The Science Hour

By BBC World Service

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Science news and highlights of the week

Episode Date
Ebola Vaccination Begins in North Kivu
Just weeks after the outbreak of Ebola was declared over in the west of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a new outbreak has emerged in the east of the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) has responded rapidly to the emergency – having learned lessons from the West Africa outbreak which killed more than 11,000 people. The WHO’s Deputy Director-General of Emergency Preparedness and Response, Dr Peter Salama, says the current outbreak will be much trickier to contain because of conflict in North Kivu province. Helium at 150 It is the 150th birthday of the discovery of helium, which, after hydrogen is the second most abundant element in the universe. It’s surprisingly rare on Earth, but it makes up much of the content of the gas giants in our local neighbourhood, Jupiter and Saturn. Adam Rutherford hears from Particle physicist and Science Museum curator Dr Harry Cliff on how it was first discovered through a telescope rather than in a lab, and Jessica Spake of Exeter University tells Science Hour how she discovered helium around an exoplanet 200 light-years away. Biosecure-ID New Zealand has very strict biosecurity laws, and that is because of the risk to valuable exports like wood, kiwi fruit, wine and milk powder. Simon Morton talks to Varvara Vetrov from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch on a new system being developed that uses deep neural networks and machine learning to keep unwanted pests out - it’s called Biosecure-ID. Nasa’s Solar Probe Launch Nasa is just a few days away from launching its next science mission, a spacecraft called the Parker Solar Probe that will eventually "touch the sun." If all goes according to plan, the probe will take off aboard a rocket on Saturday Aug. 11 from Cape Canaveral in Florida. On its final close approach, in 2025, the Parker Solar Probe will get within 6 million kilometres of the Sun's surface — so close that it will actually fly through the star's incredibly hot atmosphere, called the corona. It’s hoped the mission will provide answers to some of the Sun’s mysteries - why its atmosphere becomes hotter further away from the surface of the sun? How the solar wind of charged particles streaming out into space is born? And what causes the gigantic outbursts scientists call coronal mass ejections? Roland Pease talks to Project scientist Nicky Fox from Johns Hopkins University in California. New Horizons to Visit Ultima Thule Ultima Thule is the name given to an asteroid, or pair of asteroids, in the Kuiper Belt – a ring of rocky bodies at the edge of the Solar System. The New Horizons mission, which captured such amazing data on Pluto, got a mission extension to travel further out. This week the asteroid passed in front of a distant star, giving the team a chance to see more detail of the rocky body, which will be the furthest object visited by a man-made craft, when New Horizon’s gets there in November. Mission principal investigator Alan Stern spoke to Roland Pease. Music for Arrhythmia Music can soothe or excite people – sending our hearts racing or slowing them down. Scientists in London wondered if music could also help control irregular heart rhythms known as arrhythmias. So patients with the condition have had their hearts monitored during a special live music performance. Bobbie Lakhera reports. Lionfish on the Menu The lionfish is an invasive species causing serious damage to local fish populations in the Caribbean. The fish were released into the oceans off the Florida coast by pet owners once the fish became a problem in their aquariums. Since then the population has grown and is causing havoc in the sea. One way of controlling their numbers is to eat them. But what are the downsides of such a strategy? Nicola Smith from Simon Fraser University in Canada explains. (Photo caption: Ebola vaccinations for high risk populations in North Kivu province, Mangina © EPA/WHO) The Science Hour was presented by Roland Pease with comments from freelance science journalist, Dr Claire Ainsworth Producer: Ania Lichtarowicz Editor: Deborah Cohen
Aug 11, 2018
Air Pollution in Africa
How the residents of Mukuru in Nairobi are trying to tackle the growing health problems caused by particulate air pollution. Most Login Attempts are Criminal 90% of retail attempts are hackers and not genuine customers - that's according to a new report by cyber security firm Shape Security. The airline and consumer banking industries are also at risk with 60% of login attempts coming from criminals. Shuman Ghosemajumder, CTO at Shape Security is one of those behind the report and he explains more. Arctic Weather Physicist Helen Czerski and 40 colleagues are now aboard the Oden, a Swedish icebreaker and scientific research vessel that set sail earlier this week. They are en route to spend a month anchored to arctic sea ice to elucidate the mysterious behaviour of arctic weather. Before she set off she gave Adam Rutherford a preview of the research trip. Fatal Cosmetic Surgery The number of people paying to have cosmetic surgery in the hope of enhancing their appearance is on the increase in many countries. Colombia now carries out over half a million cosmetic surgery procedures annually, and has become a popular destination for medical tourism due to its competitive prices and many excellent surgeons. Yet in recent years there has been a proliferation of illegal so-called ‘garage clinics’ and a growing number of cosmetic surgery-related deaths of both tourists and locals. A bill proposed in Congress to improve the safety of cosmetic procedures has recently sunk. However with the inauguration of a new president in August - whose party previously supported the bill - campaigners are not giving up hope. Theo Hessing went to Cali in Southwestern Colombia to investigate. Drought and the Mayans Drought was the reason for the demise of the Mayan civilization. Scientists have been analysing ancient lake sediments on the Yucatan Peninsular in Mexico to determine the extent of the dry spell that caused catastrophic crop losses, which contributed to the demise of the Lowland Classic Mayan civilization. Phubbing Have you ever heard of phubbing? It’s a new word that’s made it into Australian dictionaries and means snubbing someone by paying more attention to your phone than to them. It’s a familiar situation; you go and meet someone, they get a text and soon they’re checking their emails and every other social media app, while you sit there waiting. After a particular experience of his own, the researcher Varoth Chotpitayasunondh decided to carry out research into the psychology of phubbing and its effects on social interactions. His study was recently published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Why Does History Repeat Itself? Teenagers are known for ignoring their parents’ advice, but is this reputation for rebellion well-founded? If so, is rejecting the advice of previous generations and treading our own path an important part of what it means to be human? Are we successful as a species precisely because of our questioning natures? Listener Hans started pondering these questions after his own adolescent children repeatedly ignored his nagging. Many animals simply follow in their parents’ footsteps – so what makes human children different? Marnie Chesterton and a panel of experts look at the science of taking advice and making decisions, finding out how human curiosity and exploration compare to other animals, learning the best ways to give and take advice, and seeing whether we’re more likely to trust artificial intelligence than the wisdom of our elders. Picture: A schoolgirl walks past smoke emitted from a dump in the city of Port Harcourt, Nigeria Credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images The Science Hour was presented by Marnie Chesterton with comments from Jason Palmer. Producer: Ania Lichtarowicz
Aug 04, 2018
Mars Has Watery Lake
Scientists say they have discovered evidence of a 12 mile long body of water on Mars. Estimated to be at least a metre deep, the “lake” was found beneath the red planet’s southern polar ice cap by the agency’s radar probe, known as Marsis. Roland Pease speaks to mission scientist Roberto Orosei. IVF Anniversary The world’s first test-tube baby Louise Brown is celebrating her 40th birthday this week. Since the ground-breaking development of in vitro fertilisation which led to her birth, more than eight million babies have been born using this method. Claudia Hammond speaks to Ian Cooke, Emeritus professor at the University of Sheffield, who was the UK’s very first specialist in reproductive medicine. Early Embryo Development We've been growing embryonic cells in petri dishes for a few years now, to try to fill in the gaps in our understanding of early development, but the tissue that grows never really resembles an actual embryo. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz is a developmental biologist from Cambridge University, and in a paper out this week she has leapt over this hurdle in developmental biology using three types of stem cell, which - unlike previous efforts - push a ball of cells to becoming an embryo, which could help us understand why pregnancy can fail. She speaks to Adam Rutherford. The Last of the Wild Oceans A study led by scientists from the University of Queensland has discovered that only 13% of the ocean worldwide has not been severely impacted by humans. The majority of these wilderness areas are not currently protected by law, and the researchers are highlighting an urgent need for action to protect what little remains. Lead author Kendall Jones speaks to Roland Pease. Fertility IVF can be gruelling physically and emotionally and often doesn’t work. One of the advantages of methods using less stimulation and monitoring is a reduction in stress for those undergoing treatment. Julia Leigh, who lives in Sydney, Australia, is an acclaimed Australian novelist and the author of a memoir called Avalanche. It’s a love story which recounts her personal experiences of having IVF, which sadly for her was ultimately unsuccessful. Using Fluorine to Detect Dementia University College London chemists are finding new ways to track degenerative diseases in the brain. They’ve used a radioactive form of fluorine which binds to areas of the brain that are diseased to illuminate those areas during scans, allowing them to track exactly how the disease develops, as Andrea Sella reports. AI to Help with Breast Cancer Detection A company based in Wellington, New Zealand is using AI and software to standardise mammograms, so that these x-rays, which are mostly digital, can be used to accurately measure changes in a woman’s breast tissue, and then assess a woman’s risk from breast cancer. Simon Morton reports. Picture: Artists' impression - Mars Express probing the planet's surface. Marsis radar results above. Credit: ESA, INAF. Graphic rendering by Davide Coero Borga - Media INAF The Science Hour was presented by Roland Pease with comments from Bobbie Lakhera. Producer: Katy Takatsuki
Jul 28, 2018
Heatwaves and Droughts
Heatwaves and Droughts The Northern Hemisphere has been sweltering in some of the hottest temperatures recorded this summer. Records have been broken in Taiwan, California, Canada, Algeria and Oman. Yet 2018 is a La Niña year. This is the is the positive phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation and is associated with cooler-than-average sea surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, and usually cooler and wetter summers in the Northern Hemisphere. So what’s happening? Roland Pease talks to climate expert Martin Hoerling at NOAA, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Billion Dollar Talc Ruling in the US Johnson and Johnson has been ordered to pay more than four billion dollars in damages to 22 women who say its products gave them cancer. Professor Paul Pharoah, who’s a cancer epidemiologist from the University of Cambridge has acted as a paid expert to one of the law firms representing Johnson and Johnson. He says he doesn’t believe that the current scientific evidence supports the verdict in the United States - and women who’ve used talc shouldn’t worry. He speaks to Claudia Hammond. Saving Lebanese Wild Flowers When Michel Ayoub bought a small patch of land in Lebanon 40 years ago as insurance against the financial crisis of the impending civil war, little did he know that he was creating an important micro-reserve for rare and endangered plants. Lebanon is home to a number of endemic plants. But many of the habitats where these plants thrive have been destroyed by conflict and subsequent unregulated construction, as Hugo Goodridge reports. Jellyfish Catching Robot A specially designed remote-controlled robot, inspired by Japanese origami paper-folding has been developed specifically to catch soft-bodied, gelatinous sea creatures such as deep sea jellyfish. Roland Pease has been finding out more from marine biologist David Gruber of City University of New York. Can AI replace humans? Robotics, virtual and augmented reality, implants and wearables are some of the machine/body interfaces that are moving us into a new era of healthcare. Over the last few years, machine-led caring has led to a wider acceptance of fully programmed machines looking after our well-being. This raises a number of ethical concerns. Gareth Mitchell speaks to Catherine Allen of Limina Immersive, Hannah Allen a family doctor, a GP and Associate Medical Director at Babylon Health, and Tony Prescott, Professor of Cognitive Robotics at the University of Sheffield. ‘Fasting’ diets ‘Fasting’ diets – where you fast or eat very few calories on some days and then eat normally on others – are all the rage in California. So we sent our reporter Alison van Diggelen to find out whether there is any evidence that they are any better than regular diets for weight loss. Picture: Drought in Spain, Credit: Alvaro Fuente/NurPhoto via Getty Images The Science Hour was presented by Gareth Mitchell with comments from Jon Copley, Associate Professor of Ocean Exploration at the University of Southampton. Producer: Katy Takatsuki
Jul 21, 2018
Early Humans
Early Humans Archaeologists in China have ‘peeled back’ 17 layers of sediment and fossil soils formed during a period spanning almost a million years. They’ve revealed stone tool fragments and animal bones at the site in Shangchen in the southern Chinese Loess Plateau. Prof John Kappelman tells Roland Pease about a Chinese team that has dated the discoveries and finds that the timing of when early humans left Africa and arrived in Asia is earlier than previously thought – now over two million years ago. Life in the Dark Given that half the world is in the dark half of the time, and the depths of the oceans are perpetually hidden from sunlight, there's lot of darkness to explore. For those of us drawn to the shadows, a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London does exactly that. Geoff Boxhall, professor of invertebrate biology, gives Adam Rutherford a tour of Life in the Dark. NHS Birthday The National Health Service in Britain, which is celebrating its 70th birthday, has influenced health services around the world. Claudia Hammond speaks to Dina Bala-banova, Associate Professor of Health Systems and Policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, about the impact it’s had on other health systems. Neutrino Discovery An international team of scientists has discovered a flaring blazar in a far off galaxy. The astronomical phenomenon is releasing high energy neutrinos. It was traced by an icebound neutrino detector situated a mile under the South Pole at the IceCube Neutrino Observatory with the help of telescopes from around the globe. Until now, the sun and a nearby supernova were the only sources of these neutrinos. Dr Naoko Kurahashi Neilson tells Roland Pease about the findings. Brazilian Healthcare One country that has been trying to achieve universal health coverage is Brazil. Leonor Pacheco is Professor of Public Health at the University of Brasilia. She speaks to Claudia Hammond about the country’s national health service, which began in 1988 when a new constitution enshrined healthcare for all as a right. EU Copyright Tech giants might save themselves billions in pay-outs to publishers, record labels and artists after EU lawmakers recently voted to reject proposed changes to copyright rules aimed to force tech companies to share more of their revenues. Gareth Mitchell talks to Rufus Pollock from the Open Knowledge about achieving a fairer system. VR Molecules How we envision complex atomic structures is not easy: think of that famous photo of Crick and Watson standing next to the model of DNA, a towering structure of steel rods and metal clamps, little balls showing where the atoms are. Chemists have used these sorts of models for centuries. But this is the digital age, and at Bristol University in the UK, David Glowacki has put the power of virtual reality into the hands of the molecular magicians. Roland Pease went to his virtual lab, to see atoms dance in a molecular space odyssey. Image: The loess-palaeosol sequence at the Shangchen Palaeolithic locality, Lantian County, Shaanxi Province, China Credit: Prof. Zhaoyu Zhu The Science Hour was presented by Claudia Hammond with comments from David Robson. Producer: Katy Takatsuki
Jul 14, 2018
Bringing Back the Northern White Rhino
Rhinos The northern white rhinoceros is the world’s most endangered mammal. The death earlier this year of the last male of this rhino subspecies leaves just two females as its only living members. Research out this week has adopted new techniques in reproductive medicine as a last ditch attempt to preserve these animals. Thomas Hildebrandt from Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research discusses the ambition with Roland Pease. 3D Bones Broken bones often fix themselves without any help. But big breaks can need a bone graft. Scientists at the University of Glasgow are combining 3-D printing of plastic or gels with stem cells - to grow replacement “bones” in the lab. So far it’s been tried in a dog and they hope to eventually help landmine victims. Peter Childs, Project Manager at the Centre for Cell Engineering at the University of Glasgow, explains to Claudia Hammond. Tour de Flanders footage and Phenology The Tour of Flanders cycle race is the unlikely scene for an experiment of nature. But if you look at the scenery, the trees can hold clues to what might be happening with the climate. Many trees are very responsive to changes in temperature. So climate change could disrupt the eruption of leaves and blossom each spring. But data on the timings of this ‘phenology’ can be scarce. Belgian cycling enthusiast and Bioscience Engineer, Dr Pieter De Frenne talks to Roland Pease about how research into the trees is throwing light on their changing life cycles. Autism bots Machine learning is being used to see whether it can help children with autism spectrum conditions. MIT researcher Ognjen Rudovic tells Gareth Mitchell how robots could be a useful ally for therapists when it comes to perceiving a child’s engagement. Roaring Can the size of a roar be used to accurately determine physical strength?’ Or can a roar deceive, and make you sound tougher than you actually are? That’s what Jordan Raine from the University of Sussex decided to find out, not with lions or tigers or bears but in us. He speaks to Adam Rutherford. Slugs Slugs are the inspiration behind a pioneering medical adhesive which might repair even organs which move like the heart and lungs. The slime produced by the Dusky Arion slug is so sticky it acts like a glue even when wet. Dr Adam Celiz, lecturer in Bioengineering at Imperial College London, explains how the sticky slime might be put to good use. The Science Hour was presented by Roland Pease with comments from Kerri Smith Producer: Katy Takatsuki (Picture: Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino. Credit: EPA/Getty Images)
Jul 07, 2018
Hazard Mapping the Guatemalan Volcano
Hazard Mapping the Guatemalan Volcano Volcanologist Eliza Calder explains why the eruption of Volcán de Fuego in Guatemala on 3rd June was so devastating. It left at least 110 people dead and over 200 people missing. It’s thought that the local populations were so acclimatised to the rumblings and explosions of the ‘persistently active’ volcano, that they were slow to take action when it violently erupted. Voltaglue Medical surgeons routinely stitch or pin organs and blood vessels with needle and thread and secure medical devices like pacemakers with hooks. But what if you could just use glue? Material scientist Terry Steele from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore has devised Voltaglue, a flexible adhesive that works in wet environments by putting an electric current across an inert substance. He explains how this new kind of chemistry could revolutionise many medical procedures. The ethics of AI Click speaks to Norman Judah, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Worldwide Services about AI - where Microsoft is heading and how it is adapting technological innovation with cultural sensitivity and ethical values across its global market. Heroin in Vancouver Drug overdose deaths have seen a sharp rise over the last few years - particularly in North America and Europe - so much so that the problem is now frequently referred to as "the opioid crisis". Some countries have adopted an approach known as harm reduction; using safe injecting rooms and needle exchange programmes for heroin users, to reduce the risk of transmission of HIV and other infections passed on through needles. But now, in the face of the threat posed by fentanyl, a vastly more potent synthetic opioid than morphine, which is often mixed with street drugs, advocates of the harm reduction approach say the time has come to go a step further and prescribe injections of medical grade heroin to addicts. A pioneer in this is the Providence Crosstown clinic in the Canadian city of Vancouver, Canada, which is the only clinic in North America licensed to prescribe medical grade heroin. The BBC’s Jatinder Sidhu reports. Research on illegal drugs Using cannabis and other illegal drugs in science – do regulations of illegal drugs hinder legitimate medical research? Wonderful Mr Willughby Professor Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield discusses “The Wonderful Mr Willughby”. We hear a fascinating new account of 17th century ornithologist Francis Willughby - who together with the celebrated naturalist John Ray - pioneered the way we think about birds in science. (Picture: Fuego Volcano aftermath, Credit: European Photopress Agency)
Jun 23, 2018