Funbers – Golden Ratio

Next up in the Funbers series is the Golden Ratio… credited with explaining beautiful architecture, beautiful art and beautiful people. It appears everywhere in nature and may just hold the secret to everlasting beauty…

You can find all of the episodes in the Funbers series with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford here.

Why is Fake News Spreading?

We’ve heard a lot about fake news recently, with claims that it’s misleading the public and even compromising elections. And despite many people being aware of the problem, it’s not going away. Filippo Menczer from Indiana University has made it his mission to find out…

  • Even if people can recognise the difference between high quality and low quality information, and prefer to share only the high quality, it does not mean that it is more likely to go viral.
  • The key factor is the information load that people experience, i.e. the amount of information they are capable of processing is limited.
  • Fake news websites use ‘bots’ to amplify their posts by creating a furore around a story.
  • Bots are becoming increasingly sophisticated and are now controlled by humans making them very difficult to detect.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

Funbers 19, 20 and 21

Fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know…


Nineteen holds a significance for most people alive today as the first two numbers of the year in which they were born (sorry millennials). The 1900’s were also big in terms of technology; we started with aeroplanes in 1903, bras in 1913, televisions in 1925, canned beer in 1935, microwave ovens in 1946, CDs in 1965 and finally Viagra in 1998. I’ll leave you to decide which are the most important…

Nineteen also has some bad blood – there are 19 angels guarding hell in the Qur’an and the ‘Nineteen Propositions’ were pretty much the cause of the English Civil war of 1642. As the name suggests, they were a list of nineteen demands that would change the manner of the English government and effectively transfer power from the Royal Family to parliament. Needless to say, the King at the time, Charles I, was not on board with this idea and war shortly followed. The Parliamentarians were eventually victorious led by the infamous military commander Oliver Cromwell (there’s a statue of him in my hometown of Warrington – no idea why, but here’s me climbing on it).



The number of children fathered by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, a sign that you have perfect eyesight and the number of championship titles won by Manchester United – the number twenty tends to be associated with good things… well apart from the roaring 20’s which were a time of both boom and bust. Following the First World War everyone was keen to get things back on track, leading to the first transatlantic flight, the mass-produced car and the wonder drug of penicillin. Fun was also to be had with the creation of Jazz and an incredibly long list of entertainers that included Charlie Chaplin, Ernest Hemingway and Harry Houdini but to name a few. The bust came in 1929 with the Wall Street Crash and the start of the Great Depression.

Twenty also happens to be the number of choice for the Mayans when it came to creating their system of counting. They worked in what we call base 20 – with a line representing 5 units and a dot 1 unit. Once you reach 20 in the current row you put a dot in the row above, much in the same way that we add a 1 to the column to the left once we reach 9 in the previous columns. For example, a single dot with another single dot below and finally three dots and two lines on the bottom gives (3 x 1) + (2 x 5) + (1 x 20) + (1 x 400) = 433 (see figure below). The first lot of twenty comes from the single dot in the 2nd row and the 400 comes from the single dot in the 3rd row, which means that we have one lot of 202 = 20 x 20 = 400. Our numbers in base 10 are very similar with the second column to the left telling us how many lots of 10 and the third column to the left how many lots of 102 = 10 x 10 = 100.



Twenty-one is traditionally seen as the age of adulthood in many countries across the world, though no-one really knows why… Theories range from the mathematical – it’s the product of two lucky numbers 3 and 7 – to the medical – for many centuries it would be seen as middle age or at least the age beyond which you are deemed to have had a good innings. If you have any theories of your own be sure to let me know!

21 is also the number of shots fired in a peaceful gun salute to signify no hostility or to honour royalty and heads of state. The reason for the 21 shots is to empty your gun sufficiently that it would take a long time to reload and be ready to fight. Whilst this may have had some use back in the day, with the invention of rapid-fire automatic weapons it would be fair to say that it doesn’t quite cut the mustard anymore…

Finally, let’s end with some fun and games (emphasis on the latter). Twenty-one is a big number in the world of gambling; from Black Jack, where the aim is to draw cards with a total as close to twenty-one as possible, to the number of dots on a die – craps anyone? And of course, who could forget the drinking game. I’ll start: to my left 1,2…

Funbers – Root 2

Time for the next number in the Funbers series with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford…

Also known as Pythagoras’ constant or 1.414… the square root of 2 is possibly the most ‘bad-ass’ of all numbers. Legend has it the man that discovered it was pushed overboard from a ship and drowned for his sins… Ouch.

The Nuts and Bolts of Fertility

How do you make a baby? Myself and Georgia Mills have been finding out; here’s the “nuts and bolts” about the cells that make reproduction possible…

  • Men make lots of sperm – half a teaspoon contains around 200 million
  • Women only release around 500 eggs during their lifetime
  • It takes around 2 months from beginning to end to produce one sperm cell
  • Women start making eggs 9 weeks after fertilisation and have all of the eggs they will ever produce by the time they are born
  • Sperm are tiny at 1/2000th of a centimetre
  • Eggs are one of the largest cells in the body at 0.2mm
  • Sperm can survive for up to two days inside a woman
  • Once a sperm enters an egg the surface immediately transforms into an impenetrable barrier to ensure no other sperm can enter
  • The sex of a future baby is determined by the sperm, which can have either an X (female) or a Y chromosome (male)

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

Funbers 1

The most popular number in the world: from the atomic number of hydrogen to one night stands, one-liners and one-hit wonders… part of my new series with BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford.

Funbers 0

The first in a new series on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford looking at all of the fun facts about numbers that you never realised you’ve secretly always wanted to know…

Plankton change genes to combat climate change

2016 was another record-breaker in terms of global temperatures, and it’s part of a longer-term trend which has seen 15 of the hottest years on record since 2001. One victim of this warming is the Artic. The sea ice is steadily retreating, which means that the habitats for species that live there are also radically altering. So are these organisms equipped to cope with the change? Thomas Mock, from the University of East Anglia, has been studying one marine species which use a genetic trick to adapt, as he explains…

Thomas – With our study we have provided first isights into the evolution adaptation of phytoplankton which are little plants floating in the ocean and we selected to sequence one of their genomes. It was a diatome, they prefer to live in nutrient rich and cold water and therefore their natural home are the polar oceans like the Southern Ocean and the Arctic Ocean. In polar oceans they are the base of the entire food web, including fish, birds and mammals like the polar bears and whales. So if their diversity changes according to global warming, which is a significant concern, then the entire food web might change with consequences for human societies.

Tom – You said that you’d looked at the genome of these phytoplankton – is that DNA sequencing?

Thomas – Yes, what we did is we selected one keystone species and we sequenced its DNA. And what we found is that they are very very different to anything that was sequenced before, at least form the marine system.

Tom – And those differences, are they because of the cold and variable environment?

Thomas – Yes that’s what we think. The variability of the polar oceans has basically caused or shaped the genomes of these organisms. What we’ve found is that the adaptation basically boils down to how they use their alleles. Alleles are basically different versions of the same gene. So in our genome we have two versions of each gene. One is derived from the mother and the other is derived from the father. They can be different from each other which impacts how we look. So I can give you an example, for instance the gene for eye colour has an allele for brown and for blue eyes. People can have two for brown, two for blue or a mix of both alleles. And this mix of alleles is basically what we found in our polar diatome genome, but not only for a small number of genes, but for 25% of all genes in the genome. These different versions are used under different environmental conditions.

Tom – So the phytoplankton are in some sense switching on the genes that help them to survive given the current environment?

Thomas – Yes that’s right – they switch on different versions of the same genes in different ways and this makes them able to cope with changing environmental conditions.

Tom – Could you give an example of one of these particular alleles that you found specifically in the phytoplankton?

Thomas – One group of genes we found is the group of antifreeze proteins. And they are expressed, they are used whenever temperatures drop below the freezing point of seawater. These creatures live between the ice crystals – this very very extreme habitat with high salinities and very low temperatures and they can cope in these extreme conditions very well because they have very different types of these antifreeze proteins.

Tom – I’m putting myself in the shoes of one of these phytoplankton. If I’m happily floating about in the sea and then suddenly the sea freezes and I become trapped in sea ice, would I then suddenly switch on this particular version of this protein to allow me to survive.

Thomas – Yeah that’s correct and this is what we actually tested in the laboratory. We simulated sea ice formation and then we looked at how all of the different genes in the genome are expressed.

Tom – Now that we now this, ultimately how is this going to help us, what does this actually mean going forwards?

Thomas – We hope that we can make predictions better about polar organisms cope with global warming. We have global warming and the most threatened ecosystems are polar ecosystems because they are the most sensitive – we see a retreat of sea ice and so on. What we didn’t know so far is how these organisms cope. What are the mechanisms that underpin how they can cope? And with our study we can say that they have a very broad tool set. To me it doesn’t seem to be all doom and gloom, they are very resilient to be honest. With our study we can say that they are very well equipped to cope with global warming and potentially also loss of sea ice.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

What do Aircraft and Fish have in Common?

What do fish and aircraft have in common? Well, water and air are both fluids. And when fish move their tails and bodies from side to side, they push against the surrounding water and leave behind a mini whirlpool or vortex, which contains information about the drag forces experienced by the fish as it moved along. If you can wind back the events that produced the vortex you can work out how it formed in the first place and therefore how much drag the fish felt. This is what Florian Huhn, from the German Aerospace Centre, has managed to do. And because aeroplanes produce very similar vortices in the air, the same technique can be used to develop improved aircraft designs, as he explains…

Florian – We were looking especially at the swirls, at the vortices that the fish typically create. The water slides really close to the skin of the fish, then the water gets some rotation with it and the result of this rotation put into the water when the fish passes are the vortices. Once we have found these vortices behind the fish, what we do is we use the velocity data from the simulations to move this piece of fluid backward in time.

Tom – By tracking the vortex backwards in time Florian and his time are able to see where the fluid making up the vortex originally came from. Interestingly, they found that water from both sides of the fish flows along its body and merges together at the tail where the vortex is then formed. This not only gives us an insight into how fish swim but can also be applied to many other problems.

Florian – At the tip of the wing – take a typical airplane – and we have a huge vortex but its bad for the pilot because if you land at the airport of course there were other planes before you and they all left their wing-tip vortices in the air somewhere. And you don’t want to hit those with your plane because that really shakes the plane.

Tom – Are they what cause the delay between other planes landing?

Florian – I know that there are other causes away form the runway and all these things, but I know its one limiting factor.

Tom – Understanding how these vortices form, that would give us an idea about how to make them smaller or how to make them go away more quickly and therefore leading to potentially more efficient airports.

Florian – Yeah that would be a good thing if that was possible.

You can listen to the full interview for the Naked Scientists here.

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