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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

  • Greenland ice sheet melting; Gingko biloba and CO2; Jodrell Bank and quantum compass
    The rate the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting is possibly the highest in 8000 years. New work looking at layers of melt in ice cores, from the second biggest ice sheet in the world, has shown that in the past 20 years the rate of melting has increased by 250-575%. The resultant fresh water run off not only adds to sea level rise, but impacts important ocean currents in the Atlantic. When trying to understand how plants are reacting to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, scientists count their stomata. Stomata are the tiny pores found on leaves which allow for carbon dioxide (plant food) uptake and oxygen release. They also are the route by which plants lose water. So there is always a trade-off. More stomata, more potential for CO2 uptake, but more chance of drying out due to water loss. This means that the number of pores in a leaf is carefully calibrated to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. If you take a 200 million year old leaf from a gingko tree, it’s got a lot more stomata than a gingko leaf now. This is because levels of the greenhouse gas were much higher then. But how are modern gingkos and other plants adapting to increasing carbon now? Jodrell Bank Observatory, part of Manchester University, is famous for its telescopes and work on radio astronomy. But what’s not so well known is its work tracking communications from spacecraft, which came about completely by accident. Starting with the tracking of Sputnik 1 in the 1950s, scientists at Jodrell Bank tracked flights throughout the US Russian Space Race. Recently, Professor of Physics and Associate Director of the observatory, Tim O’Brien found a box of audio tapes, which turned out to be recordings of these communications, annotated by Sir Bernard Lovell himself. These tapes are a time capsule back to when the world was racing to get into space. News this week that the UK will not be part of the Galileo satellite positioning system when we leave Europe is worrying, especially as so many British funds and innovation have already been spent. But what if we can come up with a way of knowing where you are without the need to use triangulation of signals from expensive satellites? A quantum compass harnessing super-cooled atoms, in a state where lasers can gauge changes in their speed. In other words, it’s an accelerometer like the one in your phone, except in this case with atomic accuracy. Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Gene-edited twins, Placenta organoids in a dish, When the last leaves drop
    Claims by a Chinese scientist that he has gene-edited human embryos, transplanted them producing genetically edited twins, who will pass on these changes to their offspring, has the scientific community outraged. The work, which was carried out in secret, has not been officially published or peer reviewed, but if the claims are to be taken seriously, this work severely flaunts international ethical guidelines at many levels. BBC Health and Science Correspondent James Gallagher explains the story so far. Little is known about the placenta and how it works, despite it being absolutely essential for supporting the baby as it grows inside the mother. When it doesn’t function properly, it can result in serious problems, from pre-eclampsia to miscarriage, with immediate and lifelong consequences for both mother and child. Our knowledge of this important organ is very limited because of a lack of good experimental models. Animals are too dissimilar to humans to provide a good model of placental development and implantation, and stem cell studies have largely proved unsuccessful. But one group of University Cambridge researchers have now created ‘mini-proto placentas’ – a cellular model, growing long-term, in 3D of the early stages of the placenta – that could provide a ‘window’ into early pregnancy and help transform our understanding of reproductive disorders. The Woodland Trust want you to tell them when you notice a tree, you regularly see, loses all of its leaves. Its part of their long term phonological study, Nature's Calendar . They hope to keep track of the effect of climate change on the timings of annual tree events.

  • Mars InSight mission, Detecting dark matter, Redefining the kilogram, Bovine TB
    The Government's strategy to eradicate TB in cattle is a contentious topic. The disease is extremely complicated and lots of people have different ideas on how to manage it. Professor of Zoonotic and Emerging Disease at the University of Nottingham, Malcolm Bennett, helps Adam Rutherford understand just how complex the TB bacterium is, how difficult it is to test for infection and why the vaccine BCG does and doesn't work and answers listener's question of why don't we vaccinate cows? Citizen scientists and their smartphones are being recruited to test the supermassive particle theory of dark matter and dark energy. The CREDO (Cosmic-Ray Extremely Distributed Observatory) project utilises smartphone cameras to take 'dark photos' and hopefully capture a particle collision that could be from the cascaded decay of these early universe massive particles or WIMPS. Metrologists from across the world have just voted to update the metric system. With the redefinition of the kilogram, alongside the units for temperature, electrical current and amount of substance. For the first time, we now have a measurement system defined by fundamental constants of the universe and not physical artefacts made by humans. Reporter Henry Bennie travelled with the UK's kilogram to Paris for the vote. NASA's Mars InSight mission lander is expected to touch down on the red planet on Monday. BBC Science Correspondent, Jonathan Amos, explains to Adam just how this stationary science lab will explore Martian geology looking for signs that life could have existed at one time on our neighbour. Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Bovine TB and badger culling, Shrimp hoover CSI, Shark-skin and Turing
    The Bovine TB Strategy Review has just been released. It contains a review of the science and offers advice and guidance to Government ministers on how to eradicate this costly and hard to manage disease in cattle. Controversially it does not include the results from the on going badger culling trials in the West of England and it states that the majority of disease transmission is from cow to cow. But it addresses the efficacy of skin TB tests and repeatedly states that the long-term aim is to end culling badgers and moving to vaccination or other non lethal methods to control the disease reservoir in wildlife. Professor Rosie Woodroffe at the Institute of Zoology, who ran the Randomised Badger Culling Trials in 2007, thinks the report is mostly a good thing. She praises the advice to find alternatives to killing British wildlife, but explains to Adam Rutherford that trialling vaccinations for badgers after culling could be problematic. Monitoring the health of estuarine and coastal water ecosystems usually relies on the expensive and time-consuming practice of catching fish to get a view on the health of entire ecosystem. New methods are starting to be used called Environmental DNA sampling, using DNA barcoding techniques. As everything sheds fragments of DNA into the environment, by sampling water or sediment, you can use High Throughput DNA analysis, using special probes to pull out and identify the species you want. It’s a lot quicker and cheaper, but you still have to deal with problems of collection, filtration and contamination. But Professor of Conservation Genetics, Stefano Mariani at the University of Salford, has found an even better way. He's recruited the European brown Shrimp, which eat everything, are found everywhere and can do all the filtering and storing of the DNA for him. All Stefano has to do is catch the shrimp and analyse their stomach contents to get a picture of what is in the environment. PhD student at Sheffield University, Rory Cooper explains to Adam how mathematical patterns that Alan Turing worked on late in his career are found in abundance in the natural world. The genetic mechanisms of switching on cellular processes that lead to feather or hair emergence have now been found in the formation of shark scales. The pattern relies on genes to switch on a function, such as feathering, but diffuse out to surrounding cells and switch the function off, leading to a uniform, spaced out pattern. As shark species split off from other vertebrates around 420 million years ago, it therefore proves that Turing’s pattern is recycled through other vertebrates. Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Oldest cave picture; the Anthropocene under London; a new scientist for the £50 note
    What could be the oldest figurative cave paintings in the world have been found in a cave complex in remote Borneo. A reddish orange depiction of an animal that could be a Banteng (wild cattle found in the region) is at least 40,000 years old. Humans are now the greatest force in shaping the surface of the Earth. We now move more than 24 times as much rock, rubble and sediment than all the world’s rivers. Dr Anthony Cooper of the British Geological Society has been weighing this anthropogenic global force. Closer to home, Adam Rutherford speaks to Professor Colin Waters at the University of Leicester, about the weight of human-created rubble he’s found under the City of London. When the new polymer £50 note is introduced in around a year’s time, it’ll have a scientist on the reverse. Industrialist Matthew Boulton and engineer James Watt will step aside for a British scientist nominated by the public. Sarah John, Chief Cashier at the Bank of England, explains the rules to Adam and science experts, Emily Grossman and Alice Bell debate the merits of some of the more popular front runners.