NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Our reporters’ top picks of 2019

The podcast team share some of their highlights from the past 12 months.

In this round-up episode of the Nature Podcast, our reporters choose their favourite podcast pieces of 2019.

In this episode:

00:33 A sole sensation

A study of people who do and don't wear shoes looks into whether calluses make feet less sensitive. Nature Podcast: 26 June 2019; Research article: Holowka et al.; News and Views: Your sensitive sole

08:56 The make up of the far side of the Moon

Initial observations from the first lander to touch down on the far side of the Moon. Nature Podcast: 15 May 2019; Research article: Li et al.

15:43 Growth Mindset

How a one hour course could improve academic achievement. Nature Podcast: 07 August 2019; Research article: Yeager et al.

27:44 ‘Manferences’

Nature investigates the prevalence of conferences where most of the speakers are male. Nature Podcast: 11 September 2019; News Feature: How to banish manels and manferences from scientific meetings

34:02 Q&A with Nobel Prize winner John Goodenough

We talk to John Goodenough, who was jointly awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his role in the development of the lithium-ion battery. Podcast Extra: 09 October 2019

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Transcript

In this round-up episode of the Nature Podcast, our reporters choose their favourite podcast pieces of 2019.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Hi, listeners, Benjamin from the Nature Podcast here. So it's the first of January 2020. And what better time to take a quick look back at some of the stories we covered over the past 12 months. Now rather than choose these stories myself, I got the team here to pick their favourite podcast piece and tell us why they enjoyed making it. First up, we've got Nick Howe.

Interviewee: Nick Howe

So this piece that I've chosen is all about being barefoot. And it's something that seemed obvious when you think about it. The more time you spend barefoot, the thicker and stronger your calluses become. But interestingly, it was something that no one had really looked at before. And the guy who did it also spent a lot of his time barefoot. So he was an interesting chap to talk to. And actually, I spent quite a lot of time barefoot myself. So it's a bit of a personal story for me. I think you'll enjoy this one.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So here is Nick's podcast pick from our 26th of June 2019 show.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Many years ago, on a podcast – the name of which I’ve long forgotten – I heard that wearing shoes may be bad for you, which, at the time, made a kind of sense to me. After all, humans haven’t really been wearing shoes for that long.

Interviewee: Kris D’Août

Humans and their direct ancestors have been walking on two feet for about 6, maybe 7 million years. Anatomically modern humans, they have been around for maybe 100,000 to 200,000 years, so in the grand scheme of things, we have developed into who we are today without shoes at all. It’s only much later that we decided, for whatever reason, we wanted to wear shoes.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

That was as Kris D’Août, a researcher who studies the evolution of how humans move. In fact, according to the archaeological evidence, humans may have only been wearing shoes for about 40,000 years, and even then, these were simple foot wrappings, not the cushioned shoes we’re so used to today. So, if these ancient humans could go without shoes, why couldn’t I? Being the science-interested and suggestible person that I am, I decided to do an experiment with a sample size of one – myself – and shunned my shoes. After several months, I had discovered a couple of things: one is that no shoes, no service is definitely still a thing and two, that not wearing shoes gets easier with time. At first, I spent more time hopping in pain than walking, but eventually I could easily stride across all manner of materials without discomfort. From being a sensitive sole, I’d become quite thick-skinned. I developed heavy calluses which protected my feet from the prevalent pavement perils. This is also something that Dan Lieberman, who studies the evolution of human activity, noticed after his own adventures being shoeless after publishing a paper on barefoot running.

Interviewee: Dan Lieberman

As sort of part of studying that paper, I got interested in trying out being barefoot myself, and what happened is that every spring, I would take off my shoes and start running barefoot and my calluses would develop and I noticed that as I ran, the calluses protected my feet but I kind of felt that I wasn’t losing sensory perception, the way you would with a shoe.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Dan went about trying to test his theory – do thick calluses stop feet feeling things beneath them? This week in Nature, he publishes his answer to this question. Firstly, Dan set about trying to determine if people’s calluses do indeed get thicker when they don’t wear shoes. To do this, he studied the feet of a population of people in Kenya, some of whom never wear shoes, some that wear them infrequently and some that wear them all the time. By using an ultrasound device, Dan could image the inside of a foot. These images allowed him to see the size of people’s calluses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by doing this he was able to show that people who are usually barefoot tend to have thicker calluses.

Interviewee: Dan Lieberman

Nobody had actually tested that before, so that’s nice to know.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Once he had shown that this was the case, the next question was, do these thicker calluses mean that people feel less through their soles? To test this, he and his colleagues used a vibrating probe, that could be placed on the soles of people’s feet. By changing how fast the probe vibrated and seeing when people could feel it, he could measure the sensitivity of nerves on their feet called mechanoreceptors.

Interviewee: Dan Lieberman

No matter how thick your calluses were, there was no loss of sensory perception, so that people with thick calluses more or less had the same sensory perceptions as people who had thin calluses.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Calluses then can give feet protection without compromising on their perception. But how does this work? Logically it might seem that having a thick callus would block the nerve receptors in the sole of the foot. Kris D’Août, who you heard from earlier, has written a News and Views article on this new research. He explains that the reason this isn’t the case is likely down to the structure of the calluses themselves.

Interviewee: Kris D’Août

They are like a very hard layer, what would be like a very rigid, thin foot sole, if you will, and their assumption is that because the foot sole is so hard, it just transmits the stimuli through the calluses into the deeper layers of the skin where these mechanoreceptors are located.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Such solid soles will transmit the forces from the ground directly – they won’t cushion the forces like a shoe. Whilst it may sound unintuitive, Kris wasn’t too surprised by these findings.

Interviewee: Kris D’Août

So, as an evolutionary biologist, I would say that the evolutionary pressure from having a system that combines both functions – protection and sensation – the pressure will be so high that evolution would come up with a fairly good solution, which it has.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Wearing shoes is a pretty new thing for humans, who have evolved with all the sensory information of bare feet. Shoes blocking some of this data could have costs.

Interviewee: Kris D’Août

So, if we don’t feel what happens during impact or we feel it less, then our body, our neural system, it doesn’t have the same amount of information to work with and it will find it harder to adjust gait, to adjust how we unroll our foot exactly to what’s required given the impact we have. I would compare it a little bit like wearing sunglasses when it’s already dark.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, if humans have evolved a system to protect their feet while providing the maximum amount of information on what they’re walking on, what is the impact of wearing shoes? To find out, Dan looked at how energy is transmitted through the feet when they collide with the ground during a step. He was able to show that these forces change when people wear shoes compared to when they’re barefoot. It’s not clear what the consequences of these differences are on other parts of the body, but Dan believes even subtle changes across many years could have effects.

Interviewee: Dan Lieberman

If you think about how many steps a person takes a day, multiply that by 365 days a year and then multiple that by how many years you’re walking around, that’s millions and millions and millions of these collisions, and those collisions today are fundamentally different in terms of the energy that our bodies are experiencing than the collisions that we evolved to cope with.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

For me, not wearing shoes was a bittersweet endeavour. There was something awfully freeing about being barefoot and walking became a whole new experience. On the other hand, many people were perturbed by my shoeless strolls, including my poor mother. In the end, the world wasn’t quite ready, and Kris thinks it’s not quite time to throw out our shoes just yet.

Interviewee: Kris D’Août

Calluses are quite amazing evolutionary solutions to a problem and we can be inspired by these calluses in footwear design because what’s not to like about it? We have good sensation. If we can keep that whilst protecting our feet, that would be ideal, and I think we can make shoes that do that, maybe as good as natural calluses, maybe even better.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

That was Kris D'Aout from the University of Liverpool. He also heard from Dan Lieberman from Harvard University in the US.

<Sting>

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Next up on this special round-up show, we've got Lizzie Ghibli with her favourite podcast piece of 2019.

Interviewee: Lizzie Gibney

I've chosen this piece because it is about the Moon, which is a subject very dear to my heart. It's from the Chang'e 4 mission, the Chinese mission that landed on the far side of the Moon in January, and it's Yutu rover started exploring. And these are some of the first results that we have had from Yutu 2. It's exciting because it is not only the only rover that's on the moon at the moment, but it is the very first to go to that far side that we cannot see from Earth. And so it collected some samples that are just completely different from all the other samples we've had so far. And I thought it'd be nice to hear again as a bit of revision, a bit of a primer because the Moon is going to be a really hot topic in the future. We've got loads more missions that are probably going to go back there, including commercial ones in the future. So this is a little reminder of what's going on there at the moment.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

From our 15th of may show is Lizzy's journey to the far side of the Moon.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

More than 20 probes have landed on the Moon, but only one has ever landed on its mysterious far side – the hemisphere, that due to a tidal lock with Earth, always faces away from us. That probe was China’s Chang’E-4, which made a historic landing there in January. Probes don’t tend to go to the far side because communicating directly with a lander there is impossible. Chang’E-4 gets around that by talking to Earth via a relay spacecraft, based well beyond the Moon. Chang’E-4 landed in a 2,500-kilometre-wide dip called the South Pole-Aitken basin. It’s a site that’s particularly interesting for scientists. Here’s Bill Bottke, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute.

Interviewee: Bill Bottke

It’s probably the oldest terrain we have on the Moon. We see the greatest density of craters and basins on the far side, and that tells us the oldest terrains on the Moon are located there. The biggest impact crater on the Moon, that everyone agrees is am impact crater, is this one called South Pole-Aitken basin. It’s over 2,000 kilometres across and we think it’s the oldest impact structure on the Moon.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Chang’E-4 landed earlier this year in the Von Kármán crater – a smaller dip within the South Pole-Aitken basin – and its rover, Yutu-2, set out to study the terrain around it. Using a spectrometer, it looked at the light reflected off the Moon’s surface. Different materials absorb light in characteristically different ways, revealing their composition. The near side of the moon is mostly covered with mare basalt – a type of rock made of solidified lava. But Yutu-2 may have seen something different on the far side. Here’s Dawei Liu, of the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Interviewee: Dawei Liu

Because Yutu-2 landed on the floor of the Von Kármán crater, much of the floor should be covered by lava flows, whose dominate mineral should be high-calcium pyroxene and maybe similar to the lunar near-side mare basalts. However, what we found are quite different from near-side mare basalts. We found that they are mainly composed of olivine and a low-calcium pyroxene. So, this is kind of surprising to us.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

The findings are unlike anything ever detected before in the near-side samples, but they do match with evidence seen by orbiters from above. And the team have a theory about what they might be seeing. They think the material might be from the interior of the Moon –matter from within the lunar mantle that could have been churned up when a huge asteroid hit, creating the South Pol-Aitken basin, and then later scattered across the surface by another impact, which created the nearby Finsen impact crater. Here’s Bill again.

Interviewee: Bill Bottke

It could very well be that the Chinese mission has managed to sample or at least understand some of the material that may have come from the very deep interior of the Moon. Now, I will say, with that said, there’s some other possibilities. This may not necessarily be lunar mantle and they discuss that in the paper, but I think it’s an exciting possibility and I think everyone’s going to be very interested to see where this goes when this paper hits the street in a few days.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

If true that this dense material comes from inside the Moon, this backs up something called the lunar magma ocean theory, which says that soon after its formation, the Moon’s surface was hot and molten and then later separated into layers as it solidified. That would have left lighter materials in the surface crust, burying deeper ones within its mantle. Here’s Dawei again.

Interviewee: Dawei Liu

According to this theory, the lighter materials should float to form the lunar crust while the denser minerals, such as olivine, should sink to form the lunar mantle. However, this theory was debated because no direct evidence has been found to indicate that the mantle was dominated by olivine. Thus, whether this theory is correct requires further validating and also it also requires further evidence. Our result attempts to prove that olivine-rich lunar mantle could be right, and thus we’re supporting the lunar magma ocean hypothesis.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Teasing apart the fingerprints of different materials is complicated, and Dawei is keen to stress that the rover needs to collect a lot more data before his team can confirm that this really is material from inside the mantle. Over the next few months the little rover will analyse the spectra of many more samples, as well as map the geology of the landing site.

Bill says that there’s a lot more we can learn from the Moon.

Interviewee: Bill Bottke

The Moon, in a sense, is like a little accessible planet which is smaller than the Earth, but it did go through this extensive melting, so by studying the Moon and the Moon’s mantle, we can hopefully get at some of the same processes that will tell us how the planets in our solar system came to be the way they are.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

Chang’E-4 still has a lot to do. But it’s not China’s only Moon mission. It will soon be followed by Chang’E-5 in December this year, which will aim to bring back samples from the Moon to Earth.

Interviewee: Dawei Liu

I think in future China has planned many missions – maybe Chang’E-6 or subsequent Chang’E missions. These missions will help us to build a lunar base in future. And also, we try to go to Mars and now the Mars exploration programme is in progress, and our asteroid exploration is also in planning.

Interviewer: Lizzie Gibney

That’s a long shopping list of exciting future missions. The Moon is just the first stepping stone to all of these, says Dawei.

Interviewee: Dawei Liu

The Moon will be one of the most important targets for China’s future deep space exploration.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

That was Dawei Liu. And you also heard from Bill Bottke.

<Sting>

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Next up, Noah Baker is here with his pick of 2019.

Interviewee: Noah Baker

This is a story about a concept in psychology called growth mindset. Essentially, it's the idea that a person's abilities are not fixed that they can change over time and that can change based on their mindset. I didn't really know much about it when I first came across the paper, and my first port of call was to call my grandmother who is an educational psychologist, or certainly was before she retired. And her response was to go. 'Oh, well, that's a topic'. And I didn't really expect that. It turns out that as I reported it a bit more and as I spoke to more people, it made more sense to me. There's actually a bit of controversy associated with this particular study. Many people are really interested in this particular growth mindset. In fact, many schools even use it. But then there were some scientists that didn't really think that it was a particularly useful measure, or perhaps it didn't even have the effect that it said. So overall, a really interesting experience for me and I think an interesting podcast piece.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

From the 7th of August show, here's Noah's podcast piece on growth mindset.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

I have a confession: I’m not particularly good at maths. I never have been. Now, that’s not to say that I’m really, really bad at it, like I know that three squared is eleven and that if you divide anything by zero you get forty-two, but it’s never been my subject, you know. But what if I thought differently at school? Instead of knowing that maths wasn’t my thing, what if I was encouraged to try again, to not accept that me and mathematics were just never going to tessellate? Could things have been different? Well, according to psychologist Carol Dweck from Stanford University, they might have been. She’s a proponent of a theory called growth mindset – a belief that attributes aren’t fixed. Instead of accepting that I’m just bad at maths, I could see my mathematical ability as something that could be trained and could grow, and that very process of changing my mindset could also change my performance.

Interviewee: Carol Dweck

And it doesn’t mean anyone can do or become anything, but it means everybody has the capability to develop their intellectual skills.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

That’s Carol. She’s published various studies over the years, exploring how growth mindsets could impact young people and this week in Nature, she and her co-authors are publishing their biggest and most rigorous study yet. Their experiment gathered data from a nationally representative sample – over 60 public secondary schools across the United States. Their goal was to deliver a growth mindset intervention which could be controlled and standardised. In their case, it was a self-administered online exercise. Here’s first author David Yeager from the University of Texas.

Interviewer: David Yeager

The students go to the school computer lab and then they read new content, they answer questions, they interact with an online activity. From the kid’s perspective, that’s the whole study, but then we researchers go back to the schools and obtain academic records at the end of their first year of secondary school, end of ninth grade.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And they found that their growth mindset intervention did indeed had an effect.

Interviewer: David Yeager

A short, online growth mindset treatment improved core grades in the group of lower achieving students, which is students at or below the 50th percentile in their high school, by about 0.11 standard deviations.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

That equates to about 3% of students moving on to their next year of school, when previously they could have been asked to repeat the year. Carol and David also found that there was about a 3% increase in the number of students choosing to take advances classes in mathematics. Now, not everyone was affected by the growth mindset intervention. In fact, there were times when it had no effect at all and when it did, the effects weren’t huge. But Carol emphasised that in an educational context, all of this is relative.

Interviewee: Carol Dweck

We got about half the effect for the low achievers of the most successful past studies with no particular teacher training, with a self-administered program that took less than an hour and cost very little.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Growth mindset theory is not without its opponents. Timothy Bates from the University of Edinburgh, for example, wasn’t completely sold on the study.

Interviewee: Timothy Bates

The thing that I’m most interested in is what did they actually do, and unlike most scientific papers, from this paper you couldn’t replicate this study because it doesn’t actually contain the materials, so I think a critical thing for researchers wanting to explore this in the next months will be to access those materials and dissect them to make a sort of parody case. One could give people the answers to the last three questions of an exam – that would be a very effective intervention. Children would then know three more answers but it wouldn’t generalise, it wouldn’t support any theory.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

The intervention used by Carol and David hasn’t been made public. They’re worried that people might try to commercialise it. However, they are making it accessible for free to educators who want to use it, and researchers like Timothy will be able to request access to the material so long as they sign a few disclosure agreements. This may go some way to tackling one of Timothy’s biggest reservations – studies like this are hard to reproduce.

Interviewee: Timothy Bates

It surprised us. We’ve had a PhD student working for the last for years on this, I’ve been doing work in the area for the last seven years, and the core papers in this field have been cited thousands of times – they’re among the very most cited papers in all of psychology –and yet when we started, there were no straight replications of those original studies in existence.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

David and Carol are both well aware of these criticisms, and in this study, they took a lot of steps to try to overcome them. In particular, they removed themselves as much as possible from the study. Here’s Carol to explain.

Interviewee: Carol Dweck

The researchers – us – were completely hands-off during the administration of the study, the collection of the data, the organisation of the data. Also, we had pre-registered hypotheses and analyses that were public and could not be changed. In addition, an independent set of statisticians analysed the data without knowing which group was the experimental group or the control group, the nature of the different variables, and they confirmed the results of our analyses.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Here’s David.

Interviewer: David Yeager

The Nature paper should end questions about whether this effect is reproducible by third parties because of the lengths that we went to.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

But this wasn’t Timothy’s only concern. He also pointed out that, reproducible or not, the effect sizes in this study are very small.

Interviewee: Timothy Bates

Most people think that something that works, you could see it work in a child, and at least you should see the classroom, and this is an effect which is so small, you need thousands of people to see it.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Unsurprisingly, Carol and David disagreed and highlighted that this isn’t the only approach. Here’s Carol.

Interviewee: Carol Dweck

We are not saying that a growth mindset intervention should replace other kinds of important school reform, but we see it as a coordinated effort.

Interviewer: David Yeager

An economist at Brown University, Matt Kraft, recently reviewed all available effect sizes from previous education RCTs at meta standard of rigour that would make them believable and laid out the distribution to say how much of an effect you expect at what kind of cost. The effects we show in targeted subgroups of students are among the largest from the entire population of effects that have been observed in previous RCTs. There may not be stronger even small-scale effects from studies that use rigorous randomised designs.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

That was David Yeager from the University of Texas at Austin. Before him, you heard Carol Dweck from Stanford University and Timothy Bates from the University of Edinburgh. You can find Carol and David’s paper over at nature.com. It’s been published open access so you don’t need a subscription. And if you’re an educator and what to try this yourself, you can find information about where to get hold of the intervention in that paper. While reporting this story, it became clear to me that it might be a little bit of time before the debate surrounding growth mindset is fully settled among academics, but is also became clear that ultimately, this is all about schools and how best to teach students, so I thought I’d also reach out to a teacher to get her take.

Interviewee: Theresa Ball

Yes, so my names Theresa Ball and I’m an Assistant Headeacher at Hammersmith Academy.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Theresa’s school in West London has whole-heartedly embraced the growth mindset theory ever since the school’s foundation almost a decade ago. From her point of view, it carries a very compelling message.

Interviewee: Theresa Ball

I mean it’s the whole point of teaching. If people were just naturally good at things, there’s not really much point in trying to teach people and I think in schools now, there’s been a drive and a push towards teaching students how to learn rather than just the things that they need to learn. So, instead of just learning fact after fact, but learning skills that you can use in order to develop in subjects.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Theresa was well aware that there had been some debate over growth mindset theory and was eagerly awaiting this latest study – she’d had a tip off it might be on the way. I asked her if she thought an online intervention like Carol and David’s could be a useful tool in her school.

Interviewee: Theresa Ball

I think that this would be a kind of nice thing to have and it would be an add on, but it would never replace all the other things that happen. I mean all these things have been dressed up with different phrases over the years but it still remains the same principle of trying to help students to be successful.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Theresa did warn about the dangers of flashy scientific ideas leading teachers down the wrong path.

Interviewee: Theresa Ball

For a long time, schools have been very quick to jump on to ideas without researching them properly, but actually schools are tending to move away from that.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Nowadays, she things that interventions like this would be popular, but subject to scrutiny by schools themselves before they were introduced as part of their policy.

Interviewee: Theresa Ball

I think schools would use it and try it out, maybe with a select group of students, and then see If it has an impact on that group of students compared to the rest of the cohort, but it certainly wouldn’t be the only thing that schools would do. It’s just not the nature of how schools operate.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Ultimately, Theresa’s view was fundamentally a practical one.

Interviewee: Theresa Ball

We are trying to embrace kind of this research culture and so we are open about things and I think we’re open as well that growth mindset isn’t going to fix everything and for some students and some situations, it’s not going to be what we want it to be and then there’s something else that you might want to try. But I think as a principle, if the message that you’re sending out to people is if you try this and you stick with it and you don’t put a limit on what you can achieve and you don’t assume that people are naturally good at things, I don’t see why that’s ever going to be harmful to students in a learning environment where they have to do all these different subjects anyway.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

That was Theresa Ball from Hammersmith Academy. You also heard from David Yeager from the University of Texas at Austin, Carol Dweck from Stanford University, and Timothy Bates from the University of Edinburgh.

<Sting>

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Two more stories to go in this round-up. First Shamini Bundell's pick of 2019.

Interviewee: Shamini Bundell

I picked a piece this year about scientific life. So you might have heard the phrase 'manels' being used for all male panels, which is something that happens a lot at conferences, conventions, festivals, all sorts of things. And the Nature news team wanted to look at science conferences specifically to see how many of them are male dominated. And I really like having the opportunity to chat about issues which affect scientists and not just the sciences itself. So it was great to talk to reporter Holly Else about this story.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

From our 11th of September show here's Shamini's chat with Holly, which begins with a question about what a 'manference' actually is.

Interviewee: Holly Else

Yeah, well that’s a really good question because it’s quite difficult, as I have discovered over the last few months. What we ended up deciding to do was to pick a selection of fields and crowdsource the top conferences every year that scientists in those disciplines would be going to and just counted up the number of male and female speakers who had been invited to the conference.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So, you were manually looking through all these lists, writing people down, sort of trying to assess their gender.

Interviewee: Holly Else

Yes, I didn’t do it alone, but it was quite a lot of work and there were time when the name might be ambiguous, so we would have to sort of google the name until we found the academic profile on that person’s university website where often there was a photo, so that enabled us to make a judgement. Obviously, it’s only a judgement – we don’t know for sure what gender these names actually were. So, there are some limitations with our data.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

It sounds like a lot of different fields and a lot of different conferences – what’s the results that you found?

Interviewee: Holly Else

Yeah, well, we were actually quite surprised because one of the first one’s that we did was chemistry, and we kind of plotted the change over time for all these ten different conferences, and it was absolutely crazy. It was swinging from like 100% male to 40% male, and there was just no clear trend whatsoever. But in the other disciplines, there was some semblance of a clear trend where you could see things improving in terms of the representation of women at the podium. We’ve seen improvements in four of the five disciplines that we looked at.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

You’ve seen improvements, but where are we right now? If 50/50 is some sort of an ideal, how is science, in terms of the fields you were looking at, actually doing right now?

Interviewee: Holly Else

Well, that’s where it gets really difficult because although people might strive for a 50/50 gender balance, there’s sort of a big debate around whether that’s appropriate given that some fields of science aren’t 50/50 overall. So, you might have the new entrants into the science pipeline at the moment, so PhDs and postdocs, might be 50/50, but actually when you’re looking at the senior people in the field – the professors, the people who are invited to give these talks – the gender diversity action hasn’t really filtered through into that generation yet and so you might only have 20 or 30% of women in those posts anyway, so at a conference, should you expect to see half of the people on the podium who have been invited as women, or should you expect to see 20-30%? And that’s very much an active debate within these communities and you will be able to read a bit more about that in the feature.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So, if you only have a tiny proportion of women in a field for whatever historical reasons and you want to sort of balance out your conference numbers, what are actually the pros and cons of doing that?

Interviewee: Holly Else

Some conferences, their organising committees know that they don’t have a 50/50 gender ratio in those top-notch speakers that they want to invite to their conference, but they still strive to achieve that because they feel that’s important for the next generation of women who are attending the conference, perhaps for the first time or at the beginning of their career.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And there’s a story in your feature that’s quite extreme where you were talking about a conference where it was 100% male, which is quite extreme, and some women who then took over the conference and said right, not anymore.

Interviewee: Holly Else

Yeah, it was a fantastic tale to hear, and they got 50/50 women and men speakers, but that was just one year and then actually the next year it slipped back down towards being a ‘manference’ with probably too many men on the podium. What struck me as really interesting when I was talking to a lot of these people is the counter argument often is oh, there aren’t enough women, but actually when you scratch the surface of that comment, you find out that there’s more than enough women out there. Some conferences may have four or five invited speaker slots every year, some less than that, some obviously a few more, but there’s hundreds of capable women out there. It’s just a case of actually finding them.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

But people don’t just want capable, people want the top people in the field, but there’s a bit of a feedback loop with who people perceive as the top people in the field.

Interviewee: Holly Else

And that’s the problem. Someone I spoke to told me that if they go to a conference and they see it’s just another ‘manel’ or ‘himposium’, which is another word I’ve learnt on this adventure, their first thought is well, did these people really think about who are the best speakers for the conference or did they just think of the people that they know, perhaps they went to grad school with 20 years ago or people they saw at another conference, so it’s the same talk and that’s not the point of a conference. The point of a conference is to be bringing new ideas to the table every time.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So, let’s say someone is organising a conference and they do want to do something about this, how do they go about this and how easy is it?

Interviewee: Holly Else

So, there’s lots of resources online about this, but one thing that we did sort of hear as I was reporting this piece was that those top-notch women can be in demand. So, a key thing that people told me is that actually, you often need to invite far more women than men to get the same numbers of yesses.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So, does what you found make you optimistic about all these increasing trend lines you’re seeing in the number of women at conferences?

Interviewee: Holly Else

Well, I’d like to be, but I spoke to a statistician who told me that actually, we can’t really draw any conclusions based on the data that we’ve collected because the samples are so small. So, although we might have some nice sort of trend lines, actually, what’s really going on out there, we don’t know. But I think it’s a really positive story that actually, people have been moaning about this and they can still moan because there’s still a problem, but actually, there has been some concerted effort to change things.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

Brilliant, thanks for coming in and telling us about it.

Interviewee: Holly Else

No worries, thanks for having me.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Holly Else there, talking with Shamini.

<Sting>

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Right, last one in this round up, and it's my pick. Now Nobel Prize week is always quite a hectic one for us here at Nature. And this year was no different. In fact, it was perhaps a bit more full-on than usual as a couple of researchers were here in London for various reasons when they found out that they'd been awarded Nobel Prizes. As soon as I heard the news that they'd won and that they were near by, I dropped everything and raced across town to get interviews for the podcast. One of the new laureates was John Goodenough, who was one of the co-winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. And my interview with him was my highlight from 2019.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, John, today you were announced as one of the co-winners of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. How are you feeling right now?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Well, I’m very grateful that I have that honour. It’s splendid, but I’m the same person I was before. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And I understand you missed the call from the Nobel Committee this morning. When did they manage to actually reach you?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

They didn’t reach me, but somebody with a cell phone managed to get the information on the phone this morning while I was brushing my teeth. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And what was your reaction then when you finished brushing your teeth?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Well, of course I was very pleased. I suppose I was surprised, but at my age it doesn’t really make much difference. In the Bible, they say there’s such things as wood, hay and stubble. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, at 97 you are the oldest Nobel winner. Did you ever think this day would arrive?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I assumed I was too old. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

But somebody told me that you’re still in the lab every day. Is that true? Still researching, still working?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Yes, I’m in the lab every day. I’m still working. What would I do, just retire and wait to die? No, I don’t think so. Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, you’ve of course won for your work on the development of lithium-ion batteries, and in this room now there are dozens of these things. Did you think that your research would lead to where we are now?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I really didn’t. I couldn’t anticipate it. It’s all come as a surprise.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And how do you feel about it?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Well, I’m very pleased that it is something that is useful for society and brings people together. But as I say, our inventions are morally neutral. It depends upon how we use them. So, if people use the lithium-ion battery well, I’m delighted.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

You started your career as a physicist and you have made lots of discoveries that are of great importance – the development of RAM and superconductors and so forth. Is the lithium-ion work your favourite work?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I think my favourite work was to investigate what’s called a Mott transition, the transition from where the electrons in a cell are iterant – that means that they belong equally to all the atoms of a periodic array – to where they are localised and they sit on one atom and hop from one to the other. I think the investigation of the physics at that transition has been important and I’m very pleased with it.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Are you disappointed not to have won the prize for that work?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

No, I don’t suppose so. That goes back a long way.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Here you are at 97. You’re a Nobel Prize winner. What questions are left to answer for lithium-ion batteries, would you think?

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

How do you make them safer? How do you make them so they last for longer amounts of time? I know that we live in a throwaway society and they don’t like things to last too long, but I like to make things that will last a long time. I don’t believe in a throwaway society. Laughs. I think we need to preserve Mother Earth.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

And you yourself have lasted quite a long time, John, in fairness.

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, I’m fortunate that I’ve been given the genes that allow me to go to 97, yes! Laughs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Wonderful, John. Thank you so much.

Interviewee: John B. Goodenough

You’re very welcome.

<Sting>

Host: Benjamin Thompson

So there we have it, a few of our podcast highlights from the past 12 months. That's it for this round-up. We'll be back very soon with the regular Nature Podcast. In the meantime, if you want to hear even more great stories from 2019, head over to nature.com/podcast. I've been Benjamin Thompson. Thanks for listening. See you all soon.