Sharing things

Charles and Rianna: Woolly mammoths, deep sea gigantism and knowing your place in the family hierarchy.

October 01, 2020 The University of Edinburgh Season 3 Episode 2
Sharing things
Charles and Rianna: Woolly mammoths, deep sea gigantism and knowing your place in the family hierarchy.
Chapters
Sharing things
Charles and Rianna: Woolly mammoths, deep sea gigantism and knowing your place in the family hierarchy.
Oct 01, 2020 Season 3 Episode 2
The University of Edinburgh

In this episode, guests Charles Cockell and Rianna Walcott talk about woolly mammoths, deep sea gigantism, knowing your place in the family hierarchy and more.

Charles is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh. His group focuses on the study of life in extreme environments and understanding the diversity, processes and biosignatures of life in extremes, and the potential habitability of extraterrestrial environments.

Rianna is a PhD candidate at King's College London researching Black women's identity formation in digital spaces, and a graduate twiceover from the University of Edinburgh.

Each episode of Sharing things is a conversation between two members of our university community. It could be a student, a member of staff or a graduate, the only thing they have in common at the beginning is Edinburgh. We start with an object. A special, treasured or significant item that we have asked each guest to bring to the conversation. What happens next is sometimes funny, sometimes moving and always unexpected.

Find out more at www.ed.ac.uk/sharing-things-podcast

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, guests Charles Cockell and Rianna Walcott talk about woolly mammoths, deep sea gigantism, knowing your place in the family hierarchy and more.

Charles is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh. His group focuses on the study of life in extreme environments and understanding the diversity, processes and biosignatures of life in extremes, and the potential habitability of extraterrestrial environments.

Rianna is a PhD candidate at King's College London researching Black women's identity formation in digital spaces, and a graduate twiceover from the University of Edinburgh.

Each episode of Sharing things is a conversation between two members of our university community. It could be a student, a member of staff or a graduate, the only thing they have in common at the beginning is Edinburgh. We start with an object. A special, treasured or significant item that we have asked each guest to bring to the conversation. What happens next is sometimes funny, sometimes moving and always unexpected.

Find out more at www.ed.ac.uk/sharing-things-podcast

Richenda :

Welcome to Sharing things, the podcast that takes a closer look at the people that make up our University of Edinburgh community. Each episode starts with two invited guests and an object, which can be something personal, treasured or significant. It's something that unlocks a story and starts a conversation. We take it from there. I'm Richenda, your new host, conversational guide and a final year medical student. Today, as with all this season's recordings, I'm sat at my kitchen table in central Edinburgh. In this episode, we spend time with English Literature graduate Rianna Walcott, a researcher, activist and journalist based in London. And Charles Cockell, Professor of astrobiology in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University.

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Richenda :

Welcome to Sharing things. We've got Charles and Rianna here today. Welcome to our little virtual studio that we have. Whereabouts are you guys calling in from just to start us off?

Charles :

Well, like you Rianna it looks like I'm sitting in my, in my, in my living room, and it's sort of turned into an office. I have a desk in here and I am now back in the building-- in my real building. But otherwise, here working at home, which seems to, seems to be okay.

Rianna :

I'm-- while I'm in London, I, I'm in my, I'm in my living room as well. Uh, my flatmate is out, it's usually the two of us in here. And we're both working from home at the moment, which has been super hard to navigate because both of us have quite um, interview, public speaking heavy kind of jobs. Like she's a journalist and also like an activist as well. So sits on a lot of panels and things. So it means that we have to like plan our time in the living room, like okay, so you're going to be on a podcast, and I'll be in this room [laughs]. And it's the only place we have internet connection as well. So it's an absolute nightmare. But she's out right now, so I've got, I've got free rein [laughs].

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Richenda :

We'll just get started with the first main question, which is what objects did you guys bring along today?

Charles :

I brought along a piece of woolly mammoth that I have sitting in a box in my sitting room. And it comes from the hide of a woolly mammoth that was dug up in Siberia in 1907. So that's my object for today, it's about four or five centimetres long, about three centimetres wide and it's sort of-- it looks like just a piece of brown piece of carpet, actually [laughter]. But it is a real piece of woolly mammoth and it was sent to me by the Soviet Academy of Sciences in the late 1980s. So um, in my-- when I was doing my undergraduate degree, I was at Bristol, I was doing an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and in the last year, we had to come up with a project of our own, like a sort of mini Master's project dissertation. And when I was at school, I went on a school trip to the Soviet Union. And we went to Leningrad, Leningrad then, not St. Petersburg and I went on a trip to the zoological museum sort of on my own. The rest of the trip, this trip, didn't really want to go there. So I broke off and I went off to the museum to see the woolly mammoth. And I was always fascinated by them and then later on, when I got to having to do this project, during my undergraduate years, I thought, I'll get some woolly mammoth and see if I can extract DNA from it, and do some biochemistry. So I wrote to the Soviet Embassy in London, I said, I want to get hold of a piece of woolly mammoth. And they asked me to the Soviet Embassy in London. So I went there and I had about two or three meetings there to talk about why I wanted this piece of woolly mammoth. And I never thought this project would actually happen. And I wrote as well to the director of the Leningrad Zoological Institute. And then about three months before my project was due to start, a box arrived in the mail, a dark brown box with string around it and brown paper. And it had a-- had Russian handwriting on it said Leningrad Zoological Museum, and I opened it up. And inside was a short letter and this piece of woolly mammoth, which I used for my project, and we crushed it up, and I did in fact, extract some DNA out of it. So it was a success. It was a good undergraduate project. There's a sort of V shape on it, where I cut my piece of woolly mammoth out for the project, but then I kept the rest of it. And so since the age of what must have been 20 then, I've always had this piece of woolly mammoth in my house. So there you go.

Richenda :

Oh, wow, I can't believe you actually got it sent to you as well. It's incredible.

Charles :

It was amazing it happened. I didn't think they would take me seriously, but they sent it.

Richenda :

And then why have you kept it with you the whole time? Is it sort of a little memento now? Or is it like a good luck talisman or anything?

Charles :

[Laughs] well, no, not really. It probably should be a good luck talisman. Should probably really carry it around with me at all times. I've kept it just because it's valuable.

Rianna :

Yeah. I mean, if you end up with a, with a scrap of woolly mammoth, you're not gonna throw it away [laughs].

Charles :

No, absolutely not. I mean, what else do you do with it? So it sort of follows me around through my life. And you know, it's gonna stick with me. And I've no doubt, I don't know what happens to it in the very, very long term. I should probably preserve it somewhere. It's sort of fascinating.

Rianna :

I like the fact that you have it and keep it and hold it, and don't have it in like a shadow box on a wall somewhere [laughter], like, you've literally pulled out this piece of woolly mammoth like, yeah, this incredibly valuable thing that I'm just like, yeah, here it is [laughter]. It's not framed.

Charles :

The thing about this is that, you know, it's been touched so much now that it's contaminated. And there's fresher woolly mammoth, if you want to do biochemistry. So the scientific value is very little now.

Rianna :

Ofcourse [laughs].

Charles :

But, you know, I might as well keep it. And like I said, what's amazing about this is looking at it and thinking that this was part of a woolly mammoth that was roaming the steppes of Russia, maybe 40,000 years ago, before the last ice age came to an end. And here is that little piece of animal. I'm not sure whether that's a nice fact or-- I'm sure that woolly mammoth would not have appreciated the fact that it was in a box 40,000 years later, sitting in some humans living room, but, but it's something fascinating about about it. It's lost most of its hair, but it's sort of got these little frilly bits on the end. You can see here.

Richenda :

Oh, wow, okay, yeah, you can see lots.

Charles :

It does look like a piece of carpet.

Rianna :

Yeah it does.

Charles :

And people have always been a bit cynical and said, you sure the Russians didn't send you a piece of carpet [laughter]. And they're all sitting there in St. Petersburg laughing their heads off for the last 30 years. But, but no, it does have DNA in it and it is definitely woolly mammoth.

Richenda :

Have you ever gotten back in touch with the people that lent it you? Have you ever got in touch to tell them what you did?

Charles :

No, I haven't. I did go back to St. Petersburg, um about 10 years ago for an astrobiology meeting. I didn't actually make it to the, the, the zoological museum. I haven't been in contact with the people that originally sent it to me. But I probably should go and track them down. I think they've long since retired.

Rianna :

Do you think it'd be as easy now to get a scrap of woolly mammoth?

Charles :

I don't know.

Rianna :

Probably easier for you now you have an established contact [laughs].

Charles :

Yeah, or, or it may actually be more difficult, partly because I think in those days, it was the western Soviet Union and having a 18/19 year old write into the Soviet embassy and then go and have a meeting at the Soviet embassy. They were, I think quite keen to encourage this young Western student to be quite pro Russian. So they would invite me to the embassy and discuss woolly mammoths and science, and I got my piece of woolly mammoth. I suspect nowadays, it would just be a little bit more formal. And there would be many other permits and things you would need that other people might have to get if they were doing research or asking for samples from, from Russia. So perhaps it would be more difficult. I also think probably I should have been contacting the Department of Agriculture then. I've often wondered whether I was breaking some law, bring in bits of woolly mammoth without permits that just arrived in the post one morning. So I think there were certain benefits of being a young crazy scientist wanting a piece of woolly mammoth and having the nerve to write to the Soviet embassy and ask for something that probably didn't happen every day. So I was lucky to get my, my mammoth I think.

Rianna :

That's absolutely fantastic. I mean, that just sounds nothing like my undergrad experience. I think I, I just wrote my dissertation in a week, chain smoking, drinking loads-- backing loads of coffee. Nothing inventive about it [laughter]. Wicked.

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Richenda :

Will we ask you Rianna what your object is?

Rianna :

It's not woolly mammoth [laughs]. It's, it's nothing that was once alive. Um, I'm really disappointed that it's not because like, in that first few seconds when you whipped out that woolly mammoth, I really started looking around my flat...shit [laughs] you know, but nevermind. So my object is a piece of art that my sister made for me. And so, it's this clock.

Charles :

Oh, yeah.

Richenda :

That's beautiful, yeah.

Rianna :

And, yeah, yeah. So for listeners, it is a plain white clock that has a biro drawing in dark blue ink of a black woman with cropped hair holding her hand over her face. And she, yeah, there's no numbers on it or anything, but it is a clock. But yeah, so she's my younger sister. And she is actually at Edinburgh now. So she-- I'm moving her up in a couple weeks. Yeah, her name is Maïa and she's a social anthropologist. And she's my favourite person on the planet. So, even-- and I'm terrible at timekeeping myself. It's really a wonder that I made it on time today, but trust me, I had several alarms. It was, it was all very touch and go. And this is in a pandemic where I can't leave my house, I'm still late for everything. So the fact that I have a really unintimidating clock makes me feel really great. I would like someday to have a house full of her art. And this is my slow beginning, like my bedroom is covered with her paintings and things like that.

Richenda :

And do you ever commission pieces from your sister, are you able to ask or?

Rianna :

All the time, I'm, I'm constantly trying to get her to take an artist's career properly. So she did a photo in Colour of Madness. I also like-- for the project I run, project Myopia, I commission her as an illustrator all the time. And most recently, our first like Walcott duo, I wrote an article for the Wellcome and she illustrated it, and it's the best we've ever been paid [laughs]. And we did it together, so that was really lovely. Like I wrote this article about, about the pandemic and the role of WhatsApp as a platform in spreading disinformation. And like the medical aspect of how in particular that impacts black elders, black aunties and uncles on WhatsApp are an absolute menace with what kind of information they'll spread to each other. Maïa illustrated that article and we both got paid fantastically well. And it's, you know, our first like collaboration.

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Charles :

I wondered-- so you both, you were at Edinburgh and, and your sisters at Edinburgh as well, what what brought you both to Edinburgh, is your family here, or, you...

Rianna :

Nope.

Charles :

...just decided this was a good place to study?

Rianna :

So I, I'd never left-- I'd never been to Scotland, when I applied to go to Edinburgh. Basically it was, you know, UCAS, you've got your five options and everything. And I just, I needed a fifth. And my friend who was in the year above happened to go to Edinburgh and be studying English Lit. And I just called her and was like, what's it like? Is it all right? She was like, yeah, you'll like it here. And then shortly after that, I went to visit it, and then I no longer cared about anywhere else I applied. Like it was so urgent that I went to Edinburgh that like, I was prepared to take a gap year and do it all again, if I didn't get Edinburgh. And then you know, over the years, my sister's, four and a half years-- five academic years younger than me. So over the years, she visited me a lot. I like the fact that Edinburgh had that sick year abroad because I got to spend a year in L.A. And she's just done her year abroad in Maryland, so it's kind of like, Maïa and I are incredibly alike. Like, she looks exactly like me. And she's like me, but better. She's like Rianna, 2.0

Richenda :

Like, how were you guys, you know, when you were growing up? So I've got two younger sisters and when we were growing up, it was kind of like standard sibling relationship, whereas now we're a bit older is kind of like that, you both sort of raise each other up and everything. Is it like that, was it?

Rianna :

I'd say, we weren't like, as good friends as we are now when we were much younger, because again, you know, five years is quite a-- it's not an insignificant age gap, right? But we were always like a really tight knit family. We're a, we're a huge family. Both of my parents were one of six. So there's an awful lot of cousins and things. We're kind of born in batches. So, you know, I'm from batch-- I'm batch three, child two of the grandchildren. And she's batch four, child one. So it's not [laughs], like, we, we weren't, we weren't in the same batch [laughter].

Richenda :

You call them batches? [Laughs]

Rianna :

I do, I personally do because it's actually very-- like it genuinely is like everyone's in a batch. Everyone's within about three years of each other.

Richenda :

And are there like hierarchies within that, is it like that the older ones are sort of looked up to batch one?

Rianna :

Yes. Batch, batch one and two used to call themselves the Lucky Seven. Do you know how hard it was to come in at batch three where they call themselves the Lucky Seven? [Laughter].

Charles :

Yeah, I have-- I guess I come from one batch. Three Sisters. But my two elder sisters are like a mini batch. They-- my, my younger sister is a twin sister. I have a twin sister.

Rianna :

Oh wicked.

Charles :

So it's the two of us are twins and we're like a, I suppose a little mini batch and...

Rianna :

Yeah, that's a batch.

Charles :

...then my two older sisters are a little older batch. We're not so different in age. We span about what five, five years, all of us. Can I ask you a question Rianna? So one of the things I found is that-- so I have an interest in science and none of the rest of the family do science at all. I have actually no idea where that came from at all. But do you find, do you, are your interests things that are shared? Your sister sounds like she's quite artistic. So I can see a sort of, I don't know how I describe it, sort of artistic social sciences interest running in the family, so maybe there's some connection there?

Rianna :

Yeah.

Charles :

But do you-- did your family have a history of, of the sorts of interests you have? Certainly my grandfather was a doctor, that's about the closest I get to being a scientist or a biologist. But other than that, there's really not much science elsewhere in the family. But what about you?

Rianna :

No, not at all. I mean, so Maïa and I, in that she's, like, very, very similar to me, like our research interests align perfectly. And she, she's even a singer too. But you know, what we just [laughs], we don't uh-- she's not like comfortable on stage and I am. So it's the, you know, there is-- we have so much in common, but the rest of us? Not at all, we don't even look alike.

Charles :

I'm jealous of your ability to sing. I did, I did a choir audition when I was 13 that lasted five minutes and that was the end of my singing career [laughter].

Rianna :

I was a choral singer and everything. I was in like, I was, I was actually in Edinburgh Chamber choir, the Edinburgh... [unintelligible]

Charles :

Oh really? Gosh.

Rianna :

Yeah, for a couple years and...

Richenda :

So what secifically got you started in singing as well, because I can't imagine ever taking up that as a hobby. What was it that started you off on it?

Rianna :

I always really, really wanted to do it. But it's funny because up until I was about 16/17, my parents were absolutely adamant that I couldn't sing [laughs]. But I kept giving-- being given all these, like solo opportunities and things I was like, something's up. I started out in, you know, it was the sort of thing where you're doing choirs at like nine or whatever, you know, the school choirs. And then I was like, yeah, no hang on, I'm good at this and kept going. But also, I started playing the piano when I was eight, so kind of just came part and parcel because part of the exams is like sight singing and stuff. So, but I knew that I loved jazz from when I was about eight years old. Like that was like pretty much the only type of music I liked for a really long time. And yeah, just kind of stuck from there. Like if you're if you're going to learn how to sing, or if you're interested in singing, jazz is an amazing trial by fire because they're so inventive. And if you can scat, what can't you do?

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Richenda :

So did you guys figure out what you wanted to do what you do know when you were younger?

Rianna :

I still don't know what I wanna do? I might still turn into-- I still might like, you know, be a pop star? We don't know yet [laughs]. I still have time.

Charles :

I did, yes. I, I read books on space exploration when I was about six and a half, seven. And I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I mean, I've taken short detours, I went off, and did you know three months of being an accountant between University and doing my PhD that bored me absolutely stiff. And it wasn't like I was ever going to do that. But, you know, on and off other things. I've absolutely known that I was always interested in science. And that's always going to be what I was going to do. And particularly space. So the vision of humanity spreading out into the stars, is something that's always captivated my imagination. I don't know why. And natural history, you know, biology and animals. So I was always trying to bring biology together with space. And that's sort of what I'm doing. And we always laugh that I don't want-- I always joke with my students and I never want to tell anyone, this is a secret that I would pay to come in and do the job that I do. But I don't want the university to know that because because because I enjoy it so much, that it's for me it's it's a real privilege to be doing something that I don't really consider it to be-- I mean, obviously, there's a lot of work teaching and the rest of it. But the subject I work in is something I've always wanted to do.

Richenda :

If you met your younger self would they be proud of you do you reckon? Or would they be surprised that you are where you are?

Charles :

I wouldn't use the word proud, I think they'd probably be horrified. I hope they'd be horrified [laughs]. But I, if I met my younger self, I think I'd be very happy because I do remember when I was young, wanting to go and explore. I wanted to work for NASA when I was young. And I did that in my postdoc and be an Antarctic Explorer. And I spent five years working for the British Antarctic Surveys. When I think back to when I was eight, nine, ten about what fascinated me: polar exploration, space exploration, I have done that. So I think my younger self, I think will be very happy that I will eventually go on and do the things I dreamt of doing when I was very young. And I'm very grateful for that. In fact, now at my age, I think I look back and think there's nothing that I wanted to do when I was younger that I haven't done. Now, it's more just trying to contribute and teach others and bring up other students, but in terms of my real interest and professional interests, I count myself lucky to have been able to pursue exactly, really what I wanted to do.

Richenda :

That's incredible. Yeah, what about you Rianna? Would you say that your younger self would be proud of where you are today?

Rianna :

Um, I think she'd be quite unsurprised. I don't think anyone would be surprised. I've always had like a really-- I don't--actually. Maybe the one thing that I would have been surprised about is like how overdeveloped my sense of justice got. I-- but, but I guess that's also not really that surprising being a young black woman in academia. No, I think it makes sense. I think I'd be surprised that I didn't end up in English Lit. And I still sometimes feel sad that I'm not still in English Lit. But, like I definitely would never have thought that I could make a career out of looking at social media. Because, well, for one, it wasn't a thing when we were young. Was it so? Like, really young? But yeah, like, I never think like when I got onto like MySpace and Pixo, I didn't think like, oh yeah, one day. One day, this will be my bread and butter, like talking about this stuff. But, so I guess that, that was surprising. But I think the fact that I work with race and mental health and social media, yeah, it kind of works. And I also have, like, throughout the whole-- my whole life, I've tried very hard not to close a single door, so that I could still turn around and be a pop star if I wanted to [laughter]. So, so I think that would stay-- remain quite unsurprising to myself too, because I've always been very indecisive and interested in an awful lot of things. So I definitely never like, I mean, just thinking about when I went off to uni, and I was trying to decide between a music degree and an English Lit one. And I thought, okay, what keeps my options open most? If I do the music degree, I don't think I can keep up with my interests in English Lit, but I can still be a musician whilst doing English Lit. So basically, every step in my life has been in that direction, like, how can I keep my finger in all these pies without burning out? So...

Charles :

Do you think you'll carry on doing what you're doing? Or do you think you go back to music? Or do you think music will always be something that is more of a sort of, you know, a hobby if you like?

Rianna :

I think, I think it has to stay a side hustle.

Charles :

Yeah.

Rianna :

Because it's too-- I don't think I'm good enough at-- oh, I don't know. I think if I were to pursue music, I'd have to like throw my whole self into it. What I care about most is definitely-- all of my work mainly converges around academia. So it's not a surprise to me that I ended up here. And I would like to finish my PhD and ideally, get a job [laughs]. You know, the market is not wonderful for that, but it's still the hope. And yeah, no, I just think I'd be, I think I'd be good at it. And you know, there's not very much that I look at and I go yeah, I'd be good at that. Or I'd be it'd be really important to have me there, like I'm necessary. Because I do think I am also quite like necessary. There's not enough black women in academia. And that's like, a bit of a burden sometimes, but like, I think it's still...

Richenda :

And then yeah, so I think you've touched on something I wanted to ask both of you, because I know that you kind of both are passionate about it. So, in terms of diversity in academia, and education, why is that so important to both of you?

Charles :

I would say it's important just because of the fact that different people bring different ideas. I mean, the whole point of academia, is it's supposed to be a part of civilization, where people think. That's what universities were designed to do, to, to challenge existing paradigms, to advance the state of society, our ability to express ourselves and, and universities should see themselves as places where that should happen. So its diversity of people and ideas. In fact, diversity in all realms of human existence, is what universities should be trying to encourage. That's, that's really their mission. I don't think we should ever lose sight that. I think it's more difficult these days, because their-- universities tend to become more commercially focused. They're run a little bit like businesses, I think it makes it more difficult for them to, to create a space where people are just thinking about what they want to think about without having to write impact statements and demonstrate some sort of commercial value. I think that's something that perhaps we, we do need to push against a bit. I think universities shouldn't lose sight of that. But I would summarise by saying that universities are about diversity, that's their whole purpose, to create diversity of human thought and people, so they should be trying to do that all the time.

Rianna :

I completely agree with that. I mean, I also think that well, it's impossible for me not to be wrapped up in it because of my identity. But also I guess I-- on that note of the fact that university is supposed to provide diversity of human thought, I think being marginalised in that space, you notice the glaring gaps in, in the spaces, like not just the lack of seeing people that look like you, although that hurts, too. But also the lack of-- when you're studying, and people don't think that anyone black or brown has contributed anything to the cannon, and you notice that, and then you sort of think, what are they missing? I just think that by not having us there is a dis-- like the universities doing a huge disservice to themselves. And there are certainly loads of spaces, like, my friend is running the free black uni, which is a space that promises to be like an alternative educa-- decolonized education space, you know, so we can do things separate to the university, I don't think it's the be all and end all. And I don't think that we should necessarily put all of our hopes in decolonizing a space that wasn't built for us rather than building our own. I think it's like a multi-pronged thing.

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Rianna :

Charles, okay. So, space [laughs]. I-- one of the best, like, would you rather questions there are is like, I feel like you have to either be like a deep sea stan, or a deep space stan. And myself, I'm a deep sea stan, but also with like, totally fascinated by outer space. And like, I need to know which would you be more frightened to be abandoned in? [Laughter]

Charles :

Deep sea or space?

Rianna :

Yeah.

Charles :

Um, hmm. That's a good question. Well, they're both pretty extreme places, at least in the deep sea you're still on planet earth.

Rianna :

Bearing in mind, you could survive in-- or whatever.

Charles :

Yes, at least in the deep sea I'm still on planet earth, and there's some possibility of bubbling up to the surface and swimming to land. So if I was to be abandoned anywhere...

Rianna :

Nah, what about a Megalodon?

Charles :

[Laughs] I would probably rather be abandoned anywhere on the earth other than-- rather than in outer space, I think. Outer Space being you know, a completely lethal, instantaneously lethal environment, likely a long way away. But both of them are pretty, pretty lethal places to be.

Richenda :

I think the one part of that is that you just, you'd have a longer commute coming back from outer space. That's one of your...

Charles :

That's right.

Rianna :

No, no, no there is no choice of return in either of these scenarios. Stop getting-- stop tryna wriggle out of it. Talking to academics is so annoying sometimes [laughter].

Charles :

So you're going, you're going to be there for the rest of your life, it's a one way trip?

Rianna :

Yes.

Charles :

I see.

Rianna :

But what are you more frightened of?

Charles :

Ah right. Well, that's, that's different. I think if I was going to be abandoned anywhere on a one way trip, I think I'd go for Mars.

Rianna :

Ah, okay. Why?

Charles :

Well, briefly why, because it's a fascinating place and no one's been there. And it's the closest to earth, it's still very different to earth, but it's the most earth-like planet where we might build a civilization. So if I was left there, maybe I would be contributing to a new, a new branch of civilization. But yes, what about you? Would you go for deep, deep ocean or outer space do you think?

Rianna :

Richenda you go first.

Richenda :

Okay, so sometimes when I think about space, I get too freaked out. So I think I'd maybe go for the sea option, just because then I wouldn't constantly be in a sense of existential dread. So I think that one answers that.

Charles :

[Laughs] very good way of putting it.

Richenda :

Like, it just goes on forever.

Rianna :

Yeah.

Richenda :

No [laughs].

Rianna :

I think the existential dread would really get me but uh... [laughs]. I have a lot of that already. Like, I don't think I could deal with much more [laughter]. At least with the sea like, it'd be quick. Like I think like something massive would get me and then that would be the end of it. Like I am absolutely-- so every now and then, like, actually quite like alarmingly regularly, I will look up deep sea gigantism, that Wikipedia page, and just look at it [laughter]. It's like a really, like a surprisingly regular pastime of mine. I just need to look at it and just think about the fact that there are these absolutely like-- why do they get-- what's the reason? I said that scarcity of food, and like light and resources is the reason why they get so massive. How does that make sense? Why are they so big? [Laughter].

Charles :

It's partly because it's cold.

Rianna :

But why would being bigger help? I don't get it. Why wouldn't you just be like a little speck? Like, what things are big in the cold?

Charles :

Yeah, yeah. Around Antarctica things grow larger because it's colder so the water can dissolve more oxygen, so you've got more oxygen to breathe. So things tend to get slightly larger and you find that around Antarctica, giant starfish and other things [laughs].

Richenda :

I love that this has turned into a learning experience for you. Your shocked face Rianna.

Charles :

No this is excellent, we've gone from what, we've gone all the way from whatever we were talking about to now giant creatures living in the deep sea.

Rianna :

This is what I've been dying to know for like, this is this is, this is what I wanted from this conversation. Like, ideally, you'd spend the next sort of 10 to 20 hours, peppering me with facts about space [laughter]. That's what I want.

Charles :

I've got a connection with space in your work, Rianna, so you're interested in looking at languages, right and how you can see people's origins in their race and the language that they use and, and how they use that language. I'm always interested to know what will happen when people go and stay on the moon or Mars for many generations, but will there be completely new languages? I expect so.

Rianna :

So what I'm really interested in more specifically is kind of the way that certain-- I do discourse analysis on patterns of speech, but also on very specific topics. So I, one of the things that I've just written a paper about is about how on Twitter, people will talk about race in a way that evades detection. But that often means that like, it can sometimes be very essentializing language, where you're on Twitter, and it will be like black people do this, and white people do this. And that is how it is. And that is how we're going to talk about it. Are either of you big Twitter users?

Charles :

I joined Twitter for about an hour during lockdown and my-- I joined as @justamicrobe. So I was just a single bacterium commenting about the world. And I got on there for about an hour and I thought this will be fun, this will be my Twitter presence. And then I have to say, maybe I got the wrong impression. But I was sort of just appalled by all the comments that were being made and the anger between people, I didn't like it, actually,

Rianna :

Oh yeah, it's a horrible place.

Charles :

I mean, there's lots of good stuff on Twitter. So I left basically, I just deleted my Twitter account, I thought I'm not bringing this into my life, I, I can quite happily live without Twitter feeds in my life. It'll just irritate me because I'll...

Rianna :

Good for you.

Charles :

I'll read things. And then one of these days, I'll go and tweet something in irritation at something I read and do myself an enormous amount of trouble. So I just, I just left it basically. So that's, that's my brief interaction with Twitter.

Rianna :

That's a strong decision. I would, I would say that, if you can avoid it, you should [laughs]. As a place it's vile and violent. It's not a nice place to be a black woman. But it also is a really important place for a lot of black people. So black Twitter is a whole thing. Right?

Charles :

Yeah. It's a very powerful way of expressing yourself, right. And of course, it has become a global phenomenon. So is, as you say, is important. You can't deny it.

Rianna :

One in four African Americans use Twitter. So like, it's like a-- it's actually like, got a very heavy black presence. And it's like a space where a lot of like black creativity is mined for, like lots of different companies and things. So what is really interesting is about how black people in that space will innovate some language, and then other people will take it. And so it's this constant cycle of like keeping ahead of the theft of these ideas and languages. Because in general, like generally, once everyone starts using something, it's no longer covert. It's no longer interesting. And it's no longer a useful way to use to express yourself without-- whilst avoiding surveillance. So things move quickly, topics move quickly.

Charles :

I think that's it's value and it's weakness. The value is, as you say, it can get debate going very quickly, in particular groups of people have a view they want to express, that's an extremely powerful thing. The downside of that, of course, is we've lost this sort of delay, if you like, you know, if you were to write an essay that's 4000 words long...

Rianna :

People are very reactionary.

Charles :

...you've got to think about that. And it takes time to think about it and the 250 character limit makes-- absolutely as you say, very reactionary, with very little time to think through arguments. And that was the thing that struck me joining Twitter was that the shallowness or sometimes or a lot of the time, I felt of the discussion, there's no real thinking and people expressing views about things they really don't know anything about. And that's no different from Facebook or any other social media platform, and I suppose...

Rianna :

But the immediacy of Twitter definitely engenders that more.

Charles :

Yeah.

Rianna :

And that's the reason why people get chased off it. And it can be a really horrible and quite violent space. Absolutely, completely agree with all that. But [laughs] and the big but is that it also is a site for play and a site for joy and a site for incisive cultural critique. And it's a space where voices that aren't traditionally heard, are heard and cited and given credit for these, these cultural critiques.

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Richenda :

The final question that I have today is, that we always finish up on, is what one word would you use to describe your object?

Charles :

Gosh. Fascinating.

Richenda :

That's a good one for a bit of woolly mammoth, yeah [laughter].

Rianna :

Uh, loving. I feel like I really need to now round out my academic career by like, requesting something like that from someone [laughs].

Charles :

It's never too late to demand woolly mammoth.

Rianna :

I want...[laughter]

Richenda :

It's a good concluding remark [laughs]. Fab, right well thank you very much for talking to me today, guys. And, Rianna, if you get in touch with Russia and get some woolly mammoth, can you please let us know?

Rianna :

Absolutely, of course [laughter]

Unknown Speaker :

[Theme music]

Richenda :

Thanks for listening to Sharing things. If you enjoyed our podcast, then please tell your friends, colleagues and neighbours and it might even be a good excuse for getting in touch with a university mate you haven't talked to in a wee while. If you'd like to listen to more episodes, you can find us on Spotify, iTunes, your favourite podcast platform, and we also have a website. Take care and see you next time. Transcribed by https://otter.ai