What’s It All About? on RTE Radio 1, Maths on Mars (Episode 4)

Pure Maths Formula

Without maths men would not have walked on the Moon, and we wouldn’t appreciate Mozart or Beethoven’s great harmonic symphonies [Credit: Wikipedia]


When many of us think of maths, we might instinctively suppress a yawn as we recall boring theorems, dull algebra and uninspiring teachers.

Yet without question, maths is exciting, challenging and responsible for some of humanity’s greatest achievements.

The landing of two men on the Moon in 1969 would not have been possible without maths, nor would we be able to appreciate the great harmonic symphonies of Mozart or Beethoven.

Without maths, in fact, there would be a lot less beauty in the world, and in this episode we explore the majesty, beauty and even poetry of maths.

The seven minutes of Martian terror

In August 2012 the most complicated robotic landing of a craft in the history of space exploration took place on the surface of Mars.

It was an amazing feat of engineering. The Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), weighing about two tonnes, landed safely with all its high-tech equipment.

The spacecraft decelerated in the Martian atmosphere from 13,000 miles per hour to zero miles per hour on the surface, using all manner of engineering tricks.

Throughout the complex landing and navigation sequence a type of mathematical equation, devised in 1843 by an Irishman in Dublin, proved crucial to its success.

That man was William Rowan Hamilton, a brilliant mathematician from Trinity College Dublin, and the equations in question are called quaternions.

We talk to the chief NASA engineer responsible for landing the MSL on Mars about the importance of quaternions to the success of the mission.

Miguel San Martin describes the terror he felt when his team had to wait seven minutes for a signal from Mars to confirm the craft was safe or destroyed.

It was a moment of high tension involving eight years of preparation and an investment of $2.5 billion – and quaternions were at the heart of the drama.

View video depiction of seven minutes of terror below:

Moon landings: The Dublin link

Regan Hutchins describes the often troubled life and work of one of Ireland’s greatest mathematicians, William Rowan Hamilton.

WR Hamilton, a Dubliner born on Dominick Street, lived in the 19th century, but his mathematics continues to have enormous impact on the world today.

For example, his work is considered crucial to the navigation and landing of spacecraft, and is also used to design the latest high-tech video games.

His most important piece of work stemmed from an insight he had while walking along the banks of the Royal Canal one bright morning in 1843.

Regan Hutchins visited the spot at Broom Bridge in Cabra with Dr. Fiacre O’Cairbre, senior lecturer in maths at NUI Maynooth, where Hamilton had a flash of inspiration about quaternions.

Regan also paid a visit to Hamilton’s home in Dunsink Observatory with Professor Iggy McGovern from Trinity College Dublin, to find out more about Hamilton’s life.

Pythagoras and musical harmony

The reason we hear music as “nice” or “not nice” depends on mathematical ratios, Dr. Bob Lawlor, NUI Maynooth, told our reporter Lorcan Clancy.

Pythagoras, the famous mathematician of the ancient world, invented the theorem we learned in school, but he also developed the original musical scale.

It is thought Pythagoras gained insight into how mathematical ratios explain pitch and harmony by listening to blacksmiths striking anvils.

He built a monochord – an early single-stringed instrument – and found that pitch was inversely proportional to the length of the monochord string.

This work by Pythagoras explains why we can recognise a discordant sound in the midst of a beautiful, harmonic piece of music.

We humans, it seems, prefer symmetry, even when it comes to music.

Maths can forecast volcanic eruptions

You might be surprised to learn that scientists are still unable to predict the precise time, date and location of a volcanic eruption.

However, scientists like Professor Chris Bean (University College Dublin), a mathematician by training, are getting far better at forecasting the chances of an eruption.

We visited the UCD campus to talk to Chris about maths and its importance in his volcano work.

Maths is used to forecast the weather. It’s not possible to predict that it will rain on Grafton Street at 2pm tomorrow, but we can say there is a “strong chance of showers”. The same applies to how scientists predict volcanic eruptions.

Chris Bean was inspired to apply his mathematical skills to the study of volcanoes after watching the Mount Saint Helens eruption in 1980 on TV.

Sensors are placed on the volcano to measure things like how the ground is shaking, the nature of gas leakages, and the surrounding water chemistry.

Mathematics are used to analyse the resulting data, which then allows scientists to make reliable forecasts.

Each volcano is different, but the scientific strategy is the same: monitor the patterns leading up to a known eruption to try and predict the next one.

Why do we use certain numbers?

Fiacre O’Cairbre tells Lorcan Clancy why certain numbers like 12 are important to us.

The use of 12 as a so-called base number – a basic multiplication unit underpinning a system of numbers – has its origins in the ancient world.

The fact that there are seven days in a week can be traced back to the Babylonians who believed there were seven planets, including the Sun. The Babylonians dedicated one day each to a planet, which is how we came to have seven days in a week.

Meanwhile, the reason that 60 is important, says Fiacre O’Cairbre, is because it is the smallest number divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.

The Babylonians saw that 60 was a good base number for doing divisional calculations in real world, such as dividing up inheritances or bags of grain.

Today, base 10 is the key to the metric system. However, number systems go in and out of fashion and today’s system could change again in the future.

The majesty of maths in ancient Ireland

There is plenty of evidence that the people of the ancient world, the builders and architects at least, had a very good knowledge of mathematics.

The builders of Stonehenge, for example, clearly had an understanding of squares and circles, but in Ireland we something just as fascinating.

The Céide Fields near Belderrig, north Mayo, were discovered by Patrick Caulfield in 1934 when he found stone walls buried beneath the bog.

Researchers, including Patrick’s son Seamus Caulfield, have since unearthed a huge, buried landscape 5,500 years old.

Our reporter Lorcan Clancy visited the Céide Fields Visitor Centre and spoke to site manager Greta Byrne about why the site is so special.

Lorcan also spoke to Seamus Caulfield, who began work on the Céide Fields in 1970, and who gave up his job as a teacher to become an archaeologist.

Seamus describes how the buried Fields, which cover thousands of acres of north Co. Mayo, were systematically divided up thousands of years ago.

For more on the Céide Fields visit


What’s It All About? on RTE Radio 1, Life, Death & Beyond (Episode 3)


Seeing a bright light is commonly reported by survivors or near-death experiences [Credit: howstuffworks.com]

Click HERE to listen

Ever wonder whether science could shed light on so-called ‘near death experiences’ or what happens to us after we die? Ever wonder how long we might live? Or ponder whether we could we even life forever? What will be mankind’s ultimate future? Will we merge with machines?

These are some of the questions myself Sean Duke, and Colette Kinsella, explored here in episode e of the four part series What’s It All About?  for RTE Radio 1

The near-death experience

In 1968 Gillian MacKenzie had a near-death experience during a complicated pregnancy.

Gillian was prepared for an emergency Caesarian section, and while she was being wheeled towards the operating theatre she describes the feeling of leaving her body through her head. She says she then floated towards a pinprick of light and entered a tunnel, where she was surrounded by white light and experienced feelings of bliss.

While surrounded by the light Gillian heard a male voice proclaim, “you know who I am!”. The voice then introduced her to her dead grandfather, who  said she would have to put up a good case if she wanted to return. She told them that she had to go back as her husband Hamish “doesn’t know how to iron his shirts”.

She then remembers being up on the ceiling of the operating theatre looking down on herself haemorrhaging. She even saw the bags of blood being used for the blood transfusion.

Gillian has no explanation for her experience, which remains as vivid now as it was then. She is 80 years old and not religious but, she says, the experience has erased all fear of dying. “I’m travelling hopefully,” is how she describes her views of the afterlife.

How long can we live?

Nick Bostrom is a scientist, futurologist and philosopher and the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.

Is it possible that technology will change human nature?  This is the type of question that Nick Bostrom considers on a daily basis in his work.

Technology, he believes, is changing human nature. Once we develop machines that surpass human intelligence – and he’s fully convinced this will happen– these machines may work out how to make humans  live forever.

Part of this process may include uploading an entire brain onto a machine; by  extracting and uploading the neuronic architecture of a person’s brain onto a hard drive, it will be possible to transfer a person’s memories, personality and consciousness into an engineered body.

For more on Nick Bostrom:



Can we defeat ageing?

Aubrey de Grey, 50, is the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, a biomedical charity research organization based in California that was set up to defeat ageing.

De Grey believes that the ageing process in humans is similar to how a machine, like a car, ages. There is an accumulation of wear and tear over time, and without regular maintenance the doors of the car might fall off. With maintenance, this can be postponed.

There are a number of biomedical reasons why we age, says Aubrey. He believes these these issues will be addressed in coming decades, so that anyone aged 50 or younger might stand to benefit.

De Grey believes ageing can be defeated and that this is the natural course of medical development. He argues that medicine has always sought to extend life, and that it will eventually become possible to extend human life indefinitely.

For more on Aubrey de Grey:



Can we stay active and healthy for longer?

Advances in the use of stem cell technology means we will soon be able to perform effective  repairs on various parts of our bodies.

This type of treatment is known as “regenerative medicine”, and it will be used to repair cells in arthritic bone, or even damaged heart or brain tissue.

Frank Barry is the Director of the REMEDI Institute at NUI Galway, and he explains what this technology can do now, and what it might be able to do in the future.

For more on Frank Barry:



Should science be striving for immortality?

Daniel Callahan, 83, is co-founder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center, a leading bio-ethical research centre in the US.

Daniel believes that a lifespan of around 80 years is sufficient for a person to achieve what he or she needs to over the course of a lifetime.

And while life extension might be good for individuals, he feels it won’t be good for wider society as an increase in population will accelerate global warming and drain resources, among other things.

He also thinks most old people don’t want to live forever. It’s interesting to note, he says, that the research into life-extending technology is driven by people in their 40s or 50s who, perhaps, find it hard to imagine letting go of life.

For more on Daniel Callahan:



Are we merging with machines?

Futurologist are predicting that humans will eventually become cyborgs, i.e we will merge with machines. But many of us are on that path already: if you have a prosthetic joint or an artificial heart valve, you’re already partially bionic.

But advances in neuroscience and robotics are ushering in a new era of human-machine interactions where thought-controlled artificial limbs are now a reality.

One of the leading labs spearheading thought-control research is that of John Donoghue, Brown University, in the US, who we talk to here.

John explains how his researchers learned how to translate thoughts into electrical signals that allow an amputee to control an artificial limb.

For more on John Donoghue:


Liam Geraghty talks to Danish man Dennis Sorenson, 36, who earlier this year received the world’s first bionic hand that provides its user with sensory feedback. Dennis lost his hand and most of his arm during an accident with a firecracker several years ago.

The economics of the afterlife

Millica Bookman is the author of Do They Take Credit Cards in Heaven? This book looks at cultural views of the afterlife from the perspective of economics.

Take “outsourcing”, for example. Millica describes how “sin eaters” in 17th-century England were paid to take away the sins of the dead by eating bread left on the chest of the deceased.

She also describes how the ancient Greeks believed they had to pay to enter the afterlife, which is why a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased before burial.

Unusual traditions have sprung up in modern times too. In China, for example, people often place Viagra in coffins, while in the West people are often laid to rest with things like a bottle of wine or reading glasses for company.

Does consciousness survive after the brain dies?

Peter Fenwick is a consultant neuro-psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He has researched near-death experiences over many decades, as well as the science of what happens when we die.

Peter’s research led him to question the nature of human consciousness, and his results point towards the idea that consciousness continues in some form after the brain dies.

Steven Laureys is a Belgian neuroscientist and leader of the Coma Science Group at the Liège University Hospital in Belgium.

Steven studies near-death experiences in coma patients, and he believes that the near death-experiences of bliss, being out of body, and seeing a tunnel can all be re-created by stimulating the brain in particular ways.

For more on Peter Fenwick view interview below:

For more on Stephen Laureys:


What’s It All About? on RTE Radio 1, The Search for ET (Episode 2)

Seth Shostak

Seth Shostak, pictured above, an astronomer with the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Programme believes that evidence for ET will be found in the next few decades [Picture Credit: SETI]

Did you ever wonder where ET might be hiding? What he might look like? When we might find him? What the ‘real ET’ might say to us, and us to him, if we made contact? What would be the likely consequences on Earth from ET phoning us?

These are some of the questions myself Sean Duke, and Colette Kinsella, explored here in episode 2 of the four part series What’s It All About?  for RTE Radio 1

Click HERE to listen

This week’s contributors:

Professor Andy Shearer, Director of the Centre for Astronomy at NUI Galway acts as our celestial guide as we voyage into the vastness of space. Andy explains that even at light speed it would take 4 years for a signal to reach Earth, even from our nearest Star, Alpha Centauri. From other more distant parts of our Galaxy, it would take a signal, again travelling at light speed, hundreds of thousands of light years to reach us here.

Then, beyond that, there exists hundreds of billions of other galaxies, some of which would take hundreds of billions of years for light to reach. This is not even including the strong possibility that our Universe is just one of many more Universes that are in existence.


Dr Jerry Ehman an astronomer working at the Big Ear Telescope in Ohio discovered a radio message, apparently from deep space a few days after it was received by the telescope close to midnight on the 15th August 1977. This became the now legendary ‘Wow signal’.

According to Dr Ehman, an astronomer working with the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Life Programme) this had ‘all the attributes of a signal from an extra-terrestrial civilization’.

The signal arrived in at 1420 megahertz – a frequency that has little natural interferences – and lasted for 72 seconds before disappearing again.

The now retired Dr Ehman talks here, almost 37 years after his famous discovery. He says the signal still today cannot be explained by any man-made, or natural sources and it has remained mysterious.


Seth Shostak, senior astronomer at the SETI Institute explains how the search for ET has progressed over the decades and what the prospects are now for finding ET.

Seth believes that a signal from ET will be found in the next few decades thanks to science’s growing ability to search faster and more accurately.

He is often asked at parties whether ET might just NOT be out there. His replay is that this is akin to proclaiming – after searching 1 square mile of Africa and finding no elephants – that there are no elephants in Africa.


Professor Paul Davies is a British astronomer based in Arizona. He believes one of the reasons why the search for ET has yielded nothing but ‘An Eerie Silence’ (the title of one of his books) is because we don’t know what to look for.

The likelihood, according to Paul, who is Director of the Beyond Centre at the University of Arizona, is that ET might be post-biological. In other words and advanced civilization might have cast off the shackles of biology, and become some kind advanced, non-living, super-intelligent system.

We have been looking for ET in our own image, says Paul, and that’s a mistake, as we have to imagine the imaginable to successfully find ET.


Paolo Nespoli, a highly experienced Italian astronaut, who has spent a lot of time on the International Space Station (I.S.S.) describes what life is like in space..

This is a weird world, in which micro-gravity has a marked effect on the body, causing wasting of muscles and bone, as the I.S.S. constantly ‘falls’ at 8km per second.

Paolo, who spent months onboard the I.S.S. said that the speed the station travels at means there are 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets each day.

He maintained contact with the world, by telephoning his family each day, and there was Internet (albeit very slow) which he used to send tweets, pictures of space and even do his taxes online.


Professor Anthony Murphy, NUI Maynooth, describes the darkness and numbing cold of space, where temperatures hover just above ‘absolute zero’.

This is a place, he says, where nothing can be heard, and it would not be possible to speak as there is no air to carry sounds. If a person was transported to space they would be frozen and asphyxiated instantly.


Dr Brian Caulfield, UCD, is working to develop technology to help humans stay healthier for longer in space.He is working with a company called Biomedical Research to develop a machine that can help prevent muscles from wasting, increase calorie burn, and heart rate, in order to limit the damaging effects of micro-gravity.





What’s It All About on RTE Radio 1, The Brain (Episode 1)

Scientists are only beginning to unlock some of the secrets of the remarkable human brain (Credit: howtofascinate.com)

Scientists are only beginning to unlock some of the secrets of the remarkable human brain (Credit: howtofascinate.com)

What makes a psychopath? Why are some people more empathetic to others? How does mindfulness change the brain? Are parasites controlling our minds? Are infections a significant cause of mental illness in humans?

These are some of the questions myself Sean Duke, and Colette Kinsella, explored here in episode 1 of What’s It All About? on RTE Radio 1


The week’s contributors:

Dr. Robert Hare is a Canadian psychologist and researcher, who was the first to suggest that psychopaths’ brains might be ‘wired differently. He is the author of several bestselling books about psychopaths including ‘Snakes in Suits‘ which described how psychopaths operate in the corporate world. For more information on Dr Hare visit http://www.hare.org/welcome/


Prof. Christian Keyers is a Dutch scientist and part of the group of researchers that discovered ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain. These neurons are active when we are subconsciously imitating the actions of other people or their  patterns of speech. Christian wrote a book, ‘The Empathic Brain‘ which provides a scientific explanation for empathy. For more information on Prof Keysers visit: http://www.empathicbrain.com/


Donna Andersen is an entrepreneur, author and owner of the website http://www.lovefraud.com Donna set up this website after a disastrous two-year marriage. She has also written two books, ‘Love Fraud‘ and ‘Red Flags of Love Fraud‘ to provide useful information for people who are in, or who have been in, damaging relationships with psychopaths/sociopaths.


Dr Dusana Dorjee is a neuroscientist based at the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice in the School of Psychology at Bangor University. Her research investigates the links between mindfulness and mental well-being. She is particularly interested in mindfulness as it impacts on the mental health in children and adolescents. For more information about Dr Dorjee visit: http://www.mindfulbrain.bangor.ac.uk


Joanne O’Malley  is a mindfulness facilitator trained by the Centre of Mindfulness Research and Practice,  at Bangor University. The recording used some background sounds from a class given by Joanne O’Malley, of ‘Mindfulness at Work’ now known as ‘Mindfulness and Compassion’. She offers Mindfulness Courses and Training in Dublin. For more information email: info@mindfulnessandcompassion.ie or visit http://www.mindfulnessandcompassion.ie


Carl Zimmer is a world-class science writer and columnist with The New York Times, where his column, ‘Matter’, appears each Thursday. In his books, essays, articles and blog posts, Carl reports from the frontiers of biology, where scientists are expanding our understanding of life. He is a popular speaker at universities, medical schools, museums and festivals, and he is also a regular guest on popular US radio shows such as This American Life. He is the author of several books, including ‘Parasite Rex’. To find out more about Carl and his work visit his blog at http://carlzimmer.com/


Dr Jaroslav Flegr is a Professor of Biology at Charles University in Prague. He is a parasitologist, evolutionary biologist, and the author of the book ‘Frozen Evolution’. Dr Flegr work on the influence of toxoplasmosis infection on personality, sex ratios, and risks of traffic accidents, has received substantial media attention, with his work on road accidents being particularly prominent. He has claimed that Toxoplasma gondii infection might increase the number of road accidents by as much as one million crashes worldwide per year. For more information on Jaroslav’s work visit http://web.natur.cuni.cz/flegr/index.php


Dr. E. Fuller Torrey is a renowned research psychiatrist specializing in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). He is a founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which supports research on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He is also a Professor of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.He has also carried out research in Ireland and Papua New Guinea. For more on Dr Torrey and his research visit http://www.treatmentadvocacycentre.org/about-us/dr-e-fuller-torrey


Professor Joanne Webster is a scientist at the Imperial College London. After gaining a double First class B.Sc. hons, she did a D.Phil at the University of Oxford where she examined the epidemiology of zoonotic disease within the UK. Her doctoral research developed a new line of research on the impact of Toxoplasma gondii on host behaviour and is association with chronic disease. For more on Prof. Webster visit http://bit.ly/1l3KyNa



Is there life after death? What does the science suggest?

near-death experiences

People that report ‘near-death’ experiences often mention being drawn to a white light (Image credit: howstuffworks.com)

We all have an opinion on whether there is life after death. For many of us, life is made just a little bit less complicated by a conviction that there is NO life after death. That this is end. Nothing more to think about.

Top scientists, and some leading science writers, are notoriously skeptical when it comes to believing in life after death, or in the tenets or organised religion. Most of them simply don’t buy the arguments. They believe it’s all nonsense. However……

As part of our investigation into this question on RTE Radio 1’s What’s It All About? we came across scientists that are discovering data that can’t be explained by death being the end point. That we are plugged in, and alive, and then, suddenly, we are plugged out – gone.

The series is co-presented and produced by myself, Sean Duke, and Colette Kinsella.

On Sunday next, at 7pm, we’ll be taking a closer look at the science of near-death experiences, and how it is that people that have been medically ‘brain dead’ can come back to describe details of how they were ‘brought back to life’ in the operating room.

We’ll hear real stories from real people, and talk to scientists who are at the coalface of trying to better understand death, and what happens before and after death.

We’ll consider why  is it that animals seem to know when people are about to die? Why is it that so many people, all over the world, report similar – overwhelmingly pleasant – experiences of near-death, such as seeing a white light, or meeting a dead loved one?

And, we’ll talk to a scientist that believes that all of this might become irrelevant in the not-to-distant future, as scientists find a ‘cure’ for ageing and death itself.

If you are interested in these questions, and, let’s face it, who isn’t, then tune in on Sunday to hear more. We’d be delighted to have you!