Tuesday: Hili Dialogue and a Life Scientific

March 3, 2020 • 4:44 am

by Matthew Cobb

Hili may be a goddess, but like all cats, she retains her essential catness:

Hili: I think there is something that could be knocked down to the floor.
Paulina: I’m not sure it’s a good iedea.
(Photo: Paulina R.)
Hili: Zdaje się, że tam jest coś, co można strącić na ziemię.
Paulina: Nie jestem pewna, czy to dobry pomysł.
(Foto: Paulina R.)

And to while away the time waiting for Jerry to be back on line (I guess he is somewhere over Greenland as I write this), here’s my Life Scientific. The Life Scientific is a BBC Radio 4 programme that has been going for several years now, and features physicist Jim al-Khalili interviewing a UK-based scientist (the only exception to this, in the early days, was Pinker) about their life’s work. In all its forms, it has on average around 2 million listeners…

It’s not at all pompous and generally gives some real insight into what the great (and, in my case, not-so-great) have got up to and above all why. There is a real variety, from Nobel Prize winners, to folk like me. Anyway, check out the full list of interviews, available for free here. (You might have to sign up if you are not in the UK, or if you are on a mobile device, use their horrible Sounds app, but it’s all free. You can download them and also find them as free podcasts with your podcast provider.)

It was a really interesting experience – the producer, Anna Buckley, grilled me for several hours about what I had done when and above all why (she then structures the interview and writes the questions). As someone who is interested in the history, it was fascinating to look at my own career with a historian’s eye, rather than vaguely looking backwards, which is how we normally think about our lives. Sadly, loads of stuff got cut – including the one really good scientific idea I have ever had, which was that we could ask how extinct Neanderthals and Denisovans were able to smell. The only down side is that when I recorded this in London last week I caught the lurgy that has currently flattened me and kept me from the picket line…

Click on the image to listen, if that’s your fancy.:

12 thoughts on “Tuesday: Hili Dialogue and a Life Scientific

  1. The Life Scientific was an interesting listen. Taking identical twins to the pub to get them drunk in the name of research was an unexpected revelation!

  2. The smelling hominid question reminded of an old joke. Probably also true of Neanderthals 😉

    My dog’s got no nose

    Your dog’s got no nose, how does he smell?


      1. Old jokes can have long lives! Looking forward to hearing the podcast – it dropped into my feed this morning, so it’s in the line.

  3. According to flight aware he is just approaching greenland now if i have the correct flight. Scheduled to land in chicago just before 1400 local time. Thanks for finishing up the week matthew. Hope you are feeling better.

  4. Sorry, but not being a Brit or a resident American, I don’t know about “lurgy”. The web tells me it’s a fictional disease. Should I conclude from this that Matthew is not sick at all?

    1. More like “real but unspecified” (generally in the colds and feeling crappy category). Perhaps a cootie in American but that’s not quite it.

  5. Amazing science, Matthew. Smells are so complicated and so interesting. You touched on the importance to memory, and rightly so as for our experiences like those who have lost loved ones and go into the closet to smell the deceased ones clothes. I also recall my memory flashes when I sensed a certain steam smell. And the most important to me is how you mentioned the complexity of smell science. It reminded me of Stephen J Gould’s article about the many fig tree species. This led to how could Jesus curse that tree … it proves that he, the supposed creator of all things … knew nothing about how each fig species has a unique insect pollinator … leading me to assume that all religion, culture, language and philosophy is MADE UP by us humans.

  6. I remember once on the Infinite Monkey Cage (maybe more than once) Brian Cox referred to Jim al-Khalili as “Jimmy Alka Seltzer”. Do they not get along, or was that just ribbing between colleagues who are sort of competitors in the popularization of science business?

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