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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 them and asking what their discoveries might do for us in the future.

The Life Scientific

  • Neil Ferguson on modelling Covid-19
    Neil Ferguson is known to many as Professor Lockdown. The mathematical models he created to predict the spread of Covid-19 were influential but, he says, it took him quite a long time to be persuaded that full lockdown was a good idea. A physicist by training, Neil switched from studying string theory to the spread of disease and presented scientific advice to government during the BSE crisis, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in livestock in 2001 and the swine flu pandemic of 2009. In January 2020, he issued his first report on Covid-19 estimating the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan City in China. In March, he predicted that 510,000 people in the UK could die if nothing was done to mitigate the spread of this pandemic. Does he stand by that prediction? And how worried is he now? Jim Al-Khalili talks to Neil Ferguson about his life and work, the tricky relationship between politics and science and asks if he has any regrets about lockdown. Producer: Anna Buckley for BBC Radio Science

  • Sarah Gilbert on developing a vaccine for Covid-19
    Sarah Gilbert started working on a vaccine for Covid-19 just as soon as the virus genome was sequenced. Within weeks, she had a proof of principle. By early April, her team at the Jenner Institute in Oxford had manufactured hundreds of doses ready for use in clinical trials. In phase one of these trials, completed in July, this vaccine was shown to be safe for use in a thousand healthy volunteers, aged between 18 and 55. It also provoked exactly the kind of immune response to Covid-19 that Sarah was hoping to achieve. Larger scale clinical trials are currently underway in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. If everything goes according to plan and the vaccine meets all the necessary regulatory standards, it will be manufactured in multiple locations including the Serum Institute in India and made available for use in low to middle income countries. AstraZeneca has already committed to making two billion doses, each costing about $4. The UK has an order in for 100 million. Sarah talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her life and work. As a young woman, she nearly gave up on a career in science. Now she’s in charge of one the most successful vaccine projects in the world. How did Sarah and her Oxford team get so far, so fast in developing a vaccine against Covid-19? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Steve Haake on technology, sport and health
    Steve Haake,has spent much of his career using technology to help elite sports people get better, faster and break records. He has turned his hand to the engineering behind most sports, from studying how golf balls land, to designing new tennis racquets and changing the materials in ice skates. He’s now Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University and was the Founding Director of the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre there. Since the 2012 London Olympics, Steve has also been working to improve the health and wellbeing of all of us. As Chair of the Parkrun Research Board he’s heavily involved in this international phenomenon in which thousands of people have sprinted, jogged and stumbled around a 5-kilometre course on Saturday mornings, which he’s shown really does encourage people to be generally more active. Jim al-Khalili talks to Steve Haake about how he got from a physics degree to being one of the leading sports engineers in the world, and how we can all improve our health by moving more.

  • Francesca Happé on autism
    When Francesca Happé started out as a research psychologist thirty years ago, she thought she could easily find out all there was to know about autism – and perhaps that wouldn’t have been impossible as there were so few papers published on it. Francesca’s studies have increased our knowledge of how people with autism experience the world around them, and their social interactions. She’s looked at their brains using various imaging techniques, studied the families of people with autism to explore their genetics, and raised awareness of how the condition can appear differently in women than in men. Jim al-Khalili talks to Francesca, now Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London, about her research career and her current projects, including how people with autism experience mental health issues, such as PTSD.

  • Heather Koldewey on marine conservation
    Professor Heather Koldewey wants to protect our oceans from over-fishing and plastic pollution. An academic who is not content to sit back and let the science speak for itself, she wants to turn science into action and has found conservation allies in some unexpected places. Working with a carpet manufacturer, she created Net-Works, a business that turns old fishing nets into high-end carpet tiles and she has collaborated with Selfridges department store to give marine conservation a make-over. A research career that began studying the genetics of brown trout in Welsh rivers took her to the Philippines to save seahorses and a job running the aquarium at London Zoo. In 2018, she was made a National Geographic Fellow. Heather tells Jim Al-Khalili why, despite all the challenges to marine life, she remains an ‘ocean optimist’ and how she learned to drop her ‘scientific seriousness’. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Dale Sanders on feeding the world
    Professor Dale Sanders has spent much of his life studying plants, seeking to understand why some thrive in a particular environment while others struggle. His ground breaking research on their molecular machinery showed how plants extract nutrients from the soil and store essential elements. Since plants can’t move, their survival depends on these responses. In 2020, after 27 years at the University of York, he became the Director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, one of the premier plant research institutions in the world. Meeting the food needs of a growing global population as the climate changes is a major challenge. And, Dale says, it’s not only about maximising yields. We need crops that are more resilient and more nutritious. Drought resistant crop varieties, for example. And zinc-rich white rice. Dale talks to Jim about how plant science is helping to feed the world in a sustainable way and why plant scientists don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Andy Fabian on black holes
    Professor Andrew Fabian from Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy has spent his career trying to unravel the mystery of how some of the most dramatic events in the universe can profoundly influence its evolution. For over 50 years he’s been examining our universe using X-ray satellites orbiting way above earth’s atmosphere . He’s built up compelling evidence that supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies are the engines that drive the movement of energy through the universe and provide the building blocks for the formation of new galaxies. They're extraordianry insights, for which he’s now been awarded the 2020 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, one of the world's most prestigious science prizes. Jim Al-Khalili hears how Andy gets to capture epic galactic events in motion to build up a picture of this vast ecosystem - and also how he earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for discovering the deepest note in the universe – a B flat , 57 octaves below middle C. Producer Adrian Washbourne

  • Alice Roberts on bones
    It’s amazing what we can learn from a pile of old bones. Having worked as a paediatric surgeon for several years (often doing the ward round on roller blades), Alice Roberts spent a decade teaching anatomy to medical students and studying human remains. A niche interest in the collar bone and how it has changed since we evolved from the common ancestor we share with other apes 6 million years ago, led her to some of the biggest questions in science. Who are we? And where do we come from? She is the presenter of several landmark TV series on human evolution and archaeology, such as The Incredible Human Journey and Digging for Britain. And in 2019 she became President of the British Science Association. In conversation with Jim Al Khalili, Alice shares her passion for the bones of our ancient ancestors and of the freshly dead, and describes her own incredible journey from a basement full of medieval bones to an eminent science communicator and public figure. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Clifford Stott on riot prevention
    Why does violence break out in some crowds and not in others and what can the police do to reduce the risk of this happening? Professor Clifford Stott tells Jim Al-Khalili about his journey from trouble maker to police advisor and explains why some policing strategies are more successful than others. As a teenager Clifford was often in trouble with the police. Now he’s a professor of crowd psychology who works with the police suggesting new evidence-based strategies for public order management. ‘If we misunderstand the psychology of the crowd then all attempts at crowd control are doomed to fail’, he says. Cliff’s work on football crowds revolutionised the way matches were policed and led to a dramatic reduction in football hooliganism. He’s studied the riots in London and other British cities in 2011 and the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2019. And in 2020 he joined the government advisory board, SAGE to advise the government on how to reduce the risk of civil unrest in the wake of a global pandemic. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Emma Bunce on the gas giants
    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.

  • Jane Goodall on living with wild chimpanzees
    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

  • Liz Seward and the dream of spaceflight
    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 Areolus 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. Producer Alex Mansfield, Sound production by Giles Aspen.

  • Frank Kelly on air pollution
    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. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Debbie Pain on conserving globally threatened bird species
    Professor Debbie Pain has spent the last 30 years solving some of the most devastating threats to birdlife, saving many species from the brink of extinction. Her childhood passion for bird spotting drove her into conservation research with the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. She’s led scientific groundwork all over the planet: from reversing a dramatic mysterious decline in Asian vultures in the Indian sub-continent through to daring helicopters journeys into remote foggy North-East Russia in a bid to locate and conserve eggs of a hugely charismatic and threatened bird - the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. And as she tells Jim, her career defining research into one of the great hidden threats to birdlife - the toxic effect of billions of spent lead shot used to catch game birds - is finally turning the tide on attitudes to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of wildfowl. Producer Adrian Washbourne

  • Jim McDonald on power networks
    Jim McDonald grew up in Glasgow. He was the son of a rope-maker and the first in his family to go to university. Now he’s the Principal of Strathclyde University, a non-executive director of Scottish Power and President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He worked in the electrical power industry for many years before becoming an academic. Much of his life has been spent making sure that we all have access to the electricity we need, when we need it. That includes when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow! As we rely more and more on renewable energy and more of us start driving electric cars, making sure the National Grid is fit for purpose is going to be a real challenge. But Jim is on the case. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Brian Greene on how the universe is made of string
    Jim talks a man who studies the universe at the largest and smallest scales imaginable. When Brian Greene was just twelve years old, he 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’. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Myles Allen on understanding climate change
    Professor Myles Allen has spent thirty years studying global climate change, trying to working out what we can and can't predict. He was one of the first scientists to quantify the extent to which human actions are responsible for global warming. As a lead author on the 3rd Assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change in 2001, he concluded that ‘most of the observed global warming was due to human influence’. More recently, (having established that calculating a safe concentration of greenhouse gases was very difficult indeed), he worked out instead how many tonnes of carbon would be acceptable, a shift in emphasis that paved the way for the current Net Zero carbon emissions policy. Myles tells Jim Al-Khalili how our ability to predict climate change has evolved from the early days when scientists had to rely on the combined computing power of hundreds of thousands of personal computers. He sheds light on how the IPCC works and explains why, he believes, fossil fuel industries must be forced to take back the carbon dioxide that they emit. If carbon capture and storage technologies makes their products more expensive, so be it. Producer: Anna Buckley Image Credit: Fisher Studios, Oxford.

  • Matthew Cobb on how we detect smells
    It’s been estimated that humans are capable of detecting a trillion different smells. How is this possible when we have just 400 types of olfactory receptors located in the bridge of our nose? Matthew Cobb has spent many years studying maggots hoping to get to bottom of this problem. He spent several years studying the flirting rituals of fruit flies in Sheffield before moving to France to study at the world centre for fly research, not far from Paris. There are, of course, a lot of differences between maggots and humans but our olfactory systems have a lot in common. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Anya Hurlbert on seeing colour
    As a professor of visual neuroscience at Newcastle University, Anya Hurlbert is one of our most respected researchers into the way we see colour. In a career as a physicist, physiologist, neuroscientist and physician at some of the great research institutes on both sides of the Atlantic, Anya’s investigations into how we perceive the colour of objects has transformed our view of how our predominantly visual brains function. She explains how the multidisciplinary approach to research in vision from physics to psychology, and encounters with some leading Nobel Prize winners, has fostered a love of the slippery nature of colour. When, a few years ago, an online image of a blue and black striped dress spun virally out of control, it divided us all. Half of us were adamant the dress was white and gold, and the other half convinced it was blue and black, and it caused us all to question the objective way we think we see the world as it really is. Colour is, Anya argues, made in the mind, not just out there in the world and we don’t always see it in the same way. And as she reveals to Jim, with recent technological advances in LED lighting, she’s turned her attention to the nature of light itself, and how by controlling its components, it could have a profound influence on both our state of mind and the appreciation of our rich world of colour. Producer Adrian Washbourne

  • Optical communications pioneer Polina Bayvel
    We’ve come to expect to be connected instantly to anywhere in the world and to have unlimited information at our fingertips. We shop online, stream music, download books and boxsets onto our electronic devices. We share videos of our pets just because we can. But how much time have you spent recently thinking about the remarkable feats of engineering that make all this possible? Polina Bayvel has been at the forefront of creating the optical fibre networks that are capable of transporting vast quantities of data from one place to another: linking continents via cables laid under oceans or enabling computer systems in data centres to share information. Without these high speed networks, ultra-fast high-capacity broadband will remain a dream. Polina tells Jim Al Khalili how she moved to the UK from the Soviet Union when she was 12 and worked in industry for many years, before deciding that she wanted to set up a lab to find out what optical fibres were capable of: just how much data could they transport, and how fast? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • 2019 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine, Sir Peter Ratcliffe
    Sir Peter Ratcliffe, Director of Clinical Research at the Francis Crick Institute, as well as Director of Oxford University’s Target Discovery Institute – has dedicated his life to understanding the body’s molecular-level response to low oxygen levels, or ‘hypoxia’. He received the 2019 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with two Americans, William Kaelin of Harvard and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins, for successfully tackling one of physiology’s greatest puzzles - how our bodies sense and adapt so quickly to a lack of oxygen, at high altitude for example, or during sudden exercise. He talks to Jim about how his early medical career led him into a deeply unfashionable area of medicine that would solve how and why our bodies are so clever at being able to fine tune themselves to keep functioning under a range of conditions. His early ground breaking discoveries may have been initially turned down by a major scientific journal, but he would go on to pave the way for promising new strategies to fight anaemia and many other challenging diseases, most notably cancer. Producer Adrian Washbourne

  • Peter Fonagy on a revolution in mental health care
    Peter Fonagy arrived in the UK from Hungary aged 15, not speaking a word of English. His family was in Paris. He was bullied at school, failed every exam and thought of ending his life. Therapy saved him, he says. Years later, he trained to be a clinical psychologist and then a psychoanalyst. His research on attachment styles between a mother and her baby (which can be healthy, anxious or avoidant) was ground breaking. He went on to show that the human need to be understood runs very deep indeed. The ability to ‘mentalise’ (to say that we’re feeling angry rather than being angry, for example) enables us to understand our own thoughts and feelings. And, Peter believes, it forms the cornerstone of good mental health. He pioneered a new way of treating people with borderline personality disorder which he called mentalisation based treatment, or MBT. Shocked to discover that such a simple approach was so effective, he set up randomised control trials to prove the effectiveness of this new approach to mental health care. The results were a revelation and it led to a revolution in mental health care for patients with a wide range of mental health problems, from borderline personality disorder to drug dependency, eating disorders and psychosis. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Susannah Maidment on stegosaurs
    Susie was dinosaur-mad as a child. But unlike most children, she never grew out of her obsession. She tells Jim about an exciting new stegosaur find in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and describes the time she spent dinosaur hunting (with a toddler in tow) in the Morrison Formation in the American Mid-West: a place where there are thought to be enough dinosaur remains to keep a thousand paleontologists happy for a thousand years. She is at her happiest out in the field, with a hammer and a notebook, studying rocks and looking for dinosaur remains. We tend to lump dinosaurs together as though they all roamed the earth at the same time which is silly - given that they had the run of the place for nearly two hundred million years. Susie wants to sort out exactly which dinosaurs lived when. Although she warns, the fossil record is woefully incomplete. We will probably only ever know about 1% of what there is to know about all the dinosaurs that ever lived. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Patricia Wiltshire on how pollen can solve crimes.
    Patricia Wiltshire grew up in a mining village in South Wales, left home when she was 17 and worked for many years, first as a medical technician and then as a business secretary (a profession her first husband considered to be more ladylike). When she was studying botany A level at evening classes, her teacher encouraged her to apply for university as a mature student. (She would never have considered it otherwise). And so began her career as a palynologist (studying pollen). She worked for many years reconstructing ancient environments on archaeological sites. But a phone call from a police detective led to a dramatic change of direction, when she was in her fifties. Since then, Pat has been involved in some of the most high-profile murder cases in Britain, including the murder of two ten year old girls in Soham in Cambridgeshire in 2002. She tells Jim Al-Khalili how she pioneered the use of pollen as evidence in criminal cases. Studying spores taken from suspects and victims, she can establish who’s been where and when. Her life, she says, has been 'a mess' but, on many occasions, the pollen she has gathered and analysed has helped to see that justice has been done. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Elizabeth Fisher on chromosomes in mice and men
    Elizabeth Fisher, Professor of Neurogenetics at University College London, spent 13 years getting her idea – finding a new way of studying genetic disorders – to work. She began her research career at a time, in the 1980s, when there was an explosion of interest and effort in finding out what genes did what, and which of them were responsible for giving rise to the symptoms of various neurodegenerative conditions. Elizabeth has been particularly interested in those in which there are chromosomal abnormalities, like Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, as distinct from specific genetic disorders. Her work has helped in the understanding of what’s different about the genetic make-up of people with these conditions, and what new therapies might be developed in the future. Lizzie Fisher talks to Jim al-Khalili about how she was inspired to study genetics while standing on the red carpet, how she kept going during the 13 years it took to introduce human chromosomes into mice and why she's starting the process all over again.

  • Demis Hassabis on artificial intelligence
    In the 200th episode of The Life Scientific, Jim Al-Khalili finds out why Demis Hassabis wants to create artificial intelligence and use it to help humanity. Thinking about how to win at chess when he was a boy got Demis thinking about the process of thinking itself. Being able to program his first computer (a Sinclair Spectrum) felt miraculous. In computer chess, his two passions were combined. And a lifelong ambition to create artificial intelligence was born. Demis studied computer science at Cambridge and then worked in the computer games industry for many years. Games, he says, are the ideal testing ground for AI. Then, thinking memory and imagination were aspects of the human mind that would be a necessary part of any artificially intelligent system, he studied neuroscience for a PhD. He set up DeepMind in 2010 and pioneered a new approach to creating artificial intelligence, based on deep learning and built-in rewards for making good decisions. Four years later, DeepMind was sold to Google for £400 million. The company’s landmark creation, Alpha Go stunned the world when it defeated the world Go champion in South Korea in 2016. Their AI system, AlphaZero taught itself to play chess from scratch. After playing against itself for just four hours, it was the best chess computer in the world. (Humans had been defeated long ago). Many fear both the supreme intelligence and the stupidity of AI. Demis imagines a future in which computers and humans put their brains together to try and understand the world. His algorithms have inspired humans to raise their game, when playing Go and chess. Now, he hopes that AI might do the same for scientific research. Perhaps the next Nobel Prize will be shared between a human and AI? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Saiful Islam on materials to power the 21st century
    Not so long ago, all batteries were single use. And solar power was an emerging and expensive technology. Now, thanks to rechargeable batteries, we have mobile phones, laptops, electronic toys, cordless power tools and other portable electronic devices. And solar power is reducing our reliance on carbon-based fossil fuels. None of this would have been possible without a deep understanding of the chemistry of materials that have particular properties – the ability to turn sunlight into energy for example. Professor Saiful Islam of the University of Bath tells Jim Al-Khalili how ‘the Woodstock of physics’ got him excited about material science and how his research on the properties of materials is helping to power the 21st century with renewable energy and could dramatically reduce the cost of making solar panels. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Adrian Owen on scanning for awareness in the injured brain
    Neuroscientist Adrian Owen has spent much of his career exploring what he calls ‘the grey zone’, a realm of consciousness inhabited by people with severe brain injuries, who are aware yet unable to respond to those around them. It's this inability to respond which has led doctors to conclude that they are unaware. In the late 1990's, Adrian started to question the assumption that they lacked awareness and a chance discovery set him on a novel path of enquiry - could some of these patients be conscious or aware even though they don’t appear to be? His research has revealed that some are, and he’s pioneered techniques to help them to communicate with the outside world. This emerging field of science has implications, not only for patients but, for philosophy and the law. A Britain scientist, Adrian now runs a research programme at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in Canada, dedicated to reaching people in this ‘grey zone’. Producer: Beth Eastwood

  • Martha Clokie on the viruses that could improve our health
    Could viruses improve our health where antibiotics have failed? As a child, Martha Clokie spent a lot of time collecting seaweed on Scottish beaches. She loves plants and studied botany for many years. But mid-career, she learnt about all the viruses that exist in nature. We tend to focus on the viruses that make us ill but there are trillions of viruses on earth and in the ocean and most of them eat bacteria. When a virus destroys a bacteria that attacks our bodies, then it could be just what the doctor ordered. Our enemy’s enemy is our friend. Martha became interested in how these viruses - or bacteriophages as they’re known - might be used to treat disease. Before long, Martha had moved from studying African violets in Uganda to looking at stool samples under the microscope and asking fellow parents to donate their babies’ dirty nappies to her research. She spent many years looking for phages that attack the superbug C. difficile, which is responsible for a particularly nasty form of diarrhoea and results in tens of thousands of deaths every year. And she has shown, in animal models at least, that these phages could succeed where antibiotics have failed. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Anne Magurran on how to measure biodiversity
    Anne Magurran started her career as an ecologist counting moths in an ancient woodland in northern Ireland in the 1970s, when the study of biological diversity was a very young science. Later she studied piranas in a flooded forest in the Amazon. Turning descriptions of the natural world into meaningful statistics is a challenge and Anne has pioneered the measurement of bio-diversity. It’s like an optical illusion, she says. The more you think about bio-diversity the more difficult it is to define. After a bout of meningitis in 2007, she set up BioTime, a global open access database to monitor changes in bio-diversity over time and is concerned about ‘the shopping mall effect’. Just as high streets are losing their distinctive shops and becoming dominated by the same chain stores, so biological communities in different parts of the world that once looked very different are now starting to look the same.

  • Richard Wiseman on lying, luck and the paranormal
    How do you tell if someone is lying? When Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, conducted a nationwide experiment to identify the tell-tale signs, the results were surprising. If you want to spot a liar, don’t look at them. Listen to what they say and how they say it. in If you want to distinguish fact from fiction, radio, not TV or video is your friend. Visual cues distract us from what is being said and good liars can control their body language more easily than their voice. Depressingly, Richard has also shown that our nearest and dearest are the most able to deceive us. Richard is a rare breed: a scientist who is also a practising magician. By the age of 17 he was performing magic tricks at children’s parties and a member of the exclusive Magic Circle. He chose to study psychology to try and understand why we believe the unbelievable and spent many years doing research on the paranormal: studying séances, haunted places and extra sensory perception. Could a belief in the paranormal be the price we pay for scientific discovery, he wonders? Jim Al-Khalili talks to Richard about his magical Life Scientific and finds out more about his work on lying, ESP and luck. Are some people born lucky or is it a mind-set that can be learnt? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Jonathan Ball on his arms race against viruses
    Ebola, Zika, Sars, Mers - rarely a week goes by without a deadly virus stealing the headlines. For Jonathan Ball, getting to know a virus at its most basic level is crucial to mounting a defence. As the son of a coal miner, who grew up in a mining village in the 1970s, a future in academic research studying deadly viruses wasn’t really on the agenda. Yet his work has led him to the forefront of scientific research to find the antibodies that can protect us from some of the nastiest diseases known to humankind. As Professor of Virology at Nottingham University, he’s interested in how a virus evolves and mutates, as it moves from person to person, so that he can pinpoint chinks in its armour to find a way to disable it. However, there are occupational hazards to his chosen field of work. Just when his own research was starting to show promise, another team pipped him to the post! Yet, ever the optimist, he believes this just adds to the excitement. Producer: Beth Eastwood

  • Robin Dunbar on why we have friends
    Maintaining friendships is one of the most cognitively demanding things we do, according to Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. So why do we bother? Robin has spent his life trying to answer this deceptively simple question. For most of his twenties, he lived with a herd of five hundred gelada monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands. He studied their social behaviour and concluded that an ability to get on with each other was just as important as finding food, for the survival of the species. Animals that live in large groups are less likely to get eaten by predators. When funding for animal studies dried up in the 1980s, he turned his attention to humans. and discovered there’s an upper limit to the number of real friends we can have, both in the real world and on social media. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Katherine Joy on moon rock
    Katherine Joy studies moon rock. She has studied lunar samples that were brought to earth by the Apollo missions (382kg in total) and hunted for lunar meteorites in Antarctica, camping on ice for weeks on end and travelling around on a skidoo. Working at the forefront of the second wave of lunar exploration, she studied remote sensing data from Europe’s first mission to the moon, Smart 1 which launched in 2003 and data from many subsequent missions. She tells Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the moon is the most exciting destination in our solar system and explains what it can tell us about the long history of planet earth. Beneath the magnificent desolation of the moon’s surface, multicoloured rocks contain vital clues about the history of our solar system. Every crater on the moon is evidence of a collision and the chemistry of these rocks tells us when these collisions took place. Katherine’s research supports the idea that a period known as the late heavy bombardment was a particularly turbulent time. Could the late heavy bombardment explain the origin of life on earth? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • DNA detective Turi King
    When a skeleton was unearthed in 2012 from under the tarmac of a car park in Leicester, Turi King needed to gather irrefutable evidence to prove that this really was the body of Richard III, England's infamous medieval monarch. Under the microscope was not only the king's genetic identity, but his entire reputation. Was Richard a ruthless villain, as depicted by Shakespeare? Or did the incoming Tudors spread 'fake news' to besmirch his name? As Jim discovers, clues in his skeletal remains have helped to solve some of these mysteries, and reveal the real Richard III. When she was young, Turi King wanted to be the next Indiana Jones. Her love of archaeology led her to study genetics so she could use ancient DNA to solve historic mysteries. She tells Jim how genetic testing, of both the dead skeleton and his living relatives, provided the vital evidence they needed to identify Richard III. But first, she had to extract his DNA, by pulling out one of his teeth. Producer: Michelle Martin Main image: Turi King Credit: Jonathan Sisson

  • Ewine van Dishoeck on cosmic chemistry
    Ewine van Dishoeck has spent her life studying the space between the stars. Not so long ago, interstellar space was thought to be an empty, sterile void. The idea that there would be organic molecules in interstellar clouds was absurd. Ewine, however, has revealed that there are some astonishingly sophisticated organic molecules in space. The molecules that are needed to form the building blocks of life were formed long before planets emerged from these swirling clouds of interstellar dust. Jim talks to Ewine, winner of the 2018 Kavli Prize for Astrophysics, about quantum chemistry, astronomy and why we need to keep building telescopes. Do Ewine’s discoveries make it more likely that we will find life elsewhere in the universe? Producer: Anna Buckley Main Image: Ewine van Dishoeck receiving the Kavli Prize in astrophysics, 4 September 2018 in Oslo. Credit: Berit Roald / NTB SCANPIX / AFP) / Norway

  • Plastic pollution with Richard Thompson
    A Professor of Marine Biology who was not particularly academic at school, Richard Thompson went to university after running his own business selling greetings cards for seven years. When the rest of the world was waking up to the harm caused to marine life by larger plastic items, such as plastic bags, he searched for tiny fragments of plastic, some no bigger than a human hair; and found them in oceans and on beaches all over the world. He has spent decades studying the harm these micro-plastics might cause to marine life and is concerned. His work on plastics in cosmetics led to a UK ban on micro-beads in shower gels and exfoliating scrubs. And he advised government to ban single use plastic bags from supermarkets. Rather than demonize plastic, however, he believes we need to learn to love it more. Often plastic it is the best material for the job. Now we need to make sure that all plastic products are designed so that they can be easily recycled at the end of their useful life. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Erica McAlister on the beauty of flies
    Dr Erica McAlister, of London's Natural History Museum, talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the beautiful world of flies and the 2.5 million specimens for which she is jointly responsible. According to Erica, a world without flies would be full of faeces and dead bodies. Unlike, for example, butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars spend their time devouring our crops and plants, fly larvae tend to help rid the world of waste materials and then, as adults, perform essential work as pollinators. Yet they are rather unloved by humans who tend to regard them as pests at best and disease vectors at worst. 2019 is international Year of the Fly, and dipterists and entomologists around the world are working to raise the profile of the many thousands of species so far known to science. Erica tells Jim about her work in the museum, cataloguing and identifying new species either sent in from other researchers or discovered by her and her colleagues on swashbuckling trips around the world. Modern gene sequencing techniques are revealing new chapters in the life histories of species, and her collection of 300 year old dead flies continues to expand our knowledge of how the world works. Perhaps in the future, she argues, we will all be eating pasta and bread made from fly-larvae protein, or using small tea-bag like packets of maggots in our wounds to clean out gangrenous infection. Producer: Alex Mansfield

  • Richard Peto on why smoking kills but quitting saves lives
    When Sir Richard Peto began work with the late Richard Doll fifty years ago, the UK had the worst death rates from smoking in the world. Smoking was the cause of more than half of all premature deaths of British men. The fact that this country now boasts the biggest decrease in tobacco-linked mortality is in no doubt partly due to Doll and Peto's thirty year collaboration. Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and until last year co-director of the Clinical Trial Service Unit with Professor Sir Rory Collins, Richard Peto pioneered "big data", setting up enormous randomised clinical trials and then, in a novel approach, combining results in what became known as meta-analyses, amassing unequivocal evidence about how early death could be avoided. He showed how asprin could prevent heart attacks and how the oestrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen really did affect survival rates for breast cancer patients. Results on paper saves lives in the real world, he says, and he's famous for catchphrases like: "death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not" and "you can avoid more deaths by a moderate reduction of a big cause, than by a big reduction in a small cause" as well as "take the big numbers seriously". One of the world's leading epidemiologists, Richard Peto's landmark study with Alan Lopez at the World Health Organisation predicted that a billion people would die from diseases associated with tobacco this century, compared to a hundred million killed by tobacco in the 20th century. The chilling message galvanised governments around the world to adopt anti-smoking policies. And Professor Peto's studies about smoking cessation ("smoking kills, stopping works") provided the public health evidence needed to encourage smokers that, however long they had smoked for, it was always worth quitting. Producer: Fiona Hill

  • Irene Tracey on pain in the brain
    Pain, as we know, is highly personal. Some can cope with huge amounts, while others reel in agony over a seemingly minor injury. Though you might feel the stab of pain in your stubbed toe or sprained ankle, it is actually processed in the brain. That is where Irene Tracey, Nuffield Professor of Anaesthetic Science at Oxford University, has been focussing her attention. Known as the Queen of Pain, she has spent the past two decades unravelling the complexities of this puzzling sensation. She goes behind the scenes, as it were, of what happens when we feel pain - scanning the brains of her research subjects while subjecting them to a fair amount of burning, prodding and poking. Her work is transforming our understanding, revealing how our emotions influence our experience of pain, how chronic pain develops and even when consciousness is present in the brain. Producer: Beth Eastwood

  • Paul Davies on the origin of life and the evolution of cancer
    Physicist, Paul Davies is interested in some of the biggest questions that we can ask. What is life? How did the universe begin? How will it end? And are we alone? His research has been broad and far-reaching, covering quantum mechanics, cosmology and black holes. In the 1980s he described the so-called Bunch-Davies vacuum - the quantum vacuum that existed just fractions of a second after the big bang - when particles were popping in and out of existence and nothing was stable. As the chair of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Post Detection Task Group, he’s the person responsible for announcing to the world when we make contact with aliens. He’s now Regents Professor of Physics at Arizona State University in the American south west where he runs research groups studying the evolution of cancer and the origins of life. Paul Davies talks to Jim al-Khalili about how he applies the principles of physics to these big questions and about how he has worked closely with religious thinkers. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Corinne Le Quéré on the global carbon cycle
    Throughout the history of planet Earth, the element carbon has cycled between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. This natural cycle has maintained the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and has allowed life to exist for billions of years. Corinne Le Quéré is a climate scientist who keeps track of where the carbon comes from and where it goes – all on a truly global scale. Corinne Le Quéré is the founder of the Global Carbon Budget, which each year reports on where carbon dioxide is being emitted and where it is being absorbed around the world. More specifically, she studies the relationship between the carbon cycle and the earth’s climate, and how it is changing. Corinne is Professor of Climate Change Science at the University of East Anglia. After a degree in physics in her native Canada she became aware of the importance of how carbon moves around the planet and the way it controls the Earth’s climate. This took her to studying meteorology and oceanography and in particular a fascination with the role of the huge Southern Ocean in trapping and holding onto carbon. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about modelling how carbon moves around the earth and how she communicates the latest research to the public.

  • Ken Gabriel, Why your Smartphone is Smart.
    How insight with a stick and piece of string led to an engineering adventure taking in spacecraft, military guidance systems and the micro-mechanical devices we use every day in our computers and smartphones. Ken Gabriel now heads up a large non-profit engineering company, Draper, which cut its teeth building the guidance systems for the Apollo space missions, and is now involved in developing both driverless cars and drug production systems for personalised medicine. Ken himself has a career in what he might term ‘disruptive engineering’. His research married digital electronics with acoustics - and produced the microphones in our phones and computers. He has a strong track record in defence research and has also worked for Google, taking some of the military research methods into a civilian start up. This led to the development of a new type of modular mobile phone which has yet to go into production. He tells us why aiming for seemingly impossible goals is a good idea, and how a structured systems based approach can help channel engineering creativity.

  • 2018 Nobel Prize winner, Donna Strickland, on laser physics
    When the first laser was built in 1960, it was an invention looking for an application. Science fiction found uses for these phenomenally powerful beams of light long before real world applications were developed. Think Star Wars light sabres and people being sliced in half. Today lasers are used for everything from hair removal to state of the art weapons. Working with her supervisor Gerard Mourou in the 1980s, the Canadian physicist, Donna Strickland found a way to make laser pulses that were thousands of times more powerful than anything that had been made before. These rapid bursts of intense light energy have revolutionised laser eye surgery and, it’s hoped, could open the doors to an exciting range of new applications from pushing old satellites out of earth’s orbit to treatments for deep brain tumours. Donna tells Jim Al-Khalili why she wanted to work with lasers and what it feels like to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 55 years. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Gwen Adshead on treating the minds of violent offenders
    Whether it’s a news story or television drama, human violence appals and fascinates in equal measure. Yet few of us choose to dwell on what preoccupies the mind of a perpetrator for long. Professor Gwen Adshead, however, thinks about little else. As a Forensic Psychotherapist, she works with some of the most vilified and rejected members of society. They are the violent offenders who are detained in prisons and in secure NHS hospitals, like Broadmoor, whose actions have been linked to their mental illness. Gwen has sought to understand the psychological mechanisms behind their violent behaviour so that she can help them. A pioneer in the field, she provides an environment in which men and women are encouraged to speak the unspeakable and think the unthinkable, in the hope that they will one day be able to change their minds. Producer: Beth Eastwood