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October 14, 2019
James Parkinson described a condition known as the “shaking palsy” over 200 years ago. Today there are many things that scientists still don’t understand explaining why diagnosis, halting the progression or finding a cure for Parkinson’s can seem elusive. But how close are researchers to developing better treatments? Better understanding seems to suggest that Parkinson’s is not one condition but several, with different causes and symptoms in different people. Many researchers think that early diagnosis and greater recognition of the non motor symptoms such as loss of smell, sleep disorders and depression is to be encouraged, while others say without effective treatments then there are ethical issues to consider. Jane visits a brain bank and sees the changes in a Parkinson’s brain that causes many of the symptoms and she takes a test which examines the sense of smell. Could this be a new tool to identify early stages of the condition? Plus repurposing of existing drugs, i.e. drugs that have been developed for one condition but being tested in another are having promising results in Parkinson’s and genetic studies are leading to a greater understanding of the mechanisms involved in PD which in turn is leading to new therapies. Picture credit: Smelling hops, Ales-A/Getty Images
October 7, 2019
Can exercise help people living with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative condition, with symptoms such as loss of balance, difficulty walking and stiffness in the arms and legs. Jane Hill travels to the Netherlands to meet Mariëtte Robijn and Wim Rozenberg, coaches at Rock Steady Boxing Het Gooi and co-founders of ParkinsonSport.nl, a unique sports club ran 100% by and for people with Parkinson’s. It doesn’t take long before a transformation begins to take place in the gym. Boxing is popular in the US as well, says Professor Lisa Shulman, Director of the Parkinson’s Centre at the University of Maryland. She has been encouraging her patients to exercise for the last 25 years. Results from over 200 studies suggest that exercise is a good way to empower people as well as having physical benefits such as delaying disability. In Ghana many people receive a late diagnosis. Sheila Klufio a physiotherapist at Korle Bu Hospital in Accra works with people to help them deal with some of the more common symptoms such as freezing when walking so they feel more confident to go out. And it seems all types of exercise can help, Alan Alda and Michael J Fox both box, ballet dancing is popular, walking, cycling and Tai Chi have benefits and it’s never too late to start. Picture credit: Wim Rozenberg at Wimages.nl
September 30, 2019
BBC newsreader Jane Hill knows all about Parkinson’s. Her father was diagnosed in t1980s and lived with the condition for ten years — her uncle had it, too. She’s spoken about the dreadful experience of watching helplessly as the two men were engulfed by the degenerative disease, losing their independence and the ability to do the things that they once enjoyed. “I remember feeling how cruel Parkinson’s is. The number of people living with Parkinson’s disease is set to double over the next few decades as we all live longer; it is the only long-term neurological condition that is increasing globally. In this series Jane Hill looks at what it means to be given a diagnosis of Parkinson’s and the reality of living with the condition. She and her cousin Steve remember how their fathers adopted a British stiff upper lip at a time when there was little awareness. In contrast she meets highly successful comedy writer Paul Mayhew Archer, whose reaction to his diagnosis was to create a one-man show exploring the lighter side of living with Parkinson’s. Actors Michael J Fox and Alan Alda both discuss the early symptoms of the disease and their diagnosis. Most people are diagnosed in their sixties but Dutch blogger Mariette Robijn talks about accepting a life changing diagnosis in her forties. Picture: Dopaminergic neuron, 3D illustration. Degeneration of this brain cells is responsible for development of Parkinson's disease, Credit: Dr Microbe Presenter: Jane Hill Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald
September 23, 2019
Thanks to a ban on several hazardous pesticides Sri Lanka has seen a massive reduction in deaths from pesticide poisoning, and the World Health Organisation is recommending other countries should follow this example. As Health Correspondent Matthew Hill discovers, hospitals which used to deal with many pesticide related deaths are now seeing fewer cases, and more survivors. However, a lack of mental health services means, for many in rural communities, taking pesticides is still a way of drawing attention to a variety of personal issues - sometimes with tragic consequences. Image: Rural pesticide shop, Sri Lanka (Credit: BBC)
September 16, 2019
“Nature red in tooth and claw”. “Dog eat dog”. “Fighting for survival". You may well think that the natural world is one dangerous, violent, lawless place, with every creature out for itself. And it can be, but it can also be peaceful, democratic and compassionate. Lucy Cooke seeks out the animal communities that adopt a more peaceful and democratic way of life and asks why it works for them. Despite being fierce predators, African wild dogs are cooperative and compassionate within their packs, and they actually hold democratic votes on hunting decisions – one sneeze for yes, two sneezes for no! They are among the most effective predators in the world. They use extraordinary cooperation and teamwork to pursue, overhaul and bring down their prey. As a result 80% of their hunts end successfully, compared to lions' at 10%. This is nearly all a result of their pack coordination. They are also surprisingly non-aggressive; they don’t fight over food but instead beg to indicate their wish to eat. Adults will allow younger pack members to eat before them. And the African wild dogs are not alone: such societies are also common in insects, other mammals, and birds, but exist even in simple species like amoebas. But what is the evolutionary advantage of this group cohesion? Why when nature selects for not just the individual but for the selfish gene, does it pay to be part of a complex social group? Lucy discovers that when the benefits of group-living outweigh the costs, it’s very much advantageous – when 10 pairs of eyes are better at spotting predators and pack strategies mean far more successful kills in a hunt, or when grooming not only strengthens bonds, but it also gets rid of your ticks and fleas. She also explores the different strategies of the highly complex social animals – the Great Apes – and asks whether Bonobos are truly the lovers and Chimpanzees the fighters? This all touches on the complex social interactions we have as humans. We can be peaceful and we can be violent and war-like, and like every species, individual variation and circumstances can tip the balance of our behaviour. But anthropologist Agustin Fuentes questions the belief that humans are at their core violent, aggressive, and oversexed. Are these behaviours part of our genetic heritage? What can biology, evolution, and behaviour tell us about peace and aggression in everyday life? Picture: African Hunting Dogs by Paul F Donald
September 9, 2019
Bigger is better, right? An ancient lore in biology, Cope's rule, states that animals have a tendency to get bigger as they evolve. Evolution has cranked out some absolutely huge animals. But most of these giants are long gone. And those that remain are amongst the most threatened with extinction. Scientists now believe that while evolution favours larger creatures, extinction seems to favour the small. If you look at mammals, at the time of the dinosaurs, they were confined to rodent-sized scavengers living on the periphery. But 66 million years ago, the dinosaurs went and allowed the mammals to evolve into some really big creatures - 30 metre long blue whales, the ten tonne steppe mammoth and a giant ground sloth that looked a bit like a hamster but was the size of an elephant with enormous hooks for hands. Now, only the blue whale remains and these have been shown to have shrunk to half the size of their Pleistocene ancestors. So is it better to be small? Smaller animals need fewer resources and smaller territories. With the planet in such peril - are more animals going to start shrinking? Well, perhaps...new research shows that in 200 years' time, the largest mammal might be the domestic cow. And of course the most successful organisms, in terms of biomass, on the planet are the smallest. Zoologist, Lucy Cooke examines the science of being small, and why size matters. Producer: Fiona Roberts (Photo: Honeybee sitting on a flower. Credit: Dr Paul F Donald)
September 2, 2019
Lucy Cooke sets out to discover why honesty is almost certainly not the best policy, be you chicken, chimp or human being. It turns out that underhand behaviour is rife throughout the animal kingdom, and can be a winning evolutionary strategy. From sneaky squid, to cheating cuckoos, some species will resort to truly incredible levels of deception and deviousness to win that mate, or get more food. And when it comes to social animals like we humans, it turns out that lying, or at least those little white lies, may be the social glue that binds us all together. Lucy heads to the RSPB cliffs at Bempton, with Professor Tim Birkhead to discover why so many bird species appear to be such proficient deceivers, as well as visiting the very crafty ravens at The Tower of London. She speaks to psychologist Richard Wiseman about how to spot when someone is lying, and finds out whether she is any good at it. In fact, can we trust any of what she says in this documentary at all? Presenter Lucy Cooke Producer Alexandra Feachem Main image: Raven Credit: Dr Paul F Donald
August 26, 2019
Professor Deborah Bowman reveals how a diagnosis of cancer has transformed her view of medical ethics and what it means to be a patient. As Professor of Ethics and Law at St George's, University of London, Deborah has spent the past two decades teaching and writing about medical ethics, the moral principles that apply to medicine. It's taken her down countless hospital corridors, to the clinics and the wards where medical ethics plays out in practice, behind closed doors, supporting healthcare practitioners and their patients to negotiate uncertainty and conflict. This is the field of clinical ethics and, each time, the 'patient' has been central to her response. Yet in the autumn of 2017, everything changed. Deborah was diagnosed with breast cancer and it signalled the beginning of her undoing, not just personally but professionally too, playing havoc with what she thought she knew about clinical ethics. Patient autonomy - literally 'self-rule'- is one of its cornerstones - a patient's right to make decisions about their healthcare. So what does autonomy mean if the 'self', she thought she knew, was so changeable and confusing? Deborah returns to the Royal Marsden Hospital where she is a patient, to explore this - with both her personal and professional hats on. Producer: Beth Eastwood Main Image: Deborah Bowman. Copyright: Deborah Bowman
August 19, 2019
Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, explores the hidden world of prestige, profits and piracy that lurks behind scientific journals. Each year, hundreds of thousands of articles on the findings on research are published, forming the official record of science. This has been going on since the 17th century, but recently a kind of war has broken out over the cost of journals to the universities and research institutions where scientists work, and to anyone else who wants to access the research, such as policy makers, patient support groups and the general public. Traditionally journals charge their readers a subscription, but since the start of the 21st century there's been a move to what's called open access, where the authors pay to get their articles published but anyone can read them, without charge. In Europe Plan S has called for all research funded by the public purse to be open access, by 2021. If and when this is implemented it could have downsides on learned societies who depend on income from journal subscriptions to support young researchers and on scientists in the less developed world. Some universities, and even countries, have recently refused to pay the subscriptions charged by some of the big science publishers. This has led to some scientists using a service run by a Russian hacker, which has effectively stolen the whole of the scientific literature and gives it away, free, on the internet. Matthew Cobb looks back at how the scientific publishing industry got to its current state and asks how it could change. He argues that scientists themselves need to break their addiction to wanting their articles to appear in a few well known journals, and instead concentrate on the quality of their research.
August 12, 2019
Dr Erica McAlister, of London's Natural History Museum, talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the beautiful world of flies and the 2.5 million specimens for which she is jointly responsible. According to Erica, a world without flies would be full of faeces and dead bodies. Unlike, for example, butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars spend their time devouring our crops and plants, fly larvae tend to help rid the world of waste materials and then, as adults, perform essential work as pollinators. Yet they are rather unloved by humans who tend to regard them as pests at best and disease vectors at worst. 2019 is international Year of the Fly, and dipterists and entomologists around the world are working to raise the profile of the many thousands of species so far known to science. Erica tells Jim about her work in the museum, cataloguing and identifying new species either sent in from other researchers or discovered by her and her colleagues on swashbuckling trips around the world. Modern gene sequencing techniques are revealing new chapters in the life histories of species, and her collection of 300 year old dead flies continues to expand our knowledge of how the world works. Perhaps in the future, she argues, we will all be eating pasta and bread made from fly-larvae protein, or using small tea-bag like packets of maggots in our wounds to clean out gangrenous infection.
August 5, 2019
When Sir Richard Peto began work with the late Richard Doll fifty years ago, the UK had the worst death rates from smoking in the world. Smoking was the cause of more than half of all premature deaths of British men. The fact that this country now boasts the biggest decrease in tobacco-linked mortality is in no doubt partly due to Doll and Peto's thirty year collaboration. Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and until last year co-director of the Clinical Trial Service Unit with Professor Sir Rory Collins, Richard Peto pioneered "big data", setting up enormous randomised clinical trials and then, in a novel approach, combining results in what became known as meta-analyses, amassing unequivocal evidence about how early death could be avoided. He showed how asprin could prevent heart attacks and how the oestrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen really did affect survival rates for breast cancer patients. Results on paper saves lives in the real world, he says, and he's famous for catchphrases like: "death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not" and "you can avoid more deaths by a moderate reduction of a big cause, than by a big reduction in a small cause" as well as "take the big numbers seriously". One of the world's leading epidemiologists, Richard Peto's landmark study with Alan Lopez at the World Health Organisation predicted that a billion people would die from diseases associated with tobacco this century, compared to a hundred million killed by tobacco in the 20th century. The chilling message galvanised governments around the world to adopt anti-smoking policies. And Professor Peto's studies about smoking cessation ("smoking kills, stopping works") provided the public health evidence needed to encourage smokers that, however long they had smoked for, it was always worth quitting.
July 29, 2019
James Lovelock is one of the most influential thinkers on the environment of the last half century. His grand theory of planet earth, Gaia, the idea that from the bottom of the earth's crust to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, planet earth is one giant inter-connected and self-regulating system, has had an impact way beyond the world of science. As James Lovelock, celebrates his hundredth birthday (he was born on 26th July 1919) he talks to science writer Gaia Vince about the freedom and frustrations of fifty years spent working outside the scientific establishment. While working at the National Institute for Medical Research he invented the Electron Capture Detector - an exquisitely sensitive device for detecting the presence of the tiniest quantities of gases in the atmosphere and led to a global ban on CFCs. It also took him to NASA and via designing a detector to look for life on Mars gave him the idea of Gaia. Public interest in Gaia proliferated after the publication of his first book Gaia: a new look at life on earth in 1979; but the scientific community remained highly sceptical. For decades Gaia was ignored, dismissed and even ridiculed as a scientific theory. To this day, evolutionary biologists, in particular, take issue with the notion of a self-regulating planet though some are coming round to the idea. Gaia Vince talks to earth system scientists Professor Andrew Watson and Professor Tim Lenton of Exeter University who have both championed the Gaia theory, and to Professor Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University, an evolutionary biologist who has changed his mind about the theory. Producer: Deborah Cohen Picture: British scientist James Lovelock poses on March 17, 2009 in Paris. Credit: Jacques Demarthon / AFP / Getty Images.
July 22, 2019
The Moon rush is back on. And this time it’s a global race. The USA has promised boots on the lunar surface by 2024. But China already has a rover exploring the farside. India is on the point of sending one too. Europe and Russia are cooperating to deliver more robots. And that’s not to mention the private companies also getting into the competition. Roland Pease looks at the prospects and challenges for all the participants. (Image caption: Chinese lunar probe and rover lands on the far side of moon. Credit: CNSA via EPA)
July 15, 2019
Pain, as we know, is highly personal. Some can cope with huge amounts, while others reel in agony over a seemingly minor injury. Though you might feel the stab of pain in your stubbed toe or sprained ankle, it is actually processed in the brain. That is where Irene Tracey, Nuffield Professor of Anaesthetic Science at Oxford University, has been focussing her attention. Known as the Queen of Pain, she has spent the past two decades unravelling the complexities of this puzzling sensation. She goes behind the scenes, as it were, of what happens when we feel pain - scanning the brains of her research subjects while subjecting them to a fair amount of burning, prodding and poking. Her work is transforming our understanding, revealing how our emotions influence our experience of pain, how chronic pain develops and even when consciousness is present in the brain. Producer: Beth Eastwood
July 8, 2019
Physicist Paul Davies talks to Jim al-Khalili about the origin of life, the search for aliens and the evolution of cancer. Paul Davies is interested in some of the biggest questions that we can ask. What is life? How did the universe begin? How will it end? And are we alone? His research has been broad and far-reaching, covering quantum mechanics, cosmology and black holes. In the 1980s he described the so-called Bunch-Davies vacuum - the quantum vacuum that existed just fractions of a second after the big bang - when particles were popping in and out of existence and nothing was stable. As the chair of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Post Detection Task Group, he’s the person responsible for announcing to the world when we make contact with aliens. He’s now Regents Professor of Physics at Arizona State University in the American south west where he runs research groups studying the evolution of cancer and the origins of life. Paul Davies talks to Jim al-Khalili about how he applies the principles of physics to these big questions and about how he has worked closely with religious thinkers. Producer: Anna Buckley
July 1, 2019
In the 1950s a batch of polio vaccine in the US was made badly, resulting in 10 deaths and the permanent paralysis of 164 people. Paul Offit, a paediatrician in Philadelphia, says the disaster did not turn people away from vaccines. He believes that current vaccine hesitancy needs to be tackled online - where fake news spreads quickly. The German state of Brandenburg wants to make pre-school vaccinations compulsory - like neighbouring France and Italy - because immunisation rates there dropped to 73%. But some doctors believe busy parents can instead be gently persuaded to take up vaccines. Perhaps this is where psychological research can play a role. Sander van der Linden, Director of the Cambridge Social Decision Making Lab in the UK, is working on an online game which "inoculates" people against fake news - by showing them how they can be manipulated online. He says the effects last about 6 weeks - so a "booster" may be necessary. Head of the Vaccine Confidence Project Heidi Larson applauds 18 year old American Ethan Lindenberger who decided to get vaccinated despite his own mother's anti-vax views which he says she got from reading church and internet anti-vaccination groups rather than from the medical profession. Producer: Paula McGrath Picture: A vial of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and an information sheet, Boston Children's Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts February 26, 2015. Credit: Reuters / Brian Snyder / File Photo
June 24, 2019
Global attitudes towards vaccinations are revealed in the Wellcome Trust’s Global Monitor survey. Our guide through the new data is Heidi Larson, Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also leads the Vaccines Confidence Project. She says the most vaccine-sceptical country is France – because of past scares around different vaccines. The success of vaccines means people have forgotten how measles can be fatal – and parents are now influenced by scare stories about vaccines. More than half of the 1,000 recent cases of measles in the US have been in the Orthodox Jewish community in New York city. We hear from some of the parents who still don’t vaccinate and from a family doctor about trustworthy sources of information. Things couldn’t be more different in Madagascar where more than 1200 children have died from measles and parents walk for miles to have their children immunised. Half the country’s children are malnourished – which can increase the risk of complications if they catch measles. Vitamin A supplements are being given to help the immune system to work properly. Next week on Discovery – could compulsory vaccines or a more subtle, psychological approach help to address vaccine hesitancy? Producer: Paula McGrath Photo: Children walk past a sign advising about a measles outbreak in the Brooklyn Borough of New York. Credit: Reuters)
June 17, 2019
"What happens to the human voice as we age? If I hear a voice on the radio, I can guess roughly how old they are. But singer's voices seem to stay relatively unchanged as they age. Why is this?" All these questions were sent in by Jonathan Crain from Long Island in New York. Doctors Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry discover how the human voice is produced and listen to how our voice sounds when it emerges from our vocal cords. Acoustic engineer Trevor Cox, author of Now You're Talking, explains why German and French babies have a different accent. And neuroscientist Sophie Scott describes what happens when boys' voices break, and why a similar thing can happen to women during the menopause. Finally, our voices often change dramatically in later life, as demonstrated by comedy impressionist Duncan Wisbey. Expect cameos from David Attenborough, Dumbledore and Paul McCartney. Bird Song "Winter is finally over and the birds are all singing their hearts out at dawn. What is all the noise about? And why are some songs so elaborate?" asks Tony Fulford from Cambridgeshire in the UK. We find out how birds produce multiple notes at once, which one has the widest repertoire of songs, and why males like to show off quite so much. Plus, we talk to researcher Lauryn Benedict about the project which aims to solve the mystery of why female birds sing. Featuring interviews with RSPB president and nature presenter Miranda Krestovnikoff, and world-renowned birdsong expert and sound recordist, Don Kroodsma from the University of Massachusetts. TV archive courtesy of The One Show, BBC TV. Please send your cases for consideration for the next series to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin. (Photo: Eurasian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes). Credit: Getty Images)
June 10, 2019
“Is anything in the Universe truly infinite, or is infinity something that only exists in mathematics?” This question came from father and son duo from Edinburgh in Scotland, Tom and Sorely Watson. First, we investigate the concept of infinity in mathematics with a story of mathematics, music and murder from Steven Strogatz from the Cornell University. Did you know that there are some infinities that are bigger than others? We discuss the mind-bending nature of infinity with mathematician Eugenia Cheng, author of Beyond Infinity. Next we turn to physics to see if we can find something in the Universe that is truly infinite. Theoretical physicist Sean Carroll from Caltech University discusses the infinitely small inside subatomic particles. Plus cosmologist Andrew Pontzen from University College London travels into the heart of a black hole to see if we can find a something that is infinitely dense. But if we’re looking for something that is infinite, how about the Universe itself? We find out how physicists measure the shape of the Universe, with the help of an orange and a game of Asteroids. However, if the Universe is not infinite, and it has an edge, what is on the other side? Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin (Photo: The Infinity symbol in an exploding cloud of data. Credit: Wigglestick/Getty Images)
June 3, 2019
4/6 Part 1: Déjà vu "Do we know what causes déjà vu?" asks Floyd Kitchen from Queenstown in New Zealand. Drs Rutherford and Fry investigate this familiar feeling by speaking to world-leading reseacher Chris Moulin from the University of Grenoble in France and memory expert Catherine Loveday from Westminster University. Plus, they find out why early investigations classed déjà vu as a type of paranormal phenomenon. For most of us, it's a fleetingly strange experience, but for some people it can become a serious problem. Lisa from Hulme in Manchester started experiencing déjà vu when she was 22 with episodes that could last all day. The origin of her déjà vu has been the key to helping psychologists investigate its cause. Part 2: Randomness "Is anything truly random, or is everything predetermined?" asks Darren Spalding from Market Harborough. Hannah and Adam go in search of random events, from dice throws to lava lamps. Can we predict the outcome of any event? "How do computers manage to pick random numbers?" asks Jim Rennie from Mackinaw in Illinois. Random numbers are vital for things like cyber security and banking. But true randomness is surprisingly hard to produce, as the team discover. Joining them for this case we have a random selection of experts: mathematician Colva Roney-Dougal, technology journalist Bill Thompson, Science Museum Curator Tilly Blyth and quantum physicist Jim AlKhalili. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin Main Image: A fan of the New York Yankees holds up a sign which reads "It's Deja Vu" at the Yankee Stadium, New York City 29 Oct 2009. Credit: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images
May 27, 2019
3/6 In this instalment of The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry, Hannah and Adam boldly go in search of scientists who are hunting for ET, spurred on by questions sent in by listeners across the globe, from Australia to Columbia. They start by asking how we define life and why we are obsessed with finding it on Mars. Should we be looking further out in the Solar System, and could we find space squid on the icy moon Europa? When it comes to intelligent life we may have to scout even further into the Universe. But what are the chances of finding complex life in the cosmos? And where might it live? Featuring astronomer Seth Shostak from the SETI Institute in California, planetary scientist Monica Grady from the Open University, exoplanet hunter Sara Rugheimer from the University of St Andrews and zoologist Matthew Cobb from Manchester University. Send your Curious Cases for consideration in to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin. Main Image: This image obtained from NASA on November 25, 2013 shows several images that were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the spiral NGC 4921 from the Coma Cluster of Galaxies. Copyright: NASA / Hubble / ESA / Handout
May 20, 2019
2/6 "How fast can a human run and would we be faster as quadrapeds?" This question flew in via Twitter from Greg Jenner. Is there a limit to human sprinting performance? In this episode we investigate the biomechanics of running, statistical trends in human performance and which kind of monkey runs the fastest. But first, an experiment. Due to some spurious and possibly fictional injuries, neither Hannah nor Adam are fit enough to take part in a sprint trial at the University of Bath. So long-suffering Producer Michelle steps up to the challenge and into the starting blocks. Not known for her love of athletics, or exercise of any sort, how will she fair in the ultimate speed test? Biomechanist Peter Weyand from Texas discusses the role of different muscle types in speed versus endurance. Sports scientist Polly McGuigan reveals why Usain Lightning Bolt is still the fastest man in the world. And Prof of Sports Engineering Steve Haake reveals how fast a man can run like a monkey. "Why do people experience pain differently when they go through the same event?" asks Claire Jenkins from Cwmbran in Wales. Professor of Pain Research, Irene Tracey, welcomes Adam in to the room she calls her 'Torture Chamber'. Burning, electrocuting, lasering and piercing are all on the menu, but which will hurt the most? Hannah speaks to Steve Pete from Washington who has a rare genetic condition which means he does not feel pain. For chronic sufferers, this sounds like heaven, but a life without pain has brought untold suffering to him and his family, including the tragic story of his brother, Chris. We look at how the body creates pain, why some people feel it more than others, and how this knowledge could help scientists treat pain more effectively in the future. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin (Photo: A runner beats the pain to make it over the finishing line in the Hong Kong Marathon 12 February 2006. Credit: Martin Chan/South China Morning Post/Getty Images)
May 13, 2019
1/6 "We play many musical instruments in our family. Lots of them produce the same pitch of notes, but the instruments all sound different. Why is this?" asks Natasha Cook aged 11, and her Dad Jeremy from Guelph in Ontario, Canada. In this new series of The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry, Hannah and Adam are joined by the Curious Cases band - Matt Chandler and Wayne Urquhart - to play with today's question. Bringing the science we have acoustic engineer and saxophone player Trevor Cox. Plus materials expert Zoe Laughlin demonstrates a selection of her unusual musical creations, including a lead bugle, a glass bell and a spruce tuning fork. Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry Producer: Michelle Martin Main image: 1-25 Wind instruments, 26-34 percussion instruments, Egypt, engraving by Duhamel from Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and researches which were made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army), Etat moderne, Planches, Volume II, Plate PlCC, Imprimerie Imperiale, 1817, Paris. Credit: De Agostini Editorial / Getty Images
May 6, 2019
Our senses create the world we experience. But do animals have a ‘sense’ of time, and does that differ between species, or between us and other animals? We know that animal senses reveal a wealth of information that humans can't access. Birds can see in ultra violet, and some fish can 'feel' electricity. So perhaps their sense of time is similar. If you've ever tried to swat flies, you'll know that they seem to have super-powered reactions that let them escape before you can blink. Presenter Geoff Marsh asks whether flies have some sort of super-power to see the world in slow motion. Are they watching your hand come down at what might appear a leisurely pace? Science reveals a window into the minds of different species and their temporal perceptions. Some birds have such fast vision that they can see and react to movement at twice the speed you can, and our vision works at more than six times the speed of one species of deep sea fish. This programme delves into each moment of experience to ask 'what is time, biologically?' When birds have to dodge through forests and catch flies on the wing, or when flies have to avoid those birds, it would seem that a faster temporal resolution would be a huge advantage. Geoff meets physicist Carlo Rovelli and asks him to jump outside of physics to answer questions on biology and philosophy. Geoff explores the mind of a bat with Professor Yossi Yovel in Israel, and dissects birdsong at super slow speeds with BBC wildlife sound recordist, Chris Watson. Getting deep into the minds of animals he questions whether our seconds feel like swordfish seconds, or a beetles' or birds' or bats..? Presenter: Geoff Marsh Producer: Rory Galloway Picture: Violaceous Euphonia (Euphonia violacea) male flying from branch, Itanhaem, Brazil Credit: Getty images
April 29, 2019
Dr Catherine Hobaiter studies how apes communicate with each other. Although she is based at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, she spends a lot of her time in the forests of Uganda, at the Budongo Research Centre. There, she is endlessly fascinated by the behaviour of great apes. Cat Hobaiter tells Jim al-Khalili about the difficulties of carrying out research on chimps in the wild. It can take years to win the trust of the apes. She says that her approach is to adopt the attitude of a moody teenager. Look bored and the chimps will ignore her, but at the same time she is watching them closely. Her particular research area is in understanding not the sounds that apes make, but their gestures. From her observations she has found that they use around 80 different gestures - many of which are common, in the sense that they have the same meaning, across different species like chimps and bonobos. One thing she and her team hope to learn from these studies is how we humans have evolved spoken language. (Photo: Dr Catherine Hobaiter)
April 22, 2019
Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist who became a household name when his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics became an unexpected international bestseller. His concise, and poetic, introduction to the laws and beauty of physics has sold more than a million copies. He’s also a pioneer of one of the most exciting and profound ideas in modern physics, called loop quantum gravity. Carlo Rovelli tells Jim al-Khalili how he first became interested in the nature of time when he took LSD as a young man. Later he became curious about the world of the almost absurdly small, where time has no meaning and space is grainy. He took seven years to complete his undergraduate degree, having spent a lot of time protesting against the political establishment, falling in love and travelling. All this rebelling taught him the value of seeing the world in a different way and the benefits of challenging the status quo. In the end he concluded it was easier, and more meaningful, to challenge Einstein’s understanding of time, than it was to overthrow the government. Picture: Carlo Rovelli. Credit: BBC Producer: Anna Buckley
April 15, 2019
Professor Corinne Le Quéré of University of East Anglia talks to Jim Al-Khalili about tracing global carbon. Throughout the history of planet Earth, the element carbon has cycled between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. This natural cycle has maintained the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and has allowed life to exist for billions of years. Corinne Le Quéré is a climate scientist who keeps track of where the carbon comes from and where it goes – all on a truly global scale. Corinne Le Quéré is the founder of the Global Carbon Budget, which each year reports on where carbon dioxide is being emitted and where it is being absorbed around the world. More specifically, she studies the relationship between the carbon cycle and the earth’s climate, and how it is changing.
April 8, 2019
Jim Al-Khalili talks to Ken Gabriel, the engineer responsible for popularising many of the micro devices found in smartphones and computers. Ken explains how he was inspired by what he could do with a stick and a piece of string. This led to an engineering adventure taking in spacecraft, military guidance systems and the micro-mechanical devices we use every day in our computers and smartphones. Ken Gabriel now heads up a large non-profit engineering company, Draper, which cut its teeth building the guidance systems for the Apollo space missions, and is now involved in developing both driverless cars and drug production systems for personalised medicine. Ken himself has a career in what he terms ‘disruptive engineering’. His research married digital electronics with acoustics - and produced the microphones in our phones and computers. He has also worked for Google, taking some of the military research methods into a civilian start up. This led to the development of a new type of modular mobile phone which has yet to go into production. Producer: Julian Siddle
April 1, 2019
Donna Strickland tells Jim Al-Khalili why she wanted to work with lasers and what it feels like to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 55 years. When the first laser was built in 1960, it was an invention looking for an application. Science fiction found uses for these phenomenally powerful beams of light long before real world applications were developed. Think Star Wars light sabres and people being sliced in half. Today lasers are used for everything from hair removal to state of the art weapons. Working with her supervisor Gerard Mourou in the 1980s, the Canadian physicist, Donna Strickland found a way to make laser pulses that were thousands of times more powerful than anything that had been made before. These rapid bursts of intense light energy have revolutionised laser eye surgery and, it's hoped, could open the doors to an exciting range of new applications from pushing old satellites out of earth's orbit to treatments for deep brain tumours. Producer: Anna Buckley
March 25, 2019
Imagine finding a notebook containing the secret recipes of some of the world’s most iconic perfumes? Formulas normally kept under lock and key. That’s what happened to medical research scientist and trained chemist Andrew Holding. His grandfather Charles “Rex” Holding had been Chief Perfumer at the Bourjois Chanel factory in Croydon, near London, during the 1960s. After his death, he left behind a lifetime of perfume memorabilia; bottles of Chanel perfume, rare ingredients, fragrant soaps, and in amongst his things, the most fascinating of finds – a notebook with handwritten formulas, including one for Soir de Paris, written by one of the greatest of all perfumery biochemists – Constantin Weriguine. Can Andrew recreate this almost one hundred year old fragrance? He travels to Versaille’s Osmotheque, the world’s only perfume archive, to smell the original 1928 scent. It’s where top perfumers – all chemists themselves - grant him access to the world’s rarest and sometimes now-forbidden perfume ingredients, and teach him how to mix a scent. And in constructing Soir de Paris, he learns about Constantin Weriguine, his grandfather ‘Rex’, and discovers if his skills as a chemist are enough to turn him into a top perfumer, or is fragrance more of an art than a science? Presenter: Andrew Holding Producer: Katy Takatsuki. Image: Patricia de Nicolaï
March 18, 2019
When Paradise burned down last year, it made the Camp Fire the most destructive and deadly in Californian history. A few months earlier the nearby Ranch Fire was the largest. In southern California, a series of chaparral fires have brought danger to towns along the state’s coast. And the statistics show that large, dangerous fires have been increasing for decades. But the reasons are not simple. Roland Pease meets some of the experts trying to work out what is to be done. Producer: Roland Pease Image: A man watches the Thomas Fire above Carpinteria, California, Credit: Getty Images
March 11, 2019
Los Angeles is a city of Angels, and of earthquakes. Deadly earthquakes in 1933, 1971 and 1994 have also made it a pioneer in earthquake protection – for example with tough engineering standards to save buildings. Since 2013, with the help of scientists at the US Geological Survey, the city has been developing a resilience plan which culminated in the release of an app that should give residents precious seconds of warning when an earthquake starts. Roland Pease meets the scientists, the Mayor and the officials making the system work. Picture: An apartment after the Northridge earthquake in 1994 Credit: Getty Images
March 4, 2019
For more than 100 years chemical weapons have terrorised, maimed and killed soldiers and civilians alike. As a chemist, the part his profession has played in the development of these weapons has long concerned Andrea Sella, professor of chemistry at University College London. In this programme he examines the motivation of chemists like Dr Fritz Haber, who first encouraged the German military to deploy chlorine gas in World War One for the sake of “The Fatherland” and of Dr Gerhard Schrader, who, in his hunt for an effective pesticide, accidentally discovered a new class of lethal nerve agents for Nazi Germany. From chlorine, phosgene and the mustard gases, to tabun, sarin, soman, VX and the novichok agents used to target former Soviet agent Sergei Skipal in England, Andrea weaves archive with interviews with key figures in the ongoing campaign to control and ban the use of such weapons and he asks how science educators can prepare young chemists for the moral hazard posed by this particular class of weapon. (Photo: Mock up of Novichok agent (A-234), Credit: WoodyAlec/Getty Images)
February 25, 2019
In the first of two programmes he looks back to the first attempts to ban the use of chemical weapons at the end of the 19th century. Heavily defeated in the Crimea, Russia succeeded in getting unanimous agreement at the 1899 Hague Convention that poison and poison weapons should be banned from warfare. But chemicals such as chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas were heavily used in the First World War by both sides. More substances were developed in the 1930s and 1940s but weren’t used in the battlefield in World War 2. Andrea Sella tells the stories of the chemists behind these developments. Picture: GB Army soldiers train for biological and chemical warfare, Credit: BBC
February 18, 2019
In a dry creek bed in the middle of the Australian outback is a palaeontological prize like no other: 95-million-year-old footprints stamped in a sandstone slab by three species of dinosaur. One of the beasts was a massive, lumbering sauropod that measured 18 metres from nose to tail. But the precious trackway is in danger of being damaged by the next floods, so must be moved. In the final episode of the four-part series The Chase, science journalist Belinda Smith from the ABC in Australia discovers what footprints can tell us about the ancient beasts that once roamed this land, and follows a team racing against time and the elements to save this once-in-a-lifetime find. Because even though these tracks have lasted the best part of 100 million years, they may not survive another one. Picture: Footprints made by a sauropod as it walked across a mudflat 95 million years ago, Credit: Australian Broadcasting Corporation/Belinda Smith
February 11, 2019
The atoll of Tetiaro is a string of tiny islands in French Polynesia, about 60km away from Tahiti. The islands – known as ‘motus’ to local Polynesians – are unique ecosystems that are crucial nesting sites for native seabirds. But invasive species threaten to disrupt these fragile environments – a fate seen across many islands in the Pacific. Rats arrived with early human settlers and have driven bird species off some of the islands. Meanwhile introduced mosquitoes have thrived in the warm conditions, and now act as vectors for diseases such as the Zika virus. Rat eradication experts have travelled to one of the uninhabited islands in the atoll, called Reiono, to attempt an experimental eradication of thousands of rats with one mammoth poison bait drop. They’re also using this as an opportunity to better understand why eradication attempts have been less effective on tropical islands. At the same time, on another island in the chain called Onetahi, researchers are releasing swarms of sterilised male mosquitoes to try to rid this motu of the disease-carrying pest. Join Carl Smith from ABC Australia for the third episode of The Chase: a special four-part series about science on the run. Picture: The Pacific rat (Rattus exulans) is smaller than many other invasive rat species, but it’s still been linked to localised extinctions of island birds, Credit: Carl Smith
February 4, 2019
The Night Parrot was supposed to be extinct and became a legend among birdwatchers in Australia: a fat, dumpy, green parrot that lived in the desert and came out at night. The last bird seen alive was promptly shot dead in 1912. Over 90 years later, a decapitated Night Parrot was found beside a fence in outback Australia, and the hunt for a living bird was on. Ornithologists descended onto the arid plains of Australia’s vast arid interior, but it took another seven years for a single photograph of a live bird. Incredibly, a population of night parrots had survived. Their exact location is kept secret, and people are still looking for more – or more precisely, listening for more, using acoustic traps to identify calls. Dr Ann Jones from ABC Australia takes a huge microphone for a spin in the desert to join the hunt for the legendary Night Parrot. (Photo: Ullala Boss is a Birriliburu Indigenous Ranger, Elder and Traditional Owner and knows the dreaming stories of the Night Parrot. Credit: Dr Ann Jones)
January 28, 2019
On this mission, SOFIA is setting out to study Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon, by flying into the faint shadow that it casts as it blocks the light from a faraway star. It’s a phenomenon called an occultation, and if the mission succeeds, it will reveal new details about Titan’s atmosphere. SOFIA is a very unusual observatory. It is a 747 aircraft with a hatch in the side, which opens in flight to reveal a large, custom-built telescope – carefully engineered to work inside a moving jet plane. Its full name is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, and it’s a joint project of Nasa and the German space agency, DLR. The catch? That shadow is moving across the earth at 22 kilometres per second. Join Dr Jonathan Webb from the ABC in Australia for episode one of The Chase - a special four-part series about science on the run. (Photo: SOFIA is a heavily modified 747SP which was acquired by Nasa in the mid-1990s after spending 20 years as a passenger jet. (Credit: Wayne Williams)
January 14, 2019
The Six Cornered Snowflake, a booklet written by Johannes Kepler as a New Year's gift, sought to explain the intricate and symmetrical shape of winter's tiny stars of snow. His insightful speculations about minerals and geometry were the beginning of the modern understanding of crystals. Philip Ball tells the story of how Kepler became a key figure in the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. He was a precocious mathematician who became an adviser to Emperor Rudolf II in 1600. Although he contributed to the idea that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the solar system, his role at the court was to be an astrologer. Philip brings the story of the shape of the snowflakes up to date. It was only 20 years ago with the development of the maths of fractals that we got to understand the formation of the myriad patterns of snowflakes.
January 7, 2019
2000 years ago Lucretius composed a long poem that theorised about atoms and the natural world. Written in the first century BCE, during a chaotic and frightening time when the Roman Republic was collapsing, Lucretius encouraged people to feel free through contemplating the physics of the Universe. He said that despite living through a time of bloody civil wars and dictatorship people should not believe they were sheep who had to follow those in power. Naomi discovers that the poem is an epic, beautiful and persuasive piece of work. It begins with a discussion of atoms. Lucretius, like Epicurus, followed the Greek tradition in believing that the universe is composed of tiny, indivisible particles. De Rerum Natura asks us to consider that all that really exists in the universe are these atoms and the void between them. Atoms are indestructible, the number of atoms in the universe is infinite and so is the void in which the atoms move. What Lucretius is saying here was revolutionary then – and still has the power to surprise. He’s saying that there are no supernatural forces controlling our lives, no fate pulling the strings, if there are gods they’re made of atoms just like everything else. There is nothing else. Naomi discusses the life of Lucretius and his poem with classicist Dr Emma Woolerton of Durham University. And she talks to particle physicist Professor Jonathan Butterworth of UCL about which of his theories still holds water today. Picture: Gathered sheep, Credit: Chris Strickland, Getty Images
December 31, 2018
Philip Ball's tale is of a solar eclipse 100 years ago observed by Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer who travelled to the remote island of Principe off the coast of West Africa and saw the stars shift in the heavens. His observations supplied the crucial proof of a theory that transformed our notions of the cosmos and turned a German physicist named Albert Einstein into an international celebrity. But this is also a tale of how a Quaker tried to use science to unite countries. The reparations imposed on Germany after the war extended into science too as many in Great Britain and other Allied nations felt that German science should be ostracised from the international community. As a Quaker, Eddington wanted just the opposite: to see peaceful cooperation restored among nations. Picture: Image of the 1919 Solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), Credit: Science Photo Library Producer: Erika Wright
December 24, 2018
On Christmas Eve in 1968 Bill Anders was in orbit around the moon in Apollo 8 when he took one of the most iconic photos of the last fifty years: Earthrise. The image got to be seen everywhere, from a stamp issued in 1969 to commemorate the success of Apollo 8, to posters that are still available today. Gaia Vince explores the impact of this image on the environmental movement and our understanding of our place in the universe. “Oh my God. Look at that picture over there. Here’s the earth coming up. Wow, isn’t that pretty.” Bill Anders was on the fourth of the ten orbits of the moon on Apollo 8, along with James Lovell and Frank Borman. Bill had spotted the earth through one of the hatch windows and grabbed his camera to take a black and white photo. But just in time, he picked up another camera with a colour film loaded, and the rest is history. When they returned from space – the first mission to orbit the moon – Nasa used Bill Anders’ image of Earthrise in its publicity. Nasa had understood there was an added value of going into space: taking pictures of our home planet. Stewart Brand was part of both the counterculture and the environmental movement; he’d hung out with Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters and put on happenings. He went on to found the Whole Earth Catalog, which brought together all kinds of alternative thinkers. Stewart Brand put the Earthrise photo on the front cover of one of the editions of the Whole Earth Catalog. Gaia Vince talks to Stewart Brand, and to scientists and artists, about the continuing importance of seeing Earth from above. Picture: Earthrise - The rising Earth is about five degrees above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft on December 24th 1968, Credit: Nasa Presenter: Gaia Vince Producer: Deborah Cohen
December 17, 2018
Alex Bellos is brilliant at all things mathematical, but even he can't hold a candle to the amazing mathematical feats of the supercalculators. Alex heads to Wolfsburg in Germany to meet the contestants at this year's Mental Calculation World Cup. These men and women are the fastest human number crunchers on the planet, able to multiply and divide large numbers with no need to reach for a smart phone, computer or calculator. So how do they do it, and is it a skill that any of us can learn? Alex talks to Robert Fountain, the UK's two-time winner of this prestigious prize, about his hopes for this year's competition and the mathematical magicians of the past who have inspired him. He also meets Rachel Riley, Countdown's number queen, to find out what it takes to beat the countdown clock. Picture: The Supercalculators, Credit: Alex Bellos
December 10, 2018
Plastic waste and pollution have become a global problem but is there any sign of a global solution? And how did we allow this to happen in the first place? Materials scientist and broadcaster, Professor Mark Miodownik, explores how we fell in love with plastic, why we've ended up with oceans of waste blighting the environment and what science and society can do about it. Programme Three: Roland Pease hears from Kenya where one of the most stringent bans on plastic bags has been in force for nearly two years, from the US where the reuseable cup has taken off and from Sweden where reverse vending machines give you money back when you return your plastic bottles. And he looks at places where plastic is the best material for the job. Picture: Bike loaded with empty plastic bottles. Shanghai China, Credit: typhoonski/Getty Images
December 3, 2018
Plastics are fantastically versatile materials that have changed our lives. It is what we do with them, when we no longer want them, that has resulted in the global plastic crisis. Mark Miodownik explores our love hate relationship with plastics. Programme Two: Things begin to go stale Plastic waste has been a global crisis waiting to happen. To date it's estimated that around 8.3 billion tonnes of waste plastic exists. That's 25 Empire State Buildings or 1 billion elephants. Incredibly around half of this has been generated in just the last 14 years, despite mass production having begun in the 1950s. Events such as China's recent refusal to take any more "foreign rubbish" from the west and Sir David Attenborough's graphic portrayal of the devastation that plastic waste is causing in our oceans, has prompted political and media discussion like never before. We are at a critical moment where, if we're to turn the tide on plastic pollution, it will require science and society to come together to create real change. But it won't be easy. One major area that needs an overhaul is recycling. In the UK only 14% of plastic collected is recycled. Europe tends to burn our waste for energy, and plastic has a calorific value similar to that of coal. But proponents of the circular economy say we should never consider plastic as waste at all and we should think of it as 'Buried Sunshine' - a resource that needs conserving - by reusing and recycling again and again. Picture: Production line for the processing of plastic waste in the factory, Credit: Getty Images
November 26, 2018
Plastic waste and pollution have become a global problem but is there any sign of a global solution? And how did we allow this to happen in the first place? Materials scientist and broadcaster, Professor Mark Miodownik, explores how we fell in love with plastic, why we've ended up with oceans of waste blighting the environment and what science and society can do about it. Programme One: First Flush of Love We may not be on speaking terms right now. But we do have a love affair with plastic, in fact it can be all consuming. Adaptable, lightweight, cheap and hygienic - fantastic plastics started to win our affection back in the late 19th century. Bakelite was an early plastic invented to replace expensive wood. Celluloid was one of the earliest plastics, failing to replace ivory in billiard balls, but revolutionising the world as movie film. Plastic really did change our world. Plastic radar insulation played a role in helping the Allied forces win the Second World War and after the conflict, factories start to churn out cheap, mass-produced goods in the new synthetic polymers. But some of the key virtues of plastic may now have paradoxically poisoned the relationship. Being virtually indestructible, has led to a build-up of toxic micro-plastic in the oceans and environment. We've grown to regard many plastics as cheap and disposable, we take it for granted, rely on it too much, value it too little and are too ready to cast it aside after one single use. Producer: Fiona Roberts Picture: The Bakelite Museum, Credit: Getty Images
November 19, 2018
The first Coelacanth was discovered by a woman in South Africa in 1938. The find, by the young museum curator, was the fish equivalent of discovering a T- Rex on the Serengeti, it took the Zoological world by storm. Presenter Adam Hart tells the story of this discovery, and the steps taken by Coelacanth biologists in the decades since to find more fish, in other populations, and record them for science. Adam hears personal accounts from a deep diver who swam with Coelacanths, Eve Marshall, conservationist Dr Mark Erdman, and geneticist Professor Axel Meyer. Picture: 3 Coelacanths at 116 metres depth in Sodwana Bay, South Africa, Credit: Eve Marshall Producer: Rory Galloway
November 12, 2018
Evidence for the big bang was initially thought to be a mistake in the recording. Jet streams in the upper atmosphere were revealed by the dust emitted by Krakatoa and a collection of interested citizen scientists. In the second three episodes about the genius of accidents in science, presenter Adam Hart explores two stories of unexpected observations. Sometimes accidental discoveries are bigger than you might expect. Picture: Moonlit Coast, Credit: shaunl/Getty Images
November 5, 2018
Viagra’s effects on men were first discovered as an unexpected side-effect during trials for a medication meant to help patients with a heart condition. CRISPR cas– 9 is now a tool that can be used to modify and replace genes – but it was first noted as a random collection of genes. In the first of three episodes about the genius of accidents in science, Professor Adam Hart explores how, sometimes, the results you’re looking for are not as important as those that appear unexpectedly. Picture: Test Tubes, Credit: Grafner/Getty Images Producer: Rory Galloway
October 29, 2018
What were the earliest animals on Earth? The origin of the animal kingdom is one of the most mysterious chapters in the evolution of life on Earth. Our animal ancestors appeared and began to diversify about half a billion years ago. What might they have looked like, and which creatures alive today can be traced to these primordial times? Answers are beginning to come with new techniques for both studying ancient fossils and for reading evolutionary history from the DNA of animals alive today. Zoologist Professor Matthew Cobb explores the latest discoveries and controversies with the researchers on the trail of the Earth’s first animals. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Picture: Artists impression of Dickinsonia, Credit: Nasa
October 29, 2018
Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis on what is now known as the Jurassic Coast in the first half of the 19th century. Knowing the shore from childhood and with a remarkable eye for detection she was extremely successful in finding fossils. In 1812 she unearthed parts of an Icthyosaur and in 1823 she discovered the first skeleton of what became known as a Plesiosaurus – a long-necked, flippered creature with a tiny head. It looked a bit like an elongated turtle with no shell. Naomi Alderman tells the science story of how Mary Anning, a poor and relatively uneducated young woman, became the supplier of the best fossils to the gentlemen geologists who were beginning to understand that the earth was very old and had been inhabited by strange extinct creatures. Naomi talks to Tracy Chevalier, author of Remarkable Creatures, a novel about Mary Anning, about her life and relationship with the geologists of the time, and to Dr Susannah Maidment, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, about fossil hunting today. Image: Lyme Regis, from Charmouth, Dorset 1814-1825 by William Daniell (Credit: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
October 22, 2018
The summer of 2003 saw the largest number of deaths ever recorded in a UK heatwave - but by 2040 climate models predict the extreme summer temperatures experienced then will be normal. We will also be experiencing colder winters, and droughts and floods will become more common. Our infrastructure, housing, water, sewerage, transport and public buildings are not designed for such conditions. Gaia Vince asks how we can adapt and prepare our cities, where most people live and work, for the new normal weather conditions. New buildings in temperate climates are now designed with keeping us warm in mind, better insulation, more efficient heating and airtight glazing. However when it comes to overheating these measures designed to keep out the cold can be part of the problem. Can we adapt solutions from other countries where extreme heat is a more usual seasonal event? Will we simply have to change the way we organise our day to keep out of the heat? Is the real answer for mad dogs and Englishmen to take a siesta? Picture: Wood thermometer, Credit: Ugurhan/Getty Images
October 15, 2018
In the second programme exploring the Chinese approach to organ transplantation, Matthew Hill looks at what is happening today. Where are the organs coming from today? Have the Chinese overcome their traditional opposition to donating them? There is still a lack of transparency about the sources. Some critics have suggested that there is still a trade in organs and there are reports that transplant tourism is still going on. Matthew Hill talks to Chinese and international transplant doctors about the current situation. Picture: Asian surgeons in the operating room, Shanghai, China, Credit: Asia-Pacific Images Studio/Getty Images
October 8, 2018
For many years the Chinese sourced organs for transplant from executed prisoners. Around a decade ago the authorities acknowledged that this practice had gone on and announced that it was to be stopped. In the first programme exploring the Chinese approach to organ transplantation Matthew Hill tells the grim story of the revelation of the source of organs, he meets a surgeon with first-hand experience of removing organs from executed prisoners. We talk to campaigners who believe the practice is still going on, they allege religious and ethnic minority groups in China are now a source for an illicit trade in human organs. Officially the practice of using organs for transplant from executed Prisoners ceased in 2015, China now has an organ donation registry and say the majority of organs come from people who die in intensive care units, however questions remain over whether this source is sufficient for the number of transplants performed. Picture: Asian surgeons in the operating room, Shanghai, China, Credit: Asia-Pacific Images Studio/Getty Images
October 1, 2018
This summer the Northern Hemisphere has been sweltering in unusually high temperatures. It has been hot from the Arctic to Africa. This has led to increased deaths, notably in Canada, and more wildfires, even in Lancashire and in Sweden. Can we say that this heatwave – and the extreme drought in Australia - is a result of climate change? Or is just part of the variable weather patterns we have on our planet? Roland Pease gets answers to these questions from the world’s leading climate and weather scientists. He picks apart the influences of the jet stream, El Niño and the Atlantic decadal oscillation from that of global warming. (Photo: Arctic Pack Ice near Svalbard, Norway. Credit: Bkamprath/Getty Images)
September 24, 2018
This summer the Northern Hemisphere has been sweltering in unusually high temperatures. It’s been hot from the Arctic to Africa. This has led to increased deaths, notably in Canada, and more wildfires, even in Lancashire and in Sweden. Can we say that this heatwave – and the extreme drought in Australia – is a result of climate change? Or is just part of the variable weather patterns we have on our planet? Roland Pease gets answers to these questions from the world’s leading climate and weather scientists. He picks apart the influences of the jet stream, the El Nina and the Atlantic decadal oscillation from that of global warming. Picture: Sacramento River and valley lit by the Delta Fire in California, 2018, Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images
September 17, 2018
Sophie Scott on why sodium powers everything we do, and why it might be the key to a new generation of pain killers. Putting sodium into water is one of the most memorable experiments from school chemistry lessons. It's this ability to react ferociously with water which is the starting point for sodium's key role in powering all of biology. Simply, without sodium we wouldn't exist. It helps provide the electricity that allows us to move, breathe, think. Our understanding of sodium could help in the search for analgesics with few side effects for severe pain. Recent discoveries of families who feel searing pain with mild warmth, or those who feel no pain at all even in childbirth, have opened up new avenues in pain research. Their rare genetic mutations change the way sodium works in their bodies: from this new knowledge neuroscientists are developing drugs that could give rise to a much needed new generation of pain killers. Image: Traditional glass salt cellar (Credit: Getty Images)
September 10, 2018
Beyond war and peace, Dr Andrew Pontzen explores how iron has shaped human biology and culture. From weapons to ploughshares, iron holds a key place as the element for the tools of the rise and destruction of human civilisations. As a grand scale shaper of our towns and ciities and our culture it is unmatched. And yet it also has a major role to play in living cells. Andrew Pontzen, Reader in Cosmology at University College London. explores iron's sometimes ambivalent history and also delves deep inside ourselves to understand how iron is key to keeping us all alive. Dr Kate Maguire, astrophysicist at Queens University, Belfast, explains how the iron on earth was formed in distant exploding stars. Andrew talks to Professor Marcos Martinón-Torres about how our ancestors first used this metal. And Dr Caroline Shenton-Taylor, of the University of Surrey, discusses one of iron’s greatest and most mysterious properties – magnetism. In blood and bodies what does iron actually do - could any other element perform its life giving functions? Andrew finds out from Chris Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Essex University, how iron is the key atom in haemoglobin that transports oxygen. And Dr Kathryn Robson, from Oxford University’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, describes the condition haemochromatosis,, in which people have too much iron. which runs in Andrew's family. Picture: Rusty screws, Credit: Getty Images/hudiemm
September 3, 2018
Chemist Andrea Sella tells the story of how the feared element ended up giving us better teeth, mood and health. Many chemists have lost their lives trying to isolate the periodic table’s most chemically reactive element – hence the nickname “the tiger of chemistry”. Fluorine can react with almost all elements. As an acid, hydrofluoric acid, it will dissolve glass. Yet chemists have been able to tame the beast – creating remarkable and safe uses for it by utilising its reactive nature that lets it make strong bonds with other chemicals. One in five medicines contain fluorine atoms, including one of the most widely used antidepressants Prozac, fluorinated anaesthetic, cancer medication, the cholesterol regulating drug Lipitor and the antibacterial Cipro. Though perhaps it is most famous for being added to toothpaste in the form of fluoride and in some places, drinking water. Fluoride protects our teeth from decay. But despite the benefits, it has a history of receiving a bad press. During the cold war, false allegations were made that adding fluoride to the water supply was a communist plot designed to weaken the American people. Stanley Kubrick satirised these fears in the film Dr. Strangelove in 1964. The suspicion around fluoride has not gone away and many people feel negatively towards any tinkering with something as fundamental as our water supply. Professor Andrea Sella from University College London examines the effects of fluorine and looks to current and future uses of the element that chemists clearly respect – but no longer fear. Picture: Toothpaste, Credit: artisteer/Getty Images
August 20, 2018
Naomi Alderman's tale is a murder mystery, the story of Hypatia, the mathematician murdered by a mob in the learned city of Alexandria, around the year 415 CE. Hypatia was a communicator of science, tackling difficult maths and teaching it to her students. This was incredibly important work. It was enough, at the time, to make her Alexandria’s pre-eminent mathematician, and probably therefore the leading mathematician in the world. And there’s historical evidence that Hypatia made some discoveries and innovations of her own. She invented a new and more efficient method of long division. In a time before electronic calculators, the actual business of doing sums was an arduous part of engineering or astronomy, and any improvement in efficiency was very welcome. All quite innocent science, so why did Hypatia end up being murdered by a mob? Natalie Haynes tells the inside story to Naomi Alderman. And Professor Edith Hall discusses Hypatia's legacy. Picture: Death of Hypatia of Alexandria (c 370 CE - March 415 AD), Credit: Nastasic/Getty Images
August 13, 2018
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
August 6, 2018
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)
July 30, 2018
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)
July 23, 2018
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
July 16, 2018
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
July 9, 2018
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
July 2, 2018
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
June 25, 2018
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
June 18, 2018
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
June 11, 2018
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
June 4, 2018
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
May 28, 2018
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 21, 2018
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 14, 2018
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 7, 2018
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
April 30, 2018
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)
April 23, 2018
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)
April 16, 2018
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
April 9, 2018
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)
April 2, 2018
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
March 26, 2018
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
March 19, 2018
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
March 12, 2018
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
March 5, 2018
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
February 26, 2018
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
February 19, 2018
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
February 12, 2018
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)
February 5, 2018
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
January 29, 2018
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
January 22, 2018
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
January 15, 2018
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
January 9, 2018
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
January 1, 2018
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
December 25, 2017
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
December 18, 2017
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
December 11, 2017
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)
December 4, 2017
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
November 21, 2017
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
November 20, 2017
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
November 13, 2017
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.
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