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BBC Radio 4 - The Life Scientific

The Life Scientific

Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates them and asking what their discoveries might do for mankind

The Life Scientific

  • Adrian Thomas on the mechanics of flight
    As a young man Adrian Thomas took to the skies in order to better understand the mechanics of flight. He's a paragliding champion and a Professor of Zoology who specialises in the dynamics of insect flight. On a typical day, he can be found inside a wind tunnel that's been custom-made to study insects instead of jumbo jets. Using lines of smoke and high speed video cameras, he measures exactly how different insects flap their wings. When he's not writing academic papers, he's inventing clever machines based on his insights into how nature achieves certain results. His latest project is a drone that's inspired by a dragonfly. This nimble robot can accelerate rapidly in any direction and, having flexible wings rather than rotary blades, it glides when the battery dies rather than dropping dangerously to the ground. He's also working on a wheelchair modelled on a spider and a boat with a fin rather than a propeller. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Ellen Stofan on being NASA chief scientist
    When Ellen Stofan was just four years old, she witnessed the worst rocket launch-pad disaster in NASA's history convinced that her father, (who was a rocket engineer) was on board. He wasn't. Nonetheless, for many years NASA was not her favourite place. In 2013, however, she became she became their chief scientist, a post she held for 4 years. Barak Obama dreamt of putting people on the red planet by 2032 and Ellen did everything she could to develop a realistic plan to make this happen. (A 2032 arrival is ambitious but NASA is considerably closer than it was before Ellen took charge of the science.) Her research career began studying radar data from a Soviet mission to Venus, trying to see beyond the thick toxic cloud that surrounds it. She wanted to understand how Venus evolved so very differently from its nearest neighbour, earth. She has also used radar data from satellites to study planet earth. And in 2008, was the lead author on a paper that revealed the extent of the lake on Saturn's moon, Titan. It contains hundreds of times more gas and liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on earth. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Tim Birkhead on bird promiscuity
    Professor Tim Birkhead talks to Jim Al Khalili about his 40 years of research on promiscuity in birds, his love of Skomer Island and its guillemots, and the extraordinary musical talent of the male bullfinch. Tim Birkhead is an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist at the University of Sheffield. The primary focus of his research has been reproduction in birds. He pioneered the study of promiscuity or extra-pair mating in birds, and one of its evolutionary consequences - sperm competition. In the early 1970s Tim questioned and then exploded the assumption that female birds were always sexually monogamous - a zoological dogma originating with Charles Darwin. Tim first explored this in the guillemot colony on Skomer Island in Wales: a population of seabirds which he has studied continuously for more than 40 years in the cause of both evolutionary insights and conservation. Tim talks with passion about an ongoing funding crisis that hit this research programme recently and how the public response to it has been the most inspiring event in his career. A side branch of Tim's research includes the jaw-dropping musical mimicry of the male bullfinch. The programme includes a recording of a captive bird whistling a German folk tune with super-human skill. ADVISORY! There is a longer version of the conversation in the podcast of this edition. In this edit, Tim talks about the truly weird false penis of the male red-billed buffalo weaver: an extreme evolutionary product of sperm competition in this species and what amounts to an avian tickling stick. Tim also addresses the controversial topic of sperm competition in humans and the myth of 'kamikaze sperm'. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

  • Steve Cowley on Nuclear Fusion
    Steve Cowley has said that "fusion is arguably the perfect way to power the world". But he's had to add that "it is hard to make fusion work. Indeed, after more than 60 years of fusion research, no device has yet made more energy than it consumes". But Steve Cowley isn't giving up. He's spent over 30 years working towards making nuclear fusion a viable way of generating energy. Steve Cowley has done theoretical research on how to contain the incredibly hot material you need to get fusion going. As the Director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy he guided the British contribution to research. And he has led the UK's participation in ITER, an international experimental reactor being built in France that is planned to be the next step towards making nuclear fusion commercially viable. Jim al-Khalili discusses with Steve Cowley, now President of Corpus Christi College in Oxford, why nuclear fusion, which has such promise as a clean form of energy with no dangerous waste, has proved so hard to achieve.

  • Lucie Green on the sun
    Lucie Green studies the sun - that giant, turbulent ball of burning gas at the centre of our solar system. Her first ambition was to become an art therapist, but she soon switched from art to astrophysics, and before long had fixed her gaze on our local star. It may be 93 million miles away, but the sun's extensive and ever changing magnetic field determines the 'weather' throughout our solar system. Under a worst-case scenario, bubbles of super-hot plasma and streams of high energy particles - spat out when the surface of the sun erupts - can hurtle towards planet earth, damaging communication and navigation satellites and bringing down electrical power supplies.Thanks to the work that Lucie and others have done to raise awareness of these coronal mass ejections, solar belches as Lucie likes to call them are now a recognised threat to national security, alongside flooding, pandemic flu and terrorist attacks. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Tracey Rogers on leopard seals and Antarctica
    Marine ecologist Tracey Rogers talks to Jim Al Khalili about her research on one of Antarctica's top predators. This is the leopard seal - a ten foot long killer which glides among the ice floes in search of prey ranging from other seals to penguins to tiny krill. Tracey's research has encompassed the animal's prolific and eerie underwater singing to radical changes in its diet that appear to be linked to climate change. Now a senior researcher at the University of New South Wales in Australia, Tracey first encountered the species as a less than successful seal trainer at a zoo in Sydney. There she met a giant female leopard seal named Astrid. Astrid's singing one Christmas day in the early 1990s set Tracey on the path to become the world's authority on this Antarctic species. Tracey tells Jim how her first expedition to study leopard seals was met with almost universal scepticism until she dropped an underwater microphone into the water. In the following 25 years, she has worked to decode the meanings and qualities of the leopard seal song and explored the changes being forced upon the species by climate change. Tracey describes what made her return to Antarctica again and again and tells the story of how she almost met her end in the perilous shifting world of the pack ice. And then there's the time a leopard seal mistook her for a penguin. There is a longer version of this interview in the podcast of this episode - more on the seal vocalisations and how Tracey saved the life on a young colleague who fell into the freezing sea. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

  • Jennifer Doudna
    Jennifer Doudna's research has transformed biology. And this is not an understatement. Her work has given us the tools to edit genes more precisely than ever before. Her scientific career began with work to understand the actions of RNA, part of the machinery of every cell. But, after a meeting in 2005 with a colleague at the University of California, Berkeley, where Jennifer is currently a professor of chemistry and of molecular and cell biology, she changed her direction of research. Through collaborations all over the world she's since developed the gene editing system called CRISPR/cas9. She's been awarded multiple prizes for her work. The CRISPR/cas9 system has created opportunities that could be used for both for good and for ill. Unlike many scientists who leave the ethical implications of their research to others, Jennifer Doudna has decided to engage with her critics. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about her decision to do this.

  • Tamsin Mather on what volcanic plumes reveal about our planet
    To volcanologist Tamsin Mather, volcanoes are more than a natural hazard. They are 'nature's factories', belching out a rich chemical cocktail of gases. It's these gases or 'plumes' that fascinate her the most. She likes nothing more than crouching on a crater's edge collecting a smouldering mix of ash and gases, a clue to what's brewing deep inside. As Professor of Earth Sciences at Oxford University, her work is helping to not only predict when a volcano may erupt, but to understand how volcanoes shape our planet both now and over geological time. Producer: Beth Eastwood.

  • Tim O'Brien on transient stars and science and music festivals
    Tim O'Brien has earned the nickname 'the awesome astrophysicist dude from Jodrell Bank' He is Professor of Astrophysics at Manchester University, and the associate director of Jodrell Bank Observatory, best known for the giant, iconic radio dish of the world-famous Lovell telescope which sits majestically on the Cheshire plain, where he carries out research on the behaviour of transient binary stars called novae. For twenty-five years Tim O'Brien has been telling the public about astronomy, and recently he's also become an organiser of concerts. Building on some very successful one-day events, the first Blue Dot Festival was held at Jodrell Bank in July 2016 and the second will be this summer. Tim talks to Jim al-Khalil about how he pops up on stage between acts to tell the audience about science - and doesn't get bottled off!

  • Ottoline Leyser on how plants decide what to do
    To the untrained eye, a plant's existence may seem rather uneventful. It spends its days rooted to the spot, seemingly at the mercy of its environment. Not so, plant biologist Ottoline Leyser explains to Jim Al-Khalili. Plants are intelligent creatures that possess a unique ability to adapt in ways we animals can only dream of. They can alter their entire body plan of roots and shoots, when required, in response to their surroundings. Now Director of the Sainsbury Laboratory & Professor of Plant Development at Cambridge University, Ottoline has spent her career unearthing the mysterious mechanisms that underpin this process. She's pieced together the finely-tuned network of hormonal signals which regulate how the roots and shoots of a plant develop. These new insights into what plants get up to are so remarkable that Ottoline is determined to change the way we think about them. Producer: Beth Eastwood.

  • Fay Dowker on a new theory of space-time
    For a long time Fay Dowker was mathematically precocious, but emotionally uncertain. These days, despite working in an area with few academic allies, she is more confident than ever. Her approach to a Theory of Everything, known as causal set theory, acknowledges the quantum nature of the universe and takes the arrow of time more seriously than Einstein. Bye bye time travel. Fay started her Life Scientific working on the assumption that the texture of the universe was continuous and smooth, with Stephen Hawking as her supervisor. But mid-career, she changed her mind. She now thinks in terms of 'atoms' of space-time. Down at the tiniest scale imaginable, the universe is granular, made of discrete entities that represent a point in space and a moment in time. Most theoretical physicists were shocked to discover in 1998 that the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating. Not the causal set theorists. Unlike everyone else, they were expecting this result. What's more, if causual set theory is right, there will be no need to explain dark energy, an idea which seems 'just wacky and a little bit malicious', to Fay. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Ann Clarke on The Frozen Ark
    Tiny tree dwelling snails, partula, were so abundant across French Polynesia that garlands of partula shells would be presented to visitors to the islands. But when immunologist Dr Ann Clarke joined her husband, the late evolutionary biologist Professor Bryan Clarke, on expeditions to research the unique way this species had developed, a study in speciation turned, before their eyes, into a study of extinction. Ann witnessed first-hand the terrifying speed that biological controls, another mollusc introduced to kill a different, larger predatory snail, instead turned on Partula, and within a few short years, drove them to extinction in the wild. The subsequent scramble to save the species resulted in the launch of a global effort called The Frozen Ark to save the genetic resources of all animals which, like partula, face obliteration. The Frozen Ark was founded by Ann, her husband and the late Professor Ann MacLaren and with consortium members around the world, tissue and genetic material from threatened fauna is preserved as an ultimate animal conservation back-up. More than 48,000 samples have been collected by Frozen Ark members in zoos and natural history museums around the world from more than 5,500 different species. Frozen samples inform multiple captive breeding programmes, including at London Zoo, where descendants of partula rescued from extinction, are being bred ready for re-introduction back to their home in French Polynesia. And all this wasn't Ann's main career! As well as admitting to Jim that she was read bedtime stories as a child by the great JR Tolkien and that in her first ever job as a lab technician she helped Nobel Prize winner Sir John Gurdon with his nuclear transfer experiments, Ann also had a long and successful career as an immunologist and embryologist, fuelled by a life long interest in embryonic tolerance and immunity.

  • Graham MacGregor on tackling the demons in our diet
    The food we eat is the greatest cause of death and illness worldwide. The main culprits - salt, sugar and fat - are now so embedded in our diet, in the form of processed foods, that most of us consume far too much. Yet Professor Graham MacGregor doesn't believe it's up to us to reverse this situation. It's up to the food industry, he says, who manufacture the processed foods, to take the 'rubbish' out. Now Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine, Graham MacGregor has spent much of his career campaigning tirelessly to persuade the food industry to do just that - to reduce these demons in our diet - firstly salt, and now sugar. And he's had remarkable success. As a nation we now eat thirty thousand tonnes less salt each year than we did fifteen years ago, saving the NHS a staggering £1.5 billion per year. Blood pressure lies at the heart of this huge saving and, as Graham explains to Jim al-Khalili, blood pressure is not a natural consequence of ageing. High blood pressure is simply a consequence of too much salt. Producer: Beth Eastwood.

  • Liz Sockett on friendly killer bacteria
    Professor Liz Sockett studies an extraordinary group of predatory bacteria. Bdellovibrio may be small but they kill other bacteria with ingenious and ruthless efficiency. Liz has devoted the last fifteen years of her career as a microbiologist to work out how this microscopic killer invades and consumes its victims - victims which include a host of disease-causing bacteria which have also acquired resistance to antibiotics which once killed them. As well as studying the numerous tricks and weapons which Bdellovibrio have evolved to despatch and feed on other bugs, Prof Sockett's lab at the University of Nottingham is also testing the bacteria's potential as a new kind of treatment in the era of antibiotic resistance. Deadly infections may not be able to outwit this bacterial top predator in the way they have with ever increasing numbers of antibiotic drugs. Liz talks to Jim Al-Khalili about how a BBC TV children's show first introduced her to the superfast killer bacteria, how Roman villas led her towards a life of discovery, and how her lab in Nottingham might be compared to the kitchen of a restaurant and her team to a brigade of chefs. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

  • Nick Fraser on Triassic reptiles
    Nick Fraser regularly travels back in time (at least in his mind) to the Triassic, a crazily inventive period in our evolutionary history that started 250 million years ago. Wherever there are ancient Triassic creatures buried underground, Nick is never far behind; and his 'fossil first' approach to life has been richly rewarded. In 2002, he unearthed a new species of gliding reptile in Virginia, USA. Last year in southern China, he identified the remains of a creature so utterly odd that the paleontologists who studied this species before him had got it all wrong. And earlier this year he was part of a tiny but hugely exciting discovery much closer to home, hidden in the Scottish borders in rocks that are over 350 million years old: an ancient amphibian, imaginatively named Tiny, that is the earliest known example of an animal with a backbone to live on land. It may even have had five fingers. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Daniel Dennett on the evolution of the human brain
    Daniel Dennett has never been one to swallow accepted wisdom undigested. As a student he happily sought to undermine the work of his supervisor, Willard Quine. Only one of the most respected figures in 20th century philosophy, a thinker eminent enough to appear on US postage stamps. Later in Oxford, he became frustrated by his fellow philosophers' utter lack of interest in how our brains worked and was delighted when a medical friend introduced him to neurons. And so began an intellectual quest to understand the human mind that spans five decades. He has always believed that our minds are machines. And anyone who disagrees lacks imagination, he says. Reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins introduced him to the power of Darwin's theory of evolution. And he has, perhaps, taken Darwinism further than anyone, seeking to explain how we evolved from uncomprehending bacteria to highly intelligent human beings. We know humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor. And that we share 99 % of our DNA with our closest animal relatives. So why would poetry, ethics, science and literature be somehow cut-off or insulated from our underlying biology? "You've given this much ground. Think about giving a little bit more". Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Alison Woollard on what she has learnt from mutant worms
    C. elegans is a rather special worm, so-named for the elegant way it moves in sinusoidal curves. It's studied, and much loved, by thousands of scientists around the world. Alison Woollard joined this exclusive club of worm scientists when she moved to the world famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, also known as 'worm Mecca' in 1995. She started her career working as a lab technician, having dropped out of university. After later graduating from Birkbeck, she worked on yeast. But once she found the worm there was no turning back. She describes the hours she spent staring down the microscope at these tiny creatures, unprepossessing to the uninitiated, but an absolute joy to her. These hours led her to the discovery of two genes responsible for different defects in the tails of the male worms, called male abnormality 2 and male abnormality 9. (There are no female worms by the way, only males and hermaphrodites). It's not easy finding a gene or genes when you don't even know what it is that you're looking for, only the effect it has on the tails of mutant worms, each no more than a mm long. And it took Alison a year of repetitive trial and error to see which normal gene corrected the fault in the next generation. "Most days are failures", she says. Finding her first gene was a euphoric moment. She celebrated by buying everyone a cup of tea. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Alan Winfield on robot ethics
    Alan Winfield is the only Professor of Robot Ethics in the world. He is a voice of reason amid the growing sense of unease at the pace of progress in the field of artificial intelligence. He believes that robots aren't going to take over the world - at least not any time soon. But that doesn't mean we should be complacent. Alan Winfield talks to Jim al-Khalili about how, at a young age, he delighted in taking things apart. After his degree in microelectronics and a PhD in digital communication at Hull University, he set up a software company in the mid-80s, which he ran for the best part of a decade before returning to academia. In 1993, he co-founded the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England, by far the largest centre of robotics in the UK. Today, he is a leading authority, not only on robot ethics, but on the idea of swarm robotics and biologically-inspired robotics. Alan explains to Jim that what drives many of his enquiries is the deeply profound question: how can 'stuff' become intelligent.

  • Simon Wessely on unexplained medical syndromes
    Professor Sir Simon Wessely has spent his whole career arguing that mental and physical health are inseparable and that the Cinderella status of mental health funding is a national disgrace. His current role, as President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has given him a platform to bang the drum for parity of funding, better training for doctors and the need to reduce stigma around mental health (and armchair psychiatrists who think it's OK to diagnose the new American President with a mental illness get short shrift as well). Professor of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, part of King's College in London, Simon Wessely has always been fascinated by those puzzling symptoms and syndromes which can't easily be explained. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would find himself at the centre of research trying to explain the distressing and debilitating illness, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Threats and abuse finally led to him leave this particular research field, and he moved instead to military health and another complex illness which appeared after the first Gulf War in the early 90s, Gulf War Syndrome. Years of detailed epidemiological studies about the health of British troops followed through the King's Centre for Military Health Research and many of the findings had a direct impact on policy within the armed forces. Yet for somebody who has spent years as a psychiatrist treating patients with serious mental illness, Simon tells Jim Al-Khalili that people are tougher than many in authority give credit for and his research has had a major impact on the way we treat people after traumatic events. We used to think "better out than in" but studies showed after the London 7/7 Bombings for example, that jumping in and getting people to talk through the trauma straight away can actually do more harm than good.

  • Sean Carroll on how time and space began
    How did time and space begin? From the age of ten, Sean Carroll has wanted to know. He first read about the big bang model of the universe as a child. Later, he turned down two job offers from Stephen Hawking. The big bang model of the universe is well established but, as Sean readily admits, the big bang itself remains a mystery. In the beginning, Sean applied Einstein's theories of relativity to this problem. But mid-career and painfully aware that trying to out Einstein Einstein was a tough call, he turned his attention from the very big to the very small. His most recent work imagines a universe without time and without space and describes how these two rather important aspects of our existence might have been created, using the laws of quantum mechanics and, in particular, the idea of quantum entanglement. Apparently it's quite straightforward. Things that are more entangled are closer. It doesn't explain the origin of time, however. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Alison Smith on algae
    Think of algae and you'll probably think trouble. Algal blooms turned the diving pool green at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Smelly seaweed ruins many a trip to the beach. But Alison Smith, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, argues that we should appreciate algae more. They range in size from giant kelp to microscopic diatoms. They are found all over the world from the Arctic to the Tropics, live in water and make energy from the sun by photosynthesis. Alison Smith talks to Jim al-Khalili about algae's sometimes bizarre biochemistry and how she discovered that they obtain their vitamins from bacteria they live alongside in the sea. They also discuss how we are beginning to farm algae to make all kinds of chemicals, from food stuffs to biofuels. We may become very dependent on them when the oil runs out.

  • Sadaf Farooqi on what makes us fat
    Is it true that some people put on weight more easily than others? And if so why? It's a question that's close to many of our hearts. And it's a question that medical researcher, Professor Sadaf Farooqi is trying to answer. In 1997, Sadaf noticed that two children she was studying lacked the hormone leptin. From there, she went on to discover the first single gene defect that causes obesity. For most us, how much we eat is within our control. But for children with this rare inherited condition and, it turned out, several other rare genetic disorders, the evidence is clear. A voracious appetite is not a lifestyle choice: it's a biological response to brains signalling starvation. Sadaf tells Jim how she discovered ten rare genetic disorders that cause severe childhood obesity and what this means for the rest of us. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Jan Zalasiewicz on the Age of Man
    Jan Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology at Leicester University, talks to Jim al-Khalili about the Anthropocene, the concept that humans now drive much geology on the earth. He's one of the leading lights in the community of scientists who are working to get the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, recognised. They discuss the controversy about the date of when it began- some say it was a thousand years ago, or the Industrial revolution, others that it was the Second World War, and yet others that it's as recent as the 1960s. It all turns on finding the Golden Spike, a layer in rock strata above which the geology changes. Jan Zalasiewicz began his career as a traditional geologist studying rocks 500 million years old in Welsh border. After years out in the field mapping the landscape for the British Geological Survey he moved into academia at Leicester University.

  • Michele Dougherty on Saturn
    The Cassini mission into deep space has witnessed raging storms, flown between Saturn's enigmatic rings and revealed seven new moons. And, thanks in no small part to Professor Michele Dougherty, it's made some astonishing discoveries. For the last twenty years, Michele been responsible for one of the key instruments on board Cassini - the magnetometer. In 2005, she spotted a strange signature in the data during a distant fly by of Saturn's smaller moons, Enceladus and became curious. Now,space missions are planned years ahead of time. Every detail is nailed down. But Michele convinced mission control to divert Cassini from its carefully planned route to take a closer look at Enceladus. And her gamble paid off. Cassini scientists soon discovered jets of water vapour and organic material shooting out of the south pole of Enceladus, not bad for a small moon that could so easily have been ignored. It's now thought that this tiny moon might be able to support microbial life underneath its icy surface. In 2008, Michele was awarded the hugely prestigious Hughes medal for her work - an honour last given to a woman in 1906! She's also been voted by the UK Science Council as one of the country's top 100 living scientists. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about growing up in South Africa, moving from mathematics to managing space missions and what they hope will happen when Cassini crashes into Saturn later this year. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Neil de Grasse Tyson on Pluto
    The US science superstar, Neil de Grasse Tyson grew up in the Bronx, and studied astrophysics at Harvard, Columbia and Princeton Universities before becoming director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. But he's best known for his TV and movie appearances, his books, podcasts and his tweets or 'scientific droppings' as he likes to call them. He has over 6 million followers on Twitter and is often credited with turning millennials around the world on to science. Neil tells Jim al-Khalili why he's so committed to making science feel exciting, why we are all stardust and why Pluto isn't a planet. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Richard Morris on how we know where we are
    How do we know where we are? The question sounds simple enough. But there's much more to it than simply looking around. Our sense of place is embedded in the very structure of our brains, in such a way that we can remember the exact place we used to play as a child, even if the neighbourhood has been transformed and few of the original visual cues remain. The park you played in as a child may now be full of high rise flats but somehow you know where your favourite tree used to be. Richard Morris has devoted his Life Scientific to trying to understand this profound sense of place and in 2016 was awarded the prestigious Brain Prize for his work on brain cells and circuits. Over the years, he's performed thousands of of experiments on rats in water mazes, an experimental tool that he invented in the eighties and that's now used in labs all over the world. And, in one of his latest experiments, he set up a rat restaurant. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Julia Higgins on polymers
    Plastic Bags and the DNA in our cells are both polymers, very long molecules ubiquitous in nature and in their synthetic form, in materials like polythene, perspex and polystyrene. Professor Dame Julia Higgins has spent a lifetime researching the structure and movement of polymeric material. Trained as a physicist, Dame Julia was one of the early researchers in polymer science and throughout her career worked alongside chemists and engineers. No surprise then that she was the first woman to become both a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In the 1960s with other young researchers she worked at the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Centre in Oxfordshire, one of the first people to use neutron scattering as a technique to investigate how polymer molecules move. Emeritus Professor of Polymer Science and former Principal at the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College, London, Professor Higgins tells Jim Al-Khalili how she used her influence as a leading academic to improve representation of women in top posts in science and medicine.

  • Roger Penrose on black holes
    In a career of over fifty years Sir Roger Penrose has changed the way we see the Universe. He carried out seminal research on black holes and the big bang, and he's questioned the current received wisdom on some of the most important ideas in science, such as quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence and where consciousness comes from. His ideas in geometry directly influenced the work of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Now Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Roger Penrose is one of the world's most lauded mathematical physicists. He's written a number of popular science books in which he certainly doesn't shy away from the mathematics. Jim al-Khalili talks to Roger Penrose about his continuing fascination with the biggest questions in science.

  • Lynne Boddy on Fungi
    Fungi are responsible for rotting fruit, crumbling brickwork and athlete's foot. They have a mouldy reputation; but it's their ability to destroy things that enables new life to grow. 90% of all plants depend on fungi to extract vital nutrients from the soil. And it's probably thanks to fungi that the first plants were able to colonize land 450 million years ago. Professor Lynne Boddy shares her passion for fungi with Jim Al-Khalili and describes some of the vicious strategies they use to defend their territory. Direct strangulation and chemical weapons; it's all happening underground. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Ian Wilmut on Dolly the sheep
    Dolly the sheep was born near Edinburgh, twenty years ago this summer. She was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult animal, (named after Dolly Parton because she was created from a breast cell). And became a global media star, inspiring both amazement that an animal be created with three mothers but no father,and fear. Many worried about where such a development might lead. The papers reported: 'dreaded possibilities are raised'; 'cloned sheep in Nazi storm'. Professor Ian Wilmut,the man who created Dolly, was compared to Frankenstein. Jim talked to Ian in front of an audience at the Edinburgh Festival and asked him why he decided to try and clone a sheep; how he and the team did it; and whether cloning humans is now a real possibility. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Frans de Waal on chimpanzees
    We share 99% of our DNA with the chimpanzee and the bonobo. And yet we're often surprised to learn that apes, like us, can be both kind and clever. Behavioural biologist and best-selling author, Frans de Waal has spent many years observing our closest living animal relatives. He pioneered studies of kindness and peace-making in primates, when other scientists were focussing on violence, greed and aggression. Empathy, he argues, has a long evolutionary history; and he is determined to undermine our arrogant assumptions of human superiority. Frans talks to Jim Al-Khalili about growing up on the Dutch polders, chimpanzee politics, and the extraordinary sex lives of the bonobos. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Trevor Cox on sound
    Inside a Victorian sewer, with fat deposits sliding off the ceiling and disappearing down the back of his shirt, Trevor Cox had an epiphany. Listening to the strange sound of his voice reverberating inside the sewer, he wondered where else in the world he could experience unusual and surprising noises. As an acoustic engineer, Trevor started his career tackling unwanted noises, from clamour in the classroom to poor acoustics in concert halls. But his jaunt inside a sewer sparked a new quest to find and celebrate the 'sonic wonders of the world'. In this episode he shares these sounds with Jim Al-Khalili and discusses the science behind them. Producer: Michelle Martin.

  • Georgina Mace on threatened species
    Despite decades of conservation work, in zoos and in the field, the rate at which species are going extinct is speeding up. Georgina Mace has devoted her Life Scientific to trying to limit the damage to our planet's bio-diversity from this alarming loss. For ten years she worked on the Red List of Threatened Species, developing a robust set of scientific criteria for assessing the threat of extinction facing every species on the planet. When the list was first published, she expected resistance from big business; but not the vicious negative reaction she received from many wildlife NGOS. Her careful quantitative analysis revealed that charismatic animals, like the panda and the polar bear, are not necessarily the most at risk. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Faraneh Vargha-Khadem on memory
    Self-taught Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Faraneh Vargha-Khadem has spent decades studying children with developmental amnesia. Her mission: to understand how we form memories of the events in our past, from things we've experienced to places we've visited and people we've met. She talks to Jim about the memories we lay down during our lives and the autobiographies stored in our brains that define us as individuals. Faraneh was also part of the team that identified the FoxP2 gene, the so called 'speech gene', that may explain why humans talk and chimps don't. Plus Faraneh discusses how her Baha'i faith informs her scientific thinking.

  • Hazel Rymer on volcanoes
    Hazel Rymer has journeyed closer to the centre of the earth than most, regularly peering into the turbulent, fiery world than makes up the earth's core. By taking measurements of micro-gravity on, and inside, volcanoes all over the world, she hopes to better understand why they erupt and what happens when they do. Having lost a close colleague to a random volcanic eruption, she appreciates the risks involved and, at the same time, insists that they are no greater than driving on the M25. She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about learning to think like a geologist after studying physics; the joys and frustrations of doing fieldwork on volcanoes; and why she loves gravity meter, G513. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Nick Davies on cuckoos
    Nick Davies has been teasing apart the dark relationship between the cuckoo and the birds it tricks into bringing up its young, for more than three decades. The Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Cambridge has spent more than 30 springs and summers on nearby fenland of watching, recording and crucially experimenting. Nick's studies have deployed simple yet ingenious experiments, among the reed beds where the birds nest. They have involved mock eggs, stuffed birds and miniature loudspeakers, to piece together the cuckoo's dark story. He has even swopped cuckoo chicks with blackbird nestlings in the nests of the feathered parasite's victims. No birds are harmed in his revealing tests. Prof Davies also talks to Jim al-Khalili about the origins of his life with birds, and the revolution in animal behaviour science beginning as he began his scientific career. Ideas about the selfish gene and game theory, along with DNA fingerprint in the 1980's, transformed the research of zoologists asking 'why' questions about what animals do. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

  • Sheila Rowan on gravitational waves
    Half a century after the search for gravitational waves began, scientists confirmed that they had finally been detected in February 2016. Physicists around the world were ecstatic. It was proof at last that Einstein was right: the tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime that he predicted a hundred years ago are real. And now that we can detect them, a new era for astronomy is anticipated. Traditional telescopes rely on light for information. No good when you want to find objects that are dark. Now for the first time we can 'see' black holes colliding. Sheila talks to Jim at the Cheltenham Science Festival about her part in this momentous discovery. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Marcus du Sautoy on mathematics
    Marcus du Sautoy wasn't particularly good at maths at school; but a teacher spotted his aptitude for abstract thought and he started reading, and enjoying, journals filled with mathematical proofs. His thesis on the mathematics of symmetry launched him as a world class mathematician. And before he dies he wants to know: can you predict the properties of the next symmetrical object that could possibly exist in a hundred thousand dimensions or more? Marcus talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his passion for the performing arts, as well as mathematics; and why, for him, mathematics is as much a creative art as a science. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Lawrence Krauss on dark energy
    Lawrence Krauss has had an unusual career for a cosmologist. Not content with dreaming up theoretical models of the Universe, and writing bestselling science books, he gathers audiences of thousands for his talks with leading figures, from Noam Chomsky to Johnny Depp. And soon, he will star as an evil scientist in the film 'Salt & Fire' directed by Werner Herzog. Inside the world of physics, Krauss predicted the existence of a mysterious 'dark energy' in space, several years before it was found, although the Nobel Prize for the discovery was later given to three other scientists. As a public atheist, Krauss has come to blows with religious and political lobbies inside the United States. He tells Jim Al-Khalili why 'coming out' as an atheist in the US is considered so controversial. Producer: Michelle Martin.

  • Carolyn Roberts on flood control
    Barely a month goes by without news of another catastrophic flood somewhere in the world, like the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 or the flooding of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina a year later, and the role of climate change is often mooted. Here in the UK this winter, flood victims were once again caught in a cycle of despair and anger as they tried to make sense of why their homes were flooded and what could be done to prevent it happening again. Jim talks to environmental scientist, Professor Carolyn Roberts, who is pre-occupied by problems like this. She applies water science, in particular, to work out why such events occur and the role we humans play in them. Her passion for problem solving in watery places also takes her into the intriguing world of forensics where she assists the police when bodies are found floating in rivers and canals. Producer: Beth Eastwood.

  • Helen Sharman on being and astronaut
    Before Helen Sharman replied to a rather unusual radio advertisement her life was, in many ways, quite ordinary. She was working as a chemist in a sweet factory, creating and testing flavours. Much to her surprise, her application to be an astronaut was successful and two years later, following an intense 18 month training course at a military base just outside Moscow, she was selected for Project Juno, the 1991 mission to the Soviet space station, MIR. And so became the first British astronaut. On the 25th anniversary of this historic mission, Helen talks to Jim about her life before MIR; some of the less glamorous aspects of being in space; and the difficult process of coming down to earth. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Venki Ramakrishnan on ribosomes
    All the information that's needed for life is written in our DNA. But how do we get from DNA code to biological reality? That's the job of the ribosomes - those clever molecular machines that are found in every living cell. And in 2008 Venki Ramakrishnan was awarded the Nobel Prize for determining their structure. Jim talks to Venki about the frantic race to crack the structure of the ribosome, probably the most important biological molecule after DNA; why he thinks the Nobel Prize is a terrible thing for science; and his new job as President of the Royal Society. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • George Davey-Smith on health inequalities
    When George Davey-Smith started work as an epidemiologist, he hoped to prove that the cause of coronary disease in South Wales soon after the miner's strike was Thatcherism. The miners said they thought it was a combination of having a poor constitution and bad fortune. Thirty years later, George admits he would have done well to listen to them. Having spent decades studying the influence on our health of a huge number of variables, from lifestyle factors like car ownership to our genetic inheritance and most recently epi-genetic effects; George has concluded that whether or not individuals get sick is, to a significant extent, down to chance. But that's not to say that public health interventions are a waste of time.They can boost the overall health of a population, significantly. George is director of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Dr Nick Lane on the origin of life on earth
    Dr Nick Lane is attempting to answer one of the hardest questions in science. How did life on earth begin? You might think that question had been solved by Darwin in the 19th century. He wrote that he thought life might have started on earth "in a warm little pond", where all the necessary ingredients: water, sunlight and nutrients combined in this "primordial soup" to create the very first biomolecule of life. Others - like Fred Hoyle - thought that life came to earth from elsewhere in space. But Nick Lane has different ideas of how, and where, it happened. The place in question was deep under the sea in hydrothermal vents. Amongst other research he carries out at University College London, he's running an experiment to try to recreate this moment. Nick Lane had an unusual route to this point in his scientific career. For some years he left his research career to become a medical journalist and write popular books. A rare opportunity took him back into the laboratory.

  • Naomi Climer on engineering
    Naomi Climer is one of the most senior British women engineers working in the communications industry, and after decades working on major projects she's left the world of business to become the first female president of Institution of Engineering and Technology (the IET). As part of her presidency, Naomi has launched a campaign called - Engineer a better World - to make us realise that engineering is an exciting and creative activity.. and, in particular, to attract and retain more women in the profession. Naomi Climer's most recent role was running Sony's Media Cloud Services. She was based in California where, she says, engineers are treated like rock stars. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about how British engineers can gain higher status than they do today.