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Bad Science - Ben Goldacre

Robyn Williams: Today I want to bring you some bad science. That's the name of Ben Goldacre's book,
out this week. And at this point I should declare in interest.

Ben Goldacre: My name is Dr Ben Goldacre. I am the nephew of Professor Sir Robyn Williams.

Robyn Williams: They're keen on titles in England, but yes, Ben Goldacre is my nephew. He is also
one of the best known and even feared science communicators in Britain, with a regular column in
The Guardian newspaper, and now a book, both called Bad Science. Even the president of the Royal
Society of London, Lord Rees, was struck by Goldacre's work and also by his Australian ancestry;
Ben is the great-great-grandson of Sir Henry Parkes, father of federation. We shall have two case
histories from Bad Science in The Science Show. Next week, omega-3 oils and their supposed wondrous
effects on kids taking exams.

This week, Ben Goldacre deals with the scandal over that MMR vaccine, which began way back in 1998,
ten years ago.

Ben Goldacre: The interesting thing is not a lot happened in 1998. The story was actually covered
quite well, and that was mainly because it was covered by specialist health and science
journalists. I spend a lot of my time railing against the coverage of science and health in the
media, but it's not the specialist journalists who get it wrong, it's the generalists. So in '98
there were only about 100 stories on the whole issue in the newspapers that year, and it didn't
really kick off for another four years, and it kicked off partly because Andrew Wakefield published
another review article and there was some PR activity around that by the anti-vaccination
campaigners, but mainly because of a little baby boy called Leo Blair who was the son of a
gentleman called Tony Blair who was the prime minister of the country at that time.

They refused to say whether or not Leo Blair had had the MMR vaccine, and people had very good
grounds for believing that the Blairs were the kind of couple who probably wouldn't have their
child vaccinated; they were posh, middle-class people who lived in Islington, and they were also
well known for being associated with a whole string of really quite bizarre health cranks, people
who communicated with beings called 'The Light' and people who did stone circle healing with breeze
blocks in the back garden who said that they had an amazing way of protecting babies against
diseases that didn't require vaccination, and campaigners against vaccination.

Whether or not those people really were giving them health advice on which they were acting, the
fact is that was in the public's mind. It's also striking that Leo Blair was actually a bigger
figure in the media coverage on MMR that year than Andrew Wakefield was. Leo Blair was mentioned in
a third of all the articles. Andrew Wakefield, the researcher who did the paper where he raised a
link between MMR and autism, was only mentioned in about a quarter of the papers.

Robyn Williams: Yes, but when the question was asked of the Blairs, 'Are you going to have Leo
vaccinated,' did they not answer 'yay' or 'nay'?

Ben Goldacre: Am I allowed to swear in this interview? So what's interesting is that at the time,
the Blairs both said that they couldn't declare publicly such a personal and private issue as
whether or not their son had had the MMR vaccine, although almost all other politicians asked were
very happy to clarify and say that their child had had the vaccine. They said that it was a matter
of privacy around medical history, and to my mind that argument is slightly undermined by the fact
that Cherie Blair has now published her autobiography, and in promoting that she described not only
the fact that he had the MMR vaccine but also in some detail the actual fuck which conceived the

Robyn Williams: That was in the palace.

Ben Goldacre: That's correct, yes.

Robyn Williams: So she exposed a certain intimate detail but she hadn't felt free to talk about the
vaccine. As a result of not saying something about the vaccination, the tabloid press, you suggest
in the book, went completely berserk, condemning the vaccine, and from this led the public reaction

Ben Goldacre: That's absolutely right, yes, and it's really around that time that you can see the
media coverage goes absolutely crazy, and also the number of people now vaccinating their children
with MMR...well, it dropped from around 90% to around 70% over the course of a few years. So it's
very interesting because to my mind the media carry a greater responsibility here than Andrew
Wakefield, and I would go so far as to say that the media have perpetrated effectively a kind of
hoax on the public in this regard. And it's a hoax that's had very serious public health
consequences in the UK.

Robyn Williams: Why, because if you don't take the vaccine you get measles and children die?

Ben Goldacre: That's right. In the UK we had a mumps outbreak in 2005 which is widely held to be
related to the larger amount of mumps pathogens circulating in the population, and we're having
mini-outbreaks of measles here and there. I'm not one to push scares, in fact I mock those who do,
but to my mind I think actually the greater damage done by the media with all of these kinds of
foolish scare stories is in undermining the public's understanding of the whole notion of evidence,
they undermine the public understanding of science, they promote the public misunderstanding of

But there's also an opportunity cost because the story about MMR, for example, has lasted for ten
years, a complete fantasy that MMR causes autism. At the exact same time we've had really genuine
serious stories where drug companies have been caught out behaving incredibly badly. We caught out
drug companies withholding evidence of harm from SSRI antidepressant medication. We caught out drug
companies specifically suppressing effectively or selectively not publishing scientific evidence
showing that their antidepressant drugs didn't perform any better than placebo.

I wrote stories about those issues in three different national newspapers on two different
continents, including your own and my own. That story lasted about five days and then it was
forgotten, whereas this ludicrous MMR hoax has been running solidly for a decade.

Robyn Williams: Let's pick up what happened when there were a couple of papers published that
actually analysed the evidence regarding autism. What happened when those papers came out? How many
of the papers covered that?

Ben Goldacre: This is really interesting. There were lots of studies done using a technology called
PCR which is used in...

Robyn Williams: Polymerase Chain Reaction...

Ben Goldacre: That's right, invented by acid-head Kary Mullis.

Robyn Williams: That surfing man in California.

Ben Goldacre: Yes, and now tragically a bit of an HIV denialist. But anyway, that's another very
long story. So there were a bunch of papers published using PCR technology which is used in genetic
fingerprinting, for example, to look at whether there was evidence of vaccine-strain measles virus
in various tissue samples from children. The media absolutely fell on all of these, gave them
blanket coverage, scientific proof that MMR causes autism, was what they said.

And also of course, as journalists like to, they were trundling along demanding that more research
is done, because that's what journalists like to do. 'More research needs to be done' is actually a
phrase which is banned from the British Medical Journal because it's so trite, such a sop, it's
meaningless. You need to say exactly what kind of research you think needs to be done and why there
is a gap there and what you would do depending on different results.

Anyway, they demanded that more research was done. More research was done, and it had negative
results. Not only did they show that there was no evidence of vaccine-strain measles virus in
various different tissues samples taken from children in these follow-up studies, they also
analysed very carefully and replicated what the previous researchers had done on these papers, on
which Wakefield himself was a co-author, although the newspapers tended to omit that fact. They
tried to reproduce these experiments, they found that they couldn't, but they also demonstrated the
various ways in which it was very likely that these previous experiments had given false positives.

Nobody covered this. These were fully written up in mainstream academic journals and they were
announced to total blanket media silence. The only people who covered them...the only person who
covered either of them in a newspaper was me.

Robyn Williams: And this was actually saying that there's no connection between the MMR vaccine and
higher rates of autism?

Ben Goldacre: These were papers showing that there was no evidence of vaccine-strain measles virus
in tissue samples from children. I pick it out as a very interesting example in my book because
that exact same issue where there were positive findings had received blanket media coverage, but
when there were negative findings subsequently, that was completely ignored by the media. And that
wasn't just because the media had moved on. There's an interesting figure called Arthur
Krigsman...he's a doctor in America who works with Andrew Wakefield in this private autism clinic
where he works now called Thoughtful House, and Arthur Krigsman appears in 2006 at exactly the same
time that the media are ignoring these negative findings.

Arthur Krigsman is saying, well, I've got all of this evidence showing that vaccine-strain measles
virus, PCR data, I can show that it has been found in these tissue samples from children. And so
that gets massive media coverage, despite the fact that it hasn't been published in an academic
journal anywhere, and it's important, as you know, that things are published in academic journals
because that's what allows us to read what somebody has done, to dot the Is, cross the Ts, double
check that they've done everything right and that we would agree with the conclusions that they
draw from their own experiments.

Not only had he not published this academic work (he was just announcing it, saying that he'd done
it) but he actually had form. So back in 2002, this exact same character, Arthur Krigsman, was
appearing all over the place, reported with blanket media coverage saying that he's done
colonoscopy, which is where you put a telescope with a light into a child's rectum and up into
their bowel and you examine the surface of the bowel. And he said that he'd done this in around 30
children and he'd found evidence of harm in these children that he associated with the vaccine.
That was six years ago, and he still hasn't published this work.

Actually, to my mind, if you've done an experiment, especially...colonoscopy puts children at risk,
it's not an entirely safe procedure...but if you've collected some scientific information then it's
your responsibility to publish it in full so that people can read it and think about it and if
necessary act on it. But that wasn't the case with Arthur Krigsman, and once again that's a very,
very rock solid, unambiguous, black and white example of the media overplaying and giving huge
amounts of coverage to scaremongering data, even if it hasn't been published, whilst at exactly the
same time completely ignoring all the evidence of exactly the same nature which shows no connection
between MMR and autism.

Robyn Williams: And the connection is very interesting between that and autism as a scandal, if you
like, in Britain, and yet in few other countries...the countries seem to have their own particular
vaccine scandal that doesn't actually travel.

Ben Goldacre: It's absolutely fascinating, isn't it. So vaccine scares seem to be cultural products
rather than a straightforward reaction to the scientific evidence. So in France, for example, in
the 1990s there was this huge scare, this huge scandal, and the story was that hepatitis B vaccine
caused multiple sclerosis. I wouldn't be surprised if I was the first person who ever told you that
because this vaccine scare didn't propagate outside of France.

So we had our MMR autism scare in the early part of this century. In America that didn't happen but
they do have now a scare about thimerosal mercury preservatives. And in Britain we had our own
scare about whooping cough vaccine possibly causing seizures in the 80s but that didn't propagate
anywhere else. And a couple of years ago in Kano Province in northern Nigeria the local imams were
pushing a scare that polio vaccine was causing infertility and was part of an American plot to stop
people in Islamic countries from reproducing.

If a vaccine scare was based in evidence, then you would expect that if hepatitis B vaccine causes
multiple sclerosis in France then it must do everywhere else. But it doesn't. They don't propagate
in neighbouring soil because they're cultural products rather than a reaction to scientific

Robyn Williams: Ben Goldacre's book is called Bad Science and it's out in Australia this week. He
works in London as a doctor. Next week we tackle the use of omega-3 oils to get students through

Patenting fraud

Nicky Phillips: Disgraced South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang has had a patent application for his
fraudulent stem research accepted by Australia's patenting body, IP Australia. In 2004 Hwang
claimed he had produced stem cells from a cloned human embryo. His results were published in the
journal Science. But later his research was found to be fraudulent. Hwang hadn't created stem cells
from a clone but by parthenogenesis or asexual reproduction. He was promptly sacked from Seoul
National University and his papers retracted. So why would a patent application be accepted for an
invention that was found to be fraudulent? Patent attorney Dr Trevor Davies explains.

Trevor Davies: For a patent to be granted, the invention has to be novel. That means that the
invention has not been used or published prior to the filing of the patent application. The
invention also has to involve an inventive step, it can't be obvious over what's been done before.
The invention also has to be useful. My understanding is that at this stage the patent hasn't been
granted and the normal examining process would not include an investigation into the voracity of
any support for the patent application.

Nicky Phillips: IP Australia would not comment on Hwang's patent application but said that it does
not endorse any patented invention, nor does it have time to check that an invention does what it
says. So what do they do?

Trevor Davies: IP Australia does a technical search on each patent application, and that's looking
for prior art that may be relevant to the claimed invention, and it looks at the patent description
on the face of the document and the information provided by a patent applicant.

Nicky Phillips: So as you said before, the patent actually hasn't been granted, it's still in its
application process, and recently what's happened is that they've conducted an investigation into
the patent. Why would they do that if they didn't endorse it or they weren't going to check it
anyway? Why would they bother investigating it?

Trevor Davies: The application was accepted back in June of this year, so at that stage it had met
all the formal requirements, but at this stage the patent hasn't been granted. I have no
information with regard to what investigations IP Australia is carrying out in addition to its
normal examining process. I'm unclear why it hasn't proceeded to grant at this stage.

Nicky Phillips: Does it undermine the whole process, that this research is fraudulent?

Trevor Davies: I don't think it necessarily does because what people need to look at is what is the
invention, what information and what support has been used for that particular patent application,
and it's unclear at this stage whether the invention that's being claimed relates directly to that
fraudulent research or the data that was obtained.

Nicky Phillips: So what would happen if the patent was granted?

Trevor Davies: If the patent was granted and there was a concern that it was obtained by fraud,
false suggestion or misrepresentation, that means that that patent would be vulnerable for
revocation because of that fraud or misrepresentation.

Robyn Williams: All of which means it could be challenged in court. Patent attorney Dr Trevor
Davies with Nicky Phillips.

Primate communication

Robyn Williams: Imagine you're an ethologist, a scientist studying animal or even human behaviour,
and you wanted to do research on human communication. What do you do? Watch people talk to each
other over coffee? No, you'd be misled. A Martian scientist landing in Australia today observing
young humans communicating would see them alone, walking and holding their left or their right
ears. They would conclude that communication is a solitary pursuit. That's the kind of conundrum
Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester is up against; how to watch animals without imposing human assumptions
about what they're actually doing. So she's taking notes of everything.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: You're taking into consideration the timing and the spacing and a lot
of contextual factors like how close the animals are when they interact and the location where
things happen, and is it one recipient or multiple recipients, and so forth.

Robyn Williams: Yes, because we do it ourselves when we're talking to each other, we look at each
other, we gesticulate, we make noises, and there are lots of aspects beyond the plain words. What
you're saying is that primates do this as well.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: Absolutely. What I really wanted to do was take our study of animal
behaviour back to a very, very fundamental basic level where we're taking the actual individual
actions and looking at them within context and not subjectively prescribing analogous human
repertoires of events to what's happening, which is very easy to do because they so closely mimic
our behaviours. But to be honest we don't really understand our own behaviours that well, so we
really need to step backwards.

Robyn Williams: So you've actually got two cameras. You're doing a one-shot of the actual creature
and a two-shot showing the interaction with another animal and its context. So you're doing it as
thoroughly as that and delineating how they cross over and interact.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: Yes, that's correct.

Robyn Williams: And then you make notes...actually, what are the animals? Is it gorillas?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: They are, they're western lowland gorillas, and they're quite a
special group because they live in a biological family which means that there's one silverback
that's fathered all the children and all the females and mothers. So it is as close to a natural
wild family as you can get in captivity. And they are also semi-free-ranging, which means that
they're not just there for public viewing but that the habitat was made to mimic the wild habitat,
and you may or may not see them on any given day based on what the family is doing.

Robyn Williams: Where is this?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: This is at the Port Lympne Wild Animal Park in Kent, the John Aspinall

Robyn Williams: Oh John Aspinall, a wild character I seem to remember. He was a gambling colleague
of Kerry Packer's and one of these free enterprise merchants, wasn't he?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: That's right, a bit of a misanthrope as well.

Robyn Williams: There are many of us who love animals but are slightly leery about people.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: And I think he specifically was one of those characters, but he set up
an incredible foundation which now raises and nurtures endangered species in captivity with the
goal in a lot of cases to re-enter them back into the wild. And they do do this with the gorillas
as well, they've got a reserve in the Gabon called the Lefini Reserve and take the orphaned apes
and put them through a re-entry program back into the wild.

Robyn Williams: Yes, we've discussed that on The Science Show, mainly with chimps and the Jane
Goodall Institute. Now you've been looking at the gorillas' behaviour for some time, and so
systematically. What has it told you about the sophistication or otherwise of their interactions?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: The interesting thing that I've found to date (and there's much more
to be done) is that there is structure that hasn't been seen in previous or traditional studies of
animal behaviour. There is very, very systematic structure at a very low lying level that we've
completely neglected to see because we weren't investigating it from this broader approach.

Robyn Williams: So you're suggesting that their 'language' and their communication, there's an
awful lot going on there.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: There is an awful lot going on. I wouldn't call it language because I
wouldn't want to imply that they use the same sort of semantic and syntactic structure but I think
what I'm finding is that they're using combinations of signals more consistently than we had seen
before. And as this database of natural visual, tactile and auditory signals grows and grows, then
you are able to glean those consistent patterns within the same context, and that is giving you the
foundation there of the structure.

Robyn Williams: Have you any idea really what's going on with their communication, what they're...I
won't say 'saying', but what they're communicating? Is it stuff for the village, you know, 'go over
there, 'stop misbehaving', or 'share the food' or prosaic things like that, or something slightly
more profound?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: I think that's what everybody wants to know, but that is kind of
secondary to my actual research which is to find a way to actually collect the data in such a way
that we can analyse it without having to currently interpret it but to extract the hallmark
features, to extract the patterns. Personally I imagine that they're saying things that are very
similar to what we say. They're social creatures, they navigate very complex social networks and
hierarchies and they've got similar desires and intentions as human beings.

Robyn Williams: You're a very rigorous scientist, but how do you respond to other people taking it
differently, like Susan Savage-Rumbaugh in Georgia with Kanzi and the other bonobos where they've
become essentially part of the household and the communication is as if you've got a houseguest and
you just say, 'Kanzi, go and fetch the tongs so we can do something with the BBQ,' and off goes
Kanzi and fetches them, implying it understood perfectly what was being said, but an unpredictable
thing really. So what do you make of that?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: I think it's valid research, it's given us a lot of information about
the capacity of chimps and other great apes. It's a completely different line of research from what
I'm doing. I have to say, it is the research that got me interested initially in apes and
communication because I've always wanted to communicate with the animals, but it's looking more at
the apes' capacity for human language rather than looking at the precursors to human speech which
may have developed from things, as we know, that are more based in the visual system. So, visual

Robyn Williams: Yes, the same goes for the gorillas being taught more sophisticated...not sign
language but there were advances on...the kinds of techniques used with chimps have been applied to
gorillas more recently, that sort of thing as well.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: The symbolic representations and the keyboards and the symbols and so
forth. Yes, I think they have great intellectual capacity, so I've no doubt they're able to learn
and use these different methods. But again, it doesn't address how the modern human language has
evolved from the common ancestor that we shared over six million years ago, and I'm hoping to infer
some of those behaviours by looking at modern apes.

Robyn Williams: Having done this work meticulously for so long, what next?

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: What next? Oh I've got just bucketfuls of data to go through and
continue growing this database. My hope for the near future is to get other scientists using this
methodology. But the next real critical step is to use it as a platform for comparative analysis
between humans and apes, particularly looking at preverbal children because they're going to be
using those social behaviours that are so critical to the normal development of language, and to
look at children who have language impairments because we know that these are the children who lack
the normal development of some of these social behaviours that would normally give them the ability
to acquire human language. And looking at all of this over a common scientific framework is going
to allow us to have a much better clue about what's going on here.

Robyn Williams: Yes, you even mentioned autistic children, didn't you.

Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester: I did, and there is a pilot study kicking off at Birkbeck later this
month to look at a group of low functioning autistic children who don't have verbal skills and
looking at a group of age-matched, typical developing children to use this method that I've used
with the apes to look at those social behaviours.

Robyn Williams: Gillian Sebestyen-Forrester has been a Daphne Jackson fellow and is now at the
University of Sussex. The surprising trickiness of understanding communication.

Kew Botanic Gardens - approaching 250 years

Nigel Taylor: I mean that Kew Gardens is the first place in Europe where kangaroos were found after
they were brought back from Australia. We have the bones to prove it, and we also in the royal
archive has correspondence from George III saying to his courtiers, 'Would you please accept a
kangaroo for your estate, sir?' And they replied, 'No, Sire, we have no fences high enough to
contain them.'

But perhaps the more interesting thing from an Australian context is that at least a part of the
Australian sheep industry had its origin in Kew because in 1810 Sir Joseph Banks was ordered by
George III during one of his bouts of madness to auction off his livestock, including Merino sheep
that had been acquired from Spain, probably under rather dubious circumstances, for the king. And
these were then auctioned off around the pagoda. So there was a curious connection between the
pagoda and the Australian sheep industry because the man who bought the Merinos exported them to
Australia as part of founding that industry. You didn't know that, did you?

Robyn Williams: I absolutely did not know that. But what happened to the bones of the kangaroos and
the kangaroos themselves? Do we know?

Nigel Taylor: I don't know if we know what happened to the kangaroos ultimately, but they were
breeding so successful they had to be removed, they were becoming a liability. When we celebrated
Kew's heritage recently in 2006 we actually had some wallabies in the same area of the gardens
around the Queen's Cottage grounds as a reminder of this important fact, but of course wallabies,
as you know, don't jump as high as kangaroos, so they were a little easier to contain.

Robyn Williams: Nigel Taylor, curator at Kew Gardens in London, one of the truly great centres of
scientific botany. They're in the process of organising their 250th birthday party, which may
include a mob of roos but may also feature those very sexy plants, the orchids. Nigel Taylor is
also Kew's historian, and history is seen all over, through his window.

Nigel Taylor: The biggest thing you can see out of my window across the Palm House pond is of
course Kew's Palm House, which opened in 1848 and it's a remarkable structure made from cast and
wrought iron which was majorly restored about 20 years ago. But the Palm House was the way the
Victorians could see tropical vegetation. They couldn't get into a 747 and get out at the other end
in the tropics, they had to imagine what it was like, and they got a pretty good idea from the
plants growing in the glasshouse.

Robyn Williams: It is huge, isn't it. When they first set it up, did they have to experiment to see
how it would work, establishing a hothouse like that?

Nigel Taylor: It was an experiment. The man who designed it was the architect Decimus Burton, but
the man who really should get the credit for the structure is a guy called Richard Turner who was a
ship's foundry man from Dublin. And if you look at the structure and you turn it upside down, what
do you have but the hull of a ship. So he adapted the technology he'd been developing in ship
building and converted it into a glasshouse.

Robyn Williams: I can see just what you mean with that lovely curved centrepiece as well and that
vast door, it's a huge door right in the middle.

Nigel Taylor: Yes, a vast door to bring in vast plants, if necessary, and that's exactly what they

Robyn Williams: Going further back, when was the Kew Gardens actually established, not necessarily
as a botanical gardens but as something else?

Nigel Taylor: The history of Kew in the full begins in 1718 when the future George II leased the
western half of the estate, and was then succeeded in around 1730 by his son Frederick who leased
the eastern half of the estate. In fact we still have a roadway going though the estate which marks
the boundary between these two royal gardens. The interesting thing about this relationship is that
the Georgians hated their first born sons, the ones who were set to become the next king, and
indeed this was the case with George II and his son Frederick, they hated each other, even to the
extent that Frederick's mother refused to see him on her deathbed, she hated him, yet he occupied
the site immediately adjacent to their estate. Why did he do that? That's an interesting question.

Robyn Williams: Any ideas?

Nigel Taylor: I suspect rivalry. If we were kind we would say that it's to do with trying to make
friends with his parents but I don't think that was really his interest. He wanted to show off that
he could make a better garden than they could.

Robyn Williams: Talking about gardens, is this the oldest in England?

Nigel Taylor: No, Kew is very far from being the oldest garden of any kind in England, certainly
not the oldest botanic garden. Our botanic gardens go back to the 17th century. Kew's origin is in
the 18th century, but it is the most important and arguably the most important in the world.

Robyn Williams: So the older ones, would they include Oxford?

Nigel Taylor: Oxford and the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, these are the two oldest, they go
back to the first half of the 17th century.

Robyn Williams: When was Kew established as the Royal Botanic Gardens with that kind of scientific

Nigel Taylor: It became a scientific institution in 1841 when it was transferred from the royal
estates to be a government funded institution, and its role from there on was largely scientific.
However, as a botanic garden it started in 1759 when the first head hardener in charge of the
botanical collections was appointed by Princess Augusta, the mother of George III.

Robyn Williams: And that's the anniversary we're looking forward to at the moment?

Nigel Taylor: That's right, next year, 2009, is 250 years since 1759, and many of us feel that this
institution has another 250 years at least in front of it and we're planning for that next 250.

Robyn Williams: And you're the historian. Do you look at the broad thrust of these various
influences with royalty and scientists and collectors and whatever?

Nigel Taylor: I'm not a professional historian but I've become a kind of historian because of my
current role as curator because we are steeped in history here and understanding Kew's history is a
very good way of understanding where it has to go in the future. The two are inextricably linked.

Robyn Williams: So what's the essence of the role that was established 250 years ago? What made it
the great institution we all know in most countries with an interest in plants?

Nigel Taylor: It was all about collecting things that were going to be useful. The great British
Empire was at its zenith and even the countries that weren't painted pink on the map held plants of
tremendous value. So, things like rubber came from Brazil and was distributed to British colonies
where it made a fortune for the plantation owners.

Robyn Williams: It was stolen, wasn't it?

Nigel Taylor: The popular interpretation today is that it was stolen but I think that's viewing the
thing with modern eyes. I'm not sure it would have been regarded as theft in those days. In those
days, countries didn't own their plants in the way they do nowadays under the convention on
biological diversity.

Robyn Williams: But this was a great sorting house to see what was important, to see how it should
be studied and classified, so it really was there at the beginning.

Nigel Taylor: It was. The initial driver was economic botany, and in fact the building we're
speaking in is the world's first museum of economic botany established in 1857. But if you wish to
understand the economic uses of plants you first have to know what they are, so very quickly Kew
became a centre for the identification of plants. We have these huge preserved collections of dried
plants in the herbarium representing virtually every known plant on the planet. That's the
powerhouse that drives Kew, the identification skills that we have.

Robyn Williams: Where did the expertise come from at that time, all those centuries ago when you
obviously needed people who could recognise plants, not just ones that they'd seen before, but ones
from the other side of the planet?

Nigel Taylor: In the earliest days the plant knowledge was vested, I think, in the gardening staff
because there weren't really scientists on site. But from 1841 with the appointment of Sir William
Hooker, the first director, Kew had a scientific mind directing it. In fact all subsequent
directors have been scientists also, nearly all of them plant taxonomists, people who understand
plant diversity. And the collections that I mentioned before, these are the reference collections
that you use to identify things. Very quickly a scientific staff developed and they developed
specialties in different parts of the world or in different groups of plants. Botanists can either
know a flora, like the flora of Australia, for example (that would be quite a big challenge), or
they may know a family very well. As a botanist I'm an expert on the cactus family, a family, by
the way, which is not very popular in Australia because of the problems it causes when they escape.

Robyn Williams: Prickly pear, yes, indeed. But cactus from America, they're not indigenous in many
other places, are they.

Nigel Taylor: This explains one thing about the British and their interest in plants. We have a
very depauperate native flora, it's about 1,500 species. Some would argue a few more, but not much
more than that. Therefore we have a huge interest in what other people have got. So the fact that
cacti are only found in the Americas naturally, or nearly all come from there, is of no
consequence, we want to study them, they're interesting, they're exotic, and so we want to know
more about them. And that's what I've devoted my life to.

Robyn Williams: It's amazing how leisurely that process can be. I remember...when you talk about
the Australian material...when Banks brought it back it took him something like a century to
publish the damn stuff, didn't it.

Nigel Taylor: Botany of this sort has been quite slow because the accumulation of knowledge that
you need to make a good flora is a slow process. It's even harder today in a way because we've got
much more specimens to look at. In the days of the Hookers, father and son who became the first two
directors, they didn't have many specimens of each species, so it was quite easy to work out what
the differences were. But when you have lots and lots of specimens and they're variable, it's
harder to perceive immediately how you distinguish two things, or three or four things. So this
kind of botany is slow.

Of course with modern molecular techniques we're starting to penetrate into the innards of the
plant in a way which we could never do before, and you can distinguish individuals now. That's
becoming relatively easy. But most plant identification is still today done by visual examination,
sometimes with a microscope or a hand lens, but basically macro-visualisation of the plant. And
then recalling from your databank in your grey matter; have I seen this before? What does this
remind me of? Which family could this belong to? And so on.

Robyn Williams: It reminds me...the present director coming from Western Australia, that's actually
where you've got a hot spot. In other words, zillions of species, immense biodiversity, and I
suppose that sort of experience has stood him in good stead here.

Nigel Taylor: Yes, it certainly has. And in fact Kew's work as a whole is about discovering and
identifying hot spots and drawing attention to their importance because the hot spots of the world
do contain a very considerable proportion of the world's total biodiversity, whether it be plants,
animals, fungi, bacteria, whatever. They're concentrated in certain precious places and these are
the ones that more than anywhere else we need to preserve.

Robyn Williams: Okay, so 250th anniversary coming up in that busy year, 2009. How are you going to
celebrate it here? With a gigantic exhibition of cacti?

Nigel Taylor: I would personally love to have a gigantic exhibition of cacti, but being more
realistic, what we're going to do is to have extravagant horticultural displays at our two
principal gates of entry; that's the main gate and the Victoria gate. Both of these major entry
points for visitors (and we have about 1.5 million a year) are very understated in horticultural
terms and we want to make more of them, especially for the 250th year, a year when we hope the
Queen will probably visit us, when we'll have many other parties and celebrations. And it's Kew's
horticulture, in my eyes, that's the most important thing for the public to see, and so we want to
make a big splash this coming year.

Robyn Williams: And so if people want to come from Australia, what will they see when they walk in
the gates?

Nigel Taylor: Well, if they come in early spring they will see a spectacular of flowering bulbs,
millions of flowing bulbs. If they come later in the year into summer they will see herbaceous
plants from every continent on the planet making a spectacularly colourful display. So if you think
of a continent we will have some plants from it, and we will also have a world map identifying
where Kew works in the world, which is more than 50 countries.

Orchids - now thought to date back to the dinosaurs

Robyn Williams:You've been asked this question before; why are so many human beings so passionate
about orchids?

Mark Chase: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they have these incredibly complex
flowers, and they're not only beautiful but they're also very intricate. You can find even the very
small ones with all this detailed structure in them. I always say it's a bit like the Dr Seuss's
book Horton Hears a Who! that if you see this little orchid flower and look at it under a
microscope or something and you see this incredible detail in that flower, you know that there's a
world out there, there's an insect that operates that flower that's probably so small that it falls
beneath our notice most of the time, and it just tells you that there's a lot going on out there
that's right down in the lower limits of what we can discern. It's just fascinating when people get
keyed in to this, it's an addiction.

Robyn Williams: An addiction. Mark Chase is the keeper of the Jodrell Labs at Kew Gardens. He's
very involved, if not addicted, to orchids; how they pretend to be sexy animals, even exuding sexy
smells to dupe the insects. It seems cruel.

Mark Chase: And of course there are a number of species of orchids that are pollinated by insects
that think they're mating with a member of their opposite sex. And not only do the flowers resemble
them physically, they also produce the same pheromones. The floral fragrances mimic the pheromones
of the female of that species, so they smell right as well as look right. So I think they make
fairly convincing mimics for these insects.

Robyn Williams: It's pretty cunning, that. I wonder how it evolved.

Mark Chase: That's a very good question. We know that some of the floral fragrance components that
are part of the sexual pheromones are present in many orchids that are attracting pollinators based
on a food basis, so it smells like there should be a reward, a sugar reward. So we know that many
orchids have lost the ability to produce nectar, so they don't give a reward but they still mimic
flowers that look as though they should have a reward.

So once you start down this road of mimicking something, in this case a food reward mimic, then the
switch from that using the same floral fragrance components over into the sexual mimicry isn't such
a big step. So it's easier to see it as a series of transitions that make sense in terms of the
fact that the orchids are mimicking something, starting out mimicking other flowers that offer a
reward and then you can get this transition over into sexual mimicry.

Robyn Williams: Such immense variety. Some of them live underground. Unground orchids, who'd have
thought! Many of them, as you say, imitate insects, many of them do lots of other things. Give us
an idea of the range that you get amongst all these hundreds of different species.

Mark Chase: We think that there's pretty good evidence anyway that orchids make use of just about
every sort of animal that has ever pollinated any other family of flowering plants, and then added
some additional ones. We just had a student working on orchids on the island of Reunion in the
Indian Ocean, and she's found there that one of the species is pollinated by a thing called a rusty
cricket, and it's the first time a member of this order of insects, the grasshoppers and crickets,
which are well known to eat plants, it's the first time we found one that actually functions as a
pollinator of this species of orchid. She had to use motion sensitive cameras and night cameras to
catch this because she knew pollination was taking place but she never observed it during the
daytime, so she set this thing up, rigged it up, and caught this rusty cricket doing the job at

It's not only the first time a cricket has been observed as a regular pollinator but it's also this
cricket was unknown to science before, so it's a new species of cricket as well. So she's got quite
an interesting story there about adaptation to different sorts of pollinators on this island in the
Indian Ocean. So it seems as though once you get a flower that is capable of becoming so deceptive
and so easily changeable in their morphology, their shape, then it makes possible this wide range
of adaptations to almost every sort of conceivable pollinating animal, and then some that have
never been effective as pollinators before as well.

Robyn Williams: Can they really live underground?

Mark Chase: Yes, well, the underground Australian orchids have been demonstrated to be perfectly
capable of this. First of all, in order to live underground you have to be able to get your
nutrition from something other than photosynthesis because if you're underground, no photosynthesis
can take place. So these are what are called mycoparasites, they parasitise fungi for their food,
and that sets them up then to be able to live underground. The next thing you need is a way to have
some sort of animal that lives in the soil to be an effective pollinator, and I believe that's been
demonstrated with the underground orchid in Australia that when the inflorescence flower stem
swells it actually cracks the soil and allows insects to crawl down into the flowers and pollinate

Robyn Williams: So is there a continent on which you do not get orchids?

Mark Chase: Antarctica.

Robyn Williams: There are none in Antarctica at all?

Mark Chase: No, none in Antarctica, but there are orchids everywhere else, including some very
remote oceanic islands and so on.

Robyn Williams: I've got the vague idea that as the ice melts one day, peeking from the crystals
will be one rare species.

Mark Chase: There would have been orchids on Antarctica before it went into the deep freeze because
we now know that orchids have been around for a lot longer than people had thought, and so they
would have been around at the time that Antarctica still did have plants, before the circumpolar
current sent it into the deep freeze.

Robyn Williams: So what is the actual age span and what was it thought to be?

Mark Chase: Orchids as a whole had been viewed as having a very recent origin because, number one,
they have no fossil history until...well, just recently there's been a couple found but prior to
that there were no orchid fossils of anything but very recent ages and therefore it was thought
that they had recently evolved. Of course they are herbaceous plants so they don't produce woody
parts or things that would fossilise well, so it's not too surprising there are no orchid fossils
because of the structure of the plants.

And then, number two, their seeds are wind-dispersed, so it's perfectly plausible to have them
achieve a world-wide distribution at a much more recent time because they have these wind-dispersed
seeds which can be carried great distances. So those two bits of information, along with the fact
that they're so highly developed and specialised, made people think they were recently evolved. But
there was no real evidence to show that they weren't around earlier either.

So you can use a DNA based approach to do this, which is to look at the orchids relative to the
rest of the plants that they're related to, the monocots, and you can calibrate this DNA tree with
a fossil of a known age of a group that's very clear, like the palms which have a fossil history
that goes back to 92 million years ago...

Robyn Williams: Palm trees?

Mark Chase: Palm trees, yes. And using that kind of an approach we can say that the orchids have
been around longer than the palms. The family probably has its origins some time around 110 million
years ago, which is well back into the time of the dinosaurs and before Pangaea broke up. So the
orchids were around on all these continents when they were all clustered together. And we can say
also fairly clearly that the five main groups of orchids that we have today all preceded the end of
the Cretaceous, so that they were all around during the time of the dinosaurs, all the major groups
of orchids were around, despite of the fact they have no fossil record.

Robyn Williams: Mark Chase at Kew, who says the orchids, though ancient, may have proliferated in
very recent times; 25,000 species of orchids all up.

The phallus flower

David Fisher: I'm in the tropical centre here at the botanic gardens in Sydney and with me is Tim
Entwisle, director of the gardens. Tim, you're about to show me one of your more curious specimens.

Tim Entwisle: It's one of my favourites, actually. It's probably the biggest flower in the world
but also one of the smelliest. It's a fantastic sight.

David Fisher: It's known as the Carcass Flower.

Tim Entwisle: Yes, either the Carcass Flower, the Titan Arum, and its botanical name is
Amorphophallus titanum, and that pretty much tells you what you're going to see here.

David Fisher: You need to say that slowly.

Tim Entwisle: Amorpho, means 'deformed', phallus, 'penis', titanum, 'big'.

David Fisher: So 'big deformed penis'. And I can see where the name comes from!

Tim Entwisle: You can indeed. You look here and what you see is inside this beautiful skirt which
is a kind of deep red colour, you see this banana-shaped structure in the middle, looks like a
chamois actually in colour and texture.

David Fisher: It would measure about...I'd say at the moment about 50 centimetres.

Tim Entwisle: Yes, when it's fully formed it's going to be, we think,'s open now and if
you measure its width and hight, around one metre wide and one metre high.

David Fisher: You've actually got two pots here, two specimens. Why the two? What's going on there?
One's in flower and one isn't.

Tim Entwisle: Exactly. You can see what goes on here because underneath the ground here is a great
big tuber like a giant potato, and it produces a single huge leaf, another very large leaf, if you
like, almost as high as us here, and that lasts for about 18 months and dies back.

David Fisher: That's just on a big stalk about one metre or 1.5 metres high.

Tim Entwisle: Yes, it's a bit like an umbrella, isn't it, and it's got a big thick stalk and then
these leaves that branch out at the top, and that's a single leaf, we call it. That dies back and
the tuber gets bigger and bigger, and then after a set number of years, it's about seven or eight
years to get big enough, we'll get this flower bud. It was only two weeks ago we had a new bud and
we thought it's going to be a leaf again, but no, it's a flower.

David Fisher: Are you telling me it's grown that much in just two weeks?

Tim Entwisle: Yes, it can grow about ten centimetres a day. So two weeks ago we had a tiny
little...something popping up out of the ground, now we've got this giant flower in front of us,
fully opened and with that lovely aroma.

David Fisher: It hasn't reached its peak in the smell department just yet. What is it like?

Tim Entwisle: This is the third time we've had this here and we're learning more and more about
this plant each time. Each time, though, I can say it smells awful. It's been described...the
written descriptions you get are like rotten fish with burnt sugar (and I don't know where the
burnt sugar comes from), a rotten or dying elephant. The one that seems closest, to me, is if
you've got a couple of dead possums, probably more than one, sitting in your roof, and close the
room off and you come in, that's what you smell when you come in.

David Fisher: Maybe like a bit of road kill.

Tim Entwisle: It is, a dead rat, a dead possum. It's really quite an off smell, and very, very
pungent and strong when you get close.

David Fisher: But this serves a purpose, doesn't it.

Tim Entwisle: Yes, like anything, it really has a very important purpose in this case. Most flowers
of course look pretty, have lovely smells and they attract insects, birds, all those things we love
to see in gardens. This one is attracting some insects that love dead animals, they lay their eggs
in dead animals, so they're sweat bees and carrion beetles. They're things that like dead things.
They smell it, they see the colour, they come in to lay their eggs. What they do is they get pollen
on their backs and they take that to another flower and fertilisation takes place.

David Fisher: So they're actually fooled because they lay eggs...but can the eggs develop?

Tim Entwisle: There are lots of fools out there in the insect world. Some of those eggs will
develop and they don't lose out. The orchids have a lot of these wonderful relationships too where
the insect and the plant have co-adapted so that they survive off each other. In this case yes, the
plant gets more out of it than the animal; there's not really any food for it in there and they get
just about nothing. The plant though of course does wonderfully out of the arrangement, and I
always like to think that animals do have their uses. As a botanist I think animals are okay
because they actually help plants to survive.

David Fisher: What do we know about the natural abundance of this plant?

Tim Entwisle: Very rare in its habitat. It grows on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, not that
common, under threat from land clearing and people digging it up and taking it away. So one of the
reasons we propagate it here is to learn how it grows, to make sure we have a great collection of
this plant, and we've got quite a few of these now in our glasshouse, to look after what is
probably quite a threatened plant in the wild.