The Sound of Science

Fridays 9am – Sheffield Live! – 93.2FM

Show 74 first broadcast on 30th October 2009


On this week’s programme: Chemical weapons testing that may double as a roadside drugs breathalyzer and could machines really understand our language.

chemical weapons

Detecting chemical weapons in seconds

Dr. Stephen Bell from Queen’s University, Belfast is heading up a project on developing new sensors to detect chemical agents and illegal drugs.

For chemical weapons sensing, the devices will use special gel pads to ‘swipe’ an individual or crime scene to gather a sample which is then analysed by a scanning instrument that can detect the presence of chemicals within seconds. This will allow better, faster decisions to be made in response to terrorist threats.

The scanning instrument will use Raman spectroscopy which involves shining a laser beam onto the suspected sample and measuring the energy of light that scatters from it to determine what chemical compound is present. It is so sophisticated it can measure particles of a miniscule scale making detection faster and more accurate.


Stephen also hopes that the new sensors will also be the basis for developing ‘breathalyzer’ instruments that could be of particular use for roadside drugs testing in much the same way as the police take breathalyzer samples to detect alcohol.

At present, police officers are only able to use a Field Impairment Test to determine if a person is driving under the influence of drugs. The accuracy of this method has been questioned because of concerns that it is easy to cheat.

To ensure the technology is relevant, senior staff members from FSNI (Forensic Science Northern Ireland) will give significant input into the operational aspects of the technology and give feedback as to how it might be used in practice by the wider user community.

cafe science

Could a machine ever understand you

In this month’s Cafe Scientifique package, Eric Taylor presents Professor Robert Gaizauskas talking about processing human language by computer. Rob talks about the developments and the difficulties and talks about the Turing Test and why it has been so difficult to pass.



October 30, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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