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BBC Radio 4 - Inside Science

BBC Inside Science

Dr Adam Rutherford and guests illuminate the mysteries and challenge the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.

BBC Inside Science

  • Insect decline, Gut microbiome, Geomagnetic switching
    A very strongly worded, meta-review paper (looking at 73 historical reports from around the world published over the past 13 years) has just been published looking at the fate of insects around the world. The researchers have collated other people’s research, including the big 27 year study from Germany, that showed 75% loss of insects by weight (biomass). The basic headlines are quite scary: 40% of insect species are declining; 33% are endangered; we’re losing a total mass of 2.5% of insects every year. The reviewers blame habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture as the main driver for the declines, plus agro-chemicals, invasive species and climate change adding to the burden. Adam Rutherford speaks to insect expert Professor Adam Hart from the University of Gloucestershire to discuss numbers and consequences. It’s quickly being realised that the composition of microbes in our guts is vital to our health. Scientists working on the gut microbiome have discovered and isolated more than 100 completely new species of bacteria from healthy human intestines. It’s hoped that these new techniques to isolate and grow these novel bugs, will give us insight into how our microbiome keeps us healthy. After covering the story about the Earth’s early core accretion and the clues found in rocks about the early magnetic field, listener Neil Tugwell emailed BBC Inside Science to ask for more information about geomagnetic switching. Are we heading for another flip of the magnetic poles? And what might be the impact on GPS? Adam gets the answers from Dr. Robert Wicks, lecturer in space risk in the UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Sea Level Rise, Equine Flu, Generator Bricks, Iberian Genes
    In 2016 some scientists suggested that with climate change so much ice in Antarctica could melt that the global sea level could rise up to a metre. There would be an "ice apocalypse". Now another group has refined the models and in a paper published this week has concluded that the rise will be lower. Adam Rutherford and lead author Dr Tamsin Edwards of Kings College London discuss the latest research and how policy makers and the public should react to changing results from ice sheet studies. All race meetings in the UK have been cancelled today following the discovery that three horses have been diagnosed with equine flu, despite having been vaccinated. Expert on equine flu at the University of Nottingham, Dr Janet Daly, talks to Adam about the disease, how the outbreak has come about and the process of making a new vaccine. What if the walls of your house generated their own electricity? It may sound far-fetched, but one team in the chemistry department of King’s College London is trying to do just that. Reporter Hannah Fisher went to visit Dr Leigh Aldous to discover his invention – a brick, which is hoped to be made out of recycled plastic, that can generate its own electricity. While the project is still in its early stages, it is hoped that the brick will be able to be used in off-grid and remote locations, as well as those affected by natural disasters. Scientists have analysed DNA samples from people living on the Iberian Peninsula to determine their genetic heritage. Results revealed near vertical stripes running from the north of the peninsula to the south, indicating that at this fine resolution, Spanish people are more genetically similar from north to south as opposed to east to west. Dr Clare Bycroft of Oxford University chats to Adam more about how this fits with what we know about Spanish history.

  • Sprinting Neanderthals, Geodynamo, Spreading Sneezes and Dying Hares
    Many physical features of Neanderthals might not be for cold climate adaptation as previously thought. They may be for types of locomotion. Which, according to paleo-ecologist, John Stewart at Bournemouth University, makes the long thigh to calf ratios more likely that Neanderthals were adapted to fast, powerful sprints, as part of their hunting and survival. The clues to this lie less in the bones and more in the evidence that Neanderthals lived in wooded areas rather than tundra. Earth’s solid iron inner core, liquid outer core and interactions between the two give us our protective magnetic field and are responsible for the ‘geodynamo’ that drives this, as well as volcanism and Earth’s tectonics. But we don’t yet know when the solid core formed. It’s hard to find paleo-magnetic records from early in Earth’s history. But now a group at Rochester University in New York have discovered magnetic particles from 565 million year old Ediacaran Period rocks in Canada and they say that at the time lots of life was evolving on our planet, the geodynamo was low and wobbly. This leads them to believe the solid core formed two to three times later than previously thought. A typical sneeze will throw out 40,000 tiny droplets loaded with viruses or bacteria, which can hang in the air like a cloud until someone else comes along and inhales some. To a scientist, this suspension is an aerosol, and what goes on inside a tiny droplet can be very different from what happens in a beaker of fluid. But studying those conditions, which can alter whether a germ can survive its aerial journey is hard. Which is why at Bristol University they’ve developed an aerosol trap that can hold droplets mid-air, without contact, with an electric field. Rabbits and hares across Europe have been declining rapidly over the past few decades. There are a number of factors involved (Agricultural intensification, climate change, hunting and a whole host of infectious diseases.) Myxomatosis in rabbits, which has now jumped into hares, is fairly well known by the public, but there are other viral and bacterial diseases that are jumping between the species and the most recent one Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus 2 (RHDV2) is of particular concern right now. Very little is known about this disease in wild populations. It was seen in hares in Europe a few years back, but it’s now just been identified in the UKs native brown hare population. Biologist Diana Bell at the University of East Anglia wants the public to contact her if they see any hares that look like they’ve died from the disease. Producer - Fiona Roberts

  • Leonardo's drawings, Super-Mendelian inheritance in mice, The Weddell Sea Expedition
    In February The Royal Collection will be holding the largest exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work in more than 65 years to mark the 500th anniversary of his death. Adam Rutherford gets up close and personal with some of Leonardo's drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. Curator and Leonardo expert, Martin Clayton explains how modern scientific, non-invasive, techniques have revealed some interesting insight into the great artist and scientist's mind and his creative process. The exhibition - Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing - will start exhibiting at a number of venues nationwide, before coming together, at the Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace and The Queen's Gallery Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. In normal Mendelian inheritance, genes are inherited according to a particular pattern. Basically, you have two copies of each gene, but a sperm or egg only has one, and so there is a 50% chance of one of those genes going into one of the sex cells, sperm or egg. However there are ways of massively increasing the chance of one gene making it through to the next generation. We call these ‘gene drives’. By harnessing these naturally occurring systems, there’s been plenty of work on engineering gene drives in such a way that they could, for example eradicate malaria, by driving resistance genes into some insects, which would rapidly spread to the whole population. So far this has been limited to insects, but the genetic engineering technique CRISPR-CAS9 is changing all that. Kimberly Cooper from the University of California in San Diego explains to Adam how she and her team have taken this gene drive concept, and modified it so they can try to control how to push a particular gene into the next generation of mice, in order that it can be used as a tool for modelling diseases that have multiple genetic causes. This new technique could significantly increase the efficiency of making transgenic mice to study genetic diseases. A major international scientific expedition are exploring one of the coldest, harshest and most remote locations in the world, the Weddell Sea, off Antarctica. Using underwater robots, drones and other state-of-the-art technology the Polar scientists are studying the Larsen C iceshelf. The team led by Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, are also looking for the wreck of the Endurance, Earnest Shackleton’s ship that was famously stuck in the Antarctic ice in 1915 for 10 months before it was crushed by the ice and sunk, thwarting his attempt at the South Pole. Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Ultima Thule, Dry January, Periodic Table
    2019 means the opportunity to explore the most distant object yet encountered in our solar system – the brilliantly named Ultima Thule as Nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft hit the headlines this week when it flew past an object 4 billion miles away, took photos and sent them back to earth. The stunning images confirmed that Ultima Thule looks a bit like a snowman, only several miles in length and orbiting somewhere much colder than any earth winter. Inside Science talked to Dr Carly Howett, a member of the New Horizon’s team and deputy principle investigator of the RALPH instrument, which will send back data on Ultima Thule’s form and structure later this year. And For many of us, January is a time to try a bit better. And millions of us decide to give up alcohol. It’s called Dry January. But what does this alcohol break actually achieve? Has anyone scientifically researched the results of a month off the sauce? Marnie Chesterton spoke to liver specialist and senior lecturer at university college London, Dr Gautam Mehta. And because chemists are celebrating the 150th birthday, or rather birth-year, of the Periodic Table we thought BBC Inside Science should as well. The table is that chart on every science classroom wall. It’s a grid of small boxes, each with a symbol that represents a chemical element. And elements are the fundamental substances that make up everything you can see, and quite a few things that you can’t. We spoke to chemist Dr Eric Scerri at UCLA, who has written a book on the history and significance of the Periodic Table while Roland Pease visited the lab of Professor Andrea Sella, who is making a physical representation of the whole table, if he can find all the elements that is.