is to run

A one-cell gene assay.

Oh single cells, single cells,

Packed with RNA,

Oh what fun it is to run

A one-cell gene assay.

Contributors: Kim Collman

I just really like genomes.

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