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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

  • 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.

  • Richard Henderson zooms in on the molecules of life
    What once took decades, now takes days, thanks to an astonishingly powerful new technique invented by Richard Henderson, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Richard grew up in a remote village in the Scottish borders exploring the countryside and reading the weekly bundles of comics sent by his great aunt, as part of a care package for his family. When he started work at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, a string of Nobel Prizes had been awarded for x-ray crystallography, a technique that had revealed the double helix structure of DNA, and the atomic structure of haemoglobin, vitamin B12 and insulin. But Richard decided to experiment with a radical new approach, using electrons not x-rays. After an early success in 1975, he spent the next 15 years trying to improve the resolution of electron crystallography and, in 1990, he managed to see in astonishing atomic detail how individual atoms were arranged within a particular biological molecule. Next, however, he decided that the future of microscopy lay in different direction and,despite the initial results being very blurry, he embraced a more direct approach to microscopy that involved flash freezing molecules to catch them, mid-movement, as they existed in nature. Undeterred by a steady stream of technical problems, Richard spent the next 17 years refining this new approach to microscopy convinced that it should outperform all the others and, in 2012, he was proved right. Cryo electron microscopy now enables us to see how the individual atoms are arranged within biological molecules that were previously opaque. We are seeing atomic structures that have never been seen before and, since these are the molecules that make life possible, knowing what they look like is worth millions to pharmaceutical companies trying to design drugs to activate or inhibit their action. Richard talks to Jim Al-Khalili about half a century of problem solving and the bold strategic decisions that led him to be awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, together with Joaquim Frank and Jacques Dubochet. Producer: Anna Buckley.

  • Wendy Barclay and the flu virus
    2018 is having the worst flu season for seven years. Influenza continues to make a lot of us feel very ill, and it can of course be fatal. Wendy Barclay, Professor Virology at Imperial College London, has spent many years trying to learn everything she can about the way flu viruses behave. These microscopic infectious organisms are formidable foes - they mutate all the time, making it hard to predict which strain is going to be the one to make us sick and therefore to design effective vaccines against it. Jim al-Khalili talks to Wendy Barclay about how she uses genetics to understand how flu viruses mutate. She explains how she began her scientific career studying physical sciences but then became fascinated by viruses. Her first experience of working with viruses was when she found herself doing nasal swabs of snuffling volunteers when she did her PhD looking for a vaccine against the common cold.

  • Eugenia Cheng on the mathematics of mathematics
    Nothing annoys Eugenia Cheng more than the suggestion that there is no creativity in mathematics. Doing mathematics is not about being a human calculator, she says. She doesn't spend her time multiplying big numbers in her head. She sits in hotel bars drawing (mainly arrows) with a fine quill pen, thinking about how ideas from different areas of mathematics relate to one another and hoping to reveal a unifying, underlying logic to the whole of mathematics. Her area of research, Category Theory, makes algebra seem superficial. And if that makes your head hurt a little, don't worry. Feeling confused is an essential part of doing mathematics. 'You can't make progress without it' Eugenia says. Jim asks Eugenia what drove her to such a high level of abstraction and learns more about her mission to rid the world of maths phobia, by baking. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo credit: Paul Crisanti, PhotoGetGo.

  • Eben Upton on Raspberry Pi
    When Eben Upton was in his twenties, he wanted to get children thinking about how computers think, to boost the number of people applying to read computer science at university. He dreamt of putting a chip in every classroom. The result was Raspberry Pi, a tiny gadget, little bigger than a credit card, that can be hooked up to any keyboard and monitor, to create a programmable PC. And it's cheap. Raspberry Pi Zero, sticker price just �5, was given away free with a computer magazine in 2015. Eben tells Jim how it all began, in his loft with soldering irons and post it notes, and how, by ruthlessly pursuing a philanthropic goal he became CEO of a highly successful business enterprise. Producer: Anna Buckley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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