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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

  • 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

  • 2018 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner, Sir Gregory Winter
    In an astonishing story of a scientific discovery, Greg Winter tells Jim Al-Khalili how decades of curiosity-driven research led to a revolution in medicine. Forced to temporarily abandon his work in the lab when a road rage incident left him with a paralysed right arm, Greg Winter spent several months looking at the structure of proteins. Looking at the stunning computer graphics made the pain in his arm go away. It also led him to a Nobel Prize winning idea: to ‘humanise’ mouse antibodies. A visit to an old lady in hospital made Greg determined to put his research to good use. He fought hard to ensure open access to the technology he invented and set up a start up company to encourage the development of therapeutic drugs. It took years to persuade anyone to fund his Nobel Prize winning idea that led to the creation of an entirely new class of drugs, known as monoclonal antibodies. In 2018, the market for these drugs, which include Humira for rheumatoid arthritis and Herceptin for breast cancer, was worth $70 billion. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Sue Black on women in tech
    Sue Black left home and school when she was 16. Aged 25, she attended an access course to get the qualifications she needed to go to university to study computer science. It was a bit lonely being the only student in a mini- skirt surrounded by a sea of suits, but she came top of the class nonetheless. She signed up to do a PhD (not really knowing what a PhD was) and worked on the ripple effect in software. What happens when you change one bit of code? Does it mess up everything else? A lot of new software is created by building on and adapting existing programmes so these are important questions to ask. In 2003 she embarked on a three year campaign to save Bletchley Park where ten thousand people built some of the first computers and cracked the Enigma code used by the Nazis during World War Two. More than half of the people who worked there were women. No-one had any previous experience of computers. And more than half a century on, there are fewer women working in tech than there were in the 1960s. Sue is determined to change this backwards step. Perhaps another Bletchley Park recruitment drive is needed to encourage more people, women in particular, to engage with tech and help to build our future? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Jim Al-Khalili on HIS life scientific
    In an ideal (quantum) world, Jim Al-Khalili would be interviewing himself about his life as a scientist but since the production team can’t access a parallel universe, Adam Rutherford is stepping in to ask Jim questions in front of an audience at The Royal Society. Jim and his family left Iraq in 1979, two weeks before Saddam Hussein came to power, abandoning most of their possessions. Having grown up listening to the BBC World Service, he had to drop his ts to fit in at school in Portsmouth where he was one of just three boys in a class of more than a hundred girls. He specialised in nuclear physics and spent fifteen years in front of a computer screen trying to understand an exotic and ephemeral sub-atomic phenomenon known as the halo effect. His ‘little eureka moment’ came in 1996 when Jim discovered that, for the mathematics to add up, these halo nuclei had to be a lot bigger than anyone had thought. It isn’t going to lead to a new kind of non-stick frying pan any time soon but it was exciting, nonetheless. More recently he has become interested in quantum biology. It started as a hobby back in the 1990s when physicists were sceptical and many biologists were unconvinced. Since then evidence has been stacking up. Several studies suggest that lasting quantum mechanical effects could explain photosynthesis, for example. 'It maybe a red herring’ Jim admits but Jim and his team at the University of Surrey are determined to find out if the idea of quantum biology makes sense. Could life itself depend on quantum tunnelling and other bizarre features of the sub-atomic world? Download the special extended podcast to hear questions from past guests on The Life Scientific and some cheeky contributions from members of the Al-Khalili family. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
    Jim Al-Khalili talks to astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Jocelyn Bell Burnell forged her own path through the male-dominated world of science - in the days when it was unusual enough for women to work, let alone make a discovery in astrophysics that was worthy of a Nobel Prize. As a 24-year old PhD student, Jocelyn spotted an anomaly on a graph buried within 100 feet of printed data from a radio telescope. Her curiosity about such a tiny detail led to one of the most important discoveries in 20th century astronomy - the discovery of pulsars - those dense cores of collapsed stars. It's a discovery which changed the way we see the universe, making the existence of black holes suddenly seem much more likely and providing further proof to Einstein's theory of gravity. Jocelyn Bell Burnell was made a Dame in 2008 and a year later became the first ever female President of the Institute of Physics. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Clive Oppenheimer on the volcanic offerings of our angry earth
    Clive Oppenheimer has, more than once, been threatened with guns (a Life Scientific first?). He's dodged and ducked lava bombs and he's risked instant death in scorching and explosive eruptions. He studies volcanoes; science that by necessity, requires his presence at the volcanic hotspots of the world. It was at the lip of a bubbling lava crater on one of the earth's most active volcanoes, Mount Erebus in Antarctica, that he met the film and documentary maker Werner Herzog. The two became friends and went on to make a volcano movie together. Clive, who's Professor of Volcanology at the University of Cambridge, tells Jim academics and film makers share the same complementary skill set: thorough research, slick location recording and a familiarity with rejection as 9 out of 10 film pitches (or grant proposals) are turned down! As well as a forensic fascination with the dramatic impact of ancient and modern volcanism on the landscape, Clive discusses how multiple scientific disciplines are now needed to understand the complex historical, archaeological, climatological and environmental impacts of the earth's volcanic eruptions. He wades into the bitter academic row about what did it for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago: meteorite or volcanism? And he details the importance of Mount Pinatubo's 1991 eruption in the Philippines for our deeper understanding of anthropogenic climate change. Producer: Fiona Hill

  • Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock
    Maggie Aderin-Pocock has been fascinated by space since she was a young child. When she was six years old she caught the bug when she saw a picture of an astronaut on the front of a book in her primary school library. As a teenager she built her own telescope. After studying physics and mechanical engineering, Maggie worked in industrial research before returning to her first love, astronomy, when she managed the building of an instrument on a giant telescope in Chile. Now, she spends her time presenting TV programmes, in particular the BBC’s Sky at Night, and inspiring the next generation of schoolchildren to become scientists. Maggie’s come a long way since her own childhood. Her parents separated when she was four years old, and their prolonged custody battle meant she attended 13 schools in as many years. In addition, she was diagnosed as dyslexic and put in remedial classes where she wasn't ever expected to achieve academically.

  • Banning chemical weapons with Alastair Hay
    Alastair Hay, now Emeritus Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds, is a chemist who’s had a dual career as an academic researcher and an outspoken activist and campaigner. The common theme has been the application of his knowledge to how chemicals affect our lives, in the workplace and during conflicts. Alastair Hay is best known for his work to rid the world of chemical weapons, a concern about this horrific form of warfare that goes back to the use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War. His work culminated in the Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997, outlawing their production, stockpiling and use. He spent his childhood in Zimbabwe and returned to the UK when he won a scholarship from Shell to study chemistry in London in the late 1960s. After a spell working on the biochemistry of animals, including a stint at London Zoo where one of his more difficult jobs was taking blood from penguins, he moved on to studying the effects of chemicals on humans. Jim al-Khalili talks to Alastair Hay about his love of chemistry and his shock to see that chemical weapons are still being used over twenty years after the signing of the Convention.

  • Formula One engineer Caroline Hargrove
    How do you convince Formula One racing drivers that they are speeding round the race track at Le Mans when, in fact, they are sitting in a simulator in the McLaren offices in Woking? Apparently it’s all about getting the vibrations right. Racing drivers really do drive by the seat of their pants. They’re also highly attuned to the sound f the engine and instinctively associate different sounds with different speeds. When Caroline Hargrove started trying to build a driveable model of a Formula One car many thought it just wouldn’t be possible. Today, all the major manufacturers of Formula One cars use simulators to help them design faster cars and improve driver performance. Caroline talks to Jim Al-Khalili about how she stumbled upon a job in Formula One and stayed for twenty years. And why she now wants to build digital twins for human beings. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Mike Stratton and cancer genes
    When Michael Stratton was a young doctor he would diagnose cancer by studying tissue samples under a microscope. However, over the past 30 years he’s been advancing our understanding of this disease down at the level of the genes themselves, so that we are now able to read the DNA of a cancer. This had led to new diagnoses and treatments. Mike Stratton’s first foray into genetics culminated in the discovery of the BRCA 2, one of the main genes involved in hereditary breast cancer. Following this painstaking detective work he and the Institute for Cancer Research became embroiled in a patent dispute with his collaborators. And at the beginning of the 21st century, he set himself the hugely ambitious goal of identifying all the mutations in DNA that led to every type of cancer. His critics said it was a crazy idea, but Mike and his colleagues at the Sanger Centre, just outside Cambridge have done it.

  • Detective of the mind Dr Suzanne O'Sullivan
    Suzanne O'Sullivan has been described as “a detective of the mind”. She’s a neurologist who helps some patients with the strangest of symptoms, from so-called ‘Alice in Wonderland’ seizures to those suffering from temporary blindness or paralysis, and that turn out to originate in their subconscious minds. By the time these people get to see Dr Suzanne O’Sullivan they’ll often have been to many specialists, undergone a range of tests and given a variety of diagnoses. Suzanne’s an expert on epilepsy, and the unusual ways that seizures can manifest themselves, who currently works at University College Hospital in London and for the Epilepsy Society. As well as diagnosing and treating patients, Suzanne has also written books about some of her most memorable, and frankly bizarre, cases. Her first book, It’s All in Your Head, which won the Wellcome Book prize in 2016, describes many of her case studies involving patients whose illnesses are psychosomatic. But, she argues that this is an area of medicine that has not been studied deeply enough yet. After all, for the patients themselves, these debilitating symptoms are all too real.

  • Noel Fitzpatrick on becoming a supervet
    For all his success as a Supervet on TV and as a pioneering orthopedic surgeon, Noel Fitzpatrick insists that his life has been full of failures. He didn’t enjoy studying for his specialist vet exams and spent ten years working as an actor before setting up his veterinary practice, Fitzpatrick Referrals. Determined to offer animals access to medical treatments and facilities that are more commonly reserved for humans, he has pioneered several new surgical procedures for small animals, specialising in spinal injuries and creating bionic limbs. The prosthetic leg he made for a German shepherd dog Storm was the first of its kind, inspired by the method that was used to rebuild the arm of one of the victims of the 7/7 bombing in London. And he built the world’s first prosthetic paws for a cat called Oscar whose feet had been crushed by a combine harvester. Now he’s on a mission to break down the barriers between human and veterinary medicine so that both animals and humans can benefit from cutting edge research, without the need to do experiments on animals. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Jacqueline McGlade on monitoring the environment from space
    An ecologist who fell in love with computing, Jacqueline McGlade pioneered the use of satellites study the state of the global environment. Today thanks to programmes like Google Earth, we can see the surface of the earth in great detail. But when Jacqueline was a student, earth observation satellites were used for weather forecasting and not much else. Early in her career, she used satellite images to study fish populations, thinking it would be useful to know not only how many fish were in the sea but where they were likely to be. Few believed such an ambitious undertaking would be possible but, after a spell in Silicon Valley, Jacqueline found a way. The moving maps she created changed the way oceanographers and fishermen viewed the sea. In the early 1980s, she started trying to model the global climate using some of the earliest supercomputers and a roomful of un-networked PCs. As Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, she introduced monitoring systems for a range of environmental indicators and insisted that the information provided by Europe’s first earth observation satellite should be made available to everyone for free. She retired from her latest job, as chief scientist to the United Nations Environment Programme last year and now lives in a mud hut in the Masai Mara, having married a Masai chief. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Rachel Mills exploring the sea floor
    Professor Rachel Mills is a marine geochemist who studies the sea floor and hydrothermal vents, where water erupts from the earth's crust at 360 degrees. The thick plumes emit many metals such as copper, gold, iron and rare earth minerals that are deposited on the sea bed. Rachel's career has taken her all over the world and 4km deep under the ocean in small submersibles. These journeys are exciting and terrifying as samples are taken to understand how the metals travel many thousands of miles. The metals are involved in creating nutrients that supply the ocean's food chain and control carbon uptake. There is also a lot of interest in mining the valuable deposits but can this be done without upsetting the ocean's eco-system?

  • Frank Close and particle physics
    Frank Close is a theoretical particle physicist and a pioneer of popular writing about physics. His first book aimed at a non-specialist audience, The Cosmic Onion, was published 35 years ago. His latest, Half Life, is the story of physicist and spy, Bruno Pontecorvo. Frank has also had a distinguished research career studying the fundamental structure of matter. It was during his PhD in the late 60s that quarks were discovered. These are the fundamental entities we now know make up particles such as protons and neutrons, which in turn make up the nuclei of atoms, and therefore all of us and everything around us. Frank Close went on to make a name for himself studying what holds the quarks together inside matter. Among his many best-selling books was his thorough account of the controversial claims about the discovery of cold fusion - the idea of unlimited fusion energy in a test tube - and which brought the remarkable story to the world's attention in his book Too Hot to Handle. Frank has spent most of his working life around the Thames Valley - at the Rutherford Appleton Labs, and now at the University of Oxford where is an emeritus professor of physics. In front of an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival Jim al-Khalili discusses physics and writing with Frank Close.

  • Sheena Cruickshank on the wonders of the human immune system
    Traditional descriptions of the human immune system bristle with military analogies. There are "lines of defence" against "enemy invaders"; "border guards" at "strategic points. And when barriers are breached, there's "a call to arms". That's before you mention Natural Killer Cells. But Professor of Immunology and Public Engagement at the University of Manchester, Sheena Cruickshank, tells Jim that as well as the war-like descriptions, our immune system is now being understood in terms of its capacity for diplomacy too. Jaw-jaw as well as War-war. Our immune system has to know when to tolerate the trillions of microbes that live on us and in us, to hold fire but also to know when full-scale immune activation is required. Central to Sheena's research is what's behind the switch from "watch and wait" to "attack mode" at key barrier sites in our bodies. Her aim is to find tools that will help diagnose and manage chronic inflammatory diseases and beyond that, to identify ways to strengthen peoples' own immunity and ultimately make them better. But she's always wanted science to have a strong presence outside of the laboratory and she believes strongly that researchers have a duty to reach out beyond their institution to the community about their work. If they do that, she tells Jim, everybody benefits and the science too, will be enriched. Producer: Fiona Hill.

  • John Taylor on being an inventor
    John Crawshaw Taylor is a prolific inventor who specialises in designing and manufacturing thermostatic controls. His ingenious integrated control system is found in in one billion electric kettles worldwide, enabling kettles to switch off automatically when the water boils, stopping the element from boiling dry and preventing plastic kettles from catching fire under a worst case scenario. 600 million of his safety controls for the small electric motors have been sold to date, and are used mainly to prevent the motor in windscreens wipers from overheating. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his struggle with severe dyslexia at school, the art of inventing and why he doesn't believe in selling an idea. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Cat Hobaiter on communication in apes
    Dr Catherine Hobaiter studies how apes communicate with each other. Although she's based at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, she spends a lot of her time in the forests of Uganda, at the Budongo Research Centre. There, she's endlessly fascinated by the behaviour of great apes. Cat Hobaiter tells Jim al-Khalili about the difficulties of carrying out research on chimps in the wild. It can take years to win the trust of the apes. She says that her approach is to adopt the attitude of a moody teenager. Look bored and the chimps will ignore her, but at the same time she is watching them closely. Her particular research area is in understanding not the sounds that apes make, but their gestures. From her observations she's found that they use around 80 different gestures - many of which are common, in the sense that they have the same meaning, across different species like chimps and bonobos. One thing she and her team hope to learn from these studies is how we humans have evolved spoken language.

  • Caroline Dean reveals the genetic secrets of flowering
    As a girl, Caroline Dean would watch the cherry trees in her childhood garden unfurl their pink and white blossom and wonder how it was that they all flowered at exactly the same time. She tells Jim Al-Khalili that the flowering synchronicity she observed was to spark a life-long fascination with the timing mechanisms of plant reproduction, in particular with a process called vernalisation - how plants respond to extreme cold. Professor Dame Caroline Dean of the John Innes Centre in Norwich has focussed right down to the molecular level, homing in on the individual cells and genes that flip the flowering switch. For thirty years running her own lab Caroline has been asking (and answering) questions like why some plants need a period of cold before they can flower the following Spring, how plants know that the cold winter is really over and it's safe to flower and, when winter is so different around the globe, how do plants adapt? Her team focused in on one gene - with the snappy title of Flowering Locus C or FLC - and by delving into the world of epigenetic regulation, they uncovered the processes by which this gene was slowly turned off over winter, enabling the plant to flower the following spring. These ground-breaking discoveries have profound implications for human health and for food security. As Caroline tells Jim, the cellular memory system behind a plant gene flicked to the "off" position, is very similar to the switching and expression of genes that cause diseases like cancer in the human body. And as the climate warms and fluctuating temperatures affect our seasons, her work will deepen understanding of the molecular basis for flowering times - vital for farmers and plant breeders to adapt and protect our food supply. Producer: Fiona Hill.

  • Carlo Rovelli on why time is not what it seems
    Carlo Rovelli first became interested in the nature of time when he took LSD as a young man. Later he became curious about the world of the almost absurdly small, where time has no meaning and space is grainy. He took seven years to complete his undergraduate degree, having spent a lot of time protesting against the political establishment, falling in love and travelling. An extended hippy trip across north America was, he says, perhaps the most useful time of his life. All this rebelling taught him the value of seeing the world in a different way and the benefits of challenging the status quo. In the end he concluded it was easier, and more meaningful, to challenge Einstein's understanding of time, than it was to overthrow the government. He's a theoretical physicist who became a household name when his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics became an unexpected international bestseller. His concise, and poetic, introduction to the laws and beauty of physics has sold more than a million copies. He's also a pioneer of one of the most exciting and profound ideas in modern physics, called loop quantum gravity. Early in his research career, he rejected more mainstream approaches to unifying physics (string theory for example) in favour of trying to understand the quantum nature of gravity. No one in Italy was working on this when he started to think about it in the early 1980s, and his PhD thesis was effectively unsupervised. The quantum world he studies is a billion trillion times smaller than the smallest atomic nucleus. When understood at this absurdly tiny scale, the world is 'a frenzied swarming of quanta that appear and disappear'. It makes no sense to talk about time as we understand it, or even things. The world is made up of a network of interacting events, 'kisses not stones', that are linked together by loops. And the evidence that's needed to prove the theory of loop quantum gravity will be found by studying the white holes that emerge when a black hole dies. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Callum Roberts on the urgent need for marine conservation
    Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Biology at the University of York, learnt to dive in a leaky wet suit in the North Sea when he was a boy. As a student, he was introduced to the extraordinary diversity of marine life on a coral reef in the Red Sea. His job was to count different species of fish but he also noticed several different species of fish working together to defend a common resource, lurid green algal lawns. Life on coral reef is notoriously competitive and collaboration on this scale was unexpected. In 1991 he wrote a ground-breaking paper about marine reserves showing how it is possible to have our fish and eat them. It was a radical suggestion at the time. Now many countries are committed to protecting 10% of the ocean in this way by 2020. Aiming to maintain fish stocks in their current state is, Callum says, ridiculously unambitious. On sabbatical at Harvard University, he started reading historical accounts by pirates, travellers and fishermen and his eyes were opened wider still to just how rich marine life could be. As early as the 12th century laws were being put in place to help preserve fishing stocks. Two hundred years ago off the coast of Britain a diverse array of sea fans and sponges covered the sea floor. There were millions of oysters and scallops the size of dinner plates. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Stephen Reicher on the psychology of crowds
    Stephen Reicher is a social psychologist at St Andrews University who has spent decades understanding how people behave when in a group. To do so, he's often had to immerse himself among the subjects of his studies, from the Bristol riots in 1980 to the millions of Hindu pilgrims who go to the Magh Mela. Stephen Reicher talks to Jim al-Khalili about the positive and the negative sides to a crowd and the role of a leader of a crowd. He explains how he gave up a place to read medicine, to the annoyance of his parents, to study psychology. Now, he says, his mother would be proud of him as he's publishing research on the health benefits of attending mass gatherings.

  • Clare Grey on the Big Battery Challenge
    Next time you swear at the battery in your mobile phone, spare a thought for the chemist, Clare Grey. Having developed a new way of looking inside solids (using nuclear magnetic resonance), her interest in batteries was sparked by a man from Duracell who asked her a question at an academic conference, and charged up by some electrochemists she met playing squash. For the last twenty years she has sought to understand the precise chemistry of the rechargeable lithium ion battery. And her insights have led to some significant improvements. In 2015 she built a working prototype of a new kind of battery for electric cars, the lithium air battery. If this laboratory model can be made to run on air not oxygen, it could transform the future, by making electric cars more energy efficient and considerably cheaper. Clare talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the years she has spent studying rechargeable batteries, seeking to understand, very precisely, the chemical reactions that take place inside them; and how this kind of fundamental understanding can help us to make batteries that are fit for the 21st century. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Ailie MacAdam on the biggest construction project in Europe.
    Ailie's first engineering challenge was working out how to get the solids to settle in a mixture of raw sewage at a treatment plant in Stuttgart. Years later, she worked on the Boston Big Dig and realised that large scale construction projects were her thing. A seven lane highway was rerouted underground and a bridge built using blocks of expanded polystyrene to support the on off ramps. When Bostonians complained about the vibrations from all the drilling, their beds were put on springs. She returned home to the UK to run the transformation of St Pancras Station in London, creating an international terminal for Eurostar while preserving the historic features of the original building. Preventing 690 cast iron pillars that supported the platform from 'breaking like carrots' was a particular challenge, as was keeping the Midlands mainline running. Next she took on Crossrail and was in charge of the challenging central London section, with a budget of �7.5 billion. Aware that diverse teams tend to be more successful she recruited a top team of engineers in which 30 % were women. Ailie talks to Jim about how she rose from doing experiments with sewage to become one of the most successful engineers in the UK. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • John Burn and the genetics of cancer
    Professor Sir John Burn, has made Newcastle on Tyne a centre for research on genetics and disease. He was one of the first British doctors to champion the study of genes in medicine back in the 1980s. More recently his research with families with a propensity to develop certain cancers has shown the benefits of taking aspirin as a prevention against the disease. John Burn was part of the team that set up the Centre for Life on derelict industrial land near the River Tyne, where the public can watch research in action. It now attracts a quarter of a million visitors each year to its public science centre. John Burn was knighted for services to medicine in 2010 and was one of first 20 'local heroes' to have a brass plaque on Newcastle Quayside in 2014, alongside Cardinal Hume, Alan Shearer and Ant and Dec.