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  • NATURE PODCAST

What’s the isiZulu for dinosaur? How science neglected African languages

Hear the latest science news, with Shamini Bundell and Benjamin Thompson.

In this episode:

00:46 Creating new words for scientific terms

Many words that are common to science have never been written in some African languages, or speakers struggle to agree what the right term is. Now a new project aims to change that, by translating 180 research papers into six languages spoken by millions of people across the continent of Africa.

News: African languages to get more bespoke scientific terms

11:48 Research Highlights

A rainbow of biodegradable inks derived from brown seaweed, and the enormous centipede that preys on baby birds.

Research Highlight: From drab to dazzling: seaweed yields sparkling coloured inks

Research Highlight: The giant centipede that devours fluffy baby seabirds

13:58 How sustainable is the electric car boom?

As electric cars become more ubiquitous, manufacturers will have to up the production of batteries needed to power them. But that begs the question - can they be mass produced in a sustainable way?

News Feature: Electric cars and batteries: how will the world produce enough?

24:06 Briefing chat

We discuss some highlights from the Nature Briefing. This time, how a tusk-based ‘chemical GPS’ revealed details of a mammoth’s enormous journeys , and why the Perseverance rover’s first efforts to collect a Mars rock sample didn’t go according to plan.

Nature: Mammoth’s epic travels preserved in tusk

Nature: Why NASA’s Mars rover failed to collect its first rock core

Subscribe to Nature Briefing, an unmissable daily round-up of science news, opinion and analysis free in your inbox every weekday.

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-021-02264-5

Transcript

Hear the latest science news, with Shamini Bundell and Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, the African researchers creating bespoke scientific terms...

Host: Shamini Bundell

And how sustainable is the electric car boom? I’m Shamini Bundell.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Asikho isilwane esiphilayo emhlabeni owomile esidlula ububanzi bendlovu. Enye yezinto ezenza ukuthi indlovu ikwazi ukukhula ibe isisindo nobubanzi obudlula zonke ezinye izilwane esiqiwini ukwakheka kwemilenze yayo.

Interviewee: Sibusiso Biyela

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

This is Sibusiso Biyela speaking his native Zulu, or isiZulu as it’s known in South Africa.

Imilenze yendlovu inamadolo abheke phambili nasemumva, kodwa ayi emaceleni njengamadolo ezingwenya. Imilenze yendlovu iqondile uma uyibheka ngaphambili kanye nasemumva ukuze ikwazi ukuthwala isisindo sayo.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

He’s speaking about a dinosaur known as Ledumahadi mafube – which in Sesotho, the language spoken where it was discovered, translates to ‘giant thunderclap at dawn’.

Lolulwazi lwezilwane eziphilayo namuhlanje lutshela ososayensi ukuthi izilwane zasemandulo zaziphila kanjani ngokuthi becwaninge amathambo amadala atholakala emhlabathini.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Sibusiso was asked to write an article about the dinosaur, which had recently been presented in a research paper, in his native Zulu.

Interviewee: Sibusiso Biyela

So, the article is just me explaining that the largest animal on Earth today is an elephant. The proportion and the construction of little of its limbs, it's very useful to carry its weight, and that tells us a lot about how ancient animals like dinosaurs lived a long time ago.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Now, accurately describing a new scientific discovery can be tricky at the best of times, but it can be even trickier when the language you’re using doesn’t have words to describe certain scientific terms, as Sibusiso discovered.

Interviewee: Sibusiso Biyela

I found in reading the paper that I didn't have the words for relatively simple scientific terms like ‘fossil’ or even ‘dinosaur’. And I found that very discouraging, that something that should be so simple as to write about a scientific discovery was so difficult to do. So, I had to come up with my own way of trying to translate those scientific terms.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

And coming up with words is not as simple as it sounds. What, for instance, is a dinosaur? The word is a commonly used, well understood, fully integrated part of the English language. English speakers will likely know what to picture when you say ‘dinosaur’. But no such word exists in Zulu. There is a linguistic mechanism for using foreign words in Zulu, called Bantuization, where an ‘i’ sound is added at the start of a word to flag that it’s foreign, and ‘idayinaso’ would be understood by many Zulu speakers. But it isn’t an integrated part of the language. You don’t have to go far back in history to find a time when English scientists faced a similar problem. They had found a group of animals but had no word in English to describe them, so they invented one – ‘dinosaur’ – which has its roots in Greek, meaning ‘terrible lizard’. As Sibusiso sat down to write this article natively in Zulu, he found himself in a similar position.

Interviewee: Sibusiso Biyela

I ended up coming up with different terms, such as the term for the word ‘dinosaur’ itself. I ended up calling it ‘Isilwane sasemandulo’, which basically means ‘ancient animal’. For the purposes of the article, it was the most accurate way to talk about the animal itself being a dinosaur. And even for things like ‘fossil’, I had to describe it in isiZulu as ‘Amathambo amadala atholakala emhlabathini’, which is Zulu for ‘old bones found in the ground’.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

This lack of scientific terminology is not limited to isiZulu. This is the case for many other African languages, as Sarah Wild, a journalist based in South Africa, explains.

Interviewee: Sarah Wild

Most of science and the way we discuss science is discussed in English. You'll find most research papers are in English, many of the top journals in English. They may have French translations, but English is considered the language of science. And there are many languages that are not being included in that advancement in science and online. There are about 2,000 African languages and many of them are currently not represented online.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Sarah has been writing about an attempt by a large group of Africans, including Sibusiso, to change this. As part of this, an organisation called Masakhane has an initiative known as ‘Decolonise Science’, which is translating around 180 scientific papers into six African languages spoken collectively by 97 million people.

Interviewee: Sarah Wild

They’re trying to look at, first, a vast array of disciplines so that they can work with concepts that are very often used in undergraduate teaching, concepts that come up often. So, if you look at COVID terms, the example I use in the story is that there is no differentiated term in isiZulu for ‘bacteria’ versus ‘viruses’. People would talk around it to explain differences, and that gets quite difficult.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

By translating papers and creating glossaries of scientific terminology, the project hopes to remove obstacles to learning science and mathematics, as concepts can be easier to grasp in your mother tongue. But this is a big task. Some researchers from Masakhane are using machine learning tools to help, in much the same way that Google Translate does. But for many African languages, this isn’t straight forward, as Kathleen Siminyu, a specialist in machine learning and natural language processing for African Languages, explains.

Interviewee: Kathleen Siminyu

There are many challenges. I'll say, at the root of it is availability of data. So, there's a lot of research in transcription, for example, but then a lot of this research is focused on better resourced languages where there's a lot of data available. There's also the fact that African languages have, in many cases, been relegated to informal settings. So, these are relics of colonialism, but then you find that in school children are encouraged to speak and participate only in English if they're in Anglophone Africa. Socially, we're also in the context where the mother tongue is relegated to the home, and that means that, in many places in Africa, you don't learn to write in a language that you may speak.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

This is part of why many African languages are underrepresented online and often are not used to discuss science. So, there’s little for a machine learning algorithm to train on to come up with translations. Kathleen, who is also part of Masakhane, is working to try and resolve these issues.

Interviewee: Kathleen Siminyu

So, in addition to getting funding to build datasets, we’re forming multi-disciplinary relationships with linguists and language practitioners who are professionally trained to transcribe, translate, who can do the work of creating standard orthographies for some of these languages if it is necessary. So, rather than going back and forth about what's the correct spelling of a word, we can all agree on the fact that it is pronounced in a certain way.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

For Sibusiso, a big part of this work is about giving Africans cultural ownership of science.

Interviewee: Sibusiso Biyela

What happens for a lot of Zulu speakers, and other speakers of Indigenous languages in South Africa, is that we can talk about sports and politics and other topics in our home language, but then when it comes to talking about science or technology you have to code switch, which can be problematic because it paints science as this foreign visitor that's invading the conversation. And it can be dangerous even for things like vaccine hesitancy, which we're experiencing in the country at the moment, because when you have to explain things like mRNA and other things like immunology and stuff like that, you can't really talk about it in your home language.

Interviewer: Nick Petrić Howe

Masakhane aims to help communicate scientific concepts across the African continent. But it has a broader goal too. Many Africans are concerned that native languages could be lost if they are not relevant to important subjects like science and technology, and so they see this effort as a way to promote their language as much as a promote the science. And regardless of these goals, increased visibility of African languages online could help a lot of Africans.

Interviewee: Kathleen Siminyu

Personally, I'd like to see Africans have better quality of life. I think we all see the direction the world is moving and it's largely to digital spaces. So, your upward mobility, so to speak, is improved if you have access to the internet, if you have access to online portals that can mean work, if you have access to information online, right. We have a lot more people going on Google and asking questions and getting information literally at their fingertips. But then there's a whole subsection of the African continent that is locked out courtesy of language. So, the ideal for me would be to have a reality where someone in an African village speaks only their mother tongue, and that does not negatively affect their quality of life.

Lolu lwazi lizokwanda kuphela uma sizifundisa ngalezi zilwane amathombo azo ahleli ngaphansi kwethu, ngoba uma kungethina abafunda ngazo bezicwaninge, sizolahlekelwa umlando womhlaba wethu.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

That was Sibusiso Biyela, who’s a science communicator based in South Africa. You also heard from Sarah Wild, a journalist also based in South Africa, and Kathleen Siminyu, from the Mozilla Foundation. This package was written and produced by Nick Petrić Howe. For more on this story, look out for a news article in Nature this week, written by Sarah.

Host: Shamini Bundell

As electric cars become more ubiquitous, manufacturers will have to up the production of the batteries needed to power them. But that begs the question – can they be mass-produced in a sustainable way? We’ll be finding out later. Right now, though, it’s time for the Research Highlights, read by Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Researchers have developed new, shimmery, biodegradable inks in a rainbow of colours by purifying polymers bound in brown seaweed. The inks, which can be squeezed though a syringe to make 2D or 3D artworks, are made by dissolving algal polymers in water to form viscous liquids, which are then combined with a solution of calcium chloride. The positively charged calcium ions join together the negatively charged portions of various polymer strands, linking the polymers and turning the liquid inks into pliable gels that hold their shapes. Unlike similar 3D printing techniques, these inks don’t need to be heated during printing so are easier to handle and will eventually biodegrade, preventing discarded artworks from accumulating. Cast your gaze over that research in ACS Omega.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Seabirds like the black-winged petrel may sit near the top of the food change on Phillip Island, 1,400 kilometres east of Australia. But their chicks need to watch out or they might fall prey to voracious giant centipedes. Phillip Island centipedes can reach nearly 25 centimetres in length and have an appetite to match their size. Researchers studying the feeding habits of these venomous arthropods have captured footage of the centipedes killing and feeding on petrel chicks. The team calculated the number of chicks killed by centipedes and estimated that the arthropods could be killing and eating as many as 3,700 seabird chicks each year. While this research suggests that centipedes play a significant role in influencing the petrel’s reproductive output, the team behind it also think that these enormous arthropods play an important role in distributing nutrients around the island. Read that research in the American Naturalist.

[Jingle]

Host: Shamini Bundell

Next up, reporter Noah Baker has been thinking about batteries.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Over the past few years, electric car sales have soared, as new tech and falling prices have begun to move electric cars into the mainstream, and it’s a trend that doesn’t look to be slowing. Huge car manufacturers like Audi and General Motors have already announced commitments to stop producing cars that run on fossil fuels within the next decade or so. Much of this change has been driven by the falling cost of batteries, specifically lithium-ion batteries, and that’s opened a new market for sustainable personal transport. But how sustainable is it? Batteries allow engineers to build cars that don’t emit greenhouse gases, but what about the cost of making them and decommissioning them when they’re spent? In a feature published this week, Nature reporter Davide Castelvecchi has been delving into the sustainability of the sustainable option, and he’s joined me on the phone for a chat. Hi, Davide, how are you doing?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Excellent. How are you?

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Very well, thank you. So, it’s clear that the direction is towards electric vehicles, and that’s going to require batteries. This is all well and good. There are batteries that exist. Things like lithium-ion batteries have come down in price. That’s part of what’s making this possible. However, alongside all those changes, there are also sustainability challenges that need to be overcome. What are the challenges that researchers, and I guess society more broadly, need to think about?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yeah, so the first thing to keep in mind is that this kind of industrial conversion, the scale of it will be staggering. Hundreds of millions of cars will have to be produced, millions of tons of metals will have to be extracted, such as lithium, such as cobalt, such as nickel, and some of those metals pose environmental hazards in the way that they are mined, and some of those metals are mined in conditions that have raised concern.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

The main type of battery that is used at the moment, which looks like it’s here to say, is lithium-ion batteries. Are there concerns around lithium? Are we facing oil by another name?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Absolutely, there are concerns. Absolutely, I think it’s fair to say we’re not facing another oil. So, lithium, first of all, is abundant. Even if you count only the proven reserves of lithium, those would be enough to carry the electrification of cars for decades. Like most things, it’s not a zero-impact resource. In particular, the extraction of lithium, depending where you extract it, can be a very energy-consuming process, and certain kinds of lithium extraction also consume a lot of water in parts of the world where water is scarce. Now, these are not necessarily unsolvable problems because there are also more benign, emerging techniques for extracting lithium that would have less impact.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And as well as the extraction, we also have to think about what happens when these electric cars need to be decommissioned because maybe a car has a 20-year lifespan and then what happens to the batteries afterwards?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

So, the technology to recycle these lithium-ion batteries already exists. The challenge will be to make it efficient enough so that extracting the metals from the spent batteries will be as cheap or cheaper than taking it from the earth.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And the solutions to these problems are not necessarily scientific ones, but we’re a science podcast so I guess the first thing I’m interested in is what are the kind of chemistry solutions? What are the researchers thinking at the moment?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

So, their number one priority right now has been to cut down on the use of cobalt because cobalt is the scarcest of the materials and it’s the most valuable. The percentage of cobalt that goes into a battery has already been going down, and the technology already exists, at least at the level of lab experiments, to completely eliminate cobalt. It will just take a few years for mainstream cars to start adopting cobalt-free batteries. Then once you’ve eliminated cobalt, there’s nickel. And over the horizon, there are technologies that will work without the nickel as well but it will just take longer.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And so, these technologies are being developed. You say that cobalt-free batteries is likely to be around the corner, but from an economic perspective that could cause other problems because right now, the only financial incentive to recycle batteries is to extract the cobalt.

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, the companies that already recycle lithium-ion batteries do it primarily to get the cobalt out because it’s so valuable, so there’s people who worry about what will happen once we have cobalt-free batteries. But there’s no law of physics that says you can’t recycle the other metals efficiently, and there are already technologies that are being developed to do it efficiently. The only problem is we’ll have to wait until the industry grows large enough that it will have the economies of scale to do it.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And we have precedent for that with other types of batteries, right, with lead-acid batteries that have been powering car starter motors for years.

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, and lead-acid, a lot of analysts mention it as a success story. Environmentalists may not be as positive about it, but the fact of the matter is that lead-acid batteries are recyclable and it’s possible to do it in an efficient way that gets basically all of the lead out and makes a profit, even though extracting lead from mines is extremely cheap.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And also, there’s not just one way to recycle a battery. There are lots of different possible things that can be done with batteries from cars that have reached the end of their life. For example, you could take the battery and put it in a place where it doesn’t require such high performance as it would in a car, or maybe you can reuse parts of the battery rather than just extracting the metals and starting again.

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, there are already some pilot projects that use spent car batteries, and they connect them to the grid and they use them to store energy from, say, solar panels, so that it can be used during the night. But from the sustainability point of view, what researchers would really like to see is an effort to design the batteries from the ground up so that they will be easier to recycle because, right now, the reason why it’s hard to recycle batteries is that all the materials are wrapped up into these very complicated structures and then glued together or welded together, so the only way that you can get at the materials inside is to either throw the whole thing into a vat of acid or into a smelter and melt it down.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And then extract all of the metals separately via chemical techniques, I suppose, to precipitate them out as crystals.

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yes, exactly.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, we have a lot of really interesting possibilities here. We know that, as time goes on, as these things become more ubiquitous, then there are economic drivers that could help. But we can’t get away from the fact that right now, comparatively, there are very, very few electric vehicles on the road, even though it feels like I see a Tesla every three minutes now when I’m driving around. We still need to get up to that critical mass for these kinds of economies to kick in, and to get there we still do need to do an awful lot of mining, we need to do an awful lot of development and growth. Is that possible to do in a sustainable way?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yeah, that is a tough question. The history of the mining industry doesn’t give a lot of reason for optimism maybe, but I think that one thing to keep in mind is there are already social and environmental impacts, but I think it’s also important to look at the big picture and the kind of environmental horrors that we will hopefully be able to avoid. That said, I don’t mean to scoff at the impact of lithium mining or cobalt mining, which is real, and we need to be vigilant about it. But I think it’s also important to keep the big picture in mind.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And one other thing that’s often thrown at batteries and electric cars is cost. Now, we know that batteries have come down in price vastly, but increasing mining operations could be an expensive thing to do, especially if we want to do it in a sustainable way, using the most ethical practices which there may be market drivers against. And then it’s not just a case of having a fleet of electric cars, you also need a fleet of electric car chargers, and that means digging up streets and roads and big infrastructure work, and people will probably look at it and go, ‘How is this really sustainable in any possible way?’ Do you have an answer to that? What do researchers think? What do analysts think?

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Well, let’s look at this way. The world spends trillions of dollars per year on energy. It’s one of the largest markets, one of the largest commodities that we exchange and use as consumers. At the same time, electric cars and recharging stations, these are products and services that people will want to pay for, and there will be companies that will see the possibility to make a profit and they will invest in it.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And it’s also worth thinking about the fact that electric cars are not the only thing that’s changing here. We’re talking about this in the context of, in theory, an entire society that is trying to move towards a more electric-based sustainable system, and there are ways that huge fleets of electric cars, each of which has their own giant battery, could feed into that broader system as well, which could also increase efficiency and reduce costs.

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Yeah, so one of the drawbacks critics point to is we’re not currently producing enough electricity to run all these cars, and yes, we will need to produce more electricity and distribute more electricity. And if we want to do it with renewable energy, there will also be issues with the reliability of the grid when the Sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. But a lot of advocates of the green economy also say that, in part, these problems will help to solve each other because once you have millions of cars attached to the grid, you can use the batteries in those cars to help to level out the electricity in the grid. For example, most people don’t need to drive their car for hundreds of kilometres a day, and so when you have a car that has hundreds of kilometres of range, unless you’re planning a road trip, you can probably safely sell half of the electricity in your car at a profit and still use it the day after.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

As always, I feel like at the end of every one of these discussions it’s let’s wait and see what happens. But potentially a brighter future than I felt like we had at the beginning of this conversation, and that’s always what I want to hear. Davide, thank you so much for joining me.

Interviewee: Davide Castelvecchi

Thanks so much for having me.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That was Nature reporter Davide Castelvecchi talking to Noah Baker. For more on this, check out the feature written by Davide. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Finally on the show, it’s time for the Briefing chat, where we talk about some of the stories from the Nature Briefing. Shamini, what have you been reading about this week?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Oh, I really liked this story. This is an article in Nature and it’s some very important science, obviously, but it’s also like a little bit of a biography of a mammoth that lived 17,000 years ago, and they’ve named it Kik.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Kik the mammoth. Well, that’s amazing. What’s it been doing? What do we know about this mammoth and how is this a biography?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Yeah, so the reason this mammoth is now one of my favourite mammoths is because they had a tusk from this creature, which was known and which had previously been analysed, and they knew that it was male, they knew that it died about 17,000 years ago at age 28. But now what they’ve done is they’ve sawed this sort of curvy mammoth tusk all the way down like lengthways so that they can get at all the layers of growth from throughout the mammoths life.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Right, I mean, from the way you’ve said that there, I’m guessing kind of maybe rings in a tree style to give an idea of what’s happened over the years. Is that about right?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Yeah, if you looked cross wise, it would be tree rings. If you look length wise, it’s sort of more like ice cream cones stacked on top of each other because it kind of grows from the bottom in this cone like way, and they can take the sort of tip of that cone and do isotopic analysis on it, and what they’re looking for is different kinds of chemical composition, but in particular things like strontium isotopes and oxygen isotopes. And what that does is it gives them this really like quite precise geographical link. So, the geology of an area will, let’s say, like affect the amount of strontium which then affects the amount in the plants and then the mammoth eats it, and then that is visible in the mammoth’s tusk and they can say this mammoth, at this point, was hanging around in this part of ancient Alaska, basically.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Wow, so sort of a mammoth GPS then, I guess. I mean, what has it shown then? Where did Kik the mammoth go?

Host: Shamini Bundell

Oh, this whole story is amazing because of course ecologists study modern elephants and you can follow them and see what they’re doing and look at their behaviour and look over their life, and that’s something that’s somewhat more difficult with an extinct species. So, with this particular mammoth, they’ve been able to identify the point at which it weaned from milk to solid food. The first 16 years of its life has a quite regular pattern, and they think that this means that there was sort of a regular movement, perhaps staying with the herd, with the female mammoths and other juveniles, that were going sort of back and forth between two particular locations. And then when he was 16, he seems to have maybe headed off on his own, which is something that mature male elephants do, but certainly the patterns become a lot less consistent and he’s sort of suddenly covering a big area and sort of going off on this ancient sort of migratory trail. And then finally, the last few years from the most recent base bits of the tusk show that he died of starvation, and you can see that again in the sort of isotopes, the sort of change in diet essentially.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Oh, goodness, that’s quite a sad end to the story there, Shamini, but that is kind of amazing, right? So, you can get a sense of where this mammoth went and, maybe making parallels to modern elephant behaviour, you can kind of get a sense of what mammal life was like tens of thousands of years ago.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Yeah, and it’s guesses. What we know is what the isotopes are telling us about the geography and things. The other stuff is maybe some kind of guesswork. And this is only one individual. Maybe Kik wasn’t entirely representative of his brothers and sisters. But it’s the first time that such a comprehensive analysis has been done, so the hope is that scientists will be able to do the same thing for other specimens. It does unfortunately involve, as I said, sort of sawing them down the middle, so you are cutting them up, which certain museums might not be so keen on. But it does give you a lot information, and there’s a lot of questions that we still have about mammoths, like why they went extinct, that maybe a method like this could answer.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, that is a wonderful story, Shamini. My story this week was reported on in Nature, and it kind of continues on something we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks. And there is an element of tracking where something moves about an area, roves about, dare I say, and in this case, it is the Perseverance rover on Mars and what it’s been up to recently.

Host: Shamini Bundell

How’s Percy doing?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, very familiar there, Shamini, but I will say that the Perseverance rover is getting it done up there on Mars. As I say, we’ve covered the helicopter Ingenuity that took off from it, and it’s been taking lots of photographs, but its latest bit of science, which was trying to collect a rock sample, maybe hasn’t gone necessarily 100% according to plan.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Oh no, so is this, it has to try and drill into Mars to get a piece of Mars?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, that’s exactly right. So, on board the Perseverance rover are a bunch of sample tubes, and part of the mission is to try and collect some samples and then store them, and in the future, another mission will come and pick them up and take them back to Earth, right. And this is the rover’s first go at this, and it takes place in the Jezero Crater, which is where Perseverance has been rolling around since it landed on Mars. And so, to collect a sample, what it does is it has a little look around, chooses a spot, does a bit of sort of dusting to get the dust off the top, and the drill goes down and it pulls out this core about the size of a school chalk, okay. And a couple of weeks ago, this happened. So, 7 centimetres down, it tries to pull out this sample, seals it in a tube, tube gets stored in the bottom of the rover, happy days, job done, right. And to all intents and purposes, all the checks and balances, everything was fine. There was a hole in the ground. There was a sealed tube in the belly of the rover. Great.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Great. This sounds great.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, things got a bit more head-scratchy from there, to be honest with you, Shamini. So, a closer look at the data revealed that actually the tube was empty, which is obviously not what you want when you’re trying to collect a sample of rock from Mars.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Oh no.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And so, what appears to have happened is that the top layer of this rock looked pretty secure, right, pretty sturdy. But for some reason, when they dug down, it just kind of disintegrated into powder, and so looking at the hole again, you can kind of see this powder in the bottom. So, this is the first go, and it hasn’t necessarily gone 100% to according to plan, as I say.

Host: Shamini Bundell

So, it’s not even got any powder. As it tried to grab it, it maybe disintegrated and it’s left with nothing.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, pretty much. Thankfully, this isn’t it, right. It’s not one and done. Perseverance has got 43 sampling tubes, and now it obviously has 42 left, and also, part of its mission was to collect a sample of the Martian atmosphere, which now it has got in a sealed tube, so the researchers are already ahead of the game there, which is great. So, the next step is it’s going to roll about a bit more, go to a different area and have another go there. Now, this first place they’ve tried was potentially igneous rock, and this next one is maybe more like sedimentary rock, which is closer to what the engineers here on Earth sort of tested successfully, but this one didn’t necessarily do the business.

Host: Shamini Bundell

I was quite worried. I thought you were going to say that there’s only like two more tries or something or it’s really limited. So, presumably, the aim is to be going around all over Mars getting quite a few different rock samples. What do they do with all those then?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, I mean, you’re absolutely right, Shamini. So, the idea is to collect, I think, 35 rock samples from different places. And why this is really important is that we don’t really know how old the rocks on Mars are. A lot of this stuff has come from estimates or guestimates, so actually being able to collect some, store it away in these sealed tubes and then eventually take them back to Earth, which won’t happen until 2031 at the earliest, but it should, when that happens, give scientists a lot more of an idea of the age of different parts of Mars.

Host: Shamini Bundell

But the scientists aren’t too disappointed that the first one went wrong though?

Host: Benjamin Thompson

Well, stoic, Shamini, is where it’s at, I think. Obviously a bit of disappointment at the start, a bit of confusion, but it seems like there’s so many more surprises that the red planet is going to throw up, I think that researchers are excited to see, and hopefully we’ll find out so much more, as the Perseverance rover continues about its business.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Brilliant. I’m really enjoying hearing all these updates from the various Mars missions and how they’re getting on, so I’m sure we’ll have plenty more of those in Briefing chats in the future. And if you want to get the Nature Briefing itself, a daily email newsletter, we’ll put a link in the show notes where you can sign up, as well as a link to the stories that we were chatting about today.

Host: Benjamin Thompson

And that’s all for this week. As always, you can keep in touch with us on Twitter – we’re @NaturePodcast. Or you can send us an email – podcast@nature.com. I’m Benjamin Thompson.

Host: Shamini Bundell

And I’m Shamini Bundell. See you next time.

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