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Radio review: TV autopsies aren’t like real life and other fun facts learned on Futureproof

Jonathan McCrea learns about post-mortems in another episode of Futureproof packed with engaging scientific insights


Jonathan McCrea, host of Futureproof

Jonathan McCrea, host of Futureproof

Jonathan McCrea, host of Futureproof

Learn how to conduct an autopsy — that’s not the sort of offer you get every day. But it’s precisely the sort of thing you get each week on Futureproof (Newstalk, Sun 9pm), Jonathan McCrea’s excellent and endlessly fascinating show.

The world around us is bizarre, amazing, often incomprehensible… and wonderful. McCrea, and Futureproof, capture all of that, well, wonderfully. Forget your mythologies or fictions or fantasies: the real magic is in plain sight.

This week’s main guest was Dr Louisa Miller, specialist registrar in histopathology, who was doing a live — pardon the pun — demonstration of the practice at yesterday’s Northern Ireland Science Festival in Belfast.

McCrea introduced her by commenting wryly, “If you’re queasy, like our producer Mairéad, this might be a bit much for you.” It did get a bit icky at times, for sure, but his enthusiasm and smart questioning, plus Dr Miller’s genial personality and lucidity in explaining things meant we got past that easily enough.

Histopathology, the dictionary tells me, is “the diagnosis and study of diseases of the tissues”. Most of Dr Miller’s work is done on “diagnostics” — processing and studying biological matter taken during a biopsy — while the remaining 10pc revolves around autopsies.

Essentially, as McCrea put it, they’re “trying to figure out what went wrong in someone’s death”. There isn’t always a suspicion of foul play, Dr Miller added; it may simply be that the family of the deceased want clarity or answers.

During an autopsy, she will study the body and “describe everything we see”, including “the general appearance of the person, and how that might relate to their cause of death — do they appear frail and sick, or do they appear healthy?”

An autopsy looks like a very “clean” process on telly, McCrea said. Is it like that in real-life?

She gave a little laugh. “No. It’s usually not as messy or disgusting as people might think, but it’s definitely not as clean as on TV.”

She uses things such as rib shears, chainmail gloves and very sharp scalpels. “You want to ensure that the patient is presentable for their families afterwards,” Dr Miller said, “so you don’t make any more incisions than you need to” — and those incisions are as neat as possible.
The show also had a briefer section on a potential contraceptive pill for men, plus the usual round-up of science news with Dr Shane Bergin (physicist) and, as McCrea described her, “double doctor” Laura Dungan (immunologist).

This week’s goodie bag included a discovery of a new form of water — more specifically, ice — on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn; something or other called brainwave learning, which I’m man enough to admit was basically impossible to understand; and a 60-tonne cowry tree, found in New Zealand, which once lived for 1,700 years and has been preserved for the last 42,000. Now they can use it to “do science”: studying climate changes down the millennia, and how Earth’s magnetic field shifts position.

An entertaining, informative show, as usual — and lively as always too, despite that central theme of death.

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