Gareth Mitchell: From Europe’s leading science university, this is the official podcast of Imperial College London. Hello, I’m Gareth Mitchell, presenter of the BBC’s Digital Planet and a lecturer here in the Science Communication group at Imperial. Welcome to the February edition of our podcast. And a strong start for you this month with a visit to the new centre at Imperial where the plan is to develop the next generation or super durable materials. That’s in just a moment. But we also have the sound of music for you this month, though not with Julie Andrews but with a view to treating various medical conditions, as we investigate music therapy.

Liz Connor: As the brain rewires, processes in the body and mind seem to reorganise themselves.

Simon Proctor: Music has this potential to organise people and draw people into the structure of the music whether it’s physically as a result of neurological damage or whether it’s psychiatric.

GM: We also have some headlines from around the College for you. And on top of all that, what’s great in Chinese literature and does it get lost in translation: some spoken words about the Chinese written word from one of our resident language specialists.

Nicky Harman: Contemporary literature describes all areas of Chinese life. So, for example, you’ve got wonderful stories about migrant workers going to the towns from the countryside and their lives, their happiness, their sadness. If they’re well written these can be absolutely superb stories which are really accessible to anyone because they touch general human dilemmas.

GM: All that and more right here on the official podcast of Imperial College London.

Making the strongest materials on Earth

Let’s kick off then with those ultra strong, ultra durable materials with Professor Bill Lee who is head of the department of materials here at Imperial. Before we hear about this new collaboration in the Structural Ceramics Centre an obvious question to start with: what is meant by structural ceramics?

Bill Lee: Well, structural ceramics are familiar to everybody. You wash your hands in them. You drink your tea out of them. Your houses are built from them. But those are the traditional structural ceramics. What this centre will be working on is materials which are in extreme environments. Ultra high temperatures above 2,000°C. And the highest temperature you’ll get in your oven at home would be 350°C. So you’re talking 8 or 9 times that. Extreme radiation environments in the nuclear industry. Aerospace applications. We’ll be working with big companies like Boeing and NASA in the States. And also they have application in the human body as bone prostheses. And that’s a pretty severe environment too.

GM: And ceramics themselves as materials are not new. If you think of Ming vases going back thousands of years. So where’s the excitement then in this new, well not so new field of structural ceramics, but I suppose where you’re hoping to take the field? What’s so special about these materials?

BL: These materials will be able, for example, if we develop the thermal protection system for the next generation space shuttle, we’ll be able to have vehicles that take off from the ground, go through the atmosphere and then come back down through the atmosphere without having to piggyback on a rocket. And this will be a vehicle that could operate repeatedly. So you’ll have space tourism I suspect on the back of some of the things we’re hoping to do with this centre.

GM: And I suppose as distinct from materials that many of us are aware of, like metals have their limitations, there’s a lot of talk about carbon fibre, for instance. So how do ceramics and structural ceramics, as we’re talking about here, how do they have advantages, for instance, over materials that we are already aware of?

BL: Well, what they don’t do at high temperature is melt like a metal would. There are difficulties. Depending on the atmosphere they may oxidise: react with the atmosphere in some way. But what we’re trying to develop is materials that either don’t react because they’re thermodynamically stable at these very high temperatures or they react in a way that is benign an enables them to carry on functioning. And that may involve reaction to produce a protective layer. Or, in the case of a bone replacement part, where you’re clearly operating in a much lower temperature but in an environment that has nasty blood and body fluids flowing around it. And those ceramics will be developed to be porous but with controlled mechanical property that would match that of bone.

GM: And so you’re talking about materials that are I suppose incredibly advanced. And in order to develop them you need to bring together not just material scientists but mechanical engineers, civil engineers possibly, aeronautical engineers in the aviation and rocketry example we’ve been talking about. And that’s what this new centre is about?

BL: Yes. This is UK, it’s a national centre, and it will be of international importance. But the plan is that this is very much an inclusive centre. So we’ll be making three appointments, academic appointments, jointly between mechanical engineering and materials. There will in addition be appointments of PhD students at other universities, working with researchers at Imperial College. We have funding in the budget to support sabbatical visits by world leaders to come to Imperial; for our people to go to world leading centres. There is funding to host national and international conferences. And we’re hoping to work with the current network to expand that. But basically we’re just trying to get as many people involved as we can.

GM: Can you give us a sense of just how much is involved here, you know, how complex this work is going to be?

BL: Well, the challenge is that currently many of these materials don’t exist. So we have to develop new materials and we have to be to test them. We have to develop the equipment to be able to test them. Looking at the mechanical or thermal properties of materials at temperatures up to and over 2,000°C is just in large part beyond our current capability and the facilities just don’t exist. So we’ll have to work with the manufacturers of those sort of facilities to develop the techniques to enable the measurements to be made. So not only do we have to develop the materials but we also have to develop the capability to measure the properties. And a large part is the modelling aspect. So one of the academics will be a multi-style modelling person. That is a key appointment for us. Because that will enable us to predict potentially what materials may be able to function in the situations that we’re going to put them in.

GM: And this would be really advanced computer modelling you’re talking about here so you can effectively simulate the material and the testing condit ions before you even make them?

BL: Yes, absolutely. With predictive capability hopefully. So we’ll be able to predict how the materials will perform before we get into the very difficult situation of having to measure things at 2,000°C. I spent sometime in America; I came back to the UK in 1990 and the first thin g I bought was a furnace that operated at 2 ,000°C. And it cost a fortune and it was my first research project. And what I found was that at 2,000°C everything reacts with everything and the furnace was destroyed in its first run. And I thought it was the end of my research career. Fortunately it wasn’t. So I know it’s going to be difficult.

GM: I was going to ask you about this almost mythical 2,000°C figure. To the average listener it just sounds very, very hot. Can you put that into some kind of context? I mean can you compare it to the temperature at the core of a nuclear reactor, for instance, or the highest temperature smelting plant. Just how big a deal is 2,000°C to be working with?

BL: A blast furnace, a steel-making furnace, in the hottest part will be something like 1650°C-1700°C. A glass tank where you have molten glass: the hottest part 1500°C-1600°C. I’m not sure about the core of a nuclear reactor. You don’t want it to be too hot that’s for sure. And those are very extreme conditions. Another 400 or 500 on top of that is beyond conditions that things operate in normally. So we’re starting to get to very, very difficult situations. And thermodynamically, you find most things will react with most other things at those sort of temperatures. But there are some materials that don’t. And there are ways of designing the processing and microstructures of the material that enable you to make materials that will operate above 2,000°C. Often carbon based. But there are new generations of ceramic materials which are carbides, borides, mixed carbides and borides and nitrides, often non-oxides but not always, that are very exciting, and there’s a lot of interest worldwide in developing them. Not just for aerospace, which I’ve emphasised, but for next generation nuclear reactors. For acting as hosts for nuclear waste. New ceramic body armour for the military. Vehicle armour for armour protection. Those are the sort of areas I envisage us working in. One that just came into my head is the windows in tanks, you know, people tend to shoot through them. Part of what we will be trying to do and working on is a transparent ceramic composite system that is protective to the occupants of such a vehicle.

GM: So the ultimate bullet-proof glass then?

BL: Yeah, absolutely.

GM: It sounds like you’ve got your work cut out. Well, Bill Lee, thanks very much for talking to us.

BL: My pleasure.

GM: Bill Lee, speaking to me there in the new Imperial College Structural Ceramics Centre.

Well, the structure of this very podcast has been determined with minute attention to detail, which is why, about now, we have some headlines from around the college.

Headlines from around the College

Probiotics, such as yoghurts containing live bacteria may have beneficial health effects. So suggests a study co-authored by Imperial scientists, in which two different types of probiotic drinks were given to mice transplanted with human gut microbes. It was found that the drinks with ‘friendly’ bugs enhanced the effects of existing gut microbes responsible for key functions like how well bile acid is metabolised. That’s an important function that determines how much fat from food is absorbed. The Imperial cohort behind the research is based in the department of bio-molecular medicine. The team says the jury is out over exactly how probiotics affect overall human health but they reckon the study, the first ever of its kind, does demonstrate that probiotic drinks do have an effect on gut microfauna.

And a former student of Imperial has just shot to fame. It turns out that 41 year old John Coward, the co-pilot of the Boeing 777 that ditched just short of the runway at Heathrow on a flight from Beijing last month, studied Mechanical Engineering here. At the time of recording this podcast, ahead of the official investigation, he’s widely being hailed a hero. But that hasn’t stopped one of the ever mischievous correspondents to Imperial’s student news website posting a comment quipping, "Are you sure he’s an alumnus? I thought all Mech Eng graduates went and became bankers".

Well, you can stay up to date with news from the college on our press office website at

Treating autism with music therapy

Now, how music therapy is treating people with conditions like autism. That’s the subject of a radio piece by Liz Connor, who studied on our Science Communication MSc and submitted her short feature as part of her coursework. Her work was also short-listed in last year’s prestigious Association of British Science Writers ‘New Voices’ award. Unfortunately for Liz, her report just missed out on the top prize but I couldn’t help thinking it still deserved an airing right here on the podcast.

Margaret Lowbow: We’re born with music in us.

Simon Proctor: There’s something about musical stimulation that gets the brain going all over.

ML: You begin to open up doors that have been locked.

Barb Davidson: And they talk about this thrill effect where you basically get shivers down your spine.

LC: Well, it’s a beautiful morning here in North London. The birds are singing and I’ve just rolled up to the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre. I’m going to speak to Simon Proctor, the assistant researcher here, about how music therapy research is influencing practice.

SP: If you look at the numbers of music therapists employed in the NHS, there’s hugely more now than there was 10 or 20 years ago. In practice I’m not sure that that’s really because of large scale research. I think that’s more because managers on the ground come across music therapy, they give it a go and they see that it works. They see in psychiatric rehabilitation services that music therapy does engage people and motivate people. They see in neurological rehabilitation services music’s ability to access the abilities that people have rather than the disabilities that they’re encountering. They see with autistic children the fact that it accesses children’s ability to be communicative and to develop relationship. And it’s because people actually see it working, that’s why they invest in it and keep paying for it.

LC: After hearing Simon’s report, I wanted to see some music therapy in action. So here I am outside my music teacher Margaret Lowbo’s house in Surrey. She’s going to show me a DVD of a music therapy session with a 13 year old girl. Now, this girl is so autistic that before this session she hadn’t spoken, not even to her mother. So we can see the girl sitting here with the music therapist, sitting at the piano.

ML: And you never impose anything on the client. The client will always tell you what they want. And she has initiated the music how she looks at the therapist and listens. Now, he’s been playing mostly on the black keys and now she has followed that and she is playing on the black keys. And she’s listening to his change of mood, change of tempo.

LC: And she’s stopped to look at him and now she’s trying out…

ML: What he’s offered. And now he’s putting his right hand into the register of the piano of the keyboard that she is playing in, and she enables that to happen. So she’s not threatened in anyway of him moving into her territory, into her space. Now she’s initiating singing.

LC: I’ve just made my way up Putney Hill to the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability in South West London. I’m just about to meet Barb Davison, the head of the music therapy department here. What I want to know is what was going on in that autistic girl’s brain? Barb is going to tell me about neuro-plasticity. How the br ain rewires itself as we engage with music.

BD: This theory is called neuro-plasticity. Until recently we thought of the brain as a very structurally static entity but studies now are supporting this idea that the brain can re-modify itself and reorganise itself following neurological trauma. So when we use music we’re accessing different pathways and different cells are firing away and they start to wire together to create different pathways to help people to restore some of their function.

LC: As the brain rewires, processes in the body and the mind seem to reorganise themselves. Simon Proctor, from the Nordoff-Robbins Centre, talked about the harmonising power of music.

SP: Music has this potential to organise people and draw people into the structure of the music whether it’s physically as a result of neurological damage or whether it’s psychiatric. I’ve done quite a lot of work with people with obsessive compulsive disorder: people who tend to get very fixated on particular things. So they might find if very difficult to walk through a doorway without continually checking both sides of the door. And it can take 20 minutes to an hour to get through a door. If you can engage them in the structure of music making, for sometime after that they will be quite free and loose. For the chaotic, it can organise them and bring them into structure.

LC: Seeing this harmonising power of music in action is incredibly inspiring. Margaret showed me a music therapy session with the same autistic girl a few months later.

MB: And she has initiated picking up the drum. And you can see she’s much more relaxed, totally confident. And of course the music will lead her, build her confidence and lead her into more open communication with others. And when her mother saw the video of her sessions, the sessions you’re now hearing, she just cried. Because she’d never seen her daughter so happy, so expressive, so free. A few months after this the speech began and the therapist would say, ‘Would you like to play more?’ And she’d say, ‘More’. And he’d say, ‘Yes or no?’ And she’d say, ‘Yes’. So she was making her own decisions for the first time in her life and being given a choice and being able for that choice to be heard and her to follow through. When you get the opportunity through improvisation and with the music therapist you begin to open up doors that have been locked. And that’s very, very important. That these children feel totally free to express themselves through their creativity and not feel that we should limit them because of a disability.

LC: It’s really moving.

MB: Yes, very. It opens our heart. It opens the child’s heart. And when you’ve got an open heart you can really begin to find your true spirit, your true self.

GM: That report from Liz Connor.

The challenges of translating Chinese literature

Well, finally from music to another art form: literature. Specifically, Chinese literature. Whilst the world’s eyes are on the country as it hosts the 2008 Olympic Games it seems that the literary scene in China is as vibrant as the sport scent. And contemporary writing is a growing export for the Chinese with the work selling well in the UK and many other western countries. That’s, in part, thanks to translators like Nicky Harman. She’s a Chinese language specialist in the Humanities department here. But outside college, she’s a busy translator of commercial Chinese literature. She gave a talk about her work recently and afterwards, I grabbed a few words with her. First, I asked Nicky to sum up what characterises Chinese novels.

Nicky Harman: Well, I find the variety in contemporary Chinese literature absolutely fascinating. There’s books about; there’s every style of book of fiction that you can imagine. There’s the adventure. There’s the short stories. There’s the thrillers. There’s what we could call the serious literature. I get real satisfaction out of, apart from the fact that I love translation, out of knowing that English readers are going to read the words. That I’ve managed to communicate the story to them. And that I’ve made something which I feel incredibly privileged that is available to me to read in the Chinese, I’ve made this available to other people to read. I think what’s really fascinating is that contemporary literature describes all areas of Chinese life. So, for example, you’ve got wonderful stories about migrant workers going to the towns from the countryside and their lives, their happiness, their sadness. If they’re well written these can be absolutely superb stories which are really accessible to anyone because they touch general human dilemmas. It’s also quite interesting that a lot of fiction in Chinese focuses on life in the countryside. And I think this is because life in the country in China has never been nostalgic the way it is in the UK. But it very definitely retains something essential from Chinese culture and tradition. And I think that writers like writing about it and readers like reading about it for that reason. It represents a really important aspect of Chinese culture. And after all, we have to remember that peasants are still a large majority of the population in China. And then of course you also get life about modern Chinese making money in the towns and those stories can be really mad, really bad, really crazy. Quite cynical. Quite nilistic. In some ways quite hard to read but the point is they are describing Chinese life as it exists at the moment. And the authors will defend their work in those terms. My stories may be crazy but Chinese life, the way it is currently, everybody rushes to make money, that has a crazy side to it as well.

GM: It just seems from what you’re saying that for people thinking where else can I go in terms of literature, you know, another genre or another approach that I might want to look for, that Chinese literature, much of which is now readily available to read in English, is an exciting and a satisfying source of new stories and new ideas.

NH: Yes. And a lot more is going to be published because China has become an extremely marketable commodity. Chinese culture has become an extremely marketable commodity with the Olympics happening. The colloquial, the spoken language, begins to make it into written form. Of course, China really suffered war, chaos, misrule, economic disaster all the way up until 1949. Up to and including the Japanese invasion and up until the Communist takeover of 1949. There was a great flourishing of Chinese literature in the 1930s, especially around cities like Shanghai. You have a number of key men and women writers who were recognised in the west, for example, by the Bloomsbury Group, Virginia Wolfe and so on, as being very important writers. But then during the War they had very little opportunity to write. They were reall y too busy just trying to survive. Then we have the 1950s and 60s where Chinese literature is controlled, quite overtly controlled, by the Communist Party, the ruling power. And writers were obliged to ‘serve the people’ which actually meant reflecting and supporting the official ideology. Then very briefly we have the Cultural Revolution,1966-76, when very little writing was done at all, at least openly. And it was with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and liberalisation of the 1980s that we get a great flourishing, a great resurgence, of Chinese writing. And from then on, that’s the point at which I started to become really interested in it and to translate.

GM: For many years in China, perhaps it’s still the case, writers were, shall we say, encouraged to not so much promote socialist values but at the very least not to criticise them too much. How much has that shaped the feel of Chinese literature?

NH: Well, very much up until the 1980s. Writers were required to promote socialist values quite overtly. Everybody knows the ability of the Chinese government to ban or to censure books which it doesn’t like. In fact this doesn’t happen very much now. But contemporary writing in China may still be banned or censured if the writers explicitly appear to be undermining the values, the current ideology. Most writers can write very well without getting into trouble with the censures. But, for example, political satire often gets banned. Poetry websites are banned even now and the reason could perhaps be that poetry is traditionally a way in which people can express political dissention.

GM: And there are certain Chinese writers, a satirist in particular, who sell very well in the west because they come with this rather lucrative ‘banned in China’ label don’t they?

NH: Works have been very ‘successfully’ banned in China and then translated into English or other languages and sold overseas. It’s a bit of a peculiar process. First of all any book banned in China may very well be available to be read in China and it sells extremely well because it’s been banned. And these books tend to be books with a heavy sexual erotic content. And indeed, as you mentioned, political satire. The same goes, particularly for the sexually explicit books translated into English in the west. ‘Banned in China’ sells well. But I have to make it quite clear, most Chinese books don’t get banned. And most of the best books, there’s no chance that they’re going to get banned. It’s not a sign of a good book, that it’s been banned. One should really look at the quality of the book not whether or not it’s been banned.

GM: Finally then, are there particular books that you’d recommend that somebody like me wishing to extend my literary repertoire should look out for in order to get the best of what contemporary Chinese literature has to offer?

NH: I recently translated a novel by one of China’s best known poets, Han Dong, and this is going to be published in 2008 by University of Hawaii Press. Of course it will be available in the UK as well. We’re not sure of the title yet. It might be Striking Root or it might be Banishment. But there’s lots coming out, and especially in 2008. Penguin are now translating and marketing a certain number of titles every year, and so are other publishers. Look around. Go for the new stuff. Whether it’s political satire, thrillers, short stories it will all be quite exciting. So I can recommend you to just go out and buy anything you can find.

GM: Nicky Harman which pretty much wraps it up for this edition. But do come back again in March. The official podcast of Imperial College London is updated on the first working day of each month and is a co-production of the Science Communication Group and our press office. The people there tell me that we have 14,000 downloads per episode which is really quite impressive, if rather terrifying. So tell your friend about it and that’ll make it 14,001. And if everyone does it, well gosh we’ll almost be famous. And so will Ozgur Buldum because he’s the chap who lets us use this music for me to talk all over every month. You can hear it (and other tunes) unadulterated by my ramblings on his website at Oh and say hello to Helen Morant. She’s the producer of this podcast, but not the presenter because that’s me Gareth Mitchell. And I’m bidding you farewell. Have a nice month and see you next time, bye for now.