Tanscript May 2008
Gareth Mitchell: This is the official podcast of Imperial College London. And I’m Gareth Mitchell of the BBC’s Digital Planet and also the Science Communication Group here at Imperial. Hello. This month, are we all doomed by the economic slowdown? A distinctive view from one of the top people in our Business School is on its way in just a few seconds. Also today the labs here that are alive with the sound of music thanks to our music technology workshop.
Paul Chauncy: Students can do a course for credit called Music Technology where they’ll learn about the context, the history of electronic music, a bit about the theory of sound recording and they’ll learn to use these two programmes to make their own tracks.
GM: How making music can make a difference to your degree here at Imperial. And also to instruments of a different kind. One in particular is heading for space.
David Clements: Herschel is a Far Infrared space telescope. It will have the largest primary mirror ever put on to a scientific satellite. Bigger than the one you’ve got on Hubble. But it also works on smaller scales.
GM: Yes, we’re going behind the scenes with the scientists here doing their bit to get the largest space telescope of its kind off the ground. My word, space, music and economics all in one place. It can only be the official podcast of Imperial College London.
William Perraudin on how to contain an economic crisis
All right, well, to begin, as the saying goes, it’s the economy stupid. And as the global economic outlook worsens the words stupid and economy seem to be cropping up more and more in the same sentence along with other words like recession, crisis and even crash. Well, needless to say the whole situation is very much on the radar over here. Because I’m kicking off this month’s podcast in the Business School. I’m with Professor William Perraudin. He’s the Director of the Risk Management lab here. And that was a rather doom laden introduction there William. Was I being a little bit too downbeat or are things really that bad at the moment?
William Perraudin: The crisis right now is very much a financial crisis. In some cases historically we have seen financial crises that haven’t affected the rest of the economy and so haven’t led to major recession. The big question now is whether regulators will take sufficiently strong action that the spread of the crisis out through the banks to the rest of the economy is halted.
GM: You seem to be suggesting that regulation can do a lot to mitigate the effect of this crisis then?
WP: Regulation and intervention by the authorities. So our central bank, the Bank of England, has recently changed its line very much. They’ve begun to intervene much more actively providing UK banks with support.
GM: And we’ve been hearing in fact in recent weeks about this package of measures. I think £50 billion to help the banks. Presumably the idea to bring some liquidity back into the economy just to try and get things moving again?
WP: Yes. The banks have lost trust in each other. So they have invested in quite opaque assets so no bank has been willing to trust other banks and to lend to them over short periods of time like three months or a month.
GM: So regulators, the Bank of England coming in saying, okay, we’re going to put money back in then to try and get the system going, is that the complete answer do you think?
WP: Everybody is hoping that the new willingness that the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Board have had to help the banks out will now lead to a winding down of the crisis. The rates at which banks lend to each other are still at amazingly high levels. That’s why the authorities have finally sanctioned these extreme measures of effectively the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve acting as an intermediary between the banks. Borrowing from some that are rich in liquidity and lending to others that are poor in liquidity.
GM: And the extra prices that the banks have been having to pay each other to borrow each other’s money, I mean this explains why, for instance, mortgage rates are going up even though the Bank of England base rate, the interest rate, has been going down I suppose?
WP: Yeah. I think there’s a permanent cost from this. Because our mortgage rates here and in other countries had been pushed down by the fact that banks were competing very vigorously with each other and were selling on the mortgages through the new debt markets that had developed in the last few years. All of that effort has now come to a grinding halt. There are massive financial markets which revolve around these repackaged mortgages. And the participants in those markets, half of them are out of work and the rest of them are scratching their heads and wondering when the market, and whether the market, will ever come back.
GM: That begins to answer my next question. And I know you’re not a financial adviser here but I, like many people listening to this, I’m interested in where to put my money. If I should just stash it away in the bank if interest rates are going up. But should I be continuing to look at shares and investment funds? Because prices are fairly cheap at the moment. Maybe the only way is up.
WP: In equities I think that at some point people will have to decide whether the banks are an attractive proposition. I think they’re the most obvious way of betting on the end of the crisis. The debt markets, which are available more to investment institutions like pension funds, personally I would like my own pension fund to be piling in right now. Prices have become so unusually and unnaturally depressed that if you’re a pension fund you would be very sensible to think about switching from equities into debt right now.
GM: As for Imperial College, we have the Business School here, what role is that playing in these obviously very interesting times in the market? Do you have the City calling up saying you’ve got some bright people there in the Business School can you help us? What is your involvement here?
WP: Well, several of us in the Business School are very interested and actively engaged in research on these topics. We’re organising a conference for the Bank of England and the FSA in June on liquidity management and the impact of the crisis on the financial markets. And we are examining the price implications. The way that the securities are being miss-priced in this crisis period. We’re also thinking about what new approaches the banks should take to cope with liquidity risk going forwards. And forever more, 2007/2008 will be the major stress than anyone looking at their debt portfolio will want to consider.
GM: So maybe as bad as it gets and given my doom laden introduction to this interview I get the impression that you’re rather more optimistic than I started out being.
WP: Well, I’m quietly hopeful. And I think the most interesting question right now is just at what point the market will begin to snap back into a more normal state. I do think that if sensible action is taken then the crisis will be contained. When a recovery begins to occur I think it will be rather sudden. That will be interesting in itself. Because there will be amazing profits made by the hedge funds and the people who can commit capital over the next year and a half. There will just be tens of billions made by investors if they’re willing to commit their capital.
GM: Professor William Perraudin there in our Business School with a rare bit of optimism in these rather testing times. Well, it was guarded optimism anyway. But whilst you decide whether to buy or sell let’s have a few quick newsbytes from around the College.
Headlines from around the College
An Imperial team at the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis and Modelling, working with colleagues in France, says that closing schools could be a key way of tackling a flu pandemic, should one ever strike. The prospect of a deadly outbreak are increasingly on the agenda these days because of fears that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could mutate from its present form where it passes from birds to humans to one where it could also spread from person to person. Should such a pandemic strike, this research just published in the journal Nature suggests that school closures could prevent up to one in seven cases. Now, that figure comes from computer models based on over 20 years’ worth of data from French GPs charting how viral infections among children reduce during the school holidays. Closing schools could be a potent non-pharmaceutical way of dealing with a flu pandemic. Though the team points out that the model does have its limitations. For one thing, even out of school children can still come into contact with each other, for instance in childcare, to say nothing of the economic and the social effect of closing schools for long periods of time.
And meanwhile, over in the Department of Bimolecular Medicine at Imperial, there’s been some promising research into another infectious disease. In this case sleeping sickness. A debilitating condition that affects the brain with devastating consequences. It’s known to newly infect 30,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa every year. And in fact, if anything, that figure may only account for about a tenth of total infection. The trouble is that sleeping sickness is notoriously hard to detect and diagnose. In its early stages the symptoms are headache, weakness and joint pain so it’s very easily confused for other conditions. And confirming the diagnosis relies on elaborate procedures like lumbar puncture that are invasive, painful and of course out of reach for most sufferers in a region where health resources are limited. Now though the researchers have developed the basis for a cheap and simple blood or urine test to trace sleeping sickness in its very earliest stages. So far the tests are only in mice infected by a parasite related to the one that affects humans. But the team, working with colleagues in Switzerland and the USA, hopes that the work will ultimately transfer to humans so that treatment can be given very early on, before the condition advances to its most serious stage.
And finally, in this roundup, IC became CSI last month when 64 students from nearby schools dropped in for a bit of detective work. It was all about honing their chemistry skills. So in one exercise students had to identify some salt from the scene of a fictional crime. And later the 11 to 13 year olds shifted from Interpol to Intergalactic by using some nifty chemistry to cool some water to the exact temperature needed to save their Star Trek spaceship. It was all under the guise of The Salters' Festivals of Chemistry, catalysed by Imperial’s Outreach Office and elements from the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. I’m told that the whole thing gained a pretty good reaction all round.
And you can catch up with more headlines from around the College via our Press Office website. And that’s at imperial.ac.uk/news.
Paul Chauncy on the technology of music
GM: Now, if you walk around the various campuses at Imperial of course there are many, many labs but the one I’m in at the moment, at our South Kensington campus in the Humanities Department, is definitely a lab with a bit of a difference. Not so much test tubes in here but racks and racks of music equipment. This is a music technology lab. The man in charge of it all is Paul Chauncy. And it’ll be news to many people, Paul, that we even have a facility like this at Imperial College. So what kind of things go on in here?
Paul Chauncy: Well, if you look around the room you’ll see 21 PCs all with a MIDI keyboard attached. And all of those can be connected to these nice big speakers we’ve got so we can hear the music that the students make. So all the sound is actually going on inside the computer with these virtual synthesizers.
GM: And the students can use this facility actually as part of their degree courses, can’t they?
PC: Yeah, they can. Students can do a course for credit called Music Technology where they’ll learn about the context, the history of electronic music, a bit about the theory of sound recording and they’ll learn to use these two programmes, Reason and Cubase, to make their own tracks.
GM: So you’ve got a desktop set up here and looking at the screen it looks kind of recording studio-ish. There’s a virtual mixing desk here with all the faders you’d expect on a mixing desk. And this is one of the software package you use, that you’ve got up here, then?
PC: That’s right. This is Reason. It’s a lovely programme. Because what they’ve tried to do is mimic the real world. So at the top you have a mixer that looks like a mixer that you would have had in the old days in your little home studio. Then a rever rack.
GM: So that’s for different effects that you can put on there?
PC: Yeah. That’s for adding echo. Adding a room sound to whatever you’re recording. You’ve got a drum machine here, some loop players. Shall we hear a loop?
GM: A really cool baseline going on there. Oh, I like what you’ve done there. So you’ve added the drums?
GM: And that base we can hear, sounds really realistic to me so is that actually a real base guitar that’s been sampled?
PC: That’s right. It’s been sampled and it’s actually then cut into slices so that you can change the pitch without changing the speed and you can change the speed independently of the pitch.
GM: And you obviously have a library of pre-existing baselines and drum loops, things like that? Obviously there’s more to music, unless you’re very stripped down in your musical style. There’s more to music than just the drums and the base so can you put in things like strings, horns, clarinets, vocals?
PC: Yeah. Now, with Reason you can’t really put in vocals. You have to connect to another programme and they can run in synchrony. So we connect to Cubase in order to record actual sounds from the real world. So if you want to record yourself playing the electric guitar, a real instrument, or yourself singing then you need to use another programme that records actual audio. With Reason what we’re doing is we’re just basically bringing MIDI in, so MIDI messages from the keyboard, and then playing them back out through the Reason devices. And I’m sure you’ll have heard tracks made purely in Reason on the radio.
GM: So if we went into a commercial recording studio this is the kind of stuff that they would have then?
PC: Yeah, a lot of studios would use this. I know people like Black Eyed Peas use this. Prodigy really love Reason. Even Todd Rundgren is now into Reason. Yeah, thrown away all his old synthesizers and he’s using this piece of software that anyone can buy and have on their computer.
GM: And is that part of the idea of the courses that you run here, to demonstrate to people that this is the kind of software you can get? You can run it at home and basically do a whole album on your desktop if you want to?
PC: Absolutely, yeah. For me I think it’s about encouraging people’s creativity. And, yeah, I hope we do that.
GM: Are you specifically teaching the technology side or is there an element of musicianship here? Because I’m sure you can have all the software and all the equipment in the whole world but you still need that germ of musical talent to make it all sound good.
PC: Yeah, it’s very true. I always say to students the most important thing to do this course is to have a passion for music. That doesn’t mean you have to have grate eight piano. That might help. It might get in your way. But I think you have to feel passionate about music. So you want to investigate maybe what makes that great track work. And with that passion and that curiosity everyone can do something which is satisfying to them. My goal with it. I feel like I’ve succeeded in teaching the course if they go away with a sense of confidence about making the music they want to make using this technology.
GM: Of course it’s really hard to single any particular tracks out because all the students do really, really cool stuff but this is one that you seem to particularly like.
PC: Yeah, this is by Ian Louie. And he has a sort of; I think it’s quite a cinematic approach to composing.
GM: I can hear elements of BT in this.
PC: I just imagine this as New York at night, a taxi cab and rain on the window.
GM: Brilliant stuff. And if that tune goes on to become a club classic or be soundtrack to a really big advertising campaign, remember where you heard it first. Paul Chauncy there in our Music Technology lab.
David Clements on detecting some of the coldest objects in the universe
GM: Well, finally this month how Imperial physicists are part of international efforts to build the largest space telescope of its kind. The Herschel Space Observatory is to be launched with its companion Planck in Ariane 5 rocket later this year or possibly early next. Herschel will be looking into the Far Infrared using a giant mirror to detect energy from very distant and very cold objects. Infrared is basically heat so in a way you can think of Herschel as a kind of thermal imaging camera able to detect objects nearly as cold as absolute zero. And because infrared can pass through dust clouds in space Herschel will be able to observe bodies that otherwise would be too obscured to be seen by optical telescopes such as Hubble. A team in Imperial’s Astro Physics Group is working on various aspects of the mission, including the software for it. I’ve been hearing more about Herschel from David Clements in the Physics Department.
David Clements: Herschel is a far infrared space telescope. It will have the largest primary mirror ever put on to a scientific satellite. Bigger than the one you’ve got on Hubble. What that allows you to do is to look at dust. Emission from dust. You may think that’s not very important. But what we see optical and associated wavelengths, near ultraviolet and near infrared, the sort of wavelengths that the Hubble space telescope can give you access to, we find that that only tells you half the story. And there’s this other thing, the cosmic infrared background, as it’s called, which has just about the same amount of energy in it as the optical background.
Now, what does this mean? It means that roughly half of the energy ever generated in the Universe, you can’t see with Hubble. You have to go to longer wavelengths. Looking at things like the Hubble deep field, the deepest optical images that have ever been produced, you compare what you see in those, which is thousands of little galaxies, you go to a similar depth but at a longer wavelength and you don’t see this great shower of little galaxies, lots of little objects all contributing. What you see is one or two really bright ones. What that says is that you can’t just take a deep optical image like Hubble deep field, make a few corrections and say right we now know how these things behave. In the optical we’ll turn up the energy a little bit in the far infrared and that’ll solve everything. It won’t. Because the far infrared luminous sources, the ones that really dominate the cosmic infrared background, behave completely differently from the optical sources. So that’s the extra galactic picture. That’s what I’m mostly interested in.
But it also works on smaller scales. Star formation takes place in giant molecular clouds which are full of gas and dust, which observe optical light. You can make a go of trying to understand what’s going on inside them by looking in the near infrared, which Hubble space telescope can do. But by pushing to even longer wavelengths and also by getting this huge 3.5 metre mirror, which is on the front of Herschel, which the previous biggest infrared telescope mirror up there, which is Spitzer, is about 85 centimetres. So it’s a massive difference. Then we can really start getting to the root not only of galaxies and galaxy evolution but the detailed physics of star formation and in fact planet formation.
GM: And is that the point of going into the far infrared? It just gives you a kind of wider look at the composition of what’s going on, the energies?
DC: Well, it’s not so much a wider look. The dust is at quite a low temperature. Stars are pretty hot. The Sun, its characteristic temperature is about 6,000 kelvin. But if you look at stuff, material, dust, that’s at a lower temperature, typically we’re talking about 20 to 50 kelvin.
GM: What’s that in centigrade then?
DC: Minus 220. That would be 50 kelvin. So it’s all pretty cold. We may call this cool dust but you wouldn’t want to be handling it. You’ll get a freeze burn. The peak of that material’s spectrum is at wavelengths of about 100 microns. And you can go and look at this stuff for as long as you want to in the optical. You’re not going to see it because it isn’t emitting there at all. So for a lot of the stuff that we’re doing with continuum studies, as it’s called, like cameras, you just need to be at the longer wavelengths because that’s the only way you can see the cold material. There’s another side of things as well, which to some extent you were alluding to, which is spectroscopy. That dissects the light up into separate wavelengths. And there are spectral lines at these long wavelengths from molecules essentially, things like water. The instrument that we’re responsible for on Herschel is called SPIRE. But PACS and HIFI have got more spectroscopic capabilities than SPIRE and they’ll be looking at water. They’ll be looking for organic molecules in young stars, young planets and in the proto planetary discs that form planets around other stars.
GM: The bigger picture then is about the formation of young stars, young planets, and so by looking back into space at the early moments of these objects and observing their light you begin to get a sense of what they’re made of and how they’re forming?
DC: That’s exactly right. And both Herschel and Planck are very much origins science missions. With Herschel we’re looking at the origins of stars, the origins of planets, the origins of galaxies and how these evolve and change and produce what we see today. Spiral galaxies, elliptical galaxies out there in the local galactic neighbourhood, as it were.
GM: David Clements, who definitely has his work cut out over the coming months as the launch date for Herschel approaches. So I’m going to be keeping an eye on it all and reporting back to you in the run up to the big day. In fact I’ll be back with David next month to hear about Herschel’s companion Planck. So definitely join me for that if you can. But that’s it for this edition.
Just time to say a very big thank you to Ozgur Buldum for letting us use his track Lila as the sig tune for this podcast. You can hear more of Ozgur’s work at ozgurbuldum.com and jolly fine it is to. And ignore people who say that Facebook is in decline. Our Imperial College podcast listeners’ group is doing just fine over there. So come and join us to get the latest updates from the podcast. Just search for Imperial College podcast in Facebook to find us. Well, this whole thing is a co-production of the Imperial College Press Office and the Science Communication Group. I’m Gareth Mitchell bidding you very find month until I see you next time. For now though thanks for listening and goodbye.