Discovery

By BBC World Service

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 Aug 18, 2019


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 Nov 22, 2018


 Nov 12, 2018


 Sep 14, 2018

Description

Explorations in the world of science.

Episode Date
The seeded cloud
1625
"Could you make a machine to make it rain in minutes?" asks listener Alexander from Hampshire, aged 12. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. Rutherford and Fry dive into the clouded story of weather modification. First, we need to decide where and when we might deploy any rain machine. Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological society, takes us through the science, maths and art of predicting the weather. Hannah heads down to the BBC Weather Centre to meet meteorologist Helen Willetts, who takes us through the highs and lows of forecasting. And then for the technology itself. Mark Miodownik, scientist and author of Liquid: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances The Flow Through Our Lives, reveals that a technique called cloud seeding has almost certainly been tried in different places around the world for decades. But, whilst it’s supposed to induce showers and even clear the way for sunny spells, the results aren’t always reliable. And even if we can make it rain, Liz explains why messing with the weather may be at our peril. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
Sep 21, 2020
The growling stomach
1657
"Why do our tummies rumble - and when they do, does it always mean we are hungry?" asks listener James, aged 12. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. To get to the bottom of this noisy problem, the doctors tune in to our guts. Geneticist Giles Yeo studies food intake and obesity. He explains the wavy workings of our digestive system, and how those audible rumbles are a sign that digestion is taking place – a phenomenon thought to be onomatopoeically named 'borborygmi' by the ancient Greeks, and explored further in the gruesome 19th century experiments of surgeon William Beaumont. However, tuning in to the gut’s sounds can tell us more than whether we need a snack. Family doctor Margaret McCartney takes us through the process of how and why she and her medical colleagues may use a stethoscope to listen to your abdomen for both particular noises and silence. Microbiologist Barry Marshall has taken medical listening one step further in his Noisy Guts Project. Inspired by microphones used to listen for termites hiding in walls, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist is trialling an acoustic belt, which could be worn to help diagnose and treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
Sep 14, 2020
Return to Mars
1588
In February 2021, three spacecraft will arrive at Mars. One is the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter - the first interplanetary probe sent by the Arab world. Tianwen-1 will be China’s first mission to reach Mars – an ambitious bid to put both a probe into orbit and a small robot on the Martian surface. But the most sophisticated of all is the United States’ Mars 2020 mission. If all goes well, it will land a car-sized robotic rover on the rocky floor of a vast crater that contained a lake more than 3.7 billion years ago. The rover, named Perseverance, will spend years surveying the geology of Jerezo crater and using a battery of new instruments to examine the rocks for any evidence that life existed in the ancient lake. It will also be the first mission to extract rock samples and package them up for eventual return to Earth, sometime in the 2030s. Andrew Luck-Baker talks to NASA’s deputy project scientist Katie Stack-Morgan and mission manager Keith Comeaux, planetary scientists Melissa Rice and Sanjeev Gupta, and astrobiologist Mark Sephton.
Sep 07, 2020
Liz Seward
1638
Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to Liz Seward, Senior Space Strategist for Airbus Defence and Space. Liz's young interest in Science Fiction led to a career designing spacecraft and robots for exploring our own earth, other planets, and the stars. From a library in the US where the science fiction section stood next to the children's section, Liz took inspiration from Robert A. Heinlien and Arthur C. Clarke through a degree in Physics and Space Science at the University of Leicester to begin a career at EADS Astrium (now part of Airbus), initially as a Thermal Engineer. As Liz explains to Jim, thermal engineering lies at the heart of any successful space mission. Any metal box floating in space has to deal with the searing heat of the Sun on one side and the deep, deep freeze of the cosmos on the other. Engineering solutions to cope with these extremes means the difference between triumph and failure. Liz has worked on several missions and international collaborations, including a design for a landing (since de-scoped) on Mercury aboard the current BepiColombo mission due to arrive at Mercury in 2025, and the experimental Aeolus satellite that currently keeps our weather forecasters up to speed on global wind dynamics. A large part of Liz's career was spent with the ESA Martian rover, named Rosalind Franklin, which should have been on its way to the red planet this summer, but has been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nowadays at Airbus, Liz works on the strategy of maximizing commercial potential in space, whilst abiding by issues of responsibility around exploration, pollution, and even space traffic management. What if a launch to Mars collides with a long dead weather satellite on its way there? Or that the first detection of life on Mars turns out to be a cold virus from Stevenage? But as she explains to Jim, miniaturization and cheaper launches suggest a bright future for human activity in space. And one day, it may include vertical satellite launches from Scotland, and even passenger flights from Cornwall.
Aug 31, 2020
Professor Emma Bunce
1645
Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester, was inspired to study the solar system as a child by a TV programme that featured Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune. She has spent the last 20 years focusing on the magnetic fields around the outer planets, in particular that of Jupiter. The Earth’s magnetic field interacts with the solar wind to create aurorae, the spectacular Northern lights. Emma’s discovered how aurorae are also produced at Jupiter's poles. Emma Bunce talks to Jim al-Khalili about her fascination with the gas giants, why she has to be patient to check out her theories as missions to the planets are few and far between and how she'd love to work on a spacecraft to Neptune. And in the year when the Royal Astronomical Society marks its 200th anniversary, Emma explains why she's taken on the role of its President.
Aug 24, 2020
Frank Kelly
1666
Long before most of us gave air pollution a second thought, Frank Kelly was studying the impact of toxic particles on our lungs. In a pioneering set of experiments on human volunteers in northern Sweden, he proved that pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and particulates, are harmful to our health. And he is the driving force behind an air quality monitoring system in London that is the envy of the world. When in the late 1990s, the UK government was encouraging us all to buy diesel cars to help reduce our carbon emissions, he warned that while diesel engines might be less bad for the planet than petrol engines, they were more damaging to our health. Later Frank and his team provided evidence that the car manufacturers were not telling the truth about emissions from diesel vehicles. As the chair of the Government Medical Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, he has worked tirelessly to try and move air pollution up the political agenda and worked closely with successive Mayors of London to improve air quality in the capital. Changing all the buses from diesel to hybrid or electric vehicles would make a huge difference, he says. But we will also need to get used to relying less on driving our cars to get us from A to B. Presented by Jim Al-Khalili.
Aug 17, 2020
Introducing The Bomb
175
Emily’s grandad worked on the bomb that fell on Hiroshima. Could another man – Leo Szilard - have stopped it? This is the new series from the BBC World Service – search for The Bomb wherever you get your podcasts.
Aug 12, 2020
On the menu
1653
Shark, bear and crocodile attacks tend to make the headlines but humans fall prey to a much wider variety of predators every year, from big cats and snakes, to wolves, hyenas and even eagles that’ve been known to snatch the odd child. The details can be grim and gory as many predators have developed specific techniques for hunting us humans down. But it was always so, as biologist Professor Adam Hart discovers. Archaeological evidence suggests early hominins in Africa were more hunted than hunter, spending much of their lives scavenging for food and fending off attacks from the likes of sabre-tooth-cats and giant hyenas. Much more recently, legends abound about some of the more infamous serial killers of the animal kingdom, such as the 'man-eaters' of Tsavo and Njombe - the latter, a pride of about 15 lions in Tanzania who, it is claimed were responsible for an astonishing 1500 deaths between 1932 and 1947. Today, estimates and sources vary but most suggest carnivorous predators are responsible for hundreds if not thousands of human deaths every year. But how much of this is active predation and how much is mistaken identity or sheer bad luck? Adam speaks to experts in human-wildlife conflict dedicated to reducing attacks on both humans and predators in Africa and India, where the tensions between protecting agricultural interests and preserving predator habitats are most problematic. He discovers the grim reality for many poor rural populations dealing with the sharp end of living in close proximity to large carnivores and discusses the potential solutions for driving down attacks on both humans and predators that are caught up in the struggle for survival. Closer to home, Adam meets a wolf-tracker, who helps to monitor wild wolf populations that have spread up through Italy and France, attacking livestock with increasing confidence. Could humans be on the menu next? Producer: Rami Tzabar (Picture credit: Evgeny555/Getty Images)
Aug 10, 2020
Human Genome Project's 20th Anniversary
1585
Adam Rutherford celebrates the 20th anniversary of one of the most ambitious and revolutionary scientific endeavours of all time - the Human Genome Project. Its scope and scale was breath-taking, set up to read every one of the 3 billion nucleotides, or letters of genetic information, contained within the DNA in every cell of the human body. It took seven years, hundreds of scientists, cost almost $3 billion and, amazingly, came in under budget and on time. Adam reflects back on that momentous time with Ewan Birney, Director of the European Bio-informatics Institute, part of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Twenty years ago, he was a PhD student working on the project, in the months leading up to the first draft. The Human Genome Project underpins many branches of science, from human evolution and synthetic biology to forensic genetics and ancestry testing. But a key motivation for the project was to alleviate human suffering. While the ‘cures’, hyped by the media back in 2000, were not realistic our understanding of disease has been revolutionised. Adam talks to Cancer Research UK Scientist, Dr Serena Nik-Zainal, from Cambridge University, who explains why the sequencing of the human genome has been so crucial to the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. The Human Genome Project is also playing a crucial role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Kenneth Baillie has been treating critically ill patients at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary since the pandemic started. As the Lead on GenOMICC, a global collaboration on genetics and critical illness, he has joined forces with Genomics England and the NHS, to pinpoint genetic signals in these patients to help identify the best treatments. Producers: Beth Eastwood & Fiona Roberts Picture: DNA Genetic Code Colorful Genome, Credit: ktsimage/Getty Images
Aug 03, 2020
Brian Greene
1650
Brian Greene studies the universe at the largest and smallest scales imaginable. When he was just twelve years old, Brian wandered round Columbia University in New York looking for someone to teach him mathematics, with a letter of recommendation from his school teacher. While his mother wanted him to make money, his father encouraged Brian to pursue his passion, which was trying to understand the nature of the universe. He studied physics at Harvard University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. While at Oxford he learnt about a bold new Theory of Everything which predicts that the universe is made not of particles but rather tiny strings which vibrate in multiple dimensions. Now a Professor at Columbia University, he has worked on string theory ever since. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the rise and fall of string and superstring theory and why when he first started to think about what would happen to the universe at the end of time, he experienced a feeling of ‘hollow dread’.
Jul 27, 2020
Jane Goodall
1651
Jane Goodall, aged 86, reflects on the years she spent living with the wild chimpanzees in Gombe in eastern Tanzania and tells Jim Al Khalili why she believes the best way to bring about change is to ‘creep into people’s hearts’. Jane shot to fame when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1963 and appeared in a documentary film directed by Orson Welles. Her ground breaking observations introduced us to the social and emotional lives of wild chimpanzees and changed our view of what it is to be human. Images of her younger self play wrestling with baby chimps make Jane feel slightly apprehensive now but at the time she didn’t give it a second thought. However, she did take care to protect her young son. Seeing distressing footage of chimps who were living in captivity, she gave up fieldwork to become an activist, working to liberate chimpanzees that were being used for medical research or sold for meat or as pets, and setting up chimp sanctuaries for animals that were no longer able to live in the wild. For the last thirty years, she has campaigned gently but relentlessly to protect wild animals and wild places, touring the world and performing on stage in front of huge audiences. Her global youth programme, Roots and Shoots has inspired and empowered millions of people to understand and respect nature, leading some to call her ‘the mother Theresa of the environment’. A label she dislikes. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo credit: the Jane Goodall Institute / By Bill Wallauer
Jul 20, 2020
Bed
1588
After a long journey, there’s nothing nicer for Katy than climbing into her own bed. It’s often the first major purchase we make when we grow up and leave home. Its significance was not lost on our ancestors. The bed was often the place where societal attitudes to sleep, superstition, sex, and status were played out, sometimes in dramatic form. So where did the bed come from, and what can this everyday object tell us about ourselves? A sleeper in early modern times believed that sleep was akin to death, with the devil waiting to pounce after darkness. So bed-time rituals were performed at the bedside and wolves’ teeth were often hung around the sleeper’s neck. Iron daggers were dangled over the cradles of infants at night to prevent them from being changed into demon babies. While we may have outgrown a fear of the devil, sleep expert and neuroscientist Prof Russell Foster fears the modern-day obsession that’s disrupting our sleep – our mobile devices. His advice? Prepare your bed for a good night’s sleep and defend it with a passion. Also featuring resident public historian Greg Jenner, and Prof Sasha Handley, expert on Early Modern History and sleep during this time. Producer: Beth Eastwood. Picture: Bed, Credit: Igor Vershinsky/Getty Images
Jul 13, 2020
Covid-19: Recovery
3044
Claudia Hammond and a panel of international experts look at the latest research into Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which is sweeping through the world. Our panel of experts discuss how many people make full recoveries but others are finding that life hasn’t yet returned to normal months after infection. In India and Sweden, clinics are being set up to follow survivors of the virus and doctors are discovering that people are having difficulties assimilating what happened to them. And we hear about how three generations of one Spanish family all survived and how they are all recovering differently, including the 96 year old grandmother. On the panel are Seema Shah, Professor of Medical Ethics at North Western University, Professor David Heymann, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor Soo Aleman from the Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden, Dr David Collier, Clinical director of the William Harvey Clinical Research Centre, Queen Mary University of London and Dr Netravathi M, Professor of Neurology at the National Institute for Mental Health and Neuroscience in Bangalore in India. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Producers: Geraldine Fitzgerald and Caroline Steel Editor: Deborah Cohen
Jul 11, 2020
Toilet
1663
You may call it the toilet, the loo, the privy, the potty, the can or even the bathroom, but whatever you call it, this everyday object has its roots in Bronze Age Pakistan. It even had a seat! But how did the toilet come to be? Given one third of the world’s population still live without one, how much is our embarrassment around toilet habits to blame? And what scientific developments are underway to help make them truly universal? Water and Sanitation Expert, Alison Parker, from Cranfield University believes part of the solution lies in a waterless toilet which creates ash, water from the waste it receives, and the energy it needs to operate, from the waste it receives. Even in the UK, we don’t always have access to a toilet when we need one. Over the past decade, the number of public conveniences has dropped by a half, leaving older people and the disabled, who may need easy access, unable to leave their homes. Raymond Martin, Managing Director of the British Toilet Association, hopes to stop our public conveniences going down the pan. Also featuring resident public historian Greg Jenner. Producer: Beth Eastwood Picture: Bathroom/Getty Images
Jul 06, 2020
Wine glass
1649
Have you got one of those wine glasses that can hold an entire bottle of wine? Katy Brand does and she’s even used it for wine - albeit because of a sprained ankle, which would have stopped her from hobbling back and forth to the kitchen for refills. But if we skip back a few hundred years, the wine glass was tiny. Footmen brought their masters what was essentially a shot glass. They quaffed back their wine in one. So how did we go from those dinky little things to the gargantuan goblets we have today? Is it because letting the wine breathe in a bigger glass makes it smell and taste better? Or is it a reflection of our drinking habits? Join Katy and the show's resident public historian, Greg Jenner, is glass expert Russell Hand from Sheffield University and Barry Smith, Director for the Study of the Senses at London University. Producer: Graihagh Jackson Picture: Wine glass, Credit: Albina Kosenko/Getty Images
Jun 29, 2020
The Evidence: Covid 19: vaccines and after lockdown
2939
Claudia Hammond and a panel of international experts look at the latest research into Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which is sweeping through the world. We look at vaccines to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And as travel opens up in many countries and visiting family and friends is allowed, how do we navigate this new world while avoiding catching the virus. On the panel are Dr George Hu, clinical psychologist & Section Chief of Mental Health at Shanghai United Family Pudong Hospital in China, Vaccine expert - Professor Gagandeep Kang Executive Director of the Translational Health Science Technology Institute in Faridabad India, Dr Jenny Rohn is an expert in microbiology and viruses at University College London and Dr Margaret Harris, a Spokesperson at the World Health Organisation. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Producers: Geraldine Fitzgerald and Caroline Steel Editor: Deborah Cohen
Jun 27, 2020
Fork
1653
The fork is essential. Even camping without one is a false economy, in Katy’s experience. Even a spork - with a spoon at one end and a fork at the other, with a knife formed along one prong - just won’t do. You need both - a fork to steady the meat and a knife to cut it with. So how did the fork come to be so indispensable? We didn’t always love the fork. Public historian, Greg Jenner, reveals how it was abandoned for the chopstick in Ancient China, and greeted with scorn in Western Europe when a Byzantine princess ate with a golden double-pronged one. It was only after the traveller, Thomas Coryat, in 1608, celebrated its use by pasta-loving Italians that the English started to take note. By the mid-19th century, there was a fork for every culinary challenge – from the pickle and the berry, to ice-cream and the terrapin. The utensil transformed the dining experience, bringing the pocket knife onto the table in a blunt, round-tipped form, and ushering in British table manners. So is there a perfect version of the fork? With the help of tomato, milkshake and mango, Katy discovers that the material a fork is made from can drastically alter a food’s taste. Featuring material scientist, Zoe Laughlin, and food writer and historian, Bee Wilson. Picture: a fork, Credit: BBC
Jun 22, 2020
High heel
1653
Katy Brand loves a high heel. Once known by friends and family for her ‘shoe fetish’, her dad even gave her a ceramic heel that could hold a wine bottle at a jaunty angle. These days, Katy’s cherished heels from her torture days live in her cupboard. She has traded the pain for the statement trainer. But their art, history and construction still fascinate her. So what is it about the high heel that has made it stand the test of time? With the help of resident public historian, Greg Jenner, Katy explores the heel’s fascinating passage through time, finding a place on the feet of men, as well as women, in high and low places. Heels donned the feet of men on horseback in 17th century Persia, were adored by King Louis XIV, and gained an erotic currency with the invention of photography. But how has science and engineering ensured the high heel’s survival? Footwear Technologist, Mike George, shows us how the high heel is engineered, and how he can test if a particular design is teetering on the edge of safety. Social scientist, Heather Morgan, reveals the perceived benefits of wearing heels, as well as the risks when she fell foul to when fell in heels and broke her ankle. Producer: Beth Eastwood Picture: High heels, Credit: European Photopress Agency
Jun 15, 2020
The Evidence: Covid 19: Transmission and South America
2974
Claudia Hammond and a panel of international experts look at the latest research into Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which is sweeping through the world. As the disease spreads how is South America handling the pandemic? How are the indigenous people of the Amazon protecting themselves? We also look at the aerodynamics of infection - if the air in an ITU room is changed 12 times and the virus still lingers what hope do offices have? On the panel are Professor Lydia Bourouiba, Associate Professor at the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr Adam Kucharski from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Professor Holgar Schunemann, co-director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases, Dr David Collier, Clinical Director at Queen Mary University London and Barbara Fraser, health journalist in the Peruvian capital Lima. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Producers: Geraldine Fitzgerald and Caroline Steel Editor: Deborah Cohen
Jun 13, 2020
Toothbrush
1657
What is the most personal item you own - one you don’t want anyone else using? For Katy Brand it’s her toothbrush. So how did the toothbrush become one of life’s essentials? With the help of resident public historian of Horrible Histories fame, Greg Jenner, Katy goes back to ancient times, when the toothbrush was merely a stick. But the brush, as we know it, only came into being much later when a convict spied a broom in his cell and had a bright idea. But how has ingenuity and innovation shaped the toothbrush and ensured its place in our lives? And given most are plastic, how environmentally friendly is the toothbrush’s legacy? Featuring designer and toothbrush collector, Sophie Thomas, and advocate for clean teeth, Peter Dyer, Chair of Hospital Dentists at the British Dental Association. Producer: Beth Eastwood Picture: Toothbrush BBC Copyright
Jun 08, 2020
Helium
1589
Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London, celebrates the art and science of the chemical elements. Today he looks at helium. Helium is a finite resource here on Earth and many branches of science need it. Doctors need it to run MRI machines to diagnose tumours and engineers test rockets for leaks with it. The story of helium starts with a solar eclipse in 1868. The event had many astronomers' eyes fixed on the sun. Two astronomers, nearly simultaneous and independently, made the same observation; a strange light with an unusual wavelength coming from the sun. It turned out to be the first sighting of extra-terrestrial helium. It would take decades for helium to be discovered on Earth and longer still for its worth to be recognised. As its ability to make things float and inability to burn became apparent, the US military started hoarding it for their floating blimps. But they soon realised that it is very hard to store an element that is so light that it can escape the Earth's gravitational pull. As we empty our last reserves of the periodic table's most notorious escape artist – is the future of helium balloons, often used to mark special events, up in the air?
Jun 01, 2020
The Evidence: Covid 19: Sub-Saharan Africa and Testing
2966
Claudia Hammond and a panel of international experts look at the latest research into Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which is sweeping through the world. As the disease spreads how is sub-Saharan Africa handling the pandemic? We also look at tests – how accurate are they? Should we be testing ourselves at home? On the panel are Folasade Ogunsola, Professor of Clinical Microbiology at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, Ravi Gupta, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Medicine, Matthew Fox, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at Boston University and Dr Margaret Harris, a Spokesperson at the World Health Organisation. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Producers: Geraldine Fitzgerald and Caroline Steel Editor: Deborah Cohen
May 30, 2020
Aluminium and strontium
1588
Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London, celebrates the art and science of the chemical elements. Today he looks at aluminium and strontium, elements that give us visual treats. At the time of Emperor Napoleon the Third in 19th century France aluminium was more valuable than gold and silver. The Emperor liked the metal so much he had his cutlery made out of it. But once a cheaper way was discovered to extract aluminium it began to be used for all kinds of objects, from aeroplanes to coffee pots. Andrea talks to Professor Mark Miodownik at the Institute of Making at UCL about why aluminium is such a useful material, from keeping crisps crisp to the tinsel on our Christmas trees. And he talks about the lightness of bicycles made from aluminium with Keith Noronha, of Reynolds Technology. Strontium is the 15th most common element in the earth yet we really only come into contact with it in fireworks. It gives us the deep red colour we admire in a pyrotechnics display. Andrea meets Mike Sansom of Brighton Fireworks who explains how a firework is constructed and reveals the chemical mix that creates the bright red flashes. Professor Thomas Klapötke of the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich talks about his search for a substitute for strontium in fireworks and about how the element can get into our bones. Rupert Cole at the Science Museum in London shows Andrea how Humphry Davy was the first to extract strontium from rocks found in Scotland. And Janet Montgomery, Professor of Archaeology at Durham University, explains how strontium traces have revealed that our Neolithic ancestors moved around much more than was previously thought. Nearly half the people buried around Stonehenge in Southern England were born in places with different rocks from those under Salisbury Plain in Southern England. Picture: Fireworks, credit: rzelich/Getty Images
May 25, 2020
Gold and silver
1659
Andrea Sella, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at University College London, celebrates the art and science of chemical elements. In this episode he looks at two elements we have valued for millennia – gold and silver. Nina Gilbey at the London Jewellery Workshop teaches him how to work the metal and make a silver ring, and Rupert Cole, Curator of Chemistry at the Science Museum, shows him the handiwork of silversmiths who fashioned an elaborate microscope for King George the Third and a silver thimble that was used (with some zinc and a few drops of an acid) to generate an electric current that was sent through a transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. And Andrea finds out about silver's anti-bacterial properties from Jean-Yves Maillard, Professor of Pharmaceutical Microbiology at Cardiff University. For the Egyptians gold was the ultimate symbol of wealth, power and eternal life. For this reason they buried their Pharaohs with extraordinary amounts of gold artefacts. As a noble metal, gold doesn’t tarnish which added to its status and association with the sun god Ra and the afterlife. Andrea talks to Professor Marcos Martinon-Torres of Cambridge University at an exhibition of Tutankhamun’s riches, and to Professor Lynne Macaskie of Birmingham University about ways to recycle gold from our electronic waste using bacteria. The method offers a greener way to satisfy our lust for gold. Picture: Gold and silver bracelets, Credit: krfletch/Getty Images
May 18, 2020
The Evidence: Covid 19: ending lockdowns
3036
Claudia Hammond and her panel of scientists and doctors analyse the latest science on the coronavirus and answer the audience’s questions on the impact of the pandemic. Dr Lucy van Dorp of UCL explores the genetics of the virus and what they can tell us about how far it’s spread and how is it evolving. Can we be sure that vaccines being developed now will still work in the future? Professor Guy Thwaites of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam explains how the country has succeeding in keeping its cases so low. Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Professor Ngaire Woods, of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, tackle the question that people all around the world are wondering right now – how does a country safely emerge from lockdown without seeing a surge in cases? And Professor Lisa Cooper of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and family doctor and Director of the Shuri Network, Dr Shera Chok, discuss why black and other ethnic minorities in the US and UK seem to be so disproportionately impacted by Covid 19. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Producers: Geraldine Fitzgerald and Caroline Steel Editor: Deborah Cohen
May 16, 2020
Science of Dad
1630
Whilst most men become fathers, and men make up roughly half the parental population, the vast majority of scientific research has focused on the mother. But studies have started to reveal the impact of fatherhood on both dads themselves and on their children. We're seeing how fathers play a crucial role in children's behaviour, happiness, and even cognitive skills. Oscar Duke, a doctor, new dad and author of How To Be A Dad, discovers how pregnancy, birth and childcare affect the father, bringing about profound physiological and hormonal changes. Only 5% of mammal fathers invest in their offspring, and human males have evolved to undergo key changes when their children are born. Involved fathers can expect their levels of the 'love hormone' oxytocin to rise, nature's way of helping parents bond with their children. At birth, a dad's testosterone levels dramatically fall, increasing affection and responsiveness, and discouraging polygamy. With more fathers taking on a hands-on role in bringing up their children, how can these new discoveries about the science of dad help support them, and inform social and healthcare policies? Presented by Dr Oscar Duke and produced by Melanie Brown and Cathy Edwards
May 13, 2020
Ignaz Semmelweiss: The hand washer
1655
Lindsey Fitzharris tells the story of Ignaz Semmelweiss, the hand washer. In a world that had no understanding of germs, he tried to apply science to halt the spread of infection. Ignaz Semmelweis observed that many young medical students at his hospital in Vienna went directly from an autopsy, still covered in contaminated dead flesh, to attend pregnant women. Could this be the reason for such high maternal mortality rates from conditions like puerperal fever? Believing that the disease was caused by “infective material” from a dead body, Semmelweiss set up a basin filled with chlorinated lime solution in his hospital and began saving women’s lives with three simple words: ‘wash your hands’. He was demonised by his colleagues for his efforts, but today, he is known as the “Saviour of Mothers.” Lindsey Fitzharris discusses some of the common myths surrounding the story of Semmelweiss with Dr Barron H. Lerner of New York University Langone School of Medicine. And she talks to Professor Val Curtis, Director of the Environmental Health Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied the amount of hand washing by medical staff in hospitals today. Picture: Victorian boy washing his hands in a stream, Credit: whitemay
May 04, 2020
The Evidence: Mental health and Covid 19
2983
Now that more than half the population of the world has been living for a time in lockdown, Claudia Hammond and her panel of psychologists and psychiatrists answer the audience’s questions on the impact of the pandemic on our mental health. Dr George Hu, clinical psychologist & Section Chief of Mental Health at Shanghai United Family Pudong Hospital, tells us what he’s seen in China, as it comes out of lockdown. Professor Vikram Patel gives us a picture of mental health in India, which went very suddenly into lockdown. Manuela Baretto, Professor of Psychology at Exeter University, explains what research tells us about how isolation and loneliness affects us. Dr Jo Daniels, a psychology at the University of Bath in the UK, talks about who is susceptible to long term health anxiety following the pandemic. And Professor Sir Simon Wessley, psychiatrist and Director of the Kings Centre for Military Research in London, answers questions on whether we can learn about the likely psychological consequences from previous pandemics and other global upheavals. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Producer: Caroline Steel Editor: Deborah Cohen
May 02, 2020
Desert locust swarms
1648
The pictures coming in from East Africa are apocalyptic. Billions of locusts hatching out of the wet ground, marching destructively through crops, and launching into flight in search of new terrains. "This is certainly the worst situation we have seen in the last 15 years," FAO locust specialist Keith Cressman tells Discovery. And in East Africa there has been nothing like this for 70 years. As the region braces itself for another cycle of egg laying and hatching, Roland Pease hears from the scientists using satellite technology, mobile phones and big data to protect the crops just starting to grow. (Photo: Desert Locust Swarms, Credit: FAO/Sven Torfinn)
Apr 27, 2020
Anne Magurran
1632
Anne Magurran started her career as an ecologist counting moths in an ancient woodland in northern Ireland in the 1970s, when the study of biological diversity was a very young science. Later she studied piranas in a flooded forest in the Amazon. Turning descriptions of the natural world into meaningful statistics is a challenge and Anne has pioneered the measurement of bio-diversity. It’s like an optical illusion, she says. The more you think about bio-diversity the more difficult it is to define. After a bout of meningitis in 2007, she set up BioTime, a global open access database to monitor changes in biodiversity over time and is concerned about ‘the shopping mall effect’. Just as high streets are losing their distinctive shops and becoming dominated by the same chain stores, so biological communities in different parts of the world that once looked very different are now starting to look the same.
Apr 20, 2020
The Evidence: Young people, lifting lockdowns, USA and Kenya updates
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Claudia Hammond and a panel of international experts look at the latest research into Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus which is sweeping through the world. As the disease spreads, younger people have perhaps not been getting the attention they deserve. How will this pandemic impact young people and do they feel included in government messaging? As lockdowns are lifted in China – how can they prepare for what comes next? And country updates on the USA and Kenya. On the panel are Professor Tom Kariuki, Director of Programmes of the African Academy of Sciences, Dr Christina Atchison, Senior Clinical Teaching Fellow in Public Health Education at Imperial College London and Dr. Michael Mina, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. The Evidence is made in collaboration with the Wellcome Collection. Presenter: Claudia Hammond Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald
Apr 18, 2020
Richard Wiseman
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How do you tell if someone is lying? When Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, conducted a nationwide experiment to identify the tell-tale signs, the results were surprising. If you want to spot a liar, don’t look at them. Listen to what they say and how they say it. in If you want to distinguish fact from fiction, radio, not TV or video is your friend. Visual cues distract us from what is being said and good liars can control their body language more easily than their voice. Depressingly, Richard has also shown that our nearest and dearest are the most able to deceive us. Richard is a rare breed: a scientist who is also a practising magician. By the age of 17 he was performing magic tricks at children’s parties and a member of the exclusive Magic Circle. He chose to study psychology to try and understand why we believe the unbelievable and spent many years doing research on the paranormal: studying séances, haunted places and extra sensory perception. Could a belief in the paranormal be the price we pay for scientific discovery, he wonders? Jim Al-Khalili talks to Richard about his magical Life Scientific and finds out more about his work on lying, ESP and luck. Are some people born lucky or is it a mind-set that can be learnt? Producer: Anna Buckley
Apr 13, 2020
Professor Saiful Islam
1619
Not so long ago, all batteries were single use. And solar power was an emerging and expensive technology. Now, thanks to rechargeable batteries, we have mobile phones, laptops, electronic toys, cordless power tools and other portable electronic devices. And solar power is reducing our reliance on carbon-based fossil fuels. None of this would have been possible without a deep understanding of the chemistry of materials that have particular properties – the ability to turn sunlight into energy for example. Professor Saiful Islam of the University of Bath tells Jim Al-Khalili how ‘the Woodstock of physics’ got him excited about material science and how his research on the properties of materials is helping to power the 21st century with renewable energy and could dramatically reduce the cost of making solar panels. Producer: Anna Buckley
Apr 06, 2020
The Evidence: Taiwan, Vaccines, Africa Preparedness
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International experts discuss the latest research into Covid-19
Apr 04, 2020
Elizabeth Fisher: Chromosomes in mice and men
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Elizabeth Fisher, Professor of Neurogenetics at University College London, spent 13 years getting her idea – finding a new way of studying genetic disorders – to work. She began her research career at a time, in the 1980s, when there was an explosion of interest and effort in finding out what genes did what, and which of them were responsible for giving rise to the symptoms of various neurodegenerative conditions. Elizabeth has been particularly interested in those in which there are chromosomal abnormalities, like Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, as distinct from specific genetic disorders. Her work has helped in the understanding of what’s different about the genetic make-up of people with these conditions, and what new therapies might be developed in the future. Lizzie Fisher talks to Jim al-Khalili about how she was inspired to study genetics while standing on the red carpet, how she kept going during the 13 years it took to introduce human chromosomes into mice and why she's starting the process all over again.
Mar 30, 2020
Adrian Owen
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Neuroscientist Adrian Owen has spent much of his career exploring what he calls ‘the grey zone’, a realm of consciousness inhabited by people with severe brain injuries, who are aware yet unable to respond to those around them. It's this inability to respond which has led doctors to conclude that they are unaware. In the late 1990's, Adrian started to question the assumption that they lacked awareness and a chance discovery set him on a novel path of enquiry - could some of these patients be conscious or aware even though they don’t appear to be? His research has revealed that some are, and he’s pioneered techniques to help them to communicate with the outside world. This emerging field of science has implications, not only for patients but, for philosophy and the law. A British scientist, Adrian now runs a research programme at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in Canada, dedicated to reaching people in this ‘grey zone’. Picture: Adrian Owen, BBC Copyright
Mar 24, 2020
The Evidence: Coronavirus Special
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A panel of international experts take a global look at the science of Covid-19. We hear about vaccines, treatments, strategies to contain the virus and the role of big data.
Mar 21, 2020
Professor Martha Clokie
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Professor Martha Clokie tells Jim Al-Khalili how she found viruses that destroy antibiotic-resistant bugs by looking in stool samples, her son's nappies and estuary mud. Could viruses improve our health where antibiotics have failed? As a child, Martha Clokie spent a lot of time collecting seaweed on Scottish beaches. She loves plants and studied botany for many years. But mid-career, she learnt about all the viruses that exist in nature. We tend to focus on the viruses that make us ill but there are trillions of viruses on earth and in the ocean and most of them eat bacteria. When a virus destroys a bacteria that attacks our bodies, then it could be just what the doctor ordered. Our enemy’s enemy is our friend. Martha became interested in how these viruses - or bacteriophages as they’re known - might be used to treat disease. Before long, Martha had moved from studying African violets in Uganda to looking at stool samples under the microscope and asking fellow parents to donate their babies’ dirty nappies to her research. She spent many years looking for phages that attack the superbug C. difficile, which is responsible for a particularly nasty form of diarrhoea and results in tens of thousands of deaths every year. And she has shown, in animal models at least, that these phages could succeed where antibiotics have failed.
Mar 16, 2020
Demis Hassabis
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Jim Al-Khalili finds out why Demis Hassabis wants to create artificial intelligence and use it to help humanity. Thinking about how to win at chess when he was a boy got Demis thinking about the process of thinking itself. Being able to program his first computer (a Sinclair Spectrum) felt miraculous. In computer chess, his two passions were combined. And a lifelong ambition to create artificial intelligence was born. Demis studied computer science at Cambridge and then worked in the computer games industry for many years. Games, he says, are the ideal testing ground for AI. Then, thinking memory and imagination were aspects of the human mind that would be a necessary part of any artificially intelligent system, he studied neuroscience for a PhD. He set up DeepMind in 2010 and pioneered a new approach to creating artificial intelligence, based on deep learning and built-in rewards for making good decisions. Four years later, DeepMind was sold to Google for £400 million. The company’s landmark creation, Alpha Go stunned the world when it defeated the world Go champion in South Korea in 2016. Their AI system, AlphaZero taught itself to play chess from scratch. After playing against itself for just four hours, it was the best chess computer in the world. (Humans had been defeated long ago). Many fear both the supreme intelligence and the stupidity of AI. Demis imagines a future in which computers and humans put their brains together to try and understand the world. His algorithms have inspired humans to raise their game, when playing Go and chess. Now, he hopes that AI might do the same for scientific research. Perhaps the next Nobel Prize will be shared between a human and AI?
Mar 10, 2020
Isaac Newton and the story of the apple
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The story of how Newton came up with his gravitational theory is one of the most familiar in the history of science. He was sitting in the orchard at Woolsthorpe, thinking deep thoughts, when an apple fell from a tree. And all at once, Newton realised that the force of gravity pulling the apple down to the ground must be the same as the force that holds the moon in orbit around the earth. But was that really how he came up with his great idea? These days, historians of science don’t fall for cosy eureka stories like this. Rather they say that new understanding comes slowly, through hard graft, false trails, and failed ideas. Philip Ball tells the story of the life and ideas of Isaac Newton, who was born on Christmas Day in 1642. Philip discusses with historian of science Anna Marie Roos of the University of Lincoln, just 30 miles north of Woolsthorpe, how Newton developed his theory of gravity . And he talks to Tom McLeish of the University of York, the author of a book about creativity in science and art, about his observation that many scientists today do think they have had eureka moments. Image: Isaac Newton under his apple-tree. Photo by API / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Mar 02, 2020
Science Stories - Sophia Jex-Blake
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Naomi Alderman tells the science story of Sophia Jex-Blake, who led a group known as the Edinburgh Seven in their bid to become the first women to graduate as doctors from a British university. Her campaign was long and ultimately personally unsuccessful as she had to go to Switzerland to gain her qualification. Although Edinburgh University allowed the Seven to attend some lectures, they had to be taught apart from the male students. There was great antipathy to the women which culminated in 1870 with a riot as they tried to take an exam. Naomi discusses Sophia Jex-Blake's life and times with Dr Kristin Hussey who curated an exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians about women in medicine. And Dr Fizzah Ali from the Medical Women's Federation talks about women's careers in medicine today. Image: Sophia Jex-Blake, aged 25. Credit: From a portrait by Samuel Laurence. (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Feb 24, 2020
Science Stories - Mary Somerville, pioneer of popular science writing
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Mary Somerville was a self-taught genius who wrote best-selling books translating, explaining and drawing together different scientific fields and who was named the nineteenth century's "queen of science". Born Mary Fairfax in 1780, she was an unlikely scientific hero. Her parents and her first husband did not support her scientific pursuits and it was only when she became a widow at 28 with two small children that she began to do novel mathematics. With her second husband, William Somerville, she entered the intellectual life of the times in Edinburgh and London and met all the great scientific thinkers. Naomi Alderman tells the story of Mary Somerville's long life - she lived till she was 92. She discusses how Mary came to be a writer about science with her biographer, Professor Kathryn Neeley of the University of Virginia, and the state of popular science writing books with writer Jon Turney. Main Image: Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville, 1780 - 1872. Writer on science, by Thomas Phillips, 1834. Oil on canvas. (Photo by National Galleries Of Scotland / Getty Images)
Feb 17, 2020
Stem cells: Hope and hype
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Lesley Curwen reports on the magical aura that has been drawing so many people around the world to pay for “regenerative” therapies which harness the healing power of stem cells. In this programme, she reports on the battle of regulators in the USA and in Australia to stop unproven and risky therapies harming patients. Featuring: Texas lawyer Hartley Hampton; Galen Dinning; stem cell researcher and host of The Niche blog, Professor Paul Knoepfler from the University of California, Davis School of Medicine; Dr Sean Morrison, Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Texas South Western and former president of the global body representing stem cell researchers the ISSCR; Laura Biel, host of the Wondery podcast, Bad Batch; Peter Marks of the Food and Drug Administration, the FDA; Professor Megan Munsie from Stem Cell Australia and chair of the ISSCR Ethics Committee; Dr Sarah Chan from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. (Picture: Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can specialized through mitosis to many other cell types of multicellular organisms. Credit: selvanegra/Getty Images)
Feb 10, 2020
Stem cell hard sell
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Stem cells are cells with superpowers. They can become many different types of cells in our bodies, from muscle cells to brain cells, and some can even repair tissue. But the remarkable promise of this exciting new field of medicine has led to a new booming market of private clinics, which offer to treat a range of conditions (from arthritis to autism) using regenerative therapies which they claim harness the healing powers of stem cells. In this first of two programmes, Lesley Curwen investigates this expanding industry in the UK and Europe and discovers that these treatments are often unproven, unregulated and can cause harm. She reports on disturbing cases of UK patients who have suffered infection, blood clots and even sight loss and hears from orthopaedic surgeons concerned that these so called stem cell therapies are jumping ahead of the science. And Lesley finds out how these procedures, which often cost thousands of dollars for each treatment, are operating under a loophole in EU Directives which govern the law in this area. There’s an exemption and the actual stem cell material being injected into you, may not be regulated at all. Picture: Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can specialized through mitosis to many other cell types of multicellular organisms, Credit: selvanegra/Getty Images
Feb 03, 2020
The road to Glasgow
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Climate change is upon us. In 2018 the IPCC published a report with the most significant warning about the impact of climate change in 20 years. Unless the world keeps warming to below 1.5% the impacts on the climate will be severe. Sea levels will rise, leading to flooding, and extremes of temperature will become more common. The UK Met Office has forecast that the global average surface temperature for the five-year period to 2023 is predicted to be around 1.0 °C above pre-industrial levels. Just before Christmas the COP 25 meeting in Madrid ended with a compromise deal. All countries will need to put new climate pledges on the table by the time of the next major conference in Glasgow at the end of 2020. But there were no decisions on the future of carbon trading and big players such as US, India, China and Brazil opposed calls to be more ambitious in our pledges to reduce man made global warming. Across 2020 in Discovery Matt McGrath will be reporting on what is happening to save the planet. In this first programme he takes stock after Madrid and finds out what the world’s key players say has to be done before the meeting in Glasgow. (Photo: Man with placards and amplifier on global strike for climate change. Credit: Halfpoint/Getty Images)
Jan 27, 2020
Ecological grief
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As the earth experiences more extreme weather, and wildlife is dying, from corals, to insects to tropical forests, more people are experiencing ecological anxiety and grief. Science journalist Gaia Vince has been reporting on the growing crisis across our planet’s ecosystems and has met many who are shocked and saddened by the enormity of the environmental changes taking place. She talks to scientists and medics working at the frontline of environmental change and hears that despite being expected to distance themselves from what’s happening they are affected emotionally. Ashlee Consulo of Memorial University on the Canadian island of Labrador and Courtney Howard, a doctor in Yellowknife, tell Gaia about their experiences of living and working with indigenous peoples in areas where temperatures are rising rapidly and the ice is melting. Steve Simpson of Exeter University and Andy Radford of Bristol University are both professors of biology who have watched coral reefs become devastated by climate change. Recently they wrote a letter to the journal Science headlined Grieving environmental scientists need support to raise awareness of the issues researchers are facing. And Gaia visits the aquarium at the Horniman Museum in London where Jamie Craggs is trying to breed corals for future generations. Picture: Greenland Inuit hunter, Credit: Earl Grad/Getty Images
Jan 20, 2020
The misinformation virus
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In this online age, the internet is a global megaphone, billions of messages amplified and shared, even when they're false. Fake science spreads faster than the truth ever could, unhindered by national boundaries. Mainstream scientists are struggling to respond. The science journalist and writer, Angela Saini, is fascinated by how bad ideas spread and in this programme she investigates the very real impact of online scientific misinformation. From the dangerous anti-vaccination campaigns to those who deny the reality of climate change, she assesses the scale and extent of the threat we face. And she discovers the sinister world of deliberate disinformation where an army of bots and trolls work to sew dissent and confusion in the online space. Producer: Fiona Hill
Jan 13, 2020
The silence of the genes
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In summer of 2019 NICE approved the use of a completely new class of drugs: the gene silencers. These compounds are transforming the lives of families who have rare debilitating – and sometimes fatal - diseases such as amyloidosis and porphyria. James Gallagher, BBC Health and Science Correspondent, reveals the ups and downs in the story of how a Nobel prize winning discovery of RNA interference has become a useful drug in less than a quarter of a century. Professor Craig Mello, one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in 2006 for revealing the mechanism of RNA interference, and Professor Mark Kay of Stanford University, look back at the discovery. Sue Burrell, who has acute intermittent porphyria, explains how a gene silencing drug has reversed her symptoms of extreme pain. Dr Carlos Heras-Palou, an orthopaedic surgeon at Royal Derby Hospital, who has hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis has had his career saved by taking another gene silencing drug, patisaran. It has restored the feeling in his hands he had lost and means that he can continue to carry out operations. Professor Philip Hawkins, of the National Amyloidosis Centre at the Royal Free Hospital, tells James about how his team showed that this drug reverses some of the symptoms caused by the disease. As well as treating these rare conditions James discovers that this approach is being tried in untreatable neurodegenerative conditions. He talks to Professor Sarah Tabrizi of UCL about her research into stopping Huntington's disease, which is currently inevitably fatal. Akshay Vaishnaw of the biotech company Alnylam talks to James about the ups and downs of developing effective RNAi drugs. And Professor John Kastelein of Amsterdam University discusses the findings of a study into finding out if gene silencing could help prevent one of the biggest global killers; bad cholesterol that causes heart attacks and stroke. Picture: DNA molecules, structure of the genetic code, 3d rendering,conceptual image, Credit: Andy/GettyImages
Jan 06, 2020
Alexis Carrel and the immortal chicken heart
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Philip Ball tells the story of Alexis Carrel, the French surgeon who worked to preserve life outside the body and create an immortal chicken heart in a dish. His quest was to renew ageing flesh, repair and rebuild our bodies and keep them healthy far beyond the usual human lifespan. In the early twentieth century his science was pioneering but his mission to achieve eternal life was underpinned by a dark and terrifying agenda. Carrel was a racist who advocated eugenics to preserve the superior civilisation of the West. Philip Ball discusses the history and cultural impact of the tissue culture techniques developed by Carrel with social historian Professor Hannah Landecker of the University of California at Los Angeles. And he finds out about the legacy of Carrel's research from Dr Madeline Lancaster of Cambridge University, one of the pioneers of the growth of brain organoids from stem cells; small clusters of neurons and other cells, rather like mini organs no bigger than a dried pea. Picture: Raw chicken heart, Credit: Arina_Bogachyova/Getty Images
Dec 30, 2019
Ramon Llull: Medieval prophet of computer science
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Philip Ball tells the story of Ramon Llull, the Medieval prophet of computer science. During the time of the Crusades Llull argued that truth could be automated and used logic over force to prove the existence of the Christian God. It was a dangerous idea that got him thrown into prison and threatened with execution but today he is hailed, not as a prophet of the Christian faith, but of computer science. Philip Ball talks to historian Pamela Beattie of the University of Louisville in Kentucky about Ramon Llull's life and times in 13th century Catalonia, and to mathematician and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Marcus du Sautoy, about the legacy of Llull's ideas in combinatorics, a branch of mathematics that explores how we can arrange a set of objects. Note: Many thanks to Carter Marsh & Co for the recording of mechanical sounds. Picture: Ramon Llull, Credit: SebastianHamm/Getty Images
Dec 23, 2019
Ignaz Semmelweiss: The hand washer
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Lindsey Fitzharris tells the story of Ignaz Semmelweiss, the hand washer. In a world that had no understanding of germs, he tried to apply science to halt the spread of infection. Ignaz Semmelweis observed that many young medical students at his hospital in Vienna went directly from an autopsy, still covered in contaminated dead flesh, to attend pregnant women. Could this be the reason for such high maternal mortality rates from conditions like puerperal fever? Believing that the disease was caused by “infective material” from a dead body, Semmelweiss set up a basin filled with chlorinated lime solution in his hospital and began saving women’s lives with three simple words: ‘wash your hands’. He was demonised by his colleagues for his efforts, but today, he is known as the “Saviour of Mothers.” Lindsey Fitzharris discusses some of the common myths surrounding the story of Semmelweiss with Dr Barron H. Lerner of New York University Langone School of Medicine. And she talks to Professor Val Curtis, Director of the Environmental Health Group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has studied the amount of hand washing by medical staff in hospitals today. Picture: Victorian boy washing his hands in a stream, Credit: whitemay
Dec 16, 2019
Madame Lavoisier's Translation of Oxygen
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Philip Ball tells the story of Madame Lavoisier; translator of oxygen. At a time when science was almost a closed book to women, Madame Marie Anne Lavoisier’s skills were indispensable. A translator, illustrator and critic of scientific papers, she learnt chemistry herself and helped her husband Antoine Lavoisier develop his theory of the role played by oxygen in combustion. As modern science was taking shape it lacked any universal language, so communication in many tongues was vital to stay ahead of the game. Even today there is debate as to who can really be considered the discoverer of oxygen, but Madame Lavoisier’s gift for translation helped her husband compete against English rivals and banish their theories. Come the French Revolution however, Anton was branded a traitor to the state and sentenced to death. By a cruel twist of fate Marie lost both husband and father to the guillotine on the same day. Philip Ball talks to Patricia Fara at the University of Cambridge, about the largely unrecognised contribution that women like Marie Anne Lavoisier made to the early days of modern science, and to Michael Gordin of Princeton University about the importance of scientific translation in the past and how it features today, Picture: French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Credit: Getty Images
Dec 09, 2019
Galileo's lost letter
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Galileo famously insisted in the early seventeenth century that the Earth goes round the Sun and not vice versa – an idea that got him into deep trouble with the Catholic Church. In 1633 Galileo was put in trial for heresy by the Inquisition, and was threatened with imprisonment, or worse, if he didn’t recant. Galileo spent the rest of his days under house arrest and is now seen by some as a near-martyr to science in the face of unyielding religious doctrine. But the discovery of a letter questions the received version of events. Philip Ball tells the story of the relationship between Galileo, the church and his fellow professors. Philip talks to science historians Professor Paula Findlen of Stanford University and Professor Mary Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University about Galileo's time and about the history of the relationship between science and religion. Picture: Galileo demonstrating his telescope, Credit: Getty Images
Dec 02, 2019
Robin Dunbar
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Maintaining friendships is one of the most cognitively demanding things we do, according to Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. So why do we bother? Robin has spent his life trying to answer this deceptively simple question. For most of his twenties, he lived with a herd of five hundred gelada monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands. He studied their social behaviour and concluded that an ability to get on with each other was just as important as finding food, for the survival of the species. Animals that live in large groups are less likely to get eaten by predators. When funding for animal studies dried up in the 1980s, he turned his attention to humans. and discovered there’s an upper limit to the number of real friends we can have, both in the real world and on social media.
Nov 25, 2019
Katherine Joy
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Katherine Joy studies moon rock. She has studied lunar samples that were brought to earth by the Apollo missions (382kg in total) and hunted for lunar meteorites in Antarctica, camping on ice for weeks on end and travelling around on a skidoo. Working at the forefront of the second wave of lunar exploration, she studied remote sensing data from Europe’s first mission to the moon, Smart 1 which launched in 2003 and data from many subsequent missions. She tells Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the moon is the most exciting destination in our solar system and explains what it can tell us about the long history of planet earth. Beneath the magnificent desolation of the moon’s surface, multicoloured rocks contain vital clues about the history of our solar system. Every crater on the moon is evidence of a collision and the chemistry of these rocks tells us when these collisions took place. Katherine’s research supports the idea that a period known as the late heavy bombardment was a particularly turbulent time. Could the late heavy bombardment explain the origin of life on earth?
Nov 18, 2019
Sir Gregory Winter
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In an astonishing story of a scientific discovery, Greg Winter tells Jim Al-Khalili how decades of curiosity-driven research led to a revolution in medicine. Forced to temporarily abandon his work in the lab when a road rage incident left him with a paralysed right arm, Greg Winter spent several months looking at the structure of proteins. Looking at the stunning computer graphics made the pain in his arm go away. It also led him to a Nobel Prize winning idea: to ‘humanise’ mouse antibodies. A visit to an old lady in hospital made Greg determined to put his research to good use. He fought hard to ensure open access to the technology he invented and set up a start up company to encourage the development of therapeutic drugs. It took years to persuade anyone to fund his Nobel Prize winning idea that led to the creation of an entirely new class of drugs, known as monoclonal antibodies. In 2018, the market for these drugs, which include Humira for rheumatoid arthritis and Herceptin for breast cancer, was worth $70 billion.
Nov 11, 2019
Turi King: Solving the mystery of Richard III through DNA
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When a skeleton was unearthed in 2012 from under the tarmac of a car park in Leicester in the English East Midlands, Turi King needed to gather irrefutable evidence to prove that this really was the body of Richard III, England's infamous medieval monarch. Under the microscope was not only the king's genetic identity, but his entire reputation. Was Richard a ruthless villain, as depicted by Shakespeare? Or did the incoming Tudors spread 'fake news' to besmirch his name? As presenter Jim al-Khalili discovers, clues in his skeletal remains have helped to solve some of these mysteries, and reveal the real Richard III. When she was young, Turi King wanted to be the next Indiana Jones. Her love of archaeology led her to study genetics so she could use ancient DNA to solve historic mysteries. She tells Jim how genetic testing, of both the dead skeleton and his living relatives, provided the vital evidence they needed to identify Richard III. But first, she had to extract his DNA, by pulling out one of his teeth. Main Image: Turi King Credit: Jonathan Sisson
Nov 04, 2019
Plastic pollution with Richard Thompson
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A Professor of Marine Biology who was not particularly academic at school, Richard Thompson went to university after running his own business selling greetings cards for seven years. When the rest of the world was waking up to the harm caused to marine life by larger plastic items, such as plastic bags, he searched for tiny fragments of plastic, some no bigger than a human hair; and found them in oceans and on beaches all over the world. He has spent decades studying the harm these micro-plastics might cause to marine life and is concerned. His work on plastics in cosmetics led to a UK ban on micro-beads in shower gels and exfoliating scrubs. And he advised government to ban single use plastic bags from supermarkets. Rather than demonize plastic, however, he believes we need to learn to love it more. Often plastic it is the best material for the job. Now we need to make sure that all plastic products are designed so that they can be easily recycled at the end of their useful life. Picture: Plastic water bottles pollution in ocean, credit: chaiyapruek2520/Getty Images
Oct 28, 2019
Protecting heads in sports
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The death last week of boxer Patrick Day, four days after he was stretchered out of the ring in a coma, is the latest reminder of how vulnerable sportsmen and women are to traumatic brain injury. During the latest Ashes series the Australian batsman Steve Smith was temporarily retired for one test after being struck on the helmet by a bouncer. The current World Cup Rugby has been affected too, with Welsh fly half Dan Biggar withdrawn from a game against Uruguay having received head injuries in two previous matches. In this edition of Discovery, Roland Pease talks to engineers at Imperial College and Loughborough University using the latest techniques to understand the dynamics of blows to the head, and to improve helmet protection. And to experts and Rugby players at Swansea University seeking to make precision measurements of real-life head movements with the help of gum shields stuffed with electronics. Picture credit: Mazdak Ghajari
Oct 21, 2019
Early diagnosis and research
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James Parkinson described a condition known as the “shaking palsy” over 200 years ago. Today there are many things that scientists still don’t understand explaining why diagnosis, halting the progression or finding a cure for Parkinson’s can seem elusive. But how close are researchers to developing better treatments? Better understanding seems to suggest that Parkinson’s is not one condition but several, with different causes and symptoms in different people. Many researchers think that early diagnosis and greater recognition of the non motor symptoms such as loss of smell, sleep disorders and depression is to be encouraged, while others say without effective treatments then there are ethical issues to consider. Jane visits a brain bank and sees the changes in a Parkinson’s brain that causes many of the symptoms and she takes a test which examines the sense of smell. Could this be a new tool to identify early stages of the condition? Plus repurposing of existing drugs, i.e. drugs that have been developed for one condition but being tested in another are having promising results in Parkinson’s and genetic studies are leading to a greater understanding of the mechanisms involved in PD which in turn is leading to new therapies. Picture credit: Smelling hops, Ales-A/Getty Images
Oct 14, 2019
Exercise
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Can exercise help people living with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative condition, with symptoms such as loss of balance, difficulty walking and stiffness in the arms and legs. Jane Hill travels to the Netherlands to meet Mariëtte Robijn and Wim Rozenberg, coaches at Rock Steady Boxing Het Gooi and co-founders of ParkinsonSport.nl, a unique sports club ran 100% by and for people with Parkinson’s. It doesn’t take long before a transformation begins to take place in the gym. Boxing is popular in the US as well, says Professor Lisa Shulman, Director of the Parkinson’s Centre at the University of Maryland. She has been encouraging her patients to exercise for the last 25 years. Results from over 200 studies suggest that exercise is a good way to empower people as well as having physical benefits such as delaying disability. In Ghana many people receive a late diagnosis. Sheila Klufio a physiotherapist at Korle Bu Hospital in Accra works with people to help them deal with some of the more common symptoms such as freezing when walking so they feel more confident to go out. And it seems all types of exercise can help, Alan Alda and Michael J Fox both box, ballet dancing is popular, walking, cycling and Tai Chi have benefits and it’s never too late to start. Picture credit: Wim Rozenberg at Wimages.nl
Oct 07, 2019
Living with Parkinson's
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BBC newsreader Jane Hill knows all about Parkinson’s. Her father was diagnosed in t1980s and lived with the condition for ten years — her uncle had it, too. She’s spoken about the dreadful experience of watching helplessly as the two men were engulfed by the degenerative disease, losing their independence and the ability to do the things that they once enjoyed. “I remember feeling how cruel Parkinson’s is. The number of people living with Parkinson’s disease is set to double over the next few decades as we all live longer; it is the only long-term neurological condition that is increasing globally. In this series Jane Hill looks at what it means to be given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and the reality of living with the condition. She and her cousin Steve remember how their fathers adopted a British stiff upper lip at a time when there was little awareness. In contrast she meets highly successful comedy writer Paul Mayhew Archer, whose reaction to his diagnosis was to create a one-man show exploring the lighter side of living with Parkinson’s. Actors Michael J Fox and Alan Alda both discuss the early symptoms of the disease and their diagnosis. Most people are diagnosed in their sixties but Dutch blogger Mariette Robijn talks about accepting a life changing diagnosis in her forties. Picture: Dopaminergic neuron, 3D illustration. Degeneration of this brain cells is responsible for development of Parkinson's disease, Credit: Dr Microbe Presenter: Jane Hill Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald
Sep 30, 2019
Preventing pesticide poisoning
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Thanks to a ban on several hazardous pesticides Sri Lanka has seen a massive reduction in deaths from pesticide poisoning, and the World Health Organisation is recommending other countries should follow this example. As Health Correspondent Matthew Hill discovers, hospitals which used to deal with many pesticide related deaths are now seeing fewer cases, and more survivors. However, a lack of mental health services means, for many in rural communities, taking pesticides is still a way of drawing attention to a variety of personal issues - sometimes with tragic consequences. Image: Rural pesticide shop, Sri Lanka (Credit: BBC)
Sep 23, 2019
The power of peace
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“Nature red in tooth and claw”. “Dog eat dog”. “Fighting for survival". You may well think that the natural world is one dangerous, violent, lawless place, with every creature out for itself. And it can be, but it can also be peaceful, democratic and compassionate. Lucy Cooke seeks out the animal communities that adopt a more peaceful and democratic way of life and asks why it works for them. Despite being fierce predators, African wild dogs are cooperative and compassionate within their packs, and they actually hold democratic votes on hunting decisions – one sneeze for yes, two sneezes for no! They are among the most effective predators in the world. They use extraordinary cooperation and teamwork to pursue, overhaul and bring down their prey. As a result 80% of their hunts end successfully, compared to lions' at 10%. This is nearly all a result of their pack coordination. They are also surprisingly non-aggressive; they don’t fight over food but instead beg to indicate their wish to eat. Adults will allow younger pack members to eat before them. And the African wild dogs are not alone: such societies are also common in insects, other mammals, and birds, but exist even in simple species like amoebas. But what is the evolutionary advantage of this group cohesion? Why when nature selects for not just the individual but for the selfish gene, does it pay to be part of a complex social group? Lucy discovers that when the benefits of group-living outweigh the costs, it’s very much advantageous – when 10 pairs of eyes are better at spotting predators and pack strategies mean far more successful kills in a hunt, or when grooming not only strengthens bonds, but it also gets rid of your ticks and fleas. She also explores the different strategies of the highly complex social animals – the Great Apes – and asks whether Bonobos are truly the lovers and Chimpanzees the fighters? This all touches on the complex social interactions we have as humans. We can be peaceful and we can be violent and war-like, and like every species, individual variation and circumstances can tip the balance of our behaviour. But anthropologist Agustin Fuentes questions the belief that humans are at their core violent, aggressive, and oversexed. Are these behaviours part of our genetic heritage? What can biology, evolution, and behaviour tell us about peace and aggression in everyday life? Picture: African Hunting Dogs by Paul F Donald
Sep 16, 2019
The power of petite
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Bigger is better, right? An ancient lore in biology, Cope's rule, states that animals have a tendency to get bigger as they evolve. Evolution has cranked out some absolutely huge animals. But most of these giants are long gone. And those that remain are amongst the most threatened with extinction. Scientists now believe that while evolution favours larger creatures, extinction seems to favour the small. If you look at mammals, at the time of the dinosaurs, they were confined to rodent-sized scavengers living on the periphery. But 66 million years ago, the dinosaurs went and allowed the mammals to evolve into some really big creatures - 30 metre long blue whales, the ten tonne steppe mammoth and a giant ground sloth that looked a bit like a hamster but was the size of an elephant with enormous hooks for hands. Now, only the blue whale remains and these have been shown to have shrunk to half the size of their Pleistocene ancestors. So is it better to be small? Smaller animals need fewer resources and smaller territories. With the planet in such peril - are more animals going to start shrinking? Well, perhaps...new research shows that in 200 years' time, the largest mammal might be the domestic cow. And of course the most successful organisms, in terms of biomass, on the planet are the smallest. Zoologist, Lucy Cooke examines the science of being small, and why size matters. Producer: Fiona Roberts (Photo: Honeybee sitting on a flower. Credit: Dr Paul F Donald)
Sep 09, 2019
The power of deceit
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Lucy Cooke sets out to discover why honesty is almost certainly not the best policy, be you chicken, chimp or human being. It turns out that underhand behaviour is rife throughout the animal kingdom, and can be a winning evolutionary strategy. From sneaky squid, to cheating cuckoos, some species will resort to truly incredible levels of deception and deviousness to win that mate, or get more food. And when it comes to social animals like we humans, it turns out that lying, or at least those little white lies, may be the social glue that binds us all together. Lucy heads to the RSPB cliffs at Bempton, with Professor Tim Birkhead to discover why so many bird species appear to be such proficient deceivers, as well as visiting the very crafty ravens at The Tower of London. She speaks to psychologist Richard Wiseman about how to spot when someone is lying, and finds out whether she is any good at it. In fact, can we trust any of what she says in this documentary at all? Presenter Lucy Cooke Producer Alexandra Feachem Main image: Raven Credit: Dr Paul F Donald
Sep 02, 2019
Patient Undone
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Professor Deborah Bowman reveals how a diagnosis of cancer has transformed her view of medical ethics and what it means to be a patient. As Professor of Ethics and Law at St George's, University of London, Deborah has spent the past two decades teaching and writing about medical ethics, the moral principles that apply to medicine. It's taken her down countless hospital corridors, to the clinics and the wards where medical ethics plays out in practice, behind closed doors, supporting healthcare practitioners and their patients to negotiate uncertainty and conflict. This is the field of clinical ethics and, each time, the 'patient' has been central to her response. Yet in the autumn of 2017, everything changed. Deborah was diagnosed with breast cancer and it signalled the beginning of her undoing, not just personally but professionally too, playing havoc with what she thought she knew about clinical ethics. Patient autonomy - literally 'self-rule'- is one of its cornerstones - a patient's right to make decisions about their healthcare. So what does autonomy mean if the 'self', she thought she knew, was so changeable and confusing? Deborah returns to the Royal Marsden Hospital where she is a patient, to explore this - with both her personal and professional hats on. Producer: Beth Eastwood Main Image: Deborah Bowman. Copyright: Deborah Bowman
Aug 26, 2019
The Great Science Publishing Scandal
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Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, explores the hidden world of prestige, profits and piracy that lurks behind scientific journals. Each year, hundreds of thousands of articles on the findings on research are published, forming the official record of science. This has been going on since the 17th century, but recently a kind of war has broken out over the cost of journals to the universities and research institutions where scientists work, and to anyone else who wants to access the research, such as policy makers, patient support groups and the general public. Traditionally journals charge their readers a subscription, but since the start of the 21st century there's been a move to what's called open access, where the authors pay to get their articles published but anyone can read them, without charge. In Europe Plan S has called for all research funded by the public purse to be open access, by 2021. If and when this is implemented it could have downsides on learned societies who depend on income from journal subscriptions to support young researchers and on scientists in the less developed world. Some universities, and even countries, have recently refused to pay the subscriptions charged by some of the big science publishers. This has led to some scientists using a service run by a Russian hacker, which has effectively stolen the whole of the scientific literature and gives it away, free, on the internet. Matthew Cobb looks back at how the scientific publishing industry got to its current state and asks how it could change. He argues that scientists themselves need to break their addiction to wanting their articles to appear in a few well known journals, and instead concentrate on the quality of their research.
Aug 19, 2019
Erica McAlister
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Dr Erica McAlister, of London's Natural History Museum, talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the beautiful world of flies and the 2.5 million specimens for which she is jointly responsible. According to Erica, a world without flies would be full of faeces and dead bodies. Unlike, for example, butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars spend their time devouring our crops and plants, fly larvae tend to help rid the world of waste materials and then, as adults, perform essential work as pollinators. Yet they are rather unloved by humans who tend to regard them as pests at best and disease vectors at worst. 2019 is international Year of the Fly, and dipterists and entomologists around the world are working to raise the profile of the many thousands of species so far known to science. Erica tells Jim about her work in the museum, cataloguing and identifying new species either sent in from other researchers or discovered by her and her colleagues on swashbuckling trips around the world. Modern gene sequencing techniques are revealing new chapters in the life histories of species, and her collection of 300 year old dead flies continues to expand our knowledge of how the world works. Perhaps in the future, she argues, we will all be eating pasta and bread made from fly-larvae protein, or using small tea-bag like packets of maggots in our wounds to clean out gangrenous infection.
Aug 12, 2019
Richard Peto
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When Sir Richard Peto began work with the late Richard Doll fifty years ago, the UK had the worst death rates from smoking in the world. Smoking was the cause of more than half of all premature deaths of British men. The fact that this country now boasts the biggest decrease in tobacco-linked mortality is in no doubt partly due to Doll and Peto's thirty year collaboration. Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and until last year co-director of the Clinical Trial Service Unit with Professor Sir Rory Collins, Richard Peto pioneered "big data", setting up enormous randomised clinical trials and then, in a novel approach, combining results in what became known as meta-analyses, amassing unequivocal evidence about how early death could be avoided. He showed how asprin could prevent heart attacks and how the oestrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen really did affect survival rates for breast cancer patients. Results on paper saves lives in the real world, he says, and he's famous for catchphrases like: "death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not" and "you can avoid more deaths by a moderate reduction of a big cause, than by a big reduction in a small cause" as well as "take the big numbers seriously". One of the world's leading epidemiologists, Richard Peto's landmark study with Alan Lopez at the World Health Organisation predicted that a billion people would die from diseases associated with tobacco this century, compared to a hundred million killed by tobacco in the 20th century. The chilling message galvanised governments around the world to adopt anti-smoking policies. And Professor Peto's studies about smoking cessation ("smoking kills, stopping works") provided the public health evidence needed to encourage smokers that, however long they had smoked for, it was always worth quitting.
Aug 05, 2019
Lovelock at 100: Gaia on Gaia
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James Lovelock is one of the most influential thinkers on the environment of the last half century. His grand theory of planet earth, Gaia, the idea that from the bottom of the earth's crust to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, planet earth is one giant inter-connected and self-regulating system, has had an impact way beyond the world of science. As James Lovelock, celebrates his hundredth birthday (he was born on 26th July 1919) he talks to science writer Gaia Vince about the freedom and frustrations of fifty years spent working outside the scientific establishment. While working at the National Institute for Medical Research he invented the Electron Capture Detector - an exquisitely sensitive device for detecting the presence of the tiniest quantities of gases in the atmosphere and led to a global ban on CFCs. It also took him to NASA and via designing a detector to look for life on Mars gave him the idea of Gaia. Public interest in Gaia proliferated after the publication of his first book Gaia: a new look at life on earth in 1979; but the scientific community remained highly sceptical. For decades Gaia was ignored, dismissed and even ridiculed as a scientific theory. To this day, evolutionary biologists, in particular, take issue with the notion of a self-regulating planet though some are coming round to the idea. Gaia Vince talks to earth system scientists Professor Andrew Watson and Professor Tim Lenton of Exeter University who have both championed the Gaia theory, and to Professor Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University, an evolutionary biologist who has changed his mind about the theory. Producer: Deborah Cohen Picture: British scientist James Lovelock poses on March 17, 2009 in Paris. Credit: Jacques Demarthon / AFP / Getty Images.
Jul 29, 2019
What next for the Moon?
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The Moon rush is back on. And this time it’s a global race. The USA has promised boots on the lunar surface by 2024. But China already has a rover exploring the farside. India is on the point of sending one too. Europe and Russia are cooperating to deliver more robots. And that’s not to mention the private companies also getting into the competition. Roland Pease looks at the prospects and challenges for all the participants. (Image caption: Chinese lunar probe and rover lands on the far side of moon. Credit: CNSA via EPA)
Jul 22, 2019
Irene Tracey on pain in the brain
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Pain, as we know, is highly personal. Some can cope with huge amounts, while others reel in agony over a seemingly minor injury. Though you might feel the stab of pain in your stubbed toe or sprained ankle, it is actually processed in the brain. That is where Irene Tracey, Nuffield Professor of Anaesthetic Science at Oxford University, has been focussing her attention. Known as the Queen of Pain, she has spent the past two decades unravelling the complexities of this puzzling sensation. She goes behind the scenes, as it were, of what happens when we feel pain - scanning the brains of her research subjects while subjecting them to a fair amount of burning, prodding and poking. Her work is transforming our understanding, revealing how our emotions influence our experience of pain, how chronic pain develops and even when consciousness is present in the brain. Producer: Beth Eastwood
Jul 15, 2019
Paul Davies on the origin of life and the evolution of cancer
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Physicist Paul Davies talks to Jim al-Khalili about the origin of life, the search for aliens and the evolution of cancer. Paul Davies is interested in some of the biggest questions that we can ask. What is life? How did the universe begin? How will it end? And are we alone? His research has been broad and far-reaching, covering quantum mechanics, cosmology and black holes. In the 1980s he described the so-called Bunch-Davies vacuum - the quantum vacuum that existed just fractions of a second after the big bang - when particles were popping in and out of existence and nothing was stable. As the chair of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Post Detection Task Group, he’s the person responsible for announcing to the world when we make contact with aliens. He’s now Regents Professor of Physics at Arizona State University in the American south west where he runs research groups studying the evolution of cancer and the origins of life. Paul Davies talks to Jim al-Khalili about how he applies the principles of physics to these big questions and about how he has worked closely with religious thinkers. Producer: Anna Buckley
Jul 08, 2019
Can psychology boost vaccination rates?
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In the 1950s a batch of polio vaccine in the US was made badly, resulting in 10 deaths and the permanent paralysis of 164 people. Paul Offit, a paediatrician in Philadelphia, says the disaster did not turn people away from vaccines. He believes that current vaccine hesitancy needs to be tackled online - where fake news spreads quickly. The German state of Brandenburg wants to make pre-school vaccinations compulsory - like neighbouring France and Italy - because immunisation rates there dropped to 73%. But some doctors believe busy parents can instead be gently persuaded to take up vaccines. Perhaps this is where psychological research can play a role. Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision Making Lab in the UK, is working on an online game which "inoculates" people against fake news - by showing them how they can be manipulated online. He says the effects last about 6 weeks - so a "booster" may be necessary. Head of the Vaccine Confidence Project Heidi Larson applauds 18 year old American Ethan Lindenberger who decided to get vaccinated despite his own mother's anti-vax views which he says she got from reading church and internet anti-vaccination groups rather than from the medical profession. Producer: Paula McGrath Picture: A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet, Boston Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2015. Credit: Reuters / Brian Snyder / File Photo
Jul 01, 2019
Global attitudes towards vaccines
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Global attitudes towards vaccinations are revealed in the Wellcome Trust’s Global Monitor survey. Our guide through the new data is Heidi Larson, Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also leads the Vaccines Confidence Project. She says the most vaccine-sceptical country is France – because of past scares around different vaccines. The success of vaccines means people have forgotten how measles can be fatal – and parents are now influenced by scare stories about vaccines. More than half of the 1,000 recent cases of measles in the US have been in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York city. We hear from some of the parents who still don’t vaccinate and from a family doctor about trustworthy sources of information. Things couldn’t be more different in Madagascar where more than 1200 children have died from measles and parents walk for miles to have their children immunised. Half the country’s children are malnourished – which can increase the risk of complications if they catch measles. Vitamin A supplements are being given to help the immune system to work properly. Next week on Discovery – could compulsory vaccines or a more subtle, psychological approach help to address vaccine hesitancy? Producer: Paula McGrath Photo: Children walk past a sign advising about a measles outbreak in the Brooklyn Borough of New York. Credit: Reuters)
Jun 24, 2019
Why do birds sing?
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"What happens to the human voice as we age? If I hear a voice on the radio, I can guess roughly how old they are. But singer's voices seem to stay relatively unchanged as they age. Why is this?" All these questions were sent in by Jonathan Crain from Long Island in New York. Doctors Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry discover how the human voice is produced and listen to how our voice sounds when it emerges from our vocal cords. Acoustic engineer Trevor Cox, author of Now You're Talking, explains why German and French babies have a different accent. And neuroscientist Sophie Scott describes what happens when boys' voices break, and why a similar thing can happen to women during the menopause. Finally, our voices often change dramatically in later life, as demonstrated by comedy impressionist Duncan Wisbey. Expect cameos from David Attenborough, Dumbledore and Paul McCartney. Bird Song "Winter is finally over and the birds are all singing their hearts out at dawn. What is all the noise about? And why are some songs so elaborate?" asks Tony Fulford from Cambridgeshire in the UK. We find out how birds produce multiple notes at once, which one has the widest repertoire of songs, and why males like to show off quite so much. Plus, we talk to researcher Lauryn Benedict about the project which aims to solve the mystery of why female birds sing. Featuring interviews with RSPB president and nature presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff, and world-renowned birdsong expert and sound recordist, Don Kroodsma from the University of Massachusetts. TV archive courtesy of The One Show, BBC TV. Please send your cases for consideration for the next series to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin. (Photo: Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). Credit: Getty Images)
Jun 17, 2019
Does infinity exist?
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“Is anything in the Universe truly infinite, or is infinity something that only exists in mathematics?” This question came from father and son duo from Edinburgh in Scotland, Tom and Sorely Watson. First, we investigate the concept of infinity in mathematics with a story of mathematics, music and murder from Steven Strogatz from the Cornell University. Did you know that there are some infinities that are bigger than others? We discuss the mind-bending nature of infinity with mathematician Eugenia Cheng, author of Beyond Infinity. Next we turn to physics to see if we can find something in the Universe that is truly infinite. Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll from Caltech University discusses the infinitely small inside subatomic particles. Plus cosmologist Andrew Pontzen from University College London travels into the heart of a black hole to see if we can find a something that is infinitely dense. But if we’re looking for something that is infinite, how about the Universe itself? We find out how physicists measure the shape of the Universe, with the help of an orange and a game of Asteroids. However, if the Universe is not infinite, and it has an edge, what is on the other side? Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin (Photo: The Infinity symbol in an exploding cloud of data. Credit: Wigglestick/Getty Images)
Jun 10, 2019
Why do we get déjà vu?
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Part 1: Déjà vu "Do we know what causes déjà vu?" asks Floyd Kitchen from Queenstown in New Zealand. Drs Rutherford and Fry investigate this familiar feeling by speaking to world-leading reseacher Chris Moulin from the University of Grenoble in France and memory expert Catherine Loveday from Westminster University. Plus, they find out why early investigations classed déjà vu as a type of paranormal phenomenon. For most of us, it's a fleetingly strange experience, but for some people it can become a serious problem. Lisa from Hulme in Manchester started experiencing déjà vu when she was 22 with episodes that could last all day. The origin of her déjà vu has been the key to helping psychologists investigate its cause. Part 2: Randomness "Is anything truly random, or is everything predetermined?" asks Darren Spalding from Market Harborough. Hannah and Adam go in search of random events, from dice throws to lava lamps. Can we predict the outcome of any event? "How do computers manage to pick random numbers?" asks Jim Rennie from Mackinaw in Illinois. Random numbers are vital for things like cyber security and banking. But true randomness is surprisingly hard to produce, as the team discover. Joining them for this case we have a random selection of experts: mathematician Colva Roney-Dougal, technology journalist Bill Thompson, Science Museum Curator Tilly Blyth and quantum physicist Jim AlKhalili. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin Main Image: A fan of the New York Yankees holds up a sign which reads "It's Deja Vu" at the Yankee Stadium, New York City 29 Oct 2009. Credit: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images
Jun 03, 2019
Will we ever find alien life?
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In this instalment of The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry, Hannah and Adam boldly go in search of scientists who are hunting for ET, spurred on by questions sent in by listeners across the globe, from Australia to Columbia. They start by asking how we define life and why we are obsessed with finding it on Mars. Should we be looking further out in the Solar System, and could we find space squid on the icy moon Europa? When it comes to intelligent life we may have to scout even further into the Universe. But what are the chances of finding complex life in the cosmos? And where might it live? Featuring astronomer Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute in California, planetary scientist Monica Grady from the Open University, exoplanet hunter Sara Rugheimer from the University of St Andrews and zoologist Matthew Cobb from Manchester University. Send your Curious Cases for consideration in to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin. Main Image: This image obtained from NASA on November 25, 2013 shows several images that were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the spiral NGC 4921 from the Coma Cluster of Galaxies. Copyright: NASA / Hubble / ESA / Handout
May 27, 2019
Why people have different pain thresholds
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"How fast can a human run and would we be faster as quadrapeds?" This question flew in via Twitter from Greg Jenner. Is there a limit to human sprinting performance? In this episode we investigate the biomechanics of running, statistical trends in human performance and which kind of monkey runs the fastest. But first, an experiment. Due to some spurious and possibly fictional injuries, neither Hannah nor Adam are fit enough to take part in a sprint trial at the University of Bath. So long-suffering Producer Michelle steps up to the challenge and into the starting blocks. Not known for her love of athletics, or exercise of any sort, how will she fair in the ultimate speed test? Biomechanist Peter Weyand from Texas discusses the role of different muscle types in speed versus endurance. Sports scientist Polly McGuigan reveals why Usain Lightning Bolt is still the fastest man in the world. And Prof of Sports Engineering Steve Haake reveals how fast a man can run like a monkey. "Why do people experience pain differently when they go through the same event?" asks Claire Jenkins from Cwmbran in Wales. Professor of Pain Research, Irene Tracey, welcomes Adam in to the room she calls her 'Torture Chamber'. Burning, electrocuting, lasering and piercing are all on the menu, but which will hurt the most? Hannah speaks to Steve Pete from Washington who has a rare genetic condition which means he does not feel pain. For chronic sufferers, this sounds like heaven, but a life without pain has brought untold suffering to him and his family, including the tragic story of his brother, Chris. We look at how the body creates pain, why some people feel it more than others, and how this knowledge could help scientists treat pain more effectively in the future. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin (Photo: A runner beats the pain to make it over the finishing line in the Hong Kong Marathon 12 February 2006. Credit: Martin Chan/South China Morning Post/Getty Images)
May 20, 2019
How do instruments make music?
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"We play many musical instruments in our family. Lots of them produce the same pitch of notes, but the instruments all sound different. Why is this?" asks Natasha Cook aged 11, and her Dad Jeremy from Guelph in Ontario, Canada. In this new series of The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry, Hannah and Adam are joined by the Curious Cases band - Matt Chandler and Wayne Urquhart - to play with today's question. Bringing the science we have acoustic engineer and saxophone player Trevor Cox. Plus materials expert Zoe Laughlin demonstrates a selection of her unusual musical creations, including a lead bugle, a glass bell and a spruce tuning fork. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin Main image: 1-25 Wind instruments, 26-34 percussion instruments, Egypt, engraving by Duhamel from Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and researches which were made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army), Etat moderne, Planches, Volume II, Plate PlCC, Imprimerie Imperiale, 1817, Paris. Credit: De Agostini Editorial / Getty Images
May 13, 2019
A sense of time
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Our senses create the world we experience. But do animals have a ‘sense’ of time, and does that differ between species, or between us and other animals? We know that animal senses reveal a wealth of information that humans can't access. Birds can see in ultra violet, and some fish can 'feel' electricity. So perhaps their sense of time is similar. If you've ever tried to swat flies, you'll know that they seem to have super-powered reactions that let them escape before you can blink. Presenter Geoff Marsh asks whether flies have some sort of super-power to see the world in slow motion. Are they watching your hand come down at what might appear a leisurely pace? Science reveals a window into the minds of different species and their temporal perceptions. Some birds have such fast vision that they can see and react to movement at twice the speed you can, and our vision works at more than six times the speed of one species of deep sea fish. This programme delves into each moment of experience to ask 'what is time, biologically?' When birds have to dodge through forests and catch flies on the wing, or when flies have to avoid those birds, it would seem that a faster temporal resolution would be a huge advantage. Geoff meets physicist Carlo Rovelli and asks him to jump outside of physics to answer questions on biology and philosophy. Geoff explores the mind of a bat with Professor Yossi Yovel in Israel, and dissects birdsong at super slow speeds with BBC wildlife sound recordist, Chris Watson. Getting deep into the minds of animals he questions whether our seconds feel like swordfish seconds, or a beetles' or birds' or bats..? Presenter: Geoff Marsh Producer: Rory Galloway Picture: Violaceous Euphonia (Euphonia violacea) male flying from branch, Itanhaem, Brazil Credit: Getty images
May 06, 2019
Cat Hobaiter on communication in apes
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Dr Catherine Hobaiter studies how apes communicate with each other. Although she is based at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, she spends a lot of her time in the forests of Uganda, at the Budongo Research Centre. There, she is endlessly fascinated by the behaviour of great apes. Cat Hobaiter tells Jim al-Khalili about the difficulties of carrying out research on chimps in the wild. It can take years to win the trust of the apes. She says that her approach is to adopt the attitude of a moody teenager. Look bored and the chimps will ignore her, but at the same time she is watching them closely. Her particular research area is in understanding not the sounds that apes make, but their gestures. From her observations she has found that they use around 80 different gestures - many of which are common, in the sense that they have the same meaning, across different species like chimps and bonobos. One thing she and her team hope to learn from these studies is how we humans have evolved spoken language. (Photo: Dr Catherine Hobaiter)
Apr 29, 2019
Carlo Rovelli on rethinking the nature of time
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Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who became a household name when his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics became an unexpected international bestseller. His concise, and poetic, introduction to the laws and beauty of physics has sold more than a million copies. He’s also a pioneer of one of the most exciting and profound ideas in modern physics, called loop quantum gravity. Carlo Rovelli tells Jim al-Khalili how he first became interested in the nature of time when he took LSD as a young man. Later he became curious about the world of the almost absurdly small, where time has no meaning and space is grainy. He took seven years to complete his undergraduate degree, having spent a lot of time protesting against the political establishment, falling in love and travelling. All this rebelling taught him the value of seeing the world in a different way and the benefits of challenging the status quo. In the end he concluded it was easier, and more meaningful, to challenge Einstein’s understanding of time, than it was to overthrow the government. Picture: Carlo Rovelli. Credit: BBC Producer: Anna Buckley
Apr 22, 2019
Corinne Le Quéré on carbon and climate
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Professor Corinne Le Quéré of University of East Anglia talks to Jim Al-Khalili about tracing global carbon. Throughout the history of planet Earth, the element carbon has cycled between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. This natural cycle has maintained the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and has allowed life to exist for billions of years. Corinne Le Quéré is a climate scientist who keeps track of where the carbon comes from and where it goes – all on a truly global scale. Corinne Le Quéré is the founder of the Global Carbon Budget, which each year reports on where carbon dioxide is being emitted and where it is being absorbed around the world. More specifically, she studies the relationship between the carbon cycle and the earth’s climate, and how it is changing.
Apr 15, 2019
Ken Gabriel on why your smartphone is smart
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Jim Al-Khalili talks to Ken Gabriel, the engineer responsible for popularising many of the micro devices found in smartphones and computers. Ken explains how he was inspired by what he could do with a stick and a piece of string. This led to an engineering adventure taking in spacecraft, military guidance systems and the micro-mechanical devices we use every day in our computers and smartphones. Ken Gabriel now heads up a large non-profit engineering company, Draper, which cut its teeth building the guidance systems for the Apollo space missions, and is now involved in developing both driverless cars and drug production systems for personalised medicine. Ken himself has a career in what he terms ‘disruptive engineering’. His research married digital electronics with acoustics - and produced the microphones in our phones and computers. He has also worked for Google, taking some of the military research methods into a civilian start up. This led to the development of a new type of modular mobile phone which has yet to go into production. Producer: Julian Siddle
Apr 08, 2019
Donna Strickland and extremely powerful lasers
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Donna Strickland tells Jim Al-Khalili why she wanted to work with lasers and what it feels like to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 55 years. When the first laser was built in 1960, it was an invention looking for an application. Science fiction found uses for these phenomenally powerful beams of light long before real world applications were developed. Think Star Wars light sabres and people being sliced in half. Today lasers are used for everything from hair removal to state of the art weapons. Working with her supervisor Gerard Mourou in the 1980s, the Canadian physicist, Donna Strickland found a way to make laser pulses that were thousands of times more powerful than anything that had been made before. These rapid bursts of intense light energy have revolutionised laser eye surgery and, it's hoped, could open the doors to an exciting range of new applications from pushing old satellites out of earth's orbit to treatments for deep brain tumours. Producer: Anna Buckley
Apr 01, 2019
Unbottling the past
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Imagine finding a notebook containing the secret recipes of some of the world’s most iconic perfumes? Formulas normally kept under lock and key. That’s what happened to medical research scientist and trained chemist Andrew Holding. His grandfather Charles “Rex” Holding had been Chief Perfumer at the Bourjois Chanel factory in Croydon, near London, during the 1960s. After his death, he left behind a lifetime of perfume memorabilia; bottles of Chanel perfume, rare ingredients, fragrant soaps, and in amongst his things, the most fascinating of finds – a notebook with handwritten formulas, including one for Soir de Paris, written by one of the greatest of all perfumery biochemists – Constantin Weriguine. Can Andrew recreate this almost one hundred year old fragrance? He travels to Versaille’s Osmotheque, the world’s only perfume archive, to smell the original 1928 scent. It’s where top perfumers – all chemists themselves - grant him access to the world’s rarest and sometimes now-forbidden perfume ingredients, and teach him how to mix a scent. And in constructing Soir de Paris, he learns about Constantin Weriguine, his grandfather ‘Rex’, and discovers if his skills as a chemist are enough to turn him into a top perfumer, or is fragrance more of an art than a science? Presenter: Andrew Holding Producer: Katy Takatsuki. Image: Patricia de Nicolaï
Mar 25, 2019
California burning
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When Paradise burned down last year, it made the Camp Fire the most destructive and deadly in Californian history. A few months earlier the nearby Ranch Fire was the largest. In southern California, a series of chaparral fires have brought danger to towns along the state’s coast. And the statistics show that large, dangerous fires have been increasing for decades. But the reasons are not simple. Roland Pease meets some of the experts trying to work out what is to be done. Producer: Roland Pease Image: A man watches the Thomas Fire above Carpinteria, California, Credit: Getty Images
Mar 18, 2019
ShakeAlertLA - California’s earthquake early warning system
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Los Angeles is a city of Angels, and of earthquakes. Deadly earthquakes in 1933, 1971 and 1994 have also made it a pioneer in earthquake protection – for example with tough engineering standards to save buildings. Since 2013, with the help of scientists at the US Geological Survey, the city has been developing a resilience plan which culminated in the release of an app that should give residents precious seconds of warning when an earthquake starts. Roland Pease meets the scientists, the Mayor and the officials making the system work. Picture: An apartment after the Northridge earthquake in 1994 Credit: Getty Images
Mar 11, 2019
From the Cold War to the present day
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For more than 100 years chemical weapons have terrorised, maimed and killed soldiers and civilians alike. As a chemist, the part his profession has played in the development of these weapons has long concerned Andrea Sella, professor of chemistry at University College London. In this programme he examines the motivation of chemists like Dr Fritz Haber, who first encouraged the German military to deploy chlorine gas in World War One for the sake of “The Fatherland” and of Dr Gerhard Schrader, who, in his hunt for an effective pesticide, accidentally discovered a new class of lethal nerve agents for Nazi Germany. From chlorine, phosgene and the mustard gases, to tabun, sarin, soman, VX and the novichok agents used to target former Soviet agent Sergei Skipal in England, Andrea weaves archive with interviews with key figures in the ongoing campaign to control and ban the use of such weapons and he asks how science educators can prepare young chemists for the moral hazard posed by this particular class of weapon. (Photo: Mock up of Novichok agent (A-234), Credit: WoodyAlec/Getty Images)
Mar 04, 2019
From the Crimean War to the end of World War Two
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In the first of two programmes he looks back to the first attempts to ban the use of chemical weapons at the end of the 19th century. Heavily defeated in the Crimea, Russia succeeded in getting unanimous agreement at the 1899 Hague Convention that poison and poison weapons should be banned from warfare. But chemicals such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas were heavily used in the First World War by both sides. More substances were developed in the 1930s and 1940s but weren’t used in the battlefield in World War 2. Andrea Sella tells the stories of the chemists behind these developments. Picture: GB Army soldiers train for biological and chemical warfare, Credit: BBC
Feb 25, 2019
Tracks across time
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In a dry creek bed in the middle of the Australian outback is a palaeontological prize like no other: 95-million-year-old footprints stamped in a sandstone slab by three species of dinosaur. One of the beasts was a massive, lumbering sauropod that measured 18 metres from nose to tail. But the precious trackway is in danger of being damaged by the next floods, so must be moved. In the final episode of the four-part series The Chase, science journalist Belinda Smith from the ABC in Australia discovers what footprints can tell us about the ancient beasts that once roamed this land, and follows a team racing against time and the elements to save this once-in-a-lifetime find. Because even though these tracks have lasted the best part of 100 million years, they may not survive another one. Picture: Footprints made by a sauropod as it walked across a mudflat 95 million years ago, Credit: Australian Broadcasting Corporation/Belinda Smith
Feb 18, 2019
Trouble in paradise
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The atoll of Tetiaro is a string of tiny islands in French Polynesia, about 60km away from Tahiti. The islands – known as ‘motus’ to local Polynesians – are unique ecosystems that are crucial nesting sites for native seabirds. But invasive species threaten to disrupt these fragile environments – a fate seen across many islands in the Pacific. Rats arrived with early human settlers and have driven bird species off some of the islands. Meanwhile introduced mosquitoes have thrived in the warm conditions, and now act as vectors for diseases such as the Zika virus. Rat eradication experts have travelled to one of the uninhabited islands in the atoll, called Reiono, to attempt an experimental eradication of thousands of rats with one mammoth poison bait drop. They’re also using this as an opportunity to better understand why eradication attempts have been less effective on tropical islands. At the same time, on another island in the chain called Onetahi, researchers are releasing swarms of sterilised male mosquitoes to try to rid this motu of the disease-carrying pest. Join Carl Smith from ABC Australia for the third episode of The Chase: a special four-part series about science on the run. Picture: The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) is smaller than many other invasive rat species, but it’s still been linked to localised extinctions of island birds, Credit: Carl Smith
Feb 11, 2019
Back from the Dead
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The Night Parrot was supposed to be extinct and became a legend among birdwatchers in Australia: a fat, dumpy, green parrot that lived in the desert and came out at night. The last bird seen alive was promptly shot dead in 1912. Over 90 years later, a decapitated Night Parrot was found beside a fence in outback Australia, and the hunt for a living bird was on. Ornithologists descended onto the arid plains of Australia’s vast arid interior, but it took another seven years for a single photograph of a live bird. Incredibly, a population of night parrots had survived. Their exact location is kept secret, and people are still looking for more – or more precisely, listening for more, using acoustic traps to identify calls. Dr Ann Jones from ABC Australia takes a huge microphone for a spin in the desert to join the hunt for the legendary Night Parrot. (Photo: Ullala Boss is a Birriliburu Indigenous Ranger, Elder and Traditional Owner and knows the dreaming stories of the Night Parrot. Credit: Dr Ann Jones)
Feb 04, 2019
Eye in the Sky
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On this mission, SOFIA is setting out to study Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon, by flying into the faint shadow that it casts as it blocks the light from a faraway star. It’s a phenomenon called an occultation, and if the mission succeeds, it will reveal new details about Titan’s atmosphere. SOFIA is a very unusual observatory. It is a 747 aircraft with a hatch in the side, which opens in flight to reveal a large, custom-built telescope – carefully engineered to work inside a moving jet plane. Its full name is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, and it’s a joint project of Nasa and the German space agency, DLR. The catch? That shadow is moving across the earth at 22 kilometres per second. Join Dr Jonathan Webb from the ABC in Australia for episode one of The Chase - a special four-part series about science on the run. (Photo: SOFIA is a heavily modified 747SP which was acquired by Nasa in the mid-1990s after spending 20 years as a passenger jet. (Credit: Wayne Williams)
Jan 28, 2019
Kepler's Snowflake
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The Six Cornered Snowflake, a booklet written by Johannes Kepler as a New Year's gift, sought to explain the intricate and symmetrical shape of winter's tiny stars of snow. His insightful speculations about minerals and geometry were the beginning of the modern understanding of crystals. Philip Ball tells the story of how Kepler became a key figure in the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. He was a precocious mathematician who became an adviser to Emperor Rudolf II in 1600. Although he contributed to the idea that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the solar system, his role at the court was to be an astrologer. Philip brings the story of the shape of the snowflakes up to date. It was only 20 years ago with the development of the maths of fractals that we got to understand the formation of the myriad patterns of snowflakes.
Jan 14, 2019
Lucretius, Sheep and Atoms
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2000 years ago Lucretius composed a long poem that theorised about atoms and the natural world. Written in the first century BCE, during a chaotic and frightening time when the Roman Republic was collapsing, Lucretius encouraged people to feel free through contemplating the physics of the Universe. He said that despite living through a time of bloody civil wars and dictatorship people should not believe they were sheep who had to follow those in power. Naomi discovers that the poem is an epic, beautiful and persuasive piece of work. It begins with a discussion of atoms. Lucretius, like Epicurus, followed the Greek tradition in believing that the universe is composed of tiny, indivisible particles. De Rerum Natura asks us to consider that all that really exists in the universe are these atoms and the void between them. Atoms are indestructible, the number of atoms in the universe is infinite and so is the void in which the atoms move. What Lucretius is saying here was revolutionary then – and still has the power to surprise. He’s saying that there are no supernatural forces controlling our lives, no fate pulling the strings, if there are gods they’re made of atoms just like everything else. There is nothing else. Naomi discusses the life of Lucretius and his poem with classicist Dr Emma Woolerton of Durham University. And she talks to particle physicist Professor Jonathan Butterworth of UCL about which of his theories still holds water today. Picture: Gathered sheep, Credit: Chris Strickland, Getty Images
Jan 07, 2019
Eddington's eclipse and Einstein's celebrity
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Philip Ball's tale is of a solar eclipse 100 years ago observed by Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer who travelled to the remote island of Principe off the coast of West Africa and saw the stars shift in the heavens. His observations supplied the crucial proof of a theory that transformed our notions of the cosmos and turned a German physicist named Albert Einstein into an international celebrity. But this is also a tale of how a Quaker tried to use science to unite countries. The reparations imposed on Germany after the war extended into science too as many in Great Britain and other Allied nations felt that German science should be ostracised from the international community. As a Quaker, Eddington wanted just the opposite: to see peaceful cooperation restored among nations. Picture: Image of the 1919 Solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), Credit: Science Photo Library Producer: Erika Wright
Dec 31, 2018
Earthrise
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On Christmas Eve in 1968 Bill Anders was in orbit around the moon in Apollo 8 when he took one of the most iconic photos of the last fifty years: Earthrise. The image got to be seen everywhere, from a stamp issued in 1969 to commemorate the success of Apollo 8, to posters that are still available today. Gaia Vince explores the impact of this image on the environmental movement and our understanding of our place in the universe. “Oh my God. Look at that picture over there. Here’s the earth coming up. Wow, isn’t that pretty.” Bill Anders was on the fourth of the ten orbits of the moon on Apollo 8, along with James Lovell and Frank Borman. Bill had spotted the earth through one of the hatch windows and grabbed his camera to take a black and white photo. But just in time, he picked up another camera with a colour film loaded, and the rest is history. When they returned from space – the first mission to orbit the moon – Nasa used Bill Anders’ image of Earthrise in its publicity. Nasa had understood there was an added value of going into space: taking pictures of our home planet. Stewart Brand was part of both the counterculture and the environmental movement; he’d hung out with Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters and put on happenings. He went on to found the Whole Earth Catalog, which brought together all kinds of alternative thinkers. Stewart Brand put the Earthrise photo on the front cover of one of the editions of the Whole Earth Catalog. Gaia Vince talks to Stewart Brand, and to scientists and artists, about the continuing importance of seeing Earth from above. Picture: Earthrise - The rising Earth is about five degrees above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft on December 24th 1968, Credit: Nasa Presenter: Gaia Vince Producer: Deborah Cohen
Dec 24, 2018
The Supercalculators
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Alex Bellos is brilliant at all things mathematical, but even he can't hold a candle to the amazing mathematical feats of the supercalculators. Alex heads to Wolfsburg in Germany to meet the contestants at this year's Mental Calculation World Cup. These men and women are the fastest human number crunchers on the planet, able to multiply and divide large numbers with no need to reach for a smart phone, computer or calculator. So how do they do it, and is it a skill that any of us can learn? Alex talks to Robert Fountain, the UK's two-time winner of this prestigious prize, about his hopes for this year's competition and the mathematical magicians of the past who have inspired him. He also meets Rachel Riley, Countdown's number queen, to find out what it takes to beat the countdown clock. Picture: The Supercalculators, Credit: Alex Bellos
Dec 17, 2018
The China Syndrome
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Plastic waste and pollution have become a global problem but is there any sign of a global solution? And how did we allow this to happen in the first place? Materials scientist and broadcaster, Professor Mark Miodownik, explores how we fell in love with plastic, why we've ended up with oceans of waste blighting the environment and what science and society can do about it. Programme Three: Roland Pease hears from Kenya where one of the most stringent bans on plastic bags has been in force for nearly two years, from the US where the reuseable cup has taken off and from Sweden where reverse vending machines give you money back when you return your plastic bottles. And he looks at places where plastic is the best material for the job. Picture: Bike loaded with empty plastic bottles. Shanghai China, Credit: typhoonski/Getty Images
Dec 10, 2018
How Much Plastic Can We Recycle?
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Plastics are fantastically versatile materials that have changed our lives. It is what we do with them, when we no longer want them, that has resulted in the global plastic crisis. Mark Miodownik explores our love hate relationship with plastics. Programme Two: Things begin to go stale Plastic waste has been a global crisis waiting to happen. To date it's estimated that around 8.3 billion tonnes of waste plastic exists. That's 25 Empire State Buildings or 1 billion elephants. Incredibly around half of this has been generated in just the last 14 years, despite mass production having begun in the 1950s. Events such as China's recent refusal to take any more "foreign rubbish" from the west and Sir David Attenborough's graphic portrayal of the devastation that plastic waste is causing in our oceans, has prompted political and media discussion like never before. We are at a critical moment where, if we're to turn the tide on plastic pollution, it will require science and society to come together to create real change. But it won't be easy. One major area that needs an overhaul is recycling. In the UK only 14% of plastic collected is recycled. Europe tends to burn our waste for energy, and plastic has a calorific value similar to that of coal. But proponents of the circular economy say we should never consider plastic as waste at all and we should think of it as 'Buried Sunshine' - a resource that needs conserving - by reusing and recycling again and again. Picture: Production line for the processing of plastic waste in the factory, Credit: Getty Images
Dec 03, 2018
Why We Fell In Love with Plastic
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Plastic waste and pollution have become a global problem but is there any sign of a global solution? And how did we allow this to happen in the first place? Materials scientist and broadcaster, Professor Mark Miodownik, explores how we fell in love with plastic, why we've ended up with oceans of waste blighting the environment and what science and society can do about it. Programme One: First Flush of Love We may not be on speaking terms right now. But we do have a love affair with plastic, in fact it can be all consuming. Adaptable, lightweight, cheap and hygienic - fantastic plastics started to win our affection back in the late 19th century. Bakelite was an early plastic invented to replace expensive wood. Celluloid was one of the earliest plastics, failing to replace ivory in billiard balls, but revolutionising the world as movie film. Plastic really did change our world. Plastic radar insulation played a role in helping the Allied forces win the Second World War and after the conflict, factories start to churn out cheap, mass-produced goods in the new synthetic polymers. But some of the key virtues of plastic may now have paradoxically poisoned the relationship. Being virtually indestructible, has led to a build-up of toxic micro-plastic in the oceans and environment. We've grown to regard many plastics as cheap and disposable, we take it for granted, rely on it too much, value it too little and are too ready to cast it aside after one single use. Producer: Fiona Roberts Picture: The Bakelite Museum, Credit: Getty Images
Nov 26, 2018
Finding the Coelacanths
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The first Coelacanth was discovered by a woman in South Africa in 1938. The find, by the young museum curator, was the fish equivalent of discovering a T- Rex on the Serengeti, it took the Zoological world by storm. Presenter Adam Hart tells the story of this discovery, and the steps taken by Coelacanth biologists in the decades since to find more fish, in other populations, and record them for science. Adam hears personal accounts from a deep diver who swam with Coelacanths, Eve Marshall, conservationist Dr Mark Erdman, and geneticist Professor Axel Meyer. Picture: 3 Coelacanths at 116 metres depth in Sodwana Bay, South Africa, Credit: Eve Marshall Producer: Rory Galloway
Nov 19, 2018
The Big Bang and Jet Streams
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Evidence for the big bang was initially thought to be a mistake in the recording. Jet streams in the upper atmosphere were revealed by the dust emitted by Krakatoa and a collection of interested citizen scientists. In the second three episodes about the genius of accidents in science, presenter Adam Hart explores two stories of unexpected observations. Sometimes accidental discoveries are bigger than you might expect. Picture: Moonlit Coast, Credit: shaunl/Getty Images
Nov 12, 2018
Viagra and CRISPR
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Viagra’s effects on men were first discovered as an unexpected side-effect during trials for a medication meant to help patients with a heart condition. CRISPR cas– 9 is now a tool that can be used to modify and replace genes – but it was first noted as a random collection of genes. In the first of three episodes about the genius of accidents in science, Professor Adam Hart explores how, sometimes, the results you’re looking for are not as important as those that appear unexpectedly. Picture: Test Tubes, Credit: Grafner/Getty Images Producer: Rory Galloway
Nov 05, 2018
Tracking the First Animals on Earth
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What were the earliest animals on Earth? The origin of the animal kingdom is one of the most mysterious chapters in the evolution of life on Earth. Our animal ancestors appeared and began to diversify about half a billion years ago. What might they have looked like, and which creatures alive today can be traced to these primordial times? Answers are beginning to come with new techniques for both studying ancient fossils and for reading evolutionary history from the DNA of animals alive today. Zoologist Professor Matthew Cobb explores the latest discoveries and controversies with the researchers on the trail of the Earth’s first animals. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Picture: Artists impression of Dickinsonia, Credit: Nasa
Oct 29, 2018
Mary Anning and Fossil Hunting
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Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis on what is now known as the Jurassic Coast in the first half of the 19th century. Knowing the shore from childhood and with a remarkable eye for detection she was extremely successful in finding fossils. In 1812 she unearthed parts of an Icthyosaur and in 1823 she discovered the first skeleton of what became known as a Plesiosaurus – a long-necked, flippered creature with a tiny head. It looked a bit like an elongated turtle with no shell. Naomi Alderman tells the science story of how Mary Anning, a poor and relatively uneducated young woman, became the supplier of the best fossils to the gentlemen geologists who were beginning to understand that the earth was very old and had been inhabited by strange extinct creatures. Naomi talks to Tracy Chevalier, author of Remarkable Creatures, a novel about Mary Anning, about her life and relationship with the geologists of the time, and to Dr Susannah Maidment, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, about fossil hunting today. Image: Lyme Regis, from Charmouth, Dorset 1814-1825 by William Daniell (Credit: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Oct 29, 2018
Cooling the City
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The summer of 2003 saw the largest number of deaths ever recorded in a UK heatwave - but by 2040 climate models predict the extreme summer temperatures experienced then will be normal. We will also be experiencing colder winters, and droughts and floods will become more common. Our infrastructure, housing, water, sewerage, transport and public buildings are not designed for such conditions. Gaia Vince asks how we can adapt and prepare our cities, where most people live and work, for the new normal weather conditions. New buildings in temperate climates are now designed with keeping us warm in mind, better insulation, more efficient heating and airtight glazing. However when it comes to overheating these measures designed to keep out the cold can be part of the problem. Can we adapt solutions from other countries where extreme heat is a more usual seasonal event? Will we simply have to change the way we organise our day to keep out of the heat? Is the real answer for mad dogs and Englishmen to take a siesta? Picture: Wood thermometer, Credit: Ugurhan/Getty Images
Oct 22, 2018
Tourism and Transparency
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In the second programme exploring the Chinese approach to organ transplantation, Matthew Hill looks at what is happening today. Where are the organs coming from today? Have the Chinese overcome their traditional opposition to donating them? There is still a lack of transparency about the sources. Some critics have suggested that there is still a trade in organs and there are reports that transplant tourism is still going on. Matthew Hill talks to Chinese and international transplant doctors about the current situation. Picture: Asian surgeons in the operating room, Shanghai, China, Credit: Asia-Pacific Images Studio/Getty Images
Oct 15, 2018
Who To Believe?
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For many years the Chinese sourced organs for transplant from executed prisoners. Around a decade ago the authorities acknowledged that this practice had gone on and announced that it was to be stopped. In the first programme exploring the Chinese approach to organ transplantation Matthew Hill tells the grim story of the revelation of the source of organs, he meets a surgeon with first-hand experience of removing organs from executed prisoners. We talk to campaigners who believe the practice is still going on, they allege religious and ethnic minority groups in China are now a source for an illicit trade in human organs. Officially the practice of using organs for transplant from executed Prisoners ceased in 2015, China now has an organ donation registry and say the majority of organs come from people who die in intensive care units, however questions remain over whether this source is sufficient for the number of transplants performed. Picture: Asian surgeons in the operating room, Shanghai, China, Credit: Asia-Pacific Images Studio/Getty Images
Oct 08, 2018
The Long Hot Summer - Part Two
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This summer the Northern Hemisphere has been sweltering in unusually high temperatures. It has been hot from the Arctic to Africa. This has led to increased deaths, notably in Canada, and more wildfires, even in Lancashire and in Sweden. Can we say that this heatwave – and the extreme drought in Australia - is a result of climate change? Or is just part of the variable weather patterns we have on our planet? Roland Pease gets answers to these questions from the world’s leading climate and weather scientists. He picks apart the influences of the jet stream, El Niño and the Atlantic decadal oscillation from that of global warming. (Photo: Arctic Pack Ice near Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Bkamprath/Getty Images)
Oct 01, 2018
The Long Hot Summer
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This summer the Northern Hemisphere has been sweltering in unusually high temperatures. It’s been hot from the Arctic to Africa. This has led to increased deaths, notably in Canada, and more wildfires, even in Lancashire and in Sweden. Can we say that this heatwave – and the extreme drought in Australia – is a result of climate change? Or is just part of the variable weather patterns we have on our planet? Roland Pease gets answers to these questions from the world’s leading climate and weather scientists. He picks apart the influences of the jet stream, the El Nina and the Atlantic decadal oscillation from that of global warming. Picture: Sacramento River and valley lit by the Delta Fire in California, 2018, Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
Sep 24, 2018
Sodium
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Sophie Scott on why sodium powers everything we do, and why it might be the key to a new generation of pain killers. Putting sodium into water is one of the most memorable experiments from school chemistry lessons. It's this ability to react ferociously with water which is the starting point for sodium's key role in powering all of biology. Simply, without sodium we wouldn't exist. It helps provide the electricity that allows us to move, breathe, think. Our understanding of sodium could help in the search for analgesics with few side effects for severe pain. Recent discoveries of families who feel searing pain with mild warmth, or those who feel no pain at all even in childbirth, have opened up new avenues in pain research. Their rare genetic mutations change the way sodium works in their bodies: from this new knowledge neuroscientists are developing drugs that could give rise to a much needed new generation of pain killers. Image: Traditional glass salt cellar (Credit: Getty Images)
Sep 17, 2018
Iron
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Beyond war and peace, Dr Andrew Pontzen explores how iron has shaped human biology and culture. From weapons to ploughshares, iron holds a key place as the element for the tools of the rise and destruction of human civilisations. As a grand scale shaper of our towns and ciities and our culture it is unmatched. And yet it also has a major role to play in living cells. Andrew Pontzen, Reader in Cosmology at University College London. explores iron's sometimes ambivalent history and also delves deep inside ourselves to understand how iron is key to keeping us all alive. Dr Kate Maguire, astrophysicist at Queens University, Belfast, explains how the iron on earth was formed in distant exploding stars. Andrew talks to Professor Marcos Martinón-Torres about how our ancestors first used this metal. And Dr Caroline Shenton-Taylor, of the University of Surrey, discusses one of iron’s greatest and most mysterious properties – magnetism. In blood and bodies what does iron actually do - could any other element perform its life giving functions? Andrew finds out from Chris Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Essex University, how iron is the key atom in haemoglobin that transports oxygen. And Dr Kathryn Robson, from Oxford University’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, describes the condition haemochromatosis,, in which people have too much iron. which runs in Andrew's family. Picture: Rusty screws, Credit: Getty Images/hudiemm
Sep 10, 2018
Fluorine
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Chemist Andrea Sella tells the story of how the feared element ended up giving us better teeth, mood and health. Many chemists have lost their lives trying to isolate the periodic table’s most chemically reactive element – hence the nickname “the tiger of chemistry”. Fluorine can react with almost all elements. As an acid, hydrofluoric acid, it will dissolve glass. Yet chemists have been able to tame the beast – creating remarkable and safe uses for it by utilising its reactive nature that lets it make strong bonds with other chemicals. One in five medicines contain fluorine atoms, including one of the most widely used antidepressants Prozac, fluorinated anaesthetic, cancer medication, the cholesterol regulating drug Lipitor and the antibacterial Cipro. Though perhaps it is most famous for being added to toothpaste in the form of fluoride and in some places, drinking water. Fluoride protects our teeth from decay. But despite the benefits, it has a history of receiving a bad press. During the cold war, false allegations were made that adding fluoride to the water supply was a communist plot designed to weaken the American people. Stanley Kubrick satirised these fears in the film Dr. Strangelove in 1964. The suspicion around fluoride has not gone away and many people feel negatively towards any tinkering with something as fundamental as our water supply. Professor Andrea Sella from University College London examines the effects of fluorine and looks to current and future uses of the element that chemists clearly respect – but no longer fear. Picture: Toothpaste, Credit: artisteer/Getty Images
Sep 03, 2018
Hypatia: The Murdered Mathematician
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Naomi Alderman's tale is a murder mystery, the story of Hypatia, the mathematician murdered by a mob in the learned city of Alexandria, around the year 415 CE. Hypatia was a communicator of science, tackling difficult maths and teaching it to her students. This was incredibly important work. It was enough, at the time, to make her Alexandria’s pre-eminent mathematician, and probably therefore the leading mathematician in the world. And there’s historical evidence that Hypatia made some discoveries and innovations of her own. She invented a new and more efficient method of long division. In a time before electronic calculators, the actual business of doing sums was an arduous part of engineering or astronomy, and any improvement in efficiency was very welcome. All quite innocent science, so why did Hypatia end up being murdered by a mob? Natalie Haynes tells the inside story to Naomi Alderman. And Professor Edith Hall discusses Hypatia's legacy. Picture: Death of Hypatia of Alexandria (c 370 CE - March 415 AD), Credit: Nastasic/Getty Images
Aug 20, 2018
Descartes' "Daughter"
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There's a story told about French philosopher René Descartes and his daughter. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain’s curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life sized automaton inside. He's so shocked he throws the "daughter" overboard. Descartes championed a view of nature in which everything happened because of the physical forces acting between its constituent parts: nature as a machine. It was a coolly rational vision that caught the scientific spirit of the seventeenth century. He was fascinated by automata and what they tell us about what it is to be human. Philip Ball tells the story of Descartes and his "daughter" and his writings about humans and machines. He finds out more about the thirst for mechanical wonders and what it said about theories of the human body in Descartes’ time, from historian of science Simon Schaffer of Cambridge University. And Kanta Dihar of the Centre for the Future of Intelligence also at Cambridge University talks about current research into AIs, driven purely by some mechanism of formal logic, that can mimic the capabilities of the human mind, and how contemporary culture explores our fears about them. Picture: People And Robots Modern Human And Artificial Intelligence Futuristic Mechanism Technology, Credit: Getty Images
Aug 13, 2018
Making Natural Products in the Lab
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Philip Ball tells the science story of German chemist Friedrich Wöhler’s creation of urea, an organic substance previously thought only to be produced by living creatures. Yet in 1828 Wöhler created urea from decidedly non-living substances. It was exciting because the accidental transformation seemed to cross a boundary: from inorganic to organic, from inert matter to a product of life. It’s a key moment in the history of chemistry but like many scientific advances, this one has also been turned into something of a myth. To read some accounts, this humble act of chemical synthesis sounds almost akin to the 'vital spark of being' described by Mary Shelley in her book published ten years previously, when Victor Frankenstein brought dead flesh back to life. Philip Ball sorts out fact from fiction in what Wohler really achieved in conversation with Peter Ramberg of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and finds out about chemical synthesis of natural products today from Professor Sarah O’Connor of the John Innes Centre. Producer: Erika Wright (Image: Friedrich Wohler, c 1850. Photogravure after a drawing by Hoffman, c 1850. From a collection of portraits of scientists published by Photographische Gesellschaft, Berlin, c 1910. Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)
Aug 06, 2018
The Real Cyrano de Bergerac
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Philip Ball reveals the real Cyrano de Bergerac - forget the big nosed fictional character - and his links to 17th Century space flight. Cyrano was a soldier, gambler and duellist who retired from military exploits on account of his wounds around 1639, at the grand old age of 20. But he studied at university and, to judge from the books he went on to write, he was well versed in the philosophical and scientific debates of his day. He designed spaceships to travel to the moon and to the sun. Philip discusses the life and times of Cyrano with Mary Baine Campbell of Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Journeys to the New World in the seventeenth century were voyages of trade - and ultimately of colonisation. Today, the profit motive has returned to space travel. Efforts to develop spacecraft and to send people into space are increasingly being conducted not just by government agencies but by private companies, in search again of land and minerals. Philip discusses the control of exploitation of space with Patricia Lewis of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Producer: Erika Wright Picture: To the moon by rocket-propelled box, 1640 as foreseen by Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655). Photo by: Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images)
Jul 30, 2018
The Nun’s Salamander
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A convent of Mexican nuns is helping to save the one of the world's most endangered and most remarkable amphibians: the axolotl, a truly bizarre creature of serious scientific interest worldwide and an animal of deep-rooted cultural significance in Mexico. The Sisters of Immaculate Health rarely venture out of their monastery in the central Mexican town of Patzcuaro. Yet they have become the most adept and successful breeders of their local species of this aquatic salamander. Scientists marvel at their axolotl-breeding talents and are now working with them to save the animal from extinction. BBC News science correspondent Victoria Gill is allowed into the convent to discover at least some of the nun's secrets. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Picture: Lake Patzcuaro axolotl Credit: Credit the picture Will Condliffe, Chester Zoo
Jul 23, 2018
The Aztec Salamander
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Victoria Gill tells the extraordinary story of the Mexican axolotl: an amphibian that is both a cultural icon and a biomedical marvel. In its domesticated form, the aquatic salamander is a valuable laboratory animal and a popular pet around the world. But in the wild, the species is on the very edge of extinction. Victoria visits one of its last hold-outs among the polluted canals in the south of Mexico City, where she meets the scientists and farmers working to save it. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Picture: Street Art, Credit: BBC
Jul 16, 2018
Gateway to the Mind
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The microbiome is the strange invisible world of our non human selves. On and in all of us are hoards of microbes. Their impact on our physical health is becoming clear to science, but a controversial idea is emerging too - that gut bacteria could alter what happens in our brains. In this final episode of the series BBC Science and Health correspondent James Gallagher examines a growing body of research into the gut as a gateway to the mind and why some scientists believe we could be o the cusp of a revolution in psychiatry that uses microbes to improve mental health. Illustration by Katie Horwich Producer: Adrian Washbourne
Jul 09, 2018
Dirt and Development
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BBC Health and Science correspondent James Gallagher explores the latest research into how our second genome, the vast and diverse array of microbes that live on and in our bodies, is driving our metabolism and our health and how we can change it for the better. In this second episode he explores how researchers are uncovering a vital relationship between the healthy bugs we accumulate in our gut and our immune system . We have over the past 50 years done a terrific job of eliminating infectious disease. But in we've also done the same to many good bacteria and as a result we're seeing an enormous and terrifying increase in autoimmune disease and in allergy. Could correcting our encounters with bugs at birth, and in the first few month of life set us on a path of good health? And in if in later life the delicate balance between our body and bugs gets skewed, leading to inflammatory diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome or frailty in old age, how can this be rectified? Illustration by Katie Horwich Producer: Adrian Washbourne
Jul 02, 2018
Manipulating Our Hidden Half
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Are we on the cusp of a new approach to healthy living and treating disease? BBC Health and Science correspondent James Gallagher explores the latest research into how our second genome, the vast and diverse array of microbes that live on and in our bodies, is driving our metabolism and our health. Recent DNA analysis by the Human Microbiome Project detailed the vast and diverse array of microbes in and on our body - bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses. It has been described as our second genome - a source of huge genetic diversity, a modifier of disease, an essential component of immunity, and an "organ" that influences not just our metabolism but also our mental health. Unlike the human genome which is fixed at birth, this "second genome" can be manipulated in many ways. Researchers have suggested that our gut microbiome has a major role in the development of chronic conditions such as obesity, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. Now the work has moved onto detailed analysis of the microbes in people with specific problems and measures to change the microbiome. In this major three-part series, James Gallagher investigates the key research shaping our ability not just to read our microbiome and look at predispositions, but to change it for the better. From the ability to manipulate it to stem chronic disease, to the role it plays in determining our health from birth, to its surprising influence on our brain and behaviour - should we now think of ourselves not as self-sufficient organisms, but as complex ecosystems colonized by numerous competing and health-giving microbes? Picture: Probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus, Credit: Dr Microbe/Getty Images Producer: Adrian Washbourne
Jun 25, 2018
Do Insects Feel Pain?
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Insects such as fruit flies provide important insights into human biology and medicine. But should we worry whether insects experience pain and suffering in scientists’ hands? Entomologist Adam Hart visits the Fly Facility at the University of Manchester where researcher Andreas Prokop describes the many insights that experiments on the fruit fly Drosophila have provided on aspects of human biology and health. Globally billions of these little flies have died in the pursuit of this knowledge. Should we give a second thought about the deaths of these creatures? Do insects have the capacity for pain and the experience of suffering? It depends which scientist you ask. Lars Chittka of Queen Mary University of London says his work on bumble bees suggests that we can’t assume they do not. Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University in Canada is not convinced by existing arguments for insect consciousness. Photo: Robber Fly Asilidae Diptera Insect, Credit: Nechaev-kon/Getty Images Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Jun 18, 2018
Killing Insects for Conservation
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Prof Adam Hart stirred a hornet’s nest of controversy by asking the public to kill wasps for science. He explores why scientists kill insects to save them from extinction. The work of the entomologist often involves the killing of insects in large numbers. This happens in the search for new species in the exploration of the planet’s biodiversity and in ecological research to monitor the health of wild insect populations and the impact that we are having on the environment. But the methods of insects scientists have come under criticism. Last year presenter and entomologist Adam Hart was involved in a citizen science project aimed at surveying the abundance of various species of British wasp around the country. The survey entailed members of the public setting up lethal wasp traps in their gardens and sending the dead insects to the lab running the survey. Many people took part but the study also generated negative newspaper coverage and stinging criticism on social media. How can you save insects by killing them? Next week, do insects experience pain and suffering? Picture: Broad-Bellied Chaser, Credit: BBC Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Jun 11, 2018
What’s the Tiniest Dinosaur?
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Two small creatures are at the heart of today’s questions, sent in to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk. The Tiniest Dinosaur "What is the tiniest dinosaur?" asks young listener Ellie Cook, aged 11. Our hunt takes us from the discovery of dinosaurs right up to the present day, which is being hailed as a 'golden age' for palaeontology. Currently, one new species of dinosaur is unearthed on average every single week. But what's the smallest dino? And what can size reveal about the life of extinct animals? Hannah Fry goes underground at the Natural History Museum in London to look through their vaults in search of the tiniest dinosaur with palaeontologist Susie Maidment. Meanwhile Adam Rutherford chats to dinosaur expert Steve Brusatte from Edinburgh University about why size really does matter, especially when it comes to fossils. The Baffled Bat "Why don't thousands of bats in a cave get confused? How do they differentiate their own location echoes from those of other bats?" This puzzling problem was sent in by Tim Beard from Hamburg in Germany. Since eco-location was first discovered, this question has perplexed biologists. Hannah turns bat detective to try and track down these elusive creatures at The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. This is where zoologist Kate Jones from University College London is using a network of smart sensors to find, identify and track wild bats. Bat researcher and impressionist John Ratcliffe from Toronto University explains how bats use sonar to find their way around, and the clever tricks they’ve developed along the way. It's an unlikely tale involving gruesome early experiments, cunning electric fish and some surprising bat maths. (Image: Dinosaurs and a meteor falling from the sky in back background. Credit: ugurhan/Getty Images) Producer: Michelle Martin
Jun 04, 2018
Can Anything Travel Faster Than Light?
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Two astronomical questions today sent in to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk for Drs Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford to answer. The Cosmic Speed Limit "We often read that the fastest thing in the Universe is the speed of light. Why do we have this limitation and can anything possibly be faster?" asks Ali Alshareef from Qatif from Saudia Arabia. The team grapples with Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, with help from cosmologist Andrew Pontzen and a British train, travelling somewhat slower than the speed of light. Plus physicist and presenter Jim Al-Khalili describes how he nearly lost his boxer shorts in a daring bet concerning the speed of subatomic particles. The Cosmic Egg "How do we measure the age of the Universe?" asks Simon Whitehead. A hundred years ago this wouldn't even have been considered a valid question, because we didn't think the Universe had a beginning at all. Even Einstein thought that space was eternal and unchanging. This is the tale of how we discovered that the Universe had a beginning, and why calculating its age has been one of the greatest challenges in modern astronomy. We also uncover the mysterious dark energy that pervades the cosmos and discover why it's been putting a scientific spanner in the works. Helping to unravel today's question are physicists Andrew Pontzen, Jo Dunkley and Jim Al-Khalili. Picture: Star sun supernova galaxy gold, Credit: Eastern Lightcraft/Getty Images Producer: Michelle Martin
May 28, 2018
Why Do We Dream?
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Adventures in Dreamland "Why do we dream and why do we repeat dreams?" asks Mila O'Dea, aged 9, from Panama. Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford delve into the science of sleep. From a pioneering experiment on rapid eye movement sleep, to a brand new 'dream signature' found in the brain, they discover how scientists are investigating our hidden dreamworld. Featuring sociologist Bill Domhoff from the University of California Santa Cruz, sleep psychologist Mark Blagrove from the University of Swansea, and neurologist Francesca Siclari from the University of Lausanne. The Curious Face-Off "Are machines better than humans at identifying faces?" asks the excellently named Carl Vandal. Today’s Face Off leads our intrepid detectives to investigate why we see Jesus on toast, Hitler in houses and Kate Middleton on a jelly bean. Face perception psychologist Rob Jenkins from the University of York explains why we're so good at spotting familiar faces, like celebrities. Plus, Franziska Knolle from the University of Cambridge discusses her face recognition study involving Barack Obama and a group of highly-trained sheep. But are we outwitted by artificial intelligence when it comes to face ID? BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones gives us the low-down on the pros and cons of current technology. Picture: Child sleeping, Credit: Quintanilla/Getty Images Producer: Michelle Martin
May 21, 2018
Can We Use Chemistry to Bake the Perfect Cake?
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Domestic science is on the agenda today, with two culinary questions sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk The Curious Cake-Off Can chemistry help us bake the perfect cake? Listener Helena McGinty aged 69 from Malaga in Spain asks, "'I have always used my mother's sponge cake recipe. But is there a noticeable difference in the outcome if you vary some of the ingredients, or the method?" Hannah and Adam go head to head in a competition to create the perfect cake using the power of science. They are aided by materials scientist Mark Miodownik, from University College London, with tips on how to combine the ideal ingredients and trusted techniques to construct a structurally sound sponge. Food critic Jay Rayner is on hand to judge the results. But who will emerge victorious in this messy baking battle? The Atomic Blade "What makes things sharp? Why are thinner knives sharper? What happens on the molecular level when you cut something?" All these questions came from Joshua Schwartz in New York City. The ability to create sharp tools allowed us to fashion clothing, make shelters and hunt for food, all essential for the development of human civilisation. And, more importantly today they allow us to prepare dinner. So what makes kitchen knives sharp? We hear from IBM scientist Chris Lutz, who has used one of the sharpest blades in the world to slice up individual atoms. Plus palaeoarchaeologist Becky Wragg Sykes reveals the sharpest natural object in the world, a volcanic glass used by the Aztecs called ‘obsidian’. Picture: Colourful Cupcakes, Credit: RuthBlack/Getty Images Producer: Michelle Martin
May 14, 2018
Why Do Some Songs Get Stuck in Your Head?
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Two very annoying cases today sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk to our scientific sleuths, mathematician Dr Hannah Fry and geneticist Dr Adam Rutherford. The Sticky Song Why do songs get stuck in our heads? And what makes some tunes stickier than others? Drs Rutherford and Fry investigate 'earworms', those musical refrains that infect our brains for days. Every morning BBC 6Music DJ Shaun Keaveny asks his listeners for their earworms, and Hannah finds out which tunes keep coming back. Adam asks Dr Lauren Stewart, from Goldsmiths University, to reveal the musical features that make some songs catchier than others. And they find out why, in times of crisis, an earworm may just save your life. The Shocking Surprise Jose Chavez Mendez from Guatemala asks, "Some years ago, in the dry season, I used to be very susceptible to static electricity. I want to know - why do static shocks happen?" The team uncover some slightly unethical science experiments on static electricity from the 1700s. Hannah Fry uses a Leyden Jar to demonstrate how static electricity works with help from her glamorous assistant, Adam Rutherford. Spoiler Alert: it doesn't end well for Adam. They discover what makes some people more susceptible to static shocks, and how bees and spiders have harnessed the awesome power of electricity. Featuring electromagnetism scientist Rhys Phillips and physicist Helen Czerski, author of 'Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life'. Picture: Human Ear, Credit: Techin24/Getty Images Producer: Michelle Martin
May 07, 2018
Behaving Better Online
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Humans have become the most successful species on earth because of our ability to cooperate. Often we help strangers when there is no obvious benefit to us as individuals. But today in the age when social media and the internet could be seen as a way of bringing people together more than ever, the opposite is happening. In this two-part series for Discovery science writer Gaia Vince meets the psychologists, evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists who are studying our built in human behaviour in groups and asks how their discoveries can guide projects to increase cooperation. (Photo: Support button on keyboard, Credit: Abdoudz/Getty Images)
Apr 30, 2018
The Cooperative Species
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People are incredibly rude to each other on social media. Much ruder than they would ever be face to face. The great potential of the internet to bring humanity together in a glorious collaborating network seems naïve – instead of embracing a massive extension of our social circles, we seem to revert to tribalism and conflict online. And while we generally conduct our real-life interactions with strangers with politeness and respect, online, we can be horrible. But it was our human ability to communicate ideas across networks of people that enabled us to so successfully solve life’s challenges and to build the modern world. Gaia Vince travels to Yale University to meet the researchers who are studying how we cooperate today and why it can go wrong when we communicate online. Part of the Crossing Divides season. (Photo: Row of children hugging Credit: Kieferpix/Getty Images)
Apr 23, 2018
Bringing Schrodinger's Cat to Life
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Schrodinger's cat is the one that's famously alive and dead. At the same time. Impossible! Roland Pease meets the quantum scientists hoping to bring one to life in the laboratory. Not a real cat, to be fair. But large biomolecules, viruses, even bacteria, that can exhibit the quantum duality parodied in the paradox first described by one of the fathers of quantum physics. Because if they succeed, they may learn something about the interface between the quantum world, and the human world we live in. Presenter/Producer: Roland Pease Credit: Harald Ritsch/Science Photo Library
Apr 16, 2018
Barbara McLintock
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Barbara McClintock’s work on the genetics of corn won her a Nobel prize in 1983. Her research on jumping genes challenged the over-simplified picture of chromosomes and DNA that Watson and Crick’s discovery has all too often been used to support. During the half century that she worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory she became something of a living legend, a pioneer in a time when women weren’t expected to take much interest in science. In that story, she made a profound discovery that her male colleagues dismissed for years, leaving her out in the cold until they finally realized that it was true and granted her a belated Nobel Prize. Philip Ball tells the story of Barbara McLintock's life and work, from her early preference for sports, for solitude, and for intellectual life, that disturbed her parents, to her meticulous research on corn. In conversation with her recent biographer, Dr Nathaniel Comfort of Johns Hopkins University, he explores the facts and the fictions that grew up around her. Philip Ball talks about the legacy of her discovery of jumping genes with Professor Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Institute at Cambridge University, who spent 25 years working in the McLintock Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor. Picture Corn Cobs, Credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/GettyImages)
Apr 09, 2018
D'Arcy Thompson
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One hundred years ago D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published On Growth and Form, a book with a mission to put maths into biology. He showed how the shapes, forms and growth processes we see in the living world aren’t some arbitrary result of evolution’s blind searching, but are dictated by mathematical rules. A flower, a honeycomb, a dragonfly’s wing: it’s not sheer chance that these look the way they do. But can these processes be explained by physics? D'Arcy Thompson loved nature’s shapes and influenced a whole new field of systems biology, architects, designers and artists, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Presented by Phillip Ball. Picture: Corn shell, Getty Images
Apr 02, 2018
The Far Future
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How do we prepare for the distant future? Helen Keen meets the people who try to. If our tech society continues then we can leave data for future generations in huge, mundane quantities, detailing our every tweet and Facebook 'like'. But how long could this information be stored? And if society as we know it ends, will our achievements vanish with it? How do we plan for and protect those who will be our distant descendants and yet may have hopes, fears, languages, beliefs, even religions that we simply cannot predict? What if anything can we, should we, pass on? Picture: Filing cabinets, Credit: fotofrog
Mar 26, 2018
Why We Cut Men
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Male circumcision is one of the oldest and most common surgical procedures in human history. Around the world, 1 in 3 men are cut. It’s performed as a religious rite in Islam and Judaism; in other cultures it’s part of initiation, a social norm or marker of identity. Some individuals think it’s cleaner, sexier or safer. In this documentary, anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota explores the reasons we cut men. She meets people who passionately promote the practice – and others who protest against it. Across sub-Saharan Africa, medical circumcision is endorsed in the fight against HIV – research shows it reduces the risk of a man getting infected if he has sex with an HIV-positive woman. More than 10 million men and boys have been circumcised so far; officials plan to reach another 25 million by 2020. In rural Uganda, Mary-Ann visits a mobile clinic to watch 21-year-old Wajuli undergo the operation. She meets another young man in Kampala who reveals his regret about getting cut. The United States is the only western country where most boys are circumcised for non-religious reasons – $270 million a year is spent on infant circumcision. In downtown New York, Mary-Ann meets ‘Intact-ivists’ who believe male circumcision is genital mutilation. She speaks to members of the public confronted with the protest, and interviews a leading US paediatrician who reflects on the reasons US doctors keep cutting. With contributions from Uganda’s national VMMC coordinator Dr Barbara Nanteza, Dr Marc Cendron (Boston Children’s Hospital) and Georganne Chapin, Intact America. Picture: Intactivist van in Union Square, New York, Credit: Nick Minter
Mar 19, 2018
Iodine
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The phrase 'essential 'element' is often incorrectly used to describe the nutrients we need, but can aptly be applied to iodine - without it we would suffer severe developmental problems. Iodine is a key component of thyroid hormones, responsible for the regulation of our metabolism. And yet most of us have no idea how much we need, nor where it comes from. In her research, Margaret Rayman, Professor of Nutritional Medicine at Surrey University, has found pregnant women in particular are at risk of iodine deficiency - and there's a lack of iodine in what many consider healthy diets. As well as looking at contemporary issues with iodine, Margaret explores the legacy of past iodine deficiency - the word cretin, was coined to describe someone living in the Alps with such a condition. We learn why you might find iodine in British milk - but not necessarily elsewhere in the world, and we discuss the consequences of exposure to radioactive iodine isotopes - both good and bad. Picture: Pregnant woman with milk, Credit: Arief-Juwono/Getty Images
Mar 12, 2018
Phosphorus
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What links trade unions with urine, Syria with semiconductors, and bones and bombs? The answer is phosphorus, UCL Inorganic Chemistry Professor Andrea Sella, who is himself engaged in researching new phosphorus based materials, looks at this often rather frightening element. We hear how the health impact of phosphorus on a group of Irish girls changed politics, how the element has been used as a weapon of war and we peer into the future, as chemists break new ground on what might be possible with phosphorus and nanotechnology. Photo: BBC Copyright
Mar 05, 2018
Lead
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From the plumbing of ancient Rome, to lead acid batteries, paint, petrol and a dangerous legacy, the metal lead has seen a myriad of uses and abuses over thousands of years. In bullets, and poisons it has killed us both quickly and slowly, and yet its malleability, low melting point and resistance to corrosion make it a fantastic material for all kinds of containers and water proofing. And it is key to one of the most commonly used, and ignored, devices on the planet, the car battery. However it's only recently that the serious impact of lead poisoning on the development of children's brains has come to light. Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London, who studied the impact of lead poisoning in the 1970s and 80s, journeys with lead from the iron age to the present day delving into the history and scandal associated with this often overlooked element. Photo: BBC Copyright
Feb 26, 2018
The Power of Sloth
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Zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, Lucy Cooke, unleashes her inner sloth to discover why being lazy could actually be the ultimate evolutionary strategy. The explorers of the New World described sloths as ‘the lowest form of existence’, but sloths are actually some of the most enduring of all tropical mammals. They make up one third of the mammalian biomass in rainforests and have survived some 64 million years - outliving far flashier animals like sabre tooth tigers. The secret to the sloth’s success is their slothful nature and their suite of energy-saving adaptations. In fact slothfulness is such a successful strategy, that there are examples all over the animal kingdom, including, surprisingly, worker ants. Recent studies in humans have shown the many health benefits of adopting a slower pace of life. Sleep itself is universal amongst the animal kingdom. All animals do it, but why remains a mystery. What is clear though, is that unleashing your inner couch potato is no bad thing, be you sloth or human. Lucy discovers the genius behind the sloths laid back attitude and fights the corner for laziness. Producer: Alexandra Feachem Picture: A young two-toed sloth sits in a bucket, September 2017. Credit: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert / AFP / Getty Images
Feb 19, 2018
Pain of Torture
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Does knowing that someone is inflicting pain on you deliberately make the pain worse? Professor Irene Tracey meets survivors of torture and examines the dark side of pain. Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald (Photo: A woman mourns during the funeral procession of Abdulrassul Hujairi. Credit: Joseph Eid/AFP)
Feb 12, 2018
Controlling Pain
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What if your brain could naturally control pain? Professor Irene Tracey and her colleagues are trying to unlock the natural mechanisms in the brain that limit the amount of pain we feel. We hear about how children learning judo are taught special techniques and from ex-marine Chris Shirley who ran a marathon carrying a 45kg rucksack and could ignore the pain of the blisters and torn shoulder muscles. One study found that religious people feel less pain than agnostics by looking at a picture of the Virgin Mary. Neuroscientists and psychologists are beginning to understand how this is possible, how the brain can block out pain in the right circumstances, so is this something we could all benefit from? Picture: The statue of the Virgin Mary, Credit: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images Producer Geraldine Fitzgerald
Feb 05, 2018
Knowing Pain
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Scientists reveal why we feel pain and the consequences of life without pain. One way to understand the experience of pain is to look at unusual situations which give clues to our everyday agony. Phantom limb pain was described in ancient times but only after WWI did it gain acceptance in modern medicine. For those living with it, it can be a painful reminder of a lost limb. New studies are now unravelling why the brain generates this often unpleasant experience and how the messages can be used positively. Its only since the 1980s that doctors agreed that babies are able to feel pain but we still don’t know how the developing brain processes information and how premature babies can be protected from the many invasive tests they have to go through. New research aims to provide appropriate pain relief that could have long term consequences. Picture: Nerve cells, computer artwork, Credit: Science Photo Library
Jan 29, 2018
Seeing Pain
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Mystery still surrounds the experience of pain. It is highly subjective but why do some people feel more pain than others and why does the brain appear to switch off under anaesthesia so we are unaware of the surgeon’s scalpel? Professor Irene Tracey uses brain scanners to ask if we can actually see pain in the brain. On air we hear for the first time the results of the latest research into diabetes and nerve pain. Promising new techniques means scientists are able to see regions in the brain which effectively turn up the pain in some people and not others. Anaesthetics prevent pain during surgery but how the brain disengages is only just beginning to be understood, which could in the future lead to personalised doses of anaesthetics leading to faster recovery times. Picture: Graphic of neurons firing in the of the neural network within the Brain, Credit: Science Photo Library
Jan 22, 2018
Humphry Davy
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In Bristol in 1799, a young man started to experiment with newly discovered gases, looking for a cure for tuberculosis. Humphry Davy, aged 20, nearly killed himself inhaling carbon monoxide. Nitrous oxide was next. It was highly pleasurable, ‘particularly in the chest and extremities’ and he began to dance around his laboratory ‘like a madman’, before passing out. By day, he gave the gas to patients, carefully noting their reactions. In the evenings, he invited his friends over to have a laugh (with assistants on standby to revive them with oxygen, as needed). The Romantic poets, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge could barely contain their excitement. During one session, Davy noted that the gas numbed his toothache and suggested that it could perhaps be used during surgical operations. But it was another fifty years before nitrous oxide was used by doctors. Throughout the 20th century, it was widely used during dentistry and to numb the pain of childbirth. (Nitrous oxide is the gas in ‘gas and air’: the ‘air’ is oxygen) .And it still is today, but less so. (It’s a potent greenhouse gas that damages the ozone layer, it’s difficult to store and there are side-effects). But, just as medical use is diminishing, recreational use is on the rise. A new generation of pleasure seekers have started experimenting, just as Davy did, despite the associated risks of injuries caused by fainting and death by suffocation. Naomi Alderman tells how a gas that created ‘ecstatic lunatics’ came to be used as an anaesthetic, with help from biographer, Richard Holmes and anaesthetist, Kevin Fong. Picture: Humphry Davy and Anaesthesia, Credit: Science Photo Library
Jan 15, 2018
Lise Meitner
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Philip Ball reveals the dramatic tale of Lise Meitner, the humanitarian physicist of Jewish descent, who unlocked the science of the atom bomb after a terrifying escape from Hitler's Germany. One of the most brilliant nuclear scientists working in Germany her flight from terror cost Hitler’s regime dearly. In the early 20th Century it was barely possible for women to work in science at all and yet Einstein once called Meitner Germany’s own Marie Curie. It was Meitner’s insight that began the nuclear age and her story remains ever relevant, as the threat of nuclear conflict lies once again over the world. Philip Ball talks to historian Dr Patricia Fara about Lise Meitner and her research and to Patricia Lewis of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN, based in Geneva, which this year was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for its work in trying to reverse nuclear proliferation, about Meitner’s legacy today. Picture: Lise Meitner, Credit: Central Press/Getty Images
Jan 09, 2018
The Day the Earth Moved
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Roland Pease tells the story of how fifty years ago geologists finally became convinced that the earth’s crust is made up of shifting plates. The idea of mobile continents, continental drift, had been talked about, for example because it looked like Africa and South America had once been joined, and were now separated by the Atlantic. But given the solidity of rocks and the vastness of continents, that idea made no sense. Until plate tectonics, as it became known, gave it a scientific basis and rebuilt it into a mechanism that explained earthquakes, mountain belts, chains of volcanic islands and many other geological phenomena. Roland Pease talks to many of the key researchers in the story, now in their 70s and 80s, and finds out how their work transformed our understanding of the earth. Picture: Tectonic plates of planet earth - map with names of major and minor plates, Credit: PeterHermesFurian Presenter: Roland Pease
Jan 01, 2018
Maria Merian
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Maria Merian was born in 1647. At the time of her birth, Shakespeare had been dead for 30 years; Galileo had only just stood trial for arguing that the Earth moved around the Sun. And yet, here in Germany, was a child who would become an important but oft-forgotten figure of science. Aged 13, she mapped out metamorphosis, catching caterpillars from her garden and painting them in exquisite detail. At that point, most believed that caterpillars spontaneously generated from cabbages and maggots materialised from rotten meat. She later voyaged to Suriname in South America to pursue pupae further, discovering not just new species but also the conditions needed for their survival. Some call her the first field ecologist; others admire her for her eloquent brushwork. However, her studies will help today’s biologists plot which insects lived where. These data are invaluable because this could help scientists predict what species will survive climate change. Naomi Alderman discusses the life and legacy of Maria Merian with biologist and historian Kay Etheridge from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania and biologist Kathy Willis from Kew Gardens. Picture: Belly-ache bush (Jatropha gossypifolia) with metamorphosis of a giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus), created by Maria Sibylla Merian and Joseph Mulder, Credit: GRI Digital Collections Producer: Graihagh Jackson
Dec 25, 2017
Alcuin of York
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The Dark Ages are often painted as an era of scholarly decline. The Western Roman Empire was on its way out, books were few and far between, and, if you believe the stereotype, mud-splattered peasants ran around in rags. However, it was far more intellectually vibrant than you might imagine. Out of this era emerged a set of ‘problems to sharpen the young,’ including the famous river crossing puzzle that’s still taught in maths today. The presumed author of these riddles is Alcuin of York – ‘the most learned man in the world.’ And it was this monk and his puzzles that laid the foundations for a branch of mathematics called combinatorics – the thinking behind today’s computer coding and cryptography. Philip Ball speaks to historian Mary Garrison from the University of York to learn of Alcuin's character and how he encouraged his students to learn for the sake of learning, as opposed to salvation. And University College London mathematician Hannah Fry shows Philip just how much of a role combinatorics plays in today’s world. Picture: White horned goat chewing a cabbage leaf, Credit: Oxana Medvedeva Producer: Graihagh Jackson
Dec 18, 2017
Cheating the Atmosphere
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All countries are supposed to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions but BBC environment correspondent, Matt McGrath, reveals there are gaping holes in national inventories. He uncovers serious failings in countries’ accounts of warming gases with many not reporting at all. There are disturbing signs that some banned warming chemicals, which are supposed to have been phased out completely, are once again on the rise. And evidence that worthless carbon credits are still being traded. Meanwhile scientists are growing increasingly frustrated by the refusal of countries to gather and share accurate data in the face of this planetary emergency (Photo: The Jungfraujoch Air Monitoring Station in Switzerland. Credit: Jungfraujoch)
Dec 11, 2017
Better Brains
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Every three seconds someone is diagnosed with dementia, and two thirds of the cases are Alzheimer’s Disease. As the global population ages, this is becoming an epidemic, and with no cures currently available for the collection of neurodegenerative conditions that include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Motor Neurone Disease the public and personal cost is escalating. Sue Broom reports on new efforts to find ways to stop the progress of these diseases for the first time, and to bring treatment for neurodegenerative conditions in line with those of cancer and heart disease. Picture: Human head, Credit: Science Photo Library Presenter: Sue Broom
Dec 04, 2017
What would happen if you fell into a black hole?
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Two deadly cases today sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk The Dark Star "What's inside a black hole and could we fly a spaceship inside?" asks Jorge Luis Alvarez from Mexico City. Astrophysicist Sheila Rowan explains how we know invisible black holes actually exist. Plus cosmologist Andrew Pontzen is on hand to help cook one up. But which of our intrepid doctors will volunteer to fly into the heart of a black hole? Kate Bush’s Sonic Weapon "It started while listening to the excellent Experiment IV by Kate Bush. The premise of the song is of a band who secretly work for the military to create a 'sound that could kill someone'. Is it scientifically possible to do this?" asks Paul Goodfield. Hannah consults acoustic engineer Trevor Cox to ask if sonic weapons could kill. And Adam delves into subsonic frequencies with parapsychologist Chris French to investigate their spooky effects. Plus the team investigates the Curious Case of the Embassy in Cuba – could a sonic weapon really be responsible for the wide-ranging symptoms reported by American diplomats in Havana? You can send your scientific mysteries for the team to investigate to: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Picture: A computer-generated image of a rich star field with a Black Hole in front of it which distorts starlight into a brilliant ring around itself, Credit: BBC Producer: Michelle Martin
Nov 21, 2017
What will happen when the Earth’s poles swap?
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The Polar Opposite No one knows why the Earth's magnetic North and South poles swap. But polar reversals have happened hundreds of times over the history of the Earth. John Turk emailed curiouscases@bbc.co.uk to ask, “when is the next pole swap due and what will happen to us?” Featuring Prof Lucie Green from Mullard Space Science Laboratory and Dr Phil Livermore from the University of Leeds. Plus, astronaut Terry Virts, author of The View from Above, describes his experiences of a strange magnetic glitch in the earth's magnetic field, known as The Bermuda Triangle of Space. The World That Turns "Why does the Earth spin?" asks Joe Wills from Accra in Ghana. Hannah quizzes cosmologist Andrew Pontzen about the birth of the Solar System. BBC weatherman John Hammond describes the curious things that would happen if the Earth spun the opposite way. Send your questions to: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Picture: The Earth reflecting light from the sun whilst aboard the International Space Station, Credit: Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images Producer: Michelle Martin
Nov 20, 2017
Why can’t we remember being a baby?
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The Astronomical Balloon "How far up can a helium balloon go? Could it go out to space?" asks Juliet Gok, aged 9. This calls for an experiment! Dr Keri Nicholl helps Adam launch a party balloon and track its ascent. But their test doesn't quite go to plan. Meanwhile, Hannah discovers where space begins by asking Public Astronomer Dr Marek Kukula, from the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Send your Curious Cases to the team: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk The Forgetful Child "Why don't we remember the first few years of our lives?" asks David Foulger from Cheltenham. The team investigate the phenomenon of 'infant amnesia' with Catherine Loveday from the University of Westminster. 40% of us claim to remember being under two years old and 18% recall being babies. But can we really trust these early memories? Martin Conway from City University thinks not. Picture: A baby contemplates the sole of its foot, circa 1950, Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Producer: Michelle Martin.
Nov 13, 2017
Why can’t we remember being a baby?
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The Astronomical Balloon "How far up can a helium balloon go? Could it go out to space?" asks Juliet Gok, aged 9. This calls for an experiment! Dr Keri Nicholl helps Adam launch a party balloon and track its ascent. But their test doesn't quite go to plan. Meanwhile, Hannah discovers where space begins by asking Public Astronomer Dr Marek Kukula, from the Royal Observatory Greenwich. Send your Curious Cases to the team: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk The Forgetful Child "Why don't we remember the first few years of our lives?" asks David Foulger from Cheltenham. The team investigate the phenomenon of 'infant amnesia' with Catherine Loveday from the University of Westminster. 40% of us claim to remember being under two years old and 18% recall being babies. But can we really trust these early memories? Martin Conway from City University thinks not. Picture: Baby Foot, Credit H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Hulton Archive/Getty Images Producer: Michelle Martin.
Nov 13, 2017
How do cats find their way home?
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“How on earth do cats find their way back to their previous home when they move house?" asks Vicky Cole from Nairobi in Kenya. Our enduring love for our feline friends began when Egyptian pharaohs began to welcome domesticated moggies into their homes. Pictured reclining in baskets at the feet of royalty, pet cats soon became fashionable throughout society in Egypt. Today they are the most popular pet in the world, and home is definitely where their hearts lie. "Whereas dogs are bonded to people, cats are bonded to place," explains zoologist Dr John Bradshaw. "It's very typical for them to try and find their way back to their old house when you move." But how do they do it? And if their navigational skills are so good, why do they get lost? Prof Matthew Cobb reveals the super-senses that cats possess, and how to spot when your pet is deploying them. Itchy and Scratchy "What is an itch and how does scratching stop it? Why does scratching some itches feel so good?!" asks Xander Tarver from West Sussex in England. Our doctors set off to probe the mysteries of itch, and discover that this overlooked area of medicine is revealing surprising results about the human brain. From why itching is contagious to why scratching is pleasurable, we get under the skin of this medical mystery. The programme features interviews with neuroscientist Prof Francis McGlone from Liverpool John Moores University and dermatologist Dr Brian Kim from the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University. Yes, that is a real place. If you have any Curious Cases for the team to solve please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin (Photo: Cat, Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Nov 06, 2017
How much of my body is bacteria?
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Science sleuths Drs Rutherford & Fry take on everyday mysteries and solve them with the power of science. Two cases in this episode concerning the inner workings of our bodies, and not for the faint hearted! The Broken Stool "Science tells us that our body houses microbial organisms. Then how much our weight is really our weight? If I am overweight, is it because of my own body cells or excess microflora?" asks Ajay Mathur from Mumbai in India. Adam bravely sends off a personal sample to the 'Map My Gut' project at St Thomas' Hospital to have his microbes mapped. Prof Tim Spector reveals the shocking results - a diet of fried breakfasts and fizzy drinks has left his guts in disarray. But help is at hand to makeover his bacterial lodgers. Science writer Ed Yong, author of 'I Contain Multitudes', reveals how much our microbes weigh. We're just beginning to discover the vast array of vital functions they perform, from controlling our weight, immune system and perhaps even influencing our mood and behaviour. A Code in Blood "Why do we have different blood types?" asks Doug from Norfolk in the UK. The average adult human has around 30 trillion red blood cells, they make up a quarter of the total number of cells in the body. We have dozens of different blood groups, but normally we're tested for just two - ABO and Rhesus factor. Adam and Hannah delve into the gory world of blood and the early history of blood transfusions, to discover why we have blood groups and how they differ around the world. Featuring interviews with Dr Jo Mountford, from the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service and immunologist Dr Sheena Cruikshank from the University of Manchester. If you have any Curious Cases for the team to solve please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin Image: Illustration of red blood cells in a blood vessel. Copyright: Science Photo Library
Oct 30, 2017
Sydney Brenner: A Revolutionary Biologist
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Sydney Brenner was one of the 20th Century’s greatest biologists. Born 90 years ago in South Africa to impoverished immigrant parents, Dr Brenner became a leading figure in the biological revolution that followed the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson, using data from Rosalind Franklin, in the 1950s. Brenner’s insights and inventive experiments laid foundation stones for new science of molecular biology and the genetic age in which we live today, from the Human Genome Project to gene editing. Sydney Brenner talks to biologist and historian Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester about this thrilling period in biological science, and Dr Brenner’s 20 year-long collaboration with DNA pioneer Francis Crick: a friendship which generated some of their most creative research. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Picture: Sydney Brenner, Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Lab Archive
Oct 23, 2017
SOS Snail
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This is a big story about a little snail. Biologist Helen Scales relates an epic tale that spans the globe and involves calamity, tragedy, extinction and we hope, salvation. It stars the tiny tree-dwelling mollusc from French Polynesia, Partula, a snail that has captivated scientists for centuries. Like Charles Darwin studied finches on the Galapagos, Partula became an icon of evolution because, in the living laboratories of the Pacific islands, it had evolved into multiple species. But a calamity drove Partula to extinction, when a botched biological control, the predatory Rosy Wolf Snail, was introduced. It was supposed to eat another problem mollusc, but in a cruel twist, devoured tiny Partula instead. An international rescue mission was scrambled to save a species and from just one or two rescued individuals, populations of this snail species have been built up over thirty years in captive breeding programmes in zoos around the world. And now, in the nailbiting sequel, we track Partula’s journey home. Picture: Reintroduced Partula dispersing on Moorea in French Polynesia, Credit: ZSL Presenter: Helen Scales Producer: Fiona Hill
Oct 16, 2017
Indian Science – The Colonial Legacy
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For more than 200 years Britain ruled India, bringing many aspects of British culture to India - including European science developed during the enlightenment. However centuries earlier India had already pioneered work in astronomy, mathematics and engineering. How was India’s scientific progress affected by colonialism? Did British rule hold the country back, or did it drive it forward? Presented by Angela Saini. Picture: The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) communication satellite GSAT-19, carried onboard the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-mark III ), launches at Sriharikota on June 5, 2017, Credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images
Oct 09, 2017
India's Ancient Science
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We go behind the scenes of a new exhibition on India at London’s Science Museum. What can historical objects tell us about India’s rich, and often hidden scientific past? We look at the influential mathematics, metallurgy and civil engineering of ancient India. The exhibition also contain artefacts from India’s time under the British Empire. We ask how the many years of colonial rule shaped the more recent scientific development of India. Science journalist Angela Saini presents. Image: Bakhshali manuscript, Credit: Bodleian Library
Oct 02, 2017
Africa’s Great Green Wall
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Can Africa’s Great Green Wall beat back the Sahara desert and reverse the degrading landscape? The ambitious 9 miles wide and 5000 miles long line of vegetation will stretch all the way from Dakar in the west to Djibouti in the east. Thomas Fessy is in Senegal where the wall has already begun to evolve into a series of forests and garden communities. He meets the planners, planters, ecologists and local villagers to hear how its early progress is reversing years of poor land use, turning nomads back to farmers, empowering women and creating healthy ecosystems for rain fed agriculture. But can it meet its ambition to stabilize an unstable region, reverse the growing trend of migration, fight the effects of climate change and ensure this big African dream doesn’t die in the sand? Picture: The Great Green Wall, credit: BBC Producer Adrian Washbourne
Sep 25, 2017
Internet of Things
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Can we Control the Dark Side of the Internet? The Internet is the world's most widely used communications tool. It’s a fast and efficient way of delivering information. However it is also quite dumb, neutral, treating equally all the data it passes around the world. From data that forms scientific research papers, the wealth of social media to keep us all connected with friends and relatives, entertainment or material we would rather not see- from political propaganda to horrific violence, the Internet makes no distinction. Is it time to change that? And can we? In this programme Aleks Krotoski looks at whether it’s possible to use technological fixes to regulate the internet or whether a more political approach is needed to governance of this vital but flawed communications medium. Picture: Human Hand Using Application on Mobile Phone, Credit: Onfokus
Sep 18, 2017
Dark Side of the World Wide Web
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With the coming of the World Wide Web in the 1990s internet access opened up to everybody, it was no longer the preserve of academics and computer hobbyists. Already prior to the Web, the burgeoning internet user groups and chat rooms had tested what was acceptable behaviour online, but access was still limited. Aleks Krotoski asks whether the Web through enabling much wider use of the internet is the villain of the piece in facilitating not just entertainment and commerce, but all aspects of the darker side, from malicious computer hacking attacks, worms and viruses, to new channels for criminality, online extortion and identity theft. (Photo: Internet sign. Credit: code6d)
Sep 11, 2017
The Origin of the Internet
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Just how did the Internet become the most powerful communications medium on the planet, and why does it seem to be an uncontrollable medium for good and bad? With no cross border regulation the internet can act as an incredible force for connecting people and supporting human rights and yet at the same time convey the most offensive material imaginable. It has become the most useful research tool on earth but also the most effective way of delivering threats to the security of governments, the health service and on a personal level our own identities. In this series Aleks Krotoski unravels the complexity of the internet, meeting the people who really invented it, looking behind the myths and cultural constructs to explain what it actually is and how it came to exist outside of conventional regulation. We’ll ask whether the nature of the net itself really is cause for concern - and if so what can be done to reign in the negatives of the internet without restricting the positives? In this first episode we go back to the days before the internet to look at the cultural and technological landscape from which it grew, and unravel some of the key moments - now lost in time and obscured by technology folklore, which mark when the internet lost its innocence. Picture: Mechanical computer keyboard blurred, credit: OSchaumann/Getty
Sep 04, 2017
Silicon - The World's Building Block
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Silicon is literally everywhere in both the natural and built environment, from the dominance of silicate rocks in the earth crust, to ubiquitous sand in building materials and as the basis for glass. We've also harnessed silicon's properties as a semiconductor to build the modern electronics industry - without silicon personal computers and smartphones would simply not exist. Silicon is also found widely across the universe. It is formed in stars, particularly when they explode. And the similarities between how silicon and carbon form chemical bonds has led many to wonder whether there could be silicon based life elsewhere - perhaps in some far flung part of the galaxy where carbon is not as abundant as here on earth. As well as discussing the potential for silicon based life on other planets, Birkbeck University astrobiologist Dr Louisa Preston considers the varied uses of silicon here on earth, from its dominance in our built environment to its driving role in artificial intelligence and its ability to harness the sun's energy. Image: Lump of silicon on solar panels Credit: wloven/Getty Images
Aug 28, 2017
The Day the Sun Went Dark
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For the first time in almost 100 years the USA is experiencing a full solar eclipse from coast to coast on August 21st 2017. Main image: Totality during the solar eclipse at Palm Cove on November 14, 2012 in Palm Cove, Australia. Credit: Ian Hitchcock / Getty Images
Aug 21, 2017
Carbon - the backbone of life
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Carbon is widely considered to be the key element in forming life. It's at the centre of DNA, and the molecules upon which all living things rely. Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary Science at the Open University, explores the nature of carbon, from its formation in distant stars to its uses and abuses here on earth. She looks at why it forms the scaffold upon which living organisms are built, and how the mechanisms involved have helped inform the development of new carbon based technology, and products - from telephones to tennis rackets. One form of carbon is graphene which offers great promise in improving solar cells and batteries, and introducing a whole new range of cheaper more flexible electronics. Carbon is also the key component of greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane. To counter some of the effects of man-made climate change, Scientists are now developing novel ways to speed up this mechanism - using waste materials created from mining and industry. Monica Grady also looks to space, and the significance of carbon in the far reaches of the universe. There is lots of carbon in space, some in forms we might recognise as the precursors to molecules. As elemental carbon seems to be everywhere what are the chances of carbon based life elsewhere? Image: Steam and exhaust rise from the chemical company Oxea (front) and the coking plant January 6, 2017 in Oberhausen, Germany. Photo by Lukas Schulze Getty Images
Aug 14, 2017
And then there was Li
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From the origins of the universe, though batteries, glass and grease to influencing the working of our brains, neuroscientist Sophie Scott tracks the incredible power of lithium. It's 200 years ago this year that lithium was first isolated and named, but this, the lightest of all metals, had been used as a drug for centuries before. From the industrial revolution it proves its worth as a key ingredient in glass and grease, and as the major component in lithium ion batteries it powers every smartphone on the planet. In mental health lithium has proved one of the most effective treatments. And its use to treat physical ailments is now making a comeback. We explore how the chemistry of lithium links all these apparently unrelated uses together. Main Image: Lights from mobile phones in Bucharest on February, 2017. Credit: ANDREI PUNGOVSCHI / AFP / Getty Images )
Aug 07, 2017
Oxygen: The breath of Life
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Oxygen appeared on Earth over two billion years ago and life took off. Now it makes up just over a fifth of the air. Trevor Cox, professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford, England, tells the story of oxygen on Earth and in space. Without oxygen, there would be no life on Earth, yet it was not discovered until late in the 18th Century. During the Great Oxidation Event, three billion years ago, cyanobacteria, thought to be the earliest forms of life on our planet, started to photosynthesise and these tiny creatures were responsible for putting the oxygen into our atmosphere, so we can breathe today. But it is not just for breathing. Ozone is three atoms of oxygen, and when it is in the stratosphere it stops harmful UVB rays from the sun reaching us. And if we are ever to leave our home planet, we will need to find a way to generate enough oxygen to keep us alive. Trevor visits the Science Museum in London, to discover how astronauts on the space station get their oxygen. Trevor Cox is not only an acoustic engineer, he also plays the saxophone. When he finds out the role that oxygen, in the air, has on the sound of his playing he gets a surprise. (Photo: Hovering clouds near Nagqu, approx 4,500 meters above sea level, north of Lhasa on the Tibetan plateau. Credit: Frederic J Brown/ AFP/Getty Images)
Aug 01, 2017
Mercury - Chemistry's Jekyll and Hyde
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The most beautiful and shimmering of the elements, the weirdest, and yet the most reviled. Chemist Andrea Sella tell the story of Mercury, explaining the significance of this element not just for chemistry, but also the development of modern civilisation. It's been a a source of wonder for thousands of years - why is this metal a liquid? and what is its contribution to art, from the Stone Age to the Renaissance? We look at how Mercury is integral to hundreds of years of scientific discoveries, from weather forecasting to steam engines and the detection of atomic particles it has a key role. However Mercury is highly toxic in certain forms and ironically the industrial processes it helped create have led to global pollution which now threatens fish, wildlife and ourselves. We ask is it time to say goodbye to Mercury? Picture: Hg, mercury metal drops, credit: AlexeyVS/Getty Images
Jul 24, 2017
Eating Well in Lyon: Healthy Diets to prevent Bowel Cancer
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Anu Anand is in Lyon, looking at what we eat and drink and the risk of bowel cancer
Jul 17, 2017
Catching Prostate Cancer Early in Trinidad
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Anu Anand on detecting and treating prostate cancer in Trinidad and Tobago.
Jul 10, 2017
The USA’s Deadly Racial Divide: Black Women & Breast Cancer
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Anu Anand explores why more black women are more likely to die of breast cancer in the US
Jul 03, 2017
Screening and Treating Cervical Cancer in Tanzania
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Anu Anand on how vinegar and a head torch are used to tackle cervical cancer in Tanzania
Jun 26, 2017
Taking On Tobacco - Lung Cancer in Uruguay
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For more than 65 years we have known that smoking kills. So how can it be that a Mexican wave of tobacco use, disease and death is heading at breakneck speed towards the world’s poorest people? Millions will die of lung cancer and it is hard to grasp that this is a largely preventable disease. Uruguay in South America could hold the key to breaking this wave. Under a President who is a cancer specialist they introduced some of the most radical tobacco control policies in the world and attracted the wrath of corporate tobacco giant, Philip Morris, in the process. Anu Anand reports on Uruguay’s crusade to save its citizens. Image: Roberto, life long smoker who has lung cancer Credit: Anu Anand
Jun 21, 2017
Dying in Comfort in Mongolia
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The Mongolian matriarch who is helping people with terminal liver cancer die in comfort
Jun 16, 2017
Can Robots be Truly Intelligent?
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From Skynet and the Terminator franchise, through Wargames and Ava in Ex Machina, artificial intelligences pervade our cinematic experiences. But AIs are already in the real world, answering our questions on our phones and making diagnoses about our health. Adam Rutherford asks if we are ready for AI, when fiction becomes reality, and we create thinking machines.
Jun 05, 2017
Robots - More Human than Human?
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Robots are becoming present in our lives, as companions, carers and as workers. Adam Rutherford explores our relationship with these machines. Have we made them to be merely more dextrous versions of us? Why do we want to make replicas of ourselves? Should we be worried that they could replace us at work? Is it a good idea that robots are becoming carers for the elderly? Adam Rutherford meets some of the latest robots and their researchers and explores how the current reality has been influenced by fictional robots from films. He discusses the need for robots to be human like with Dr Ben Russell, curator of the current exhibition of robots at the Science Museum in London. In the Bristol Robotics Laboratory Adam meets Pepper, a robot that is being programmed to look after the elderly by Professor Praminda Caleb-Solly. He also interacts with Kaspar, a robot that Professor Kerstin Dautenhahn at the University of Hertfordshire has developed to help children with autism learn how to communicate better. Cultural commentator Matthew Sweet considers the role of robots in films from Robbie in Forbidden Planet to the replicants in Blade Runner. Dr Kate Devlin of Goldsmiths, University of London, talks about sex robots, in the past and now. And Alan Winfield, Professor of Robot Ethics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, looks ahead to a future when robots may be taking jobs from us. Image; BBC ©
May 29, 2017
History of the Rise of the Robots
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The idea of robots goes back to the Ancient Greeks. In myths Hephaestus, the god of fire, created robots to assist in his workshop. In the medieval period the wealthy showed off their automata. In France in the 15th century a Duke of Burgundy had his chateau filled with automata that played practical tricks on his guests, such as spraying water at them. By the 18th century craftsmen were making life like performing robots. In 1738 in Paris people queued to see the amazing flute playing automaton, designed and built by Jacques Vaucanson. With the industrial revolution the idea of automata became intertwined with that of human workers. The word robot first appears in a 1921 play, Rossum's Universal Robots, by Czech author Carel Chapek. Drawing on examples from fact and fiction, Adam Rutherford explores the role of robots in past societies and discovers they were nearly always made in our image, and inspired both fear and wonder in their audiences. He talks to Dr Elly Truitt of Bryn Mawr College in the US about ancient and medieval robots, to Simon Shaffer, Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University and to Dr Andrew Nahum of the Science Museum about !8th century automata, and to Dr Ben Russell of the Science Museum about robots and workers in the 20th century. And Matthew Sweet provides the cultural context. Picture credit: BBC
May 22, 2017
Quantum Supremacy
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IBM is giving users worldwide the chance to use a quantum computer; Google is promising "quantum supremacy" by the end of the year; Microsoft's Station Q is working on the hardware and operating system for a machine that will outpace any conventional computer. Roland Pease meets some of the experts, and explores the technology behind the next information revolution. Picture: Bright future for Quantum Computing, credit: Jonathan Home @ETH
May 15, 2017
Re-engineering Life
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Synthetic biology, coming to a street near you. Engineers and biologists who hack the information circuits of living cells are already getting products to the market. Roland Pease meets the experts who are transforming living systems to transform our lives. Picture: MIT spinout Synlogic is re-programming bacteria found in the gut as "living therapeutics" to treat major diseases and rare genetic disorders, courtesy of Synlogic
May 08, 2017
Hunting for Life on Mars
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As a small rocky planet, Mars is similar in many respects to the Earth and for that reason, many have thought it may harbour some kind of life. A hundred years ago, there was serious talk about the possibility of advanced civilisations there. Even in early 1970s, scientists mused that plant-like aliens might grow in the Martian soil. The best hope now is for something microbial. But the discovery that even simple life survives there or did some time in its history would be a profound one. We would know that life is not something special to Earth. NASA’s Curiosity rover has discovered that 3.7 billion years ago, there were conditions hospitable to life on Mars – a sustained period of time with lakes and rivers of water. The earlier rover Spirit found deposits of silica from ancient hot springs which some planetary scientists argue bear the hallmarks of being shaped by microbes - possibly. The next five years may dramatically advance the hunt for life on Mars. In 2020 the European and Russian space agencies will send their ExoMars rover. That will drill two metres into the Red Planet’s surface and sample material shielded from the sterilising radiation. It will analyse for life both extant and extinct. In the future, robotic or possibly human missions may even explore Martian cave systems in Mars' vast volcanoes. Monica talks to Nasa's Penny Boston whose adventures in some of the world's most dangerous caves have convinced her that underground is the best place to look. Monica Grady is Professor of Planetary and Space Science at the Open University. Credit: Curiosity in Gale Crater, credit NASA-JPL Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
May 01, 2017
Lifechangers: Charles Bolden
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In Lifechangers, Kevin Fong talks to people about their lives in science. Major General Charles Bolden – a former NASA administrator – talks to Kevin Fong about his extraordinary life, from childhood in racially segregated South Carolina to the first African American to command a space shuttle. He had originally hoped to join the Navy, but was unable to as an African American. Although Charles refused to take no for an answer and after much petitioning he was accepted. From there he reached for the stars. Image: Charlie Bolden, © Alex Wong/Getty Images
Apr 24, 2017
Lifechangers: Neil deGrasse Tyson
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In Lifechangers, Kevin Fong talks to people about their lives in science. Astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, Neil deGrasse Tyson is well known in the US since he presented the TV series Cosmos: a spacetime odyssey. He talks to Kevin Fong about growing up in Brooklyn, becoming obsessed with the night sky and how he became a broadcaster and writer. Image: Neil deGrasse Tyson, © Cindy Ord/Getty Images for FOX
Apr 17, 2017
Lifechangers: George Takei
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In the start of a new series of Lifechangers, Kevin Fong talks to three people about their lives in science. His first conversation is with a man better known for his life in science fiction, George Takei, the Japanese American actor who played Sulu in the TV series, Star Trek. They discuss the voyages of the Starship Enterprise and the ideas of other worlds featured in Star Trek. He talks about his own epic life journey – how his family was imprisoned when the US joined the Second World War and his campaigning against social injustice. Photo: George Takei making the Live Long and Prosper symbol, © Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images
Apr 10, 2017
The Bee All and End All
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Bees pollinate and can detect bombs and compose music. What would we do without them? The world owes a debt of gratitude to this hard working but under-appreciated insect. One third of the food we eat would not be available without bees, meaning our lives would be unimaginably different without them. Bee populations are dropping by up to 80% in some countries and the consequences are potentially catastrophic. The use of neonics pesticides in farming has been one of the main causes in the decline in bee numbers and now the farming world is having to take drastic action to try and reverse the trend. The situation has become so dire in some parts of China that the government set up a scheme in which humans had to pollinate plants by hand. Researchers in America have been so worried about a world without bees that they have started to develop robotic 'insects' to emulate their work. What’s causing the drop in populations and what might save them? Dr George McGavin hears from scientists and researchers in Africa, South America, Europe and Asia about the extraordinary lives and impact of bees, hearing the amazing ways in which they communicate and learn, and how complex and diverse different bee species are.
Apr 06, 2017
Extending Embryo Research
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Since the birth of Louise Brown - the world’s first IVF baby - in England in 1978, many children have been born through in vitro fertilisation. IVF doesn’t work for everyone but over the last few decades basic research into human reproduction has brought about huge improvements. In the UK the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, passed in 1990, made it illegal for research on human embryos to be permitted beyond 14 days. In a dozen other countries, from Canada and Australia to Iceland and South Korea the 14 day limit is enshrined in law and in five others, including China, India and the US, there are guidelines that recommend that limit. Just recently researchers at Cambridge University have kept embryos alive in the lab for 13 days. They and others are calling for the limit to be extended for another one or two weeks, so they can study why early pregnancies fail. Matthew Hill reports on the issues raised by these new developments in embryo research. Image: Light micrograph of fertilized human egg cell © Science Photo Library
Mar 27, 2017
The Split Second Decision
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As the pace of technology moves at ever greater speeds, how vulnerable are we when making split second decisions? Kevin Fong flies with the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service, making split-second, life-or-death decisions. He examines how we can come to terms with the growing challenge of quick and accurate front line decision making. Picture: Presenter, Kevin Fong in air ambulance, Credit: BBC
Mar 20, 2017
Human Hibernation
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Ever wished you could miss an entire cold dark winter like bears or dormice? Kevin Fong explores the possibilities than humans could hibernate. This ability could help us recover from serious injury or make long space flights pass in a flash. The first report on human hibernation in a medical journal was in the BMJ in 1900. It was an account of Russian peasants who, the author claimed, were able to hibernate. Existing in a state approaching "chronic famine", residents of the north-eastern Pskov region would retreat indoors at the first sign of snow, and there gather around the stove and fall into a deep slumber they called "lotska". No-one has ever found these peasants but there is serious research into putting humans into suspended animation, for long distance space travel or for allowing the body to recover from major injury. The greatest clues into how to pull off hibernation comes from the American Black Bear. Dr Kevin Fong, an expert in trauma medicine, talks to Dr Brian Barnes, Director of the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska. He's done the most extensive study of black bears and observed how they slow down their metabolism. Fat-tailed lemurs are the only primates to hibernate. Duke University's Lemur Research Centre has discovered that they breathe just once every 20 minutes at their deepest torpor. These lemurs live longer than other animals of similar size. Could we find a way to use this trick of suspended animation? We could slow down out physiology ,cool down our bodies and hibernate during long space journeys. NASA too is working on how humans can survive trips to other solar systems. Kevin Fong goes to the lab of Professor Robert Henning at the University Medical Centre in Groningen where he's worked out how animals protect their organs when they slow their body metabolism , enter a state of torpor and then return to normal physiology. Rob Henning wants to apply this to humans, on earth and in space. Already doctors use cooling in patients who have serious head injuries. Could this technique be applied further to allow us to fight disease and buy time for surgeons in the hospital trauma unit? Producer: Adrian Washbourne Image credit: Spaceworks
Mar 13, 2017
Delivering Clean Air
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Internet shopping continues to rise worldwide. That means a lot more delivery vans on the streets of our towns and cities. Those vans and trucks, often powered by dirty diesel engines, are contributing to air pollution problems that can cause significant increases in premature death and great discomfort for people suffering from heart and lung conditions. As part of the BBC’s So I Can Breathe season Tom Heap sets out to find innovative solutions. Could drones or robots be the answer? Could we cut out the middle man and use 3D printers to create everything we want at home? Perhaps it is simply a matter of converting all those vans to electric or gas power or even carrying out the majority of home deliveries by bike. With the promise of ever-quicker delivery times the search for a solution becomes ever more urgent if we are to prevent our consumer addiction becoming an air pollution crisis on every doorstep. (Photo: Tom Heap. Credit: Martin Poyntz-Roberts)
Mar 03, 2017
Make Me a Cyborg
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Frank Swain can hear Wi-Fi. Diagnosed with early deafness aged 25, Frank decided to turn his misfortune to his advantage by modifying his hearing aids to create a new sense. He documented the start of his journey three years ago on Radio 4 in 'Hack My Hearing'. Since then, Frank has worked with sound artist Daniel Jones to detect and sonify Wi-Fi connections around him. He joins a community around the world who are extending their experience beyond human limitations. In 'Meet the Cyborgs' Frank sets out to meet other people who are hacking their bodies. Neil Harbisson and Moon Rebus run The Cyborg Foundation in Barcelona, which welcomes like-minded body hackers from around the world. Their goal is not just to use or wear technology, but to re-engineer their bodies. Frank meets the creators of Cyborg Nest, a company promising to make anyone a cyborg. They have recently launched their first product - The North Sense - a computer chip anchored to body piercings in the chest, which vibrates when it faces north. But it’s not only new senses that are being developed. Other people are focusing on modifying lifesaving medical devices. Dana Lewis from Seattle has created her own 'artificial pancreas' to help manage her Type 1 diabetes and released the code online. Frank asks - should limits be placed on self-experimentation? And will cybernetic implants eventually become as ubiquitous as smart phones? Features music composed for The North Sense by Andy Dragazis. Image: Row of microchips and capacitors on circuit board, © EyeWire Presenter: Frank Swain Producer: Michelle Martin.
Feb 27, 2017
Why do some people have no sense of direction?
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Two challenges for the team today involving singing and navigating. The Melodic Mystery "Why is my mother tone deaf?" asks listener Simon, "and can I do anything to ensure my son can at least carry a tune?" Hannah admits to struggling to hold a tune and has a singing lesson with teacher Michael Bonshor, although it doesn’t go quite to plan. We meet Martin who hates music because he has the clinical form of tone deafness, known as amusia. Just as people with dyslexia see words differently to other people, if you have amusia you don't hear melodies in the same way. Adam talks to music psychologist Dr Vicky Williamson from Sheffield University who studies Martin, and others like him, to try and discover why their brains operate differently. The Lost Producer In our second case, we investigate why some people have a terrible sense of direction. It’s the turn of Producer Michelle to be put to the test to try improve her poor navigational skills. Prof Hugo Spiers from University College London examines Michelle’s sense of direction using his free game 'Sea Hero Quest'. Catherine Loveday from the University of Westminster suggests strategies to stop Michelle from getting lost. And tune in to find out which country houses the world’s best navigators. Photo: Indonesian Army personnel read a map. Credit: Juni Kriswanto/AFP /Getty Images)
Feb 21, 2017
Why am I left-handed?
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Neal Shepperson asks, "What determines left or right handedness and why are us lefties in the minority?" One in ten people are left-handed, but where does this ratio come from and when did it appear in our evolutionary past? Hannah talks to primatologist Prof Linda Marchant from Miami University about why Neanderthal teeth could hold the answer. Prof Chris McManus from University College London tells Adam about his quest to track down the genes responsible for whether we're right or left handed. But does left-handedness affect people’s brains and behaviour? Some researchers point to a link between left-handedness and impairments like autism or dyslexia. Others claim that lefties are more creative and artistic. So where does the answer lie? The team consults Professors Sophie Scott, Chris McManus and Dorothy Bishop to find out the truth about left-handers. If you have any Curious Cases for the team to investigate please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Picture: Left handed child, credit: Diarmid Courreges/AFP/Getty Images Presenter: Adam Rutherford & Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin.
Feb 13, 2017
Does the full Moon make us act oddly?
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Listener Paul Don asks: "I'm wondering what's the feasibility of terraforming another planet ie Mars and if it is possible to do the same thing with something like the moon? Or, why isn't there already a moon-base? Surely that is easier." Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry consider moving to another planet, and discover what challenges they would need to overcome to live in space. They consult engineer Prof Danielle George from the University of Manchester and Dr Louisa Preston, UK Space Agency Aurora Research Fellow in Astrobiology. Adam also hears about attempts to recreate a Martian base on a volcano in Hawaii. He calls Hi-Seas crew member Tristan Bassingthwaighte, who has just emerged from a year of isolation. The Bad Moon Rising “A teacher I work with swears that around the time of the full moon kids are rowdier in the classroom, and more marital disharmony in the community," says Jeff Boone from El Paso in Texas. “Is there any biological reason why the moon's phases could affect human moods and behaviour?” Our scientific sleuths sift through the evidence to find out if the moon really does inspire lunacy. They consider Othello's testimony, a study on dog bites and homicides in Florida before coming to a conclusion based on current scientific evidence. Featuring neuroscientist Eric Chudler from the University of Washington and health broadcaster and author Claudia Hammond. If you have any Curious Cases for the team to solve please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk. (Photo: A full moon. Credit: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Feb 06, 2017
Why do we get middle-aged spread?
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Two cases today for Drs Adam Rutherford & Hannah Fry to investigate, involving strength and weight. The Portly Problem "Why do we have middle aged spread?" asks Bart Janssen from New Zealand. In this episode we ponder the science of fat, from obese mice to big bottoms. Why do we put on weight in middle age? And are some types of fat better than others? Hannah meets Prof Steve Bloom at Imperial College, London to discuss why pears are better than apples when it comes to body shape. And Adam talks to Dr Aaron Cypess from the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, who has created a 'fatlas' - an atlas that maps fat inside the body. The Strongest Substance "What is the strongest substance in the universe?” asks Françoise Michel. “Some people say it is spider web, because it is stronger than steel. Is it iron? Is it flint? Is it diamond because diamond can be only be cut by diamond?" Adam and Hannah put a variety of materials, from biscuits to toffees, under the hammer to test their strength. In their quest to find the strongest substance on earth they quiz materials scientist Mark Miodownik, engineer Danielle George and spidergoat creator, Dr Randy Lewis from Utah. Please send your Curious Cases for the team to investigate to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Photo: A man works out at a slimming centre in Beijing, credit: LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin
Jan 30, 2017
Does nothing exist?
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"Is there any such thing as nothing?" This question from Bill Keck sparked a lot of head scratching. Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry first consider the philosophy and physics of nothing. As Prof Frank Close, author of Nothing: A Very Short Introduction explains, nothing has intrigued great thinkers for thousands of years, from the Ancient Greeks to today's particle physicists. Otto Von Geuricke, the Mayor of Magdeburg in Germany, invented the artificial vacuum pump in the 17th Century and presented spectacular displays to demonstrate the awesome power of nothing. Cosmologist Andrew Pontzen helps Hannah search for nothing in the depths of space and inside the atom. However, as they find out, recent discoveries in subatomic physics have proved that nothing is impossible. Undeterred, the team continue the hunt for nothing by turning to mathematics. The story of zero is fraught with inspiration, competition and controversy. Banned in Florence and hated by the Church, zero had a rocky road to acceptance after its genesis in India. Hannah talks to author Alex Bellos and hears about his journey to India to see the birth of zero. Plus, Adam is sent on a mission to understand calculus and enlists the help of Jeff Heys from Montana State University. Photo: A black hole on a white background, Credit: BBC
Jan 23, 2017
Sesame Open
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There's a new light of hope in the Middle East. It's a scientific experiment called SESAME - intended to do world-class science and bring together researchers from divided nations. Its members include Palestine and Israel, Pakistan and Iran, Jordan, Egypt, and more. First conceived in the late 1990s, it has just seen the first spark of electricity flow through its high-vacuum steel pipes, last week, and first science should follow soon. The BBC’s Roland Pease paid his second visit to the SESAME campus just as the final pieces were being put in place, and met some of the key players, and heard their hopes. Picture: Sesame with presenter Roland Pease and Herman Winnick, copyright Noemi Caraban
Jan 16, 2017
The Future of the Climate Deal
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The incoming administration of President Trump has frightened many in the international environmental community. The result of US election in November was announced during the 2016 Marrakech UN Climate Change Conference, a meeting where most delegates were working to deliver on the promises of the previous Paris accord. Instead, a new US direction seemed to have emerged, with some in the new US cabinet going so far as to suggest the US should withdraw altogether from Paris, scrap the US’s own Clean Power act, and re-open coal mines. Roger Harrabin explores whether the Climate Deal is dead, and whether the EU and other countries, such as China and India, might follow the Trump suit and relax their low-carbon initiatives. Image: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a sign supporting coal during a rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on October 10, 2016, credit: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images
Jan 09, 2017
Science Stories: Series 3 - Mesmerism and Parapsychology
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Anton Mesmer was a doctor who claimed he could cure people with an unknown force of animal magnetism. He was the subject to a committee that found there was no evidence for his powers. Phil Ball tallks to Simon Shaffer, Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University, about the rise of showmanship in science at the time of Mesmer in the later 18th Century, and to Professor Richard Wiseman of Hertfordshire University about contemporary parapsychology. Image: 1784: Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734 -1815) Austrian doctor known for inducing a trance-like state, called mesmerism, Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Jan 02, 2017
Science Stories: Series 3 - The Woman Who Tamed Lightning
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Naomi Alderman tells the story of Hertha Marks Ayrton, the first woman to be admitted to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, who improved electric arc lights. Photo: Street lamps light up a road in Colombo, credit: Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images
Dec 26, 2016
Science Stories: Series 3 - Testosterone: Elixir of Masculinity
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Testosterone has been claimed as one of the most important drivers of human life – through the agency of sex and aggression. In the 19th century, Charles-Eduoard Brown-Séquard injected himself with extracts from ground-up animal testicles, and made startling claims for its rejuvenating properties and its ability to enhance virility. But the amount of testosterone derived from the injection was actually so small that it could only have been a placebo effect. Today synthesised testosterone is increasingly prescribed for the so-called ‘male menopause’; it’s also regularly used for trans men as they transition, as well as for some women with low libido. In ‘How Much Testosterone Makes You a Man’, Naomi Alderman explores how testosterone had been used and abused in the past. She considers the credits and deficits of its story, and asks what it can tell us about identity and masculinity. Image: Stick men, BBC Copyright
Dec 19, 2016
Science Stories: Series 3 - Making the Earth Move
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Prior to 1543 it was generally believed that the earth lay static in the centre of the universe, while the Sun, moon, planets and stars revolved around it in various complex paths, some even looping back and forth, as described by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy over a millennium before. This Ptolemaic system sat comfortably reconciled with philosophy and biblical scripture, not to mention immediate experience and observations. In the 16th century astronomy and astrology were closely intertwined, as the art of predicting where the small dots of light on the night sky would appear had consequences if you were the sort of person who based your actions on horoscopes. But astronomers didn't have the right to start telling philosophers and theologians how the universe was actually constructed - what its mechanisms were - they merely observed the moving dots of light and used mathematics to predict where they would be the next night, week or month. This was an essential function for the Catholic church too - as the all-important date of Easter is based around a complicated lunar pattern. But also at that time in northern Europe, Martin Luther and others had begun a protestant revolution, fundamentally questioning the authority of the Pope and Vatican. It was an auspicious time for a fairly middle ranking Catholic cleric, Nicolaus Copernicus, working in a remote corner of northern Poland to drop a note around telling other astronomers that he'd worked out a new system that made for better astronomical calculations by making the moon travel round a spinning earth, and the earth and all the planets travel around the Sun. If that were the true shape of the universe, the bible could no longer be literally true. It took 30 years, but eventually a keen young Austrian mathematician convinced him to publish his book. So a German radical protestant published a book by a mild-mannered Polish Catholic cleric, a book that allegedly simplified the cosmos, rightfully placing the Sun at the centre of our local universe, kicking off the scientific revolution and leading to the European enlightenment. But as Phil Ball explains, the real story of 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' - 'On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres' - is not quite as straight forward as all that. Image: © BBC
Dec 12, 2016
Origins of Human Culture
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We humans are such a successful species. Homo sapiens have been around for only around 100 000 years and in that time we have utterly transformed the world around us. Our shelters allow us to live in all climates and from the poles to the tropics; our technology lets us communicate across the planet. We’ve created art and music and literature; and our agriculture has changed global biodiversity, shifting forever the way we feed ourselves. In other words, human culture dominates the earth. Gaia Vince finds out what has given us the cultural edge over other animals. This includes our closest relatives – the great apes – with whom we share over 95% of our genes. She meets researchers at Birmingham University comparing the abilities of chimps and human children, and has a go at making a prehistoric stone hand axe by flint knapping. Photo credit: William West/AFP/Getty Images
Dec 05, 2016
Mind Reading
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Whether it's gossiping over a drink, teaching our children, or politicians debating we use words to communicate with each other and share ideas. It’s what makes us human. But what if we can’t? Could it be possible to broadcast our thoughts directly from our brains without the need for speech? Gaia Vince meets the scientists who say they are getting close to being able to read minds. For the last decade neuroscientists have been using fMRI brain scanners and EEG to try to communicate with people who’d been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. They have woken up following a coma but although their eyes are open and they have spontaneous movements, they have no cognitive function and are not capable of higher level thought. Dr Damian Cruse, of Birmingham University, tells Gaia about the results of these experiments. People with other medical conditions that lead to a loss of speech, such as motor neurone disease, can already communicate with technology. We hear from Sarah Ezekiel, who has had MND since 2000 and whose life has been transformed by being able to talk artificially with eyegaze software on a computer. Neurologist Dr Kai Miller at Stanford University explains how he is using electrodes already implanted in the brains of people with severe epilepsy to determine what they are seeing. And Gaia explores the ethical problems that follow from technology that captures thoughts with cognitive scientist and philosopher Dr Adina Roskies of Dartmouth College in the US and Professor Geraint Rees, the editor of a recent collection of essays called "I know what you're thinking: brain imaging and mental privacy". She looks at the controversial privacy issues raised by the technology, such as could someone put thoughts into another's mind? Image: Fortune teller gazing into a crystal ball, © Creatas
Nov 28, 2016
Custom of Cutting
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More than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, or cutting. It is where parts or all of a girl's genitals are damaged or removed. There are no medical benefits to FGM, and people who undergo the practice can face problems in later pregnancies, infections and even death due to blood loss. FGM is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The head of the UNFPA recently described it as child abuse. The BBC's Global Health correspondent Tulip Mazumdar has travelled to East and West Africa to investigate efforts to end the practice and ask why this extremely harmful tradition, is proving so difficult to stamp out. (Picture: Women in Narekuni © Krisztina Satori)
Nov 21, 2016
The Inflamed Mind
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Depression or psychotic illness is experienced by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people in the UK. James Gallagher talks to the psychiatrists investigating this new understanding of mental illness and to people who may benefit from treatments aimed at the immune systems rather than their brain cells. “I believe this is one of the strongest discoveries in psychiatry in the last twenty years”, says Professor Carmine Pariante of his and other research on the immune system and depression. "It allows us to understand depression no longer as just a disorder of the mind and not even a disorder of the brain, but a disorder of the whole body. It shifts conceptually what we understand about depression." James also talks to New York journalist Susannah Cahalan. She began to experience paranoid delusions and florid hallucinations when her immune system made damaging antibodies against part of the molecular circuitry in her brain. Treatment to eliminate the antibodies prevented her committal to psychiatric hospital. Psychiatrist professor Belinda Lennox at the University of Oxford says she has evidence that a significant proportion of people presenting for the first time with psychotic symptoms are victims of a similar autoimmune problem. (Photo: Brain Cells © Science Photo Library)
Nov 14, 2016
The City that Fell into the Earth
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How do you move a city? Lesley Riddoch travels to Arctic Sweden to find out. Kiruna is gradually sliding into Europe's biggest iron ore mine. The city has to be rebuilt two miles away. That requires an extraordinary blend of planning, architecture, technology and stoicism. If anyone can do it then it's the Swedes.
Nov 07, 2016
The Sun King of China
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Meet Huang Ming, the Chinese inventor who describes himself as, 'the number one crazy solar guy in the world'. One of the prize exhibits of his museum in northern China is a vintage solar panel. It is a water heater, installed by President Jimmy Carter on the roof of the West Wing of the White House. Back in 1979 the installation was meant to symbolise a new solar-powered future for America. Instead, oil prices fell and Ronald Reagan removed the White House panels. Thirty-seven years on and it is China, not the US that is embracing the idea of a solar-powered economy. Huang Ming, an engineer, prominent political figure and businessman is leading the way with his foundation of Solar Valley. In 800 acres of land south of Beijing he employs 3000 people in solar research, development and manufacture. Peter Hadfield visits Solar Valley to see the fruits of the sun, from a solar-powered yurt to the world's biggest solar-powered building. He asks if Huang Ming can persuade his nation to turn its back on coal and oil and angle its face toward the sun.
Oct 31, 2016
The Mars of the Mid-Atlantic
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Ascension Island is a tiny scrap of British territory, marooned in the tropical mid-Atlantic roughly halfway between Brazil and Africa. It is the tip of a giant undersea volcano – rugged, remote and, up until around 150 years ago, almost completely devoid of vegetation. Peter Gibbs visits to learn how 19th Century botanist Joseph Hooker, encouraged by Charles Darwin, planted a forest on the island’s summit to trap moisture brought by the trade winds, introducing a panoply of flora from around the world - ginger, guava, bamboo, ficus and dozens more. But is Ascension’s cloud forest all it appears? He talks to conservationists struggling to cope with invasive species running riot, hears about the rescue of Ascension’s tiny endemic ferns, encounters nesting turtles on the beaches and ventures among the chattering ‘wideawakes’ on the sweltering lava plains by the coast. (Photo: Ascension Island. Credit: Matthew Teller)
Oct 24, 2016
Creating the Crick
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The Francis Crick Institute, in the centre of London, is the UK’s brand new, game-changing centre for biology and medical research. Roland Pease joins the scientists as they move into the building. Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate, one of the UK’s top biologists and director of the Crick explains what makes the new institute so special. Professor Richard Treisman, who helped shape its vision, shows Roland how the building is designed to encourage collaboration. And Roland learns how cancer researcher Dr Caroline Hill is packing up and moving her experimental subjects – thousands of fish. Named for Francis Crick – the British scientist who unravelled the structure of DNA and how it codes the design of the molecules of life – this central London Institute is set to be the heart of British biomedical science – bringing together experts from 3 other world famous institutes, from three of London’s great universities, and from industry. Picture: Scientists Move Into The Newly-built Francis Crick Institute in King's Cross on August 25, 2016, credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Editor: Deborah Cohen
Oct 17, 2016
Black Holes: A Tale of Cosmic Death and Rebirth
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The discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO observatory opens up a new form of astronomy, which will allow scientists explore the ultimate fate of dead stars, Black Holes. Roland Pease reports. (Photo: Gravitational waves © Nasa)
Oct 10, 2016
The Whale Menopause
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Killer whales and humans are almost unique in the animal kingdom. The females of both species go through the menopause in their 40s or 50s, and then live for decades without producing any more offspring themselves. It is an extremely rare phenomenon. No other mammal does this, including other apes, monkeys and elephants, with the exception of another species of toothed whale. There are good grounds for thinking the menopause evolved for a reason, but why? BBC science reporter Victoria Gill takes to the sea off the north-west coast of the USA with scientists who believe the killer whales in this part of the world can explain why the menopause evolved in both orca whales and our own species. Victoria encounters 'Granny', the world's oldest known orca - a matriarch killer whale who is estimated to be between 80 and 105 years old. 'Granny' has not had a calf for at least 40 years and is still very much the leader of her family group. (Photo: An Orca whale jumps out of the water © Jane Cogan)
Oct 03, 2016
Reversing Parkinson's
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Parkinson’s Disease is one of the major neurodegenerative conditions. Cells die, for reasons not fully understood, causing a reduction in the production of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, and a raft of physical and behavioural problems. Although effective drug treatments are available, they wear off over time and have side effects. The highly individual nature of the condition and variation in its progression also makes dosage difficult. Sue Broom reports on two new approaches that could lead to treatments for Parkinson’s. One potential therapy is to replace the dying cells with new ones. This was tried several decades ago but the results were not promising. The new Transeuro trial of cell therapy hopes to lead to better outcomes. The second approach is to use stem cells. Sue Broom talks to the doctors and patients involved in these trials. Image: Parkinson's disease MRI brain scan,© Science Photo Library Presenter/Producer: Sue Broom
Sep 26, 2016
Could we send our litter into space?
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Two spacey cases today for doctors Rutherford and Fry to investigate, both sent in to BBC Future via Facebook. The Stellar Dustbin 'Can we shoot garbage into the sun?' asks Elisabeth Hill. The doctors embark on an astronomical thought experiment to see how much it would cost to throw Hannah's daily rubbish into our stellar dustbin. From space elevators to solar sails, they explore the various options that could be used to send litter to the Sun. Featuring space scientist Lucie Green and astrophysicist Andrew Pontzen. A Study in Spheres Another stellar question comes from Brian Passineau who wonders: 'why everything in space tends to be circular or spherical?' Hannah gazes at Jupiter at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich with public astronomer, Dr Marek Kukula. Science writer, Philip Ball, explains how the astronomical obsession with celestial spheres came to an untidy end. And, physicist Dr Helen Czerski helps Adam on his quest to find the perfect natural sphere. If you have any everyday mysteries for the team to investigate using the power of science, please email: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Producer: Michelle Martin Image: A spiral galaxy, Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sep 19, 2016
Why do we faint?
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Swooning maidens and clever horses feature in today's Curious Cases, sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk. The Squeamish Swoon Science sleuths Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford investigate the following question sent in by Philip Le Riche: 'Why do some people faint at the sight of blood, or a hypodermic needle, or even if they bash their funny bone? Does it serve any useful evolutionary purpose, or is just some kind of cerebral error condition?' Adam is strapped onto a hospital tilt table in an attempt to make him blackout and Hannah receives an aromatic surprise. Featuring consultant cardiologists Dr Nicholas Gall and Dr Adam Fitzpatrick and cardiac physiologist Shelley Dougherty. The Counting Horse Our second case was sent in by retired primary school teacher Lesley Marr, who asks: "Can horses count? I think they can. Any ideas about which animals can count and which can't?” The team considers the case of Clever Hans, and hears from Dr Claudia Uller who has been conducting modern studies on equine counting. Mathematician Prof Marcus Du Sautoy explains the basic concept of counting to Adam, and Hannah looks across the animal kingdom to find the cleverest mathematical creature. If you have any questions you'd like the duo to investigate, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Producer: Michelle Martin Image: A Canadian guard faints, Credit: Carolo Allegri/AFP/Getty Images
Sep 13, 2016
Why do people shout on their cellphones?
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How does traffic jam? And, why do some people shout into their cellphones in public places? Two subjects guaranteed to annoy even the most patient listeners. The Phantom Jam Listener Matthew Chandler wrote to us: "I travel on the motorway for work and often I find myself sitting in a traffic jam for ages, thinking there must be roadworks or an accident ahead, then suddenly the jam mysteriously disappears to reveal… nothing! There's no apparent reason whatsoever." Doctors Rutherford and Fry discover the cause of these phantom jams. Adam ventures on to the M25 in search of a tailback, and Hannah looks at projects around the world designed to thwart traffic tailbacks. This case features Neal Harwood from the Transport Research Laboratory and BBC technology reporter, Jane Wakefield. Plus a special guest appearance from Greg Marston, aka 'Masdar City Man'. The Aural Voyeur Listener Daniel Sarano, from New Jersey, asks why people shout on their mobile phones in public: "I have no interest in hearing about people’s private lives. I don’t enjoy the aural voyeurism. If people want to say 'honey I’m running late, be home in 5'. That’s OK, but discussing business or, worse, personal details…. I hate it. The whole idea would have seemed an anathema to older generations. I think they would have considered it rude to talk loudly in public. No sense of that in the 21st Century.” We discover the answer to this annoying modern habit by delving into the inner workings of telephony. What follows is a tale of engineering rivalry, Victorian etiquette and early otolaryngology. Providing the answers are acoustic technologist Nick Zakarov and historian Greg Jenner, author of 'A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life'. If you have any everyday mysteries for the team to investigate using the power of science, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Producer: Michelle Martin Image: A man on a phone, Credit: Thinkstock
Sep 05, 2016
How do you make the perfect cup of tea?
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A story of sorrow and comfort today, as Doctors Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry investigate two mysteries sent in by listeners. The Psychic Tear Edith Calman challenges our scientific sleuths to answer the following question: “What is it about extreme pain, emotional shock or the sight of a three-year-old stumbling their way through an off-key rendition of Away in a Manger that makes the brain send messages to the lacrimal glands to chuck out water?" Hannah discovers how the eye produces tears, with the help of Dr Nick Knight. Broadcaster Claudia Hammond, author of Emotional Rollercoaster, describes why Darwin experimented on his children until they cried. And, Adam watches a tearjerker to take part in a psychological study, but ends up getting angry instead. The Tea Leaf Mystery The team examine how to make the perfect cup of British tea, in response to Fred Rickaby from North Carolina: "When we are preparing a cup of tea and the cup contains nothing but hot, brewed tea we need to add milk and sugar. My wife always adds the sugar first, stirs the cup to make sure it is dissolved and then add the milk. So, is that an optimum strategy for adding milk and sugar to a cup of tea?" Adam consults Prof Andrea Sella from University College London about the chemistry of tea. Hannah visits a tea factory in Kent where Master Blender Alex Probyn teaches her an unusual method for tasting tea. They conclude with the most important question: should you add the milk first or last? And, can tea professionals really tell the difference? If you have any everyday mysteries for the team to investigate using the power of science, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Producer: Michelle Martin Image: A woman holds a cup of tea, Credit: Thinkstock
Aug 29, 2016
What makes gingers ginger?
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Doctors Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry set out to solve the following perplexing cases sent in by listeners: The Scarlet Mark Sheena Cruickshank in Manchester asks, "My eldest son is ginger but I am blonde and my husband brunette so we are constantly asked where the red came from. Further, people do say the 'ginger gene' is dying out, but how good is that maths or is it just anecdotal?" Our science sleuths set out to discover what makes gingers ginger with a tale of fancy mice, Tudor queens and ginger beards. Featuring historian and author Kate Williams and Jonathan Rees from the University of Edinburgh, who discovered the ginger gene. The Hairy Hominid "How does leg hair know it has been cut? It does not seem to grow continuously but if you shave it, it somehow knows to grow back," asks Hannah Monteith from Edinburgh in Scotland. Hannah Fry consults dermatologist Dr Susan Holmes, from the Hair Clinic at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, to discover why the hairs on your legs do not grow as long as the hairs on your head. Adam attempts to have a serious discussion about the evolutionary purpose of pubic hair with anatomist and broadcaster Prof Alice Roberts. If you have a scientific mystery for the team to investigate, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Producer: Michelle Martin Image: A woman with splendid hair, lying on grass, Credit: Thinkstock
Aug 22, 2016
China Science Rising
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China is super-sizing science. From building the biggest experiments the world has ever seen to rolling out the latest medical advances on a massive scale and pushing the boundaries of exploration in outer space - China’s scientific ambitions are immense. Just a few decades ago the nation barely featured in the world science rankings. Now, in terms of research spending and the number of scientific papers published, it stands only behind the US. But despite this rapid progress, China faces a number of challenges. Rebecca Morelle discusses China's science with Charlotte Liu, Nature Springer publishers. Image: Artist impression of completed Fast radio telescope, China © BBC Presenter: Rebecca Morelle Producer: Paula McGrath
Aug 15, 2016
The Power of Cute
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Zoologist and broadcaster Lucy Cooke explores the science behind our seeming obsession with all things adorable. There has been an explosion in interest in cuteness, particularly online, with an ever growing number of websites dedicated to pandas, kittens, puppies and of course babies. If you are feeling a bit down in the dumps, what better way to brighten your day than looking at some cute baby animal frolicking about. But what is it that makes these creatures so darn attractive to us and can you be addicted to cute? Lucy investigates the latest scientific research looking at just what makes babies cute, and what looking at them does to our brain, with some surprising results. She visits London Zoo to visit her number one cute creature of choice, the sloth, to find out why sloths hit the top of the cute charts, but the Chinese giant salamander definitely doesn't, and why in terms of conservation, that matters. Image: Hoffmann"s Two-Toed Sloth, credit: Science Photo Library
Aug 08, 2016
Failing Gracefully
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Dr Kevin Fong concludes his exploration of the boundaries between the medical profession and other industries for valuable lessons that might be of use to us all. In this final episode, Kevin talks to people who have spent their lives investigating what it takes to make high-performance, high-reliability systems work safely when lives are on the line. Since the days of Project Apollo, People have come to rely more and more heavily upon the digital computer. Whether it’s aerospace, the automotive industry, medicine or even the financial sector, technology has become so central to the success of these complex systems, that it’s become increasingly more difficult for the human to remain in control when these systems fail. Technology, some argue, isn’t just replacing us, it’s displacing us. Is this situation inevitable or is there a way to better protect ourselves from the risks that opaque, complex technological systems create?
Aug 01, 2016
Going Lean: Health and the Toyota Way
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In the third programme in the series, Dr Kevin Fong explores the concept of ‘lean’ in healthcare. He visits Toyota’s largest car assembly plant in the United States and discovers how the company’s legendary management philosophy – the Toyota Production System – is being implemented in hospitals, in an effort to improve patient care. Toyota’s philosophy of continuous improvement aims to increase quality and flow whilst decreasing cost. But whilst this may work well for the mass production of cars, can it really improve the care of individual patients?
Jul 25, 2016
“Faster, Better, Cheaper”
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Kevin Fong explores the success and failure of NASA’s missions to Mars
Jul 18, 2016
The Business of Failure
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Dr Kevin Fong flies with a US air ambulance crew and discovers why it’s seen as one of the most dangerous occupations in America.
Jul 12, 2016
Cleaning Up the Oceans
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More than five million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the oceans every year. The abandoned fishing gear and bags and bottles left on beaches can smother birds and sea life. Now there is also evidence that the small particles created as the plastics are eroded by the waves and sunlight are eaten by all kinds of marine species. Roland Pease is on a beach in Devon in south-west England with professor Richard Thompson of Plymouth University finding the plastic debris before it gets into the sea. Professor of Ecotoxicology at Exeter University, Tamara Galloway, talks about her discoveries of microplastics in plankton and other species. Professor Tony Andrady of North Carolina University in the US, describes his paper that estimated the amount of plastic waste that is finding its way into the marine environment, and Dr Nancy Wallace of the US Marine Debris Program explains how they organise beach clean ups and raise awareness of the problem amongst the public. Photo: Tyres, plastic bottles and general rubbish washed up by the sea, litter the beaches in Prestwick, Scotland. Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Jul 04, 2016
Life on the East Asian Flyway - Part 4: The Arctic
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After flying thousands of kilometres from faraway Bangladesh and New Zealand via the Yellow Sea, the shorebirds of the East Asian Flyway complete their northward migration. They touch down in the Arctic Russia and Alaska to breed. In May and June, birds such as the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper and red knot fill the air of the Russian tundras with their mating calls and display flights. But why travel so far to raise the next generation? Presenter Ann Jones also discovers why Russian and British conservationists are taking eggs from the nests of the spoon-billed sandpiper, the most endangered shorebirds in the world, in a last ditch effort to save the species from extinction. Finally, with the mating season finished and a new generation ready to migrate for the first time, we follow the incredible non-stop flight of nine days by the bar-tailed godwit, as it migrates south from Alaska all the way to New Zealand. The record-breaking species is helped by somehow being able to sense the weather patterns across the entire Pacific Ocean. The series is a co-production from the BBC World Service and Australian ABC Radio National. The sound recordings from Russia and Alaska were provided by the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Photo: Spoon-billed sandpiper chick in Chukotka, NE Russia. Credit: Nicky Hiscock)
Jun 27, 2016
Life on the East Asian Flyway - Part Three: Yellow Sea North
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Can China’s new generation of birdwatchers and North Korea’s weak economy save migratory birds from extinction? Habitat loss for shorebirds in the Yellow Sea is rapid as the mudflats on which they depend are converted to farmland, factories, ports, oil refineries and golf courses. But all is not lost on the East Asian Australasian Flyway. Ann Jones travels around the northern end of the Yellow Sea, talking to the world’s leading shorebird researchers and Chinese nature lovers about their concerns for the Flyway’s future. They discuss their feelings for the long distance migration champions of the natural world, like the Eastern curlew and bar-tailed godwit. Ann also meets the New Zealand conservationists who have just emerged from North Korea with good news about the birds. The series is a co-production from the BBC World Service and Australian ABC Radio National. Additional recordings were provided by the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Produced by Andrew Luck-Baker and Ann Jones. The series is a co-production from the BBC World Service and Australian ABC Radio National. Additional recordings were provided by the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Curlew sandpipers coming to one of the few feeding sites left for them along the coast of Bohai Bay in northern China. Credit: Ann Jones
Jun 20, 2016
Life on the East Asian Flyway – Part Two: Yellow Sea South
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Ann Jones flies north to Shanghai as shorebirds from as far away as Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh arrive on the coast of the Yellow Sea. Here she meets a traditional whistling bird hunter who used to catch shorebirds for the pot but now does it for science. Bird mimic Mr Jin Weiguo demonstrates his centuries-old technique of bird trapping - luring them into nets by copying the different calls of the many different species. Scientists can then attach ID rings and GPS transmitters to follow their migration and estimate their declining numbers. In ten years as a conservation trapper, Mr Jin has caught more than 10,000 birds. In Jiangsu province to the north of Shanghai, Ann also spots the world’s smallest and most endangered shorebird – the remarkable spoon-billed sandpiper. This species is regarded as the Panda of migratory shorebirds – a charismatic flagship species for the protection of the rapidly disappearing mudflats on which all the migratory shorebirds and local fisher folk depend. Ann meets the Shanghai birders who set up an NGO to save the most important surviving locations for this bird’s crucial spring and autumn breaks in the Yellow Sea. One 7km stretch of coast, known as Tiaozini, hosts at least 50% of the world’s spoon-billed sandpiper population, which after a precipitous decline now numbers about 200 breeding pairs. Tiaozini is now recognised worldwide as a critical place for the species’ survival. The provincial government has advanced plans to convert Tiaozini into dry land within five years. Additional recordings in this programme were provided by the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker The series is a co-production from the BBC World Service and Australian ABC Radio National. Image: Waders readying to migrate north at Roebuck Bay, Western Australia, copyright: Ann Jones
Jun 13, 2016
Life on the East Asian Flyway
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One of the great wonders of the natural world is in deep trouble. Millions of shorebirds fly from Australia and Southeast Asia to the Arctic every year. They follow the planet’s most gruelling migratory route – the East Asian Australasian Flyway. Join Ann Jones as she watches wading birds such as curlews, godwits and sandpipers prepare for their epic journey. They fatten up on clams to the point of obesity, to fuel the flight. They grow bigger hearts and flight muscles. Just before departure, they shrink their digestive organs to become the most efficient flying machines for their first 7 day non-stop flight. The birds’ lives are full of danger and the most serious threats are man-made. The flyway is in peril with many species plummeting towards extinction. As you’ll hear, it’s enough to make a grown man cry. The series is a co-production from the BBC World Service and Australian ABC Radio National. Image: Waders readying to migrate north at Roebuck Bay, Western Australia, Copyright: Ann Jones
Jun 06, 2016
The Neglected Sense
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We may fear going blind, deaf or dumb, but few of us worry about losing our olfactory senses. And yet more than 200,000 people in the UK are anosmic - they cannot smell. Kathy Clugston is anosmic and gives a first hand account of the condition.She sets out on a personal mission to discover why she cannot smell. She has never before researched the extent to which smell guides and shapes our lives, how we smell and what parts of the brain are affected. For example, is her 'terrible memory' connected to the condition? Referred to by the experts as the forgotten or neglected sense, we reveal the seriousness of not being able to smell. Anosmia can be caused by a virus or a head injury, allergies, polyps, or a brain tumour, but for many, including Kathy, it is something that is missing from birth. Sanguine as she is, Kathy knows she is vulnerable - “I’ve left the gas on, fallen asleep with a pot on the stove”. She adds, "As I got older I began to realise how much I miss out on. People say "Oh, you can't smell B.O.! Lucky you!" but then it dawns on them that I can't smell freshly brewed coffee, newly cut grass, a baby's head, my partner's hair, a rose. I can't catch a whiff of something and be instantly transported back to my grandma's kitchen or an exotic holiday. It's as if life has a missing layer." (Photo: A nose)
May 30, 2016
After Ebola
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Last November Sierra Leone was declared Ebola free. By then, the epidemic had killed over 11,000 people in West Africa. The speed at which it took off highlighted the poor state of healthcare in the affected countries. Now in Sierra Leone some of the facilities created to deal with Ebola are being repurposed, to take in wider health care needs. The capital Freetown’s main hospital now has a new accident and emergency department, developed from the facilities created there to deal with Ebola. Around the country medical laboratories set up to detect and confirm Ebola cases are now being equipped with new diagnostic machines capable of detecting nearly 50 other viral diseases. BBC Health correspondent Matthew Hill has been to take a look and asks how useful this high-tech approach will be in the fight against disease in Sierra Leone. (Photo: A sign warning of the dangers of ebola outside a government hospital in Freetown on August 13, 2014, Credit: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)
May 23, 2016
Benefits of Bilingualism - Part Two
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More than half the world speaks more than one language. New research is showing that being multilingual has some surprising advantages – it can help us keep healthier longer. Gaia Vince finds out how knowing many languages can protect our brains over our lifespan, and even stave off the appearance of some diseases, including dementia. Gaia attempts the Flanker Task at Lancaster University and then talks to Professor Panos Athanopolous about why bilinguals do better at it than monolinguals. She hears from Professor Ellen Bialystock from York University in Toronto and Dr Thomas Bak from University of Edinburgh who have discovered that being bilingual can slow down the appearance of Alzheimer’s disease. Professor Jubin Abutalebi, from the Universita Vita -Saluta San Raffaele in Milan explains how speaking more than one language increases the grey matter in the brain. And Gaia asks Alex Rawlings, who speaks 15 languages, how we can persuade monolinguals to learn another tongue. Morag Donaldson talks to Thomas Bak of her experience of taking part in his experiment that showed just 5 days of learning Gaelic improved her cognitive reserve. The latest research suggests the bilingualism also gives protection against other conditions, such as some stroke and memory loss, as Dr Thomas Bak and Professor Viorica Marian of Northwestern University explain. (Photo: Welcome to Scotland sign. Credit Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
May 16, 2016
Benefits of Bilingualism - Part One
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More than half of the world's people speak more than one language. Some people may have been forced to learn a language at school or had to pick up one because they moved to a new country. Others may just love learning new tongues and do so before they visit a new place. Recently, psychologists have discovered that knowing more than one language helps us in some surprising ways. The skill of bilinguals to switch focus by filtering out or inhibiting one language to concentrate on the relevant one is the one that is thought to bring wider benefits. Schools that teach in a second language have found that their students do better in tests in their original language. Gaia Vince explores the research that shows the benefits of bilingualism. Image: Children in an English-Mandarin dual language art class at Bohunt School, Liphook, Hampshire, credit: Gaia Vince
May 09, 2016
Our Unnatural Selection
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Humans have been altering animals for millennia. We select the most docile livestock, the most loyal dogs, to breed the animals we need. This 'artificial selection' is intentional. But as Adam Hart discovers, our hunting, fishing and harvesting are having unintended effects on wild animals - the age of "unnatural selection". This accidental, inadvertent or unintentional selection pressure comes form almost everything we do – from hunting, fishing, harvesting and collecting to using chemicals like pesticides and herbicides; then pollution; urbanisation and habitat change, as well as using medicines. All these activities are putting evolutionary pressures on the creatures we share our planet with. Commercial fishing selects the biggest fish in the oceans, the biggest fish in a population, like Atlantic cod, are also the slowest to reach breeding maturity. When these are caught and taken out of the equation, the genes for slow maturity and ‘bigness’ are taken out of the gene pool. Over decades, this relentless predation has led to the Atlantic cod evolving to be vastly smaller and faster to mature. Trophy hunting is another example of unnatural selection. Predators in the wild tend to pick off the easiest to catch, smallest, youngest or oldest, ailing prey. But human hunters want the biggest animals with the biggest antlers or horns. Big Horn Sheep in Canada have evolved to have 25% smaller horns due to hunting pressures. Probably the best understood examples of unnatural selection are the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria. By using antibiotics we are inadvertently selecting the bacteria that have resistance to the drugs. The same goes for agricultural pesticides and herbicides. Even pollution in Victorian times led to the Peppered moth to change its colour. Adam discovers that our influence is universal; often counter to natural selective pressures and is rarely easy to reverse. He explores the impact on entire environments and asks whether we could or should be doing something to mitigate our evolutionary effects. (Photo: Boxes full of fish at Billingsgate fish market)
May 02, 2016
Science Stories: Series 2 - Margaret Cavendish
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In the spring of 1667 Samuel Pepys queued repeatedly with crowds of Londoners and waited for hours just to catch a glimpse of aristocrat writer and thinker Margaret Cavendish. Twice he was frustrated and could not spot her, but eventually she made a grand visit to meet the Fellows of the newly formed Royal Society. She was the first woman ever to visit. Pepys watched as they received her with gritted teeth and fake smiles. They politely showed her air pumps, magnets and microscopes, and she politely professed her amazement, then left in her grand carriage. Naomi Alderman asks what it was it about this celebrity poet, playwright, author, and thinker that so fascinated and yet also infuriated these men of the Restoration elite? Part of the answer strikes right at the core of what we now call the scientific method. (Photo: Book cover of Grounds of Natural Philosophy, courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation)
Apr 25, 2016
Science Stories: Series 2 - Orgueil Meteorite
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In 1864 a strange type of rock fell from the sky above Orgueil in rural France. Shocked and frightened locals collected pieces of the peculiar, peaty blob from the surrounding fields, and passed them on to museums and scientists. At that time, a debate had been raging over the origin of life; Could life possibly form from mere chemicals? Or did it need some strange unidentified vital substance? Into this debate fell the Orgueil meteorite, and because it seemed remarkably similar to loamy soil, some wondered whether it may hint at the existence of extra-terrestrial life. The great Pasteur allegedly investigated, but disappointingly found no such thing. Nevertheless, the mere possibility prompted later ideas that the origin of life on earth indeed lay elsewhere in the universe, ideas that were greeted with varying degrees of scepticism over ensuing decades. As Phil Ball narrates, given how much was at stake, and how bitterly scientists argued on either side, the most remarkable thing about the story is the extraordinary secret the meteorite kept to itself until exactly 100 years later. Producer: Alex Mansfield Image: These faint shapes found in meteorite AH844001 found in Antarctica were, until quite recently, thought by some to be alien fossils. But thoughts of extra-terrestrial life being carried in such meteorites goes back at least as far as 19th century France. BBC Copyright
Apr 18, 2016
The Horn Dilemma
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The majority of white and black rhinoceros are found in South Africa. This stronghold for these magnificent creatures is now being threatened by poachers killing rhino for their horns. Rhino horn, traded illegally in parts of Asia, is thought to be a cooling agent in traditional Chinese medicine. It's recently been hailed as a cure for cancer, and is seen as a status symbol in Vietnam. Made from keratin, the same stuff as hair or fingernails rhino horn has negligible medical properties, yet people are willing to pay up to £40,000 a kilogramme for it. International trade in rhino horn has been banned under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) since the 1990s. Trade in horn was banned within South Africa in 2009. Since then, poaching has increased exponentially, reaching more than 1300 rhino poached in 2015. Protecting the rhino in National and Provincial parks and privately owned reserves is a very dangerous and expensive undertaking. The government-run parks, such as Kruger National Park have about 75% of the South African rhino and are losing the most animals to poachers. The best protected rhino tend to be in the privately owned farms. Many private rhino owners want the ban on the sale of rhino horn to be lifted. This is because, unlike elephant ivory, pangolin scales and the bones from lions, rhinos can be dehorned without harming the animal. Many rhino owners are already removing the horns from their animals to stop them attracting poachers. So they are sitting on stockpiles of harvested horn. With education and demand-reduction schemes not working quickly enough, rhino owners hope to satisfy the demand by legally selling their harvested horn. Some just want to trade within South Africa, while others want CITES to allow a trade agreement between South Africa and China or Vietnam. They say they would use the money earned to put back into conserving and protecting rhino. Others worry that this would just increase demand for horn and that by making trade legal, you are encouraging people to think that it has an actual medical benefit. It's a huge dilemma. Producer: Fiona Roberts Image: baby Ruby, credit Fiona Roberts
Apr 11, 2016
African Einsteins
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Will Einstein’s successors be African? It’s very likely - and some of them will be women. Back in 2008 South African physicist Neil Turok gave a speech in which he declared his wish that the next Einstein would be from Africa. It was a rallying call for investment in maths and physics research in Africa. The ‘Next Einstein’ slogan became a mission for the organisation Neil Turok had founded to bring Africa into the global scientific community - through investment in maths and physics, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. That search for an African Einstein now has some results, with 15 ‘Next Einstein fellows’ and 54 ‘Next Einstein Ambassadors’. These are young African scientists, often leaders in their fields, working and studying in Africa. This programme visits the first ‘Next Einstein Forum’ – a meeting held in March 2016 in Senegal which celebrated the Next Einstein Fellows and also make the case for greater investment in scientific research in Africa. (Image: Rwandan President Paul Kagame answers a question during the NEF Global Gathering 2016 Presidential Panel, credit: NEF/Clément Tardif)
Apr 01, 2016
Feeding the World - Part Two
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As the world’s population grows and the climate challenges our ability to grow crops, how can agriculture provide enough food? Can we get more from our current food crops for less? Scientists and farmers alike have been increasingly haunted by the environmental effects of high-intensity farming over the last half century. There is now an urgent need to be more mindful of the landscape and our finite ecological resources. Professor Kathy Willis, science director of Kew Gardens, looks at how we can breed better-adapted and more efficient crops. Rice is a staple food for more than half the world’s population. To maintain this in the face of population growth and land-loss to urbanisation, rice yields will have to increase by over 50% by 2050. Kathy Willis examines an ambitious plan to turbocharge photosynthesis in rice – improving the way it captures sunlight, to produce sugar and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water in hotter dryer climates. New technology to imaging plant roots below ground is also having a profound impact on plant root architecture that breeding programmes hope to capitalise on in order to improve any crop’s ability to forage for water and nutrients. But can we achieve the necessary varieties in time? Should we re-evaluate some of the highly resilient crops we have tended to undervalue such as sorghum and cassava? (Photo: Farm workers harvesting rice. Credit: Nick Wood)
Mar 28, 2016
Feeding the World - Part One
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As the world’s population grows and the climate challenges our ability to grow crops, how can agriculture provide enough food? Can we get more from our current food crops for less? Scientists and farmers alike have been increasingly haunted by the environmental effects of high-intensity farming over the last half century. There is now an urgent need to be more mindful of the landscape and our finite ecological resources. Professor Kathy Willis, science director of Kew Gardens, looks at how we can breed better-adapted and more efficient crops by exploiting the wealth of natural diversity in our so-called crop wild relatives. They are the species from which all our current crops originally evolved. Many researchers now believe that these ancient relatives hold the key to future crop improvement. She finds out how the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is breeding new varieties that can cope with droughts and floods at unpredictable times. Storm surges make farmland in coastal areas too salty for most crops to grow. Pathogens and pests evolve so rice varieties are losing resistance to new strains of pathogens or insects. Kathy Willis meets the scientists who are reassessing our crops ancient ancestors that hold the genetic diversity that is needed to give the resilience we need to cope with the extremes of climate predicted for the coming decades. (Photo: Workers on a rice plantation. Credit: Nick Wood)
Mar 21, 2016
Editing the Genome - Part Two
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There is a new genetic technology which promises to revolutionise agriculture and transform our influence over the natural world. Research is well underway to create pigs and chickens immune to pandemic influenza, cereals which make their own fertiliser and mosquitoes engineered to wipe out wild populations of the insects which transmit diseases to humans. These are just three examples of what we could create with CRISPR gene editing. Should we be worried about this unprecedented power over animals and plants? The potential for good is enormous. The ethical challenges are profound. Professor Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester explores the brave new world of CRISPR gene editing. (Photo: Pigs at the Roslin Institute that have been gene-edited with the goal of making them resistant to African Swine Fever virus)
Mar 14, 2016
Editing the Genome
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Over the last four years, scientists have discovered a simple and powerful method for altering genes. This will have massive implications for all of us as it raises the possibility of easily changing the genetic code in animals, plants and ourselves. The potential for good is enormous. The ethical challenges are profound. Professor Matthew Cobb explores the brave new world of CRISPR gene editing. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Image: Model of human DNA strand, BBC Copyright
Mar 07, 2016
Science Stories: Series 1 - Einstein’s Ice Box
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In the late 1920s Einstein was working on a grand unified theory of the universe, having given us E=mc2, space-time and the fourth dimension. He was also working on a fridge. Perhaps motivated by a story in the Berlin newspapers about a family who died when toxic fumes leaked from their state-of the-art refrigerator, Einstein teamed up with another physicist Leo Szilard and designed a new, safer refrigerating technology. And so it was that in 1930, the man who had once famously worked in the patent office in Bern was granted a patent of his own. Number: 1, 781, 541. Title: refrigeration. Phillip Ball explores this little known period of Einstein's life to try and find out why he turned his extraordinary mind to making fridges safer. Despite considerable commercial interest in the patent, Einstein's fridge didn't get built in his lifetime. The Great Depression forced AEG and others to close down their refrigeration research. But in 2008 a team of British scientists decided to give it a go. Their verdict : Einstein's fridge doesn't work. (Photo: Refridgerators stand in rows. Credit: Keystone/Getty Images)
Feb 29, 2016
Science Stories: Series 1 - Eels and Human Electricity
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Naomi Alderman presents an alternate history of electricity. This is not a story of power stations, motors and wires. It is a story of how the electric eel and its cousin the torpedo fish, led to the invention of the first battery; and how, in time, the shocking properties of these slippery creatures gave birth to modern neuroscience.Our fascination with electric fish and their ability to deliver an almighty shock - enough to kill a horse – goes back to ancient times. And when Alessandro Volta invented the first battery in 1800, the electric eel was a vital source of inspiration. In inventing the battery, Volta claimed to have disproved the idea of ‘animal electricity’ but 200 years later, scientists studying our brains revealed that it is thanks to the electricity in our nerve cells that we are able to move, think and feel. So, it seems, an idea that was pushed out of science and into fiction, when Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein, is now alive and well and delivering insight once again into what it means to be alive. (Photo: An eel. © Professor Ken Catania)
Feb 22, 2016
Science Stories: Series 1 - Cornelis Drebbel
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Philip Ball dives into the magical world of Cornelis Drebbel , inventor of the world's first submarine in 1621. How did the crew of this remarkable vessel manage to breathe underwater, completely cut off from the surface, 150 years before oxygen was officially discovered? King James I of England and thousands of his subjects lined the banks of the River Thames in London to watch the first demonstration. The strangest boat they had ever seen sank beneath the waves and stayed there for three hours. Did Drebbel know how to make oxygen? Historian Andrew Szydlow reveals that Drebbel did have secret knowledge of how to keep the air fresh. In his day, Drebbel was a pioneer of exploring uninhabitable places. Today's equivalent is to make oxygen on the Moon and as scientists grapple with this ultimate challenge, Monica Grady explains their work is being used under the waves where Drebbel began. Image: Early Submarine, A design for a wooden submarine from around 1650. It would surface and submerge with the inflation and deflation of rows of goatskin airbags attached to the floor of the vessel. (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Feb 15, 2016
El Nino
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Floods in South America, fires in Indonesia, famine threatened in Ethiopia, yet more drought in Southern Africa and central America. Plus, a stunning peak in global temperatures for 2015. The current El Nino, just past its peak, has a lot to answer for. Roland Pease talks to the experts who forecast, track and analyse the events in the Pacific Ocean associated with this powerful climate phenomenon. And seeks answers to some burning questions. (Photo: Indonesia forest fire burning, 2015. Credit: Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)
Feb 08, 2016
An Infinite Monkey's Guide to General Relativity
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Brian Cox and Robin Ince explore the legacy of Einstein's great theory, and how a mathematical equation written 100 years ago seems to have predicted so accurately exactly how our universe works. From black holes to the expanding universe, every observation of the universe, so far, has been held up by the maths in Einstein's extraordinary work. So how was he able to predict the events and behaviour of our universe, long before the technology existed to prove he was right, and will there ever be another theory that will supersede it? Brian and Robin head up the iconic Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank to explore Einstein's theory in action, and talk to scientists who are still probing the mysteries hidden within General Relativity.
Feb 01, 2016
An Infinite Monkey's Guide to General Relativity
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It is 100 years since the publication of Einstein's great theory, and arguably one of the greatest scientific theories of all time. To mark the occasion, Brian Cox takes Robin Ince on a guided tour of General Relativity. With the help of some of the world's leading cosmologists, and a comedian or two, they explore the notions of space time, falling elevators, trampolines and bowling balls, and what was wrong with Newton's apple. It is a whistle stop tour of all you will ever need to know about gravity and how a mathematical equation written 100 years ago predicted everything from black holes to the Big Bang, to our expanding universe, long before there was any proof that these extraordinary phenomena existed.
Jan 25, 2016
Scotland’s Dolphins
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The chilly waters of north-east Scotland are home to the world’s most northerly group of bottlenose dolphins. They are protected by EU conservation laws and despite being a small population, appear to be thriving. Euan McIlwraith heads out into the Moray Firth on a research boat to discover how photo-ID techniques are used to record the dolphins’ movements around the coast, and visits the University of St Andrews to find out more about their communications underwater. As he discovers, every bottlenose dolphin creates a unique signature whistle for itself early in life. These are like a call-signs, used to communicate to the rest of the group, and recent research has shown they can mimic the calls of other dolphins, and that they respond when they hear their own whistle played back to them. (Photo: Bottlenose dolphins. Credit: Charlie Phillips/WDC)
Jan 18, 2016
Nature's Numbers
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Mathematics is one of the most extraordinary things humans can do with their brains but where do our numerical abilities come from? Maths writer Alex Bellos looks for answers from a tribe in the Brazilian Amazon which has no words for numbers in its language. He also meets a budding mathematician who is only seven months old. Image credit: Edward Gibson
Jan 11, 2016
Nature's Numbers
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Lemurs and parrots accompany maths writer Alex Bellos as he explores the foundations of our ability to understand numbers. What are the fundamental numerical skills we share with other animals? What accounts for our species’ unique abilities to do calculations which other creatures cannot? Alex meets Teres the lemur as the Madagascan primate undergoes a maths test. He also tells the amazing story of Alex, the African grey parrot, and meets professor Irene Pepperberg who guided her feathered pupil to extraordinary mathematical achievements. (Photo: Lemurs. Credit: Andrew Luck-Baker)
Jan 04, 2016
Future of Energy
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Professor Jim Skea, from the Faculty of Natural Sciences, Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, joins Jack Stewart in the studio and brings his insight from the Paris climate talks. Paul Younger, the Rankine Chair of Engineering and Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, talks about geothermal energy and its potential as a renewable energy source, particularly in Ethiopia. Mark Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Stanford, argues for a 100% switch to renewable energy sources. Tadj Orzesczyn, Professor of Energy and Environment at University College London, talks to us from the perspective of energy demand. If we can reduce this, then we can reduce the amount of energy we need to produce in the first place. (Photo: Ferrybridge C power station, near Knottingley 2015. Credit: OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)
Dec 28, 2015
The Power of Equations
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Jim al-Khalili was sitting in a physics lecture at the University of Surrey when he suddenly understood the power of equations to describe and predict the physical world. He recalls that sadly his enthusiasm was lost on many of his fellow students. Jim wants to persuade the listeners that equations have a beauty. In conversation with fellow scientists he reveals the surprising emotions they feel when describing the behaviour of matter in the universe in mathematical terms. For Carlos Frenk, professor of Computational Cosmology at Durham University, one of the most beautiful equations is the one that is at the heart of Einstein's theory of general relativity. A century ago, Einstein wrote down his now famous field equations that linked the shape of the universe to the matter in it. Jim and Graham Farmelo, the author of a biography of Paul Dirac called The Strangest Man, discuss why the Dirac equation is not as well known as Einstein's but, in their opinion, should be. Dr Patricia Fara of Cambridge University, and Vice-President of the British Society for the History of Science, explains that although mathematics goes back centuries it was only in the 17th Century that it was applied to the real world. Jeff Forshaw, Professor of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester, talks about when he first realised the power of equations and about why, surprisngly, maths is so effective at describing the real world. Science writer Philip Ball questions whether the beauty that scientists see in equations is really the same as we see in art. And physics A Level students in Dr White's class at Hammersmith Academy in London reveal that they already appreciate equations. (Photo: Jim al-Khalili)
Dec 21, 2015
Enceladus: A second genesis of life at Saturn?
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Discovery invites you on a mission to the most intriguing body in the solar system – Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It’s a small icy world with gigantic geysers, blasting water into space at supersonic speeds. It’s also become the most promising place among the planets to search for extra-terrestrial life. These astonishing discoveries come from Nasa’s Cassini mission to Saturn launched 18 years ago and still underway. The BBC’s Jonathan Amos talks to scientists who have been at the centre of the unfolding story of Enceladus and those who want to return to answer the great question which it poses. (Photo: Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI)
Dec 14, 2015
Humboldt - the Inventor of Nature
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Alexander Von Humboldt - the forgotten father of environmentalism - warned of harmful human induced climate change over 200 years ago. Explorer, nature writer and scientist he climbed the world’s highest volcanoes and delved deep into the rainforests devising his radical new ideas of nature in flux. Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt’s books. Roland Pease talks to author Andrea Wulf, who has retraced the footsteps of this remarkable lost hero of science. (Photo credit: Wellcome Library, London)
Dec 07, 2015
Unbreathable: The Modern Problem of Air Pollution
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The shock news three months ago, that Volkswagen had used defeat devices to circumvent emissions tests in the United States, has brought back into the news a continuing problem of modern life - air pollution. The traces of pollutants coming out of tail pipes may seem to be little more than a nuisance, but it is actually a matter of life and death. One expert has estimated that this deception by Volkswagen has contributed to the deaths of 59 people in the States, their lives shortened by the damage nitrogen oxides have done to their bodies. A further 130 lives are at risk over the lifetime of the vehicles if nothing is done. And air pollution comes from other sources as well as vehicles, such as fires and agriculture. Roland Pease looks into what can be done to clean up the air we breathe. (Photo: Fumes blowing out from a car exhaust pipe)
Nov 30, 2015
Future of Biodiversity
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"I'm determined to prove botany is not the 'Cinderella of science'". That is what Professor Kathy Willis, director of Science at the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, told the Independent in 2014. In the two years since she took on the job at Kew she has been faced with a reduction in government funding. So, Kathy Willis has been rethinking the science that is to be done by the staff of the Gardens and has been criticised for her decisions. But as well as leading this transformation, Kathy has a distinguished academic career in biodiversity. She is currently a professor at Oxford University and, during her research career, she has studied plants and their environments all over the world, from the New Forest, when she was a student in Southampton, to the Galapagos Islands where she studied the impact of the removal of the giant tortoises on the vegetation there. (Photo: A Galapagos turtle walks in the Primicias farm in Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Archipelago, Ecuador, Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Nov 23, 2015
Problems of Developing Drugs
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Patrick Vallance is something of a rare breed - a game-keeper turned poacher; an academic who has moved over into industry. And not just any industry, but the pharmaceutical industry. At the time, Patrick Vallance was professor of Clinical Pharmacology and head of the Department of Medicine at University College London. A pioneer of research into some of the body’s key regulatory systems, he had also been publicly critical of big Pharma for “funding studies more helpful to marketing than to advancing clinical care”. So what made him go over to "the other side"? His involvement with the industry was limited until one evening in 2006 when he was asked a question over a dinner, a question that would be pivotal to his life and career. Today, Patrick is head of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies with annual revenues in excess of £20 billion and nearly a 100,000 employees worldwide. Whilst GSK is no stranger to scandal, since he joined, Patrick has attempted to tackle the culture of secrecy that pervades the industry. He has since reshaped the way GSK carries out its research and has been behind several radical initiatives in global healthcare, to produce a more collaborative approach to tackling major diseases like malaria. (Photo: Coloured pills)
Nov 16, 2015
The Genetics of Intelligence
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Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he is fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored. Born and raised in Chicago, Robert sat countless intelligence tests at his inner city Catholic school. College was an attractive option mainly because it seemed to pay well. Now he is one of the most cited psychologists in the world. He specialized in behavioural genetics in the mid '70s when the focus in mainstream psychology was very much on our nurture rather than our nature, and genetics was virtually taboo. But he persisted conducting several large adoption studies and later twin studies. In 1995 he launched the biggest longitudinal twin study in the UK, the TED study of 10,000 pairs of twins which continues to this day. In this study and in his other work, he has shown consistently that genetic influences on intelligence are highly significant, much more so than what school you go to, your teachers or home environment. If only the genetic differences between children were fully acknowledged, he believes education could be transformed and parents might stop giving themselves such a hard time. (Photo: Children in classroom)
Nov 09, 2015
How to Make an Awesome Surf Wave
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Can we make better surfing waves than the wild ocean, asks marine biologist and writer Helen Scales. Helen loves surfing but she describes it as an extreme form of delayed gratification, especially around the British coast. Nature does not make great surfing waves to order. Waiting for the perfect wave demands patience, a warm wet suit and a cool head (especially if somebody jumps the queue and steals your ride). Becoming skilful on a surf board takes years if you can only practise on what the wild sea provides and even longer if you don’t live anywhere near the sea. Helen goes in search of short cuts: aquatic engineering to make more and better ‘breaks’. Her quest takes her to Boscombe, a seaside suburb of the English coastal town of Bournemouth. The council spent £3.2 million on an artificial surf reef, which was designed to boost the wave height: lengthen the ride duration: and magnify Boscombe as a surfer dude magnet. It was already a spot known to the surfing folk of the Dorset coast but the artificial reef was going to make Boscombe a national surf destination. Unfortunately in 2010, the underwater construction of gigantic sausages of sand – covering the area of a football field - failed to do the job and the surfing is, if anything, now worse where the reef lies. Helen talks to the surfing scientist who diagnosed the reef’s ills with a GPS receiver down the back of his wetsuit, and to local surfers for their take on the Boscombe reef. But Helen has to travel to the Basque Country in northern Spain to find what she’s been looking for. She has the most exciting surf ride of her life in a man-made lagoon, the Wavegarden, in the foothills of the Cantabrian mountains, kilometres from the ocean. Over the last decade a company formed of surfing engineers has invented a machine which summons up two sizes of perfect surf waves every minute. “That was a bigger wave, a faster wave, than I have ever contemplated surfing in the ocean,” she says in the programme after two rides in the Wavegarden (recorded with a double-bagged radio mic for the programme). Wavegarden engineering has been exported to an abandoned slate quarry in North Wales where the world’s first surf park opened at the beginning of August. Other surf parks will follow in Texas in the United States, the Middle East and Australia, using the technology. This particular brand of artificial wave engineering might also allow surfing to graduate as an Olympic sport. But is surfing an artificial wave in a land-locked lagoon the real thing? Surfing veterans have mixed feelings and share their thoughts on why riding the ocean is all-consuming. Image: BBC Copyright
Nov 02, 2015
Lion Hunting in Africa
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In June 2015 the death of Cecil the lion was international news and a social media sensation. Yet trophy hunting of lions and other species is common in Africa. Foreigners pay big money to adorn their walls with heads and skins. Many find it abhorrent, angry that it exists at all. Hunters claim it is vital, providing money to fund conservation. With hunters claiming that a ban would be "catastrophic" for wildlife, what is the truth? Biologist professor Adam Hart explores this explosively controversial subject, talking to hunters, conservationists, lion experts and those opposed to hunting. Trophy hunting does work in places where regular tourists are few and far between. It works too in South Africa. Private ownership and fencing, which protects wildlife from people and people from wildlife, mean that hunting and tourism generate the cash needed to maintain huge numbers of animals. Wildlife thrives because "it pays it stays". But in Tanzania lion populations are rapidly declining. Craig Packer, a world expert on lions, says "it takes $2000 annually to maintain 1km2 of lion habitat; 300000km2 of hunting blocks need $600million. Trophy hunting pays $20million with 10-15% used for conservation". It's the only source of income but it is far too little, only slightly slowing the inevitable. Hunting pitches emotion against evidence and sentimentality against practicality. Adam's travels reveal a complex and sometimes unpalatable tale of economics, ecology and conservation with implications that affect everyone that cares about African wildlife. (Photo: A lion sitting on a rock)
Oct 26, 2015
The Infinite Monkey Cage USA Tour: San Francisco
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Brian Cox and Robin Ince take to the stage in San Francisco for the last of their USA specials. They talk alien visitations, UFOs and other close encounters with astronomer Dr Seth Shostack, NASA scientist Dr Carolyn Porco and comedians Greg Proops and Paul Provenza.
Oct 19, 2015
The Infinite Monkey Cage USA Tour: Chicago
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Brian Cox and Robin Ince take to the stage in Chicago, Illinois, to discuss fossil records and evolution. They are joined on stage by host of NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" Peter Sagal, comedian and Saturday Night Live alumnus Julia Sweeney, palaeontologist Paul Sereno and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne. (Photo: Robin Ince (left) and Brian Cox)
Oct 12, 2015
The Infinite Monkey Cage USA Tour: Los Angeles
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Brian Cox and Robin Ince continue their tour of the USA, as they take to the stage in LA, as they ask what happens when science meets Hollywood. They ask why so many movies now seem to employ a science adviser, whether scientific accuracy is really important when you are watching a film about a mythical Norse god and whether science fact can actually be far more interesting than science fiction. They are joined by cosmologist Sean Carroll, comedian Joe Rogan, executive producer of Futurama, David X Cohen, and Eric Idle. (Photo: (left) Robin Ince and (right) Brian Cox)
Oct 05, 2015
The Infinite Monkey Cage USA Tour: New York
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The BBC’s award-winning radio science/comedy show The Infinite Monkey Cage has transported itself to the USA bringing its unique brand of witty, irreverent science chat to an American audience for the first time. In the first of four specials, professor Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince take to the stage in New York, to ask the question - is science a force for good or evil? They are joined on stage by Bill Nye the Science Guy, cosmologist Janna Levin, actor Tim Daly and comedian Lisa Lampanelli.
Sep 26, 2015
Life Changers - Didier Queloz
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One night in 1995, PhD student Didier Queloz was running a routine test on a new detector they had just built at the Observatoire de Haute Provence in France, when he noticed something strange. They had pointed the detector, almost at random, towards 51 Pegasi, a star in the constellation Pegasus, about 50 light years from Earth. But the light from that star, which should have been constant, was in fact ‘wobbling’. Naturally, he assumed that the detector was faulty but after double-checking that it was working correctly, he and his colleagues eventually came to the only logical conclusion they could - that the light from the star was distorted by the presence of a very large object – and it was happening at regular intervals. What Queloz had discovered was the first planet outside of our solar system orbiting a sun-like star. What is more, it was massive – half the size of Jupiter, but with an orbit lasting only 4 days and with surface temperatures exceeding a 1000 degrees centigrade. This shouldn’t be possible according to our best theories of planetary formation, and yet here it was. With their discovery published Queloz and his supervisor, Michel Mayor, had rewritten the astronomy text books and opened to floodgates. In the 20 years since that night, nearly 1800 confirmed exoplanets have been discovered, and since the launch of Nasa's Kepler Observatory in 2009, several hundred Earth-like planets have been confirmed, orbiting suns at a distance that could potentially support life. In the last of the current series of Life Changers, Kevin Fong talks to Didier Queloz about that remarkable night, its impact on science and our quest to answer perhaps the most fundamental question of all - are we alone in the Universe? (Photo: Didier Queloz. Credit: University of Geneva)
Sep 21, 2015
Life Changers - Anita Sengupta
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When Anita Sengupta was a little girl, she dreamed of time travel aboard the TARDIS, along with Tom Baker, her favourite incarnation of Dr Who. It was this and watching episodes of Star Trek with her dad, which led her to study science and later still, to gain a degree in aerospace engineering from an American University. If she could not build a TARDIS, she would build the next best thing – space craft, capable of reaching other planets. A few years later, still in her 20s, Anita was put in charge of a team at JPL, Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Her mission was to design and develop the supersonic parachute which helped put Nasa’s Curiosity Rover onto the surface of Mars in 2012. It was the most sophisticated lander ever built and the plan to get it safely down the surface of the red planet was little short of crazy. Her team’s motto was 'Dare Mighty Things'. Kevin Fong talks to Anita about her work, her passion and about the lessons one must learn from failure as well as success in order to explore the unknown. She tells Kevin why Mars has revived Nasa’s fortunes and transformed how we think about our place in the Universe. (Photo: Anita Sengupta. Credit: Nasa)
Sep 14, 2015
Life Changers - Venki Ramakrishnan
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Kevin Fong talks to Venki Ramakrishnan, Professor of structural biology in Cambridge and joint-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009. Celebrated for his work on the ribosome, the remarkable molecular machine at the heart of all cell biology, Ramakrishnan was knighted for services to Science in 2012 and later this year, will become the first Indian-born president of the Royal Society, the oldest and most prestigious scientific body in the world. And yet, as Kevin discovers, his education and early academic career was anything but predictable or conventional and included being rejected from both Indian and US Universities multiple times. Image: presenter Kevin Fong with Venki Ramakrishnan, BBC Copyright
Sep 07, 2015
Life Changers - Kathryn Maitland
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Kathryn Maitland is a doctor with a burning passion to transform clinical research across Africa, where she has spent most of her career. Determined to improve the outcomes for critically sick children in hospital, she spent over a decade of her life raising funds for and then carrying out, the first ever scientific trial for fluid bolus resuscitation in children with shock. Fluid replacement is a pillar of medicine but the evidence base for this particular issue is weak, even though it is standard practice for hospitals in high-income countries. The results were totally unexpected, creating a shockwave in the medical community that is yet to settle down. Kathryn believes the results could save tens of thousands of lives every year in Africa alone yet the experience very nearly ended her research career. She tells her life-changing story to Kevin Fong, himself a critical care doctor, who wonders if his own current practice of treating sick children should now change. (Image: presenter Kevin Fong with Kathryn Maitland)
Aug 31, 2015
Women on the ‘Problem with Science’
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Earlier in the year, the reported remarks about 'the problem with girls' by British biologist and Nobel Laureate Professor Tim Hunt' brought the issues facing women scientists into public spotlight. Although there have been questions about the reports of what exactly happened and what was said during Hunt's talk in South Korea, the story has given female researchers the rare opportunity to air the problems of gender bias in science to a much wider audience. What are the factors holding back women in science? What can be done to improve gender equality in the lab? Claudia Hammond talks to women scientists in India, Nigeria, Bolivia, the US and the UK about their experiences and views. The programme features: ecologist Monica Moraes at the Universidad Mayor de San Andres in Bolivia; neuroscientist Jennifer Raymond in Stanford, California; psychologist Uta Frith at UCL in London; chemist Paul Walton of the University of York; and physicists Rabia Salihu Sa'id at Bayero University in northern Nigeria and Shobhana Narasimhan of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore. Professor Narasimhan also organises career development workshops for women physicists in low-income countries at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Aug 24, 2015
Truth about the Body Mass Index
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Dr Mark Porter is a family doctor in the UK and in his 50s. He’s tall and slim and thinks he’s fit and healthy – after all he goes to the gym several times a week. Mark meets experts who measure his weight, height and body fat to find out if he is as healthy as he seems. He begins by finding out his BMI, or body mass index, a term more and more people are using all over the world. It’s an indicator of whether he is too fat, too thin or just right. It’s relatively easy to work out with a calculator – he divides his weight in kilograms by the square of his height in metres. Mark compares his BMI against two other ways of measuring body fat, the true test of whether he is overweight or not. Is his BMI as accurate as the results of body fat calculations derived by measuring skin folds and an ultra accurate DEXA scan? (Photo: Overweight man measuring his waist. Credit: Science Photo Library)
Aug 17, 2015
The Great Telescopes and Evolution
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Today, astronomers believe the universe is a violent, constantly changing place. But it was not always the case. At the beginning of the 19th century, many believed fervently that the celestial sky was a constant, divinely perfected, completed creation. But as telescopes got larger, the mystery of the number, origin and role of the "nebulae" - those colourful, cloud-like smudges on the sky – grew and grew. Were they really vast clouds of gas and dust as they sometimes appeared? Or were they merely closely packed, very distant clusters of stars, as some of them allegedly appeared when magnified through the great reflecting telescopes? When some astronomers and writers suggested they were in fact a vision of creation in action, matter condensing to form stars and planets like our own, some establishment religious figures cried foul, fearing the social implications. Could bigger telescopes resolve the crisis? For most of the 19th century, the biggest telescope in the world was in Birr, Ireland, then known as Parsonstown. It was built by an Anglo-Irish nobleman, Willam Parsons, Earl of Rosse, in the midst of the Irish famine. 50 feet long, 6 feet in diameter, the monster instrument was dubbed "The Leviathan". But even thus equipped, in the days before photography and spectroscopy, observers could only describe and sketch what they saw, and it was hard to be objective. As Simon Schaffer, James Bennet, and Chris Lintott narrate, the debate as to the truth of the "Nebular Hypothesis", and the concern as to whether the Irish astronomers really saw what they claimed to see, paved the way for the Darwinian debates in the coming decades. Producer: Alex Mansfield (Photo: NASA Hubble Space Telescope image released 25 April, 2005 shows the spiral galaxy M51 also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. Credit: NASA via AFP/Getty Images)
Aug 10, 2015
The Colour Purple
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In 1856, a teenager experimenting at home accidentally made a colour that was more gaudy and garish than anything that had gone before. William Perkin was messing about at home, trying to make the anti-malarial Quinine - but his experiment went wrong. Instead he made a purple dye that took Victorian London by storm. Philip Ball tells the story of this famous stroke of serendipity. Laurence Llewelyn- Bowen describes the fashion sensation that ensued and chemist, Andrea Sella tells how Perkin's purple prompted the creation of much more than colourful crinolines. (Photo: William Henry Perkin (1838-1907), British chemist. Credit: Science Photo Library)
Jul 27, 2015
Maurice Wilkins
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What does it take to be remembered well? The discovery of the structure of DNA is often attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick. But a third man shared the stage with them for the 1962 Nobel Prize for medicine - Maurice Wilkins. He was a brilliant physicist who after work on the Manhattan Project was determined to move from "the science of death to the science of life". He made his mark in the fast progressing world of x-ray crystallography and in the late 1940s was the first to propose that biological material that passed on genetic information from one generation to the next might have an order and structure that scientists could elucidate and control. He was to play an integral role one of the most important discoveries of the 20th Century. But why did he fail to capture the public imagination? Kevin Fong examines Maurice Wilkins achievements offering a new slant on the familiar story of the race to unravel DNA. (Photo: Professor Maurice Wilkins. Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archve)
Jul 20, 2015
James Watt and Steam Power
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Naomi Alderman tells the story of James Watt and the steam engine that nearly never got made. A breath of steam hits cold metal. It cools suddenly and becomes a drop of water. There an idea. But the designs for Watt’s radically more efficient steam engine laid on the shelf in his workshop for years. Watt, a depressive, cautious perfectionist had no interest in actually making engines. Had it not been for his friend, the businessmen Matthew Boulton driving him on, his engine might never have left the drawing board. Naomi talks to historian, Jenny Uglow about the five friends who kick started the industrial revolution. And, digital guru Bill Thompson talks about the scientific legacy of Watt’s obsession with getting a patent - an obsession which led to an Act of Parliament. Photo: James Watt. Credit: Hulton Archive)
Jul 13, 2015
Sounds Of Space: Deep Space
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A sonic tour of the universe, with solar scientist, Dr Lucie Green. In the previous episode, we listened in to the sounds of the Solar System. This week in Discovery, we travel further out into the cosmos to bring you more Sounds of Space. Some are recorded sound, others are data – like X-rays or radio waves - that have been sonified. All of them have inspired scientists and artists to help us understand our universe. Joining Lucie Green on this sonic journey through space are: - Prof Tim O'Brien (Associate Director of Jodrell Bank Observatory) - Honor Harger (Executive Director of the ArtScience museum in Singapore) - Dr Andrew Pontzen (Cosmology Research Group, University College London) Producer: Michelle Martin Image: Whirlpool Galaxy Credit, NASA Hubble
Jul 06, 2015
Sounds of Space: The Solar System
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The previously silent world of outer space is getting noisier. In this audio tour of the Solar System, Dr Lucie Green listens in to the Sounds of Space. You may have heard the famous ‘singing comet’ – the soundscape created using measurements taken by the Rosetta spacecraft. Now, we bring you more sounds that have come from our exploration of the cosmos. Some have been recorded by microphones on-board interplanetary spacecraft. Others have been sonified from space data, from lightning on Jupiter to vibrations inside the Sun. All of them reveal tantalising secrets that have inspired scientists, artists and musicians to help us understand the universe beyond. Joining Lucie Green on this sonic journey through space are: Prof Tim O'Brien, associate director of Jodrell Bank Observatory, Honor Harger, executive director of the ArtScience museum in Singapore, Dr Andrew Pontzen from the Cosmology Research Group, University College London. (Photo: Saturn By Voyager. Credit: Nasa)
Jun 29, 2015
Future of European Science
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A debate about the state of scientific research in Europe, recorded in Brussels on the day when the European Research Council was celebrating its 5000th grant. Since 2007 the ERC has written cheques totalling the equivalent of around 10 Billion dollars. Presenter Gareth Mitchell is joined by biologist Dr Iva Tolic of the Ruder Boskovic Institute in the Croatian capital Zagreb and the 5000th grantee, European research commissioner Carlos Moedas, Dr Veerle Huvenne, who is originally from Belgium but is currently based in Southampton in the south of England, where she is a marine geoscientist, and the ERC president, Jean-Pierre Bourguignon. They discuss how the ERC decides which scientists to support and whether its funds can make Europe an attractive place for scientists from all over the world to work. Iva Tolic and Veerle Huvenne explain how their grants help them do their research. Dr Tolic works on how cells divide and Dr Huvenne on marine biodiversity. And, can European science can compete with research in the US?
Jun 22, 2015
The Bone Wars
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Tracey Logan takes us back to the wild west of America, and looks at the extraordinary feud that came to be known as the Bone Wars. This is a tale of corruption, bribery and sabotage - not by cowboys, but by two palaeontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who would stop at nothing in their race to find new dinosaur fossils. This was the golden age of dinosaur discovery, and their bitter war led to the discovery of some of our most iconic dinosaur species: Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Diplodocus and Camarasuarus to name a few. What led these two seemingly respectable men of science to behave in such an unseemly way, and what was the legacy of this now infamous feud? Tracey Logan investigates. (Photo: Drawing of Apatosaurus dinosaur, BBC Copyright)
Jun 15, 2015
Stephanie Shirley: Software Pioneer
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As a young woman, Stephanie Shirley worked at the Dollis Hill Research Station building computers from scratch but she told young admirers that she worked for the Post Office, hoping they would think she sold stamps. In the early 60s she changed her name to Steve and started selling computer programmes to companies who had no idea what they were or what they could do, employing only mothers who worked from home writing code by hand with pen and pencil and then posted it to her. By the mid-80s her software company employed 8,000 people, still mainly women with children. She made an absolute fortune but these days Stephanie thinks less about making money and much more about how best to give it away. (Photo: Stephanie Shirley. BBC copyright)
Jun 08, 2015
Origins of War
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Is our desire to wage war something uniquely human or can its origins be traced much further back in our evolutionary past? To suggest that warfare is a regular feature of human civilization would be to state the obvious. But just how deeply rooted is our desire to kill others of our species? Is lethal aggression a fixed part of our genetic code, something that has evolved from a common ancestor – and something therefore that has adaptive value? Or is warfare – and more generally, a predilection for lethal violence something that has emerged much more recently in human history? No longer the preserve of historians and philosophers, the question, as Geoff Watts discovers, is now argued over fiercely by anthropologists and biologists. Producer: Rami Tzabar Image Credit: Chimpanzee, courtesy of Getty
Jun 01, 2015
What the Songbird Said
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Could birdsong tell us something about the evolution of human language? Language is arguably the single thing that most defines what it is to be human and unique as a species. But its origins and its apparent sudden emergence around a hundred thousand years ago, remains mysterious and perplexing to researchers. But could something called vocal learning provide a vital clue as to how language might have evolved? T he ability to learn and imitate sounds - vocal learning - is something that humans share with only a few other species, most notably, songbirds. Charles Darwin noticed this similarity as far back as 1871 in the Descent of Man and in the last couple of decades, research has uncovered a whole host of similarities in the way humans and songbirds perceive and process speech and song. But just how useful are animal models of vocal communication in understanding how human language might have evolved? Why is it that there seem to be parallels with songbirds but little evidence that our closest primate relatives, chimps and bonobos, share at least some of our linguistic abilities? Angela Saini meets biologists and linguists investigating what research on songbirds and other species might have to say about the question of how language, with all its beauty and richness, may have evolved. (Photo: Zebra Finch. Credit: Dr Michelle Spierings)
May 25, 2015
Shedding Light on the Brain
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Biologists are using light to explore the brain - and to alter it. Roland Pease meets some of the leading players in optogenetics, who use light-sensitive molecules to take direct control of neural systems in worms, flies, and maybe one day, humans. For some, it's a way of exploring the interplay of electricity and chemistry as neuron talks to neuron in complex brains. For others it opens the way to future therapies for conditions like motor neuron disease, in which dying nerves bring about paralysis, and epilepsy, brought about by runaway oscillations in brain waves. (Photo: Elegans nemotodes, or round worms, undergo examination by project scientists at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Getty Images)
May 18, 2015
Future of Solar Energy
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Roland Pease looks into perovskites - the materials enthusiasts say could transform solar power. Solar power is the fastest growing form of renewable energy. But most of it collected by panels made of silicon - the material that also goes into computer chips. But silicon is an old technology, and researchers have long sought a material that is both better at capturing sunlight. And cheaper to make. Perovskites, which first emerged into the lab just a few years ago, promise to be just that material. Roland Pease meets the experts who have made this happen, and finds out what makes perovskites so good - and what wrinkles still have to be ironed out. Image credit: 1999 EyeWire, Inc
May 11, 2015
Scotland's Forgotten Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell
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Dr Susie Mitchell hears the story of the 19th Century Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell's lifelong curiosity about the world and his gift for solving complicated puzzles led him to a string of discoveries. He was the first person to demonstrate a way of taking colour photographs, and he used mathematics to work out what the rings of Saturn were made of before any telescope or spacecraft was able to observe them close up. His most important achievement however was the discovery of electromagnetism, as neatly described by four now famous lines of equations. His prediction of electromagnetic waves led on to a huge range of today’s technology, from mobile phones and wi-fi equipment to radio, X-rays and microwave ovens. Albert Einstein considered him a genius, and another scientist Heinrich Hertz described him as ‘Maestro Maxwell’. The 2015 International Year of Light celebrates, amongst other events, the anniversary of his ground-breaking publication about electromagnetism. So the only question is - how come the name James Clerk Maxwell isn't better known? (Photo: James Clerk-Maxwell. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
May 04, 2015
Science of Stammering
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In this edition of Discovery, Erika Wright explores the science of Stammering, a widely misunderstood condition that occurs at the same level in all cultures, countries and languages. There is a window of opportunity in early childhood when stammering begins but is also a time of natural faltering when help may not be required, so therapists and parents have to decide when and whether to intervene. To add to the complexity many young children who stammer will recover naturally – although the exact number is debated and so therefore, is the incidence of stammering – but it’s universally agreed that to identify those that will persist is critical. There are clear risk factors for Stammering and Discovery speaks to the professor of speech pathology who has made it a lifelong quest to study the common factors that may place children at risk. There is news of a new trial using brain stimulation while adults who stutter talk on the beat, to see if word fluency can be enhanced. And new initiatives in Rwanda and Burkina Faso - to name just two - where volunteers are working to combat the stigma often associated with this problem. (Photo credit: Dieudonne Nsabimana, co-ordinator, African Stuttering Research Centre)
Apr 27, 2015
Jane Francis
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Just twenty years ago, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) would not allow women to camp in Antarctica. In 2013, it appointed Jane Francis as its Director. Jane tells Jim Al-Khalili how an intimate understanding of petrified wood and fossilised leaves took her from Dorset’s Jurassic coast to this icy land mass. Camping on Antarctic ice is not for everyone but Jane is addicted, even if she does crave celery and occasionally wish that she could wash her hair. Fossils buried under the ice contain vital clues about ancient climates and can be used to check current computer models of climate change. The earth can withstand a great range of temperatures: Antarctica was once covered in lush forest. But the question is: can humans adapt? As the ice caps melt, sea levels will continue to rise. And, says Jane, the time to start planning for that is now. Image: Courtesy of Jane Francis
Apr 20, 2015
The Teenage Brain: Sarah-Jayne Blakemore
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Until recently, it was thought that human brain development was all over by early childhood but research in the last decade has shown that the adolescent brain is still changing into early adulthood. Jim al-Khalili talks to pioneering cognitive neuroscientist professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore who is responsible for much of the research which shows that our brains continue to develop through the teenage years. She discusses why teenagers take risks and are so susceptible to influence from their peers, as well as her childhood growing up with the constant threat of attacks from animal rights groups. (Photo: Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, courtesy of UCL)
Apr 13, 2015
Matt Taylor
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Matt Taylor talks to Jim Al-Khalili about being in charge of the Rosetta space mission to the distant comet, 67P. It is, he says, 'the sexiest thing alive', after his wife. He describes his joy when, after travelling for ten years and covering four billion miles, the robot, Philae landed on the speeding comet 67P; and turned the image tattooed on his thigh from wishful thinking into a triumph for science. Matt's father, a builder, encouraged him to do well at school. He wanted him to get a job in science and Matt did not disappoint, joining the European Space Agency in June 2005. His charm and exuberance have brought competing teams together as they fight for their science to have priority on Rosetta. His enthusiasm has helped to spark and fuel a global interest in the mission and he deeply regrets his choice of shirt on one occasion. (Photo: Matt Taylor, BBC copyright)
Apr 06, 2015
John O'Keefe
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John O'Keefe tells Jim al-Khalili how winning the Nobel Prize was a bit of a double-edged sword, especially as he liked his life in the lab, before being made famous by the award. John won the prize for his once radical insight into how we know where we are. When he first described the idea of ‘place cells’ in the brain back in 1971, many scoffed. Today it is accepted scientific wisdom that our spatial ability depends on these highly specialised brain cells. A keen basketball player,John says, he has put this principle to the test by trying to shoot hoops with his eyes closed. But this belies the years of painstaking experiments on rats that John performed to prove that a rat’s ability to know where it is depends not only on its sense of smell, but also on a cognitive map, or internal GPS, inside the rat's brain. He describes how he listened in on the unique firing patterns of individual rat brain cells using the tiniest electrodes. “You almost imagine they are singing to you”, he says, as he imitates the different sounds made by individual neurons. And, he says, he misses them when they fall silent. It is important to John, and for his results, that his rats are happy and John welcomes the strong controls over animal experiments in the UK. Computer models are useful but, he says, they could never replace the need for experiments on animals, in the work that he does. And,while it need not necessarily have been the case, experiments on rats' brains have provided valuable insight into the workings of the human brain. John's research was entirely curiosity-driven but it could provide vital clues to understanding dementia and is already being used to develop a test for the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s. (Photo: John O'Keefe, BBC copryight)
Mar 30, 2015
Does Money Make you Mean?
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Can money really make a person mean? In this second and final programme, Jack heads to Hong Kong to explore whether our preoccupation with money is affecting the way we treat other people. Jack hears about the growing body of evidence indicating that we behave with less empathy, kindness and generosity when exposed to the idea of money. Most of the research so far is from the United States, but Jack stages his own psychology experiment at the City University of Hong Kong to explore how far these findings hold true there. He hears from leading expert Kathleen Vohs and from two Hong Kong academics who have started asking whether money even affects aggression and attitudes to casual sex. (Photo: A colourful bird which ostensibly tells your fortune. BBC copyright)
Mar 23, 2015
Does Money Make you Mean?
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Jack Stewart heads to Los Angeles, home to many of America's rich and famous, to explore what impact wealth has on our moral behaviour. Hollywood often has plenty to say about the corrupting influence of money, but can science tell us even more. Professor Paul Piff of the University of California explains his research, which finds that the richer a person becomes the more selfish, narcissistic and less generous they tend to be. However, not everyone is convinced that the American dream is a recipe for immoral behaviour, with opinions expressed by some rather unusual contributors – straight from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Photo: Jack Stewart talking to Spiderman, BBC copyright)
Mar 16, 2015
Finding Your Voice
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Comedy performer and broadcaster Helen Keen, explores a rare condition that she herself once suffered from - selective mutism or SM. It is an anxiety disorder that develops in childhood. Those affected by SM can usually speak fluently in some situations, notably a home, but remain silent elsewhere - such as in school, with extended family members, or even parents. Their inability to speak is so severe that it has been likened to a phobia of speaking, and is often accompanied by the physical symptoms of extreme anxiety. Selective mutism can be mistaken for shyness or worse, a deliberate refusal to talk. But in reality, these children are desperate to speak, to share their thoughts and ideas, to make friends and to fulfil the expectations of their teachers and parents, in taking an active part in class activities. Yet somehow the words remain "trapped" inside as the anxiety, frustration and fear, builds. Though relatively rare, increasing awareness and official recognition of selective mutism in the psychiatric literature has seen an increase in diagnoses. Today, it is estimated to affect about 1 in 150 children in the UK – roughly equivalent to the number of children who are affected by classic autism. The causes of selective mutism are poorly understood but a genetic component is likely as are environmental influences. What is clear is that without early intervention, SM can take hold and persist well into adulthood and in rare cases can develop into more acute mental health problems. As Helen knows only too well, it can be a lonely place to grow up in, as the quiet child is so often 'the forgotten child'. It wasn't until Helen was in her early 20s that she managed to break the silence. In this programme, Helen meets some of those affected by SM, including parents and former sufferers as well as experts helping children to find their voice again.
Mar 09, 2015
Placebo Problem
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In recent years the term 'placebo effect' - the beneficial effects on health of positive expectations about a drug or some other treatment - has become familiar. It has also been shown to be a powerful aid to medicine. The nocebo effect is simply its opposite - it’s ugly sister. One difference is that its breadth and magnitude have been much less studied. Another is that it may be even more powerful than the placebo effect. It is easier to do harm than good. And this is worrisome because nocebo’s negative influence can be found lurking in almost every aspect of medical life – and beyond. From fears about side effects, to the abrupt bedside manner of unwitting doctors, to the health scares promoted by the mass media, the nocebo effect can create in us, a whole range of symptoms just as powerful as if they were being caused by an active treatment. But what if anything can be done about it? Geoff Watts investigates. (Image: Geoff Watts, BBC copyright)
Mar 02, 2015
Throwaway Society 2/2
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How can manufacturers of the world supply the growing demand for consumer products without breaking the planet’s bank of natural resources? By the middle of the century, there will be 2 billion more people in the world. Based on current trends, there’ll be many more consumers with the money to buy cars, washing machines, mobile phones, fashion – the shopping list goes on…. Discovery looks at new ideas and technologies to enable companies to make more stuff at an affordable environmental cost. (Photo: Toyota Production Line. Credit: Getty Images)
Feb 23, 2015
Throwaway Society
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Hundreds of millions of computers, mobile phones and televisions are thrown away every year around the world. In this week’s Discovery Gaia Vince will be looking at the reasons behind this rapidly growing mountain of electronic waste and asking, who is responsible? The manufacturers or the consumers? When our gadgets break, maybe we should just be repairing them. And Gaia attends a party where people are fixing stuff for themselves. (Photo: Discarded laptops.)
Feb 16, 2015
The Science of Smell
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Pamela Rutherford explores our neglected sense of smell. How is the brain able to detect and tell apart the countless number of smells it comes across and what happens when the system goes wrong? She finds out how people can lose their sense of smell and why it’s the very strong associations between smell and memory that allow your sense of smell to come back. Not only can people lose their sense of smell and become ‘anosmic’ but in rare cases they can hallucinate smells, so called phantosmia. But why does it happen? Also in the programme why the unique biology of the smell system has led to an amazing medical breakthrough and paved the way for reversing paralysis in people with spinal injuries. Image: Smelling the Roses, Getty Images
Feb 09, 2015
The Life Scientific: Richard Fortey
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Richard Fortey found his first trilobite fossil when he was 14 years old and he spent the rest of his career discovering hundreds more, previously unknown to science. He is a Professor of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum and talks to Jim al-Khalili about why these arthropods, joint-legged creatures which look a bit like woodlice and roamed the ancient oceans for almost 300 million years, are so important for helping us to understand the evolution of life on our planet. These new trilobite fossils were found at an exciting time for the earth sciences because of the emergence of plate tectonics. The discovery of communities of trilobite fossils could be used to reconstruct the shape of the ancient world and Richard used the new discoveries to help map the geologically very different Palaeozoic continents and seas. He admits that he is a born naturalist, fascinated by all aspects of the natural world (he's a leading expert on fungi) with a powerful drive to communicate its wonders to a wider public. His books and TV programmes on geology, the evolution of the earth, fossils as well as the creatures that survived mass extinctions, have brought him a whole new audience. And also he reveals an earlier secret life as a writer of humorous books, all written under a pseudonym. (Photo: Richard Fortey. Credit: BBC)
Feb 02, 2015
The Life Scientific: Margaret Boden on Artificial Intelligence
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Maggie Boden is a world authority in the field of artificial intelligence – she even has a robot named in her honour. As research professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex, Maggie has spent a lifetime attempting to answer philosophical questions about the nature of the human mind, but from a computational viewpoint. “Tin cans”, as she sometimes calls computers, are information processing systems, the perfect vehicle, she believes, to help us understand, explore and analyse the mind. But questions about the human mind and the human person could never be answered within one single academic subject. So the long career of Maggie Boden is the very epitome of cross-disciplinary working. From medicine, to psychology, to cognitive and computer science, to technology and philosophy, professor Boden has spent decades straddling multiple academic subjects, helping to create brand new disciplines along the way. (Photo: Margaret Boden. Credit: BBC)
Jan 26, 2015
Hot Gossip - Part Two
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