The Sound of Science

Fridays 9am – Sheffield Live! – 93.2FM

Show 78 first broadcast on 27th November 2009


In this weeks programme I travel to Newcastle upon Tyne to a conference for young people to put forward their ideas about the issue they will face with robots in the future. This will be fed back to a parliamentary audience later this year. Then we begin a new slot on the programme – turning the tables: interviewing the people behind science and technology stories.

The Visions conference

I travel to the Centre for Life at Newcastle upon Tyne where a conference for young people is underway. They get a couple of lectures about what is going on in modern robotics and then set about deciding on the issue that will concern society in their future. This is the brainchild of Dr Karen Bultitude and Professor Frank Burnett from the University of West England. I talk to Karen in the morning and the get back to the kids in the afternoon as they present their ideas to local dignitaries. Then I hear some insprirational words from Noel Jackson (the other Noel) the director of Education from Newcastles Landmark Centre for Life (and fantastic cocktail maker).

Turning the tables: Paul Marks

Paul is chief technology correspondent of the New Scientist. Prior to joining New Scientist, he wrote technology news for The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Sunday Times. Paul has also edited a clutch of technology magazines including Popular Computing Weekly, International Broadcasting and the microelectronics journal Micro Forecast. He was also an editor at a patents journal. Paul is an award winning journalist, having been Editor of the Year at Emap Media in 1996 and BT’s Infosecurity Journalist of the Year in 2007.


November 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Show 77 first broadcast on 20th November 2009


In this weeks programme we investigate the world’s smallest single wing aircraft and then, in the regular cafe scientifique insert, there is a discussion of Volcanoes and Mass extinction.But first I take a look at new evidence for the presence of water on the moon – buckets full.

Swimming on the moon


In October, NASA send a rocket and a probe hurtling into the Cabeus crater near the moon’s south pole. It kicked up a mile high plume that could then be analysed for the presence of water. The probe following the rocket used a near-infrared spectrometer to detect water ice and water vapour. And they found gallons of the stuff. Noel reports.

It flies like a maple seed and stings like walnut


Researchers  at Maryland University’s  Clark School (Aerospace Engineering) have designed micro-unmanned aerial vehicle inspired by a maple seed. The University of Maryland engineers studied the spiral flight the seeds take when they fall from a tree and created what the university claims is the “world’s smallest controllable single-winged rotocraft.”

I talked to the main man responble for the design and construction of this fascinating air craft, graduate student Evan Ulrich. He explains just about everything you could want to know about it. There is a youtube video showing just how well it works. I thought that it was quite a stunning piece of kit and I think that we might be seeing a lot of these in model shops in the future. It is easier to fly than a model helicopter and could really catch on.

cafe science

Mass Extinctions and Volcanism


In this months Cafe Scientifique  insert is presented by local science enthusiast, Eric Taylor. Dr Paul Wignall talked to the Cafe about  Mass extinctions and volcanism.

All major crises of life in the past 300 million years coincide with large scale volcanic eruptions. This includes the two biggest mass extinctions of all time: the end-Cretaceous and end-Permian events. The reasons behind this coincidence have not been clear but geologists have generally thought that it is related to the effects of two of the principal volcanic gases, carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide. These have diametrically opposed climatic effects, the former causes long-term global warming and the latter causes short-term cooling due to formation of clouds of volcanic aerosols. The talk will look at some of the latest research which shows that some mass extinction events coincide with huge individual eruptions – involving up a thousand cubic kilometres of lava. Event Page: /200911.htm

November 20, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Show 76 first broadcast on 13th November 2009


Grey Wlater

W. Grey Walter and his amazing robots Pt2

This week, in part 2 of the life and times of William Grey Walter, we probe deeper into his life – how he was suspected of being a Russian spy and how his boss had a private eye following him. The historian of technology Rhodri Hayward and Professor Richard Gregory FRS, an old friend of Grey Walter, tell about how he loved the reputation of intrigue and mystery. They tell of Grey Walter’s romances and how he combined his love of women with his science.

At the beginning of the programme, I make a trip to the London Science Museum to see one Walter’s remaining robots from the 1951 Festival of Britain. I talk to Professor Own Holland about how he found the robot.

Contributors to this weeks programme were:

Professor Richard Gregory FRS, Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology, University of Bristol. A personal friend of the late Grey Walter.

Dr. Rodri Hayward an historian from Queen Mary, University of London, who researches the history of medicine and has written a paper on Grey Walter called The Tortoise and the Love-Machine.

Professor Owen Holland now a Professor at the University of Sussex. Owen actually discovered one of the robots and replicated it. Owen has written about the legacy of Grey Walter.

Science Museum: Special thanks to Rob Skitmore and John Mumford from the London Science Museum for getting one of the original tortoises out of its case and explaining it to us.

Check out more pictures of the robots at the Bristol Robotics Lab in Bristol

There is a lovely old New Reel piece of Grey Walter, his wife and his robots Elmer and Elsie

There is a short biography here

November 13, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Show 75 first broadcast on 6th November 2009


This week’s program is the first in a two-parter dedicated to the memory of the great British Scientist William Grey Walter. It is a story of romance, sex, wife swapping, mystery and intrigue. If that isn’t enough for you, he was a great roboticist who build the first autonomous robots that could operate together. But first I have been forced onto my soapbox again.

Noel on the soapbox

If the government want to ignore scientific evidence they should make clear their moral or political arguments


I am on my soap box this week because of the sacking of the UK Government’s Head of the Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs, Professor David Nutt. When Gordon Brown became prime minister he said that he would relook at the cannabis classification which had been downgraded from Class B to Class C before he took office.

Professor Nutt said that the Prime minister had ignored the scientific advice completely and had even made up his mind before the council had told him that there was no evidence to support reclassifying. David Nutt, who has been a psychiatrist working of drugs and alcohol abuse for over 30 years, got sacked because he spoke out at a lecture and said that the cannabis was less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.

The scientific community has been up in arms about his sacking and even the government chief scientific advisor said that he believed the evidence. There is a much wider issue here than drugs abuse. The government should separate it policy and moral arguments from scientific arguments. It is entitled to make decisions against scientific advice but it should not then make scientific arguments. It should justify is case in other ways.

See also the BBC website on the sacking.

W. Grey Walter and his amazing robots Pt1


This week’s programme begins my journey into the fascinating world of W. Grey Walter (1910-1977) a great British Scientist: psychologist-neurophysiologist-roboticist-social commentator-TV celebrity.

He was far ahead of his time. Apart from a couple of simple predecessors, Grey Walter designed and built the first fully autonomous tortoise robots that could seek light, avoid obstacles and return to their hutchs to automatically recharge. They were the first robots to interact with each other and the first learning robots. They were even said to flirt with each other

In this weeks programme I look at his work with robots and discuss its importance with world renowed roboticists:

Professor Rod Brooks from MIT founder of iRobots and widely held to be the father of modern Behaviour Based Robots.

Professor Owen Holland from the University of Essex who actually discovered one of the robots and replicated it. Owen has written about the legacy of Grey Walter.

Professor Alan Winfield director of the Bristol Robotics Lab at the University of West England

Check out more pictures of the robots at the Bristol Robotics Lab in Bristol

There is a lovely old New Reel piece of Grey Walter, his wife and his robots Elmer and Elsie

There is a short biography here

Next week I go in search of one of Walter’s surviving robots and I find out about Grey Walter the man from one of his old friends and from an historian of technology.

November 7, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment