Greg Foot is a science presenter. He was first on screen presenting the children’s science show ‘Whizz Whizz Bang Bang’ in 2007, where he made a variety of ridiculous inventions. Since then he has presented what might be called ‘extreme’ science shows, often involving stunts to test scientific theories.
I’ve been shot, frozen, burnt, electrocuted, all for science.
On getting interested in science.
The first thing I ever did with science was with my dad in the kitchen blowing custard powder over one of the rings of the hob on the oven and it all kind of engulfed and we spent a bit of time trying to unknit why that was and realised that obviously it’s a fuel, there’s energy inside that custard powder and when you blow it there’s loads of surface area and it all kind of ignites. So it was hands on demos that got me into all this and then from that I kind of got interested in the world, why is the sky blue through to all those sorts of interesting questions and that took me to university to study natural sciences at Cambridge and while I was there I did quite a lot of radio stuff and I made some little films and I realised I had a real passion for communicating science, trying to work some complicated stuff and condensing it all down and trying to spit out a nice simple explanation. So I left the lab and went into a career in science communication, so I now spend my time writing shows or coming up with demos that I might take onto TV or I might host a TV series that answers interesting questions or I might go and talk about cool stuff at schools and festivals.
On communicating science
OK, so, yes, the way that I communicate science tends to be what’s known as kind of daredevil science, so I’ve been shot, frozen, burnt, electrocuted, all for science. So I was a bit of an extreme sports fan, I do surfing, climbing, mountain biking, wake boarding, all that sort of fun stuff, and I also used to be a high ropes instructor so I suppose that kind of plays into my love of science and I kind of combined the two together and I like using myself as a human guinea pig. So if there’s an interesting question about, can you survive being buried alive or what do humans taste of, then I like to kind of put myself on the line to find out.
So the “what do humans taste of?” was a really cool one, it had never been properly looked at. So I found a surgeon who was willing to take a lump of muscle out of my leg. And he did a muscle biopsy and there was a bit of, kind of, Greg muscle in this dish and then we took it to the University of Nottingham and we cooked it up and we analysed all the flavour that comes off it, because flavour is about 80% aroma. So we analysed those aromas and from that we tracked back to what meat humans would taste of and we discovered that, believe it or not, it’s not predominantly pork or chicken, it’s mainly beef, with a bit of lamb and a tiny bit of pork.
On being ‘shot for science’
Oh gosh, so I was shot to answer the question of, “could a falling penny that drops off the top of the Empire State Building – or any high building – kill you?” So you can work out the maximum speed that that penny is going to fall at, and that’s called it’s terminal velocity. So when the penny falls off, gravity’s accelerating it down to the ground, that’s its weight, that’s that force pulling it down, and as it accelerates it gets a drag force because it’s rushing through all these air molecules and that drag force goes in the opposite direction. And as it gets faster and faster the drag force increases until they’re both equal. And when they’re both equal it stops accelerating but it keeps going at the same speed and that speed is known as its terminal velocity. And for a penny that terminal velocity is about 67 miles per hour.
So I lay at the bottom of a massive building and my friend chucked pennies down and we used a slo mo camera and a ruler, we did speed equals distance over time to work out how fast those pennies were going and we could only get that up to 40ish miles an hour, which wasn’t good enough. So I got a prop builder friend of mine to build a gun – safely – that would fire out a penny at exactly 67 miles per hour. So we decided that the safest place was on my left butt cheek, so I pulled down my trousers and shot my bottom with a penny and I was absolutely fine.
So that shows that, unless you’re hit somewhere like your temple or eye or something like that, then you should be absolutely fine if you’re hit by a penny falling at the fastest speed it can, 67 miles per hour.
So my current live show is about Everest, it’s called Daredevil Labs: Everest and it’s all based on a trip that I did back in April where I trekked up to Everest Base Camp to join a team of doctors and scientists who had come from UCL in London and from Southampton University and from Duke University in America and they set up the highest lab in the world up at Everest Base Camp. 5,364 metres above sea level. higher than anywhere in the whole of Europe, an amazing place, it kind of sits in an ice field that’s very barren and stark and very cold but quite warm during the day and they were there for two months and they’re intensive care doctors and scientists and they’re really interested in coming up with new treatments to help their intensive care patients but they’re very, very sick so they can’t test new treatments on them. So what they do instead was… they thought, right, what we’re going to do is we’re going to take healthy people up to the Himalayas and the reason they do that is because their intensive care patients, 90% of them are suffering from a lack of oxygen, it’s called hypoxia, hypoxic, they are…
So they take healthy people up to a place of low oxygen as well, up in the Himalayas and they try to work out why somebody might do better than someone else. And if they work out what’s going on inside their physiology, inside their body, then they can hopefully develop new treatments that help their patents to cope better with low levels of oxygen and improve their chances of survival. So it was really, really cutting edge research.
So I’d met some of the scientists in passing at events and that sort of stuff and just got chatting, and it’s such a big research project that they can’t think about the outreach, they can’t think about going and talking to kids or adults or doing TV spots or radio spots about it, they, sensibly, are focused on the massive amount of data that they need to get and the logistics of going to Everest Base Camp to do it. I just said to them, hey guys, you’ve got to do some outreach on this, this is so interesting science in an amazing setting, let me see if I can get some funding to support it, and the Wellcome Trust kindly supported me and a colleague of mine to go up there and to document it and film the whole thing and then come back and we’ve done various bits of radio and live stuff off the back of it to spread the message I guess.
Yes, so the team, they’re called Extreme Everest 2 and they found that it’s not actually to do with the amount of oxygen that you’re getting into your body. So, for example, I actually had a higher amount of oxygen in my body than a couple of my friends and I struggled above 5,000 metres, I felt really nauseous, I was really dizzy but my friends were absolutely fine, they were just running up the mountain – OK, they were out of breath but they were doing cool. They found that it’s much more about how it’s delivered to your organs and your cells so they’re focusing on two things, your microcirculation and how your mitochondria…they’re basically the power plants in your cells that use that oxygen. So they’re focusing on those two things; so if they could improve the delivery of the oxygen for their patients back at intensive care or improve the way their mitochondria are using that oxygen, then that will improve their chances.
Well, this is science so it takes a long time. They went up in 2007 and they actually summited in 2007 as well, and that research is having an impact in hospitals in intensive care units, they’re not just focused on pumping patients full of oxygen any more, they’re looking at other ways to help them, and the stuff that they’ve done this time could be pretty ground breaking. They’ve just got to crunch all the numbers, write it up, review it, go through all the clinical trials but I really do think there’s going to be a big impact in 10, 15 years time.
On the psychological effects of climbing
I loved it, you think that it’s such a different place to being at home and it is and, you know, I live in London but I grew up in the Lake District where it’s all countryside so I found the space that you’re in was pretty amazing. I mean, you’ve got these mountains absolutely towering above you, higher than any mountain I’ve ever seen in my life, and you’re actually at 5,000 metres and those mountains are at 8,000 so you’re still looking up at something 3,000 metres but you couldn’t even imagine…the mind just boggles to think about 8,000, right down to sea level, you just can’t imagine that sort of scale so it was quite an amazing psychological experience being out somewhere that was just so barren and incredibly stunning and beautiful. I’d love to return, actually, yeah.
On discoveries made during the climb
So up until now intensive care units were all about getting someone’s oxygen levels back up, because the thing that ties together most of those patients in intensive care is they have a lack of oxygen, they could have a heart attack, they could have a stroke, whatever it is, 90% of them are struggling from a lack of oxygen. So the thing is just to give them some oxygen, they’ll breathe on the oxygen with a ventilator and it will up their oxygen saturation and that will help the rest of their organs recover.
But these guys, Extreme Everest, showed that that’s not necessarily the case and that’s kind of rewritten the rulebook a little bit cause they’ve shown that it’s not all about how much oxygen you’re getting in, it’s much more about the finer detail. It will be really interesting to see how that develops. What was great for me was as a professional science communicator I guess, you know, it is a real job, rather than being a practicing scientist, I got to go and join these people doing real science and that was amazing, because not only was it cutting edge, it was in this ridiculously crazy environment, an amazing experience walking all the way up so that for me was a real perk of this sort of job, not only do you get to explain some really cool science but you get to go on a scientific adventure as part of it.