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Life On Mars.

Life on Mars

Scientists have being trying to find life on Mars for years. First they found water. Another
glimpse of hope came when methane was detected, which scientists suggest could be produced by
living microbes. Lewis Dartnell is studying the cosmic rays that beat down on Mars, to determine
how far into the Martian surfaces scientists may have to dig to find life.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: Well the NASA experiment to zap the moon last Friday and film the shower of ice
thrown up didn't quite produce the results, yet. But the search for water on Mars has been a
triumph. Lewis Dartnell from UCL who's also looking for signs of life there has been thrilled by
the stream of results coming in.

Lewis Dartnell: I was absolutely delighted, it came out with some fantastic science results here,
it's the first time that we, or robotically we've ever touched water on the surface of Mars, so it
was certainly a very, very exciting result.

Robyn Williams: And since then we've left it alone for a few months with results. Has anything come
down the line that is in your field to show that light might in some for exist?

Lewis Dartnell: We it's another recent scientific result that's come back from Mars, this time
again from a NASA orbiter, although it was originally seen by an European orbiter, and this is the
detection of methane in the atmosphere of Mars. And this again is very, very exciting, because one
of the main ways that methane we think would be produced on Mars is through life, as it's biogenic
methane rather than volcanic. Cause we have no evidence of volcanoes having erupted for millions of
years on Mars. And so again it's another very exciting result.

Robyn Williams: And if it was there, it would likely be under the surface, would it not?

Lewis Dartnell: Well for life to be surviving and active rather than just frozen and dormant,
you're right, life is going to be deep on Mars, a couple of kilometres. But we find that kind of
life here on earth as well. We've dug bore holes five or six kilometres deep into the solid crust
of the planet and found even at that depth the rocks themselves teeming with life, with bacterial
life forms. So there's every possibility something very, very similar surviving and active and
thriving and swarming today on Mars. Anything close to the surface, anything we're going to be able
to find in the next decade or so with our robotic landers and our rovers is probably going to be
dormant. It's going to be frozen solid and for long periods of time.

Robyn Williams: Cause we've got snowballs chance in hell of finding them two kilometres down,
you're not going to send a drill that long, are you?

Lewis Dartnell: Well in the long term that would be the plan, once we start colonising Mars and
having long term human habitats there and we have the facilities for big industrial and scientific
projects like that, then yeah that's definitely what people are wanting to do, to drill deep and
find what might still be alive there, rather than what's been held dormant.

Robyn Williams: But NASA has just been deprived of its funds even to go to the moon in the next 20
years, so that's going to be so far off now, isn't it?

Lewis Dartnell: Well ExoMars which is the next European space agency mission is due for launch in
2018. And that will be the first mission to Mars ever with a drill on it. This is going to be two
metres long rather than kilometres, but it's going to be a giant leap in getting our fingertips
beneath the surface and getting some of that Martian sand back up to where the probe can analyse it
and see what's in there.

Robyn Williams: And what's your work doing on this with cosmic rays?

Lewis Dartnell: Well my focus on Mars and the possibility of bacterial life surviving there is on
the cosmic rays, as you say. Because Mars doesn't have protection from this radiation from space
that we do sat here in the front court of UCL. Because we've got a lovely deep atmosphere and a
strong magnetic field protecting the earth, whereas Mars has neither. So the cosmic rays, and this
is energetic particles accelerated from things like exploding stars and solar flares and our own
sun, are just constantly beating down like a radiation rain on the surface of Mars, and penetrating
several metres underground. And my research has been building computer models as to what that
radiation's like and how deeply it penetrates, to get some kind of idea about how deep life's going
to have to be to survive for long periods of being frozen.

Robyn Williams: Hence the two kilometres, I suppose. But have you been zapping the bacteria with
cosmic rays in the real world, in the real lab?

Lewis Dartnell: Well I've been doing the best that I can here on earth, and that's using gamma
radiation, radioactive cool belts, metal source. And I've got some bacterial from Antarctica from
the dry valleys where it's one of the coldest, driest deserts on earth, it's thought to be an
analogue of the Martian surface. At least the best we've got on earth. I've cultured some new
bacteria from these desert sands and Antarctic dry valleys, grown them up in the lab and then
blasted them with gamma rays, essentially to see how much it takes to get them to die. And then
getting that experimental data and feeding that back into the model to get some kind of idea,
thousands or hundreds of thousands of years about how long different kinds of bacteria could
survive on Mars.

Robyn Williams: And what did you find?

Lewis Dartnell: Well if we're talking about planetary protection, this idea of trying not to
contaminate Mars with bacteria we're taking there from earth, on board our robotic explorers, one
of the bacteria I found from Antarctic dry valleys is the kind of thing they scraped off the walls
in the construction facilities at NASA where they're building these probes to send to Mars. So
exactly the kind of thing that might contaminate the surface of Mars. And this bacteria from my
calculations and my experimental work would be able to survive about 100,000 years just on the
surface before it's killed off by the radiation. So a substantial period of time.

Robyn Williams: Well that's long enough to reproduce, and who knows, evolve. That would be
interesting, wouldn't it?

Lewis Dartnell: If it gets the right conditions, so Mars today is very, very cold, and so it's
going to be frozen solid and not able to reproduce. It's not like it's going to be sat in a puddle
or a pond like it would on earth where it could really get going and replicating and thriving. So
it's only when local conditions are warm enough you get pockets of melt water and things might be
able to replicate then. But we do think those conditions do exist on some places on Mars for some
of the time. So we've got to be very contaminate to not contaminate them with life from earth if
we're looking for Martian life. We would just be finding our own dirty sleeves, as it were.

Robyn Williams: And there's lots of conjecture about whether life could exist, not simply on
planets, but in between on lumps. Got an opinion on that?

Lewis Dartnell: So there's an idea called panspermia, that life can be transferred between planets.
And almost certainly it seems to me that this is a mechanism that could work, that you can blast
off lumps of rock at the surface of the planet as meteorites, with a big nearby impact would blast
off rocks, they could be flung through space and then sometime later land upon another planet. And
we know this happens because we have pieces of Mars in our museums and our research institutes on
earth that have come from Mars and travelled through space as meteorites. Now the big question is
whether life could survive inside those rocks as they're flung between the planets. And some of our
experimental results seem to suggest that indeed they could, that one in a million would survive
that process of being blasted off the planet, flung through space and exposed to all this radiation
that I'm researching, and then re-enter through the atmosphere of another planet. But the big
question about whether life could have got from Mars to earth aboard one of these meteorites is
whether there was ever life there in the first place. So we've got to go and look for it.

Robyn Williams: I have a friend, I think you know him well, Paul Davis, who used to carry a piece
of Mars around in his pocket. I never went round to asking him whether he had germs on it!

Lewis Dartnell: Sure. Maybe pocket germs. Maybe he's not contaminated that piece of Mars.

Robyn Williams: And I have to say that Paul Davis no longer carries bits of Mars in his pocket,
it's back in the lab. Both he and Lewis Dartnell who's at the University College in London are
astrobiologists.

Planet Information

Planet formation

Sarah Maddison is studying how planets form. She's looking at young planetary systems outside our
own, which have revealed significant insights into how the planets in our own solar system formed.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: This is the Science Show on ABC Radio National, via abc.net.au/rn. And so if you
are looking for life out there, the best bet is another planet. And there are plenty of teams
around the globe searching for them. One is at Swinburne University in Melbourne where Sarah
Maddison is on the case.

Robyn Williams: On the assumption that our solar system has finished forming its planets, where are
the ones that you are studying which are still forming?

Sarah Maddison: We're having a look in young star forming regions within our own galaxy. If you
want to study planet formation, you need to look at quite nearby stars so that you can resolve the
discs in which they're forming. So we're looking kind of within nearby stuff, I mean regions in our
own galaxy.

Robyn Williams: One thing that keeps boggling me is if we estimate that there might be ten billion
stars in our galaxy and that means, who knows, there might be 50 billion or 100 billion planets,
that's an awful lot for you to study just one galaxy, isn't it?

Sarah Maddison: Yes, that's good. If we actually knew that there were that many planets, we'd be
able to do some very decent statistics which would be nice! At the moment we've detected about 350
extra solar planets, and most of those are still in single systems, so we've only been able to
observe the most massive planet around a star. And it's pretty like that planets form in multiple
systems. You know, it's unlikely that you would just form one planet, so even in these stars that
we've seen one planet around, there's probably others that we just can't detect yet. 15 years ago
we only really knew about planets in our own solar system, and so our theories of planet formation
are based on small rocky guys close to the sun, big gas guys further out, and little bits of junk
all over the place, asteroids and comets which we believe are kind of debris from planet formation.
Now we see these extra solar planetary systems, some of which are just doing crazy things. They've
got massive planets really close to their host star, most of them that we've found to date seem to
be gas giants. We're not finding earth-like planets yet, but we're getting really close. So we need
to kind of not necessarily revise our theory of planet formation, but it does tell us a lot about
the dynamic environment of young planetary systems. And planets do seem to move around a lot and do
all sorts of things, which then means in our solar system, our planets probably did the same thing
and moved around.

Robyn Williams: This is a ridiculous question that you'd have a star without any planets like that?

Sarah Maddison: Well there's definitely in extra solar planet searches we find something like 15
percent of those stars that we look around have planets. Now does that mean that the other 85
percent don't? Or are they just low mass planets and we're not detecting them, or if lots of stars
are in binary systems, do those binaries, the sort of gravitational jiggling of a binary star, does
that upset the planet formation process?

Robyn Williams: That's two stars holding hands spinning?

Sarah Maddison: Yes, that's right. So a planetary system is similar. It's just like the kids
spinning around. Instead of you know a couple spinning around if you like. So on the theory side,
some of the work that I do is in numerical modelling of dust plus gas, cause we know that planets-
we're standing on a big rock now. What happens to the little tiny dust grains, the soot sized dust
grains? And how do they grow into larger things like pebbles which will become the building blocks
of planets? And in my research I'm doing sort of two things, I'm having a look at the simulation
side and modelling these sort of dynamics. But also going out and doing observing, having a look at
these discs at a different range of wavelengths to try and understand the signatures of grain
growth. So what people might be arguing about is different sort of stages of planet formation,
different stages of when and how the grains grow. How quickly planets form, do you need to form big
gas giants first and then the little guys later on? I mean of course the devil's always in the
detail. And that's kind of I think what we're arguing about now. The sort of global picture of
planet formation I think most people would agree on.

Robyn Williams: Tell me, in the beginning, one spotted planets by implication, in other words the
stars wobbled. It did things that you weren't supposed to do if you were sitting there alone in
space. Have you so far been able to look up a spout and see these planets at all?

Sarah Maddison: That's not what I do. But yes, astronomers now do direct observations. They can do
some quite sort of clever tricks. You know, sometimes if you see an object and you're not sure if
you see it, if you kind of squint and look away and look back, then you can see it. Well adaptive
optics is something like that. You need to say the atmosphere is blurring my line of sight, I think
there's something there, but I'm not sure. The other problem of course is the star emits an
enormous amount of light and a planet doesn't emit any of its own light. So you need to block out
the big fat light of your star, and you need to have a little look very close to see is there any
reflected light from the starlight on the planet. And now, yes, we are seeing direct detections of
planets. And that's really just starting over the last sort of three or four years. And that's
extremely exciting, because well then you're really seeing them. And if you know where they are,
then you can start to do all sorts of other things, do spectroscopy, have a look at it, really
determine what the chemical composition of your planet is. You can then go back and do this Doppler
wobble and determine what the mass is and you can start to really learn a lot more about the
physical parameters of that system, which is important in understanding the formation process.

Robyn Williams: Just a few days ago there was an announcement that a planet had been found which is
a bit like the earth but twice the size. What's that?

Sarah Maddison: It's twice the mass. And it is actually a really important distinction. If we do
this Doppler wobble technique, you've got the star, the star's moving and you can calculate by how
much it's moving backwards and forwards what the mass of the unseen planet is. So what these
techniques are now able to do is detect lower and lower and lower mass planets. And that's the aim,
because we've been able to find Jupiters and Super Jupiters, but now we want to find earths.
Jupiter is 320 almost times the mass of the earth. So now we're getting down to something that is
just twice the mass of the earth, and then you say, okay, if you find an object that is the mass of
Jupiter, from what we understand about planet formation, it's more than likely a gas giant. But as
you move to smaller and smaller mass objects, can you then distinguish whether you're actually
detecting a terrestrial rocky planet that you can stand around, walk on, perhaps form life on, and
perhaps one day send messages to or receive messages from. Or are you still looking at a big ball
of gas? So there's this whole new class of objects now called super earths, and of course they're
called that cause they're a bit more massive than the earth. But what you really need to know then
is what it's radius is. And if you know what its mass and its radius is, then you can determine its
density. And that's super important because if it's really light, then it's made out of this gassy
stuff. Whereas as if it's quite dense, then you're talking about a rocky planet. And that's sort of
where things get really exciting.

Robyn Williams: You'll let me know, will you?

Sarah Maddison: Absolutely. You bet.

Robyn Williams: Sarah Maddison at Swinburne University in Melbourne, where there's a big
astronomical team checking the heavens.

Listening to ice break

Listening to ice break

When an iceberg moves in the Southern Ocean, or an Antarctic ice shelf calves Kim Klacka and Alex
Gavrilov are listening. The two men have been recording the sounds of ice breaking and moving for
the last seven year. Only they've been listening from the comfort of their office in Perth. They're
trying to establish whether the calving rate of Antarctica's ice shelves is staying within natural
bounds or steadily increasing.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: And if you're wondering about Melbourne as a base for planet hunting, and by the
way they use giant telescopes all over the world, what about Perth as a base for listening to
Antarctic ice? That's what Kim Clacker and Dr. Alexander Gavrilov have been doing for some time.
Let's join them.

Kim Clacker: These are sounds that are recorded of south western Australia, and the sounds that are
coming from Antarctica. And we have sounds of icebergs and we have sounds of ice actually carving
or breaking off the Antarctic ice shelf.

Robyn Williams: But we're sitting in Perth, how do you get them all this distance away?

Kim Clacker: There is in particular one listening station, underwater listening station, off south
western Australia. It was originally put in there for the comprehensive test band treaty
organisation based in Vienna. And its primary use is obviously to listen to underwater noises that
shouldn't be made, but it's got this additional facility that we can actually listen for very long
distances.

Robyn Williams: How long have you been doing this?

Kim Clacker: This would be seven years coming up.

Robyn Williams: You're the person who's doing the recording, the interpretation of the recording.

Alexander Gavrilov: Yes, interpretation of recordings, yes. We can hear whales, earthquakes,
icebergs, breaking of ice, everything. And up to distances of thousands of kilometres.

Robyn Williams: Kim, you've got the controls, could you play us a first sample?

Kim Clacker: Okay, this one is the sound of an iceberg itself, rather than ice cracking as such.

[noise]

Robyn Williams: It sounds like a bad day on the M4 motorway! How can you tell that that's an
iceberg?

Alexander Gavrilov: First of all we can locate having two stations in the Indian Ocean.

Robyn Williams: You know where it's coming from?

Alexander Gavrilov: Yes, more away could identify that particular iceberg, it's iceberg B15D I
guess. And we could locate it from space using photographs.

Robyn Williams: So you can hear it and see it at the same time?

Alexander Gavrilov: Yes, that's true.

Robyn Williams: Having heard the sound, how do you interpret what it's doing?

Alexander Gavrilov: The iceberg was moving and escaping this ice shelf. And it's actually some sort
of vibration of big plate, and after collision with another iceberg or with the sea floor or with
ice shelf, it starts vibrating and making sound.

Robyn Williams: So once you've heard the sound, you can recognise it when it happens again that
way?

Alexander Gavrilov: Yes, more of the same iceberg will have nearly the same sound again, because
it's the same size, same geometry, so same voice. Icebergs have different songs.

Robyn Williams: Kim, play us another one if you can.

Kim Clacker: Okay, now this one is actually an ice cracking or ice breaking event. This one's
actually at Antarctica, not recorded remotely.

[noise]

Robyn Williams: So that's what you get when you listen remotely from thousands of kilometres away,
and this one should be the one that if you were on Antarctica, this is what you'd hear for the same
event?

[noise]

Robyn Williams: Sounds as if it's cracking actually, doesn't it?

Alexander Gavrilov: Yes, cracking, breaking.

Robyn Williams: But is that in real time or is it speeded up?

Alexander Gavrilov: It's speeded up ten times.

Robyn Williams: But it still gives you the impression.

Alexander Gavrilov: Yes.

Robyn Williams: What scientifically can you tell from what you're hearing?

Alexander Gavrilov: The main purpose is to count the number of events and see any trend. We have
already observed evident seasonal variations and we believe that using this we can observe any
climate deviant in the chance. And moreover since we can locate all events, we also can say which
part of the eastern Antarctica coast makes more noise. And surface from climate change.

Robyn Williams: And I suppose that having got the warning and had the location, you can then look
down and see what the satellite says?

Kim Clacker: Yes, you can do, although we often get advance warning, because the cracking occurs
before the large event. So you get advance warning if you use acoustics compared with if you use
satellite. But the two complement one another.

Robyn Williams: And Sasha was saying of course that that can tell you whether there's more
activity, because of presumably global warming or something. Any conclusions so far on that?

Kim Clacker: Not yet, I believe it's pretty consistent. There's no obvious trend. But that's a very
short time span, you're talking about seven years of data that's been processed.

Alexander Gavrilov: We haven't observed any significant trend probably to show that's observed.

Kim Clacker: Now we're in a position to monitor for however long the listening station keeps going
till

Alexander Gavrilov: At least 25 years without any substantial expense or installations, we can
observe this.

Robyn Williams: I'm most impressed that in something so noisy as you implied in the oceans with all
those things going on, you can discriminate and say that's coming from over there and that's an
iceberg. It's most impressive.

Kim Clacker: It is. It's quite surprising. It's not easy to do that of course, but if you put a
listening station in the water, you're going to hear sounds from everywhere. But what this has
shown is that most of the sound that's heard off south western Australia comes from Antarctica.
There are other areas where you do get noise, for example from the region where the earthquake was
that created the tsunami, there's noise that we picked up from there. But that's a secondary noise
source.

Alexander Gavrilov: Mid ocean regions and seismic zones. And of course whales. The largest source
of noise, low frequency noise in the ocean.

Robyn Williams: Kim, a final question. You're not involved yourself in the whale research, but it's
still going on. The last time I was in this building doing an interview on tracking whales it was
about, and this surprised me rather cause Rottnest Island is just down the road from Perth, you had
blue whales off Rottnest Island. Are you still following up that work?

Kim Clacker: Yes, very much so. Pygmy blue whales they are. We have just last month put in a new
listening station there as part of a national research programme where we have a series of
underwater recorders in the water there. And so that will continue to pick up the whales off the
Perth Canyon and we're also next month putting in a virtually identical station off South
Australia. And later this year off NSW. So there will be more of these listening stations, so
there'll be more data, more information and more base line monitoring so we know what the changes
are going to be from.

Robyn Williams: So soon Nemo won't be able to fart in Australian waters without someone from Curtin
University having a listen! Kim Clacker is director of the Centre for Marine Science and
Technology, and Dr. Alexander Gavrilov runs the Listening Post at Curtin University in Perth.

Nature and gender

Nature and gender

Faith Ochwada loves being a girl, she's loved being a girl all her life. But gender isn't static in
humans or the animal world, and as Faith describes there are some distinct advantages to being able
to change sexes.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: She enjoys being a girl. So does Nemo. Unless of course he's a boy, and so does
Faith, who's a real girl and stays that way. Faith Ochwada is a marine scientist at the University
of New South Wales.

Faith Ochwada: When I was five years old I felt empowered by the many delights and privileges
associated with being a girl, rather than a mischievous and grubby boy. A feeling that was elicited
by my pink ballet tutu, as opposed to the feminist movement, mind you. As an adult, my preference
for being a female is still quite strong. And although the reasons for this affinity have a little
bit more substance now, I have come to understand that most males could equally extol the many
virtues of having the XY chromosomal component. So imagine the shock that most of us would
experience if one day we woke up to discover that we had physically morphed into the opposite sex,
through no doing of our own, but rather as a pre-ordained evolutionary means to secure resources in
a dynamic environment. Alarming as this type of shift might seem for most humans, biologists have
long observed such drastic changes in wild animals. Now imagine a lesser extreme, where you're born
with the anatomy of a particular sex and maintain it, but your behaviour and social likeness
strongly resemble that of the opposite sex. This phenomenon, which is perhaps a little bit more
familiar to humans, has also been recorded in the wild. So what I want you to ask is can the
mechanisms that have been proposed for a sex change or even sex role reversal in wild animals be
extended and applied to human populations? Well as I will explain later, they have.

For now let us focus on the clownfish, in which morphological sex change is the rule rather than
the exception. You see, to secure a long term lease within a much coveted piece of real estate in
the form of a sea anemone, a fully functional male clownfish will morph into a female. A single
anemone which protects the fish from predators is typically inhabited by a select group of
clownfish that consists of one breeding adult female, one breeding adult male and several
non-breeding juveniles. These juveniles are of distinct parentage and are not the offspring off the
adults. A hierarchy exists within this share house system, with the adult female being the largest
and most dominant, followed by the adult male and then the juveniles. Each subordinate can be
evicted or even killed, and must constantly defend its tenancy within the anemone. Thus each
subordinate clownfish, including the dominant male, is naturally driven to become that dominant
female. If the adult female dies, the adult male begins a metamorphosis to become a fully
functional female, whilst the largest non-breeding juvenile takes his place. Competition for
shelter in this socially stratified community is therefore said to drive this natural pattern of
sex change. It's also been documented for several other fish species, as well as insects,
crustaceans and even molluscs. Sometimes in nature the so-called change in sex is a little bit more
subtle and manifests itself as a reversal in gender specific roles or behaviours, as opposed to a
full morphological sex change. In birds such as the ten spine stickleback and the greylag goose,
individuals have been reported to commonly exhibit sudo female or sudo male behaviour, whereby a
male or female performs the courtship repertoire usually exhibited by the opposite sex. These
displays are often followed by the individual mounting a member of its own sex, and then
replicating the first stages of heterosexual copulation. In the flocking greylag goose, male/male
sexual pairings are thought to be a tactic for securing alliances in order to maintain a high rank
within the flock. This in turn increases a males access to resources. Now as well as serving this
particular function, it has been proposed that same sex pairings amongst geese improve the overall
reproductive success of relatives within the flock. This is because individuals and same sex pairs
can then assume the roles of guardians of the younger members of the flock. The ladder is known as
the Kin Selection Hypothesis, and basically suggests that same sex sexual behaviour frees an
individual from dedicating energy to its own offspring, allowing it to help rear and protect the
offspring of its closest relatives instead. The diminished direct reproductive success of such an
individual is offset by the fact that it can still pass on its genes indirectly, and perhaps more
successfully in a resource limited environment through the progeny of its immediate kin. Really a
case of putting the common good of the family before that of the individual.

The Kin Selection Hypothesis has also been proposed as a rationale for same sex mounting in some
mammals. In cases were western populations of humans have been studied, the Kin Selection
Hypothesis had not held true, because heterosexual men have been just as likely to channel
resources towards the offspring of their family members as their homosexual counterparts. It has
been argued however that even if Kin Selection did play a part in maintaining homosexuality in
humans, it would be difficult to detect its influence within societies with strong homophobic
attitudes. This is because homosexual individuals in such societies have often been estranged from
their immediate families. The existence of the Samoan third sex also known as the fa'afafine,
provides an exciting opportunity to test the Kin Selection Hypothesis in human populations without
the masking effect of homophobic attitudes. You see, the fa'afafine are a widely occurring and
socially accepted group of individuals in Samoa, her anatomical males that often adopt the social
behaviours of females and are exclusively attracted to masculine males. New research has shown that
fa'afafine put significantly more effort into raising their nephews and nieces than do childless
heterosexual men. Although further work is needed to determine if this is indeed an evolutionary
adaptation, and that increasing a family's overall success in reproduction, this idea is supported
by new data on other human populations, which shows that the female relatives of homosexual men
have a higher rate of reproductive success than the female relatives of heterosexual men.

Nature has many variants when it comes to gender allocation. And the proposed explanations for
these variations are equally numerous amongst the scientific community. One consensus amongst
scientists however is that genders and the roles associated with them are not fixed or absolute
states, but rather a mutable means of securing resources in a variable world. So with all of this
information in mind, I have decided to take on the arduous task of letting go of my childhood ideas
of what exactly defines the perfect girl or a typical boy.

Buffalo in the Top End

Buffalo in the Top End

There are now more than 150,000 wild buffalo in the Top End of Australia. They are reproducing at a
spectacular rate: a female can conceive at the age of just over 3; a bull is capable of siring
young at 5. As the beasts spread across tropical Australia there is always the fear of disasters
such as foot-and-mouth disease, potentially costing over $23 billion. Clive McMahon at Charles
Darwin University is studying the threat.

Transcript

Robyn Williams: A typical boy, like a lumberjack perhaps. Faith Ochwada is a typically female
marine scientist at the University of New South Wales. Here's a typical boy in action out in the
bush.

Extract: 360 documentary

It's pretty good looking, go for it. It could be a little bigger in the basics, but it's got the
width and he's got reasonable tips on him, but ... [gunshot]

The shot. The bull's agitated surprise to find death inside of him.

Robyn Williams: Part of that marvellous doco heard on 360 on ABC Radio National a couple of weeks
ago. And do you recall that natural history film I made in 1977 with the atrocious title, Who Will
Pay the Buffalo Bill? The worry then was brucellosis, now the concerns are more deadly. And that's
why Clive McMahon at Charles Darwin University is tracking them. But it doesn't explain why he's
got two big bulls' balls on his desk!

Clive McMahon: Well there's more buffalo than we can poke the proverbial stick at really. And
essentially why that's happened is in the 1980s and '90s at the height of the BTech programme, the
main aim as you mentioned was to get rid of brucellosis and tuberculosis. The main aim wasn't to
get rid of buffalo. So once the stock inspectors had declared buffalo TB and brucellosis free, the
programme essentially stopped, and all the animals were left of course did what animals did and
started breeding. And hence the situation we find ourselves in now.

Robyn Williams: And they're increasing by something like 10, 15 percent a year?

Clive McMahon: That's right, increasing close to the maximal rate that they can possibly increase
at. And that's essentially due to the fact that there's lots and lots of food around, there's lots
of good environment around, and of course there are no predators in the Top End. So there's nothing
really to curb the growth of these populations.

Robyn Williams: Crocs don't catch buffalo then?

Clive McMahon: No, not at all really. And talking to a friend of mind in Kakadu National Park, Dave
Lilner, he has a theory that the long horns that buffalo have are a defence specifically against
crocodiles in their native habitats. But there are very few records of crocodiles taking buffalo.

Robyn Williams: They're very big animals and very clever of course. It's suggested that they're
shrewd in operation.

Clive McMahon: Well they are. I think like all animals that live in the wild, they're smart and
they're astute to what's going on around them. Buffalo have the added advantage of course of having
incredibly tough hides, and those hides in fact formed the basis for a huge industry in the early
'20s, where the hides were collected and used for conveyor belts in industry. So they are
incredibly tough and of course to get through that hide you need to be an incredibly tough animal.

Robyn Williams: And what about the effect on the terrain? Cause the Australian landscape was not
necessarily built for a hoof, especially a very heavy hoof like buffalo. Is it doing damage?

Clive McMahon: Yes, absolutely. And I think that's one of the sad things about agriculture in
Australia is that we've brought all these hoofed animals in and they've trashed the countryside.
But apart from actually trampling vegetation, one of the big problems with buffalo is that they
like living in the wetlands and they create these swim channels between salt water and fresh water.
And so into the freshwater wetlands you get this intrusion of salt water, which of course kills the
plants and then the associated ecosystems with that. And that's where the real problem comes in
perhaps. Given that there are all these other hoofed animals scampering around the countryside,
cattle and horses, donkeys, pigs and really just take your pick, Australia is almost feral haven to
some degree.

Robyn Williams: What about your own research in this regard then?

Clive McMahon: The research we're doing is focussing specifically on trying to understand the
population ecology of the animals, how the environment effects population growth rates, and how
those growth rates tie in with animal movements around the countryside. So if you have an area of
high productivity, it produces lots of animals. They're of course dispersed at a greater rate. And
we're trying to quantify that dispersal in Australia. So essentially the idea is to try and limit
the cost associated with managing a disease outbreak, like Foot & Mouth for example, which would
cost the Australian economy enormous amounts of money, and numbers of 23 billion have been thrown
around.

Robyn Williams: Could Foot & Mouth possibly come from the north?

Clive McMahon: It certainly could. Officially there is no Foot & Mouth in Indonesia at the moment,
but I think Foot & Mouth still occurs in Malaysia, and Malaysia is not that far away. So people
bringing animals in on boats as as food could certainly bring in a disease like Foot & Mouth, and
the recent outbreak in the UK of course was a very clear demonstration of the impact this can have,
both financially but also socially. There were lots of people in the UK where they had got to know
their animals really well and they're part of the family, and in came the killers as it were. Which
is very traumatic. So an outbreak of something like Foot & Mouth in Australia would be traumatic in
the sense that many millions of animals would probably need to be culled to control an outbreak
like that.

Robyn Williams: One of the lessons from the experience in Britain was to stop the movement of
animals so freely around the nation. Well of course if you've got a feral population of buffalo,
they'd be doing it automatically, wouldn't they? Now when you're studying that, what sort of things
are you finding about the movement of the population?

Clive McMahon: That's absolutely right, and what we've tried to do is we've taken two approaches to
quantifying movements of animals. One is to stick collars on animals, and that's the traditional
approach. And the other is perhaps a slightly more novel approach, and what we're doing there is
we're using micro-satellites. So molecular techniques to actually map the movements of genetic
material across the countryside. And to do that we've actually gone and sampled animals from across
the Top End and I'm now in the process of quantifying the differences in genetic makeup between
each population, and because we know how close those populations are, we can actually get an idea
of the movement rates of animals between populations across a particular distance.

Robyn Williams: Any idea, ballpark figure, of how many buffalo you've got here?

Clive McMahon: That's the million dollar question to some degree. But I think at the moment we're
looking at about 150,000 buffalo in the Top End. And that number of course is increasing every
minute or every day as the animals happily breed along in this superb environment. One of the
things about buffalo is they do breed incredibly well, because they're actually very well adapted
to this monsoonal environment, in that they are able to main condition fairly well even in harsh
conditions. So while they are affected by poor rainfall and fertility rates decrease and survival
decreases in incredibly harsh times, in general terms the animals do fairly well and are able to
maintain relatively high rates of reproduction and survival.

Robyn Williams: Is that why you've got a couple of buffalo balls on your desk inside?

Clive McMahon: Well those were to look at when male animals mature and how early in their lives do
they become reproductively capable.

Robyn Williams: What have you found?

Clive McMahon: So again, we have this situation where buffalo appear to be very, very productive in
that female buffalo are generally breeding by the age of three and a half, so they're having their
first calf at about four years of age. And the males are reproductively mature probably by about
four and a half to five years, and I say reproductively mature, but not functionally mature, in the
sense that the bulls do have to fight for control over harems. And it's not until they're a bit
older, probably seven or eight years old, that they actually take part in the breeding activities
and behaviours.

Robyn Williams: One wonders whether there'd be the odd poor bull who never quite makes it and never
quite reproduces. Wonder what happens to him?

Clive McMahon: Well I think they become the grumpy guys that go around and push cars around and
give people a hard time in the scrub. But like any sort of harem structured society, very few bulls
do make it. And I guess the thing to think about is that there are always the sneaky fuckers. And
these are the guys that hang around on the periphery and sneak in and steal matings as it were. So
all the bulls probably get a go, but some more than others.

Robyn Williams: So I think the term came from Tim Clutton-Brock in Cambridge and he was applying it
to red deer. And it's a wonderful ruse when the two big guys are fighting, the little ones sneak
around the back and get the girls.

Clive McMahon: That's exactly right. And that's exactly what the bulls do here. And the same occurs
in seals and all these harem breeding animals. So it is, it's a fantastic term and Tim
Clutton-Brock of course is to some degree the father of all this kind of work. And the work that
we're doing very much follows in the footsteps of the work that was done on rum on the deer.

Robyn Williams: Final question, when you're covering the Top End, as you said a huge area, roughly
how far do you have to travel to cover your field?

Clive McMahon: I think we're looking at an area of about 10 million hectares. Most of it's been
done by travelling on the ground using four wheel drive vehicles, so doing all the boys only
adventure stuff, crossing big rivers, cruising around through mud pans. Some of it's been a little
less adventurous where samples have been given to us by people managing animals, and again some has
been quite exciting where we've collected samples from animals that are being mustered. And that
certainly is a boys own adventure, cause you've got choppers and buggies and dust and buffalo and
crazy people. But it's all a great deal of fun, and certainly a privilege to be involved in
something like this.

Robyn Williams: Dr. Clive McMahon at the School of Environmental Research, Charles Darwin
University.

Ig Nobel prizes.

Ig Nobel prizes

Think of the Ig Nobels as the Nobel Prizes' cheeky cousins. They were awarded this year for such
unusual research as gas-mask bras, naming cows so they produce more milk and diamonds made from
tequila. Sarah Castor-Perry reports.

Transcript

Sarah Castor-Perry: Now last week on the Science Show we covered the Nobel prizes. But today we're
taking a more light hearted approach, looking at the Ig Nobel prizes. These are awarded every year
around the same time as the real Nobels, but for slightly more unconventional research. The
ceremony was held at Harvard's Sanders Theatre, and the winners got their hands on a very
prestigious prize, as Mark Abrahams explains.

Mark Abrahams: And now let's get it over with, ladies and gentlemen, the awarding of the 2009 Ig
Nobel Prizes. Karen, tell them what they've won.

Karen: This year's winners will each take home an Ig Nobel Prize.

[laughter / applause]

Mark Abrahams: What else?

Karen: Oh, a piece of paper that says they've won an Ig Nobel Prize!

[laughter / applause]

Mark Abrahams: Anything about it?

Karen: Signed by several Nobel laureates.

Mark Abrahams: And is that all?

Karen: What else could they want?

Sarah Castor-Perry: Well exactly. And the prizes are also presented by previous Nobel laureates.
The winners are allowed to make a speech, but have to watch out for Miss Sweetie Poo, an eight year
old girl with a very strict one minute attention span, as you'll hear. Well the first of these
amazing pieces of paper was awarded for the Veterinary Science prize to Catherine Burtenshaw and
Peter Rawlinson of Newcastle University in the UK, for discovering that cows with names give more
milk than cows without names. Peter Rawlinson was there to receive the award.

Peter Rawlinson: At Newcastle we have an interest in interactions between humans and domestic
animals. We undertook a series of studies on young dairy cattle which showed benefits of positive
treatment during rearing. From a survey came the finding that cows with names gave more milk. There
are many that I would like to thank. Some humans, but mainly cows.

[laughter]

Peter Rawlinson: So thank you, thank you to Bluebell, my father's favourite cow, Clover, Buttercup,
have you noticed there's preference for flower names? I could go on with lots of cow names.

Miss Sweetie Poo: Please stop, I'm bored!

Peter Rawlinson: Fortunately for Miss Sweetie Poo, some milk and a cuddly cow!

Miss Sweetie Poo: Please stop!

[applause]

Sarah Castor-Perry: Hm, maybe they should try the small bored child technique on Oscar winners too.
Next up was the Peace prize, won this year by a team from Switzerland who wanted to keep the peace
by researching whether it was worse to be hit over the head with an empty or a full beer bottle.
Stefan Bollinger collected their prize.

Stefan Bollinger: In the film industry, everything looks so easy, for instance in a bar brawl,
somebody can take a bottle and just smash as easy as nothing over somebody else's head. For
instance, [smash] John Wayne wouldn't even flinker. But what's it like in real life? We've been
asked this question on several occasions by members of the call. So we decided to find out whether
we can actually break full beer bottles on a human skull, and if not whether these bottles will
actually break the human skull. We've performed a very simple experiment, we tested the fracture
threshold of full and empty bottles in a drop tower. The full beer bottles broke out 30 joules, the
empty ones at 40 joules. Doesn't sound like much, especially if you're talking about bar brawls and
John Wayne, but if you look at the literature, then a human skull will break somewhere between 14
and 68 joules. So you can actually crack a skull with a beer bottle. And, that's the best thing,
the empty beer bottle is even more capable of inflicting serious harm. And you have all the
enjoyment of the beer before.

[laughter]

Sarah Castor-Perry: So please, don't try this at home, but if you want to hit someone over the head
with a beer bottle, do it once you've drunk it. The bottle that Stefan broke over his own head on
stage was actually a fake, made from something called sugar glass which is commonly used in films
and TV when a person have to have a bottle smashed over their head, or crash through a glass
window. So from the hazard of a bar fight to the hazards of a gas attack.

The Ig Nobel prize for Public Health is awarded this year to Elena Bodnar, Raphael Lee and Sandra
Marajan of Chicago, Illinois, for inventing a brassier that in an emergency can be quickly
converted into a pair of gas masks, one for the brassier wearer and one to be given to some needy
bystander.

[applause]

Here is Elena Bodnar.

Elena Bodnar: Ladies and gentlemen, isn't that wonderful that women have two breasts, not just one?

[laughter]

Elena Bodnar: We can save not only our life, but also the life of a man of our choice next to us. I
would like to thank you my colleagues from the University of Chicago, even more I would like to
thank my dear husband, whose extensive expertise on bra clasps came in very handy when I developed
my first prototype! But it is important to mention that it takes only 25 seconds for average woman
to use this protective personal device. Five seconds to remove, convert and apply your own, and 20
seconds to wonder who the lucky man is she's going to save!

[applause / laugher]

Elena Bodnar: Well the times of naivety and unpreparedness have passed. That's why I always wear
convertible bra mask. Thank you very much.

Host: And now I believe we have a demonstration by the inventor.

Elena Bodnar: I would like to ask for three volunteers, preferably Nobel laureates, to assist me in
demonstration.

Sarah Castor-Perry: And if you'd like to see what it looks like when several Nobel laureates wear
bras over their faces, check out the Science Show website, abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow. A couple of
the other Ignobels also deserve a mention. The Physics prize went to Catherine Whitcomb, Daniel
Lieberman and Lisa Shapiro for discovering why pregnant don't fall forwards with all that extra
weight. Apparently one of the vertebrae in the lower part of the female spine evolved to a
different shape way back when our ancestors first walked on two legs. And if you're not a big fan
of tequila, you may wonder what uses it has other than giving you a massive headache the morning
after. Well, the Chemistry Ignobel went to a Mexican team who showed that you can actually make
diamonds from it. I think I'll stick to its original purpose though, cheers.

Sarah Castor-Perry: So there we have it. A whistlestop tour of the 2009 Ignobel prizes, awarded for
research that makes you laugh, then makes you think. But I think to sum up the whole night, the
last word has to go to Mark Abrahams.

Mark Abrahams: Please remember this final thought. If you didn't win an Ignobel prize tonight, and
especially if you did, better luck next year. Good night!

Robyn Williams: Mark Abrahams is the small, perfectly formed genius behind the Igs. He edits the
annals of improbable research. That report by Sarah Castor-Perry.