Discovery

By BBC World Service

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Explorations in the world of science.

Episode Date
Descartes' "Daughter"
1716
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
1620
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
1601
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
1588
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
1613
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
1612
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
1612
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
1613
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?
1613
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
1614
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?
1606
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?
1609
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?
1608
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?
1610
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?
1606
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
1613
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
1613
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
1616
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
1612
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
1613
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
1613
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
1588
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
1593
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
1591
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
1632
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
1588
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
1608
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
1607
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
1610
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
1609
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
1592
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
1592
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
1593
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
1588
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
1588
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
Black Hole and Sonic Weapons - Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
Poles and Spin
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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
Balloon and Memory
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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
Balloons and Memory - The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
Cats and Itch – The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
Bacteria and Blood – The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
1586
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
1588
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
1618
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
1617
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
1619
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
1617
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
1832
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?
1618
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
Singing and Navigating – The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
Left-handedness – The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
Moon -The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
Weight and Strength - The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
Nothing - The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry
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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
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
The Woman Who Tamed Lightning
1590
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
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
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
Space - The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry
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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
Fainting and Counting - The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry
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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
Traffic and Telephones - The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry
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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
Tea and Tears - The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry
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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
Hair - The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry
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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
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
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
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
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
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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In the second of two programmes, Geoff Watts continues to explore the science, history and cultural implications of gossip. Gossip has a bad reputation and for the most part, and deservedly so. Yet, on-going research appears to suggest that gossip does serve a useful purpose. Not least because our brains may be hard wired for it. Researchers in Boston have used a technique known as binocular rivalry (showing different images to left and right eye at the same time) to suggest that gossip acts as an early warning system, that the brain automatically redirects your attention onto people you've heard negative remarks about. Even though this process happens at a sub-conscious level, your brain is sifting through and weeding out anyone in your surroundings that you may be have good reason to distrust. Elsewhere, researchers in Manchester have been analysing what makes gossip memorable and are now scanning subjects brains to see if there are specific gossip networks which light up. From preliminary results it appears gossip activates areas in the brain similar to those that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. Next they plan to scan their subjects' brains as they tweet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in many of these experiments, it is celebrity gossip that tends to produce the largest response. Thanks to what one commentator calls the perfect storm of 24-hour news, reality TV and social media, the all-pervasive celebrity gossip industry exploits our endless appetite for information about people we will never meet. But could even celebrity gossip serve a purpose? Or are we gorging ourselves on trivia whilst ignoring the plight of those closest to us? And can and should anything be done to stem the negative impact of gossip in a digital age?
Jan 19, 2015
Hot Gossip - Part One
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If language elevates us above other animals, why does human society seem to spend so much time gossiping? Perhaps it's because without gossip there would be no society and language would be much less interesting. In the first of two programmes, Geoff Watts explores our fascination with small talk and chit chat. Where did gossip come from, why did it evolve and how has it changed (and changed us) in the digital age? If your guilty pleasure is rifling through gossip magazines, then here's a reassuring message: you are merely fulfilling an evolutionary drive. The brain is 'hard-wired' to be fascinated by gossip - which not only helps members of your social group to bond but can also help to police those in the group who transgress. Biologist call them ‘free-riders’ and in large social groups, free-riders can wreak havoc with the society unless they’re policed – by gossip. For anthropologist Robin Dunbar, author of the now classic text, Grooming, Gossip and The Evolution of Language, it is not the pearls of wisdom that makes the world go round but everyday tittle tattle: “We are social beings and our world is cocooned in the interests and minutiae of everyday social life. They fascinate us beyond nature”. Gossip, which Dunbar says can be traced back to social grooming in apes, makes up around two-thirds of general conversation according to his research. Without gossip says Dunbar “there can be no society”. Of course, historically, culturally, morally gossip has rarely been seen as anything but good. In Judaism where derogatory speech about another person has a special name – ‘Lashon Hara’ or 'evil tongue', it is, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “…regarded it as one of the worst of all sins’. Gossip is said to kill three people, “the one who says it, the one he/she says it about, and the one who listens in. Gossip is not just a sinful act but one that contaminates others”. Nowhere is this more evident than recent cases of internet trolling and cyber bullying. “we need a new ethic” argues Sacks. But are we even capable of changing our nasty habits? Producer: Rami Tzabar (Photo: A person whispering, Credit: Getty Images)
Jan 12, 2015
Virtual Therapy
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E-Therapy has come a long way since the (slightly tongue in cheek) days of Eliza, a very early attempt at computer based psychotherapy. Eliza was little more than an algorithm that spotted patterns in words and returned empty, yet meaningful-sounding questions back at the user. All sorts of e-therapies are now available to help low-moderate level mental health issues. But could Virtual Reality technology bring the next great leap in our understanding of mental processes, and, in turn, be the basis of future psychotherapies? Quentin Cooper meets some of the researchers trying to find out. Image: Quentin Cooper in a body-tracking virtual reality suit, Copyright: Mel Slater
Jan 05, 2015
Animal Personality
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Professor Adam Hart explores the newest area in the science of animal behaviour – the study of personality within species as diverse as chimpanzees, song birds, sharks and sea anenomes. What can this fresh field of zoology tells us about the variety of personality among humans? We are all familiar with the variety of temperament and character in the dog, Canis lupus familiaris, but this is the product of selective breeding by humans over generations. A more surprising revelation is that up and down the animal kingdom, Nature favours a mix of personality types within a species. Oxford ornithologists working in Wytham Woods have discovered that in a small bird species such as the great tit, both bold and shy individuals prosper in different ways. The same applies to hermit crabs and sea anemones in the rock pools along the South Devon coast. In these creatures, Dr Mark Briffa sees a stripped-down equivalent of the extraversion-intraversion dimension of human personality. In sharks, researchers have discovered that there are sociable individuals and others who prefer their own company. At the University of Exeter, an experiment with a smaller fish species, the guppy, suggests that a mix of personality types in a population favours the prospects of both the group and individual members of that group. A similar finding in great tits has come out of the woods at Wytham. Adam Hart asks how relevant the recent discoveries in animal personality research are to understanding the nature and evolution of personality in people. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Picture: A great tit in a nest, Credit: Nicole Milligan
Dec 29, 2014
Can Maths Combat Terrorism?
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Dr Hannah Fry investigates the hidden patterns behind terrorism and asks whether mathematics could be used to predict the next 9/11. When computer scientists decided to study the severity and frequency of 30,000 terrorist attacks worldwide, they found an distinctive pattern hiding in the data. Even though the events spanned 5,000 cities in 187 countries over 40 years, every single attack fitted neatly onto a curve, described by an equation known as a 'power law'. Now this pattern is helping mathematicians and social scientists understand the mechanisms underlying global terrorism. Could these modelling techniques be used to predict if, and when, another attack the size of 9/11 will occur?
Dec 22, 2014
New Space to Fly
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As our skies become more crowded Jack Stewart examines the long awaited modernisation of air traffic control. With traffic predicted to reach 17 million by 2030 more flights will mean more delays. For many a new approach to controlling flights is long overdue since aircraft still follow old and often indirect routes around the globe, communication between the ground and air is still by VHF radio, and any flexibility is heavily constrained by a fragmented airspace operated by many national authorities. Jack Stewart examines how aviation technologists have come up with a radical solution. It enables pilots, once airborne, to choose their own route. 'Free Routing', it is argued, will allow more direct flights, no planes to be caught up in holding patterns, reduced fuel emissions and flights departing and arriving on time. Crucially, free routing will enable a tripling of flights than currently we are capable of controlling. But will the ability of pilots to choose their own routes increase the risk of collision? Researchers argue it will in fact produce even safer skies. Jack Stewart visits NATS air traffic control centre that annually looks after the safety of over two million British airspace to hear how such a system could evolve. Jack finds out how free routing could work from the engineers at Indra UK – who are trialling such a system in airspace controlled by the NATS Prestwick air traffic control centre. In a new approach they are turning 'reactive' air traffic control into a more strategic approach with computer designed flight trajectories utilising much of the currently underused satellite navigation that is fitted on modern aircraft. It will enable aircraft to be safely spaced closer together and at the same time predict potential 'conflicts' of spacing much further ahead of the routes being taken, leaving less room for human error. And as automation begins to play a greater role in all aspects of flight planning and control is the era of pilotless planes moving a step closer? (Photo: NATS air traffic control centre. Credit: NATS)
Dec 15, 2014
Vagus Nerve
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Many people are living with chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions in which the body attacks itself. Although drug treatments have improved over recent years they do not work for everyone and can have serious side effects. Now researchers such as neurologist Dr Kevin Tracey of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, and rheumatologist professor Paul-Peter Tak of Amsterdam University, are trying a new approach to improving the lives of these patients. They are firing electrical pulses along the vagus nerve, a major nerve that connects the brain with all the organs. The technology to do this has been around for some decades as stimulating the vagus nerve has been used to help people who have epilepsy that is not controlled with drugs since the 1990s. Gaia Vince talks to these pioineers of this new field of research. And, she hears how there may be ways of improving the tone of the vagal nerve using meditation. (Image: Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Credit: Getty Images)
Dec 08, 2014
Elspeth Garman
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Jim al-Khalili talks to professor Elspeth Garman about a technique that has led to 28 Nobel Prizes in the last century. X- ray crystallography, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, is used to study the internal structure of matter. It may sound rather arcane but it is the reason we now know the structure of hugely important molecules, like penicillin, insulin and DNA. But while other scientists scoop up prizes for cracking chemical structures, Elspeth works away behind the scenes, (more cameraman than Hollywood star), improving the methods and techniques used by everybody working in the field. If only it was as simple as putting a crystal in the machine and printing off the results. Growing a single crystal of an enzyme that gives TB its longevity took Elspeth's team no less than 15 years. No pressure there then when harvesting that precious commodity. (Photo: Professor Elspeth Garman)
Dec 01, 2014
Painful Medicine
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Addictions researcher, Dr Sally Marlow, investigates fears that easy access to powerful painkillers could be creating a large, but hidden problem of addiction. Painkillers are widely available over the counter, and combinations containing codeine, which is addictive, can be purchased from pharmacists and on the internet. Teenager, Alice, tells Sally about secretly buying huge numbers of painkillers on her way to school while she was wearing her school uniform. She used her lunch money to buy multiple packs from several stores, switching shops when she was questioned by pharmacists. And Steve describes how his serious codeine addiction began after treating tooth pain with the drug. The side effects helped his anxiety and for years he was doctoring tablets in order to increase his codeine intake. Some health professionals believe easy access is fuelling a potential health crisis and say those with serious dependency problems, are hidden below the healthcare radar. Only a tiny percentage of people with an addiction to painkillers find their way to traditional substance misuse services, fuelling concerns that there is a large, but hidden group, who are not getting help with their dependency. David Grieve, who set up the charity Over-Count, 21 years ago, after his own serious addiction to over-the-counter cough mixture, believes the number of people dependent on painkillers is growing, fuelled by easy availability on the internet. Between 30-35% of visitors to his website say when they are refused purchases by pharmacists, they buy online instead. Fabrizio Schifano, professor of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Hertfordshire and a member of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, demonstrates how easy it is to buy potent painkillers online and Dr Paolo DeLuca, a senior research fellow in addictive behaviour at King's College, London, tells Sally about a three year international study - the Codemisused Project - which aims to discover the scale of codeine use and misuse. Dr DeLuca is leading the British arm of the study and he hopes that research will fill the current gap in knowledge so that if action is needed to reduce the risk to individuals, it can be based on evidence. (Photo: Medicinal pills and tablets)
Nov 24, 2014
Chris Toumazou
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European Inventor of the Year, Chris Toumazou, reveals how his personal life and early research lie at the heart of his inventions. As chief scientist at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, Chris inspires engineers, doctors and other scientists to create medical devices for the 21st Century. Applying silicon chip technology, more commonly found inside mobile phones, he tackles seemingly insurmountable problems in medicine to create devices that bridge the electronic and biological worlds - from a digital plaster that monitors a patient's vital signs to an artificial pancreas to treat diabetes. His latest creation, coined a 'lab on a chip', analyses a person's DNA within minutes outside the laboratory. The hand-held device can identify genetic differences which dictate a person's susceptibility to hereditary diseases and how they will react to a drug like warfarin, used to treat blood clots. (Photo: Chris Toumazou, BBC copyright)
Nov 17, 2014
The Making of the Moon
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It is the nearest and most dominant object in our night sky, and has inspired artists, astronauts and astronomers. But fundamental questions remain about our only natural satellite. Where does the Moon come from? Although humans first walked on the Moon over four decades ago, we still know surprisingly little about the lunar body's origin. Samples returned by the Apollo missions have somewhat confounded scientists' ideas about how the Moon was formed. Its presence is thought to be due to another planet colliding with the early Earth, causing an extraordinary giant impact, and in the process, forming the Moon. But, analysing chemicals in Apollo's rock samples has revealed that the Moon could be much more similar to Earth itself than any potential impactor. Geochemist Professor Alex Halliday of the University of Oxford, and Dr Jeff Andrews-Hanna, Colorado School of Mines – who is analysing the results from Nasa's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) lunar mission – discuss the theories and evidence to-date. Are we Going Back? Settling the question of the Moon's origin seems likely to require more data – which, in turn, requires more missions. BBC Science correspondent Jonathan Amos tells us about the rationale and future prospects for a return to the Moon, including the Google Lunar XPrize. As the Moon's commercial prospects are considered, who controls conservation of our only natural satellite? If commerce is driving a return to the Moon, who owns any resources that may be found in the lunar regolith? Dr Saskia Vermeylen of the Environment Centre at Lancaster University is researching the legality of claiming this extra-terrestrial frontier. (Photo: Presenter Lucie Green. BBC copyright)
Nov 10, 2014
Trauma at War
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They call them 'The Unexpected Survivors'. The casualties from the war in Afghanistan whose injuries were so severe that they were not expected to survive, but who survived nevertheless. In October, after 13 years Britain and the United States officially brought their combat operations in Helmand Afghanistan to an end. Camp Bastion, the coalition stronghold – once one of the largest military bases in the world – has been dismantled leaving a handful of buildings that will now be handed over to the Afghan National Army. First established eight years ago in 2006, Camp Bastion came to host to one of the most extraordinary and successful trauma medical systems ever seen. Amongst the medics that went to and served in Afghanistan were doctors who trained with me in civilian hospitals. With the mission nearly at an end I had to see them and their system for myself, to try and understand just how it came to be and why it worked so well. Photo courtesy of Ministry of Defence
Nov 03, 2014
Trauma: The Fight for Life
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Dr Kevin Fong explores the development of modern trauma medicine and discovers how the lessons from conflict and catastrophe have equipped us to deal with even the worst disasters, providing a system that could save lives that would otherwise have been lost. First of two programmes.
Oct 27, 2014
Brian Cox
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Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University describes how he gave up appearing on Top of the Pops to study quarks, quasars and quantum mechanics. Although he describes himself as a simple-minded Northern bloke, he has acquired an almost God-like status on our TV screens, while the ‘Cox effect’ is thought to explain the significant boost to university admissions to read physics. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about learning to be famous, his passion for physics and how he sometimes has difficulty crossing the road. In 2005 Brian was awarded a Royal Society Research Fellowship for his work on high energy particle collisions at CERN and elsewhere – an enviable academic achievement. In 2009, he was voted one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine. He has invented a new kind of celebrity – a scientist who is regularly snapped by the paparazzi. Brian wants everyone to be as excited as he is about the laws that govern our universe - the beautiful, counter-intuitive and often weird world of quantum mechanics that explains what happens inside the nucleus of every atom, right down at the level of those exotically named elementary particles – quarks, neutrinos, gluons, muons. Challenged by Jim to explain the rules of quantum mechanics in just a minute, Brian succeeds; while conceding that the idea that everything is inherently probabilistic, is challenging. Even Einstein found it difficult. Schrodinger’s cat, or Brian Cox, for that matter, are simultaneously both dead and alive. That’s a fact. What this is all means is another question. “Am I just an algorithm?” Brian asks. “Probably”, says Jim. Producer: Anna Buckley (Photo: Brian Cox, BBC copyright)
Oct 20, 2014
Urine Trouble: What’s in our Water
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You have a headache and take a pill. The headache is gone, but what about the pill? What we flush away makes its way through sewers, treatment works, rivers and streams and finally back to your tap. Along the way most of the drugs we take are removed but the tiny amounts that remain are having effects. Feminised fish in our rivers, starlings feeding on Prozac-rich worms, and bacteria developing antibiotic resistance - scientists are just beginning to understand how the drugs we take are leaving their mark on the environment. The compounds we excrete are also telling tales on us. Professor of Chemistry, Andrea Sella, gets up close and personal with music festival toilets to find out what the revellers are swallowing, and hears from scientists who are sampling our rivers to learn about our health. Producer: Lorna Stewart (Photo: Laboratory technician, testing a urine sample for traces of any banned substances or stimulants. BBC copyright)
Oct 13, 2014
Patients Doing It for Themselves
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Patient power is on the rise. But is it rising too far? Frustrated by the time it takes to develop new drugs, the ethical barriers to obtaining clinical data or the indifference of the medical profession to obscure diseases, patients are setting up their own clinical trials and overturning the norms of clinical research. A DIY clinical trial sounds like a joke – and a dangerous one at that. But as Vivienne Parry discovers, it's real and on the rise as greater access to medical data allows more patients to play research scientists and medics at their own game. Patients lie at the very heart of clinical research – without them there is none. Yet they come way down the food chain when it comes to transparency about their own health, blinded as they usually are to what pills they are taking and whether they are actually doing them any good. Even after the trial is published they are left with little understanding of whether the treatment could work for them and licensing is usually years away. So it is perhaps hardly surprising that patient networks have sprung up to redress the balance. Much of this current patient led research now takes place through online communities, with activists and the articulate ill demanding more say in their treament. Vivienne Parry looks at some examples of patient led research which have challenged the medical establishment. She also asks how far can this go: should patients be prevented from experimenting with proceedures or drugs that might kill them? (Photo: Medicinal pills)
Oct 06, 2014
Preventing Disease in Animals
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Diseases devastate livestock around the world. In chickens for example the deadly strain of bird flu and the lesser known bacterial infection Campylobacter, not only harms the chickens but is also a real threat to human health. Melissa Hogenboom visits one of the world’s leading genetics institutions, the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh in the UK and hears about new genetic techniques to combat diseases in our livestock. In chickens, professor Helen Sang uses a subtle form of genetic modification, called genome editing. Her team is trying to find the genetic components of natural resistance in a wide group of chicken breeds, which they can then insert into the genome of livestock fowl in the hope of breeding healthier, safer chickens. They are close to making disease resistant birds but they are aware that GM animals are still a long way from entering the market in Europe. Similar research is going on in cows for TB resistance, but here instead of genetically modifying they are cross-breeding which may take ten or more generations to complete. Melissa hears from Professor Liz Glass who studies the genetics of disease resistance in cattle. Her work has applications in the design of better vaccines for infectious diseases and understanding how disease spreads. Melissa also hears about a team creating a frozen bio-bank of bird stem cells - cryopreserving them so that they could one day resurrect entire breeds. This technique could provide hope against losing these valuable genes forever. Producer and presenter: Melissa Hogenboom (Photo: Chickens. BBC copyright)
Sep 29, 2014
Beyond the Abyss
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Rebecca Morelle talks to explorers of deep ocean trenches, from film-maker James Cameron to biologists discovering dark realms of weird pink gelatinous fish and gigantic crustaceans. The deepest regions of the ocean lie between 6,000 and 11,000 metres. Oceanographers term this the Hadal Zone. It exists where the floor of abyss plunges into long trough-like features, known as ocean trenches. The Hadal zone is the final frontier of exploration and ecological science on the planet. At its most extreme, the water pressure rises to 1 tonne per square centimetre and the temperature drops to 1 degree C. Despite the challenging conditions, some animals survive and thrive in the trenches. Because the technical challenges to operating there are so high, we are only now just learning what is down there and how creatures adapt to life in the extremes. Based at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, deep sea ecologist Alan Jamieson is one of the premier explorers of life in the Hadal zone. In the programme, he talks through some of the latest video footage he has from the depths of the Kermadec Trench in New Zealand - not by visiting in person but by dropping cameras on a deep sea probe called a hadal lander to the distant sea floor. The images were gathered on an expedition in April and May. They revealed new habits of hadal creatures. Rebecca does talk to two people who have ventured in person to the far limit of the Hadal zone: US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh who went down to the bottom of Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench in 1960, and Hollywood director James Cameron who, 52 years later, repeated Walsh's voyage to 11,000 metres. (Photo: Supergiant amphipod at 6200 metres. Credit: Oceanlab, University of Aberdeen)
Sep 22, 2014
Power Transmission
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Gaia Vince looks at the future of power transmission. As power generation becomes increasingly mixed and demand increases, what does the grid of the future look like?
Sep 15, 2014
Biosafety
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Accidents happen in science labs all over the world, but when you’re working with deadly pathogens the consequences can be disastrous. The reputation of America’s ‘gold standard’ The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Georgia has recently become tarnished as news emerged that 80 workers were inadvertently exposed to live anthrax, and a deadly strain of flu was accidentally sent to another lab. Further reports of tick-box safety culture, lethal samples sent in ziplock plastic bags and vials of smallpox from the 1950s being found in the back of a fridge have increased calls for a review of the work being done on some of the world’s most dangerous pathogens. Andrew Luck-Baker looks at the impact of these recent biosafety lapses for BBC WS Discovery. Some scientists are now arguing for the reduction of laboratories working with deadly viruses and the closing down of research which is potentially risky. But does the benefit of the work outweigh its potential risks to the public? And how can human error be eliminated? (Photo: Bio hazard warning symbol. Credit: Getty Images)
Sep 08, 2014
Mum and Dad and Mum
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Alana Saarinen is a 13-year-old girl who lives with her mum and dad in Michigan, USA. She loves playing golf and the piano, listening to music and hanging out with friends. In those respects, she's like many teenagers around the world. Except she's not, because Alana is one of a handful of people in the world who have DNA from three people. The BBC's Science Correspondent Rebecca Morelle explores how more children like Alana could be born. The UK is looking to legalise a new technique which would mean more children with DNA from three people could be born. This irreversibly changes the human genetic code, and would also eliminate debilitating genetic diseases. This programme examines the safety and health implications of this new science. For some it is controversial. For those who have these specific genetic diseases, it is the way to have their own healthy child. The UK is playing a pioneering role in developing the technique, called mitochondrial replacement, and Parliament are expected to vote on legalising it soon. If that happened, the UK would be the first place in the world to make the process legal. But despite that, there are a small number of children in the world, like Alana Saarinen, who have DNA from three people already. Although a small sample, they could answer some of the questions people have, such as will they be healthy, do they feel like they have three parents and would they like to trace the donor one day in the future? Producer: Charlotte Pritchard.
Sep 01, 2014
Antibiotic Resistance Crisis - Part Two
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Infectious bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs that used to kill them. The last new class of antibiotics was discovered in the 1980s. There is little in the development pipelines of the world’s pharmaceutical industry. Drug companies got out of antibiotics as their attention switched to much more lucrative daily medicines for chronic diseases. Public funding on antibiotic research has also withered. Now that the gathering crisis of antibiotic resistance is becoming recognised by politicians, what are the options? Roland Pease explores how business, academia and governments might work together to avert a return to the medical dark ages. Image Credit: Hospital scientist inspects an unidentified culture in the Microbiology Department of Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images
Aug 25, 2014
Antibiotic Resistance Crisis - Part One
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The discovery and harnessing of antibiotic drugs in the mid-20th Century led some medics to predict the end of infectious diseases. But the bacteria fought and continue to fight back, evolving resistance to many of the drugs that used to kill them. Public health officials warn that without new drugs, medicine will return to the days where ‘a cut finger on Monday leads to death of Friday’. Without protective antibiotics to keep infections at bay, scores of standard surgical operations and chemotherapy for cancer will become too risky. Roland Pease looks at scientific issues behind the gathering crisis. The last new class of antibiotics was discovered in the 1980s. Are there any others in the pipeline? Image Credit: Hospital scientist inspects an unidentified culture in the Microbiology Department of Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images
Aug 18, 2014
Cosmology
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In March astronomers in the BICEP2 collaboration announced they had found gravitational waves from the Big Bang. But now the evidence is being questioned by other scientists. Dr Lucie Green reports on the debate and asks if scientists can ever know what happened billions of years ago when the universe was formed. Image copyright: Steffen Richter, Harvard University
Aug 11, 2014
Rosetta Mission Arriving At Comet
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On 6th August, the space probe Rosetta ends its 10 year journey and arrives at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. If all goes well, Rosetta will be the first spacecraft to go into orbit around a comet. The European Space Agency probe will then accompany the comet until December 2015, studying the 4 kilometre-wide lump of ice and rock dust at a level of detail far surpassing any previous comet flyby. In the words of Rosetta scientist Joel Parker, “Previous comet missions have been one-night stands, Rosetta will be there for a long term relationship.” Rosetta will stay with 67P as it heads towards and around the other side of the Sun. Rosetta will be watching everything at close quarters as the comet heats up and produces the classic gas and dust comet tail. In the final weeks of approach, the Rosetta team have realised this is going to be an even more interesting mission than they had supposed. In the middle of July, the probe’s camera revealed the bizzare shape of the comet’s nucleus. It appears to be formed of two objects joined together. Some have described it as having the shape of a toy duck. In November, Rosetta will send a small robot lander, Philae, down onto the comet’s surface – another hugely ambitious feat, given the feeble gravitational pull of the comet and its complex shape. Philae could bounce off into the void if its trajectory is not quite true and its on-board harpoons fail to secure it to the comet’s icy surface. Discovery looks ahead to the mission’s key moments and big science questions with planetary scientists and members of the Rosetta science team: Professor Ian Wright - principal investigator (PI) for the lander’s Ptolemy instrument, Professor Monica Grady - planetary scientist at the Open University, UK. Matt Taylor, project scientist on Rosetta Dr Joel Parker - deputy PI for Rosetta’s Alice spectrometer Dr Holger Sierks - principal investigator for Rosetta’s Osiris camera Dr Stephan Ulamec - project scientist for the lander Philae (German Space Agency) The big questions for Rosetta include: did comets bring water and the essential ingredients for life to the early Earth? Presented and produced by Andrew Luck-Baker Image Credit: Rosetta and Philae at Comet, European Space Agency
Aug 04, 2014
Professor Sir Michael Rutter
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Professor Sir Michael Rutter has been described as the most illustrious and influential psychiatric scientist of his generation. His international reputation has been achieved despite the fact that as a young doctor, he had no intention of becoming a researcher, nor interest in becoming a child psychiatrist. In fact he became a world leader as both. His career has spanned more than five decades and is marked by a remarkable body of high-impact research and landmark studies. The theme running through all his work has been child development, on the subtle interplay between nature and nurture and on the factors that make the difference between a child flourishing, or floundering. Evacuated during World War Two, to a Quaker family in the USA, Mike Rutter tells Jim al-Khalili about the impact this move, aged seven, had on him. He describes the inspirational teachers who persuaded him that research and clinical work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, was for him, and he admits that an early mentor insisted he mustn't receive any formal training in child psychiatry, something he hasn't received to this day! He was awarded this country's first ever professorship in child psychiatry in 1973 and he's credited with founding the field of developmental psychopathology. This involves the study, over time, of normal and abnormal child development. He's currently Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at King's College, London and still a practicing child psychiatrist. An early breakthrough was his discovery that autism, or inifantile psychosis as it was then known, had a genetic basis, something barely suspected at the time. Beautifully designed studies of populations over time followed, many of them landmark studies still cited today. They established the framework for studying and investigating mental illness in the community. The Isle of Wight Studies (1964-74) surveyed the mental health of children living on the island and for the first time in such research, children themselves were directly interviewed and questioned. Before this, Mike Rutter tells Jim, the assumption had been that what children thought and said didn't really matter. In the 1970s, the Fifteen Thousand Hours study, delivered ground-breaking evidence about the combination of factors that affected the performance and behaviour of children in inner city secondary schools. Findings from this study were included by both the Labour and Conservative parties in their 1979 election manifestos. "Maternal Deprivation Reassessed" was Mike Rutter's challenge to John Bowlby's hugely influential theory of maternal attachment. It was described as "a classic in the field of childcare" and it transformed the debate about the relationships that help babies to flourish. His fascination with the underlying reasons why and how children vary in their ability to weather and cope with adversity, led to the growth of resilience science. For more than 40 years Mike Rutter, "the intellectual father", has led this field of study. His name is particularly associated with "natural experiments" and one of the best known is the English Romanian Adoptees study that he set up in the early 1990s and still runs today. The children being followed are those rescued from the orphanages of Nicolai Ceausescu and adopted by families in this country. Because of the appalling conditions many of these babies and toddlers experienced in Romanian institutions, Professor Rutter understood that tracking and studying them as they grew up in loving homes here, would provide important insights into how early deprivation affects childrens' development. Producer: Fiona Hill Image: Professor Sir Michael Rutter, BBC Copyright
Jul 28, 2014
What has Happened to El Nino?
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At the start of 2014 meteorologists warned of a possible El Nino event this year. The portents were persuasive – a warming of the central Pacific much like that which preceded the powerful El Nino event of 1997. But since then the Pacific climate system seems to have stalled. What’s going on? What are the prospects for an El Nino to develop later this year? What impacts might it have? Roland Pease delves below the Pacific surface to find out what drives El Nino cycles, the most powerful single climate fluctuation on the planet, and asks the experts why it is so hard to forecast. “The year started with a bang,” one expert tells Discovery - will it end with a whimper? (Photo: Burned swamp forest in Kalimantan. Credit: Florian Siegert, RSS GmbH)
Jul 21, 2014
Swarming Robots
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Adam Hart looks at how new developments in understanding insect behaviour, plant cell growth and sub cellular organisation are influencing research into developing robot swarms. Biological systems have evolved elegant ways for large numbers of autonomous agents to govern themselves. Staggering colonies built by ants and termites emerge from a decentralized, self-governing system: swarm intelligence. Now, taking inspiration from termites, marine animals and even plants, European researchers are developing autonomous robot swarms, setting them increasingly difficult challenges, such as navigating a maze, searching for an object or surveying an area. At the same time, an American team has announced that its group of robots can autonomously build towers, castles and even a pyramid. Adam Hart reports on the latest developments in controlling groups of robots, and asks why models taken from the behaviour of social insects such as bees, ants and termites may be far more complex than previously thought. He also delves deep into the cells of plants looking at how the physical and chemical triggers for plant growth might be useful in robot design. Image: Presenter Adam Hart with ‘Swarmbots’ at Britain’s Surrey University, BBC Copyright
Jul 14, 2014
Anaesthesia
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General anaesthetics which act to cause reversible loss of consciousness have been used clinically for over 150 years. Yet scientists are only now really understanding how these drugs act on the brain and the body to stop us feeling pain. Linda Geddes reports on the latest research using molecular techniques and brain scanners. Linda visits the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre where William Harrop-Griffiths, president of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, tells her about the discovery of agents that knock us out. And, as an operation takes place in the Royal United Hospital in Bath, professor Tim Cook explains the role of the anaesthetist. Linda also talks to professor Nick Franks of Imperial College, London, about his research into how anaesthetics work at the level of the cell. Irene Tracey, professor of Anaesthetic Science at Oxford University, discusses how her fMRI scans of people as they slowly undergo anaesthesia have revealed how the brain switches off. Professor Steven Laureys, head of the Coma Science Group at Liege Universiy in Belgium, explains how understanding anaesthesia can help coma patients and what it tells us about the difficult question of human consciousness.
Jul 07, 2014
Janet Hemingway
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Janet Hemingway, the youngest woman to ever to become a full professor in the UK, talks about her career at the frontline of the war on malaria. Whilst many researchers look for vaccines and treatments to this global killer, Janet's approach, as a trained entomologist, has been to fight the mosquito - the vector - which transmits the malaria parasite. Image: Janet Hemingway, BBC Copyright
Jun 30, 2014
Ageing and the Brain
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Geoff Watts investigates the latest thinking about our brain power in old age. He meets researchers who argue that society has overly negative views of the mental abilities of the elderly - a dismal and fatalistic outlook which is not backed up by recent discoveries and theories. Geoff talks to professor Lorraine Tyler who leads a large study in Cambridge (CamCAN) which is comparing cognition and brain structure and function in 700 people aged between 18 and 88 years old. He also meets scientists and participants involved in a unique study of cognition and ageing at the University of Edinburgh. It has traced hundreds of people who were given a nationwide intelligence test as children in 1932 and 1947. Since the year 2000, the study has been retesting their intelligence and mental agility in their 70s to 90s. The Lothian Birth Cohort study is revealing what we all might do in life to keep our minds fast and sharp well into old age. One new and controversial idea holds that cognitive decline is in fact a myth. A team in Germany, led by Michael Ramscar, argues that older people perform less well in intelligence and memory tests because they know so much more than younger subjects and not because their brains are deteriorating. Simply put, their larger stores of accumulated knowledge slow their performance. Their brains take longer to retrieve the answers from their richer memory stores. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Jun 23, 2014
Driverless Cars
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Jack Stewart meets the engineers who are building vehicles that drive themselves. He has a ride in Google's driverless car, which has no steering wheel and no pedals. Google's Chris Urmson explains the company's approach to autonomous vehicles. Jack visits Stanford University's driverless car project where professor Chris Gerdes shows him Shelley, an automated Audi that races around a track at speed as well as a human driver. Chris is collaborating with a philosopher to explore some of the difficult questions around autonomous vehicles, such as who is liable if there's an accident. Is it the human or the car? And ,Jack meets Josh Swirtes whose company, Peloton, is linking trucks together with the idea that they should have fewer accidents. (Photo: Jack Stewart in Stanford's University X1)
Jun 16, 2014
Driverless Cars
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Most traffic accidents are caused by human error. Engineers are designing vehicles with built in sensors that send messages to other cars, trucks, bikes and even pedestrians, to prevent collisions happening. The idea is to make the vehicles react to whatever's going on faster than the human drivers. Jack Stewart drives around the university town of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, in some of the many vehicles that are fitted with experimental devices in the world's largest connected vehicles project. He finds out how the system works from researchers at UMTRI, the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, including the director, professor Peter Sweatman and human factors expert Dr Jim Sayer, Kirk Steudle, Director, Michigan Department of Transportation and a resident who has had her car fitted with an experimental device. (Photo: Right hand wing mirror, Nevada, USA, BBC copyright)
Jun 09, 2014
Taming the Sun
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ITER is the most complex experiment ever attempted on this planet. Its aim, to demonstrate that nuclear fusion, the power of the Sun, can give us pollution free energy that we can use for millions of years. But at the moment, it's still largely a vast building site in the Haut Provence of southern France, with little prospect of any nuclear reactions there for another decade. A recent management report made damning criticisms of the way ITER is run, of the relations between the central organisations, and the seven partners (USA, Russia, Japan, China, South Korea, India and Europe) contributing to the project. Roland Pease has been to Cadarache to see how work is progressing, and to hear of the hopes of the scientists who have dedicated their working lives to the dream. (Photo: The empty magnet-winding hall at ITER, BBC copyright)
Jun 02, 2014
Beauty and the Brain
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Dr Tiffany Jenkins asks what our brains can tell us about art. Can there ever be a recipe for beauty? Or are the great works beyond the powers of neuroscience? She talks to Professor Semir Zeki of University College London, the first person to coin the term, neuroaesthetics, about what happens in the brain when people in a scanner see paintings or hear music. Professor Gabi Starr at New York University tells Tiffany Jenkins why she thinks there are parts of the brain that light up when we like an art work. Tiffany visits Christie's auction house to explore whether the best art always commands the best prices. She also talks to Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of Art History at Oxford University, about our different responses to authentic paintings and to fakes. And Tiffany discusses with art critic JJ Charlesworth why neuroscience is having an influence in some areas of art appreciation. Picture: The reflection of trees in water, Credit: Getty
May 26, 2014
Alf Adams
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Alf Adams FRS, physicist at the University of Surrey, had an idea on a beach in the mid-eighties that made the modern internet, CD and DVD players, and even bar-code readers possible. You probably have half a dozen 'strained-layer quantum well lasers' in your home. Image credit: Alf Adams, BBC Copyright
May 19, 2014
Mark Miodownik
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Mark Miodownik's chronic interest in materials began in rather unhappy circumstances. He was stabbed in the back, with a razor, on his way to school. When he saw the tiny piece of steel that had caused him so much harm, he became obsessed with how it could it be so sharp and so strong. And he's been materials-mad ever since. Working at a nuclear weapons laboratory in the US, he enjoyed huge budgets and the freedom to make the most amazing materials. But he gave that up to work with artists and designers because he believes that if you ignore the sensual aspects of materials, you end up with materials that people don't want. For Mark, making is as important as reading and writing. It's an expression of who we are, like music or literature, and 'everyone should be doing it'. To this end, he wants our public libraries to be converted into public workshops, with laser cutters and 3 D printers in place of books. Image: Mark Miodownik, BBC Copyright
May 12, 2014
Sue Black
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Forensic anthropologist professor Sue Black began her career with a Saturday job working in a butcher's shop. At the time she didn't realise that this would be the start of a lifelong fascination with anatomy. Her job has taken her to some extreme and challenging locations to identify human bodies, such as Kosovo, where she uncovered evidence used in the UN's War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Back home, Sue has been integral in solving many high-profile criminal cases, including cracking Scotland's biggest paedophile ring in 2009. In The Life Scientific, Jim al-Khalili asks how she deals with the emotional pressures of the job, and why she is so fascinated by the inner workings of the human body. In her spare time, Sue Black also advises crime fiction authors like Val McDermid, providing inspiration for new plotlines and characters. In return, Val and a group of writers have offered to help with Sue's latest challenge - fundraising for a mortuary. This facility will use new techniques to embalm bodies and promises to revolutionise the way surgeons are trained. (Photo: Sue Black, BBC copyright)
May 05, 2014
Whatever Happened to Biofuels - Part Two
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Whatever happened to biofuels? They were seen as the replacement for fossil fuels until it was realised they were being grown on land that should have been used for food crops. But now there is serious research into new ways of producing biofuels, from waste materials, from algae and from bacteria. Gaia Vince takes to the water of Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland where Professor Matthew Dring and Dr Karen Mooney from Queens University, Belfast, are experimenting in growing algae that could be turned into fuel. She visits Professor Alison Smith's algae lab at Cambridge University. Graham Ellis from Solazyme in California explains how his company has already made fuel from algae that has been sold at the pumps and powered a plane, in a mixture with conventional fuel. And Professor Nick Turner at Manchester University and Professor John Love at Exeter University talk about how they are manipulating bacteria to make diesel.
Apr 28, 2014
Whatever Happened to Biofuels?
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Biofuels were hailed as the environmental solution to fossil fuels not that long ago. Made from living crops they take up carbon dioxide as they grow. So burning them shouldn’t disturb the balance of warming gases in the atmosphere. But for the last few years the publicity about biofuels has been mainly negative. And for good reason – biofuels are made from crops such as oil palm - grown in place of food crops or even rainforests. In some cases using these crops actually produces more CO2 than burning fossil fuels. However research is being done into new kinds of biofuels that aren’t in competition with food crops. Gaia Vince travels to Bavaria in Germany to meet Dr Markus Rarbach, head of biofuels at Clariant. This company has set up a demonstration plant that produces ethanol from sugars in the waste products of wheat grown nearby. Also on the programme is professor Gregory Tucker from Nottingham University who talks about research into new ways of getting sugars out of the inedible parts of crops; agricultural economist, Dr Paul Wilson, discusses what farmers think about making biofuels out of their straw; and Dr Angela Karp at Rothamsted Research, who is growing new willow varieties, which could be made into biofuels. Image Credit: Clariant
Apr 21, 2014
Peter Higgs
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An extended interview with the Nobel prize laureate. Peter Higgs tells Jim Al-Khalili that he failed to realise the full significance of the Higgs boson and to link it to the much celebrated Standard Model of Physics. He puts the oversight down to a string of missed opportunities, including one night at a physics summer camp when he chose to go to bed early. Working alone in Edinburgh in the 1960s, Peter Higgs says he was considered "a bit of a crank... No-one wanted to work with me". In 1964, he predicted the possible existence of a new kind of boson but, at the time, there was little interest. Three years later, the Higgs mechanism was shown to be central to the new Standard Model of Physics, which brings together three of the four fundamental forces of nature and has dominated physics ever since. Higgs met one of the key architects of the Standard Model several times, but they failed to realise they were working on the same thing. The 1970s were an exciting time for particle physics but Higgs says he lacked technical competency. He adds that work pressure contributed to the breakdown of his marriage. Four decades and several billion pounds on, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN confirmed that the Higgs boson had indeed been found and Peter Higgs shot to fame. This ephemeral speck of elusive energy is now so well-known it's featured in car adverts and countless jokes. There's even song by Nick Cave called the Higgs Boson Blues. But Higgs has always called it the 'scalar boson' and remains embarrassed that it is named after only him. He remains surprised that another British physicist, Tom Kibble from Imperial College, London didn't share the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics along with him and Belgian physicist, Francois Englert. These days, he's constantly stopped in the street and asked for autographs and photographs which, he says, is "nice but a bit of a nuisance". Producer: Anna Buckley Image Credit: BBC
Apr 14, 2014
Vikram Patel
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Jim al-Khalili talks to psychiatrist Vikram Patel about the global campaign he is leading to tackle mental health. He reflects on his early career working in Zimbabwe, when he doubted any western diagnosis or treatments for peoples' distress would be of much use. However, his subsequent research made him question this and come to the realisation that some conditions, like depression and psychosis, could be tackled universally. Now based in India, Vikram's research guides the public health approach he is taking. Yet critics question the application of Western categories for diagnosis and treatment to other parts of the world. (Photo: Vikram Patel)
Apr 07, 2014
Inside the Shark's Mind
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Fatal shark attacks on humans have been on the increase in Australia. For Discovery, marine biologist Dr Helen Scales finds out how scientists are exploring new, humane ways to reduce this number. At the start of this year, the state government of Western Australia decided to undertake the culling of sharks longer than three metres, after what they called an “unprecedented number of attacks”. In February, thousands of Australians protested against the cull, with conservationists claiming that it will make no difference to the number of attacks. An outspoken critic of the strategy is Rodney Fox, who was almost killed by a Great White shark when he was a young man but who subsequently made a 50-year-long career filming sharks, shark tourism and shark conservation. Rodney talks to Helen about the day he was attacked and his thoughts about the Western Australian cull. Rodney argues that another approach is needed. On a mission to reduce shark attacks, a team has been formed at the Ocean Institute, University of Western Australia (UWA). Their task is to think like a shark to understand how a shark’s brain perceives and reacts to light, sound and vibrations, and how the shark’s finely tuned senses might be manipulated in the hunt for more effective, humanitarian shark repellents. Research revealed that Great Whites have large chunks of their brain dedicated to vision. So UWA are developing and testing a shark-proof wetsuit that mimics the appearance of poisonous, striped sea snakes. Other solutions under study include bubble curtains and the use of devices which generate electric fields around swimmers. Helen also questions whether sharks deserve their reputation as the most fearsome predators of the sea. Have they been misunderstood and mythologised by popular culture through films such as Jaws and Deep Blue Sea. Proving that even the most predatory of sharks are not automatic man-eaters, Helen herself goes diving with dozens of huge bull sharks (one of the most aggressive species) and comes to the surface unscathed. These three metre long monsters have been trained to be hand-fed by locals while tourists watch close by. Helen also talks to veteran shark researcher Eugenie Clark about the predators’ learning abilities and intelligence. Dr Clark was able to train sharks to learn to press the correct buttons with their snouts to get a food treat. She even presented the Crown Prince of Japan with a baby nurse shark who never made a mistake. (Photo: Courtesy of Helen Scales)
Mar 31, 2014
The Biology of Freedom
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Is free will unique to humans or a biological trait that evolved over time and across species? Whilst the existence and nature of free will has been hotly debated by philosophers through the centuries, the basic idea that we determine our own destiny is fundamental to human experience. We can even decide to act in ways which may threaten our very existence. Biology underpins how we behave but it is the human mind that decides to act. Recently, however, this idea has come under attack from neuroscience research which has shown our sense of freedom to be something of an illusion. MRI scans suggest our brains make decisions several seconds before we are consciously aware of them. We have an ability to react to new situations, to be unpredictable and even illogical, to the point of self-destruction. But look closely and these qualities can also be found across the animal kingdom. From bonobos to bacteria, organisms are making what appear to be independent decisions in surprising ways. As part of the Freedom 2014 season, entomologist Adam Hart explores the biology of freedom, meeting researchers working with apes, birds, insects and even single-celled microbes, who are redefining the way we think about free will and its origins. (Image Credit: Joshua Hart)
Mar 24, 2014
Fructose: the Bittersweet Sugar
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If you believe the headlines fructose is 'addictive as cocaine', a 'toxic additive' or a 'metabolic danger'. So how has a simple sugar in fruit and honey got such a bad name and is there any evidence behind the accusations that it has caused the obesity epidemic? Meanwhile, a new health claim approved by the European Food Safety Authority for foods or drinks substituting fructose for other sugars, comes into force. Dr Mark Porter talks to leading world experts to sift through the evidence in Fructose: The Bitter Sweet Sugar. Picture: Ingredients list on a drinks bottle, Credit: Associated Press
Mar 17, 2014
Hack my Hearing
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Audiologists are concerned there may be a rising tide of 'hidden hearing loss' among young people. As electronic prices have fallen, sound systems have become cheaper and more powerful. At the same time, live music events and personal music players are more popular than ever, resulting in an increase in noise-related hearing damage. Aged 32, science writer Frank Swain is losing his hearing. In this programme, he asks what the future holds for people like him, part of a tech-savvy generation who want to hack their hearing aids to tune in to invisible data in the world around them. Could these designers and hackers create the next super sense? (Photo: Graphic design shows an ear with computer sound waves. Credit: Getty Images) Credits: Sound files of tinnitus kindly provided by Action on Hearing Loss. Free Helpline: 0808 808 0123. Sonified data produced by Semiconductor, with audio courtesy of CARISMA, operated by the University of Alberta, funded by the Canadian Space Agency. Special thanks to Andy Kale. Colour music created by cyborg artist Neil Harbisson.
Mar 10, 2014
Show me the Way to Go Home
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Gardening grandmother Ruth Brooks, also known as 'the snail lady', was chosen as the BBC's Amateur Scientist of the Year in 2010. She noticed that despite repeatedly throwing her snails over the garden fence, her gastropods would return home to decimate her petunias. From her Radio 4 experiments, designed by mentor Dr Dave Hodgson, from the University of Exeter, they showed that snails do have a homing instinct, returning from distances of over 10 metres. In this documentary, Ruth sets out to investigate how different animals navigate, from smell maps for cats to astronomy for dung beetles. She travels to Portsmouth to meet some speedy pigeons and visits an MRI laboratory where neuroscientists are hunting for the source of their mysterious magnetic sense. But do we humans have a homing instinct, and can we improve our sense of direction?
Mar 03, 2014
Saving the Oceans - Part Four
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In part four of Saving the Oceans, Joel finds out how knowledge of the seas from Australia’s Aboriginal communities can feed into modern ocean science. And at Seasim - the world’s largest marine research laboratory - he looks at the ways human fertilisation treatments are being applied to help conserve coral. This includes techniques from human sperm banks being applied to coral. He also speaks to the scientists unlocking coral genetics in an attempt to help them survive rising sea temperatures. (Image: Inside the SEASIM facility at the Australian Institute of Marine science a Coral Sperm Bank is being developed)
Feb 24, 2014
Saving the Oceans - Part Three
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We look at the impact of climate change, overfishing and pollution on marine eco-systems and examine the scientific solutions to some of those issues. Presented by Joel Werner from the Australian broadcaster ABC Radio National, the series focuses on the improvements both for marine life and the people who depend on oceans for their livelihoods. In the third programme Joel looks at how data analysis has helped reduce deaths of seabirds caught up in commercial fishing operations. He hears how the same operations may have also had an evolutionary impact on the birds. He looks at the effects of a plague of coral eating starfish on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And he hears how undersea volcanic activity near Papua New Guinea is providing clues about the future direction of ocean climate change.
Feb 17, 2014
Saving the Oceans - Part Two
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The second episode in our four-part series Saving the Ocean in which we look at the impact of climate change, overfishing and pollution on ocean environments, and examine the scientific solutions to some of those issues. Presented by Joel Werner from the Australian broadcaster ABC Radio National, the series focuses on the improvements both for marine life and the people who depend on oceans for their livelihoods. In this second programme Joel looks at plans to help conserve sharks in the waters around remote Pacific islands. A shark fin export trade to Asia has provided a lucrative but ultimately unsustainable income for the islanders. And he visits New Zealand, where a high-tech solution has been designed to help sustainably harvest a different valuable export commodity - marine snails. A high demand from Asia for this delicacy has endangered the snails. Joel hears how digital technology is being used to track them to ensure there are enough left to breed. He also sees what tracking technology is revealing about how seabirds are affected by commercial fishing practices. (Image: Paua fishermen examine their catch. BBC copyright)
Feb 10, 2014
Saving the Oceans - Part One
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Saving the Ocean looks at the impact of climate change, overfishing and pollution - and examines the scientific solutions to some of those issues. In the first programme Joel Werner visits Kiribati – an isolated Pacific island group threatened by rising sea levels. They are also facing a range of more immediate problems - a high human population and a shortage of land puts pressure on natural resources. Joel meets the scientists working to keep the population afloat on these tiny coral atolls. He finds out about how this island group is threatened by sea level rise and changing weather patterns - and how in some cases, poor sea defence management is making the erosion of the islands worse. (Image: Low tide reveals the detritus of 50,000 people on South Tarawa, Kiribati, BBC copyright)
Feb 03, 2014
Fixing Nitrogen
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Today, 3.5 billion people are alive because of a single chemical process. The Haber-Bosch process takes nitrogen from the air and makes ammonia, from which synthetic fertilizers allow farmers to feed our massive population. Ammonia is a source of highly reactive nitrogen, suitable not just for fertilizer, but also as an ingredient in bomb making and thousands of other applications. We make around 100 million tonnes of ammonia annually - and spread most of it on our fields. But this is a very inefficient way to use what amounts to 1-2% of the planet's energy needs. Only around 20% of fertilizer made ends up in our food. Professor Andrea Sella explores some of the alternative ways we might make fertilizer. Vegetables such as peas and beans, allow certain cells in their roots to become infected by a specific type of bacteria. In return, these bacteria provide them with their own fertilizer. Could we infect the plants we want to grow for food – such as cereals – in a similar way to cut down the climatic and environmental impact of Haber-Bosch?
Jan 27, 2014
Chronotypes
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Are you a lark or an owl? Are you at your best in the morning or the evening? Linda Geddes meets the scientists who are exploring the differences between larks and owls. At the University of Surrey's Sleep Research Centre she talks to its director, professor Derk-Jan Dijk, and finds out her own chronotype by filling in a questionnaire. Linda discovers why we have circadian rhythms and why they do not all run at the same rate. Dr Louis Ptacek from the University of California, San Francisco, explains his investigation of the genes of families whose members get up very early in the morning and of those who get up very late. She finds out why our sleep patterns change as we age – teenagers really are not good at getting up in the morning. Professor Mary Carskadon from Brown University explains that although some schools have experimented with a later start there is no plan to put this into universal practice. Linda talks to Professor Til Roenneberg from Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich about his concept of social jetlag. And she hears about research trying to reduce the exhaustion often suffered by shift workers. Dr Steve Lockley of Harvard University tells her about using blue light to improve the wellbeing of people with medical conditions.
Jan 20, 2014
Geoengineering
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Geoengineering is a controversial approach to dealing with climate change. Gaia Vince explores the process of putting chemicals in the stratosphere to stop solar energy reaching the earth. When volcanoes erupt they put sulphur in the stratosphere. The particles reflect solar rays back into space and the planet cools down. Scientists are suggesting that it could be possible to put sulphur into the stratosphere using specialised aircraft or a very long pipe. But if this was implemented there could be impacts on rainfall and the ozone layer. Another idea is to spray seawater to whiten clouds that would reflect more energy away from the earth. Gaia Vince talks to the researchers who are considering solar radiation management. She also hears from social scientists who are finding out what the public think about the idea and who are asking who should make decisions about implementing this way of cooling the planet. (Photo: The ocean with the sun rising in the horizon)
Jan 13, 2014
The Return To Mawson's Antarctica - Part Four
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The Australasian Antarctic Expedition has been retracing the steps of the first expedition to East Antarctica, a century ago. Its leader was Douglas Mawson, one of the great figures of the heroic age of exploration of the frozen continent. In the last of the programmes from the Antarctic, Andrew Luck-Baker reports on the 10 days the scientists, tourists and crew of the ship, the Academik Shokalskiy, spent locked in the ice and their eventual release via helicopters from a Chinese ice breaker to an Australian vessel.
Jan 06, 2014
The Return to Mawson's Antarctica - Part Three
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Alok Jha and Andrew Luck-Baker continue to follow the scientists on the ongoing Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013. They go out on fieldwork trips with the researchers studying how the wildlife that lives in this inhospitable environment is responding to climate change. Zoologist Tracy Rogers searches for leopard seals with underwater microphones. From a safe distance she takes a small sample from a Weddell seal to find out what it’s been eating. Ornithologist Kerry-Jayne Wilson discovers that an iconic breeding colony of Adelie penguins at Cape Denison, the rocky area where Douglas Mawson built his expedition hut, has depleted numbers as the fast ice has grown. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Image: Ice-blocked bow of the Shokalskiy and expedition doctor Andrew Peacock
Dec 30, 2013
The Return to Mawson's Antarctica - Part Two
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Alok Jha and Andrew Luck-Baker continue to follow the scientists on the ongoing Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013. Ice, the oceans and climate change are the themes this week as one of the expedition scientists makes a troubling finding. Moored in Commonwealth Bay in East Antarctic, the expedition’s oceanographer Erik van Sibble discovers a stunning difference in the nature of the water beneath the sea ice. Although it is a preliminary finding, the consequences for the motions of the world’s oceans and climate change could be dramatic. With thanks to AAE volunteer scientist Terry Gostlow for sound recording assistance.
Dec 23, 2013
The Return to Mawson's Antarctica - Part One
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Join the scientists of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition 2013, as they go about their experiments and seek adventure at the windiest place on earth.This location was named the Land of Blizzard by Douglas Mawson, the Antarctic pioneer who was the first to explore this remote and desolate place 100 years ago. Between 1911 and 1914, Douglas Mawson explored a fiercely harsh part of Antarctica while the more celebrated Scott and Amundsen raced to the South Pole, elsewhere on the frozen continent. Mawson’s expedition was dedicated to scientific study in the early Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration but his journey was fraught with horror and danger. The 2013 Australasian Antarctic Expedition aims to repeat many of Mawson’s investigations around Commonwealth Bay and Cape Denison in East Antarctica where the original team set up their base. This remote area hasn’t been studied systematically for 100 years, so the expedition will reveal any changes that have taken place as a result of climate change.
Dec 16, 2013
Self-Healing Materials
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Quentin Cooper takes a look at the new materials that can mend themselves. Researchers are currently developing bacteria in concrete which, once awakened, excrete lime to fill any cracks. In South America you can choose a car paint that heals its own scratches. And there are even gold atoms which can migrate to mend tiny breaks in jet turbine blades. Engineers normally design things so the likelihood of breaking is minimised. But by embracing the inevitability of breakage, a new class of materials which can mend cracks and fissures before you can see them may extend the lives of our cars, engines, buildings and aeroplanes far beyond current capability. (Image: Presenter, Quentin Cooper, BBC Copyright)
Dec 09, 2013
The Power of the Unconscious
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We like to think that we are in control of our lives, of what we do, think and feel. But, as Geoff Watts discovers, scientists are now revealing that this is just an illusion. A simple magic trick reveals just how limited our conscious awareness of the world is, and how easy it is to fool us. So if our conscious brain can cope with so little, what is responsible for the rest? Science is starting to reveal the crucial role of a silent partner inside our heads, that we are completely unaware of – our unconscious. In this programme, Geoff enlists the help of, not just brain scientists but, a conjuror and a musician to reveal the pivotal role the unconscious plays in pretty much everything we do, think and feel. This new-found knowledge is enabling scientists to harness its powers for both medical and military benefit.
Dec 02, 2013
Gut Microbiota
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The human gut has around 100 trillion bacterial cells from up to 1,000 different species. Every person's microbiota (the body's bacterial make-up) is different as a result of the effects of diet and lifestyle, and the childhood source of bacteria. What is it about the microbes in our guts that can have such an impact on our lives? Scientists are learning more and more about the importance of these bacteria, as well as the viruses, fungi and other microbes that live in our gastrointestinal tracts. Without them, our digestion, immune system and overall health would be compromised. Adam Hart talks to researchers who are discovering how important a balanced and robust gut microflora is for our health. And he asks how this can be maintained and what happens when things go wrong. (Image: Gut Microbiota Copyright: Getty Images)
Nov 25, 2013
Nirvana by Numbers
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Journalist and numbers obsessive Alex Bellos travels around India to explore the fundamental numerical gifts which early Indian mathematicians gave to the world and asks whether the great religions of ancient India - Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism - had any part in their origins. The number system which the world uses today originated in India in the early centuries of the first millennium AD. It is usually called the Arabic numeral system, but in the Middle East the scheme employing the symbols 0 to 9 is correctly referred to as the Indian system. The designation of zero as a number in its own right by South Asian thinkers was arguably the greatest conceptual leap in the history of mathematics. During his numerical odyssey, Alex visits a temple in Gwalior, containing the earliest zero in India with a known date. He is also granted an audience with one of Hinduism's most revered gurus, who is also an author of books on numbers. His Holiness, the Shankaracharya of Puri tells Alex that the study of mathematics is a path to Nirvana. In conversation with India's most eminent mathematician, Professor SG Dani in Mumbai, Alex hears how early Indian philosophers toyed with numbers far more than the Greeks. Buddhists, for example, mused on a number with 53 zeros and the Jains contemplated various varieties of infinity - something that modern mathematicians do 2000 years later. Alex also dips into the current controvesy surrounding so-called Vedic mathematics. This is a collection of speed arithmetic tricks which a great guru of the early 20th Century claimed to have discovered in the Vedas, Hinduism's most sacred scriptures. (Image: One of the special zeros in its use in '270'. Credit: Andrew Luck Baker)
Nov 18, 2013
Jenny Graves
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Australian geneticist Jenny Graves discusses her life pursuing sex genes in her country's weird but wonderful fauna, the end of men and singing to her students in lectures. (Image: Jenny Graves, BBC copyright)
Nov 11, 2013
Mike Benton
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Life on earth has gone through a series of mass extinctions. Mike Benton talks about his fascination with ancient life on the planet and his work on the Bristol Dinosaur Project. Image: Mike Benton BBC Copyright
Nov 04, 2013
Joanna Haigh
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Joanna Haigh, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College, London, studies the influence of the sun on the Earth's climate using data collected by satellites. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about how she got started on her career in climate physics: she can trace her interest in it back to her childhood when she built herself a home weather station. Jo Haigh explains why we need to know how the sun affects the climate: it's so scientists can work out what contribution to warming is the result of greenhouse gases that humans produce, and what is down to changes in the energy coming from the sun. She has sat on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and discusses with Jim how it delivers its reports. And as a prominent scientist who speaks out about the dangers of increasing man made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, she explains how she responds to climate change deniers. Image: Joanna Haigh Credit: BBC
Oct 28, 2013
Russell Foster
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Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University, is obsessed with biological clocks. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about how light controls our wellbeing from jet lag to serious mental health problems. Professor Foster explains how he moved from being a poor student at school to the scientist who discovered a new way in which animals detect light. Image: Russell Foster Copyright: BBC
Oct 21, 2013
Ashes to Ashes
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Adam Hart investigates yet another threat to the ash trees of Europe. In the last programme he found out about the latest research developments to save ash trees from ash dieback, a disease that has already devastated trees across Europe, but now it seems that another threat could be on its way from Russia – the emerald ash borer. This beetle already targets ash trees in the USA and kills 99% of the trees it infests. But, what is it, how great is the threat and is there any way to stopping it spreading to Europe? Image: Emerald Ash Borer Traces Credit: Cornelia Schaible
Oct 14, 2013
Ashes to Ashes
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Professor Adam Hart looks at the disease that has devastated ash trees in Europe – ash dieback. Over the last 20 years the fungus that causes ash dieback has been spreading westwards across the continent and last year it was found in the UK for the first time. At the moment there is no cure for the disease and only a tiny fraction of trees seem to be able to survive it. In this programme, he investigates the very latest scientific research into this deadly disease and asks if it will be enough to save this important species. (Image: Professor Adam Hart in Trolleholm seed orchard in Sweden where ash dieback has infected many of the trees. Credit: BBC)
Oct 07, 2013
Fracking for Shale Gas
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Fracking for gas is highly controversial in the US and the UK as it has been accused of contaminating water courses and causing earthquakes. Yet it provides a cheap source of energy. Beneath England there are thought to be considerable amounts of shale gas and the UK government is considering whether to allow fracking in these areas. Already there is opposition from residents, concerned about pollution and earth tremors. Gaia Vince talks to scientists to find out what fracking involves and what impact it has on the environment, and she discovers what other countries can learn from the pioneers of the technology, the United States. (Image: Views of the Cuadrilla Fracking Site at Balcombe. Credit: WPA Pool, Getty)
Sep 30, 2013
The Future of Navigation
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We all rely on GPS – the Global Positioning System network of satellites – whether we want to or not. From shipping to taxis to mobile phones, the goods we consume and the technology with which we run our lives depend upon a low-power, weak and vulnerable signal beamed from a few tonnes of electronics orbiting above our heads. This dependence is a new Achilles' heel for the world's financial, commercial and military establishments. From North Korea's concerted disruption of South Korea's maritime and airborne fleet, to white van drivers evading the boss's scrutiny over lunch, this signal is easy to jam - with disastrous consequences. Quentin Cooper meets the scientists and engineers developing alternative, resilient navigation systems. (Image: Captain David Millar, Senior Master, on the bridge of P&O Ferries’ MS Spirit of Britain. BBC copyright)
Sep 23, 2013
Deep Down Inside
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Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a brain surgery technique involving electrodes being inserted to reach targets deep inside the brain. Those targets are then stimulated via the electrodes which are connected to a battery powered pacemaker surgically placed under the person's collar bone. Geoff Watts finds out how the technique has been used successfully for treating the movement disorders of Parkinson's disease, in patients with severe, intractable depression, in chronic pain and how it's also being trialled to see if it can also be successful in treating obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), Tourette's syndrome and other disorders. Geoff meets patients who have had their lives changed by having deep brain stimulation. He also meets the surgeons at the operating table to find out how it works. At the moment no one has all the answers but one psychiatrist he meets says the success of deep brain stimulation means we should radically change the way we understand how the brain works: that the brain is governed by electrical circuitry rather than a chemical soup of neurotransmitters. Picture: Functional brain imaging allows scientists to see inside a living, human brain
Sep 16, 2013
E-cigarettes
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Lorna Stewart reports on the new and growing phenomenon of electronic cigarettes and asks if they really help smokers to stop smoking and if they are as safe as their manufacturers suggest. One billion people smoke worldwide and tobacco shortens the lives of half of all users. With consumption of tobacco products increasing globally, finding a way to help smokers to quit is vital. Electronic cigarettes, which contain nicotine in water vapour, are one new approach, but there is very little research into whether they have any harmful effects. As legislators worldwide start to rule on how to regulate them, there are concerns over who might use e-cigarettes; in some places they are proving popular with young people. Issues surrounding nicotine use and addiction have led regulatory bodies around the globe to act, and e-cigarettes are now banned in Brazil, Canada, Singapore, Panama and Lebanon. In this episode of Discovery for the BBC we hear from public health experts, psychologists, and e-cigarette enthusiasts about what e-cigarettes offer and what the risks are. Image: Man exhaling fumes. Credit: Atif Tanvir from ukecigstore
Sep 09, 2013
Raising Allosaurus
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In the 20 years since the release of the film Jurassic Park, DNA cloning technologies have advanced dramatically. Professor Adam Hart asks whether we could and should start bringing extinct animals back from the dead. The fossilised remains of dinosaurs are too degraded to hold any viable DNA, so Jurassic Park is unlikely to be a reality. But what about Pleistocene Park? Deep frozen remains of Arctic animals like the woolly mammoth or the Irish elk, have been shown to contain DNA - but is it in a good enough condition to rebuild the genome and attempt cloning these animals which became extinct nearly 4000 years ago? Some people think it could work. But should we even be considering it? With so many plants and animals threatened with extinction now, should we be wasting time and resources on bringing back animals that didn't make the cut? Adam Hart asks experts in ancient DNA whether the code for life could be resurrected in animals such as the mammoth, the passenger pigeon, the dodo, the marsupial tiger, or the thylacine. And he asks conservationists whether we should be doing it.
Sep 02, 2013
CERN and Science in Africa
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Earlier this year the BBC organised a ‘science festival’ in Uganda. One of the practical outcomes of this was to put physics teachers in East Africa in touch with physicists involved in the Higgs boson discovery at CERN. As a result, several teachers from the region visited CERN and took part in their international teacher programmes. In Discovery this week we look at the impact of their visit and ask how international ‘big science’ projects such as CERN can offer practical development help – especially in sub Saharan Africa.
Aug 26, 2013
The Story of SARS, Part Two
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Dr Kevin Fong concludes a two-part special looking back at the extraordinary events which unfolded a decade ago when the disease known as SARS first emerged onto an unsuspecting world. In a matter of days SARS had travelled around the globe from a hotel room in Hong Kong, and would go on to infect thousands of people, in dozens of countries. But standing between us and the virus were hundreds of healthcare workers who risked their lives to fight against and contain this unknown deadly disease, some of whom paid the ultimate price. Kevin travels to Hong Kong and Toronto to meet the survivors. With concerns rising over H7N9 and MERS, Kevin asks what lessons have we learned since the first SARS outbreak and would those who stepped up to protect us back then, do so again?
Aug 19, 2013
The Story of SARS, Part One
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Dr Kevin Fong begins a two-part special looking back at the extraordinary events which unfolded a decade ago when the disease known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) first emerged onto an unsuspecting world. In a matter of days SARS had travelled around the globe from a hotel room in Hong Kong - and would go on to infect thousands of people, in dozens of countries. But standing between us and the virus were hundreds of healthcare workers who risked their lives to fight against and contain this unknown deadly disease, some of whom paid the ultimate price. With concerns rising over H7N9 and MERS, Kevin asks what lessons have we learned since the first SARS outbreak and would those who stepped up to protect us back then, do so again? (Image: Sign for the accident and emergency unit at the L'Hopital Francais de Hanoi. Credit: BBC copyright)
Aug 12, 2013
Crossrail: Tunnelling under London
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Tracey Logan goes underground to find out how Crossrail is using the latest engineering techniques to create 26 miles of tunnels below London's tube network, sewers and foundations - and through its erratic, sometimes unpredictable geology. She finds out about the latest science being used in Europe's biggest engineering project. London sits on a varied geology of deposits of fine-grained sand, flint gravel beds, mottled clay, shelly beds which are sometimes mixed with pockets of water. This sheer variety has presented a challenge to London's tunnel engineers since the early 1800s. Tracey goes on board one of the huge, 150 metre long, 1000 tonne tunnel boring machines as it makes its way beneath London's Oxford Street. At depths of up to 40 metres it can negotiate London's complex geology with incredible precision and can instantly adjust the pressure it applies at the cutting head to ensure there is no ground movement above. Its precision engineering means it also follows a route which avoids the many existing foundations, sewers, and the tube network, sometimes travelling just centimetres past the London undergound tunnels. Tracey also finds out how unexploded ordnance from World War II still has to be carefully accounted for while digging beneath the capital. The tunnel boring machines operate nearly 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and so even has an onboard kitchen and bathroom facilities for the 20 or so operators who make up its 'tunnel gang'.
Aug 05, 2013
Oxytocin
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The hormone oxytocin is involved in mother and baby bonding and in creating trust. Linda Geddes finds out if taking oxytocin can help people with autism become more sociable. Larry Young, professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, talks about the work in voles that demonstrated the role of oxytocin in pair bonding. Professor Markus Heinrichs, of Freiburg University in Germany, tells Linda Geddes about doing the first research on oxytocin in human subjects. He was one of the authors of an influential paper on the hormone and trust, published in Nature in 2005. As journalists for New Scientist, Linda and her husband, Nic, invited one of the other authors of that paper, Professor Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University in Califormia, to carry out an oxytocin experiment at their wedding. At Cambridge University, Dr Bonnie Auyeung, is currently carrying out studies to find out if giving the hormone to adults with autism can improve their social skills. And, Professor Jennifer Bartz, from McGill University in Canada, explains how some research suggests that oxytocin doesn't always make people be more trusting and loving. She says the outcome depends on your previous relationship with the person.
Jul 29, 2013
Forecasting Earthquakes
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Earthquakes can't be predicted. But millions of dollars are spent trying to forecast them - warning the public which regions are dangerous, what the chances are of a quake in the next number of years and how strong the shaking might be. But following the failures of the Japanese system to identify the danger on the north-east coast, struck by a giant tsunami in 2011, many experts are saying that the dream of hazard assessment is an illusion. We may never know enough about the mechanisms of the Earth to reliably foresee deadly shaking. Others maintain it's a matter of knowledge - the more geologists can learn about the history of earthquakes, about the mechanics of plate tectonics, the better society can prepare for when the ground begins to shake. Well over half a million have died in earthquakes and their resulting tsunamis in the past decade, so the issue is critical. Roland Pease, who reported from Japan in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, speaks to experts on both sides of the argument to find out how deep the crisis is - and what might be done about it.
Jul 22, 2013
Plate Tectonics and Life
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Earthquakes are feared for their destructive, deadly force. But they are part of a geological process - plate tectonics - that some scientists say is vital for the existence of life itself. Without the ever-changing land surfaces that plate tectonics produces, or the high continental masses raised above sea level by earthquake activity, planet Earth would atrophy into a lifeless mass, like our neighbour Mars. But why is Earth the only planet with plate tectonics? And, when did they start? The clues are so faint, the traces so ephemeral, that researchers are only now beginning to find tentative answers. Extraordinarily, some say that life itself has changed the forces in plate tectonics, and helped to shape the world.
Jul 15, 2013
Quorum Sensing
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A radically different approach to dealing with bacteria would be to stop them from communicating and coordinating attacks, rather than trying to kill them. The bugs would be rendered harmless and much less likely to develop drug resistance. This is the hope of researchers who are working on an aspect of bacterial life known as Quorum Sensing. Medical experts have warned that within 20 years, unless something is done, the spread of antibiotic resistance may have returned us to an almost 19th Century state of medicine. Infections following routine operations will be untreatable and fatal because so many common bacteria will have acquired immunity to all the available antibiotic drugs. The vast majority of the antibiotics we rely upon today were developed between the 1940s and 1970s. There has been no new class of antibiotic for 25 years. Bacteria may just be single-celled organisms but microbiologists now realise they have a kind of social life. They need to cooperate and coordinate their attacks on the bodies they infect. Many kinds of bacteria only become dangerous to us when they sense that their numbers are high enough. Only when they 'know' that there are enough of them to overwhelm human defences, do they release their toxins and cause illness and death. Geoff Watts talks to scientist and doctors who are exploring this phenomenon in disease-causing bacteria. They are trying to devise ways of interfering with microbial communications. One line of thinking is the development of drugs which stop the microbes from either 'talking' or 'hearing' the chemical messages. Another more radical idea, is to treat infected patients with doses of the kind of bacteria causing the illness - except that the 'medicinal' bugs would be ones that would subvert the communication system and bring the infection to an end.
Jul 08, 2013
Build Me a Brain
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When President Obama recently complained, that although "we can identify galaxies light years away, study particles smaller than an atom ... we still haven't unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears" - he called on scientists to unravel the trillions of neural connections inside our brains that make our minds work. Some researchers are already doing that - trying to understand the brain by starting to build one. At Reading University, at the newly constructed Brain Embodiment Laboratory, researchers plan to connect cultures of living human neurons to robots - to give meaning to their neural activity. At Georgia Tech, Atlanta, neuroengineer Steve Potter, agrees that cultured neurons not connected to the outside world suffer sensory deprivation. His neural arrays descend into spasms of epileptic activity when left alone. When plugged in, they can control machines across the planet. "I believe these cultures are half-way to having a mind," says Potter. "Wired up to listen to their own outputs, they could be self aware." Other researchers are building brains from inanimate materials - using tendrils of silver, silicon and sulphur that spring into life like activity when wired up to electricity. At Stanford University, plans are afoot to meld them with living neurons - perhaps to enhance our thought processes. These devices can learn, remember and process information - but do they think? Can these scientists really build a brain? And what would it tell us about ours if they could?
Jul 01, 2013
Solar Max
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As we approach 'solar max', when the sun is at its most active and ferocious, astronomer Lucie Green investigates the hidden dangers our nearest star poses to us on Earth. In March 1989, a solar superstorm brought down Quebec's power grid. Six million people were without light and heat, as outside temperatures sank to -15C. After the winter sunrise, subway trains sat still, traffic lights went off and petrol pumps stopped delivering fuel. Two days earlier, a giant bubble of plasma had burst from the surface of Sun traveling at millions of miles per hour. It hit the Earth and disrupted our magnetic field, creating electric currents which knocked out power grids in Canada for nine hours and even damaged two transformers here in the UK. Now, almost a quarter of a century later, our reliance on technology that's vulnerable to solar attack is even higher, from GPS to satellites. 'Severe space weather' is the newest threat to be added to the UK National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. The potential impacts of solar superstorm could be far-ranging, causing national blackouts, shutting airspace and interrupting financial transactions. Lucie Green looks at what UK industry is doing to minimise the risks from solar superstorms. She visits the newly opened Space Weather Forecasting area at the Met Office and talks to engineers at the National Grid to find out how they are preparing for 'the big one'. But with so many national hazards to deal with, from flooding to pandemic flu, how much importance should we place on solar storms? Producer: Michelle Martin
Jun 24, 2013
Amoret Whitaker
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Jim Al-Khalili talks to Amoret Whitaker, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Her intricate understanding of the life cycles of flies, beetles and the other insects, which feed on decomposing bodies, means she is regularly called by the police to the scene of a crime or a murder investigation. There she collects and analyses any insect evidence to help them pinpoint the most likely time of death. In some instances, this can be accurate to within hours. She is one of only a handful of forensic entomologists working in the UK. She talks to Jim about her life as a research scientist, breeding flies in the far flung towers of the Natural History Museum and her work as a forensic expert with police services across the country. Dropping her work at a moment's notice, she can be called any time of day to anywhere in the country to attend a crime scene. She also talks about her regular trips to a research facility at the 'Body Farm' at the University of Tennesee in Knoxville, America, to get a better understanding of how real human bodies decompose. Her passion is insects and while our instinctive reaction to flies and maggots may be one of revulsion - when you take time look at them properly and in detail, she says, you can see what truly incredible creatures they are. (Image: Amoret Whitaker)
Jun 17, 2013
Alan Watson
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Professor Alan Watson from the University of Leeds, has spent 40 years trying to unravel a mystery at the frontier of physics. Where do cosmic rays - subatomic particles with the highest known energies in the entire Universe - come from? And which violent astronomical events are producing these hugely energetic jets of particles that travel for light years to reach us? As many as a million of them pass through us every night as we sleep, the equivalent of having 2 chest x rays every year. His quest to find the origins of cosmic rays has taken him from the North York Moors to the South Pole and the pampas grasslands of Argentina, where he has been instrumental in creating the largest ever cosmic ray detector, covering an area bigger than Luxembourg. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about one of physics' fascinating mysteries. (Image: Professor Alan Watson)
Jun 10, 2013
On The Trail of the American Honeybee
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Dr Adam Hart continues his exploration of migratory beekeeping in the United States. Each year the beekeepers of America travel to the annual Almond bloom in California, the largest single pollination event on Earth, a thousand square miles of almond orchards bloom in unison, turning much of California's Central Valley white. Seventy-five per cent of the world's almonds come from these orchards and to ensure successful pollination, farmers need bees - a lot of bees: 1.5 million hives, or over 30 billion bees, swarm over the bloom for three weeks a year. But beekeeping on this scale carries with it a host of threats from diseases, pests, agricultural insecticides and even starvation. In this second part of the programme Adam explores the nature of some of those threats, including the mysterious condition known as colony collapse disorder or CCD. He also talks to UK researchers about the latest EU ban on a specific kind of pesticide which could be affecting the ability of bees and other pollinators to collect nectar and navigate.
Jun 03, 2013
On the Trail of the American Honeybee 1/2
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Dr Adam Hart meets the migratory bee keepers of America as they travel to the annual Almond bloom in California, the largest single pollination event on Earth. Each year, from the end of February to early March, a thousand square miles of almond orchards bloom in unison, turning much of California's Central Valley white. 75 per cent of the world's almonds come from these orchards and to ensure successful pollination, farmers need bees - a lot of bees. Around 1.5 million hives, over 30 billion bees, swarm over the bloom for three weeks a year, before they're packed up and driven on to pastures new, be it Washington Apples, Maine Cranberries or Florida Citrus. Welcome to the extraordinary world of migratory beekeeping. This isn't about the honey, it's about the money. Beset by viral diseases, pesticides, starvation and the ever-present threat of colony collapse disorder or CCD, even a vigilant bee-keeper can expect 20-30 per cent of their hives to die-off in any given year. So why bother? "This is what we do" says John Miller, "I was born to keep bees in a box". Miller's great-grandfather invented migratory beekeeping, which thanks to increasing demands from farmers, can earn even small to medium-sized keepers, millions of dollars just from almonds alone. Producer: Rami Tzabar
May 27, 2013
Deep Sea Vents
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The deep sea bed is the last great unexplored realm on our planet. Scientists have begun to find extraordinary ecosystems of creatures down there which exist nowhere else. These develop around submarine hydrothermal vents where mineral-rich water erupts from the seafloor at a temperature of 400 degrees Celsuis. These conditions allow unique and bizzare life forms to thrive but they also create rich mineral resources – such as high concentrations of copper, nickel and gold in the rock. In theory, around the world, trillions of dollars’ worth of metal ores lie on the deep sea bed. That is why a growing number of mining companies are exploring the ocean floor. In Discovery the BBC’s Science Editor David Shukman joins a team of scientists on the British research vessel, the James Cook. They are investigating a newly discovered life- and mineral-rich ecosystem, five kilometres beneath the Caribbean sea with a robotic submarine. David talks to some of the mining companies with ambitions to exploit the untapped mineral riches of the deep sea, and to the United Nations organisation which regulates commercial exploration and exploitation of the sea bed. Can deep sea mining be done commercially? What will be the scale of the environmental damage? Should we leave this mysterious region of the Earth untouched when we still know so little about it? Producers: Kate Stephens and Andrew Luck-Baker
May 20, 2013
After Sandy
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More than six months after Super Storm Sandy hit America’s East coast, Angela Saini reports from New York where scientists, engineers and State officials have gathered to debate how best to prevent future flooding wreaking havoc on that scale again. One option is to build a giant storm protection barrier. But not everyone is convinced that the risk of another Sandy is worth its 10 billion dollar price tag. A cheaper solution is to restore the coastline to its natural State, which would help to slow down the flow of water along the Hudson, should another super storm occur. But something like Sandy is, say sceptics, a highly unusual event - the last time the East Coast was hit with something similar was in 1821. However, with rising sea levels predicted, storms could become more frequent and others insist that the time to act is now, to save the people and homes of New York.
May 13, 2013
The Crying Game
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Although many animal species cry vocally, the production of tears in response to emotion, both happy or sad, is a trait unique to humans. So why do we cry? What could the evolutionary advantage be to producing tears in response to joy or despair? The science on this topic has been surprisingly sparse until very recently, but now new research seems to be shedding some light on some common preconceptions about the effect and consequences of our tears. Does having a good cry make you feel better, for example, or do women really cry more than men? Researchers in Israel have even discovered that our tears may contain hidden messages triggering surprising responses in those who come into contact with them. Geoff Watts gets the tissues ready as he investigates everything you ever wanted to know about weeping.
May 06, 2013
A Trip Around Mars - Part Two
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Kevin Fong concludes his grand tour of the planet Mars, in search of water. Some of the most spectacular Martian landscapes were carved by vast and violent quantities of water in the planet’s past. The Tolkienesque terrain of Iani Chaos is one such place as is the great canyon Ares Valles. Kevin also talks to scientists on the current Curiosity Mars rover mission about water in the deep history of Gale Crater and its central mountain Mount Sharp. The journey concludes with gullies on cliffs and craters, suggesting that water still gushes on the surface of Mars today. Could this mean that life exists on the Red Planet today? (Image: Mars Express spacecraft in orbit around Mars Copyright: ESA- Illustration by Medialab)
Apr 29, 2013
A Trip Around Mars with Kevin Fong - Part One
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The planet Mars boasts the most dramatic landscapes in our solar system. Kevin Fong embarks on a grand tour around the planet with scientists, artists and writers who know its special places intimately- through their probes, roving robots and imaginations. This first part of the journey includes Mars’ gargantuan volcanoes, an extreme version of Earth’s Grand Canyon and the cratered Southern Highlands where future explorers might find safety from the Red Planet’s deadly radiation environment. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Apr 22, 2013
Noel Sharkey
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Robots probably won't take over the world, but they probably will be given ever greater responsibility. Already, robots care for the elderly in Japan, and drones have dropped bombs on Afghanistan. Professor Noel Sharkey fell in love with artificial intelligence in the 1980s, celebrated when he programmed his first robot to move in a straight line down the corridor and , for many years, judged robot wars on TV. Now, he thinks AI is a dangerous dream. Jim al-Khalili hears how Noel left school at 15 to become an electrician's apprentice and amateur rock musician before graduating as a Doctor of Psychology and world authority on robots, studying both their strengths and their limitations.
Apr 15, 2013
Annette Karmiloff-Smith on toddlers and TV
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Annette Karmiloff-Smith, from the Birkbeck Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development in London talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her Life Scientific. Starting out as a simultaneous interpreter for the United Nations she soon decided that not being allowed to express any thoughts of her own wasn't for her. After a chance encounter with Jean Piaget, one of the most renowned psychologists of all time, she decided to pursue psychology and over 40 years later she is a world expert in brain development and how babies and children learn. Her research has been cited not just by fellow psychologists, but by philosophers, linguists, educationalists, geneticists and neuroscientists. Her controversial response to guidance issued by the American Academy of Paediatrics, that parents should discourage TV viewing in children under two, is that if the subject matter is chosen well, and is scientifically based, a TV screen can be better for a baby than a book. (Image: Child watching television. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Apr 08, 2013
Premiership Science
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Like football, science is an international endeavour complete with its own stars and prima donnas. Alok Jha investigates what it takes to make a winning team.
Apr 01, 2013
What If... We could stay young forever? 3/3
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What if we could feel more alive and more alert by just eating smaller meals? Extreme calorie restriction may hold the secret to the a longer live. According to some scientists, living to 120 and beyond could be possible - but is it worth a life of hunger and food deprivation? (Image: Woman pinching 'spare tyre' on her waist. Credit: Science Photo Library)
Mar 18, 2013
What If... We could stay young forever? 2/3
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What if we could stay young forever? Peter Bowes continues his quest to find out what science and lifestyle can do to help keep mind and body young. Is it possible to slow down or even reverse the aging process, through exercise? The latest trend in gyms is towards high intensity workouts. Some scientists say they're better for the body than less strenuous exercise like jogging - and just a couple of minutes a day could be all we need. And what if we could inject ourselves with hormones, to stay young? (Image: Woman running on treadmill in gym. Credit: Science Photo Library)
Mar 11, 2013
What If... We could stay young forever? 1/3
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What if we could stay young forever? It may be a fantasy, but age management is big business and some people will stop at nothing to roll back the years. Pills, scans, injections, extreme diets and brain training - there's a vast array of apparent solutions on the market - but do they work and are they safe? Is age "reversal" possible? Peter Bowes investigates. (Photo: A woman is covered with sheets of 24-carat gold, said to be effective for anti-aging care. Credit: Getty Images)
Mar 04, 2013
What If... We could all become cyborgs?
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As part of the BBC World Service’s “What if…?” season, biologist Dr Andrew Holding meets some of the people straddling the line between man and machine. Over 50 years ago the term cyborg was first used to describe a person whose capabilities are augmented by mechanical or cybernetic parts. Today, mechanical or electronic prosthetic limbs and organs are rapidly changing more and more of our lives. But how far can it, and will it, go? Andrew meets some of those who might describe themselves today as a cyborg. Our bodies are not permanent, and if we lost a limb or an organ, and if we could afford it, we might well think about replacing it with a new device. But what about replacing a perfectly healthy part of your body with a device to give you superhuman powers? What if we could all become cyborgs?
Feb 25, 2013
Sexual Nature 3/3
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When a couple are expecting a baby, the big question is: girl or boy? Adam Rutherford explores the many ways Nature decides that question. If you’re a human, a kangaroo or a komodo dragon, it’s in the sex chromosomes. If you’re a crocodile, it’s the temperature of your egg. And if you’re a fish, it can be one sex first and, later in the life, the other. Adam’s investigation includes conversation with Professor Jennifer Graves, a leading authority on sex determination, at La Trobe University in Australia. She explains what the weird nature of the platypus’ sex chromosomes tells us about how human gender is decided. Adam also meets one of London Zoo’s Komodo Dragons, the world’s largest and fiercest lizard. Female dragons can produce young without mating with males, but all their babies are males. How so?
Feb 18, 2013
Sexual Nature 2/3
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Sex is one of Nature’s great forces of change. Yet it is one of life’s great mysteries. Adam Rutherford investigates how and why living things first invented sex about 1.5 billion years ago. He begins by exploring why so many animals and plants have carried on doing it, given that sex has some big disadvantages compared to asexual reproduction.
Feb 11, 2013
Sexual Nature 1/3
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The oldest known sexual beings, a 400 million year old fish sex movie and the prehistoric turtles which were fossilised in the act of copulation. Discovery this week is strictly adults-only as we begin a three-part natural history of sex. Adam Rutherford talks to the scientists studying the world’s most revealing fossils. (Image: Two carettocheylid turtles, fossilised in mating position. Credit: The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences)
Feb 04, 2013
Quantum Biology
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From smell to navigation, it seems that some of the hardest problems in biology could be solved with the insights from theoretical physics. The physicist Erwin Schrödinger wrote a book in the 1940s called “What is Life?” in which he speculated on the role of quantum mechanics on the life sciences. Almost 70 years later, both quantum mechanics and biology have moved on a long way. But are the two fields converging? Avian navigation, light harvesting in photosynthesis and even olfaction – the science of smell, all provide hints that nature may have been making use of some of quantum mechanics’ weirder tricks for quite some time. Jason Palmer looks at the emerging field of quantum biology. (Music: ©Will Lenton @Mu_Mech)
Jan 28, 2013
The ENCODE Project
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A decade ago, the Human Genome Project revealed that only 1% of our DNA codes for the proteins that make our bodies. The rest of the genome, it was said, was junk, in other words with no function. But in September another massive international project, called ENCODE, announced that the junk DNA is useful after all. Adam Rutherford reports on the significance of this major discovery. He visits the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside Cambridge where the vast amount of data about our genome is produced and analysed. And he finds out how this new information is beginning to give insights into the origin and treatment of diseases, such as cancer. Adam also discovers that the study of genomes has changed dramatically since he finished his PhD: it's now all done in machines and not at the lab bench.
Jan 21, 2013
John Gurdon
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Sir John Gurdon talks to Jim al-Khalili about how coming bottom of the class in science was no barrier to winning this year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. We're familiar with Dolly the Sheep but many people find the idea of cloning humans rather disturbing. It seems to cut to the core of who we are; but, scientifically speaking, we are getting closer to a time when cloning people might be possible. John Gurdon gives it fifty years. After a famously bad school report for science, he won the Nobel Prize for cloning a frog, decades before Dolly the Sheep. Here he talks to Jim about his pioneering work on cloning and where it all might lead.
Jan 14, 2013
Jared Diamond
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Science polymath and celebrated author, Jared Diamond has tackled some of the big questions about humanity: what is it that makes us uniquely human not just a third species of chimpanzee; and why do some societies thrive and others struggle to survive, or collapse? Jim Al-Khalili talks to Jared Diamond about how his passion for the birds of Papua New Guinea overtook his medical interest in the gall bladder, and led him to undertake a scientific study of global history. Once a Professor of Physiology, he became increasingly fascinated by the birds of Papua New Guinea. Now Professor of Geography at University of California in LA, he stresses the vital importance of the environment in determining the success or otherwise of a society. He argues first that it was settled agriculture that enabled the white man to develop guns, germs and steel and later that abuse of the environment is often responsible for their collapse. But can the history of humanity really be understood in much the same way as we might seek to explain the success or otherwise of a particular species of bird?
Jan 07, 2013
The Life Scientific: Andrea Sella - Chemist
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Andrea Sella is a science showman, whose theatrical demonstrations of chemistry are filling theatres up and down the country. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about his life scientific. Andrea is also Professor of Materials and Inorganic Chemistry at University College London and he and Jim discuss whether he would rather be known for his research into rare metals than for his whizz bang displays.
Dec 31, 2012
Why do women outlive men
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Baby girls born today in the UK can expect to live to 82 years old, whereas boys on average will die 4 years earlier. Evolutionary biologist Dr Yan Wong looks at the latest evidence suggesting that where ageing is concerned, men seem to be at a genetic disadvantage. From research on ancient Korean eunuchs to laboratory fruit flies, new studies seek the answer to why males across the animal kingdom live faster and die younger. So, is the gender gap here to stay?
Dec 24, 2012
Piltdown Man
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The most notorious fraud in the history of Science is the focus of this week’s Discovery. Exactly one hundred years ago, British scientists announced their discovery of fossilised skull and jaw bones of what appeared to be the earliest human – a species of humanity closer to our prehistoric ape ancestors than any found before it. In 1912 it was a sensational find. In 1953 it was revealed as a horrible hoax. Jonathan Amos talks to palaeontologists and archaeologists about the case of Piltdown Man and asks, could anything as scientifically scandalous happen today? He visits Chris Stringer, professor of human origins at London’s Natural History Museum. The museum is putting the original fraudulent specimens on display after almost sixty years of being hidden in disgrace. Archaeologists Miles Russell and Matthew Pope discuss the prime suspect in the case and ruminate on his motivations. Could the world of human origins research be fooled by a hoaxer today? Producer: Andrew Luck Baker
Dec 17, 2012
Particle Physics
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Finding the Higgs boson on July 4th 2012 was the last piece in physicists' Standard model of matter. But Tracey Logan discovers there's much more for them to find out at the Large Hadron Collider. To start with there is a lot of work to establish what kind of Higgs boson it is. Tracey visits CERN and an experiment called LHCb which is trying to find out why there's a lot more matter than anti-matter in the universe today. Dr Tara Shears of Liverpool University is her guide. Tracey also talks to physicists who are hoping to find dark matter in the debris of the collisions at the LHC. Scientists know there's plenty of dark matter in the universe, from its effects on galaxies, but they don't know what it is. Tracey discovers that this fact isn't stopping the particle physicists carrying out experiments. (Image: Scientists in front of a screen at CERN during the restart of the Large Hadron Collider in 2009, Credit: AFP/Getty)
Dec 10, 2012
Last Man, First Scientist on the Moon
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Kevin Fong talks to one of the last two men on the Moon, 40 years after the final Apollo 17 mission blasted off on 7 December 1972. As an Apollo astronaut, Harrison Schmitt was special. He was was the only geologist ever to explore the lunar surface. The field work Dr Schmitt did, and the rocks he and his fellow astronauts brought back, revolutionised our understanding of the Moon and the Earth. Dr Schmitt also shares the human experience of running around another planet and explains why he thinks we should go back, and beyond. The conversation also features archive recordings of the two Apollo 17 moon walkers, Schmitt and Commander Eugene Cernan talking from the lunar surface and Challenger module to NASA’s mission control in Houston in 1972. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
Dec 03, 2012
Hallucination 2/2
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In this programme, Geoff Watts meets researchers attempting to unlock the mysteries of hallucination as well as some of those who experience the phenomenon. Geoff visits Dr Dominic Ffytche of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and undergoes a stroboscopic experiment designed to induce hallucinations in subjects whilst their brains are being scanned. We hear some of the vivid accounts from hallucinators, including Doris, who has macular degeneration. Over the last year, her failing eyesight has resulted in an array of objects and images appearing before her with startling clarity, from relatively benign baskets of flowers to the rather more distressing sight of dark, haunting figures sitting by her bed. Her condition is known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome and Dr Ffytche estimates that over two million people suffer from this in the UK alone, mostly in silence, due to the fear of being labelled as 'mad'. Geoff also visits Kelly Diederen's lab at Cambridge University, which is investigating the origin of auditory hallucinations - hearing voices. Common in people with schizophrenia, Dr Diederen is instead, scanning the brains of so-called "healthy hallucinators," individuals who otherwise lead perfectly functional lives save for the fact that they hear voices on a daily basis. Could they hold the key to understanding and treating a key symptom of psychosis? (Image: Close up of the face of an anonymous male. Credit: BBC)
Nov 26, 2012
Hallucination 1/2
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Geoff Watts meets researchers attempting to unlock the mysteries of hallucination as well as some of those who experience the phenomenon. Hallucinations aren't what they used to be. Time was when reporting a divine vision would bring fame or fortune. The Enlightenment changed all that and nowadays you'd be more at risk of being handed a prescription for a major tranquilliser for reporting what you saw or heard. Hallucinating, in essence, the experience of seeing or hearing (and sometimes smelling or touching) something that by any objective measure, isn't there, has been linked to a wide variety of causes. But there are also examples of otherwise 'healthy' individuals who have experienced vivid and sometimes distressing hallucinations. With the advent of fMRI scanning, researchers can observe the hallucinating brain in action, it is these 'healthy' individuals who are beginning to open the doors of perception and which may provide new insights and treatments for psychosis and schizophrenia. (Image: Coloured lights and dots, Credit: AFP/Getty Images)
Nov 19, 2012
The Age We Made
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Gaia Vince concludes her journey through the geological age humans have launched. After climate change and mass extinction, she now explores moves how the world’s cities and manufactured artefacts (from mobile phones to plastic bottles) might become 'fossilised' and incorporated into the geological record. Some are bound to survive in crushed form for the rest of the Earth’s existence. Any distant-future geologist would recognise them as strange features unique in the planet’s 4 billion year rock record: chaotic rock layers preserving urban rubble and underground tunnels - mudstones unnaturally rich in zinc, cadmium and mercury – and the occasional crushed mobile phone or plastic bottle transformed from polymer to delicate coal. These rocks and artificial ‘fossils’ will be evidence of a planetary shift into the new time period, which today’s geologists call the Anthropocene. (Image: A pile of mobile phones, Credit: Getty Images)
Nov 12, 2012