Episode 7 Bang Goes the Theory


Episode 7

Science series. Dallas investigates a potential helium shortage, Dr Yan tests shoppers on how much they know about radiation, and Liz tries out new airport security technology.


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Transcript


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Tonight Dallas investigates a global helium crisis and discovers why we should care.

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Running out of helium would be really bad news.

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It has a special property - the lowest boiling point of any known substance in the universe.

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Liz tries out a new, controversial airport security device

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that can see beneath your clothes.

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I am concealing a non-metallic weapon on my person right now that neither detector picked up.

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That's Bang Goes The Theory.

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Hello and welcome to tonight's show. Thank you very much for joining us.

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Now if I were to tell you that helium was running out, you might think, "So what?"

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Fewer party balloons, no more squeaky voices, but there's more to helium than that.

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It's vital for a whole host of hi-tech industries that would really struggle without it.

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These days, we're really used to hearing about natural resources running out - oil, coal,

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rain forest, minerals, tigers. That sort of thing. But did you know helium is a valuable resource, too,

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with finite reserves that are quickly running out.

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I don't know about you, but I've never thought about what happens to the helium inside my balloon

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when I let it go. Maybe I should.

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'Because what goes up doesn't always come down.

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'Although the skin of a balloon will eventually drop back to Earth, the helium inside won't.'

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The helium will continue up to the top of the atmosphere and eventually diffuse off into space.

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Gone forever.

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'Now that is a problem because you can't make new helium.

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'So once we've lost all the naturally available stuff, there simply won't be any left.

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'I'm on a helium mission and it's brought me to Texas and the legendary town of Amarillo.'

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Tony Christie was right. Even with the sat nav, I cannot find the way to Amarillo.

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-SAT NAV: 'Drive 300 feet then turn right.'

-That's the way to Amarillo!

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'Amarillo holds the status of being the helium capital of the world,

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'a fact that Tony Christie fails to mention.'

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Running out of helium would be really bad news,

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not just for putting a dampener on kids' parties. Helium has another really important use

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because it has a very special property - the lowest boiling point

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of any known substance in the entire universe.

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In liquid form, its temperature drops to minus 269 degrees Celsius.

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That's only four degrees above absolute zero.

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'That makes it perfect for creating super-conducting electromagnets,

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'which are crucial components for medical MRI scanners.

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'In fact, almost a third of the helium sold every year is for use in MRI and other instruments.'

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Basically, without it we're going to be really stuck

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and if the current global demand continues, we could be facing a shortage in the next 40 years.

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'That's strange because it's the second most common element after hydrogen.

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'A quarter of the mass of the entire universe is helium. Most was formed by nuclear fusion

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'moments after the Big Bang.'

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It is still being created up there, wherever nuclear fusion goes on.

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That is the process that drives the stars, that drives our Sun,

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where you have hydrogen atoms being mashed together to create brand-new helium atoms, but unfortunately,

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that process is really difficult to recreate here on Earth.

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'And that is what brings me here to a place that has more helium than anywhere else on the planet.'

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-Hi, there. It's Dallas Campbell.

-'Come on in.'

-Thank you.

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'For such a precious resource, I'm surprised it isn't more heavily guarded.

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'Apparently, the helium is through here.'

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A kilometre or so beneath my feet is a gargantuan helium reservoir

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that stretches out pretty much as far as the eye can see.

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The helium's made by the radioactive decay of heavy metals in the rock,

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which means, apart from anything else, it forms very, very slowly.

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Over millions of years, the gas actually collects in subterranean pockets or reservoirs.

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It's easy to imagine, when you say reservoirs, huge cavernous spaces underground,

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but all we're talking about is areas of porous rock.

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I've got some core samples here taken thousands of feet underground. You can see the porous rock here,

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these tiny little holes, which are perfect for collecting helium or any other gas.

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'Helium naturally forms alongside methane, the natural gas we burn for cooking and heating.

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'In most gas fields, only a tiny fraction is helium and it's hardly worth extracting,

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'but in the 1950s, US miners found levels as high as 7%.

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'There had never been much use for the stuff before, but the arrival of the space race changed that.'

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Helium was very important in developing the atom bomb

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and in the early days of our defence systems and in the space race.

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They felt it was all being wasted, so they developed a programme to extract the helium in Kansas,

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Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle right here, and inject it into the ground right here.

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It sounds really odd that you can actually use solid rock as a storage tank.

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-You take helium from elsewhere and pump it into the ground here.

-That was the original purpose.

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'By the time the Cold War was over, there was a worldwide demand for helium in scientific research.

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'Maintaining this huge reservoir was expensive, so America began to sell it off at a rock bottom price.'

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We produce about one-third of the world's helium supplies from here.

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-That's not just America - that's from right here?

-From that point in the background.

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'Now the flow of helium is reversed. Instead of pumping it into the ground through this valve,

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'they open the tap and sell it to us.' In theory, could I stick a balloon at the end...?

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In theory, but it would pop very quickly.

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'While the scientific community carefully accounts for every bit of helium used and tries to recycle it,

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'16% of the world's helium is still used in party balloons and airships.

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-'They can hardly supply it fast enough.'

-It goes through this. It's 350 miles long.

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It goes all the way up to Kansas.

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'So at current rates there's about 10 years' worth of helium stored here.

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'After that, there's only the tiny traces found in natural gas fields.

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'That will be much more expensive to extract and eventually it's going to run out.'

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It just feels bonkers to think that here I am standing in Amarillo on one third

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of the entire world's helium supply,

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but things like MRI scanners, cryogenics and high technologies rely on helium so much

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it's a really, really important resource.

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If we run out of helium there, how are these machines which rely on helium going to function?

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That's really the nub of the matter. MRI is so much part of our lives.

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Once the helium we've got stored is used up, a bit like oil,

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eventually it will become really difficult to extract, the price goes up and we're in real trouble.

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Can we not make a lot of helium ourselves in some way? Surely?

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-Only through nuclear reactions. You can either squeeze hydrogen atoms together...

-Bare hands.

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..to make helium, and that's nuclear fusion, or you can make it through fission,

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the radioactive decay of larger elements, but we can't make much.

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-Ergo, it's very difficult, then.

-Yes.

-My advice, next kids' birthday party, book a magician.

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Nonetheless, we have some balloons here. Not helium balloons.

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These two are inflated to markedly different sizes, connected by a pipe with a peg.

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If I remove that peg to allow gas to flow freely between the balloons,

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what happens to their sizes?

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Like many of Dr Yan's brain teasers, think outside the box a bit. This is a good one.

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-Don't give the answer away.

-I won't!

-Think about it,

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then go onto the website where Dr Yan has all the answers.

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While we're talking about helium and elements, the Open University have put up an all-singing, all-dancing

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-interactive Periodic Table for your delight and delectation. All the details are at /bang.

-Nice.

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Let's get back to Dr Yan and his adventures in science.

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This is something I'm interested in - radiation. That word strikes fear in most of us,

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so Dr Yan is testing our perception and knowledge of that word with some of the public.

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Thank you for coming along.

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I've got a couple of things from my high street shops and round about. Nothing unusual.

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There are things here that are radioactive. What I'd like you to do

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is put all the stuff you think is radioactive here

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and all the stuff that isn't over there.

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-An alarm clock?

-Radioactive because it's luminous.

-Definitely.

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I'd say no.

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-The glow in the dark bit is.

-Radioactive? OK.

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-Brazil nuts. Anyone think Brazil buts are radioactive?

-No.

-OK.

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-Yeah.

-We'll put them here, then.

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-A lump of granite?

-Yes.

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-Yeah?

-It's a little radioactive.

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-Radioactive! Is it not?

-No.

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-Some salt?

-I'd have said not.

-No.

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No?

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-Antique glass bowl?

-Er...I'd say it is. What do you think?

-What do you think?

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No.

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-How about a smoke alarm?

-No...

-No.

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It is, but I don't know why.

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-That's probably radioactive.

-You think that one is?

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Brilliant. OK, thank you.

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So you've got some of those things right, some not.

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I can show you. Here I've got what is called a Geiger counter.

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This measures ionising radiation, high energy radiation.

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First, this isn't radioactive.

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Lots of people think that the luminous paint on the clock makes it radioactive.

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And it used to be the case that they used radium, but nowadays they don't.

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So that goes right down there.

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And the Brazil nuts. You sometimes hear it said they're radioactive.

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That's because the tree has quite a big root network and takes up minerals.

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The ones from Brazil are often more radioactive

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because it has a little bit more uranium in the ground.

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But these aren't from Brazil, so they're not! I can show you.

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You can see it's sort of between one and two per second,

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but it's not the uranium in this case. It's because all living things, like you and me, plants,

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contain potassium and potassium naturally has a very small amount of radioactivity.

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OK? So next...

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This salt here is low sodium salt

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and they replace some of the sodium with potassium in that low salt.

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And so this...is somewhere between 5 and 10 per second.

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Yeah?

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Now how about the other stuff? Well, this bowl here is made out of uranium glass. Glass with uranium!

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It's not got very much uranium in, but...

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-Watch.

-Whoa!

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100.

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So next up is the smoke detector. Inside it is a little pellet of something called americium.

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It's an element. And... it's quite radioactive.

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Oh, no!

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Between 200 and 500 counts per second. But it's giving out a type of radiation

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that doesn't even go through sheets of paper. It's fine.

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Last of all, at the top - granite. People think that's radioactive.

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And you're right. It's got uranium in it. 500 counts a second?

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-You get lots of this in the UK, in Cornwall and places.

-That's where I live! Aaah!

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I've got another little treat for you. Down here...

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I've got a tub of nuclear waste.

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HE LAUGHS

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You're only telling us now?!

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-Where do you think this would lie?

-It's going to be there.

-Way over there.

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Yeah?

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Actually, it's slightly more radioactive than low-sodium salt.

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I'll come clean, actually. This doesn't have radioactive waste.

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I wasn't allowed to bring it out. It's a photo of myself with it.

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You can see about 10 counts per second. A bit more than the salt.

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That's about typical for low-level nuclear waste.

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But if it was high-level radioactive waste, like spent fuel rods from inside a reactor,

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then it would be maybe over a million million counts.

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So right over there, way off the scale.

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The interesting thing is it's a human psychology thing.

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-When people hear the click of a Geiger counter, they react as if their days are numbered.

-Yeah.

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It's important to understand that radiation is all around us

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and background radiation doesn't do us that much harm. In fact, we've evolved to deal with it.

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Here's a really good little factoid.

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10% of the radiation we're exposed to actually comes from inside our bodies.

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-If I put it against me... you should be able to hear...

-You're nuclear!

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Don't confuse the viewers! I'm radioactive.

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You must distinguish between what's dangerous or not.

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You can kind of understand the misunderstanding.

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Radiation is this sort of invisible, rather mysterious force.

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So next week we've decided to dedicate the whole show to radiation and nuclear power.

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It'll be really interesting. We've had such an amazing trip making that programme. Tune in.

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Our dear Dr Yan, he is going to be a judge on a new BBC project

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to find budding amateur scientists.

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You don't have to be an Einstein to have a light bulb moment.

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Anyone anywhere can have a hunch that's worthy of investigation.

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This is where you'll get the chance.

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It's called So You Want To Be A Scientist. If you have a question you want to research, get in touch.

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All the details are on the website with an interview with Ruth Brooks, last year's winner.

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But you've only got until 31st October.

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For a bit of inspiration, we've got genius British ideas

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that have made it past the research stage. I'm loving this one - this can actually help save lives.

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This is a portable water quality tester. It's been trialled by the University of Birmingham

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in places like remote villages in India and South Africa

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where usually it can take a minimum of five days to get results of whether water is drinkable.

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And it works like this. You put a little bit of water in this tube

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and you sample it. This kit measures the amount of tryptophan in the water.

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It's an amino acid that reflects how much organic matter is in the water.

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You get an idea of the disease-causing bacteria, faecal matter. I think this is fantastic.

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Very good indeed. A little bit less hi-tech, but I love it nonetheless

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is concrete cloth.

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It's a cloth impregnated with concrete. Imagine a disaster area.

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You can inflate temporary buildings like they do with a bouncy castle,

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cover it with the concrete cloth, spray it with water, leave it 24 hours and you get this -

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-a rock-hard skin.

-That is amazing.

-All the applications for that - brilliant.

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Let's stick with technology and talk about airport security making the headlines,

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not because it's helping us in the war against terrorism, but because it sees through your clothes.

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Great technology or an invasion of privacy? I went to find out.

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'It may be an inconvenience, but these days airport security is part and parcel of checking in.

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-'And it almost always begins with one of these.

-ALARM SOUNDS

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'A metal detector. It's simple enough technology.

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'A huge magnetic field detects anything metal passing through it,

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'spotting anyone trying to hide a knife or a gun.'

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BEEPS

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Of course, metal detectors are great at detecting, well, metal.

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Ah, my radio mic! Thanks.

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But weapons are made of lots of different materials. I am presently concealing a non-metallic weapon

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on my person right now that neither detector picked up.

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Pat downs and full body searches are an option, but time-consuming.

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The last thing you want is extra-long queues for flights.

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What you need is something that can see through my clothes.

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Of course, while you're going through the metal detector,

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your luggage goes through an X-ray machine, which sees through things. How does it do it?

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With cunningly planted objects - a bottle of shampoo, a hair drier and a see-through necklace -

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I'll find out.

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So my suitcase is going through the X-ray machine. What is going on in there right now?

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As the bag has gone into the X-ray tunnel, we've fired X-ray energy at the bag,

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which has gone through the bag.

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As it goes through, it is absorbed at different rates by different pieces of material it contacts.

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So the energy that goes in is different to the energy coming out and we can make a picture.

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What do the different colours mean?

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Orange depicts something that is positively organic. That means something definitely not metallic.

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So most items fall into the organic range. Blue, as you can see here,

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-is something positively metallic.

-OK.

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If it's not sure or it's an equal combination, it's green.

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-What are you seeing here, then?

-Various liquids.

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You've got a bottle here which looks way outside the legal limit to board an aircraft.

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Yes, it's over 100ml. It's my shampoo.

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-What about over here? What's going on?

-We've got a metallic case because it's blue,

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-but what appears to be, to me, a necklace.

-Why is it black, then?

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Items that are very dense - lead for example or large lumps of metal - they're black.

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It is possible it's polished metal beads or it could be lead crystal.

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'High-energy X-rays reveal what's inside your luggage because they pass through some materials

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'more easily than others, but they're not an option for scanning passengers.

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'As well as going through your clothes, high-energy X-rays will go through your body

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'and can cause harm. Repeated exposure is very dangerous, so we cannot risk X-raying every passenger

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'on every flight. But X-rays aren't the only option.

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'They're just one part of a whole family of electro-magnetic waves.

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'And with the help of some hosepipe at the airport fire station,

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'I'm going to show you some of the others.'

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Electro-magnetic radiation can be described as energy that travels in waves through space.

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There's lots of different types of radiation depending on its wavelength and frequency.

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The entire range of radiation can be described in the electro-magnetic spectrum.

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'X-rays are among the smallest, just above the tiny gamma waves.'

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Wavelengths here can be as small as one picometre in length.

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The thickness of one strand of my hair is 50 million picometres, so that's very short wavelengths.

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'Almost a million times bigger, light waves are still under a thousandth of a millimetre.

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'Microwaves can be a whole centimetre. Then, finally, there are radio waves,

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'which can be tens or even hundreds of metres long.

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'Each of these waves can pass through different materials.

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'What we need at the airport is something that uses a wave that gets through clothes, but not bodies.

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'And here it is. The millimetre wave scanner.'

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The good thing about this energy level is it's not absorbed by the body, so it's very safe to use.

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It will go through your clothes. Your body is much more dense, so it will reflect the vast majority

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back to the scanner. We then measure that millimetric wave radiation and turn it into a picture

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to look at the contours of your body for anything concealed.

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OK, let's do it before I lose my bottle and run off.

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-I'm going to walk over here. Stand on that circle.

-'So will it spot this hidden weapon of mine?

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'Or, come to think of it, anything else under my clothes?'

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-And stop there.

-OK. I forgot to suck in my belly!

-It'll be fine.

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-OK, here's the image of your entire body.

-But have you found my weapon?

-I think so.

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-Have you? Go on.

-If we turn it round, I believe you have a knife

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-placed on the small of your back, but between your bra.

-Well done!

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It is actually a knife. A ceramic knife, stuck into my bra strap. Awesome.

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-And the radiation found it.

-It really did. Excellent stuff.

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'With a new generation of scanners rolling out at airports across the UK,

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'checking in has never been safer or quicker.'

0:24:110:24:14

It's an amazing bit of tech, but it does raise privacy questions.

0:24:140:24:19

-There will be people at home watching that thinking, "I am not walking through that."

-I know.

0:24:190:24:25

It is understandable, but for those scanners, the operators of the visual part of the scanner

0:24:250:24:31

are nowhere near the scanner. They never see the individual go through.

0:24:310:24:36

They're always same sex operators. A woman operator looks at women.

0:24:360:24:40

The images are never recorded and also because the whole scanning technology is based on contours,

0:24:400:24:47

your underwear is so close to your body that it helps conceal the more detailed bits of your anatomy.

0:24:470:24:53

Your bits and bobs. Fair enough, but still people will worry. Is it going to be compulsory?

0:24:530:24:59

So far, these haven't rolled out across the UK and the guidelines aren't set in stone.

0:24:590:25:04

Ultimately, it's going to be down to each airport to decide.

0:25:040:25:09

Something I was a bit more curious about is the safe exposure limits.

0:25:090:25:14

Say, for example, I was a frequent flyer going through these things five, ten times a week.

0:25:140:25:20

-Is that too much?

-I fly a lot for my job and had the same question.

0:25:200:25:25

These scanners have been rigorously tested and the results are they don't cause you any harm.

0:25:250:25:31

-The operators can stand beside it 24/7 and the health risks are negligible.

-There you go.

0:25:310:25:38

We've come to the end of the show. In two weeks' we're in Manchester doing Bang Live.

0:25:380:25:44

We'd love it if you came to see us. All the details are at /bang.

0:25:440:25:48

And you can catch up on one of our favourite projects from the past.

0:25:480:25:52

Remember my coffee-powered car?

0:25:520:25:55

4.30am. Time to wake up and smell the coffee.

0:25:550:25:58

But I'm not drinking it. I'm converting it into flammable gas

0:25:580:26:03

that hopefully will get this car 210 miles from BBC Television Centre to Manchester.

0:26:030:26:10

It couldn't have started any better and then gone any worse.

0:26:150:26:20

The car overheats, then we have to pull it onto a truck, then we can't start it again.

0:26:200:26:25

We have a problem with gas quality. We're supposed to be in Manchester, we're not even in Birmingham.

0:26:250:26:32

APPLAUSE

0:26:420:26:44

That was absolutely amazing!

0:26:470:26:49

Guys!

0:26:490:26:51

Well, since that epic journey to Manchester,

0:26:510:26:55

somebody's taken the idea and seriously pimped it up.

0:26:550:26:59

And just a few days ago, Coffee Car Mark 2 made an attempt on a new land speed record.

0:27:020:27:09

ENGINE SPLUTTERS

0:27:130:27:15

True to form, not everything went to plan.

0:27:150:27:18

# Raindrops are falling on my head

0:27:180:27:22

# But that doesn't mean my eyes will soon be turning red

0:27:220:27:28

# Crying's not for me... #

0:27:280:27:30

You can see how it all turned out and get the full story on /bang.

0:27:300:27:36

# Because I'm free... #

0:27:360:27:40

Indeed. As we mentioned earlier, next week is a bit special.

0:27:410:27:45

We're going to look at nuclear power, at radiation - what it is and why it's so controversial.

0:27:450:27:51

-We'll see you then. Bye bye.

-Bye.

-Bye.

0:27:510:27:55

Subtitles by Subtext for Red Bee Media Ltd - 2011

0:28:100:28:14

Email [email protected]

0:28:150:28:17

Dallas investigates a potential global helium shortage, Dr Yan tests shoppers on how much they know about radiation, and Liz tries out the new airport security technology that can see beneath your clothes.