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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

  • Sharon Peacock on hunting pandemic variants of concern
    Microbiologist Sharon Peacock has led one of the genuine science success stories of the pandemic. Professor Peacock is the founding director of COG-UK, the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium. COG-UK is the network of 600 scientists and labs around the country which has acted as our surveillance system for the appearance and spread of new and dangerous variants of concern. Thanks to Professor Peacock and her colleagues, the UK was way ahead of other countries in establishing a national network of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing and genomic analysis although she was the target of criticism when COG-UK was being set up in the spring of 2020. However, as she tells Jim Al-Khalili, it paid off. For example, it was the sequencing of virus samples by the consortium that last December identified the fast-spreading Alpha or so-called Kent variant. This was the variant responsible for the terrible second wave of deaths and hospitalisations last winter. It was a combination of the overwhelmed hospitals, rocketing infection rates and the discovery of Alpha that persuaded the government to tighten the rules for that Christmas and institute the lockdown in January. Before the pandemic, Sharon Peacock was a pioneer and advocate for the application of pathogen genome sequencing in the National Health Service to tackle the growing menace of antibiotic resistance. She is a consultant in microbiology and Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge. This is not a list of titles and achievements which Sharon could have possibly imagined when she left school at 16, to work full time in her local corner shop. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker

  • Tim Clutton-Brock on meerkats, red deer and evolution
    The huge popularity of meerkats is in no small part down to Professor Tim Clutton-Brock, zoologist and evolutionary biologist of the University of Cambridge. ‘Meerkat Manor’ and many natural history TV documentaries that have followed the lives of these small appealing mongooses were filmed at the field research centre in South Africa which Tim set up three decades ago. Colleagues describe Tim Clutton-Brock as one of the giants in the field of animal behaviour and societies, seeking to explain them from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. He is renowned for his ambitious, long-term studies of populations of animals in the wild. His research follows hundreds of individuals to see how the animals develop and fare over their entire lifetimes and what factors determine their longevity and their success at producing offspring. Among the numerous species which Tim has studied are red deer on the island of Rum in Scotland and meerkats in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. From the minutiae of the lives of many individual animals, his aim has been to see the big picture – explanations that provide a logical framework for what we see in Nature. Professor Clutton-Brock talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his five decades of research; including why sons cost mothers more than daughters, getting close to fighting stags at night, and how to tame a meerkat so she’ll let you ultrasound her belly. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker

  • Tim Spector and personalised diets for long term health
    Many of us take dietary rules for granted such as eating little and often, not skipping meals and keeping a check on our calorie intake. But genetic epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector argues we need to re-evaluate what we think we know about a good diet: diversity in both the types of food we eat and in the unique mix of microbes we nurture in our gut is the most important factor for health. In a multi disciplinary career following early training as a rheumatologist, Tim founded the UK Twins Registry at Kings College London to unravel the extent to which genes contribute to a vast range of human conditions and diseases. But the puzzling differences he observed in identical twins would fuel his current research on the gut microbiome and the discovery that each of us has a unique mix of gut bacteria – in effect a chemical factory that dictates our highly individual responses to different foods. Tim tells Jim Al-Khalili how his research has evolved to successfully develop a new scientific approach to personalised nutrition – through technology that during the pandemic has famously been pressed into service to track Covid symptoms across the UK, and that’s now revealing how a diverse diet has huge implications for Covid-19 outcomes. Producer: Adrian Washbourne

  • The Patrick Vallance Interview
    Could the lessons learnt during the pandemic put us in a stronger position to tackle other big science-based challenges ahead, such as achieving carbon net zero, preserving a diversity of species, and protecting our privacy and slowing the spread of misinformation online? As Chief Scientific Adviser to the government during a pandemic, Patrick Vallance's calm, clear summaries of the state of our scientific understanding of the virus were welcomed by many. But what was going on behind the scenes? In this extended interview with Jim Al-Khalili, Patrick opens up about the challenges involved in presenting scientific evidence to government and together they explore that trickiest of relationships - the one between scientists and politicians. He also looks to the future. Scientists gain prominence during a crisis but the need for scientific input to government is ever present. As head of the new Office for Science and Technology Strategy, based in the Cabinet Office, Patrick hopes to put science and technology at the heart of policy making in government. Science should be as central to government as the economy, he says and tells Jim how he thinks that could be achieved. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • The Life Scientific at 10: What makes a scientist?
    How damaging is the stereotype of white males in white coats? Do scientists think differently? Or do the qualities we associate with being a nerd do them a disservice? Is specialism the best way to solve 21st century problems when so many great discoveries are made in the cracks between the disciplines? In short, what makes a scientist, a scientist? Jim and distinguished guests consider the lessons learnt from nearly 250 leading scientists talking with extraordinary honesty about their life and work. And ask: has the job description changed? Success in science is often defined by making discoveries and publishing papers but, as the pandemic made clear, we also need scientists who can interact with decision makers in government and elsewhere. Do scientists need to learn new skills to participate in the decision making process? Do they (or at least some of them) need to be more outward looking, aware of the world beyond their laboratories and ready to engage? Or do the corridors of power need to open their doors to more people with a scientific training? And, if Britain is to become a science superpower, is it time that scientists stopped being squeamish about making money? Jim's guests are Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser; Nobel Prize winning biologist and Director of the Crick Institute, Prof Sir Paul Nurse; geologist and Royal Institution Christmas Lecturer, Prof Christopher Jackson; and forensic scientist and member of the House of Lords, Prof Dame Sue Black. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Hannah Cloke and predicting floods
    This summer, many parts of the world have seen devastating flooding, from New Orleans and New York, to the UK, Germany and Belgium. More than 300 people lost their lives in floods in central China, including a number who were trapped in a subway train in the city of Zhengzhou. Professor Hannah Cloke of the University of Reading is a natural hazards researcher and hydrologist, who spends her time trying to prevent these terrible losses. She models where flooding is likely to happen and advises governments. Hannah Cloke talks to Jim al-Khalili about how her fascination with the water on the earth goes back to her childhood – her memories of holidays for instance all revolve around swimming or building dams on the beach. She is now passionate about finding new ways of telling the public about the dangers of flooding, which includes writing poetry.

  • Derk-Jan Dijk on the importance of sleep
    How many of you have sleep problems? Maybe it’s waking up in the middle of the night and then not being able to get back to sleep, or waking up too early, or nodding off all too often in front of the TV… or, more embarrassingly, during work meetings? One thing’s for sure: our modern world means that we are not sleeping in the way we used to. Derk-Jan Dijk, Distinguished Professor of Sleep and Physiology at the University of Surrey and Director of the Surrey Sleep Centre, says: we are the only species to extend our day using artificial light, and that has consequences. Jim Al-Khalili talks to Derk-Jan Dijk about the many aspects of sleep that he has studied over the last thirty years – such as how circadian rhythms interact with our sleep cycles, and how sleep changes in people with dementia.

  • Brenda Boardman on making our homes energy efficient.
    When did you last really think about the amount of electricity your household uses? Are all your appliances A rated? Have you switched to LED lights? And what about the Energy Performance Certificate of your home? Is there room for improvement there? For decades now, Brenda Boardman has been thinking about how to reduce the amount of energy we use in our homes. We have Brenda to thank for the rainbow-coloured energy efficiency labels with their A- G ratings that appear on new fridges, freezers, TVs, dishwashers, and washing machines. As a result of these labels and subsequent legislation, it’s no longer possible to buy an energy inefficient fridge or incandescent light bulbs. And there’s a strong incentive for manufacturers to make appliances ever more energy efficient. But the introduction of the Energy Performance Certificate for homes has been less successful. So, is achieving carbon net zero in our homes a realistic proposition? Brenda tells Jim Al-Khalili how much she learnt travelling the world, having just missed out on a place at university. And why in her thirties she decided to study part-time for a degree. Working and bringing up children at the same time, it took a while to complete a degree and then a PhD. But, aged 48, Brenda began her academic career working at the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford and has no regrets about the time she spent getting to know who she was an what the world was like. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • David Eagleman on why reality is an illusion
    Literature student turned neuroscientist, Prof David Eagleman, tells Jim Al-Khalili about his research on human perception and the wristband he created that enables deaf people to hear through their skin. Everything we see, taste, smell, touch and hear is created by a set of electro-chemical impulses in the dark recesses of our brain. Our brains look for patterns in these signals and attach meaning to them. So in future perhaps we could learn to ‘feel’ fluctuations in the stock market, see in infra-red or echo-locate like bats? Each brain creates its own unique truth and David believes, there are no real limits to what we humans can perceive. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Hannah Fry on the power and perils of big data
    ‘I didn’t know I wanted to be a mathematician until I was one’ says Hannah Fry, now a Professor in the Mathematics of Cities at University College London. Her mother pushed her hard at school, coming down on her like a tonne of bricks when she got a C for effort in mathematics. Never mind that she was top of the class. By the time she’d finished a PhD in fluid dynamics, she had realised that she probably wasn’t going to be a hairdresser and pursued her other passion, Formula One. Sadly F1 wasn’t the dream job she’d imagined: all the interesting equations were wrapped up in computer simulations and no further maths was needed. Keen to continue doing mathematics, she joined the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at University College London just as people were starting to use data to understand human behaviour. (Yes. If you zoom out enough and use some mathematical tools, there are parallels between the airflows around racing cars and the way humans behave.) She has studied everything from the mathematics of love to civil unrest, and has advised governments and Deep Mind, the artificial intelligence research lab owned by Google. At a public lecture in Berlin in 2018, she learnt the hard way that it’s a mistake to detach data from its context. Never again will she forget to ask, what do these numbers represent? How else could my algorithms be used? Is this something we, as a society, want? Data and algorithms help humans to solve problems. Big, difficult problems like climate change and Covid-19. Mathematics can help us to police a riot or find love. But the idea that maths and numbers are value-neutral is deeply flawed, Hannah says. The artificial intelligence we create is a reflection of who we are. It can discriminate horribly. But, applied wisely, it could help us to start to overcome our unconscious biases and prejudice. We humans are not perfect. Neither is AI. If we scrutinise the algorithms that now make so many decisions for us and make sure that their priorities are our priorities, then perhaps we can get the best of both. In the Age of the Algorithm, humans have never been more important Hannah Fry tells Jim Al-Khalili about her life as a mathematician and why her attitude to risk and statistics changed dramatically earlier this year. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Tamsin Edwards on the uncertainty in climate science
    Certainty is comforting. Certainty is quick. But science is uncertain. And this is particularly true for people who are trying to understand climate change. Climate scientist, Tamsin Edwards tackles this uncertainty head on. She quantifies the uncertainty inherent in all climate change predictions to try and understand which of many possible storylines about the future of our planet are most likely to come true. How likely is it that the ice cliffs in Antarctica will collapse into the sea causing a terrifying amount of sea level rise? Even the best supercomputers in the world aren’t fast enough to do all the calculations we need to understand what might be going on, so Tamsin uses statistical tools to fill in the gaps. She joined the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 and is currently working on the 6th Assessment Report which will inform the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26. She tells Jim Al-Khalili about her life and work and why she wishes more people would have the humility (and confidence) to consider the possibility that they might be wrong. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Mike Tipton on how our bodies respond to extreme conditions
    As the craze for cold water swimming continues, Jim Al Khalili talks to triathlete and Professor of Extreme Physiology, Mike Tipton. Is it as good for our mental and physical health as many enthusiasts claim? And do the benefits go beyond a rush of adrenaline causing feel good endorphins to be released in our brains? Mike studies why people drown. He wants to understand the precise physiological changes that occur when we expose ourselves to extreme environments and to use that information to help save lives. (Shivering and sweating will only get you so far when it comes to temperature control). Most deaths at sea are caused by the initial cold water shock response, not hypothermia. People gasp for air and swallow lethal quantities of water. So is it a case of kill or cure for cold water swimmers? What does the scientific evidence say about the idea that repeated cold water immersion can boost our immunity and have an anti-inflammatory effect? Mike tells Jim how he came to specialise in this area of science and why he believes we should all be challenging our bodies more. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Nira Chamberlain on how mathematics can solve real-world problems
    When does a crowd of people become unsafe? How well will Aston Villa do next season? When is it cost-effective to replace a kitchen? The answers may seem arbitrary but, to Nira Chamberlain, they lie in mathematics. You can use maths to model virtually anything. Dr Nira Chamberlain is President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, and Principal Mathematical Modeller for the multinational engineering company SNC-Lavalin Atkins. He specialises in complex engineering and industrial problems, creating mathematical models to describe a particular feature or process, and then running simulations to better understand it, and predict its behaviour. Nira is one of just a handful of esteemed mathematicians, and the first black mathematician. to be featured in ‘Who’s Who’, Britain’s book of prominent people. Since 2018, he’s made the Black Power List, which celebrates the UK’s top 100 most influential people of African or African-Caribbean heritage, ranking higher than Stormzy and Lewis Hamilton when he was first listed. Proof, he says, that maths really is for everyone. PRODUCER: Beth Eastwood

  • Helen Scales on marine conservation
    Luminescent bone-eating worms, giant squid and a sea cucumber commonly known as the headless chicken monster: some extraordinary creatures live at the bottom of the sea. For a long time almost everyone agreed the pressure was too intense for any life to exist. Now, it seems, the more we look the more new species we find. But, many fear, marine life would be threatened if plans to extract precious metals from the potato-sized metallic nodules that grow on the seabed are allowed to go ahead. Metals such as copper, manganese and cobalt are in high demand in the manufacture of mobile phones and renewable energy technologies, such as batteries for electric cars, wind turbines and solar panels. Deep sea mining companies argue that we will need these metals to create a carbon Net Zero economy. Meantime, the World Wildlife Fund is pushing for a moratorium on deep sea mining. And several companies agree: including Google, BMW, Volvo and Samsung. Do we need to choose between green and blue? Or is there a third way that protects both the planet and all the riches in our oceans? Marine biologist, Helen Scales talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her life and work: fish watching off an atoll in the South China Sea to assess the extinction risks to the Humphead Wrasse and a research expedition to explore the brilliant abyss. And she warns of the environmental devastation that could be caused if plans to mine the metals on the bottom of the ocean were to be allowed to go ahead. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Peter Goadsby on migraine
    Throbbing head, nausea, dizziness, disturbed vision – just some of the disabling symptoms that can strike during a migraine attack. This neurological condition is far more common than you might think, affecting more people than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined. While medications, to help relieve the symptoms of migraine, have been around for some time, they haven’t worked for everyone. And what happens in the brain during a migraine attack was, until recently, poorly understood. Peter Goadsby is Professor of Neurology at King's College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and is a true pioneer in the field of migraine. Over the course of his career, he has unravelled what happens in the brain during a migraine attack and his insights are already benefiting patients - in the form of new medications that can not only treat a migraine, but also prevent it from occurring. Peter shares this year’s Brain Prize, the world's largest prize for brain research, with three other internationally renowned scientists in the field. Producer: Beth Eastwood

  • Jane Clarke on Protein Folding
    Professor Jane Clarke has had a fascinating double career. Having been a science teacher for many years, she didn’t start her research career until she was 40. Today she is a world-leading expert in molecular biophysics and, in particular, in how protein molecules in the body fold up into elaborate 3D structures, that only then enables them to carry out their roles. How they do this has been one of the fundamental questions in biology and the key to combating some of our most challenging diseases, caused by the misfolding of proteins. Jane talks about her journey, from Tottenham schoolteacher to Cambridge Professor and Fellow of the Royal Society, and how, despite the obstacles she’s encountered along the way, she’s always been driven by her passion to understand the mystery of the machinery of life. Producer: Adrian Washbourne

  • Professor Martin Sweeting, inventor of microsatellites
    When Martin Sweeting was a student, he thought it would be fun to try to build a satellite using electronic components found in some of the earliest personal computers. An amateur radio ham and space enthusiast, he wanted to create a communications satellite that could be used to talk to people on the other side of the world. It was a team effort, he insists, with friends and family pitching in and a lot of the work being done on his kitchen table. Somehow he managed to persuade Nasa to let his microsatellite hitch a ride into space and, after the first message was received, spent more than a decade trying to get a good picture of planet earth. The technology that Martin pioneered underpins modern life with thousands of reprogrammable microsatellites now in orbit around the earth and thousands more due to launch in the next few years to bring internet connections to remote parts of the world. The university spin-off company, Surrey Satellite Technologies Limited (SSTL) that Martin set up in the 1980s with an initial investment of £100 sold for £50 million a quarter of a century later. If his company had been bought by venture capitalists, he says he would probably have ended up making TVs. Instead he developed the satellite technology on which so much of modern life depends. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo Credit: SSTL

  • Theresa Marteau on how to change behaviour
    We all know how to be more healthy. And yet we are also remarkably good at NOT doing what we know is good for us. We keep meaning to get fit, but the sofa seems so much more appealing than a run. We know we shouldn’t have another slice of cake, but we do. Behavioural psychologist, Professor Dame Theresa Marteau wants to understand why, despite the best of intentions, so many of us fail to adopt healthier lifestyles. She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her life and work and why, after studying the evidence she changed her mind about how to change our behaviour. Back in the 90s, it seemed reasonable to assume that telling people they were at high risk of dying would jolt them into eating more healthily and taking more exercise. Now we know better. Thanks in large part to research pioneered by Theresa, we have a much more sophisticated understanding of what drives our behaviour. It turns out that small scale interventions to redesign our environment can exert a big influence on our behaviour by nudging us all into make better decisions, in ways that are beyond our awareness. Spoiler alert - smaller wine glasses really do make you drink less! Responses to Covid-19 show that nations can act rapidly and radically in response to immediate threats to health, even at huge cost. Can we do the same to tackle other threats to global health? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Mark Spencer on how plants solve crimes
    Inside the mind of a forensic botanist, Mark Spencer tells Jim Al-Khalili how he uses plant evidence to help solve crimes. By studying the vegetation at crime scenes, Mark can tell how long a dead body has been laying in the ground. Brambles can be particularly informative, he says. And by looking at tiny traces of plants under the microscope, he can link suspects to victims, or particular locations. Mark tells Jim Al-Khalili how he came to be a forensic botanist. After working in bars and clubs in Soho for many years, he decided to study for a degree in botany and developed a special interest in water moulds. As a curator of the botanical collections at the Natural History Museum in London, he became intimately acquainted with British flora past and present. And, more recently, has spent a lot of time monitoring urban wildlife – recording how the composition of native species and non-native species in the capital is changing, as the global climate changes and the global trade in plants continues. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Sarah Bridle on the carbon footprint of food
    What would happen to our carbon emissions if we all went vegan? Astrophysicist, Sarah Bridle tells Jim Al-Khalili why she switched her attention from galaxies to food. A rising star in the study of extra-galactic astronomy, Sarah was a driving force behind one of the most ambitious astronomy projects of recent times, the Dark Energy Survey of the universe. A few years ago, she started trying to calculate the carbon emissions from different foods so that she could make more informed choices about what she was eating in terms of the impact they were having on climate change. Before long, she was adapting the statistical tools and techniques she had developed to study dark matter and dark energy, to quantify the carbon cost of different foods and lobby government to make food labels indicating carbon cost of foods compulsory. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Richard Bentall on the causes of mental ill health
    For a long time people who heard voices or suffered paranoid delusions were thought to be too crazy to benefit from talking therapies. As a young man working on a prison psychiatric ward, Richard Bentall thought otherwise. Together with a small group of clinical psychologists, he pioneered the use of the talking therapy CBT for psychosis and conducted rigorous randomized controlled trials to find out if and why it worked. Turns out, having a good relationship with your the therapist is at the heart of why therapy succeeds, regardless of the type of therapy practised. Richard talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his quest to understand psychosis and how his own mental health has suffered at times. He's interested in how adverse life events affect our mental health and has shown that people who suffer abuse, bullying and victimization as children are three times more likely to have a psychotic episode later in life. A large survey of our mental health, launched by Richard and colleagues on day one of the first lockdown has revealed that lockdown and Covid-19 has not led to a tsunami of mental illness that many feared. 10% of the population has seen their mental health improve. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Jane Hurst on the secret life of mice
    Mice, like humans, prefer to be treated with a little dignity, and that extends to how they are handled. Pick a mouse up by its tail, as was the norm in laboratories for decades, and it gets anxious. Make a mouse anxious and it can skew the results of the research it’s being used for. What mice like, and how they behave, is the focus of Professor Jane Hurst’s research. Much of that behaviour, she’s discovered, can be revealed by following what they do with their noses - where they take them and what’s contained in the scent marks they sniff. Now William Prescott Professor of Animal Science at the University of Liverpool, Jane has unravelled a complex array of scent signals that underpin the way mice communicate, and how each selects a mate. Within this heady mix of male scent, she’s identified one particular pheromone that is so alluring to females that she named it Darcin, after Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Producer: Beth Eastwood

  • Anne Johnson on the importance of public health
    Public health has been on all of our minds during the pandemic and Prof Dame Anne Johnson has spent more time thinking about it than most of us. She studies the human behaviours that enable viruses to spread and is an architect of a highly influential report on Covid-19 published in July 2020 by the Academy of Medical Sciences, Preparing for a Challenging Winter. For many years Anne was uncertain about a career in medicine. But the time she spent in the slums of Caracas and working as a GP in some deprived areas of Newcastle opened her eyes to the importance of good public health. In the early days of the HIV AIDS epidemic, Anne proved that HIV AIDS was transmitted heterosexually. Her landmark study involved asking people detailed questions about their sex lives and she went on to co-create the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. The survey was banned by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and thought by many to be a scientific enterprise that was doomed to fail. But it continues to this day, informing our sex education policy and public health interventions to control the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. In the noughties, Anne turned her attention to influenza. She was heavily involved in Flu Watch, a community survey that collected a great wealth of data during the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009. It revealed high levels of asymptomatic infections and showed how T cell immunity could offer protection against different strains of influenza. Insights that have proved to be highly relevant to the study of Covid-19 and how it spreads. Anne tells Jim Al-Khalili what gets epidemiologists like her out of bed in the morning and why it’s so important to focus on prevention as well as cure. Producer: Anna Buckley Credit: Academy of Medical Sciences/Big T Images

  • Giles Yeo on how our genes can make us fat
    Many of us think we’re in control of what we eat and that, coupled with what we do, dictates our shape and size. It’s physics after all - if you eat too much and move too little, you put on weight; do the opposite, and you lose it. Genes, the theory goes, have minimal if any effect on our size. But what if we’re wrong? What if our genes have a powerful influence over how we put on weight, and why many struggle to lose it? Over the past two decades, this once controversial idea has gained acceptance and has inspired the work of Giles Yeo. His research on the genetics of obesity at Cambridge University reveals the powerful ways in which our genes, which function within our brains, influence our eating behaviour. These genes are far better suited to times of food scarcity. Fast forward to the modern diet, packed with sugar and fat, and our genetic makeup quickly becomes a recipe for disaster. Producer: Beth Eastwood

  • Cath Noakes on making buildings Covid-safe
    Professor Cath Noakes studies how air moves and the infection risk associated with different ventilation systems. Early in the pandemic, she was invited to join the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE and asked to study the transmission routes for Covid-19. In July, together with many other scientists, she urged governments around the world and the World Health Organisation to recognise that Covid-19 could be transmitted in tiny particles in the air, even if the risk of getting infected in this way was much smaller than the risk from larger particles that travel less far. Her research highlights the importance of good ventilation as a way to stop the spread of infection in indoor environments. Being in a well ventilated space can reduce the risk of inhaling tiny airborne pathogens by 70%. Cath talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her journey from studying industrial processes to infection risk, her work on the airborne transmission of diseases and the challenge of designing buildings that are both well ventilated and energy efficient. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo credit: University of Leeds

  • Chris Jackson on sustainable geology
    Chris Jackson is the kind of scientist who just loves to get out into the landscape he loves. He’s often introduced as ‘geologist and adventurer’. For the past five years he’s been Professor of Basin Analysis in the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering at Imperial College London and he’s now about to move back to the University of Manchester, where he studied as a student, to become Professor of Sustainable Geoscience. As a child growing up in Derby, Chris learned to love the outdoors on family trips to the Peak District. Recently, you may have seen him abseiling into a crater of an active volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a BBC TV series. He’s also been telling us about the link between our planet’s geology and climate change as part of the recent Royal Institution Christmas lectures. Chris talks to Jim al-Khalili about working in the oil and gas exploration industry at the start of his career, searching for massive deposits of salt deep inside the earth and his experience of being a black geologist.

  • Scientists in the Spotlight during the Pandemic
    More of us have been exposed to so more science than ever before during 2020. And our insatiable appetite for science shows no sign of diminishing. Back in 2019, most scientists struggled to get any media attention. Now scientists involved in fighting the pandemic are generating headlines almost daily. On top of working harder than ever to further our understanding of the virus, many have become public figures. Some have been caught in the headlights. Others have stepped into the footlights. Many have found themselves at the centre of highly politicised conversations - not something a scientific training prepares you for. And the fact that everyone is now an expert on R numbers and immunology has created a new set of challenges. Jim Al-Khalili explores how The Life Scientific has changed during the pandemic and asks if, during these difficult times, a new relationship between scientists and the media has been forged. We look to science for certainty (all the more so during uncertain times) but there is no magic moment when scientists can announce with absolute certainty that ‘this is how it is’. Now that science is being reported in real time, revealing all the ups and downs on the bumpy road to discovery is there a danger that our faith in science will be undermined. Or could one legacy of the pandemic be a much greater appreciation of the true nature of scientific knowledge and how it’s formed? Has good journalism helped science to progress by synthesising scientific findings and interpreting what they mean? And, when the pandemic is over, will scientists continue to be part of the national debate? Producer: Anna Buckley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Emma Bunce on the gas giants
    Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester, was inspired to study the solar system as a child by a TV programme that featured Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune. She has spent the last 20 years focusing on the magnetic fields around the outer planets, in particular that of Jupiter. The Earth’s magnetic field interacts with the solar wind to create aurorae, the spectacular Northern lights. Emma’s discovered how aurorae are also produced at Jupiter's poles. Emma Bunce talks to Jim al-Khalili about her fascination with the gas giants, why she has to be patient to check out her theories as missions to the planets are few and far between and how she'd love to work on a spacecraft to Neptune. And in the year when the Royal Astronomical Society marks its 200th anniversary, Emma explains why she's taken on the role of its President.

  • Jane Goodall on living with wild chimpanzees
    Jane Goodall, aged 86, reflects on the years she spent living with the wild chimpanzees in Gombe in eastern Tanzania and tells Jim Al Khalili why she believes the best way to bring about change is to ‘creep into people’s hearts’. Jane shot to fame when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1963 and appeared in a documentary film directed by Orson Welles. Her ground breaking observations introduced us to the social and emotional lives of wild chimpanzees and changed our view of what it is to be human. Images of her younger self play wrestling with baby chimps make Jane feel slightly apprehensive now but at the time she didn’t give it a second thought. However, she did take care to protect her young son. Seeing distressing footage of chimps who were living in captivity, she gave up fieldwork to become an activist, working to liberate chimpanzees that were being used for medical research or sold for meat or as pets, and setting up chimp sanctuaries for animals that were no longer able to live in the wild. For the last thirty years, she has campaigned gently but relentlessly to protect wild animals and wild places, touring the world and performing on stage in front of huge audiences. Her global youth programme, Roots and Shoots has inspired and empowered millions of people to understand and respect nature, leading some to call her ‘the mother Theresa of the environment’. A label she dislikes. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo credit: the Jane Goodall Institute / By Bill Wallauer

  • Liz Seward and the dream of spaceflight
    Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to Liz Seward, Senior Space Strategist for Airbus Defence and Space. Liz's young interest in Science Fiction led to a career designing spacecraft and robots for exploring our own earth, other planets, and the stars. From a library in the US where the science fiction section stood next to the children's section, Liz took inspiration from Robert A. Heinlien and Arthur C. Clarke through a degree in Physics and Space Science at the University of Leicester to begin a career at EADS Astrium (now part of Airbus), initially as a Thermal Engineer. As Liz explains to Jim, thermal engineering lies at the heart of any successful space mission. Any metal box floating in space has to deal with the searing heat of the Sun on one side and the deep, deep freeze of the cosmos on the other. Engineering solutions to cope with these extremes means the difference between triumph and failure. Liz has worked on several missions and international collaborations, including a design for a landing (since de-scoped) on Mercury aboard the current BepiColombo mission due to arrive at Mercury in 2025, and the experimental Areolus satellite that currently keeps our weather forecasters up to speed on global wind dynamics. A large part of Liz's career was spent with the ESA Martian rover, named Rosalind Franklin, which should have been on its way to the red planet this summer, but has been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Nowadays at Airbus, Liz works on the strategy of maximizing commercial potential in space, whilst abiding by issues of responsibility around exploration, pollution, and even space traffic management. What if a launch to Mars collides with a long dead weather satellite on its way there? Or that the first detection of life on Mars turns out to be a cold virus from Stevenage? But as she explains to Jim, miniaturization and cheaper launches suggest a bright future for human activity in space. And one day, it may include vertical satellite launches from Scotland, and even passenger flights from Cornwall. Producer Alex Mansfield, Sound production by Giles Aspen.

  • Frank Kelly on air pollution
    Long before most of us gave air pollution a second thought, Frank Kelly was studying the impact of toxic particles on our lungs. In a pioneering set of experiments on human volunteers in northern Sweden, he proved that pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and particulates, are harmful to our health. And he is the driving force behind an air quality monitoring system in London that is the envy of the world. When in the late 1990s, the UK government was encouraging us all to buy diesel cars to help reduce our carbon emissions, he warned that while diesel engines might be less bad for the planet than petrol engines, they were more damaging to our health. Later Frank and his team provided evidence that the car manufacturers were not telling the truth about emissions from diesel vehicles. As the chair of the Government Medical Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, he has worked tirelessly to try and move air pollution up the political agenda and worked closely with successive Mayors of London to improve air quality in the capital. Changing all the buses from diesel to hybrid or electric vehicles would make a huge difference, he says. But we will also need to get used to relying less on driving our cars to get us from A to B. Producer: Anna Buckley

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

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

  • Brian Greene on how the universe is made of string
    Jim talks a man who studies the universe at the largest and smallest scales imaginable. When Brian Greene was just twelve years old, he wandered round Columbia University in New York looking for someone to teach him mathematics, with a letter of recommendation from his school teacher. While his mother wanted him to make money, his father encouraged Brian to pursue his passion, which was trying to understand the nature of the universe. He studied physics at Harvard University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. While at Oxford he learnt about a bold new Theory of Everything which predicts that the universe is made not of particles but rather tiny strings which vibrate in multiple dimensions. Now a Professor at Columbia University, he has worked on string theory ever since. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the rise and fall of string and superstring theory and why when he first started to think about what would happen to the universe at the end of time, he experienced a feeling of ‘hollow dread’. Producer: Anna Buckley

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

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