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BBC World Service - Discovery


Explorations in the world of science.


  • Sodium
    Sophie Scott on why sodium powers everything we do, and why it might be the key to a new generation of pain killers. Putting sodium into water is one of the most memorable experiments from school chemistry lessons. It's this ability to react ferociously with water which is the starting point for sodium's key role in powering all of biology. Simply, without sodium we wouldn't exist. It helps provide the electricity that allows us to move, breathe, think. Our understanding of sodium could help in the search for analgesics with few side effects for severe pain. Recent discoveries of families who feel searing pain with mild warmth, or those who feel no pain at all even in childbirth, have opened up new avenues in pain research. Their rare genetic mutations change the way sodium works in their bodies: from this new knowledge neuroscientists are developing drugs that could give rise to a much needed new generation of pain killers. Image: Traditional glass salt cellar (Credit: Getty Images)

  • Iron
    Beyond war and peace, Dr Andrew Pontzen explores how iron has shaped human biology and culture. From weapons to ploughshares, iron holds a key place as the element for the tools of the rise and destruction of human civilisations. As a grand scale shaper of our towns and ciities and our culture it is unmatched. And yet it also has a major role to play in living cells. Andrew Pontzen, Reader in Cosmology at University College London. explores iron's sometimes ambivalent history and also delves deep inside ourselves to understand how iron is key to keeping us all alive. Dr Kate Maguire, astrophysicist at Queens University, Belfast, explains how the iron on earth was formed in distant exploding stars. Andrew talks to Professor Marcos Martinón-Torres about how our ancestors first used this metal. And Dr Caroline Shenton-Taylor, of the University of Surrey, discusses one of iron’s greatest and most mysterious properties – magnetism. In blood and bodies what does iron actually do - could any other element perform its life giving functions? Andrew finds out from Chris Cooper, Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at Essex University, how iron is the key atom in haemoglobin that transports oxygen. And Dr Kathryn Robson, from Oxford University’s Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, describes the condition haemochromatosis,, in which people have too much iron. which runs in Andrew's family. Picture: Rusty screws, Credit: Getty Images/hudiemm

  • Fluorine
    Chemist Andrea Sella tells the story of how the feared element ended up giving us better teeth, mood and health. Many chemists have lost their lives trying to isolate the periodic table’s most chemically reactive element – hence the nickname “the tiger of chemistry”. Fluorine can react with almost all elements. As an acid, hydrofluoric acid, it will dissolve glass. Yet chemists have been able to tame the beast – creating remarkable and safe uses for it by utilising its reactive nature that lets it make strong bonds with other chemicals. One in five medicines contain fluorine atoms, including one of the most widely used antidepressants Prozac, fluorinated anaesthetic, cancer medication, the cholesterol regulating drug Lipitor and the antibacterial Cipro. Though perhaps it is most famous for being added to toothpaste in the form of fluoride and in some places, drinking water. Fluoride protects our teeth from decay. But despite the benefits, it has a history of receiving a bad press. During the cold war, false allegations were made that adding fluoride to the water supply was a communist plot designed to weaken the American people. Stanley Kubrick satirised these fears in the film Dr. Strangelove in 1964. The suspicion around fluoride has not gone away and many people feel negatively towards any tinkering with something as fundamental as our water supply. Professor Andrea Sella from University College London examines the effects of fluorine and looks to current and future uses of the element that chemists clearly respect – but no longer fear. Picture: Toothpaste, Credit: artisteer/Getty Images

  • Hypatia: The Murdered Mathematician
    Naomi Alderman's tale is a murder mystery, the story of Hypatia, the mathematician murdered by a mob in the learned city of Alexandria, around the year 415 CE. Hypatia was a communicator of science, tackling difficult maths and teaching it to her students. This was incredibly important work. It was enough, at the time, to make her Alexandria’s pre-eminent mathematician, and probably therefore the leading mathematician in the world. And there’s historical evidence that Hypatia made some discoveries and innovations of her own. She invented a new and more efficient method of long division. In a time before electronic calculators, the actual business of doing sums was an arduous part of engineering or astronomy, and any improvement in efficiency was very welcome. All quite innocent science, so why did Hypatia end up being murdered by a mob? Natalie Haynes tells the inside story to Naomi Alderman. And Professor Edith Hall discusses Hypatia's legacy. Picture: Death of Hypatia of Alexandria (c 370 CE - March 415 AD), Credit: Nastasic/Getty Images

  • Descartes' "Daughter"
    There's a story told about French philosopher René Descartes and his daughter. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain’s curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life sized automaton inside. He's so shocked he throws the "daughter" overboard. Descartes championed a view of nature in which everything happened because of the physical forces acting between its constituent parts: nature as a machine. It was a coolly rational vision that caught the scientific spirit of the seventeenth century. He was fascinated by automata and what they tell us about what it is to be human. Philip Ball tells the story of Descartes and his "daughter" and his writings about humans and machines. He finds out more about the thirst for mechanical wonders and what it said about theories of the human body in Descartes’ time, from historian of science Simon Schaffer of Cambridge University. And Kanta Dihar of the Centre for the Future of Intelligence also at Cambridge University talks about current research into AIs, driven purely by some mechanism of formal logic, that can mimic the capabilities of the human mind, and how contemporary culture explores our fears about them. Picture: People And Robots Modern Human And Artificial Intelligence Futuristic Mechanism Technology, Credit: Getty Images