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The Meridian - S03E04

A transcription of the fourth episode of season three.

Nic:  This is the 4th and final episode of this very short third season of the Meridian.  

Crossing our local Meridian today we have Professor Marie Dacke visiting us from the Department of Biology where she is part of the Land Vision group studying nocturnal animals and how they navigate using stars. Later in the episode, we will also bring you some more cosmic curiosities. This is the part of the show where you can hear about some interesting ideas, events or trivia from astronomic history. Yes, history has become legend and legend has become myth and some things that should have not have been forgotten will now be rediscovered in our cosmic curiosities.  

Don't miss it.


The intro scene includes background music and 24 high school students saying astronomical words like “Space missions”,  "Solar wind", "The big dipper", "Galactic dynamics", "Gravitational waves", "Exoplanets", "Black holes", "Betelgeuse", "Dark energy", "Near earth asteroids", "Jupiter", "Ground based telescopes" and more.  Slowly it fades to everyone saying “The Meridian”.      


Nic: Hey, Rebecca.  

Rebecca: Hi Nic

Nic: How are you?

Rebecca: I'm really good. How are you?

Nic: I'm great. What are we talking about today?

Rebecca: So I thought we'd talk about something that I think is quite fun and it's called the IgNobel Prize.

Nic: OK. The IgNobel Prize, OK.

Rebecca: You might know that I'm … I wouldn’t say  a big fan, but I do follow the Nobel Prize whenever they're announced. And yeah, it's a big thing – I would say it's like “Science Christmas”.

Nic: Yeah, they're a pretty big deal.

Rebecca: Yeah. But IgNobel prize even so.

Nic: OK, So what is the IgNobel Prize?

Rebecca: The IgNobel Prize is a prize that is supposed to first make you laugh.

Nic: Ok..  

Rebecca: ...and then make you think. So it's uh, it really is a serious price, I'd say. But yeah, it's been rewarded to quite strange and perhaps a bit quirky research, but it is actual research.

Nic: Right, so science, but you know, maybe reputable or reputable, but maybe a journal may not take it as seriously?

Rebecca: Yea, so I think they actually say that the prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology. So it's supposed to be like: ”Whohoo, science” in a way.

Nic: Right, ok. So like – are there any… what are the examples of these prizes?

Rebecca: Yes, OK. I have many examples. And just like looking at last year, 2022, there are a few that's quite fun. I'd say, for instance, there's one in applied cardiology – so like the study of the heart – and it actually finds that if you made a new romantic partner for the first time that you feel attracted to, your heart rate starts to sync.

Nic: Ohh wow. That's so sweet, huh?

Rebecca: I know I like this, it’s very wholesome. Didn't make you laugh, but you know it's it's very wholesome.

Nic: Well, it does make you feel good. So I'd still say that's valuable science.

Rebecca: Yeah. And there was one, awarded to a researcher here at Lund University, I think two years ago for studying the language of cats.

Nic: The language of cats like? like meowing?

Rebecca: Yeah, like meowing and purring and whatever cats do.

Nic: OK. And like, what did they find?

Rebecca: So what she and I guess her collaborators did is that they have recorded sounds of cats in various places on Earth and found out that cats have different dialects.

Nic: Well, like I think the difference between maybe the Skåne region and the Stockholm region, we have that with cats as well?

Rebecca: Sure, sure. But like I think in a bit larger scale like the difference between a Swedish cat and a Chinese cat.

Nic: Wow, now I'm imagining like a cat with an Australian accent as it meows.

Rebecca: Meow mate.

Nic: Meow mate.

Rebecca: This is actual research that's being conducted here at the university as part of the linguistics, like how cat and human sort of interact with each other.

Nic: Right. That sounds so cool. OK.

Rebecca: I think it's quite cool.

Nic: Now, now I'm getting addicted to hearing these. Do you have anymore?

Rebecca: There is a whole list. Uh, there is one that is a bit more, I'd say, physics, a bit of astronomy related. There isn't a lot of astronomy related ones, but I found one that they discovered that some people could physically be capable of running across the surface of a pond.

Nic: OK.

Rebecca: But if the pond and the person running is on the moon.

Nic: Right. OK.

Rebecca: How would that work out?  

Nic: I don't know. Like, what do you wear a space suit while you're running? or not? is there gravity?

Rebecca: I'm not sure, but the idea is that the gravity is so low that you can in fact run on the pond.

Nic: Right. Maybe if I could hold my breath for long enough. Like I'm fast enough to do that. Maybe maybe I could be one of them.

Rebecca: Yeah, I think, well, you know, we had the astronaut here who really encouraged you to apply to become an astronaut. We need astronauts, so... and they're going with Artemis to the Moon.

Nic: True, that is true. So the next time I see a pool, I should just start running as fast as I can.

Rebecca: To show your skills.

Nic:  To show my skills.

Rebecca: OK. Yeah. And there's so many ones. There are so many! There are few that I guess are a bit more Australian. I try to find Australians or Italian ones. Apparently you have an animal called wombat.

Nic: Yes, we do have wombats.

Rebecca: ..and I'm sorry for listeners here, but apparently they have cube shaped poo

Nic:  Yes, yes, it's an honoured secret amongst us Australians that we have such a great animal to exist. One of the many.

Rebecca: Yeah, I don't know why it has this, uh – feature, but uh, that was a reward at the IgNobel Prize?

Nic: It is quite peculiar I guess, like why did they decide that that's what they wanted.

Rebecca: Evolution. Evolution. Yeah, there's also, I guess one of the more relevant for us is that there is apparently a programme that can detect when a cat is walking across your keyboard.

Nic: Mm-hmm. So you have a lot of these videos and memes on YouTube during the COVID times with, like, zoom meetings and the cat walks across. So someone did some great work and helped us detect these kinds of things.

Rebecca: Apparently so yeah, you can actually Google the IgNobel Prize and you can see the whole list. It's been rewarded for over 30 years now since since 91, there is quite a few and it's like 10 being awarded every year, so it's like quite a lot of different topics and it's varies from whatever they find and what.

Nic: Right. OK.

Rebecca: But actually what I'm very excited about today is that we have an IgNoble Prize winner coming onto the podcast today

Nic: Oh, OK, Who is she?

Rebecca: She is Maria Dacke, Professor of sensory biology here at Lund University.  

Nic: Oh, OK.

Rebecca:  So should we invite her in?

Nic: I definitely think we should. I'm intrigued.



---------------------- Scene change with music.      

Rebecca: And I'd like to welcome Marie Dacke to the pod. Thank you for coming!

Marie: Thank you for having me here.

Rebecca: So you're a professor in biology, right? Could you tell me a bit like about yourself? What do you do here at the university?

Marie: Here at Lund University I'm a professor of sensory biology, which means that I look at how, yeah, the different senses – my main sense is vision – and I look at mostly how vision is involved in how animals find their way.  Around the globe. So I spend a lot of time looking at the sky in my research at the Sun and at stars and the Moon and so forth. So this is a very dear part of my research.

Rebecca: That's great. Like, how did you come into that kind of research and have you always been in Lund?

Marie: Well, so I grew up not far from Lund and then I actually – before I enrolled into university – I took a gap year before I applied to start to study chemistry in Uppsala. Then I went to Australia and I travelled for six months and I spent six months looking for animals. So I realised I don't want to study chemistry I want to study biology. So somehow, and I don't know how I did that, I actually changed it all to study biology in Lund.  ‘Cause I had proven I could live by myself when I was another side of Earth. And this is something I have never ever regretted. I've always been very interested in how animals function so that was a good decision on my behalf, I think.

So I did my my whole my studies up until when I became a PhD in Lund, and then I went to Australia for my postdoc, and then I returned to Lund again because we have some of the absolutely best visual scientists here.

Rebecca: Oh I didn’t know that – that's super cool. Also, my co-host Nic – who is not here today, he's from Australia. So I thought it was a bit of a fun connecion there. So what did you do for your PhD? And then later on your postdoc?

Marie: So in my PhD, I started looking at how spiders used the night sky to find their way home. But spiders are difficult to work with. They're very nervous creatures, so I couldn't be there when the experiments were done and I had to film everything. And then I went with a colleague on one of his trips to South Africa where he worked with the eyes of dung beetles. And this is when I started to work with the compasses of dung beetles.  How they steer a good root in their life. And then for my postdoc in Australia, I work with bees.  So I worked with flight control in bees. Which is also done using the eyes, so that was the common theme.

Rebecca: So this is of course very far away from the kind of research I do. How do you like, study how an animal and like an insect or spider moves like, how can you decipher how they use their environment to move around?

Marie: So I use a lot of behavioural experiments where you very clearly have to ask a question to someone that can't hear you.  

Rebecca: OK.

Marie:   But so let's say that you want to ask the question, “do you use the Sun to steer straight”? The best way to ask the dung beetle that is to displace the Sun by the use of a mirror, for example, if you're outside.  And then you shade the real Sun and then you look at how the animal steers.

Rebecca: Oh, OK.

Marie: We film them and then we track and we analyse their behaviour and if they do use the Sun.  So they say “yes, they do use the Sun”.  They change their direction of their role by 180 degrees when I change the Sun by 180 degrees. And that is the way you have to ask and then understand the answer. And that is the part of my research that I really love.   is to ask the clever in a way that an insect can answer in a way that I understand.





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Frida Palmer in front of telescope
Frida Palmér standing by the meridian circle (taken ca 1929)

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