Louise Fischer
Louise Fischer

This story begins in South Carolina on a dock (or pier as we know it here in Australia), Molly Webster, RadioLab reporter, brings along her little family members to listen for… a mysteriously strange sound coming from the surface of the water!

Sitting on the pier, Molly has her little niece and nephew listen for this odd sound…and it sounds like… bacon frying in a pan! Or as the little one comments, rice bubbles popping. But as Molly notes, there isn’t any bubbles rising to the surface, there aren’t any bacon-frying-pier-dwellers or rice bubbles in sight. Incredible! This is where the fun begins, what on Earth is making this bizarre bacon frying, rice bubble crackling noise?

Here at the Pod we do love all things science (well at least I do and I regularly impose this science stuff on my colleagues Bernie and Claire). I’m Lou. One of the Pod consultants and I love science! So what does the sound of ‘bacon frying’ coming out of the surface of water have to do with Early Education and Care? Curiosity! Early Learning Framework Outcome 4! CHILDREN ARE CONFIDENT AND INVOLVED LEARNERS.

“Most people stop looking when they find the proverbial needle in the haystack. I would continue looking to see if there were other needles’ – Albert Einstein.

So what does this bacon-frying noise have to do with Outcome 4? EVERYTHING! It’s Albert’s needles in the haystack. Read on…

Albert’s first needle. Where is the sound coming from?

In the US during WWII submarines were being used to fight the war. Think sonar. Navy subs are down deep listening for the enemy but instead of identifying enemy sounds, all they hear is this bacon-frying! Scientists were called in to figure out what this rice bubble crackling was all about. What they discovered were….shrimp! Snapping or pistol shrimp! Incredible no? These little teeny creatures wreaking havoc on sub sonar! So…. What about it? Well these little shrimpys helped to win the war! The navy subs would dive and hide amongst the shrimp – like a marine invisibility sound cloak. Even ships were fitted with speakers on their hull to omit this sound. Incredible. Camouflage by sound.

But is this the end of the legacy of the shrimp bacon-frying? Nope. As Molly goes on to discuss, the other really important part is HOW the shrimp are making this sound.

Albert’s second needle. How is this sound occurring?

Could it be shrimps eating? Or snappy claws?

Molly chats with a wonderful marine biologist about the pistol shrimp’s pinching and snapping claws. It has one larger claw – no surprise there right? It’s got to be this over-size claw clapping away underwater! Well, let’s think about clapping our hands under water – really doesn’t work – we know this because we’ve all been in a pool and laughed hard underwater at friends trying to clap. So a snappy clapping claw? Nope can’t be it. What scientists did was put these little shrimp in a tank, set up a high-powered camera and…tickled them! Bam! – a bubble appears. At super slow-mo, a bubble comes out from the snappy claw. IT’S A BUBBLE! The bubble is the sound maker.

This bubble is water being squeezed out between the snappy claw at high speed – like as fast as a car. The bubble is empty space full of air, created under the ocean by this cool little critter. It gets a bit more sciency here but more or less (well more) the bubble becomes a mini super hot (as hot as the sun’s surface) shock wave bubble and it uses this bubble to kill or stun prey close by. In human scale – a basketball size of sun heat and light!

Nope, if we harnessed this type os snappy bubble making, it can’t power the world and nope and we can’t stick a huge claw on the side of a navy vessel for combat. But researchers thought… what can they harness bubble power for?

Albert’s third needle. What else can this be used for?

Bubbles can save lives! That’s what.

Neuroscientists have adapted bubbles to use in the human body. Oh yes, I thought the same thing. What about divers getting the bends from bubbles or tapping bubbles out of IV lines? Well these teeny bubbles that neuroscientists are using in the body are 1/20th the size of human hair! What for though?

Well, by using bubbles to get across the blood brain barrier – the last frontier before the brain or as Molly puts it, the Wall from Game of Thrones! You know, keeping the badies out to protect the good…same thing with the blood brain barrier. So in neuroscience we know that trying to get chemicals across this barrier is nigh impossible! The brain does not want any foreign properties coming into its realm.

So say there was a brain tumour, how can it be treated if chemo can’t make it across this barrier? So without getting crazy complicated, these micro bubbles, with assistance, move across very specific holes in the barrier created by these bubbles. So the bubbles loosen the barrier, kind of like drilling a hole and a little window of space opens and BAM! the chemotherapy in the blood stream can move through the opening and access the tumour. 6-12 hrs later, the body will repair the micro hole to again hold its fortress. Incredible.

Is this really to do with Outcome 4? Absolutely. Each of us has the power to encourage Albert’s more-than-one needle in the haystack. Through curiosity we create the power to dive subs amongst the shrimp and use bubbles in the brain. Outcome 4 of the Early Learning Framework is by far (as a science student) my favourite area. Who would have thought that by asking about the mysterious bacon frying sounds of shrimp, creating bubbles of shock waves, would lead to marine subs and sound-invisibility cloaks, to breaking through the blood brain barrier? All of the little Albert’s attending your service. They are natural little scientists, always wondering and curious. Incredible!

To listen to this intriguing episode, follow this link to RadioLab. http://www.radiolab.org/story/bigger-bacon/