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Phoenix lands on Mars

Robyn Williams: ABC Radio National, Dateline 26th May 2008, 35 million miles from Earth.

Mission commentator Richard Kornfeld: 30 metres...27 metres...20 metres...15 metres...standing by
for touchdown.

Robyn Williams: This is The Science Show, with Phoenix, as it happened.

Mission commentator Richard Kornfeld: Touchdown signal detected! [cheers] Landing sequence
initiated. Helium vent detected! [applause] We have nominal termination of EDL comm by Odyssey and
direct to Earth. Phoenix... Phoenix has landed! Phoenix has landed! Welcome to the northern plains
of Mars!

Robyn Williams: Well, that was a week ago. Jonathan Nally.

Jonathan Nally: They were calling it the seven minutes of terror. That's how long it was expected
to take NASA's Phoenix probe to transition from a 21,000 kilometre per hour spacecraft to a
stationary laboratory on the frigid northern arctic plains of Mars. A heat shield, parachute and
rockets all had to work perfectly for the $400 million mission to succeed. NASA controllers must
have had their hearts in their mouths as the probe began its descent. Given the 15-minute time
delay between Earth and Mars, the events were totally out of their control. All they could do was
hope that the designers had got it right. Their tension was heightened by the knowledge that
two-thirds of all spacecraft sent to Mars have failed. There hadn't been a successful Mars landing
using rockets since the mid-1970s.

But as we now know it all went off without a hitch. In fact it couldn't have been better. Landing
on a rock or a steep slope had been the biggest fear, but in the end Phoenix settled down on almost
perfectly flat ground, only half a degree off horizontal. And when the first images began streaming
back the scientists couldn't believe their luck. What they saw was exactly what they were hoping to
find; terrain that could have been transplanted directly from any arctic region on Earth. Patches
of ground shaped into large blocks with shallow depressions in between. This is just what you get
if the surface has been repeatedly frozen and thawed. And that means ice. Underground ice. Just the
thing Phoenix has been sent to find.

It will now use its 2.5 metre long robot arm to dig down 50 centimetres to gather soil and rock
samples. Hopefully there will be ice in those samples, and maybe organic chemicals or sulphates,
the sort of stuff that microbes on Earth use for food. The samples will be dropped into
mini-laboratories for analysis. Part of that process will be to add water to some of the samples,
stir them round a bit, and then use artificial tastebuds to see what sort of chemicals are present.

And where will Phoenix get its water? Simple; it's carried its own all the way from Earth in the
form of a small block of ice made from the purest of pure water, as free from contaminant as
science can make it. It will be melted slowly and added sparingly to the mix. Other tests will
involve heating the samples to see what gases are given off. It's worth remembering that this
mission cannot directly test for signs of life, not even microbes. What it will be doing is trying
to determine if the conditions on Mars in the past were conducive to life, and maybe even whether
the sub-surface could be a habitat for microbes now.

Unlike the plucky Rovers that are still going strong several years after they were supposed to have
given up, Phoenix will not get a life extension. Because of its far northern location, when winter
comes around in a few months time the fading sunlight will mean a fatal drop in solar power. The
plummeting temperatures will consign Phoenix to a slow death by freezing, but by then it will have
done its job and it will live on through the legacy of data it will have provided to those
inquisitive inhabitants of that blue-green rock a little closer to the Sun.

Oldest fossil vertebrate embryo

Robyn Williams: And it's been a mega week in science. On Wednesday Dr John Long and his colleagues
held a press conference in Adelaide and via satellite to London and the opening of the Royal
Institution by the Queen. They were announcing the world's oldest mother, and a fish called David.

John Long: It's a very exciting discovery actually, it's the oldest fossil vertebrate embryo yet
discovered. We found a fish that is 380 million years old from the Gogo fish sites in north-western
Australia, and not only does it have an embryo inside it, we have an actually fossilised umbilical
cord attached to that embryo. As far as we know this is the first fossil ever discovered with the
maternal feeding structure preserved in it.

Robyn Williams: Extraordinary. What does that mean about the way in which the embryo was nurtured
and how long it might have stayed there, and indeed the birth process?

John Long: Well, we're talking about a long-extinct group of fishes called the placoderms. These
fish were the rulers of the seas, rivers and lakes for 70 million years but we know nothing about
their reproductive biology until this fossil. We'd long suspected that some of them may have had an
advanced kind of reproductive strategy because some of them contain evidence of sexual dimorphism,
but this fossil proves that this particular strange group of placoderms called ptyctodons actually
had live birth, viviparity. And that is in itself quite a remarkable discovery, but I suppose even
more intriguing is the fact that we've got the mineralised umbilical cord which shows that the
mother was also providing nutrients as well as the yolk sac. So it's an advanced form of feeding
called matrotrophy and very advanced for a primitive fish, so we were quite outstanded by it.

Robyn Williams: Of course modern fish do this to some extent and they have, some of them, little
containers with yolk in them which they place in the undergrowth in the bottom of the ocean, but
that's not quite the same thing. Are there many modern fish which actually give birth in this way?

John Long: Yes, actually there's something like 29 independent lineages of fish that are viviparous
or give birth to live young. Most sharks are viviparous, and sting rays, and because of that we
think that...because sharks go right back to the Devonian period 360 million years ago, that
obviously live birth must have occurred back then. But in this other group, the placoderms, which
are far more primitive and probably the ancestors of things like sharks and bony fishes, we simply
didn't know how they reproduced or what sort of reproductive strategies they had. Now I'm thinking
from this new discovery and the fact that we've found other fossil embryos now in Gogo fishes, that
switches in reproductive strategies may have driven big evolutionary events, and this is where our
research is going to take us next.

Robyn Williams: What would be the advantage? That you've got a more mature young which can fend for
itself better?

John Long: Yes, I think the Devonian was a time when it was fiercely competitive, a rat race in the
seas, and to lay lots and lots of eggs in the water meant something probably came along and ate
them almost as soon as you laid them. So these placoderms, by rearing a few young to an advanced
stage of development meant they could pop out and start feeding straight away, and they were big
enough and mean enough to defend themselves. And that's certainly an advantage, even right back in
the Devonian period.

Robyn Williams: You've got the first umbilical cord. Any chance of the first bellybutton?

John Long: Very good question, Robyn! I think we'll have to go back and have a closer look.

Robyn Williams: More seriously, you talked about Gogo, it's got the wonderful sound of a 1970s pop
group, but it's a place in Western Austalia, isn't it.

John Long: It is. It's a remarkable and a truly beautiful place near Fitzroy Crossing. Gogo Station
is where the name comes from but I'm referring to the Gogo Formation which is the rock layers which
the fossils come from. That covers a vast area, something like 200 square kilometres of
ground. From this area, which was once an ancient barrier reef, fish swarmed and teemed around the
reef, many different kinds, and when they died their bodies sank into this mud around the
inter-reef basins. And because the area is relatively stable tectonically there hasn't been much
compression, and the fish, enclosed in their little limestone nodules, have been perfectly
protected. So now when we get these fish inside the nodule and we put it in weak acidic acid which
slowly bubbles away, and bit by bit the bones poke out, and eventually we get the bones out in
three-dimension perfect form, just like they died yesterday, and it truly is a remarkable sight.

Robyn Williams: This site was of course shown in David Attenborough's Life on Earth way back in
about 1979, which is presumably why you chose to call the fish David.

John Long: He's absolutely thrilled, he's over the moon about it, and he often refers to Gogo as
one of his favourite spots. He's talked about it in his biography, for example. He was the first
person to actually bring worldwide attention to this being a significant site. In Life on Earth,
episode four, about the fish, he chose one spot on the whole of the planet to talk abut fish
evolution and it was Gogo, so I think it's very appropriate to honour him in this manner.

MC : We have a very, very special guest with us now, not the royal but the equivalent to a royal in
our minds, Sir David Attenborough. So with no further ado I introduce to you Sir David
Attenborough.

David Attenborough: Hello

Robyn Williams: Welcome from Oz. How do you feel about having a fish named after to you?

David Attenborough: Thrilled to death, and it was a very accomplished fish too.

Robyn Williams: You wouldn't have preferred a bird of paradise?

David Attenborough: Well, birds of paradise have very interesting courtship but this fish has a
wonderful birth.

Robyn Williams: What would you like to say to the scientists involved who made the discovery?

David Attenborough: I am very, very flattered. This fish was discovered of course in a marvellous
place, Gogo in Western Australia. I was very, very lucky to go there back in whenever it was, in
the 70s, to see this site where these extraordinary fossils are produced. And they're preserved in
such a wonderful state that now you can look at the details of its anatomy, including this fish, as
we've just discovered, which actually has a baby in the uterus. It is the first and earliest known
vertebrate to have internal fertilisation and to rear its young with a placenta and with an
umbilical cord. What I've done to deserve that, I really can't imagine.

Robyn Williams: You made (the television program) Life on Earth in '79 which I think featured Gogo
and those fish.

David Attenborough: It did indeed, and I remember very, very well getting out of a helicopter and
looking around at these nodules and picking one up, and there, perfectly preserved, was the most
wonderful bone from the top of the fish's cranium. Thank you very much indeed.

Robyn Williams: Thank you David.

Sir David Attenborough at the opening by the Queen of the Royal Institution, reborn on Wednesday.
The two dukes arrived at the press conference; the Duke of Kent and the Duke of Edinburgh. Via
satellite I asked the Duke of Edinburgh whether he'd like to know any more.

Would you like to ask them a question, Sir?

Prince Philip: Well, can you show a fossil fish? It's difficult to imagine, just seeing you lot
sitting there.

[laughter]

Robyn Williams: They look a bit like Darth Vader, I'm afraid.

John Long: Well, they're like a little 25-centimetre-long fish with armoured plates over the head,
and we've got a wonderful animation that Nature will have on its website which I hope people can
have a look at to see what this fish looks like.

Prince Philip: Well, wish it good luck.

Robyn Williams: It might be 380 million years too late.

The Duke of Edinburgh at the Royal Institution via satellite TV link to Adelaide and the launch of
our own RI connection. The first director of the Royal Institution Oz will be Gavin Brown, retiring
vice-chancellor of Sydney University. And back to John Long.

Two more things while I've got you...the first is, what's this about a giant squid washed up that
you've got hold of?

John Long: Well, you'll hear more about this probably from Dr Mark Norman our cephalopod expert,
but another giant squid has washed up on one of the beaches in Victoria and the museum is about to
acquire it and do some further studies of it.

Robyn Williams: It's ridiculous, isn't it, but the journalists cannot resist saying; how big?

John Long: I think it's six metres, but Mark Norman will correct me if I'm wrong.

Robyn Williams: I'll catch up with Mark. And finally your spectacularly beautiful book, not on
fish, but this time about feathered dinosaurs. In other words, the early birds. It's glorious,
isn't it.

John Long: Yes Robyn, it's come out last month, and I must acknowledge and give credit to Peter
Schouten who did wonderful artwork. He illustrated A Gap in Nature and Astonishing Animals with Tim
Flannery and he's done a superb job reconstructing 80 dinosaurs that had feathers. I've written the
text to actually describe their world, but it really is Peter's magnum opus.

Robyn Williams: Congratulations.

John Long: Thank you again Robyn.

Robyn Williams: Dr John Long from the Museum of Victoria with Dr Kate Trinajstic of the University
of Western Australia, and Tim Senden, ANU, all in Adelaide to launch their Nature paper, and of
course the Royal Institution in London and Australia.

The hobbit - an update

Robyn Williams: And so to another fossil, a human it seems, now a figure of dispute; the hobbit
from Flores. Professor Colin Groves has a clear view on the debate.

Colin Groves: The discovery of a new diminutive human-like species Homo floresiensis, popularly
known as the hobbit, burst upon an unprepared world in late 2004. The remains came from a cave,
Liang Bua, on the island of Flores in south-eastern Indonesia. The star of the show, a complete
skeleton given the registration number LB1, belonged to an individual of about one metre tall and
had a brain size of only about 400 cubic centimetres, less than a third of the average for modern
humans. It would have fitted nicely into what we already know if it had been found in Africa in
deposits dating to two million years old, but LB1 was only 18,000 years old. How to explain this?

At first the discoverers, Peter Brown, Mike Morwood and their Indonesian colleagues, proposed that
it was a dwarfed late surviving descendant of Homo erectus, a primitive fossil species that lived
in Java from over a million until perhaps just 100,000 years ago. Large mammals that find
themselves isolated on small islands typically do get smaller in size over time, a phenomenon known
as island dwarfing. Elephants, for example, are famous for having evolved dwarf representatives on
some of the Mediterranean islands at different times over the last million years or so, and in fact
the remains of a dwarf elephant-like animal, stegodon, were found in the same deposits as the
hobbit. So it was perhaps no surprise that humans, or rather proto-humans, had undergone island
dwarfing, and when they did get cut off on a smallish island.

A year later however the discoverers reconsidered this hypothesis. The similarities to those
two-million-year-old African fossils were just too strong to ignore, and the bodily and brain
proportions of the hobbit were not like you would expect in a dwarfed Homo erectus. At about the
same time a group from ANU and Sydney University, led by Debbie Argue and including yours truly,
prepared a paper supporting and extending these new ideas in some detail.

Sometimes startling discoveries like this take quite a while to become generally accepted. The very
idea of a species with pretty much a one or two-million-year-old anatomy surviving to only 18,000
years ago simply outraged some people, who spent a great deal of misplaced ingenuity trying to
dream up some convincing way in which the hobbit could be explained away as simply a pathological
modern human. They have been referred to as the sceptics, but as they have much more in common
with, say, creationists or the opponents of climate change than with the evidence-seeking
Australian sceptics. I prefer to call them simply the deniers.

The early favourite of the deniers' strategies was that LB1 was a microcephalic dwarf. Then we had
Laron syndrome, or a generalised growth defect (this one by somebody who presumably couldn't think
of anything more specific), or cretinism, or very recently a small-brained local pygmy person who
had had dental root canal therapy in the 1930s and then proceeded to get himself buried six metres
down in the floor of a cave. One of our American colleagues refers to all this as 'pathology of the
week' syndrome.

Back to science. As well as LB1, the more fragmentary remains of perhaps nine other individuals
have been found in Liang Bua, going from as early as about 75,000 to as late as 12,000 years ago, a
fact ignored by all the deniers. Where they can be compared to LB1, these other individuals tend to
be smaller. The first hobbit that struck everyone as so diminutive was actually the largest of his
kind. Moreover, the features that mark LG1's primitive status turn up in the other specimens as
well. Some of our American colleagues are working on different parts of the skeleton and their
preliminary reports on the shoulder, the wrist and the brain (the latter deduced from the imprinted
leaves on the inside of the skull) all confirm that it most resembles African fossils of about two
million years ago.

Debbie Argue continues her detailed comparisons of the cranium and Peter Brown is working on the
lower jaw, known from LB1 and from a second individual, LB6. Their comparisons too indicate that
Homo floresiensis remarkably resembles our two-million-year-old forebears. How it travelled from
Africa, how it got into Southeast Asia and how it survived isolated on Flores all that time, these
are quite unknown so far, but everything about the weird and wonderful hobbit has opened up new and
exciting avenues of research.

Midges as environmental indicators

Steve Brooks: A midge...a lot of people think of midges as the things that bite you, especially in
the northern hemisphere, but the midges I'm interested in are non-biting midges. There's actually
far more species of them than the biting sort. They're extremely abundant in all sorts of
freshwater habitats but in particular in lakes, and one thing that's really good about them from my
point of view is that they're extremely good environmental indicators. We find the remains of the
larvae in lake sediments...we can take cores out of lakes, slice these cores up into fine intervals
and then look at changes in the abundance and in the diversity of the midges through time, and that
can tell us a lot about how the environment has changed in the past.

Robyn Williams: And how far have you been going back in time?

Steve Brooks: Most of the work is going back to the last ice age, which is about 15,000 years ago,
but quite recently I've been looking at sediments from hundreds of thousands of years ago from a
site in the east of England which is connected with a site where they've been looking for human
remains. In fact they think that at that period there weren't any humans in Britain at that time.
So we can go back a long time.

Robyn Williams: And so how do you see something different about the midges that can tell you
something about what the weather was like?

Steve Brooks: What we've found, by looking at the distribution of midges in northern Europe today
we know that some species are associated with cold environments and some species are associated
with warm environments. In fact what we've been able to do is to work out the optimum temperature
for each midge species. Then when you go back in time looking at these sediments that have
accumulated over thousands of years, you can look at a particular assemblage of midges from the
past and work out what the temperature would have been to give you that assemblage of midges.

We can actually test our model by seeing how well it works in the present day. We can look at a
present day midge assemblage, use our model to construct a temperature, and we know that the error
in the model is around about one degree centigrade. If we slice the sediments at two-millimetre
intervals, which in a lot of lakes is around about every ten years, in theory we can work out what
the temperature was every ten years for the last 15,000 years with an accuracy of about one degree
centigrade. So we can get a really good idea of what the temperature was like in the past and also
how fast the temperature has changed in the past as well.

Robyn Williams: Isn't that exciting! They are so helpful midges, aren't they.

Steve Brooks: They are, yes. Really my first love is dragonflies and I like spending days going out
looking at dragonflies, but as much as I like midges, they're not really the most exciting things.
But from the point of view of finding out about past climate change they're actually very
interesting. We can look at other things as well. We can look at changes in trophic levels of
lakes. In other words, how much they've received nutrients, for example, over the last, say, 50, 60
years. So we can see how lakes have been polluted by nutrients, we can look at how lakes have been
affected by acid rain as well. I've done work as well looking at the impacts of smelters in Russia,
for example. We looked at a copper smelter and, again, the midges changed in characteristic ways
which helped us to understand basically what the impact of the smelter was on the lakes surrounding
it.

Robyn Williams: How clever. Tell me, did you get a picture of the temperature change that was in
any way surprising as a result of this work?

Steve Brooks: It's surprising in the sense of how fast the temperature can change. We did have an
idea about that already because there are similar techniques used with beetles. Beetles can tell
you the same sort of information. The trouble with beetles is that you need several kilograms of
sediment to get enough beetles out of it to give you a temperature reconstruction. With midges we
can use less than a gram of sediment and get hundreds of midge heads out of a gram of sediment. So
what it means is we can look at very much more fine intervals.

So while we knew from the beetles that, for example, temperatures had changed five or six
degrees...the last time the Gulf Stream switched off, about 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, we knew
from the beetles that the temperature had changed by about five degrees but it wasn't clear how
fast it had changed, and we know from the midges that it happened within ten years or so, a massive
change in temperatures in a very fast time.

Robyn Williams: It went down, got colder, I suppose.

Steve Brooks: It got colder, yes. Basically what happened was that the last ice age was finishing,
temperatures were increasing and that meant the that ice sheets were melting, but the effects of
that was that there's lots of fresh water going into the northern Atlantic Ocean and it was
diluting the ocean current which drives the Gulf Stream, and the effect of that was to switch the
Gulf Stream off. So although climate was warming, the Gulf Stream switched off because of the
melt-waters and that plunged north-west Europe back into an ice age which lasted about 1,000 years,
even though global temperatures were actually on an upward trend.

Robyn Williams: Yes, it's such a paradox, isn't it. And of course we're thinking about the Gulf
Stream right now, aren't we.

Steve Brooks: Yes, exactly. There is evidence already that the Gulf Stream has slowed down by about
30%, so while it's not enough to cause cooling temperatures and we haven't detected any response
from midges, for example, it's conceivable (especially if the ice cap on Greenland melts) that
again it could switch the Gulf Stream off. The last time that happened, as I say, it took 1,000
years for it to come back online again. Actually, when it did come back, of course the temperatures
went up very quickly again. Within, again, about ten years the temperatures shot right up again.

Robyn Williams: It's amazing how quickly these things can turn around. I suppose we've got plenty
of midges in Australia to do the same sort of work.

Steve Brooks: Yes, and actually somebody has done work...very few studies in Australia but there
has been some work done....again, with interesting results. In fact we don't really know as much
about climate dynamics in the past from the southern hemisphere as we do about climate dynamics in
the northern hemisphere, and so there's a lot of debate really about how influential southern
weather systems are on global temperatures or even global weather systems. Is it the southern
weather systems that are driving the north, or are they synchronised, are there leads and lags
between them? And there's still a lot of work to be done on that.

I'm actually working in southern South America looking at climate changes. In fact, I'm looking at
this same period where the last time the Gulf Stream switched off, just to see if there were any
measurable effects in South America at the same time or whether perhaps there were any leads or
lags between that period. So that's work that is still going on. But yes, there's plenty of
opportunity in Australia for anybody who's interesting in getting into that. As far as I know
there's only been about one study so far using midges.

New method for making composite materials

Robyn Williams: Climate, carbon, oil and petrol on our minds constantly, but rather than sticking
to old fashioned transport systems, can we transform our whole approach? Three years ago I met
Bronwyn Fox at Deakin University in Geelong and saw her revolutionary fibres for building cars and
planes. So what's happened since?

Bronwyn Fox: I think the focus very much three years ago was about looking at cars and how we could
improve the fuel efficiency of cars using composites, and that's really starting to happen at the
moment, particularly in Australia where the industry is quite small and we can experiment with
different things and try out new materials without it having a huge effect on a multi-million
dollar market all over the US, for example. Now I'm really interested in planes and aerospace
materials, and it's really interesting, one of the most damaging things you can do in terms of the
environment as an individual is fly somewhere.

A return flight from, say, Melbourne to London, it's about 1,200 kilograms of fuel per passenger
that's required to fly you from Melbourne to London, and that releases about 4,000 kilograms of CO2
into the environment, which is a huge problem, particularly as more and more of us are flying. We
have cheap airlines with cheap flights that are flying us everywhere. We're using planes like
buses, and more and more of the world's population are flying, and particularly once the population
of China start flying, it's going to be a huge problem.

Robyn Williams: Do you know they're building 97 new airports in China as we speak?

Bronwyn Fox: That's amazing. I've seen figures from IATA that predict that, I think, by 2020
there'll be three times as many people flying around the world as there are now. And there was
certainly all that anecdotal evidence when the planes stopped flying after 9/11 of just how clear
the sky was. It really is very damaging.

Robyn Williams: If the plane is on that route...you know, the 12 o'clock to Sydney flying anyway,
whether I'm on it or not, how is it that I'm responsible for x-amount of kilos?

Bronwyn Fox: This is the whole thing, we're not going to stop flying, are we, so we have to come up
with a way to make planes smarter, lighter, more fuel efficient, more efficient engines, and that's
where I think Boeing have made a huge advance with the 787 Dreamliner which is 50% carbon by
weight. The problem is that they've got 900 orders on the books, they just cannot make parts fast
enough, and the main roadblock are these huge pressure ovens that they use to make the 787 which
are very gas intensive, very electricity intensive and very slow. It takes probably an average of
20 hours to cure a part. That's a huge roadblock when you're making a plane. We've got a process
here at Deakin called the Quickstep process. It's an Australian invention and it can make composite
parts really rapidly and very cheaply.

Robyn Williams: And so how quickly could you actually catch up with the backlog that they have?

Bronwyn Fox: It's suited to a number of different parts. It might not be possible yet to do an
entire nosecone from, say, the Quickstep process, as they do in Wichita with Spirit AeroSystems,
however it's an order of magnitude faster, it can be up to ten times faster to cure the part.

Robyn Williams: And what about cars? You mentioned the cars and their fuel efficiency, lots of
people don't realise that only about 15% of the fuel you put in your tank goes to the wheels to
drive it forward, and of that I think about 7% goes away as heat, so you've only got 6% that's
driving you forward, which is a ridiculous component of the fuel, a huge waste. So how can you make
a difference?

Bronwyn Fox: That's very true, but of that 6% that you were talking about, you want that force to
be taking you as far as possible. Newton's second law, F=ma, if you reduce the mass of the vehicle
you reduce the amount of force it takes to move it. So we can produce much more efficient cars.

Robyn Williams: And so has it reached the cars now, your Quickstep composite material?

Bronwyn Fox: We've made car bonnets essentially, and not in production vehicles, in concept cars.
So that's the state of play at the moment. We're still looking at concept cars, futuristic
vehicles. But there was a bonnet produced for the HRT427 a few years ago using the Quickstep
process. That was produced by a visionary engineer at HSV, and that car actually broke the
Australian record recently for the largest price for a car in Australia ever to sell for, it sold
for $920,000 just a few weeks ago. So it just shows there is a definite appeal to carbon fibre, and
it will get out there. I think the Australian car industry has realised that we can't make small
cars over here, we can't compete with all the imports, so the way to go is to make the large cars
that we make really well but make them smarter. We're not sacrificing performance, we're just
improving fuel efficiency.

Robyn Williams: What's the secret, as far as you can tell me, of the Quickstep process?

Bronwyn Fox: It's a really interesting process. The secret is that it uses a fluid to transfer heat
to cure the part rather than a gas. Fluid is a much more efficient heat transfer. The inventor
actually came up with the idea when he was having a bath. He was building an aircraft called the
Eagle which eventually got sold to Malaysia, his name is Neil Graham, and he was trying to think of
a better way to make composites and he was in the bath and just thought, well, why don't we give
the composite a bath! CSIRO did an enormous amount of research in the early 90s on the process and
developed the prototype, and one of the scientists there, Jonathan Hodgkin, was my PhD supervisor
and that's how we ended up doing research on the process at Deakin.

Robyn Williams: One thing that puzzles me, having been here three years ago, and, as you said, 90s,
the concept...why does it take so long? I know you don't want to disrupt the industry, but I would
have thought a greater sense of urgency would overwhelm both the aircraft and motor industry these
days when they want to make a difference.

Bronwyn Fox: Definitely the message has gotten through to the aircraft industry. The automotive
industry I think is still taking a bit of time to catch up, and they'll learn from the aerospace
experience. It's to do with us being quite conservative, particularly engineers such as myself.
We're very conservative with adopting new materials, we don't want anyone to be hurt, we don't want
there to be any side effects, so we want to make sure that's absolutely spot on, and it can take a
lot time to convince people to use these materials. There's also the cost aspect as well. Carbon
fibre composites are quite expensive, but now that Boeing are requiring so much material to make a
plane, the production across the world is going up enormously. So carbon fibre plants are popping
up all over the world, and we're hoping to get one in Australia.

Robyn Williams: You've got a colleague with you. Why don't you introduce me?

Bronwyn Fox: I have. This is Betime Nuhiji. I've worked with her for seven years. She's doing a PhD
on nano-composites which is the next generation of composites. We can further enhance the
properties of carbon fibre composites by adding nano-particles. At the moment, for example, in the
787, the Achilles' heel of a composite is where the layers actually come apart, it's called
delamination, and one of the things Betime is looking at is how nano-particles and incorporating
them into normal composites can enhance the properties and prevent that happening a little bit.

Betime Nuhiji: I don't actually work with carbon nano-tubes, I work with nano-clays, so they're
actually a silicate platelet. So I work with epoxy and the nano-clays, so by combining them we
actually strengthen the material, we strengthen the matrix which will then go into the carbon
fibres which hopefully will potentially strengthen the whole composite itself.

Robyn Williams: Give me a picture...if you're working with something that's nano it's obviously
invisible to the eye, so how do you manipulate them, what do you use?

Betime Nuhiji: In order to actually see them we have to use characterisation techniques. So we get
to use transmission electron microscopes which pretty much focus down to the nano scale or even to
the micron scale so you can actually see the nano-particles themselves.

Robyn Williams: And you're adding these to the general material?

Betime Nuhiji: To an epoxy system. So it's a polymer system.

Robyn Williams: I see. So when will this be incorporated into a new scheme?

Bronwyn Fox: We're working on it a the moment. We have two themes of research where we're
incorporating nano-clays into conventional composites, and also incorporating carbon nano-tubes. We
hope they'll act as tiny, tiny nano-scale z-pins to help hold the laminate together under stresses.
We've found that the Quickstep process actually provides us some advantages in processing
nano-composites, in particular it's very good at separating out the particles, and the holy grail
of nano-composites is to make sure you don't get any agglomerates, that all of the particles are as
separate as possible so that you get a true nano-scale enhancement of properties rather than having
lumps of macro-sized things stuck in your laminate.

Robyn Williams: Of course when I get on my plane or when I get into a motorcar, I want it to be not
just light but very, very strong. Will it be?

Bronwyn Fox: Yes, it will be very strong. There will be enhanced properties, some of them
mechanical. There will also be enhanced barrier properties, things like fire retardancy which is
really important, not so much on your bike, but defiantly if you're in a plane you want to make
sure your environment if fireproof.

Robyn Williams: Well, very, very good luck to you.

Bronwyn Fox: Thank you very much.

Robyn Williams: And when do you think I will get into my plane or get into my car and see one of
your composites actually there?

Bronwyn Fox: We're looking at making helicopter parts at the moment. Probably you might see some
Quickstep parts on planes in the next generation. So Boeing have made this huge leap forward in
making the 787 with the twin-aisle aircraft. The next one to be replaced is the 737 and there's a
huge opportunity to get an increased number of composite parts on the new 737, the single-aisle
plane that we generally find in Australia going domestically.

Robyn Williams: So even though it's Boeing we could have the feeling that it's Australian-made.

Bronwyn Fox: To an extent, yes, and it's all because of one guy in a bath in Western Australia.

Vitamin C synthesis

Robyn Williams:Let me ask you a question; why a couple of billion years ago did nature invent
vitamin C, and what was the point? You'd think we'd know all about that, but not so.

Steven Clarke: You know, when we looked at the initial results that we had, we weren't sure. Once
though that we were able to look and see what the possibilities were, and we said, 'Can we be lucky
enough that we've got the last piece of the puzzle?' And we did the experiments and it was there.

Robyn Williams: Steven Clarke is a professor of chemistry at the University of California Los
Angeles, and he was convinced that vitamin C was an old story, until they looked into it. Why was
it made in plants, and how? Why so important for humans? How could the story still be incomplete?

Steven Clarke: The puzzle for us was a puzzle of aging, but the puzzle that we actually solved was
a slightly different puzzle of vitamin C synthesis. One of the things that when you look at in
science you're never quite sure where you're going; we were going in one direction, we took a bit
of a detour and we came up with something that was different and to us (and I think to others) very
exciting. If you had asked me about vitamin C biosynthesis in plants I would say that was probably
solved by 1910. It's in the text book. If a student came to me I'd say, 'Go look in the textbook,
it's done.' And to find out that it wasn't done, that we didn't know this crucial biochemistry, was
a surprise, and that we contributed to it, it just made my year.

Robyn Williams: Let's look at why vitamin C is there in the first place, going back vastly in
history when there wasn't much oxygen in the atmosphere, when oxygen was produced as a kind of
by-product. Did vitamin C play a part really in helping organisms resist what seemed to be a poison
after all?

Steven Clarke: We don't know what was happening two billion years ago, but we can make a pretty
good guess that was involved because the problem was plants figured out a new way to make energy
and make a lot of it and make it quickly, and the ones that could do that were at a tremendous
advantage, but with one problem; they made one of the most toxic molecules involved in nature and
that's oxygen. There was very little or no oxygen in the environment at that time and these plants
started making it. The ones that weren't prepared, died.

But then there was some mutations, some evolution of defence mechanisms, and plants began to be
very good at actually resisting the oxygen, and so they could deal with this toxin. What are the
molecules? We're still learning what they are. When your mum says, 'If you want to be healthy, eat
your fruits and vegetables,' a large part of that may be taking anti-oxidants, and different ones
have been teased out, but certainly vitamin C stands at the top of the heap of these collections of
molecules. Plants figured it out, they saved themselves.

Animals then learned how to use the oxygen, so we can't live without it, and we learned to use the
oxygen basically to make energy and to succeed much better, but to do that we had to take some
things from plants. One of the things that we presumably took was vitamin C but we made a different
way, and presumably if we can eat enough plants we can take enough of their other protections, some
of which we know about, some of which we don't know about.

Robyn Williams: So, by definition, a vitamin, even though we might get plenty of them from bacteria
in our guts without knowing it, I think the definition is it's essentially something that comes
from outside that you need to keep alive. This question of synthesising it in the plant...now that
you seem to have got the mechanism, what does that mean?

Steven Clarke: I think the most exciting parts of it now is that some plants may survive better
under oxidising conditions than others and we have a possibility now of perhaps engineering plants
(this hasn't been done yet) to actually make them make a better vitamin C synthesis for themselves
and make them more resistant. As our environment gets more toxic and you live in Los Angeles you're
breathing oxygen and oxidants, you're not doing so well. And if an organism can protect itself
better, so much the better. So we may make better crops. This is not in our expertise but this is
what we throw back at the field, we say, okay, we're lowly biochemists here, here is something
exciting that you might be able to take a run at.

Robyn Williams: And the mechanism is fairly straightforward to describe? They could actually
emulate it by using genes?

Steven Clarke: Yes. In theory, yes. In practice, things are often much more difficult. You can say
this is a rate-limiting enzyme, if we can now have a gene and over-express it, that will work.
That's the idea, and people have actually started doing that and seeing some over-expression. How
much over-expression do we need? Can we make it in specific tissues? Can we do it in the right
place so actually plants live better? That, we don't know yet. But that is the hope, that you're
going to make plants that survive better themselves, and perhaps plants that are more nutritious.

Robyn Williams: Many years ago, actually in this parish in Los Angeles, I used to interview Linus
Pauling who used to visit Australia, often talking about the Bomb, but sometimes he was talking
about vitamin C, as well as covalent bonds, one of the greatest chemists in the history of the
known universe. But he was always advocating the fact that you should take a great deal of vitamin
C and many of the studies over the years have shown that apparently this is not the case, that if
you eat too much, you pee it straight out. What's your view?

Steven Clarke: Certainly if you eat too much you pee it straight out and you can damage the kidney.
They've changed the recommended daily dose but it was very small previously, basically to avoid
scurvy. So some of the people were saying you take ten grams a day, at that point you may be
hurting your kidneys, but one or two grams a day may be actually very good, and it may be different
from people. You and I have 999 of our DNA bases the same, the 1,000th one is different, and those
differences in us may make huge differences in how we respond. It may turn out that some people
respond much better to larger doses of vitamin C than others and it's one of the problems now in
testing new pharmaceuticals because if there are going to be differences, how do you handle that?
And if there are subgroups that may respond better, how do you tease that out?

Robyn Williams: There are two aspects here; one of them is antioxidant and the question of aging,
and the other one is cold protection. Why would vitamin C give you protection against a germ like a
cold virus?

Steven Clarke: We don't know and I certainly don't know, and I don't think my colleagues know, but
it may be it has a completely different function. There is an antioxidant function of vitamin C,
there is a function of vitamin C in making enzymes that hydroxylate proteins like collagen, and
that's actually what the cause of scurvy was, and hydroxylating other proteins. And there may be
additional functions of this molecule we don't know about.

One of the things that is exciting to me about knowing the human genome is we finally have all the
puzzle pieces of life in one box and we have a chance of looking at those puzzle pieces and asking
how many of those different puzzles pieces genes products may be affected by vitamin C? We may have
some surprises, and what I would look for is in the immune system. It may be in certain individuals
higher levels of vitamin C tune up the immune system and when the immune system is turned up we can
go after the viruses.

Robyn Williams: Which also answers the aging question really. If you've got a strong immune system,
that's good all round.

Steven Clarke: That's exactly right.

Robyn Williams: Where will your work take you next on this?

Steven Clarke: What we are hoping to do here is to look now at new vitamin C synthesis pathways in
other organisms and how these other organisms may solve aging problems that way. One of the
organisms that's fantastic for aging research is a soil nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans, and with
this nematode...we can get some idea of the biochemistry of extending lifespan. A recent paper
suggested that with chemical modification you can extend the lifespan of these worms tenfold. Does
this mean human are going to live 1,000 years? I don't think so, but it may give us a biochemical
clue for that.

And one of the things that this work has taken us is back to the worms, and we're looking at a gene
product that's similar to the gene product that is involved in vitamin C synthesis in plants but
looks like it's probably not involved in vitamin C synthesis in these worms. So what is it involved
in? And that's what we want to go after. What we want to do is to try to look at the chemistry of
aging, what types of defences do we have to the fact that we're falling apart and the fact that
probably most of our functions are peaked at 16, 17, 18 and it's a slow downhill? How can we make
that downhill as slow as possible, to say...perhaps not a great lifespan, maybe we don't want to
live to 130, but we want a health-span. What we'd love to do is to live to be 95 and if at 95 we
drop dead, okay, we've been healthy.

Robyn Williams: The very young-looking Steven Clarke who's the director of the UCLA Molecular
Biology Institute, and professor of chemistry at the University of California Los Angeles.

Robyn Williams: And now something of a first. In the 33 years we've been bringing you The Science
Show I don't think I've ever brought you a scientist from Luxembourg. So today, a first. Carole
Linster who is a post-doc fellow working on vitamin C with Steven Clarke.

You're the first person, Carole, I've interviewed who is from Luxembourg. Which part of Luxembourg?
Or is it all the same?

Carole Linster: Well, for an American or an Australian it's probably all the same, but actually I
come from the capital of Luxembourg which is also called Luxembourg.

Robyn Williams: That's what I thought, that's what was slightly confusing. You had decided to come
to UCLA, where we are, talking about the vitamin C work with Professor Clarke, but you came for a
different reason, didn't you. What was it?

Carole Linster: That's correct. I was very interested in the aging research that Dr Clarke does
here, especially so the aspect of protein repair being involved in aging. Actually I came to study
this enzymatic mechanism, but through this research on aging they had discovered a gene that was of
unidentified function, and it turned out that it could maybe be involved in vitamin C synthesis.

Robyn Williams: And you happened to have been working on vitamin C in Luxembourg.

Carole Linster: That's correct. So my studies were not done in Luxembourg. I was born in Luxembourg
but my studies were done in Brussels where I did my PhD. I have been working during my PhD on the
regulation of vitamin C synthesis in animals actually.

Robyn Williams: And so when you came here you announced this and they decided to take your advice
to follow the vitamin C path.

Carole Linster: That's correct. Dr Steven Clarke found it a very good opportunity to use my
knowledge to maybe find out the secret about this gene of unknown function.

Robyn Williams: It's interesting that a senior scientist at a great university like this should be
so receptive to the ideas from a fairly young scientist like you.

Carole Linster: Yes, I think it's also a characteristic of Dr Steven Clarke which makes him a very
good group leader, I think. He trusts people and he just lets them discover. By trusting them I
think he gets out the best of them.

Robyn Williams: Congratulations on having your name on a major paper being published. But what was
your work specifically to do with they way the animals deal with vitamin C?

Carole Linster: That's the thing...actually I did my work in Brussels on vitamin C synthesis in
animals, but now when I came here this gene turned out to be important in vitamin C synthesis in
plants. So it is amazing but plants synthesis their vitamin C by a totally different pathway than
animals do, and there was still one major step that was not identified from an enzymatic point of
view. The gene that I talked about all the time happened to be the one encoding this missing
enzyme.

Robyn Williams: Interesting, isn't it. I thought that most animals get their vitamin C from outside
and their metabolism is really dealing with it to make the most of it.

Carole Linster: That's maybe a little bit incorrect because almost all animals are able to
synthesise their own vitamin C. Why we think that animals cannot is because the big exception is
humans. Humans cannot synthesise their own vitamin C, and that is true for other primates like
great apes and some other smaller animals too, but the majority of vertebrates can synthesise their
own vitamin C and they don't actually need a lot of vitamin C from plants, but we depend entirely
on plants for our vitamin C income.

Robyn Williams: I wonder why that happened?

Carole Linster: Yes, that's a little bit of a mystery of evolution. We have actually all the
enzymes responsible that lead to vitamin C synthesis but only the last, final, crucial enzyme is
missing in humans. It is there but it has become totally mutated, so as if sometime in evolution it
has been decided that it was not important, that we get enough from the outside and that we can
just not spend any efforts anymore on doing that.

Robyn Williams: Which is why we have to take so much vitamin C every day. By the way, how many
languages do you speak? You have perfect English and you obviously speak French.

Carole Linster: Yes, I speak English, French, German and Luxembourgish.

Robyn Williams: Luxembourgish is a different language as well.

Carole Linster: Yes, it is different.

Robyn Williams: It was charming to meet you. Thank you.

Carole Linster: Thank you.

Robyn Williams: That was Dr Carole Linster from Luxemburg, a country squashed between Belgium,
Germany and France with a population of just half a million.