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29 minutes | 3 days ago
The end of everything
Everyone knows about the Big Bang being the beginning of the universe and time - but when and how is it going to end? ask brothers Raffie and Xe from Rome. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. The doctors sift science from philosophy to find out. Cosmologist Jo Dunkley studies the origins and evolution of the universe. She explains how astrophysical ideas and techniques have evolved to tell us what we now know about our galaxy and far beyond, from the elegant parallax technique to standard candles. This particular distance measure, which uses stars of a known brightness to work out how far away other objects in the universe are, was discovered by American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1912, who worked at the Harvard University as one of several “computers” – women who processed and calculated data and made significant contributions to astronomy. Curious Cases’ universal guru Andrew Pontzen puts this into context. Because the universe is so enormous, it turns out that these measurements are just the first steps on the cosmic distance ladder – a suite of tools that astrophysicists use to determine distances to celestial objects. Scientists know that objects are moving away from us because the wavelengths of light from them get stretched and appear redder in our telescopes – the so-called red shift effect. But having a handle on the distances to and between those objects allows cosmologists to monitor what’s happening to them over time. And it turns out that not only are they getting further apart, indicating that the universe is expanding, but that this process is accelerating. So what might happen in the end? Expansion and then collapse – a big crunch? Expansion into the void – a big freeze, or a big rip? Or what if there is more than one universe – might a new one bubble up with totally different laws of physics that would cause our own to cease existing? It turns out that when dealing with predictions for something involving infinite space and time, the possibilities are largely limited by human imagination alone. Ideas are where science starts, but experiments are required to build evidence confirming or rejecting them as fact. The doctors discuss how gravitational wave detectors and quantum computers might one day provide this. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
28 minutes | 10 days ago
Autism is a lifelong condition, often seen as particularly ‘male’. Yet a growing number of women, and those assigned female at birth, are being diagnosed as autistic in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. Writer and performer Helen Keen is one of them, and she’s found this diagnosis has helped her make sense of many aspects of her life, from growing up with selective mutism, to struggling to fit in as a young adult. In this programme Helen asks why she, like a growing number of others, had to wait till she was well into adulthood before finding her place on the autistic spectrum. She discovers that for many years psychologists believed that autism was rarely seen in women and non-binary people. Now it is accepted that people often display autistic traits in different way - for example, they may learn to ‘camouflage’ and behave in a neurotypical way - but at what cost? Helen talks to others like her who have had late diagnoses, and finds out if knowing they are on the autistic spectrum has given them insight into how they can navigate the pressures on them from contemporary society. She also explores how we can value and celebrate neurodiversity. Helen also talks to psychologists Professor Francesca Happé, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London, and Dr Steven Stagg of Anglia Ruskin University about their research into autism. Picture: Geometric camouflage pattern, Credit: Yuri Parmenov/Getty Images
28 minutes | 17 days ago
Birds: singing for survival
As large areas of the world have locked down this year, many of us have become more aware of the birdsong around us. The relative silence has allowed us to listen in. But scientists have known for several years that the birds themselves have been responding to human noise too, by pitching their songs and other calls higher, to be heard over the rumble of our urban life. There are several ways in which birds can adapt how they communicate in the face of environmental pressures, but what are the limits to these adaptations? And what can this tell us about how to maximise conservation efforts in the future? Rory Crawford talks to ornithologists and animal behaviourists studying bird species around the world. He finds out how the advance of technology is helping researchers explore birds’ preferences and behaviours in the wild, and hears how one particular bird changed its song, and the new version rapidly spread across North America – “the most viral tweet of all time”, as it’s been called! Picture: A Robin [Erithacus rubecula], Credit: Gary Chalker/Getty Images
28 minutes | 24 days ago
Claudia Hammond asks if touch can be replicated digitally? What devices exist already and how likely are we to use them? Michael Banissy, co-creator of the Touch Test, neuroscientist David Eagleman and researcher Carey Jewitt look at the possibilities for touch technologies in the future. David has developed a wristband that translates sound into touch for deaf people, Carey looks at the ethics of digital touch and Michael reveals the attitudes from the Touch Test towards digital technologies. If we could replicate the feeling of holding a loved one's hand in hospital would it really be the same? And dancer Lisa May Thomas talks about her experience of extending touch into space and through virtual reality.
52 minutes | a month ago
The Evidence: Are national lockdowns evidence of policy failure?
As a surge of cases risks overwhelming health services in parts of Europe, Claudia Hammond and experts from around the world examine the evidence behind using lockdowns to supress the virus. Lockdowns describe a huge range of actions that many governments took in the first wave of the pandemic when so little was known about where the virus was circulating. But full lockdowns are seen as very blunt tools, a last resort because they can have enormous social and economic consequences. Instead a more targeted, localised, smarter response to slow down transmission is recommended, where data about virus circulation informs focussed interventions. Also in the programme, The Great Barrington Declaration earlier this month called for an end to current lockdown policies and appealed for the vulnerable to receive “focussed protection” while everybody else “should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal”. The goal, the group of scientists said, should be to minimise deaths and social harm, until herd immunity, or population immunity, is reached. The World Health Organisation has described such a strategy as dangerous and counterproductive. Claudia’s guests discuss the scientific and ethical issues raised and consider the scale of global exposure to this novel virus. So far only around 10% of the world’s population have been infected so what would a policy of herd immunity in the absence of a vaccine mean for the remaining 90%? Listeners put their questions about coronavirus and the pandemic directly to Claudia and her panel of specialists, which this month includes Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Technical Lead for the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Response; Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist and Chair of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee for Covid-19; Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the signatories to the John Snow Memorandum; epidemiologist Tove Fall, Professor at Uppsala University in Sweden running the Covid-19 symptom app and virologist Professor Steven Van Gucht, from Sciensano, the Belgian national institute for public and animal health. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Production team: Fiona Hill and Maria Simons Studio engineer: Jackie Margerum Editor: Deborah Cohen
29 minutes | a month ago
Claudia Hammond looks at the neuroscience behind our sense of touch. Why does a gentle touch from a loved one make us feel good? This is a question that neuroscientists have been exploring since the late 1990's, following the discovery of a special class of nerve fibres in the skin. There seems to be a neurological system dedicated to sensing and processing the gentle stroking you might receive from a parent or lover or friend, or that a monkey might receive from another grooming it. Claudia talks to neuroscientists Victoria Abraira, Rebecca Bohme, Katerina Fotopoulou and Francis McGlone who all investigate our sense of emotional touch, and she hears from Ian Waterman who lost his sense of touch at the age of eighteen.
29 minutes | a month ago
Claudia Hammond explores unwanted touch and who we do and don’t mind touching us – and where. She draws on insights from the largest study that’s ever been conducted on the topic of touch – The Touch Test - commissioned by Wellcome Collection. Almost forty thousand people from all over the world chose to take part. Claudia discusses where we draw the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable touch, at work or in the street, with Dr Amy Kavanagh, a visually impaired activist and campaigner, Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of “Rape - a History”, and Dr Natalie Bowling, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich who co-created the Touch Test and has been crunching the numbers. After #meToo and Covid, could unwanted touch even become a thing of the past?
29 minutes | 2 months ago
Megadrought in Chile
Drought is a massive problem for Chile. Jane Chambers has been living in the capital Santiago for more than ten years and has seen huge changes in that time. It used to rain frequently in the winter months between June and September and the Andes Mountains which run down the whole of Chile were snow-capped all year round. But that doesn’t happen anymore. Jane reports on the impact of the mega drought on the country and what is being done about it. She talks to climate scientists Sebastian Vicuna, Director of the Global Change Research Centre, at the Catholic University of Chile and to Rene Garreaud, a Professor in the Geophysics Department at University of Chile and Deputy Director of the Center for Climate and Resilience Research, about whether the megadrought is the result of natural weather patterns or of climate change. She meets farmers who are struggling to find pasture for their goats in the village of Til Til, and Francisco Meza, a Professor in the department of agriculture and forestry at the Catholic University in Santiago, who is helping agriculture adapt to low rainfall. And Jane hears about ways to increase the availability of drinking water through small-scale desalination and by capturing moisture from the air. Picture: Flows of rivers and reservoirs have reached historic minimums in Chile. A severe drought is hitting the country's central area, making local communities more vulnerable to face the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images)
28 minutes | 2 months ago
The sting in the tail
"What’s the point of wasps?" asks listener Andrew, who is fed up with being pestered. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. Do wasps do anything to justify their presence as a picnic menace? Ecologist Seirian Sumner researches social wasp behaviour and champions their existence. Not only do yellow jacket wasps perform important ecological services as generalist pest controllers of aphids, caterpillars and flies in the UK, they have complex societies and may even perform pollination services, making them more like their better-loved bee cousins than many might think. However, much remains unknown about wasps’ contribution to our ecosystem. Seirian works with entomologist Adam Hart, and together they run The Big Wasp Survey each summer, a citizen science project dedicated to find out more about UK wasp species and their populations. Prof. Hart sets up an experimental picnic with Dr Rutherford to try and attract some native wasps, and discusses why they are so maligned. But in some parts of the world UK wasp species have become a major problem. Just after World War II, having unwittingly chosen some aircraft parts destined for New Zealand as their overwintering home, some wasp queens woke up in the city of Hamilton. With no natural predators or competitors, they quickly established a growing population. Fast forward to today, and by late summer the biomass of wasps becomes greater than all the birds, rodents and stoats in the southern island’s honeydew beech forests. Multiyear nests have been discovered that are over three metres tall and contain millions of wasps. Researcher Bob Brown is digging into wasp nests back in the UK to discover which species keep wasps in check here, and whether they might work as biological control. This causes the doctors to ponder the problems of humans moving species around the planet. Accidental or even well-meaning introductions all too often become invasive. As climate change and urbanisation accelerate, wasps may become more helpful in some ways and more harmful in others. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
51 minutes | 2 months ago
The Evidence: Covid lessons for safe school reopening
Claudia Hammond and experts from around the world consider the evidence behind schools, colleges and coronavirus spread. Listeners from India, Cuba, Italy, Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, France, the USA pitch their questions to the specialists. Research so far shows a low risk of transmission but as children and young people return to classrooms across the globe, will that remain the case? And Claudia and the team look at that vital role of “test, trace and isolate” when it comes to SARS-CoV-2, something the World Health Organisation describes as the backbone of any Covid-19 response. Which countries are getting this right and what can others learn from the best? New research comparing six countries from Europe, Africa and Asia highlights the successes and the failures. Plus Kat, a nurse from Kansas City, Missouri gives a first hand account of pandemic response in the USA and then, when she moved to Germany in the summer, from Stuttgart. On the panel are Dr Regina Osih, an infectious disease and public health specialist from the Aurum Institute in South Africa who’s working on the country’s Covid response, Dr Young June Choe, paediatrician and assistant professor at Hallym University in South Korea, Gail Davey, Professor of Global Health Epidemiology at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England, David Heymann, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine from France and Dr Margaret Harris from the WHO in Geneva. The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection. Production team: Fiona Hill, Samara Linton and Maria Simons Studio engineers: Matilda Macari and Tim Heffer Editor: Deborah Cohen
28 minutes | 2 months ago
The seeded cloud
"Could you make a machine to make it rain in minutes?" asks listener Alexander from Hampshire, aged 12. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. Rutherford and Fry dive into the clouded story of weather modification. First, we need to decide where and when we might deploy any rain machine. Liz Bentley, Chief Executive of the Royal Meteorological society, takes us through the science, maths and art of predicting the weather. Hannah heads down to the BBC Weather Centre to meet meteorologist Helen Willetts, who takes us through the highs and lows of forecasting. And then for the technology itself. Mark Miodownik, scientist and author of Liquid: The Delightful and Dangerous Substances The Flow Through Our Lives, reveals that a technique called cloud seeding has almost certainly been tried in different places around the world for decades. But, whilst it’s supposed to induce showers and even clear the way for sunny spells, the results aren’t always reliable. And even if we can make it rain, Liz explains why messing with the weather may be at our peril. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
29 minutes | 2 months ago
The growling stomach
"Why do our tummies rumble - and when they do, does it always mean we are hungry?" asks listener James, aged 12. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. To get to the bottom of this noisy problem, the doctors tune in to our guts. Geneticist Giles Yeo studies food intake and obesity. He explains the wavy workings of our digestive system, and how those audible rumbles are a sign that digestion is taking place – a phenomenon thought to be onomatopoeically named 'borborygmi' by the ancient Greeks, and explored further in the gruesome 19th century experiments of surgeon William Beaumont. However, tuning in to the gut’s sounds can tell us more than whether we need a snack. Family doctor Margaret McCartney takes us through the process of how and why she and her medical colleagues may use a stethoscope to listen to your abdomen for both particular noises and silence. Microbiologist Barry Marshall has taken medical listening one step further in his Noisy Guts Project. Inspired by microphones used to listen for termites hiding in walls, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist is trialling an acoustic belt, which could be worn to help diagnose and treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam Rutherford Producer: Jen Whyntie
28 minutes | 3 months ago
Return to Mars
In February 2021, three spacecraft will arrive at Mars. One is the United Arab Emirates’ Hope orbiter - the first interplanetary probe sent by the Arab world. Tianwen-1 will be China’s first mission to reach Mars – an ambitious bid to put both a probe into orbit and a small robot on the Martian surface. But the most sophisticated of all is the United States’ Mars 2020 mission. If all goes well, it will land a car-sized robotic rover on the rocky floor of a vast crater that contained a lake more than 3.7 billion years ago. The rover, named Perseverance, will spend years surveying the geology of Jerezo crater and using a battery of new instruments to examine the rocks for any evidence that life existed in the ancient lake. It will also be the first mission to extract rock samples and package them up for eventual return to Earth, sometime in the 2030s. Andrew Luck-Baker talks to NASA’s deputy project scientist Katie Stack-Morgan and mission manager Keith Comeaux, planetary scientists Melissa Rice and Sanjeev Gupta, and astrobiologist Mark Sephton.
28 minutes | 3 months ago
Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to Liz Seward, Senior Space Strategist for Airbus Defence and Space. Liz's young interest in Science Fiction led to a career designing spacecraft and robots for exploring our own earth, other planets, and the stars. From a library in the US where the science fiction section stood next to the children's section, Liz took inspiration from Robert A. Heinlien and Arthur C. Clarke through a degree in Physics and Space Science at the University of Leicester to begin a career at EADS Astrium (now part of Airbus), initially as a Thermal Engineer. As Liz explains to Jim, thermal engineering lies at the heart of any successful space mission. Any metal box floating in space has to deal with the searing heat of the Sun on one side and the deep, deep freeze of the cosmos on the other. Engineering solutions to cope with these extremes means the difference between triumph and failure. Liz has worked on several missions and international collaborations, including a design for a landing (since de-scoped) on Mercury aboard the current BepiColombo mission due to arrive at Mercury in 2025, and the experimental Aeolus satellite that currently keeps our weather forecasters up to speed on global wind dynamics. A large part of Liz's career was spent with the ESA Martian rover, named Rosalind Franklin, which should have been on its way to the red planet this summer, but has been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nowadays at Airbus, Liz works on the strategy of maximizing commercial potential in space, whilst abiding by issues of responsibility around exploration, pollution, and even space traffic management. What if a launch to Mars collides with a long dead weather satellite on its way there? Or that the first detection of life on Mars turns out to be a cold virus from Stevenage? But as she explains to Jim, miniaturization and cheaper launches suggest a bright future for human activity in space. And one day, it may include vertical satellite launches from Scotland, and even passenger flights from Cornwall.
28 minutes | 3 months ago
Professor Emma Bunce
Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester, was inspired to study the solar system as a child by a TV programme that featured Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune. She has spent the last 20 years focusing on the magnetic fields around the outer planets, in particular that of Jupiter. The Earth’s magnetic field interacts with the solar wind to create aurorae, the spectacular Northern lights. Emma’s discovered how aurorae are also produced at Jupiter's poles. Emma Bunce talks to Jim al-Khalili about her fascination with the gas giants, why she has to be patient to check out her theories as missions to the planets are few and far between and how she'd love to work on a spacecraft to Neptune. And in the year when the Royal Astronomical Society marks its 200th anniversary, Emma explains why she's taken on the role of its President.
28 minutes | 3 months ago
Long before most of us gave air pollution a second thought, Frank Kelly was studying the impact of toxic particles on our lungs. In a pioneering set of experiments on human volunteers in northern Sweden, he proved that pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and particulates, are harmful to our health. And he is the driving force behind an air quality monitoring system in London that is the envy of the world. When in the late 1990s, the UK government was encouraging us all to buy diesel cars to help reduce our carbon emissions, he warned that while diesel engines might be less bad for the planet than petrol engines, they were more damaging to our health. Later Frank and his team provided evidence that the car manufacturers were not telling the truth about emissions from diesel vehicles. As the chair of the Government Medical Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, he has worked tirelessly to try and move air pollution up the political agenda and worked closely with successive Mayors of London to improve air quality in the capital. Changing all the buses from diesel to hybrid or electric vehicles would make a huge difference, he says. But we will also need to get used to relying less on driving our cars to get us from A to B. Presented by Jim Al-Khalili.
28 minutes | 4 months ago
On the menu
Shark, bear and crocodile attacks tend to make the headlines but humans fall prey to a much wider variety of predators every year, from big cats and snakes, to wolves, hyenas and even eagles that’ve been known to snatch the odd child. The details can be grim and gory as many predators have developed specific techniques for hunting us humans down. But it was always so, as biologist Professor Adam Hart discovers. Archaeological evidence suggests early hominins in Africa were more hunted than hunter, spending much of their lives scavenging for food and fending off attacks from the likes of sabre-tooth-cats and giant hyenas. Much more recently, legends abound about some of the more infamous serial killers of the animal kingdom, such as the 'man-eaters' of Tsavo and Njombe - the latter, a pride of about 15 lions in Tanzania who, it is claimed were responsible for an astonishing 1500 deaths between 1932 and 1947. Today, estimates and sources vary but most suggest carnivorous predators are responsible for hundreds if not thousands of human deaths every year. But how much of this is active predation and how much is mistaken identity or sheer bad luck? Adam speaks to experts in human-wildlife conflict dedicated to reducing attacks on both humans and predators in Africa and India, where the tensions between protecting agricultural interests and preserving predator habitats are most problematic. He discovers the grim reality for many poor rural populations dealing with the sharp end of living in close proximity to large carnivores and discusses the potential solutions for driving down attacks on both humans and predators that are caught up in the struggle for survival. Closer to home, Adam meets a wolf-tracker, who helps to monitor wild wolf populations that have spread up through Italy and France, attacking livestock with increasing confidence. Could humans be on the menu next? Producer: Rami Tzabar (Picture credit: Evgeny555/Getty Images)
27 minutes | 4 months ago
Human Genome Project's 20th Anniversary
Adam Rutherford celebrates the 20th anniversary of one of the most ambitious and revolutionary scientific endeavours of all time - the Human Genome Project. Its scope and scale was breath-taking, set up to read every one of the 3 billion nucleotides, or letters of genetic information, contained within the DNA in every cell of the human body. It took seven years, hundreds of scientists, cost almost $3 billion and, amazingly, came in under budget and on time. Adam reflects back on that momentous time with Ewan Birney, Director of the European Bio-informatics Institute, part of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. Twenty years ago, he was a PhD student working on the project, in the months leading up to the first draft. The Human Genome Project underpins many branches of science, from human evolution and synthetic biology to forensic genetics and ancestry testing. But a key motivation for the project was to alleviate human suffering. While the ‘cures’, hyped by the media back in 2000, were not realistic our understanding of disease has been revolutionised. Adam talks to Cancer Research UK Scientist, Dr Serena Nik-Zainal, from Cambridge University, who explains why the sequencing of the human genome has been so crucial to the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. The Human Genome Project is also playing a crucial role in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Kenneth Baillie has been treating critically ill patients at Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary since the pandemic started. As the Lead on GenOMICC, a global collaboration on genetics and critical illness, he has joined forces with Genomics England and the NHS, to pinpoint genetic signals in these patients to help identify the best treatments. Producers: Beth Eastwood & Fiona Roberts Picture: DNA Genetic Code Colorful Genome, Credit: ktsimage/Getty Images
28 minutes | 4 months ago
Brian Greene studies the universe at the largest and smallest scales imaginable. When he was just twelve years old, Brian wandered round Columbia University in New York looking for someone to teach him mathematics, with a letter of recommendation from his school teacher. While his mother wanted him to make money, his father encouraged Brian to pursue his passion, which was trying to understand the nature of the universe. He studied physics at Harvard University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. While at Oxford he learnt about a bold new Theory of Everything which predicts that the universe is made not of particles but rather tiny strings which vibrate in multiple dimensions. Now a Professor at Columbia University, he has worked on string theory ever since. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the rise and fall of string and superstring theory and why when he first started to think about what would happen to the universe at the end of time, he experienced a feeling of ‘hollow dread’.
28 minutes | 4 months ago
Jane Goodall, aged 86, reflects on the years she spent living with the wild chimpanzees in Gombe in eastern Tanzania and tells Jim Al Khalili why she believes the best way to bring about change is to ‘creep into people’s hearts’. Jane shot to fame when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1963 and appeared in a documentary film directed by Orson Welles. Her ground breaking observations introduced us to the social and emotional lives of wild chimpanzees and changed our view of what it is to be human. Images of her younger self play wrestling with baby chimps make Jane feel slightly apprehensive now but at the time she didn’t give it a second thought. However, she did take care to protect her young son. Seeing distressing footage of chimps who were living in captivity, she gave up fieldwork to become an activist, working to liberate chimpanzees that were being used for medical research or sold for meat or as pets, and setting up chimp sanctuaries for animals that were no longer able to live in the wild. For the last thirty years, she has campaigned gently but relentlessly to protect wild animals and wild places, touring the world and performing on stage in front of huge audiences. Her global youth programme, Roots and Shoots has inspired and empowered millions of people to understand and respect nature, leading some to call her ‘the mother Theresa of the environment’. A label she dislikes. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo credit: the Jane Goodall Institute / By Bill Wallauer
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