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.
Sir Harry Bhadeshia on the choreography of metals
The Life Scientific zooms in to explore the intricate atomic make-up of metal alloys, with complex crystalline arrangements that can literally make or break structures integral to our everyday lives.Professor Sir Harry Bhadeshia is Professor of Metallurgy at Queen Mary University of London and Emeritus Tata Steel Professor of Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge. He’s been described as a ‘steel innovator’ – developing multiple new alloys with a host of real-world applications, from rail tracks to military armour.Harry’s prolific work in the field has earned him widespread recognition and a Knighthood; but it's not always been an easy ride...
From his childhood in Kenya and an enforced move to the UK as a teenager, to the years standing up to those seeking to discredit the new path he was forging in steel research - Jim Al-Khalili discovers that Harry's achievements have required significant determination, as well as hard work.Produced by Lucy Taylor.
05/12/2023 • 28 minutes 40 seconds
Cathie Sudlow on data in healthcare
“Big data” and “data science” are terms we hear more and more these days. The idea that we can use these vast amounts of information to understand and analyse phenomena, and find solutions to problems, is gaining prominence, both in business and academia.
Cathie Sudlow, Professor of Neurology and Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, has been at the forefront of enabling health-related research using ever-increasing datasets. She tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili why this type of research matters, how the COVID-19 pandemic changed attitudes towards data in healthcare, and why the NHS gives the UK a big advantage when it comes to population-wide studies.
Over the course of her career, Cathie has held a variety of roles at different organisations, and she is currently Chief Scientist and Deputy Director at Health Data Research UK. She believes that there is no room for prima donnas in science, and wants her field to be open and collaborative, to have the most impact on p
28/11/2023 • 28 minutes 28 seconds
Sir Michael Berry on phenomena in physics' borderlands
Professor Jim Al-Khalili meets one of Britain's greatest physicists, Sir Michael Berry. His work uncovers 'the arcane in the mundane', revealing the science that underpins phenomena in the world around us such as rainbows, and through his popular science lectures he joyfully explains the role of quantum mechanics in phones, computers and the technology that shapes the modern world. He is famed for the 'Berry phase' which is a key concept in quantum mechanics and one Sir Michael likes to explain through an analogy of holding a cat upside and dropping it, or parallel parking a car.
Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili
Studio Producer: Tom Bonnett
Audio Editor: Gerry Holt
21/11/2023 • 28 minutes 11 seconds
Professor Sarah Harper on how population change is remodelling societies.
People around the world are living longer and, on the whole, having fewer children. What does this mean for future populations? Sarah Harper CBE, Professor in Gerontology at the University of Oxford, tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili how it could affect pensions, why it might mean we work for longer, and discusses the ways modern life is changing global attitudes to when we have children, and whether we have them at all. Fertility and ageing have been Sarah's life's work and she tells her story of giving up a career in the media to carry out in-depth research, and going on to study population change in the UK and China, setting up the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and later becoming a Scientific Advisor to UK Government.
Presenter: Jim Al-Khalili
Producer: Tom Bonnett
14/11/2023 • 28 minutes 14 seconds
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on human evolution and parenthood
Our primate cousins fascinate us, with their uncanny similarities to us. And studying other apes and monkeys also helps us figure out the evolutionary puzzle of what makes us uniquely human. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s work brings a female perspective to this puzzle, correcting sexist stereotypes like the aggressive, philandering male and the coy, passive female.
Sarah is Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of California, Davis, and studies female primate behaviour to create a richer picture of our evolutionary history, as well as what it means to be a woman or a parent today.
Her overarching aim is to understand the human condition, a goal she initially planned to pursue by writing novels. Instead, she found her way into science: her groundbreaking study of infanticide among langur monkeys in northern India overturned assumptions about these monkeys’ murderous motivations.
Later in her career, she looked into reproductive and parenting strategies across species. We humans
07/11/2023 • 30 minutes 3 seconds
Edward Witten on 'the theory of everything'
The Life Scientific returns with a special episode from the USA; Princeton, New Jersey, to be precise.
Here, the Institute for Advanced Study has hosted some of the greatest scientific minds of our time - Einstein was one of its first Professors, J. Robert Oppenheimer its longest-serving director - and today's guest counts among them.
Edward Witten is Professor Emeritus at the Institute and the physicist behind M-Theory, a leading contender for what is commonly referred to as ‘the theory of everything’, uniting quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of gravity.
He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about a career that’s spanned some of the most exciting periods in modern theoretical physics - and about one particular problem that's both obsessed and eluded him since his days as a student…
Produced by Lucy Taylor.
31/10/2023 • 28 minutes 37 seconds
Introducing… Uncharted with Hannah Fry
Behind every line on a graph, there lies an extraordinary human story. Mathematician Hannah Fry is here to tell us ten of them.
02/10/2023 • 14 minutes 26 seconds
Alex Antonelli on learning from nature's biodiversity to adapt to climate change
With the world's biodiversity being lost at an alarming rate, Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has made it his life's mission to protect it. He is a bio-geographer revealing how changes to the Earth's landscape, such as the formation of mountain ranges and rainforests, leads to the evolution of new species and causes plants, fungi and animals to move around the world.
His work is a masterclass in joined-up thinking, bringing together different fields of research by starting conversations between scientists who would rarely talk to one another. Together, they paint a more holistic picture of how our planet's biodiversity has developed in the hope of informing how we can protect it in the future.
Alex tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili about a life spent in the wild, beginning with his earliest memories of growing up in Brazil cataloguing life in the Atlantic Rainforest. That passion is still with him today. We've only scratched the surface of un
19/09/2023 • 28 minutes 18 seconds
Paul Murdin on the first ever identification of a black hole
Astronomer Paul Murdin believes a good imagination is vital for scientists, since they're so often dealing with subjects outside the visible realm.
Indeed, over a long and successful career his imagination has taken him on a journey through space, discovering various new and unusual celestial occurrences - notably the first successful identification of a black hole, Cygnus X-1.
Paul tells Jim Al-Khalili how he spent much of his career at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, working with astronomers around the world on some of the most advanced telescopes ever built. He headed up the Astronomy section of the UK’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, was Director of Science for the British National Space Centre and even has an asteroid named after him.
This list of achievements is testament to the fact that Paul has never let his disability hold him back; a leg brace and walking sticks have been part of his life since contracting polio in childhood. But he maintains that as lo
12/09/2023 • 32 minutes 13 seconds
Bahija Jallal on the biotech revolution in cancer therapies
Some of the most complex medicines available today are made from living cells or organisms - these treatments are called biopharmaceuticals and in this episode of The Life Scientific Dr Bahija Jallal, CEO of Immunocore, shares her story of leaving her home in Casablanca, Morocco to become a world leader in developing biopharmaceutical cancer treatments.
She tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili that she has always found herself ahead of the curve. When she began in oncology, the study of cancer, the common treatment was chemotherapy which attacked all the cells in an affected area. Her first studies into cancer treatments were looking at how certain therapies could focus in on the cancerous cells and move away from what she describes as the 'sledgehammer' of traditional chemotherapy.
It was an early step in what became known as targeted cancer therapies, and it set Bahjia on course for a career dedicated to developing innovative drugs to improve cancer patients' lives. Through a deep under
05/09/2023 • 28 minutes 17 seconds
Sir Colin Humphreys on electron microscopes, and the thinnest material in the world
How much more of our world could we understand, if we could take stock of it, one atom at a time? If we could see the structure of individual molecules, understand the complex ways they interact with one another, and witness first-hand how they move?
These are questions for electron microscopy, and more broadly, for Materials Science.
Materials scientists peer into the atomic structure of the stuff that makes up our world, to figure out the relationships between the structure of a material, and its resulting properties. They study how to change materials at the molecular level, to improve the way they function in the real world. It’s an interdisciplinary field that spans the physics and chemistry of matter, engineering, and industrial manufacturing. It’s led to an enormous number of advances, from nanotechnology to aerospace engineering, pioneering medical innovations to quantum computing.
And SOME of these advances are thanks to the work of Professor Colin Humphreys.
29/08/2023 • 28 minutes 13 seconds
Chris Barratt on head-banging sperm and a future male contraceptive pill
Reproductive science has come a long way in recent years, but there's still plenty we don't understand - particularly around male fertility.
The reliability and availability of data in this field has become more of a concern in light of a study published this year, suggesting that sperm counts worldwide have dropped 62% in the past 50 years. As yet there is no clear answer as to why that is.
Professor Chris Barratt is one of the scientists working to change that. He's the Head of Reproductive Medicine at Ninewells Hospital and the University of Dundee Medical School, and has dedicated his career to better understanding male infertility; driving breakthroughs in how to study sperm dysfunctions – and most recently spearheading advances in developing a male contraceptive pill.
Chris talks to Professor Jim Al-Khalili about his academic struggles as a youngster, the lecture that changed his life, his research into 'head-banging sperm' and why he believes a new male contraceptive could be a
22/08/2023 • 28 minutes 39 seconds
Gideon Henderson on climate ‘clocks’ and dating ice ages
We’re used to hearing the stories of scientists who study the world as it is now but what about the study of the past - what can this tell us about our future?
Gideon Henderson’s research focuses on trying to understand climate change by looking at what was happening on our planet thousands of years ago.
His work has taken him all around the world - to the deepest oceans and the darkest caves - where he collects samples containing radioactive isotopes which he uses as “clocks” to date past ice ages and other major climate events.
As a geochemist and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, his work deals with the biggest questions, like our impact on the carbon cycle and climate, the health of our oceans, and finding new ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
But in his role as Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he also very much works on the present, at the intersection between the worlds of research a
15/08/2023 • 28 minutes 26 seconds
Deborah Greaves on wave power and offshore renewable energy
If you’ve ever seen the ocean during a storm, you’ll understand the extraordinary power contained in waves. On an island nation like Britain, that power could well be harnessed to produce clean energy; so why have we barely begun to tap this bountiful resource?
Deborah Greaves is trying to change that. As Professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of Plymouth, she combines physical wave tanks with sophisticated computer modelling to test how well wave power devices respond to stormy seas. And as Director of the Supergen ORE Hub, she brings together researchers in offshore renewable energy to imagine a future of widespread, eco-friendly ocean power.
Deborah tells Jim Al-Khalili about growing up in Plymouth fascinated by the sea, and about breaking from the norm in her arts-focused family, to pursue a degree in engineering. But she spent years as a civil engineer building tunnels for the London Underground - and going on expeditions to the Arctic with her husband - before underta
08/08/2023 • 28 minutes 29 seconds
Harald Haas on making waves in light communication
Imagine a world in which your laptop or mobile device accesses the internet, not via radio waves – or WiFi – as it does today but by using light instead: LiFi.
Well, that world may not be as far away as you might think. In fact, the technology is already here; and it’s thanks in large part to the engineering ingenuity of Harald Haas, Distinguished Professor of Mobile Communications and Director of the Li-Fi Research and Development Centre at the University of Strathclyde.
He tells Jim Al-Khalili about the two decades he has spent researching optical wireless communications, building up to his LiFi breakthrough in 2011, where he made waves in the scientific community and beyond by showing how a simple desk lamp could be used to stream a video.
Harald’s research could well have a very real impact on people’s lives, reinventing the way we connect online – but, as Jim hears, his early life was dogged by a very real fear he may have the same devastating disease that took his mother's li
27/06/2023 • 28 minutes 11 seconds
Anne Ferguson-Smith on unravelling epigenetics
Our genes can tell us so much about us, from why we look the way we look, think the way we think, even what kind of diseases we might be likely to suffer from. But our genes aren't the whole story. There are other, complex and intriguing systems within every cell in our bodies which control which of our tens-of-thousands of genes are switched on, or off, in different parts of the body, and under different circumstances.
Welcome to the fascinating world of 'epigenetics', which our guest, the molecular geneticist Anne Ferguson-Smith, describes as 'genetics with knobs on'.
Anne, now Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge, tells Jim about her life and work. She's spent her professional life at the cutting edge: from a degree in a brand new field of Molecular Biology, to post-grad working on brand new genetic structures, through to a lifetime of discoveries and breakthroughs which have changed our understanding of the genom
20/06/2023 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
Anne-Marie Imafidon on fighting for diversity and equality in science
Anne-Marie Imafidon passed her computing A-Level at the age of 11 and by 16, was accepted to the University of Oxford to study Maths and Computer Science.
She's used to the 'child prodigy' label that's followed her throughout her career, but that doesn't mean she's had an easy ride.
It was a combination of personal experience and the discovery that the number of women working in the STEM sectors - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - was in free-fall that inspired Anne-Marie to found Stemettes: a not-for-profit social enterprise introducing girls to STEM ideas and careers in fun and accessible ways. It's now in its tenth year and still growing, while Anne-Marie has received an MBE, enjoyed a successful stint as the numbers guru on the TV series Countdown, and is the current President of the British Science Association.
In conversation in front of an audience at the 2023 Cheltenham Science Festival, she tells Jim Al-Khalili about her quest for equality and diversity a
13/06/2023 • 28 minutes 38 seconds
Bruce Malamud on modelling risk for natural hazards
From landslides and wildfires to floods and tornadoes, Bruce Malamud has spent his career travelling the world and studying natural hazards.
Today, he is Wilson Chair of Hazard and Risk and Executive Director of the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Durham University - but as he tells Jim Al-Khalili, a lifelong passion for discovery has taken Bruce from volunteering with the Peace Corps in West Africa and a Fulbright Fellowship in Argentina, to fieldwork in India; not only studying hazards themselves, but also the people they affect - and building up the character and resilience to overcome personal tragedy along the way...
Over the years, his work in the field has opened up new ways of understanding such events: from statistical modelling to show how groups of hazards occur, to examining the cascading relationships between multiple hazards. And today, his focus is on projects that can bring tangible benefits to people at serious risk from environmental hazards - finding i
06/06/2023 • 30 minutes 36 seconds
Gillian Reid on making chemistry count
How often do you think about chemistry?
The chances are, not often - but it is vital to every part of our lives, from the air we breathe, to the processes that take place inside our bodies and the materials we use.
Gillian Reid is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Southampton and she is on a mission to make sure we all know what chemistry can do for us - and how it is tackling some of society’s biggest challenges.
Hers is a story of firsts - the first in her immediate family to go to university and the first female member of staff in the chemistry department at the University of Southampton, where she later became the first female Professor and Head of Department. She is also the reigning President of the Royal Society of Chemistry - one of very few women to have taken on that mantle in its 182-year history.
She tells Jim Al-Khalili about life as a female professor in a male-dominated space - and what needs to change to unlock chemistry for everyone. He also hea
30/05/2023 • 28 minutes 24 seconds
Andre Geim on levitating frogs, graphene and 2D materials
The world around us is three-dimensional. Yet, there are materials that can be regarded as two-dimensional. They are only one layer of atoms thick and have remarkable properties that are different from their three-dimensional counterparts.
Sir Andre Geim created the first-ever man-made 2D material, by isolating graphene, and is one of the pioneers in this line of research. Even beyond his Nobel Prize-winning work on graphene, he has explored new ideas in many different areas of physics throughout his career.
Andre tells Jim about his time growing up in the Soviet Union, being rejected from university based on his German ethnicity, his move to Western Europe, and levitating frogs.
Produced by Florian Bohr.
23/05/2023 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
Julie Williams on Alzheimer’s disease
There are almost a million people in the UK living with dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form. But the disease actually starts long before any noticeable symptoms appear, and over the past decade, studies have shown that it is much more complex than previously thought.
Julie Williams has been at the forefront of this effort, uncovering the genes that make us susceptible, and has transformed our understanding of this devastating disease. She has brought researchers together to create bigger datasets and more powerful studies. Her current work with scientists from other fields, like immunology and computational biology, is looking at the mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease.
Julie tells Jim about her early interest in science, her time as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh government, and her belief in ‘team science’ – collaborating and sharing research findings across international borders and disciplines.
Produced by Florian Bohr
28/03/2023 • 28 minutes 21 seconds
James Jackson on understanding earthquakes and building resilience
Since 1900, our best estimates suggest that earthquakes have caused around 2.3 million deaths worldwide; we saw the devastating effects of one just recently, in Turkey and Syria. And as scientists have been at pains to point out over the years, there is no reliable short-term warning system.
But thanks to the work of people like James Jackson, an Emeritus Professor of Active Tectonics at the University of Cambridge, we are finding new ways of understanding and withstanding seismic activity.
James tells Jim Al-Khalili about his career travelling the world in search of quake sites and fault lines – trialling new technology and techniques in a quest to understand the processes that shake and shape our planet’s surface; and working out how this information can help vulnerable cities become more resilient to quakes in future...
Produced by Lucy Taylor.
21/03/2023 • 29 minutes 5 seconds
Marie Johnston on health psychology and the power of behavioural shifts
Marie Johnston is a pioneer in the field of health psychology: the discipline that seeks to understand how psychological, behavioural and cultural factors contribute to our physical and mental health.
Today an emeritus professor in health psychology at the University of Aberdeen, her career exploring behavioural interventions has shown that even the subtlest shift in how we act can dramatically change our behaviour and lives for the better – whether that’s in an individual recovering from a stroke, or a nation coming to terms with pandemic safety measures, while her work setting up the UK’s first stress management clinic showed why mental health support needed to come out of psychiatric hospitals and into general practice.
Marie tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the right interventions can be a powerful tool in improving public health, and indeed our healthcare system; and how an accident at the hairdresser's many years ago helped her become more approachable...
14/03/2023 • 28 minutes 45 seconds
Julia King on manipulating metals and decarbonising transport
Professor Dame Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, is an engineer whose fascination with metals, and skill for handling both research projects and people, has taken her from academia to industry to the House of Lords.
She tells Jim Al-Khalili how the dressmaking skills she learnt from her mother as a child helped her to understand the composite structures used in wind turbines later in life. And how she designed metal alloys that are resistant to both large and small cracks.
As the author of the UK government's Review of Low Carbon Cars in 2007, Julia set out a route to decarbonising a major segment of the transport sector within 25 years, making an important contribution to the UK's plans to try and achieve Net Zero.
But achieving Net Zero is not enough. With demand for electricity set to double or treble by 2050, there’s an urgent need to radically reform our national infrastructure and guarantee supply.
Julia became a cross-bench member of the House of Lords in 2015.
07/03/2023 • 28 minutes 16 seconds
Danny Altmann on how T cells fight disease
Jim Al-Khalili talks T cells, our immune response and Long Covid with Prof Danny Altmann.
Danny Altmann joined ‘team T cells’ in his twenties and has been studying how these killer operate ever since. How do they know which cells to search and destroy?
The T cell wing of our immune response is highly targeted and incredibly clever, on a par with the most sophisticated military intelligence operation and in recent decades there have been dramatic advances in our understanding of how it all works .
Danny tells Jim how he came to study our immune response to all sorts of pathogens, from anthrax to zika, why he spends every morning from 5 to 6am in the bath reading 19th century classics and why he’s determined to try and understand Long Covid.
Producer: Anna Buckley
28/02/2023 • 28 minutes 45 seconds
Haley Gomez on cosmic dust
Jim Al-Khalili talks to astrophysicist Haley Gomez about defying expectations and becoming a world expert on cosmic dust.
For centuries, cosmic dust was a major source of irritation to optical astronomers because, like smog, it stopped them from seeing the stars. Now studies of these tiny particles are challenging some deeply held assumptions about the physics of the universe.
Haley’s research has changed the textbook explanation of how cosmic dust is formed and helped to open our eyes to just how many galaxies there are in the universe.
In 2018 she was awarded an MBE for services to physics and inspiring the next generation of physicists and astronomers from less privileged communities. A cause which is very close to her heart.
Produced by Anna Buckley and recorded in the Pier Head Building in Cardiff as part of the Cardiff Science Festival.
21/02/2023 • 28 minutes 29 seconds
Adrian Smith on the power of Bayesian statistics
How a once-derided approach to statistics paved the way for AI. Jim Al-Khalili talks to pioneering mathematician, Professor Sir Adrian Smith.
Accused early in his career of ‘trying to destroy the processes of science’, Adrian went on to prove that a branch of statistics (invented by the Reverend Thomas Bayes in 1764) could be used by computers to analyse vast sets of data and to learn from that data.
His mathematical proofs showed that Bayesian statistics could be applied to all sorts of real world problems: from improving survival rates for kidney transplant patients to tracking Russian submarines. And paved the way for a dramatic explosion in machine learning and AI.
Working as a civil servant (2008-2012) he helped to protect the science budget in 2010, transforming the landscape for scientific research in the UK. And he has been vocal, over many years, about the urgent need to make sure children in the UK leave school more mathematically able.
In 2020, he became President
07/02/2023 • 28 minutes 24 seconds
Clifford Johnson on making sense of black holes and movie plots
Clifford Johnson's career to date has spanned some seemingly very different industries - from exploring quantum mechanics around string theory and black holes, to consulting on some of Hollywood's biggest movies; but it makes sense once you understand his ambition of making science accessible to all.
A Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Clifford's worked in the United States for decades – but was born in the UK, then spent his formative years on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, before moving back to England to study.
Here, he fell in love with quantum mechanics - before moving to the US, where he's broken new ground in finding ways to talk about quantum gravity and black holes.
Clifford's other big passion is getting as many people as possible engaged with science, making it more exciting, entertaining and most importantly diverse - and it's this attitude that's led to regular work as a science consultant
31/01/2023 • 32 minutes 57 seconds
Rebecca Kilner on beetle behaviours and evolution
A fur-stripped mouse carcase might not sound like the cosiest of homes – but that’s where the burying beetle makes its nest; and where Rebecca Kilner has focused much of her research.
A Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cambridge, Rebecca’s work – initially with cuckoos, then more recently with the beetles – has shed invaluable light on the relationship between social behaviours and evolution.
She tells Jim Al-Khalili how the beetles’ helpfully swift generational churn and mouse-based parenting has allowed her team to study evolution in action, demonstrating for the first time what was previously just evolutionary theory.
Producer: Lucy Taylor
24/01/2023 • 28 minutes 54 seconds
Pam Shaw on the research battle against motor neurone disease
Motor Neuron Disease (MND) is a degenerative disease that relentlessly attacks the human nervous system, deteriorating muscle function to the point where patients can no longer move, talk, eat, or even breathe.
To date there’s no cure, and until fairly recently there were only minimal treatments to ease the symptoms.
Pam Shaw has dedicated her career to changing that.
A Professor of Neurology at Sheffield University and Founding Director of the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience, she recently led clinical trials into a drug that delivered unprecedented results: showing that it could slow the progression of MND in certain patients, and even improve symptoms for some.
It’s just one small step – but with a new tranche of research funding and a national institute to study the disease on the cards, Pamela believes this could be the start of real progress in understanding and treating Motor Neuron Disease.
Producer: Lucy Taylor
17/01/2023 • 28 minutes 40 seconds
Chris Elliott on fighting food fraud
Professor Chris Elliott is something of a ‘food detective’.
A Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology at Queen's University Belfast and a founding director of its Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS), his work is all about developing scientific solutions to protect us from contaminated food, be it accidental or criminal.
Following the 2013 horse meat scandal – when prepared foods purporting to be made from beef were found to contain undeclared horse-meat – Chris conducted the independent review of the UK food system that brought to light the growing threat of food crime. Since then, his name’s become synonymous with solving cases of food fraud; today he receives regular tip-offs on everything from oregano scams to dodgy potatoes.
But as Chris tells Jim Al-Khalili, his team at the IGFS are pioneering new techniques to read the molecular fingerprint of foodstuffs, with technology that they hope will stop the fraudsters in their tracks…
Producer: Lucy Taylor
10/01/2023 • 31 minutes 8 seconds
A passion for fruit flies
What use to science is a pesky organism that feeds on rotting fruit? Professor Bambos Kyriacou has spent fifty years observing the behaviour of fruit flies. He keeps them in the lab and in his garden in their thousands, has recorded fruit fly courtship songs using a microphone loved by Jonny Carson (because it made his voice sound deeper) and invented equipment to keep track of their sleeping patterns. He tells Jim Al-Khalili how fruit flies sparked his interest in genetics and how experiments with insomniac fruit flies opened our eyes to the fundamental importance of body clocks.
18/10/2022 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
Why study sewage?
Leon Barron monitors pollution in our rivers, keeping tabs on chemicals that could be harmful to the environment and to our health. He’s also gathered intelligence on the behaviour of millions of Londoners by studying the water we flush down the loo. His analysis of sewage revealed, for example, just how much cocaine is consumed in London every day. And he’s helped the Metropolitan Police to crack crimes in other ways too, inventing new chemistry tools that can be used by forensic scientists to uncover clues. At school he had no idea he wanted to be an analytical chemist but a short work experience placement at the fertiliser factory convinced him that this kind of detective work was fun.
Producer: Anna Buckley
11/10/2022 • 28 minutes 37 seconds
The sounds of coral reefs
Tim Lamont is a young scientist making waves. Arriving on the Great Barrier Reef after a mass bleaching event, Tim saw his research plans disappear and was personally devastated by the destruction. But from that event he discovered a novel way to restore coral reefs. Playing the sounds of a healthy coral reef entices fish in to recolonise the wrecked reefs. Tim's emotional journey forced him to realise that environmental scientists can no longer just observe. They need to find new prisms with which to view the world and to intervene to save or protect the natural environment.
04/10/2022 • 30 minutes 9 seconds
Can computers discover new medicines?
Daphne Koller was a precociously clever child. She completed her first degree – a double major in mathematics and computer science – when she was just 17 and went on to become a distinguished Professor at Stanford University in California. But before long she’d given up this comfortable academic position to create the biggest online education platform in the world. In 2018, she founded the drug discovery company Insitro hoping to create a space where data scientists and molecular biologists could work together as equals.
Daphne tells Jim Al-Khalili how a single question from her supervisor nudged her to use her considerable mathematical ability to do something useful and why she believes the time is right for artificial intelligence to discover new medicines.
Producer: Anna Buckley
27/09/2022 • 27 minutes 47 seconds
Emily Holmes on how to treat trauma
Emily Holmes is a distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at Uppsala University and a neuroscientist who struggled to learn to read and write as a child. She tells Jim Al-Khalili about her work as a mental health scientist and her life-long love of art and explains why the images we see in our mind’s eye have more of an impact on our emotions than their verbal counterpart. And describes how this fundamental insight led her to develop a simple and cost-effective treatment for the fleeting flashbacks that haunt people with post traumatic stress disorder: briefly recalling the traumatic event and playing the computer game Tetris.
Producer: Anna Buckley
20/09/2022 • 31 minutes 17 seconds
Judith Bunbury on the shifting River Nile in the time of the Pharaohs
Think Sahara Desert, think intense heat and drought. We see the Sahara as an unrelenting, frazzling, white place. But geo-archaeologist Dr Judith Bunbury says in the not so distant past, the region looked more like a safari park.
In the more recent New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, from around 3.5 thousand years ago (the time of some of Egypt’s most famous kings like Ahmose I, Thutmose III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and queens like Hatshepsut) evidence from core samples shows evidence of rainfall, huge lakes, springs, trees, birds, hares and even gazelle, very different from today.
By combining geology with archaeology, Dr Bunbury, from the department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Senior Tutor at St Edmund’s College, tells Jim Al-Khalili that evidence of how people adapted to their ever-changing landscape is buried in the mud, dust and sedimentary samples beneath these ancient sites, waiting to be discovered.
With an augur (like a large apple corer), Judith and her t
14/09/2022 • 28 minutes 27 seconds
Frances Arnold: From taxi driver to Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frances Arnold left home at 15 and went to school ‘only when she felt like it’. She disagreed with her parents about the Vietnam War and drove big yellow taxis in Pittsburgh to pay the rent.
Decades later, after several changes of direction (from aerospace engineer to biotech pioneer), she invented a radical new approach to engineering enzymes. Rather than try to design industrial enzymes from scratch (which she considered to be an impossible task), Frances decided to let Nature do the work. ‘I breed enzymes like other people breed cats and dogs’ she says.
While some colleagues accused her of intellectual laziness, industry jumped on her ideas and used them in the manufacture of everything from laundry detergents to pharmaceuticals.
She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her journey from taxi driver to Nobel Prize, personal tragedy in midlife and why advising the White House is much harder than doing scientific research.
Producer: Anna Buckley
06/09/2022 • 28 minutes 11 seconds
Sir Martin Landray on saving over a million lives
Who could forget the beginning of 2020, when a ‘mysterious viral pneumonia’ emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Soon, other countries were affected and deaths around the world began to climb. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, there were no proven treatments to help prevent those deaths.
As the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, and the UK and the rest of the world braced itself for what was to come, doctor and drug-trial designer Martin Landray had his mind on a solution, devising the protocol, or blueprint, for the world’s largest drug trial for Covid-19.
As Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Oxford University, Martin was perfectly positioned to jump, delivering what became known as the RECOVERY Trial. The trial was tasked to deliver clarity amid the predicted chaos of the pandemic and galvanised every acute NHS hospital in the UK. Within its first one hundred days, it had yielded three major discoveries and it has transformed Covid-19 treat
28/06/2022 • 39 minutes 37 seconds
Vlatko Vedral on the universe as quantum information
Vlatko Vedral describes himself as a quantum information practitioner, who believes that our universe is made up of quantum bits of information.
It is information, he tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili, rather than energy or matter, the traditional building blocks of classical Newtonian physics, that can help us to understand the nature of reality.
Vlatko is Professor of Quantum Information Science at the University of Oxford and the Principal Investigator at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore and he talks to Jim in front of an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival.
At high school in Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia, young Vlatko was bowled over by the idea that you could take the micro-laws of quantum mechanics, and apply them to the complex systems of the macro world.
This drive to see the big picture, was fuelled when, as an undergraduate at Imperial College, London, he saw three words – “Information is physical” – the title of
21/06/2022 • 37 minutes 19 seconds
Adam Hart on ants, bees and insect burgers
Ant-loving professor, Adam Hart, shares his passion for leaf cutting ants with Jim Al Khalili. Why do they put leaves in piles for other ants to pick up?
Talking at the Hay Festival, Adam describes the experiments he designed to test the intelligence of the hive mind. When does a waggle dance become a tremble dance? And how do the honey bees know when this moment should be?
We like the phrase ‘as busy as a bee’. In fact, bees spend a lot of time doing nothing at all, a sensible strategy from the point of view of natural selection.
And where does Adam stand on insect burgers?
Producer: Anna Buckley
14/06/2022 • 28 minutes 52 seconds
Jacinta Tan on anorexia nervosa and the mind
When a person with severe anorexia nervosa refuses food, the very treatment they need to survive, is that refusal carefully considered and rational, as it can appear to those around them? Or is it really the illness that’s causing them to say ‘no’?
This is one of the thorny ethical dilemmas that Jacinta Tan has wrestled with over the course of her career. She is deeply curious about the mind, and has spent hundreds of hours sitting with people with anorexia nervosa, not persuading them to eat, rather listening to them talk about what’s going on in their minds and how the illness influences their decisions.
These rich internal worlds, that she has revealed, shape her work as a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, where she treats people with eating disorders. The views of those with the conditon and their families have been central to the recent government reviews of the Eating Disorder Services that she led in Scotland and Wales.
07/06/2022 • 28 minutes 50 seconds
Pete Smith on why soil matters
Pete Smith is very down to earth. Not least because he’s interested in soil and the vital role it plays in helping us to feed the world, mitigate climate change and maintain a rich diversity of species on planet earth. He was born in a pub and failed the 11+ exam (designed to identify bright children just like him) but he became a distinguished professor nonetheless.
Tackling climate change in isolation is a mistake, he says. We need to consider all the challenges facing humanity and identify strategies that deliver benefits on all fronts: food security, bio-diversity and human development goals.
He tells Jim Al-Khalili about his life and work and the urgent need for our degraded peat bogs to be restored. Peat bogs that have been drained (for grazing or to plant trees) add to our carbon emissions. Healthy peat bogs, however, are carbon sinks.
Producer: Anna Buckley
31/05/2022 • 31 minutes 29 seconds
Chi Onwurah on why engineering is a caring profession.
Chi Onwurah tells Jim Al-Khalili why she wanted to become a telecoms engineer and why engineering is a caring profession.
As a black, working class woman from a council estate in Newcastle, she was in a minority of one studying engineering at university in London and encountered terrible racism and sexism. She went on to build digital networks all over the world, the networks that make today's instant multimedia communications possible. And Chi built the first mobile phone network in Nigeria, when the country was without a reliable electricity supply. Today she is Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation.
When Chi decided to go into politics, her engineering colleagues were not impressed. Why would anyone leave their noble profession to enter a chaotic, disreputable and dubiously useful non-profession, they asked. But, Chi believes, parliament desperately needs more scientists and engineers, not only to help us solve science-based problems but also to create technical j
24/05/2022 • 37 minutes 40 seconds
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 team
29/03/2022 • 27 minutes 5 seconds
Ben Garrod on conservation and extinction
Ben Garrod is an obsessive bone collector and wild animal behaviourist. He was destined for a career in medicine but a chance encounter with primatologist Jane Goodall reignited his life long passion for conservation and led to him managing and researching the habituation of wild chimpanzees in Africa. It was a chance to record primate behaviour that had never been seen before and examine how resilient chimps can be to anthropogenic change. Further extraordinary insights into the speed of evolution through the clues in the bones of island monkeys was to follow.
He is a professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia and the presenter of several landmark TV series on animal bones and extinction, such as The Secrets of Bones and most recently, Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard. Ben shares his passion for the contrasting insights into conservation and extinction, the value they play, and describes his own extraordinary journey from explorin
22/03/2022 • 35 minutes 10 seconds
Steve Brusatte on the fall of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals
Steve Brusatte analyses the pace of evolutionary change and tries to answer big questions. Why did the dinosaurs die out and the mammals survive? How did dinosaurs evolve into birds? If you met a Velociraptor today you’d probably mistake it for a large flightless bird, says Steve. His intense interest in T. rex, Triceratops and all the other dinosaur species developed when he was a teenager and continues to this day. More recently, however, he’s focussed on the long history of mammals.
For hundreds of millions of years, our mammalian ancestors remained small. Most were mouse-sized. None were bigger than a badger. Steve studies how, when an asteroid collided with earth 66 million years ago, the mammals got lucky. All the big dinosaurs were wiped out and only the small ones with wings survived. (Birds are dinosaurs, by the way). Within half a million years, mammals of all shapes and sizes had taken over on planet earth. Sabre-toothed flesh eaters, cow-sized plant guzzlers and a host
15/03/2022 • 40 minutes 22 seconds
Shankar Balasubramanian on decoding DNA
Sir Shankar Balasubramanian is responsible for a revolution in medicine. The method he invented for reading, at speed, the unique genetic code that makes each one of us who we are, is ten million times faster than the technology that was used in the human genome project at the turn of the century. What’s more, it can be done much more cheaply than before and on a desktop machine. And it’s transforming healthcare, by helping us to understand the genetic basis of many diseases (particularly cancers) and to develop new diagnostic tests, medicines and personalised treatments.
‘DNA has never failed to keep me excited and curious’ says Shankar, winner of the highly prestigious 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He didn’t set out to create a game-changing technology or to make a lot of money. He just wanted to understand the DNA double helix in the greatest possible detail; to reveal how it worked, molecule by molecule. And he still rides a rickety old bicycle to work in Cambridg
08/03/2022 • 29 minutes 9 seconds
Julia Shaw on memories that aren't true
Early in her career, Julia wanted to know if it was possible to get someone to believe they committed a crime (when they hadn’t)? In a bold experiment she showed how students created false memories of criminal events in their teenage years, describing in rich detail how they had assaulted people, when no such events had taken place. What does this mean for a criminal justice system that relies heavily on memory-based evidence? Does it make it more difficult for the victims of crimes to have their voices heard? Victims of sex crimes, in particular. Or can the findings of false memory research be used to prevent miscarriages of justice? Julia talks to Jim Al-Khalili about growing up with her dad’s delusional beliefs and paranoid thoughts and how a profound appreciation that everyone’s reality is different pulled her to the field of false memory research.
Producer: Anna Buckley
22/02/2022 • 38 minutes 16 seconds
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, rocke
02/11/2021 • 28 minutes 42 seconds
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 th
26/10/2021 • 29 minutes 2 seconds
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 sc
19/10/2021 • 32 minutes 54 seconds
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
12/10/2021 • 37 minutes 4 seconds
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 o
12/10/2021 • 56 minutes 27 seconds
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.
05/10/2021 • 27 minutes 53 seconds
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.
28/09/2021 • 27 minutes 52 seconds
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 le
21/09/2021 • 27 minutes 53 seconds
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
14/09/2021 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
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 everythin
07/09/2021 • 40 minutes 41 seconds
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 a
01/06/2021 • 31 minutes 38 seconds
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 t
25/05/2021 • 32 minutes 27 seconds
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 Stormz
18/05/2021 • 28 minutes 31 seconds
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 blu
11/05/2021 • 34 minutes 23 seconds
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
04/05/2021 • 28 minutes 14 seconds
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
27/04/2021 • 28 minutes 3 seconds
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
20/04/2021 • 29 minutes 23 seconds
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 be
13/04/2021 • 27 minutes 19 seconds
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
09/03/2021 • 28 minutes 36 seconds
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
02/03/2021 • 27 minutes 50 seconds
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
23/02/2021 • 41 minutes 1 second
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
16/02/2021 • 27 minutes 49 seconds
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
02/02/2021 • 30 minutes 52 seconds
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
26/01/2021 • 27 minutes 54 seconds
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 challen
19/01/2021 • 29 minutes 42 seconds
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 h
12/01/2021 • 27 minutes 53 seconds
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 t
15/12/2020 • 38 minutes 52 seconds
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 S
22/09/2020 • 37 minutes 22 seconds
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 tal
15/09/2020 • 29 minutes 42 seconds
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 im
08/09/2020 • 28 minutes 13 seconds
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.
01/09/2020 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
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
25/08/2020 • 28 minutes 39 seconds
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.
18/08/2020 • 32 minutes 56 seconds
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.
11/08/2020 • 28 minutes 22 seconds
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
04/08/2020 • 33 minutes 2 seconds
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 o
16/06/2020 • 28 minutes 4 seconds
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.
09/06/2020 • 28 minutes 1 second
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 t
02/06/2020 • 36 minutes 43 seconds
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 de
26/05/2020 • 29 minutes 58 seconds
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 succ
19/05/2020 • 27 minutes 56 seconds
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
12/05/2020 • 28 minutes 18 seconds
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
05/05/2020 • 27 minutes 56 seconds
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 fe
28/04/2020 • 34 minutes 48 seconds
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 indu
04/03/2020 • 36 minutes 16 seconds
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
03/03/2020 • 29 minutes 57 seconds
Anya Hurlbert on seeing colour
As a professor of visual neuroscience at Newcastle University, Anya Hurlbert is one of our most respected researchers into the way we see colour. In a career as a physicist, physiologist, neuroscientist and physician at some of the great research institutes on both sides of the Atlantic, Anya’s investigations into how we perceive the colour of objects has transformed our view of how our predominantly visual brains function.
She explains how the multidisciplinary approach to research in vision from physics to psychology, and encounters with some leading Nobel Prize winners, has fostered a love of the slippery nature of colour. When, a few years ago, an online image of a blue and black striped dress spun virally out of control, it divided us all. Half of us were adamant the dress was white and gold, and the other half convinced it was blue and black, and it caused us all to question the objective way we think we see the world as it really is. Colour is, Anya argues, made in the mind,
02/03/2020 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
Optical communications pioneer Polina Bayvel
We’ve come to expect to be connected instantly to anywhere in the world and to have unlimited information at our fingertips. We shop online, stream music, download books and boxsets onto our electronic devices. We share videos of our pets just because we can. But how much time have you spent recently thinking about the remarkable feats of engineering that make all this possible?
Polina Bayvel has been at the forefront of creating the optical fibre networks that are capable of transporting vast quantities of data from one place to another: linking continents via cables laid under oceans or enabling computer systems in data centres to share information. Without these high speed networks, ultra-fast high-capacity broadband will remain a dream. Polina tells Jim Al Khalili how she moved to the UK from the Soviet Union when she was 12 and worked in industry for many years, before deciding that she wanted to set up a lab to find out what optical fibres were capable of: just how much data
11/02/2020 • 33 minutes 55 seconds
2019 Nobel Prize winner for Physiology or Medicine, Sir Peter Ratcliffe
Sir Peter Ratcliffe, Director of Clinical Research at the Francis Crick Institute, as well as Director of Oxford University’s Target Discovery Institute – has dedicated his life to understanding the body’s molecular-level response to low oxygen levels, or ‘hypoxia’. He received the 2019 Nobel prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with two Americans, William Kaelin of Harvard and Gregg Semenza of Johns Hopkins, for successfully tackling one of physiology’s greatest puzzles - how our bodies sense and adapt so quickly to a lack of oxygen, at high altitude for example, or during sudden exercise.
He talks to Jim about how his early medical career led him into a deeply unfashionable area of medicine that would solve how and why our bodies are so clever at being able to fine tune themselves to keep functioning under a range of conditions. His early ground breaking discoveries may have been initially turned down by a major scientific journal, but he would go on to pave the way for promis
04/02/2020 • 28 minutes 27 seconds
Peter Fonagy on a revolution in mental health care
Peter Fonagy arrived in the UK from Hungary aged 15, not speaking a word of English. His family was in Paris. He was bullied at school, failed every exam and thought of ending his life. Therapy saved him, he says. Years later, he trained to be a clinical psychologist and then a psychoanalyst. His research on attachment styles between a mother and her baby (which can be healthy, anxious or avoidant) was ground breaking. He went on to show that the human need to be understood runs very deep indeed. The ability to ‘mentalise’ (to say that we’re feeling angry rather than being angry, for example) enables us to understand our own thoughts and feelings. And, Peter believes, it forms the cornerstone of good mental health. He pioneered a new way of treating people with borderline personality disorder which he called mentalisation based treatment, or MBT. Shocked to discover that such a simple approach was so effective, he set up randomised control trials to prove the effectiveness of this ne
28/01/2020 • 36 minutes 10 seconds
Susannah Maidment on stegosaurs
Susie was dinosaur-mad as a child. But unlike most children, she never grew out of her obsession. She tells Jim about an exciting new stegosaur find in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and describes the time she spent dinosaur hunting (with a toddler in tow) in the Morrison Formation in the American Mid-West: a place where there are thought to be enough dinosaur remains to keep a thousand paleontologists happy for a thousand years.
She is at her happiest out in the field, with a hammer and a notebook, studying rocks and looking for dinosaur remains. We tend to lump dinosaurs together as though they all roamed the earth at the same time which is silly - given that they had the run of the place for nearly two hundred million years. Susie wants to sort out exactly which dinosaurs lived when. Although she warns, the fossil record is woefully incomplete. We will probably only ever know about 1% of what there is to know about all the dinosaurs that ever lived.
14/01/2020 • 32 minutes 22 seconds
Patricia Wiltshire on how pollen can solve crimes.
Patricia Wiltshire grew up in a mining village in South Wales, left home when she was 17 and worked for many years, first as a medical technician and then as a business secretary (a profession her first husband considered to be more ladylike). When she was studying botany A level at evening classes, her teacher encouraged her to apply for university as a mature student. (She would never have considered it otherwise). And so began her career as a palynologist (studying pollen). She worked for many years reconstructing ancient environments on archaeological sites. But a phone call from a police detective led to a dramatic change of direction, when she was in her fifties. Since then, Pat has been involved in some of the most high-profile murder cases in Britain, including the murder of two ten year old girls in Soham in Cambridgeshire in 2002. She tells Jim Al-Khalili how she pioneered the use of pollen as evidence in criminal cases. Studying spores taken from suspects and victims, sh
07/01/2020 • 33 minutes 13 seconds
Elizabeth Fisher on chromosomes in mice and men
Elizabeth Fisher, Professor of Neurogenetics at University College London, spent 13 years getting her idea – finding a new way of studying genetic disorders – to work. She began her research career at a time, in the 1980s, when there was an explosion of interest and effort in finding out what genes did what, and which of them were responsible for giving rise to the symptoms of various neurodegenerative conditions. Elizabeth has been particularly interested in those in which there are chromosomal abnormalities, like Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, as distinct from specific genetic disorders. Her work has helped in the understanding of what’s different about the genetic make-up of people with these conditions, and what new therapies might be developed in the future.
Lizzie Fisher talks to Jim al-Khalili about how she was inspired to study genetics while standing on the red carpet, how she kept going during the 13 years it took to introduce human chromosomes into mice and why she's
12/11/2019 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
Demis Hassabis on artificial intelligence
In the 200th episode of The Life Scientific, Jim Al-Khalili finds out why Demis Hassabis wants to create artificial intelligence and use it to help humanity.
Thinking about how to win at chess when he was a boy got Demis thinking about the process of thinking itself. Being able to program his first computer (a Sinclair Spectrum) felt miraculous. In computer chess, his two passions were combined. And a lifelong ambition to create artificial intelligence was born.
Demis studied computer science at Cambridge and then worked in the computer games industry for many years. Games, he says, are the ideal testing ground for AI. Then, thinking memory and imagination were aspects of the human mind that would be a necessary part of any artificially intelligent system, he studied neuroscience for a PhD.
He set up DeepMind in 2010 and pioneered a new approach to creating artificial intelligence, based on deep learning and built-in rewards for making good decisions. Four years later, DeepMi
05/11/2019 • 32 minutes 39 seconds
Saiful Islam on materials to power the 21st century
Not so long ago, all batteries were single use. And solar power was an emerging and expensive technology. Now, thanks to rechargeable batteries, we have mobile phones, laptops, electronic toys, cordless power tools and other portable electronic devices. And solar power is reducing our reliance on carbon-based fossil fuels. None of this would have been possible without a deep understanding of the chemistry of materials that have particular properties – the ability to turn sunlight into energy for example. Professor Saiful Islam of the University of Bath tells Jim Al-Khalili how ‘the Woodstock of physics’ got him excited about material science and how his research on the properties of materials is helping to power the 21st century with renewable energy and could dramatically reduce the cost of making solar panels.
Producer: Anna Buckley
29/10/2019 • 28 minutes 25 seconds
Adrian Owen on scanning for awareness in the injured brain
Neuroscientist Adrian Owen has spent much of his career exploring what he calls ‘the grey zone’, a realm of consciousness inhabited by people with severe brain injuries, who are aware yet unable to respond to those around them. It's this inability to respond which has led doctors to conclude that they are unaware.
In the late 1990's, Adrian started to question the assumption that they lacked awareness and a chance discovery set him on a novel path of enquiry - could some of these patients be conscious or aware even though they don’t appear to be?
His research has revealed that some are, and he’s pioneered techniques to help them to communicate with the outside world.
This emerging field of science has implications, not only for patients but, for philosophy and the law.
A Britain scientist, Adrian now runs a research programme at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in Canada, dedicated to reaching people in this ‘grey zone’.
Producer: Beth Eastwood
22/10/2019 • 28 minutes 46 seconds
Martha Clokie on the viruses that could improve our health
Could viruses improve our health where antibiotics have failed? As a child, Martha Clokie spent a lot of time collecting seaweed on Scottish beaches. She loves plants and studied botany for many years. But mid-career, she learnt about all the viruses that exist in nature. We tend to focus on the viruses that make us ill but there are trillions of viruses on earth and in the ocean and most of them eat bacteria. When a virus destroys a bacteria that attacks our bodies, then it could be just what the doctor ordered. Our enemy’s enemy is our friend.
Martha became interested in how these viruses - or bacteriophages as they’re known - might be used to treat disease. Before long, Martha had moved from studying African violets in Uganda to looking at stool samples under the microscope and asking fellow parents to donate their babies’ dirty nappies to her research. She spent many years looking for phages that attack the superbug C. difficile, which is responsible for a particularly nasty for
15/10/2019 • 34 minutes 55 seconds
Anne Magurran on how to measure biodiversity
Anne Magurran started her career as an ecologist counting moths in an ancient woodland in northern Ireland in the 1970s, when the study of biological diversity was a very young science. Later she studied piranas in a flooded forest in the Amazon. Turning descriptions of the natural world into meaningful statistics is a challenge and Anne has pioneered the measurement of bio-diversity. It’s like an optical illusion, she says. The more you think about bio-diversity the more difficult it is to define. After a bout of meningitis in 2007, she set up BioTime, a global open access database to monitor changes in bio-diversity over time and is concerned about ‘the shopping mall effect’. Just as high streets are losing their distinctive shops and becoming dominated by the same chain stores, so biological communities in different parts of the world that once looked very different are now starting to look the same.
08/10/2019 • 27 minutes 42 seconds
Richard Wiseman on lying, luck and the paranormal
How do you tell if someone is lying? When Richard Wiseman, Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire, conducted a nationwide experiment to identify the tell-tale signs, the results were surprising. If you want to spot a liar, don’t look at them. Listen to what they say and how they say it. in If you want to distinguish fact from fiction, radio, not TV or video is your friend. Visual cues distract us from what is being said and good liars can control their body language more easily than their voice. Depressingly, Richard has also shown that our nearest and dearest are the most able to deceive us.
Richard is a rare breed: a scientist who is also a practising magician. By the age of 17 he was performing magic tricks at children’s parties and a member of the exclusive Magic Circle. He chose to study psychology to try and understand why we believe the unbelievable and spent many years doing research on the paranormal: studying séances, h
01/10/2019 • 28 minutes 21 seconds
Jonathan Ball on his arms race against viruses
Ebola, Zika, Sars, Mers - rarely a week goes by without a deadly virus stealing the headlines.
For Jonathan Ball, getting to know a virus at its most basic level is crucial to mounting a defence. As the son of a coal miner, who grew up in a mining village in the 1970s, a future in academic research studying deadly viruses wasn’t really on the agenda.
Yet his work has led him to the forefront of scientific research to find the antibodies that can protect us from some of the nastiest diseases known to humankind.
As Professor of Virology at Nottingham University, he’s interested in how a virus evolves and mutates, as it moves from person to person, so that he can pinpoint chinks in its armour to find a way to disable it.
However, there are occupational hazards to his chosen field of work. Just when his own research was starting to show promise, another team pipped him to the post!
Yet, ever the optimist, he believes this just adds to the excitement.
Producer: Beth Eastwood
30/07/2019 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Robin Dunbar on why we have friends
Maintaining friendships is one of the most cognitively demanding things we do, according to Professor of Evolutionary Psychology Robin Dunbar. So why do we bother? Robin has spent his life trying to answer this deceptively simple question. For most of his twenties, he lived with a herd of five hundred gelada monkeys in the Ethiopian highlands. He studied their social behaviour and concluded that an ability to get on with each other was just as important as finding food, for the survival of the species. Animals that live in large groups are less likely to get eaten by predators. When funding for animal studies dried up in the 1980s, he turned his attention to humans. and discovered there’s an upper limit to the number of real friends we can have, both in the real world and on social media.
Producer: Anna Buckley
23/07/2019 • 27 minutes 35 seconds
Katherine Joy on moon rock
Katherine Joy studies moon rock. She has studied lunar samples that were brought to earth by the Apollo missions (382kg in total) and hunted for lunar meteorites in Antarctica, camping on ice for weeks on end and travelling around on a skidoo. Working at the forefront of the second wave of lunar exploration, she studied remote sensing data from Europe’s first mission to the moon, Smart 1 which launched in 2003 and data from many subsequent missions. She tells Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the moon is the most exciting destination in our solar system and explains what it can tell us about the long history of planet earth.
Beneath the magnificent desolation of the moon’s surface, multicoloured rocks contain vital clues about the history of our solar system. Every crater on the moon is evidence of a collision and the chemistry of these rocks tells us when these collisions took place. Katherine’s research supports the idea that a period known as the late heavy bombardment was a
16/07/2019 • 29 minutes 25 seconds
DNA detective Turi King
When a skeleton was unearthed in 2012 from under the tarmac of a car park in Leicester, Turi King needed to gather irrefutable evidence to prove that this really was the body of Richard III, England's infamous medieval monarch.
Under the microscope was not only the king's genetic identity, but his entire reputation. Was Richard a ruthless villain, as depicted by Shakespeare? Or did the incoming Tudors spread 'fake news' to besmirch his name? As Jim discovers, clues in his skeletal remains have helped to solve some of these mysteries, and reveal the real Richard III.
When she was young, Turi King wanted to be the next Indiana Jones. Her love of archaeology led her to study genetics so she could use ancient DNA to solve historic mysteries.
She tells Jim how genetic testing, of both the dead skeleton and his living relatives, provided the vital evidence they needed to identify Richard III. But first, she had to extract his DNA, by pulling out one of his teeth.
Producer: Michelle Mart
09/07/2019 • 28 minutes 50 seconds
Ewine van Dishoeck on cosmic chemistry
Ewine van Dishoeck has spent her life studying the space between the stars. Not so long ago, interstellar space was thought to be an empty, sterile void. The idea that there would be organic molecules in interstellar clouds was absurd. Ewine, however, has revealed that there are some astonishingly sophisticated organic molecules in space. The molecules that are needed to form the building blocks of life were formed long before planets emerged from these swirling clouds of interstellar dust. Jim talks to Ewine, winner of the 2018 Kavli Prize for Astrophysics, about quantum chemistry, astronomy and why we need to keep building telescopes. Do Ewine’s discoveries make it more likely that we will find life elsewhere in the universe?
Producer: Anna Buckley
Main Image: Ewine van Dishoeck receiving the Kavli Prize in astrophysics, 4 September 2018 in Oslo. Credit: Berit Roald / NTB SCANPIX / AFP) / Norway
02/07/2019 • 27 minutes 33 seconds
Plastic pollution with Richard Thompson
A Professor of Marine Biology who was not particularly academic at school, Richard Thompson went to university after running his own business selling greetings cards for seven years. When the rest of the world was waking up to the harm caused to marine life by larger plastic items, such as plastic bags, he searched for tiny fragments of plastic, some no bigger than a human hair; and found them in oceans and on beaches all over the world. He has spent decades studying the harm these micro-plastics might cause to marine life and is concerned. His work on plastics in cosmetics led to a UK ban on micro-beads in shower gels and exfoliating scrubs. And he advised government to ban single use plastic bags from supermarkets. Rather than demonize plastic, however, he believes we need to learn to love it more. Often plastic it is the best material for the job. Now we need to make sure that all plastic products are designed so that they can be easily recycled at the end of their useful life.
25/06/2019 • 27 minutes 41 seconds
Erica McAlister on the beauty of flies
Dr Erica McAlister, of London's Natural History Museum, talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the beautiful world of flies and the 2.5 million specimens for which she is jointly responsible.
According to Erica, a world without flies would be full of faeces and dead bodies. Unlike, for example, butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars spend their time devouring our crops and plants, fly larvae tend to help rid the world of waste materials and then, as adults, perform essential work as pollinators. Yet they are rather unloved by humans who tend to regard them as pests at best and disease vectors at worst.
2019 is international Year of the Fly, and dipterists and entomologists around the world are working to raise the profile of the many thousands of species so far known to science.
Erica tells Jim about her work in the museum, cataloguing and identifying new species either sent in from other researchers or discovered by her and her colleagues on swashbuckling trips around the world. Moder
16/04/2019 • 30 minutes 53 seconds
Richard Peto on why smoking kills but quitting saves lives
When Sir Richard Peto began work with the late Richard Doll fifty years ago, the UK had the worst death rates from smoking in the world. Smoking was the cause of more than half of all premature deaths of British men. The fact that this country now boasts the biggest decrease in tobacco-linked mortality is in no doubt partly due to Doll and Peto's thirty year collaboration.
Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and until last year co-director of the Clinical Trial Service Unit with Professor Sir Rory Collins, Richard Peto pioneered "big data", setting up enormous randomised clinical trials and then, in a novel approach, combining results in what became known as meta-analyses, amassing unequivocal evidence about how early death could be avoided. He showed how asprin could prevent heart attacks and how the oestrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen really did affect survival rates for breast cancer patients.
Results on paper saves lives in the real world, he
09/04/2019 • 29 minutes
Irene Tracey on pain in the brain
Pain, as we know, is highly personal. Some can cope with huge amounts, while others reel in agony over a seemingly minor injury. Though you might feel the stab of pain in your stubbed toe or sprained ankle, it is actually processed in the brain.
That is where Irene Tracey, Nuffield Professor of Anaesthetic Science at Oxford University, has been focussing her attention. Known as the Queen of Pain, she has spent the past two decades unravelling the complexities of this puzzling sensation.
She goes behind the scenes, as it were, of what happens when we feel pain - scanning the brains of her research subjects while subjecting them to a fair amount of burning, prodding and poking.
Her work is transforming our understanding, revealing how our emotions influence our experience of pain, how chronic pain develops and even when consciousness is present in the brain.
Producer: Beth Eastwood
02/04/2019 • 28 minutes 19 seconds
Paul Davies on the origin of life and the evolution of cancer
Physicist, Paul Davies is interested in some of the biggest questions that we can ask. What is life? How did the universe begin? How will it end? And are we alone? His research has been broad and far-reaching, covering quantum mechanics, cosmology and black holes. In the 1980s he described the so-called Bunch-Davies vacuum - the quantum vacuum that existed just fractions of a second after the big bang - when particles were popping in and out of existence and nothing was stable.
As the chair of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Post Detection Task Group, he’s the person responsible for announcing to the world when we make contact with aliens. He’s now Regents Professor of Physics at Arizona State University in the American south west where he runs research groups studying the evolution of cancer and the origins of life.
Paul Davies talks to Jim al-Khalili about how he applies the principles of physics to these big questions and about how he has worked closely
26/03/2019 • 29 minutes 1 second
Corinne Le Quéré on the global carbon cycle
Throughout the history of planet Earth, the element carbon has cycled between the atmosphere, the oceans and the biosphere. This natural cycle has maintained the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and has allowed life to exist for billions of years. Corinne Le Quéré is a climate scientist who keeps track of where the carbon comes from and where it goes – all on a truly global scale.
Corinne Le Quéré is the founder of the Global Carbon Budget, which each year reports on where carbon dioxide is being emitted and where it is being absorbed around the world. More specifically, she studies the relationship between the carbon cycle and the earth’s climate, and how it is changing.
Corinne is Professor of Climate Change Science at the University of East Anglia. After a degree in physics in her native Canada she became aware of the importance of how carbon moves around the planet and the way it controls the Earth’s climate. This took her to studying meteorology and oceanography an
19/03/2019 • 27 minutes 49 seconds
Ken Gabriel, Why your Smartphone is Smart.
How insight with a stick and piece of string led to an engineering adventure taking in spacecraft, military guidance systems and the micro-mechanical devices we use every day in our computers and smartphones.
Ken Gabriel now heads up a large non-profit engineering company, Draper, which cut its teeth building the guidance systems for the Apollo space missions, and is now involved in developing both driverless cars and drug production systems for personalised medicine.
Ken himself has a career in what he might term ‘disruptive engineering’. His research married digital electronics with acoustics - and produced the microphones in our phones and computers. He has a strong track record in defence research and has also worked for Google, taking some of the military research methods into a civilian start up. This led to the development of a new type of modular mobile phone which has yet to go into production.
He tells us why aiming for seemingly impossible goals is a good idea, and how a
13/03/2019 • 27 minutes 50 seconds
2018 Nobel Prize winner, Donna Strickland, on laser physics
When the first laser was built in 1960, it was an invention looking for an application. Science fiction found uses for these phenomenally powerful beams of light long before real world applications were developed. Think Star Wars light sabres and people being sliced in half. Today lasers are used for everything from hair removal to state of the art weapons. Working with her supervisor Gerard Mourou in the 1980s, the Canadian physicist, Donna Strickland found a way to make laser pulses that were thousands of times more powerful than anything that had been made before. These rapid bursts of intense light energy have revolutionised laser eye surgery and, it’s hoped, could open the doors to an exciting range of new applications from pushing old satellites out of earth’s orbit to treatments for deep brain tumours. Donna tells Jim Al-Khalili why she wanted to work with lasers and what it feels like to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 55 years.
Producer: Anna Buckley
05/03/2019 • 29 minutes 21 seconds
Gwen Adshead on treating the minds of violent offenders
Whether it’s a news story or television drama, human violence appals and fascinates in equal measure. Yet few of us choose to dwell on what preoccupies the mind of a perpetrator for long.
Professor Gwen Adshead, however, thinks about little else. As a Forensic Psychotherapist, she works with some of the most vilified and rejected members of society. They are the violent offenders who are detained in prisons and in secure NHS hospitals, like Broadmoor, whose actions have been linked to their mental illness.
Gwen has sought to understand the psychological mechanisms behind their violent behaviour so that she can help them. A pioneer in the field, she provides an environment in which men and women are encouraged to speak the unspeakable and think the unthinkable, in the hope that they will one day be able to change their minds.
Producer: Beth Eastwood
26/02/2019 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
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 bre
19/02/2019 • 29 minutes 30 seconds
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 t
12/02/2019 • 27 minutes 50 seconds
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 i
05/02/2019 • 36 minutes
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.
19/12/2018 • 28 minutes 27 seconds
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 discipli
11/12/2018 • 28 minutes 46 seconds
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.
04/12/2018 • 28 minutes 29 seconds
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 chemic
27/11/2018 • 36 minutes 50 seconds
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
20/11/2018 • 27 minutes 45 seconds
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.
13/11/2018 • 28 minutes 11 seconds
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 ar
06/11/2018 • 27 minutes 57 seconds
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 fr
30/10/2018 • 28 minutes 4 seconds
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
23/10/2018 • 27 minutes 32 seconds
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?
19/06/2018 • 27 minutes 47 seconds
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
12/06/2018 • 41 minutes 42 seconds
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 strengt
05/06/2018 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
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.
29/05/2018 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
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
22/05/2018 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
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
15/05/2018 • 27 minutes 48 seconds
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 millio
08/05/2018 • 27 minutes 51 seconds
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
01/05/2018 • 27 minutes 53 seconds
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.
13/03/2018 • 28 minutes 12 seconds
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 the
06/03/2018 • 29 minutes 6 seconds
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.
20/02/2018 • 29 minutes 22 seconds
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, h
13/02/2018 • 29 minutes 32 seconds
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.
30/01/2018 • 28 minutes 4 seconds
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.
23/01/2018 • 27 minutes 36 seconds
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.
16/01/2018 • 27 minutes 47 seconds
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.
31/10/2017 • 27 minutes 46 seconds
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
24/10/2017 • 28 minutes 6 seconds
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 p
17/10/2017 • 39 minutes 42 seconds
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
10/10/2017 • 28 minutes 10 seconds
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.
03/10/2017 • 27 minutes 47 seconds
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
26/09/2017 • 39 minutes 5 seconds
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.
19/09/2017 • 28 minutes 1 second
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.
30/05/2017 • 28 minutes 15 seconds
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!
23/05/2017 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
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.
16/05/2017 • 27 minutes 52 seconds
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
09/05/2017 • 27 minutes 57 seconds
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 mat
02/05/2017 • 28 minutes 5 seconds
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 conse
25/04/2017 • 28 minutes 18 seconds
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 Roma
18/04/2017 • 27 minutes 52 seconds
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.
11/04/2017 • 28 minutes 15 seconds
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 sha
04/04/2017 • 28 minutes 14 seconds
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 kno
28/02/2017 • 28 minutes 15 seconds
Alan Winfield on robot ethics
Alan Winfield is the only Professor of Robot Ethics in the world. He is a voice of reason amid the growing sense of unease at the pace of progress in the field of artificial intelligence. He believes that robots aren't going to take over the world - at least not any time soon. But that doesn't mean we should be complacent.
Alan Winfield talks to Jim al-Khalili about how, at a young age, he delighted in taking things apart. After his degree in microelectronics and a PhD in digital communication at Hull University, he set up a software company in the mid-80s, which he ran for the best part of a decade before returning to academia. In 1993, he co-founded the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England, by far the largest centre of robotics in the UK. Today, he is a leading authority, not only on robot ethics, but on the idea of swarm robotics and biologically-inspired robotics. Alan explains to Jim that what drives many of his enquiries is the deeply profound que
21/02/2017 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Simon Wessely on unexplained medical syndromes
Professor Sir Simon Wessely has spent his whole career arguing that mental and physical health are inseparable and that the Cinderella status of mental health funding is a national disgrace.
His current role, as President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has given him a platform to bang the drum for parity of funding, better training for doctors and the need to reduce stigma around mental health (and armchair psychiatrists who think it's OK to diagnose the new American President with a mental illness get short shrift as well).
Professor of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, part of King's College in London, Simon Wessely has always been fascinated by those puzzling symptoms and syndromes which can't easily be explained. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would find himself at the centre of research trying to explain the distressing and debilitating illness, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Threats and abuse finally led to him leave t
14/02/2017 • 28 minutes 18 seconds
Sean Carroll on how time and space began
How did time and space begin? From the age of ten, Sean Carroll has wanted to know. He first read about the big bang model of the universe as a child. Later, he turned down two job offers from Stephen Hawking. The big bang model of the universe is well established but, as Sean readily admits, the big bang itself remains a mystery. In the beginning, Sean applied Einstein's theories of relativity to this problem. But mid-career and painfully aware that trying to out Einstein Einstein was a tough call, he turned his attention from the very big to the very small. His most recent work imagines a universe without time and without space and describes how these two rather important aspects of our existence might have been created, using the laws of quantum mechanics and, in particular, the idea of quantum entanglement. Apparently it's quite straightforward. Things that are more entangled are closer. It doesn't explain the origin of time, however.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
07/02/2017 • 27 minutes 47 seconds
Alison Smith on algae
Think of algae and you'll probably think trouble. Algal blooms turned the diving pool green at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Smelly seaweed ruins many a trip to the beach. But Alison Smith, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, argues that we should appreciate algae more. They range in size from giant kelp to microscopic diatoms. They are found all over the world from the Arctic to the Tropics, live in water and make energy from the sun by photosynthesis. Alison Smith talks to Jim al-Khalili about algae's sometimes bizarre biochemistry and how she discovered that they obtain their vitamins from bacteria they live alongside in the sea. They also discuss how we are beginning to farm algae to make all kinds of chemicals, from food stuffs to biofuels. We may become very dependent on them when the oil runs out.
31/01/2017 • 27 minutes 56 seconds
Sadaf Farooqi on what makes us fat
Is it true that some people put on weight more easily than others? And if so why? It's a question that's close to many of our hearts. And it's a question that medical researcher, Professor Sadaf Farooqi is trying to answer. In 1997, Sadaf noticed that two children she was studying lacked the hormone leptin. From there, she went on to discover the first single gene defect that causes obesity. For most us, how much we eat is within our control. But for children with this rare inherited condition and, it turned out, several other rare genetic disorders, the evidence is clear. A voracious appetite is not a lifestyle choice: it's a biological response to brains signalling starvation. Sadaf tells Jim how she discovered ten rare genetic disorders that cause severe childhood obesity and what this means for the rest of us.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
24/01/2017 • 28 minutes
Jan Zalasiewicz on the Age of Man
Jan Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology at Leicester University, talks to Jim al-Khalili about the Anthropocene, the concept that humans now drive much geology on the earth. He's one of the leading lights in the community of scientists who are working to get the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, recognised.
They discuss the controversy about the date of when it began- some say it was a thousand years ago, or the Industrial revolution, others that it was the Second World War, and yet others that it's as recent as the 1960s. It all turns on finding the Golden Spike, a layer in rock strata above which the geology changes.
Jan Zalasiewicz began his career as a traditional geologist studying rocks 500 million years old in Welsh border. After years out in the field mapping the landscape for the British Geological Survey he moved into academia at Leicester University.
17/01/2017 • 28 minutes 5 seconds
Michele Dougherty on Saturn
The Cassini mission into deep space has witnessed raging storms, flown between Saturn's enigmatic rings and revealed seven new moons. And, thanks in no small part to Professor Michele Dougherty, it's made some astonishing discoveries. For the last twenty years, Michele been responsible for one of the key instruments on board Cassini - the magnetometer. In 2005, she spotted a strange signature in the data during a distant fly by of Saturn's smaller moons, Enceladus and became curious. Now,space missions are planned years ahead of time. Every detail is nailed down. But Michele convinced mission control to divert Cassini from its carefully planned route to take a closer look at Enceladus. And her gamble paid off. Cassini scientists soon discovered jets of water vapour and organic material shooting out of the south pole of Enceladus, not bad for a small moon that could so easily have been ignored. It's now thought that this tiny moon might be able to support microbial life underneath its i
10/01/2017 • 28 minutes 14 seconds
Neil de Grasse Tyson on Pluto
The US science superstar, Neil de Grasse Tyson grew up in the Bronx, and studied astrophysics at Harvard, Columbia and Princeton Universities before becoming director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. But he's best known for his TV and movie appearances, his books, podcasts and his tweets or 'scientific droppings' as he likes to call them. He has over 6 million followers on Twitter and is often credited with turning millennials around the world on to science. Neil tells Jim al-Khalili why he's so committed to making science feel exciting, why we are all stardust and why Pluto isn't a planet.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
20/12/2016 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Richard Morris on how we know where we are
How do we know where we are? The question sounds simple enough. But there's much more to it than simply looking around. Our sense of place is embedded in the very structure of our brains, in such a way that we can remember the exact place we used to play as a child, even if the neighbourhood has been transformed and few of the original visual cues remain. The park you played in as a child may now be full of high rise flats but somehow you know where your favourite tree used to be. Richard Morris has devoted his Life Scientific to trying to understand this profound sense of place and in 2016 was awarded the prestigious Brain Prize for his work on brain cells and circuits. Over the years, he's performed thousands of of experiments on rats in water mazes, an experimental tool that he invented in the eighties and that's now used in labs all over the world. And, in one of his latest experiments, he set up a rat restaurant.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
06/12/2016 • 27 minutes 57 seconds
Julia Higgins on polymers
Plastic Bags and the DNA in our cells are both polymers, very long molecules ubiquitous in nature and in their synthetic form, in materials like polythene, perspex and polystyrene. Professor Dame Julia Higgins has spent a lifetime researching the structure and movement of polymeric material.
Trained as a physicist, Dame Julia was one of the early researchers in polymer science and throughout her career worked alongside chemists and engineers. No surprise then that she was the first woman to become both a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Academy of Engineering.
In the 1960s with other young researchers she worked at the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Centre in Oxfordshire, one of the first people to use neutron scattering as a technique to investigate how polymer molecules move.
Emeritus Professor of Polymer Science and former Principal at the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College, London, Professor Higgins tells Jim Al-Khalili how she used her influence as a leading
29/11/2016 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
Roger Penrose on black holes
In a career of over fifty years Sir Roger Penrose has changed the way we see the Universe. He carried out seminal research on black holes and the big bang, and he's questioned the current received wisdom on some of the most important ideas in science, such as quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence and where consciousness comes from. His ideas in geometry directly influenced the work of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.
Now Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Roger Penrose is one of the world's most lauded mathematical physicists. He's written a number of popular science books in which he certainly doesn't shy away from the mathematics.
Jim al-Khalili talks to Roger Penrose about his continuing fascination with the biggest questions in science.
22/11/2016 • 28 minutes 15 seconds
Lynne Boddy on Fungi
Fungi are responsible for rotting fruit, crumbling brickwork and athlete's foot. They have a mouldy reputation; but it's their ability to destroy things that enables new life to grow. 90% of all plants depend on fungi to extract vital nutrients from the soil. And it's probably thanks to fungi that the first plants were able to colonize land 450 million years ago. Professor Lynne Boddy shares her passion for fungi with Jim Al-Khalili and describes some of the vicious strategies they use to defend their territory. Direct strangulation and chemical weapons; it's all happening underground.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
15/11/2016 • 27 minutes 25 seconds
Ian Wilmut on Dolly the sheep
Dolly the sheep was born near Edinburgh, twenty years ago this summer. She was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult animal, (named after Dolly Parton because she was created from a breast cell). And became a global media star, inspiring both amazement that an animal be created with three mothers but no father,and fear. Many worried about where such a development might lead. The papers reported: 'dreaded possibilities are raised'; 'cloned sheep in Nazi storm'. Professor Ian Wilmut,the man who created Dolly, was compared to Frankenstein. Jim talked to Ian in front of an audience at the Edinburgh Festival and asked him why he decided to try and clone a sheep; how he and the team did it; and whether cloning humans is now a real possibility.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
11/10/2016 • 28 minutes 6 seconds
Frans de Waal on chimpanzees
We share 99% of our DNA with the chimpanzee and the bonobo. And yet we're often surprised to learn that apes, like us, can be both kind and clever. Behavioural biologist and best-selling author, Frans de Waal has spent many years observing our closest living animal relatives. He pioneered studies of kindness and peace-making in primates, when other scientists were focussing on violence, greed and aggression. Empathy, he argues, has a long evolutionary history; and he is determined to undermine our arrogant assumptions of human superiority. Frans talks to Jim Al-Khalili about growing up on the Dutch polders, chimpanzee politics, and the extraordinary sex lives of the bonobos.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
04/10/2016 • 28 minutes 7 seconds
Trevor Cox on sound
Inside a Victorian sewer, with fat deposits sliding off the ceiling and disappearing down the back of his shirt, Trevor Cox had an epiphany. Listening to the strange sound of his voice reverberating inside the sewer, he wondered where else in the world he could experience unusual and surprising noises.
As an acoustic engineer, Trevor started his career tackling unwanted noises, from clamour in the classroom to poor acoustics in concert halls. But his jaunt inside a sewer sparked a new quest to find and celebrate the 'sonic wonders of the world'.
In this episode he shares these sounds with Jim Al-Khalili and discusses the science behind them.
Producer: Michelle Martin.
19/07/2016 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Georgina Mace on threatened species
Despite decades of conservation work, in zoos and in the field, the rate at which species are going extinct is speeding up. Georgina Mace has devoted her Life Scientific to trying to limit the damage to our planet's bio-diversity from this alarming loss. For ten years she worked on the Red List of Threatened Species, developing a robust set of scientific criteria for assessing the threat of extinction facing every species on the planet. When the list was first published, she expected resistance from big business; but not the vicious negative reaction she received from many wildlife NGOS. Her careful quantitative analysis revealed that charismatic animals, like the panda and the polar bear, are not necessarily the most at risk.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
12/07/2016 • 28 minutes 1 second
Faraneh Vargha-Khadem on memory
Self-taught Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Faraneh Vargha-Khadem has spent decades studying children with developmental amnesia. Her mission: to understand how we form memories of the events in our past, from things we've experienced to places we've visited and people we've met. She talks to Jim about the memories we lay down during our lives and the autobiographies stored in our brains that define us as individuals. Faraneh was also part of the team that identified the FoxP2 gene, the so called 'speech gene', that may explain why humans talk and chimps don't. Plus Faraneh discusses how her Baha'i faith informs her scientific thinking.
05/07/2016 • 28 minutes 8 seconds
Hazel Rymer on volcanoes
Hazel Rymer has journeyed closer to the centre of the earth than most, regularly peering into the turbulent, fiery world than makes up the earth's core. By taking measurements of micro-gravity on, and inside, volcanoes all over the world, she hopes to better understand why they erupt and what happens when they do. Having lost a close colleague to a random volcanic eruption, she appreciates the risks involved and, at the same time, insists that they are no greater than driving on the M25. She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about learning to think like a geologist after studying physics; the joys and frustrations of doing fieldwork on volcanoes; and why she loves gravity meter, G513.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
27/06/2016 • 27 minutes 51 seconds
Nick Davies on cuckoos
Nick Davies has been teasing apart the dark relationship between the cuckoo and the birds it tricks into bringing up its young, for more than three decades. The Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Cambridge has spent more than 30 springs and summers on nearby fenland of watching, recording and crucially experimenting. Nick's studies have deployed simple yet ingenious experiments, among the reed beds where the birds nest. They have involved mock eggs, stuffed birds and miniature loudspeakers, to piece together the cuckoo's dark story. He has even swopped cuckoo chicks with blackbird nestlings in the nests of the feathered parasite's victims. No birds are harmed in his revealing tests.
Prof Davies also talks to Jim al-Khalili about the origins of his life with birds, and the revolution in animal behaviour science beginning as he began his scientific career. Ideas about the selfish gene and game theory, along with DNA fingerprint in the 1980's, transformed the research
21/06/2016 • 35 minutes 32 seconds
Sheila Rowan on gravitational waves
Half a century after the search for gravitational waves began, scientists confirmed that they had finally been detected in February 2016. Physicists around the world were ecstatic. It was proof at last that Einstein was right: the tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime that he predicted a hundred years ago are real. And now that we can detect them, a new era for astronomy is anticipated. Traditional telescopes rely on light for information. No good when you want to find objects that are dark. Now for the first time we can 'see' black holes colliding.
Sheila talks to Jim at the Cheltenham Science Festival about her part in this momentous discovery.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
14/06/2016 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Marcus du Sautoy on mathematics
Marcus du Sautoy wasn't particularly good at maths at school; but a teacher spotted his aptitude for abstract thought and he started reading, and enjoying, journals filled with mathematical proofs. His thesis on the mathematics of symmetry launched him as a world class mathematician. And before he dies he wants to know: can you predict the properties of the next symmetrical object that could possibly exist in a hundred thousand dimensions or more? Marcus talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his passion for the performing arts, as well as mathematics; and why, for him, mathematics is as much a creative art as a science.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
07/06/2016 • 27 minutes 49 seconds
Lawrence Krauss on dark energy
Lawrence Krauss has had an unusual career for a cosmologist.
Not content with dreaming up theoretical models of the Universe, and writing bestselling science books, he gathers audiences of thousands for his talks with leading figures, from Noam Chomsky to Johnny Depp. And soon, he will star as an evil scientist in the film 'Salt & Fire' directed by Werner Herzog.
Inside the world of physics, Krauss predicted the existence of a mysterious 'dark energy' in space, several years before it was found, although the Nobel Prize for the discovery was later given to three other scientists.
As a public atheist, Krauss has come to blows with religious and political lobbies inside the United States. He tells Jim Al-Khalili why 'coming out' as an atheist in the US is considered so controversial.
Producer: Michelle Martin.
31/05/2016 • 28 minutes 12 seconds
Carolyn Roberts on flood control
Barely a month goes by without news of another catastrophic flood somewhere in the world, like the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 or the flooding of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina a year later, and the role of climate change is often mooted. Here in the UK this winter, flood victims were once again caught in a cycle of despair and anger as they tried to make sense of why their homes were flooded and what could be done to prevent it happening again.
Jim talks to environmental scientist, Professor Carolyn Roberts, who is pre-occupied by problems like this. She applies water science, in particular, to work out why such events occur and the role we humans play in them. Her passion for problem solving in watery places also takes her into the intriguing world of forensics where she assists the police when bodies are found floating in rivers and canals.
Producer: Beth Eastwood.
22/03/2016 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut (2016)
Before Helen Sharman replied to a rather unusual radio advertisement her life was, in many ways, quite ordinary. She was working as a chemist in a sweet factory, creating and testing flavours. Much to her surprise, her application to be an astronaut was successful and two years later, following an intense 18 month training course at a military base just outside Moscow, she was selected for Project Juno, the 1991 mission to the Soviet space station, MIR. And so became the first British astronaut. On the 25th anniversary of this historic mission, Helen talks to Jim about her life before MIR; some of the less glamorous aspects of being in space; and the difficult process of coming down to earth.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
15/03/2016 • 28 minutes 8 seconds
Venki Ramakrishnan on ribosomes
All the information that's needed for life is written in our DNA. But how do we get from DNA code to biological reality? That's the job of the ribosomes - those clever molecular machines that are found in every living cell. And in 2008 Venki Ramakrishnan was awarded the Nobel Prize for determining their structure. Jim talks to Venki about the frantic race to crack the structure of the ribosome, probably the most important biological molecule after DNA; why he thinks the Nobel Prize is a terrible thing for science; and his new job as President of the Royal Society.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
08/03/2016 • 28 minutes 1 second
George Davey-Smith on health inequalities
When George Davey-Smith started work as an epidemiologist, he hoped to prove that the cause of coronary disease in South Wales soon after the miner's strike was Thatcherism. The miners said they thought it was a combination of having a poor constitution and bad fortune. Thirty years later, George admits he would have done well to listen to them. Having spent decades studying the influence on our health of a huge number of variables, from lifestyle factors like car ownership to our genetic inheritance and most recently epi-genetic effects; George has concluded that whether or not individuals get sick is, to a significant extent, down to chance. But that's not to say that public health interventions are a waste of time.They can boost the overall health of a population, significantly.
George is director of the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
01/03/2016 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Dr Nick Lane on the origin of life on earth
Dr Nick Lane is attempting to answer one of the hardest questions in science. How did life on earth begin? You might think that question had been solved by Darwin in the 19th century. He wrote that he thought life might have started on earth "in a warm little pond", where all the necessary ingredients: water, sunlight and nutrients combined in this "primordial soup" to create the very first biomolecule of life. Others - like Fred Hoyle - thought that life came to earth from elsewhere in space. But Nick Lane has different ideas of how, and where, it happened. The place in question was deep under the sea in hydrothermal vents. Amongst other research he carries out at University College London, he's running an experiment to try to recreate this moment.
Nick Lane had an unusual route to this point in his scientific career. For some years he left his research career to become a medical journalist and write popular books. A rare opportunity took him back into the laboratory.
23/02/2016 • 28 minutes 12 seconds
Naomi Climer on engineering
Naomi Climer is one of the most senior British women engineers working in the communications industry, and after decades working on major projects she's left the world of business to become the first female president of Institution of Engineering and Technology (the IET). As part of her presidency, Naomi has launched a campaign called - Engineer a better World - to make us realise that engineering is an exciting and creative activity.. and, in particular, to attract and retain more women in the profession.
Naomi Climer's most recent role was running Sony's Media Cloud Services. She was based in California where, she says, engineers are treated like rock stars. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about how British engineers can gain higher status than they do today.
16/02/2016 • 28 minutes 6 seconds
Peter Piot on tackling ebola and HIV
With the Zika epidemic in Brazil being declared an international health emergency just months after the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa, Jim Al-Khalili talks to Professor Peter Piot about a lifetime spent trying to stop the spread of deadly viruses.
Peter came across a strange new virus in 1976 when he was working in a small lab in his home town, Antwerp. Weeks later he was in Zaire meeting patients and trying to understand the transmission routes of this terrifying new virus which, together with colleagues, he named Ebola. Thousands of miles from home and surrounded by people dying, he says he felt very much alive. His career path was set.
He was heavily involved in the recent Ebola epidemic but most of Peter's career has been devoted to stopping the transmission of another deadly virus, HIV. He spent most of the eighties trying to convince the world that HIV/AIDS was a heterosexual disease and much of the nineties trying to mobilise the World Health Organisation and other UN a
09/02/2016 • 28 minutes 10 seconds
Paul Younger on energy for the future
Paul Younger, Rankine Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, in conversation with Jim al-Khalili in front of an audience at the Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead.
Paul Younger's future career was inspired by the hills around him near the River Tyne. From a background in geology he now carries out research into, as he says, "keeping the lights on and keeping homes and businesses warm whilst de-carbonising our energy systems."
He spent many years at the University of Newcastle, where he built up his expertise in the relationship between water and rocks. He has advised on how to clean up the highly polluted water left in mines after they are closed - from the North East to Bolivia.
His knowledge of the rocks beneath our feet has lead him to investigating how we might use more geothermal energy in the future. Paul Younger tells Jim al-Khalili about the experimental holes that have been drilled in County Durham and central Newcastle, and explains why these p
17/11/2015 • 28 minutes 8 seconds
Kathy Willis on botany
"I'm determined to prove botany is not the 'Cinderella of science'". That's what Professor Kathy Willis, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, told the Independent in 2014.
In the two years since she took on the job at Kew she's been faced with a reduction in government funding. So, Kathy Willis has been rethinking the science that's to be done by the staff of the Gardens - and been criticised for her decisions.
But as well as leading this transformation, Kathy has a distinguished academic career in biodiversity. She is currently a professor at Oxford University and, during her research career, she's studied plants and their environments all over the world, from the New Forest, when she was a student in Southampton, to the Galapagos Islands where she studied the impact of the removal of the giant tortoises on the vegetation there.
Jim al-Khalili discusses the future of biodiversity with Kathy Willis.
10/11/2015 • 28 minutes 6 seconds
Patrick Vallance on pharmaceuticals
Patrick Vallance is something of a rare breed: a game-keeper turned poacher; an academic who's moved over into industry. And not just any industry, but the pharmaceutical industry.
At the time, Patrick Vallance was Professor of Clinical Pharmacology and Head of the Department of Medicine at University College London. A pioneer of research into some of the body's key regulatory systems, he had also been publicly critical of BIG Pharma for "funding studies more helpful to marketing than to advancing clinical care". So what made him go over to "the other side"?
His involvement with the industry was limited until one evening in 2006 when he was asked a question over a dinner, a question that would be pivotal to his life and career.
Today, Patrick is head of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies with annual revenues in excess of 20 billion pounds and nearly a hundred thousand employees worldwide. Whilst GSK is no stranger to sca
03/11/2015 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Robert Plomin on the genetics of intelligence
Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he's fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored. Born and raised in Chicago, Robert sat countless intelligence tests at his inner city Catholic school. College was an attractive option mainly because it seemed to pay well. Now he's one of the most cited psychologists in the world. He specialized in behavioural genetics in the mid seventies when the focus in mainstream psychology was very much on our nurture rather than our nature, and genetics was virtually taboo. But he persisted, conducting several large adoption studies and later twin studies. In 1995 he launched the biggest longitudinal twin study in the UK, the TED study of ten thousand pairs of twins which continues to this day. In this study and in his other work, he's shown consistently that genetic influences on intelligence are highly significant, much more so than what school you go to, your teachers or home e
20/10/2015 • 28 minutes 3 seconds
Danielle George on electronics
Danielle George is a radio frequency engineer from the University of Manchester. She designs amplifiers that have travelled everywhere, from outer space to underground.
Becoming a professor aged just 38, she talks to Jim about the challenges of age discrimination and working in a male dominated field.
As presenter of last year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, she's passionate about DIY electronics and coding, and how to inspire the UK's next generation of inventors.
13/10/2015 • 27 minutes 50 seconds
Dame Carol Black on public health
Carol Black was an overweight child who, aged 13, put herself on a diet. Now, as an expert advisor to the government, she's the woman behind recent newspaper headlines suggesting that obese people who refuse treatment could see their benefits cut. In the last decade, Carol has conducted several reviews on work and health, sickness absence and how best to help people with obesity, alcohol and drug problems get back into the workplace. In 2008 she suggested the Sick Note should be replaced with a Fit Note which states what people can do rather than what they can't. Later she recommended that an independent assessor should decide who is, or is not, Fit for Work. Dame Carol Black talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the challenges associated with advising government on these controversial issues; and how, despite relative adversity and several bad decisions, she achieved such a position of power and influence.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
06/10/2015 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
Geoff Palmer on brewing
Jim al-Khalili talks to botanist Geoff Palmer, the UK's only professor of brewing and distilling, about revolutionising the malting industry and his unusual scientific career after arriving from Jamaica in 1955 as a 14 year old boy. When he went for an interview for an MSc in 1964 the representative from the Ministry of Agriculture suggested he go back home and grow bananas. Why? Because he didn't know the difference between wheat and barley. Undeterred he went on to become a world authority on barley, brewing and distilling and Scotland's first black professor. His research on how malt could be made more quickly saved the brewing industry millions. But he says, it's only through good luck and with the help of good Samaritans that his career took the course it did, helping him get to university and even to finish school. Now at the age of 75, he's still fighting to make education and a scientific career available to everyone, regardless of their background.
04/08/2015 • 28 minutes 10 seconds
EO Wilson on ants and evolution
EO Wilson has been described as the "world's most evolved biologist" and even as "the heir to Darwin". He's a passionate naturalist and an absolute world authority on ants. Over his long career he's described 450 new species of ants.
Known to many as the founding father of socio-biology, EO Wilson is a big hitter in the world of evolutionary theory. But, recently he's criticised what's popularly known as The Selfish Gene theory of evolution that he once worked so hard to promote (and that now underpins the mainstream view on evolution).
A twice Pulitzer prize winning author of more than 20 books, he's also an extremely active campaigner for the preservation of the planet's bio-diversity: he says, "destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal".
EO Wilson talks to Jim al-Khalili about his life scientific.
28/07/2015 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Niamh Nic Daeid on forensic science
Forensic chemist Niamh Nic Daeid talks to Jim Al-Khalili about investigating fires and analysing legal highs.
Her team were involved in studying the infamous Philpott case in Derby when six children tragically died in a fire set by their parents, Mick and Mairead. They devised experiments to find out why, despite having smoke alarms fitted inside the house, none of the children woke up.
Chemistry has also been pushed to the limits to identify 'legal highs', or Novel Psychoactive Substances. Around 350 new drugs are released on to the market every month, with Europe a hotspot for buyers.
Plus, Niamh talks about the serious problems facing the world of forensic science. The field, she says, is in crisis. With rock-bottom research budgets, and the list of miscarriages of justice growing, how can we fix forensic science?
Producer: Michelle Martin.
21/07/2015 • 28 minutes 1 second
Carlos Frenk on dark matter
Carlos Frenk, Ogden Professor of Computational Cosmology at the University of Durham, studies the universe, but not by spending nights looking out at the dark skies through telescopes. Rather he creates the cosmos on computers. He is also one of the Gang of Four of astrophysics who thirty years ago came up with one of the most important theories in their field. They worked out that the universe is full of cold dark matter. In 2011 Carlos Frenk and his colleagues were awarded the Gruber prize, one of the leading accolades in astronomy, for their theory.
Carlos Frenk discusses this mysterious missing mass, which is still mysterious and missing, with Jim al-Khalili. They talk about modelling the universe inside computers, and how Carlos persuaded his university to hire the architect Daniel Liebskind to design a building for creative thinking about the cosmos.
14/07/2015 • 28 minutes 8 seconds
Dorothy Bishop on language disorders
Dorothy Bishop is a world-leading expert in childhood language disorders.
Since the 1970s, she has been instrumental in bringing to light a little-known language disorder that may affect around two children per class starting primary school.
'Specific Language Impairment', or SLI, was originally deemed to be the fault of lazy parents who didn't talk to their children. But through her pioneering studies on twins, Dorothy found a genetic link behind this disorder, helping to overturn these widespread misconceptions.
Dorothy talks to Jim Al-Khalili about how families react when they discover there's a genetic basis to their problems, and why this language impairment isn't as well known as other conditions, like autism and dyslexia.
A critic of pseudoscience and media misreporting, Dorothy discusses her experiences of speaking out against folk psychology and bad science journalism.
Producer: Michelle Martin.
07/07/2015 • 28 minutes 8 seconds
Henry Marsh on brain surgery
Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh talks to Jim Al-Khalili about slicing through thoughts, hopes and memories. Brain surgery, he says, is straightforward. It's deciding whether or not to operate that's hard.
The stakes are high and it's never clear cut. He often dreads having to talk to patients and their families. Damage to healthy brain cells can result in a dramatic change to someone's quality of life; but if a bit of a tumour remains, it's likely to grow back. "How do you tell someone that the best option may be to go away and die?"
Once, against his professional judgment, Henry went ahead with surgery because the patient wanted him to operate. The patient died and he blames himself for not being stronger. He talks openly about the cemetery that all doctors inevitably carry with them; and why he would rather be seen as a fallible human being, than either a superhero or villain. Perhaps it's inevitable that doctors are put on a pedestal but it can be unhelpful.
Despite a chronic lack of sc
30/06/2015 • 28 minutes 13 seconds
Kate Jones on bats and biodiversity
Kate Jones is Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity at UCL and the Institute of Zoology. An expert in evolution and extinction, her special interest is in bat research and conservation.
Bats make up one in five of all mammal species on Earth, from the miniscule bumblebee bat to the enormous megabat.
As well as controlling harmful insects bats also pollinate a large variety of crops, from bananas to blue agave plants that are used to make tequila.
Kate has pioneered ground-breaking technologies that allow the public to monitor bats, including the citizen science website Bat Detective.
This work led her to investigate human infectious diseases, including those spread through animals. Together with a global team of researchers, they drew up a map of global hotspots to try and predict where the next 'zoonotic' disease will emerge.
Producer: Michelle Martin.
23/06/2015 • 27 minutes 53 seconds
Anil Seth on consciousness
Anil Seth is professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the Sackler Centre at the University of Sussex, where he studies consciousness.
His research has taken him in all kinds of directions, from reading philosophy, to computing and virtual reality, and mapping the brain. As well as running the interdisciplinary centre and carrying out experiments that test ideas about consciousness, Anil Seth has co-written a popular book, The 30 second brain, and was the consultant on Eye Benders, the winner of the Junior Royal Society Book Prize in 2014.
He talks to Jim al-Khalili about how scientists can study altered states of consciousness, such as sleep and coma. He explains how he uses virtual reality to understand conditions where our idea of ourselves is distorted, such as in the Alice in Wonderland syndrome.
16/06/2015 • 37 minutes 42 seconds
Susan Jebb on nutrition
Fat, sugar, salt - we all know we should eat less of them, and take more exercise, but as a nation with an ever expanding waistline we are becoming increasingly overweight.
Jim al-Khalili talks to Professor Susan Jebb, the UK's authority on obesity, who has spent much of her career trying to help us put those good intentions into practice.
Her challenge is not for the faint hearted. When she first got interested in obesity, as a research scientist, rates were already on the rise. Yet no one took the problem seriously. Today, with over sixty percent of adults overweight or obese, Susan remains unwavering in her commitment to ensuring we do.
As Professor of Diet and Population Health at Oxford University and Chair of the government's Responsibility Deal Food Network, she wants all of us and the food industry to improve the nation's health by translating the science of what we eat into practice.
And health is what it's all about. Obesity now poses such a danger that it's been dubbed t
21/04/2015 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
Nigel Shadbolt on the worldwide web
Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Southampton University, believes in the power of open data. With Sir Tim Berners-Lee he persuaded two UK Prime Ministers of the importance of letting us all get our hands on information that's been collected about us by the government and other organisations. But, this has brought him into conflict with people who think there's money to be made from this data. And open data raises issues of privacy.
Nigel Shadbolt talks to Jim al-Khalili about how a degree in psychology and philosophy lead to a career researching artificial intelligence and a passion for open data.
14/04/2015 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Stephanie Shirley on computer coding
As a young woman, Stephanie Shirley worked at the Dollis Hill Research Station building computers from scratch: but she told young admirers that she worked for the Post Office, hoping they would think she sold stamps. In the early 60s she changed her name to Steve and started selling computer programmes to companies who had no idea what they were or what they could do, employing only mothers who worked from home writing code by hand with pen and pencil and then posted it to her. By the mid-80s her software company employed eight thousand people, still mainly women with children. She made an absolute fortune but these days Stephanie thinks less about making money and much more about how best to give it away.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
07/04/2015 • 27 minutes 53 seconds
Jane Francis on Antarctica
Just twenty years ago, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) would not allow women to camp in Antarctica. In 2013, it appointed Jane Francis as its Director. Jane tells Jim Al-Khalili how an intimate understanding of petrified wood and fossilised leaves took her from Dorset's Jurassic coast to this icy land mass. Camping on Antarctic ice is not for everyone but Jane is addicted, even if she does crave celery and occasionally wish that she could wash her hair. Fossils buried under the ice contain vital clues about ancient climates and can be used to check current computer models of climate change. The earth can withstand a great range of temperatures: Antarctica was once covered in lush forest. But the question is: can humans adapt? As the ice caps melt, sea levels will continue to rise. And, says Jane, the time to start planning for that is now.
31/03/2015 • 28 minutes 8 seconds
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on teenage brains
Until recently, it was thought that human brain development was all over by early childhood but research in the last decade has shown that the adolescent brain is still changing into early adulthood. Jim Al-Khalili talks to pioneering cognitive neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore who is responsible for much of the research which shows that our brains continue to develop through the teenage years. She discusses why teenagers take risks and are so susceptible to influence from their peers as well as her childhood growing up with the constant threat of attacks from animal rights groups.
24/03/2015 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Matt Taylor on the Rosetta space mission
Matt Taylor talks to Jim Al-Khalili about being in charge of the Rosetta space mission to the distant comet, 67P. It is, he says, 'the sexiest thing alive', after his wife. He describes his joy when, after travelling for ten years and covering four billion miles, the robot, Philae landed on the speeding comet 67P; and turned the image tattooed on his thigh from wishful thinking into a triumph for science. Matt's father, a builder, encouraged him to do well at school. He wanted him to get a job in science and Matt didn't disappoint, joining the European Space Agency in June 2005. His charm and exuberance have brought competing teams together as they fight for their science to have priority on Rosetta. His enthusiasm has helped to spark and fuel a global interest in the mission and he deeply regrets his choice of shirt on one occasion.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
17/03/2015 • 27 minutes 49 seconds
John O'Keefe on memory
John O'Keefe tells Jim Al-Khalili how winning the Nobel Prize was a bit of a double-edged sword, especially as he liked his life in the lab, before being made famous by the award.
John won the prize for his once radical insight into how we know where we are. When he first described the idea of 'place cells' in the brain back in 1971, many scoffed. Today it's accepted scientific wisdom that our spatial ability depends on these highly specialized brain cells.
A keen basketball player,John says, he has put this principle to the test by trying to shoot hoops with his eyes closed. But this belies the years of painstaking experiments on rats that John performed to prove that a rat's ability to know where it is depends not only on its sense of smell, but also on a cognitive map, or internal GPS, inside the rat's brain.
He describes how he listened in on the unique firing patterns of individual rat brain cells using the tiniest electrodes: "You almost imagine they are singing to you", he
10/03/2015 • 27 minutes 34 seconds
Dave Goulson on bees
Professor Dave Goulson has been obsessed with animals since he was a child. He collected all kinds of creatures and went as far as doing home made taxidermy. He's now Professor of Biological Sciences at Sussex University where he specialises in bumblebees. Dave Goulson talks to Jim al-Khalili about how he took five years to work out how bees know which flowers to go to for the most nectar, and why he set up a charity to encourage the public and farmers to plant more flowers for bumblebees to feast upon.
Recently Dave has found himself in a media storm as he's been studying the effects of pesticides called neo-nicotinoids on bumblebees. After he and others published research showing that the neo-nicotinoids have a detrimental effect on the foraging of bumblebees, the EU has brought in a temporary ban on some of them. But some farmers say that their harvests will be poor if they can't use these pesticides. Dave and Jim discuss the balance between conserving nature and feeding people.
11/11/2014 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Dame Sally Davies on public health
Jim al-Khalili talks to Professor Dame Sally Davies about being a champion for patients and a champion for women.
As Chief Medical Officer, the first woman to fill the post, she guides government decisions on pressing health issues such as antimicrobial resistance, mental health and, most recently, Ebola.
Having spent many years working as a haematologist, focussing on sickle cell disease, Dame Sally now works tirelessly to put scientific evidence at the heart of Government decisions that affect out health. And it's this quest for evidence that has inspired much of her career.
As Director General for Research and Development at the Department of Health, she saw the opportunity to overhaul health research in the National Health Service, focussing on the needs of patients. It was a hugely controversial idea which others had tried to implement, and failed. But she stuck to her guns and the National Institute for Health Research, which she created, is now the envy of the world.
04/11/2014 • 28 minutes 11 seconds
Richard Fortey on fossils
Richard Fortey found his first trilobite fossil when he was 14 years old and he spent the rest of his career discovering hundreds more, previously unknown to science.
Professor of Palaeontology at the Natural History Museum, he talks to Jim Al-Khalili about why these arthropods, joint-legged creatures which look a bit like woodlice and roamed the ancient oceans for almost 300 million years, are so important for helping us to understand the evolution of life on our planet.
These new trilobite fossils were found at an exciting time for the earth sciences because of the emergence of plate tectonics. The discovery of communities of trilobite fossils could be used to reconstruct the shape of the ancient world and Richard used the new discoveries to help map the geologically very different Palaeozoic continents and seas.
He admits that he's a born naturalist, fascinated by all aspects of the natural world (he's a leading expert on fungi) with a powerful drive to communicate its wonders to
28/10/2014 • 28 minutes 5 seconds
Margaret Boden on artificial intelligence
Maggie Boden is a world authority in the field of artificial intelligence - she even has a robot named in her honour.
Research Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex, Maggie has spent a lifetime attempting to answer philosophical questions about the nature of the human mind, but from a computational viewpoint.
"Tin cans", as she sometimes calls computers, are information processing systems, the perfect vehicle, she believes, to help us understand, explore and analyse the mind.
But questions about the human mind and the human person could never be answered within one single academic subject. So the long career of Maggie Boden is the very epitome of cross-disciplinary working. From medicine, to psychology, to cognitive and computer science, to technology and philosophy, Professor Boden has spent decades straddling multiple academic subjects, helping to create brand new disciplines along the way.
21/10/2014 • 27 minutes 48 seconds
Chris Toumazou on inventing medical devices
European Inventor of the Year, Chris Toumazou, reveals how his personal life and early research lie at the heart of his inventions.
As Chief Scientist at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial College London, Chris inspires engineers, doctors and other scientists to create medical devices for the 21st century.
Applying silicon chip technology, more commonly found inside mobile phones, he tackles seemingly insurmountable problems in medicine to create devices that bridge the electronic and biological worlds - from a digital plaster that monitors a patient's vital signs to an artificial pancreas to treat diabetes.
His latest creation, coined a 'lab on a chip', analyses a person's DNA within minutes outside the laboratory. The hand-held device can identify genetic differences which dictate a person's susceptibility to hereditary diseases and how they will react to a drug like warfarin, used to treat blood clots.
Producer: Beth Eastwood.
14/10/2014 • 28 minutes 5 seconds
Elspeth Garman on crystallography
Jim al-Khalili talks to Professor Elspeth Garman about a technique that's led to 28 Nobel Prizes in the last century.
X- ray crystallography, now celebrating its 100th anniversary, is used to study the internal structure of matter. It may sound rather arcane but it's the reason we now know the structure of hugely important molecules, like penicillin, insulin and DNA. But while other scientists scoop up prizes for cracking chemical structures, Elspeth works away behind the scenes, (more cameraman than Hollywood star), improving the methods and techniques used by everybody working in the field.
If only it was as simple as putting a crystal in the machine and printing off the results. Growing a single crystal of an enzyme that gives TB its longevity took Elspeth's team no less than fifteen years. No pressure there then when harvesting that precious commodity.
07/10/2014 • 27 minutes 23 seconds
Jackie Akhavan on explosives
Jackie Akhavan, Professor of Explosive Chemistry, tells Jim al-Khalili all about the science of explosives. She explains exactly what explosives are and how to make them safer to handle.
She started by working on how to make fireworks safer and has been involved in research with bees to see whether they can be used smell different types of explosives. Her current project involves testing the rocket fuel that will be used in Bloodhound, the British designed and built supersonic car that aims to reach a speed of 1,000mph.
Her work involves finding out how to best detect explosives in airports and elsewhere, teaching security professionals how to differentiate between false alarms and the real thing. She also works on explosives used in warfare and discusses the ethical issues involved.
Producer: Melissa Hogenboom.
30/09/2014 • 28 minutes
Brian Cox on quantum mechanics
Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University describes how he gave up appearing on Top of the Pops to study quarks, quasars and quantum mechanics.
Although he describes himself as a simple-minded Northern bloke, he has acquired an almost God-like status on our TV screens; while the 'Cox effect' is thought to explain the significant boost to university admissions to read physics. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about learning to be famous, his passion for physics and how he sometimes has difficulty crossing the road.
In 2005 Brian was awarded a Royal Society Research Fellowship for his work on high energy particle collisions at CERN and elsewhere - an enviable academic achievement. In 2009, he was voted one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine. He has invented a new kind of celebrity - a scientist who's regularly snapped by the paparazzi.
Brian wants everyone to be as excited as he is about the laws that govern our universe: the beautiful, counter-intuitive and often weird world
23/09/2014 • 27 minutes 39 seconds
Carol Robinson on chemistry
Carol Robinson describes her remarkable journey from leaving school at 16 to work as a lab technician at Pfizer, to becoming the first female Professor of Chemistry at both Oxford and Cambridge University, despite an eight year career break to bring up three small children.
Getting back into the workplace wasn't easy. Carol was hired for a job for which she was over-qualified because she 'used to be good' and advised not to dress so smartly because people would think she was a secretary. She managed to negotiate a day a week to do her own research and secured much sought after Royal Society funding to support it.
For decades, Carol felt insecure about having a degree from a further education college, which she achieved by studying part-time for seven years while working at Pfizer; but now Carol is proud of her unconventional route into academia and actively recruits students to her lab from a wide range of different backgrounds.
In her hands, mass spectrometry has been transformed f
22/07/2014 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Jeremy Farrar on fighting viruses
In October 2013, Jeremy Farrar was appointed Director of the Wellcome Trust - UK's largest medical research funding charity. The Trust funded �750 million's worth of health-related research - about the same as the government's Medical Research Council. This means Jeremy Farrar is a major figure in British science.
Since 1996, the doctor and clinical scientist had run the Wellcome-funded Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam - a British-Vietnamese collaboration specialising in infectious diseases such as malaria, HIV, TB and avian flu. He lost close friends and colleagues when the SARS pandemic took off in East Asia in 2003, and dealt with the first cases of the dangerous H5N1 bird flu when it arrived in Vietnam the following here.
In conversation with Jim Al-Khalili, Dr Farrar talks about the personal and professional impact of those experiences and of his feelings of impotence as a doctor treating HIV/AIDS patients as a junior doctor in London in
15/07/2014 • 27 minutes 38 seconds
Zoe Shipton on fracking
Zoe Shipton's fascination with rocks started when she was a child and her father took her camping on a volcano. Now a professor of geology at Strathclyde University she talks to Jim al-Khalili about her research into the way that the earth faults. This has lead her to studying the aftermath of a major earthquake in Taiwan and drilling into rocks in remote parts of Utah. Recently she has been part of a Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering committee that has produced a report on the potential impact of fracking for gas on the UK.
08/07/2014 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Chris Llewellyn Smith on nuclear fusion
Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith chats to Jim Al-Khalili about quarks, bosons, and running the biggest experiments in history.
In the late 60s and early 70s Chris was one of the theoretical physicists who were busy sketching what would become known as the standard model of particle physics. An early believer in the physical reality of the "Quark Model", Chris's work helped confirm that the protons and neutrons at the centre of atoms are themselves made up of 3 quarks.
He was also influential in showing that Peter Higgs' theory of mass was not just sufficient, but also necessary.
So when later he was made Director General of CERN, he was well placed to know, and to explain to the heads of the member states, that investing in the construction of something called the Large Hadron Collider would be a scientifically fruitful thing to do. Indeed, it has been said that there would be no LHC without Chris' calm international scientific diplomacy.
Since then, Chris has been influential in several
01/07/2014 • 28 minutes 7 seconds
Botanist Sandy Knapp tells Jim Al Khalili about her adventures in the wilderness of South America collecting and studying many thousands of plants from a group vital for human nutrition. She talks about her time growing up in Los Alamos in New Mexico, surrounded by a "sea of physicists" and how her love of the outdoors inspired her to take up botany.
24/06/2014 • 27 minutes 49 seconds
Astronomer and Sky at Night TV presenter Chris Lintott tells Jim Al Khalili about his "Citizen Science" project of crowd-sourced astronomy, Galaxy Zoo, and of working with Brian May and the late Sir Patrick Moore.
17/06/2014 • 27 minutes 57 seconds
Janet Hemingway, the youngest woman to ever to become a full professor in the UK, talks about her career at the frontline of the war on malaria. Whilst many researchers look for vaccines and treatments to this global killer, Janet's approach, as a trained entomologist, has been to fight the mosquitoes - the vector - which transmits the malaria parasite.
10/06/2014 • 27 minutes 54 seconds
Professor Sir Michael Rutter
Professor Sir Michael Rutter has been described as the most illustrious and influential psychiatric scientist of his generation. His international reputation has been achieved despite the fact that as a young doctor, he had no intention of becoming a researcher, nor interest in becoming a child psychiatrist. In fact he became a world leader as both.
His career has spanned more than five decades and is marked by a remarkable body of high-impact research and landmark studies. The theme running through all his work has been child development, on the subtle interplay between nature and nurture and on the factors that make the difference between a child flourishing, or floundering.
Evacuated during World War Two, to a Quaker family in the USA, Mike Rutter tells Jim Al-Khalili about the impact this move, aged seven, had on him. He describes the inspirational teachers who persuaded him that research and clinical work as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, was for him, and he admits that an
03/06/2014 • 28 minutes
Jim Al-Khalili's guest this week is Dame Julia Slingo, the chief scientist at the Met Office. The conversation ranges from her childhood wonder of clouds to climate change's part in this winter's floods.
Julia Slingo's fascination with meteorology began as she, as a sixth former, gazed out of her bedroom window and wondered what controlled the shapes of clouds and why the clouds usually came from the west. In the 1970s she was one of the few women scientists at the British Meteorological Office and worked in the early days of computer modelling of weather and climate. As the first female professor of Meteorology in the UK, she crusaded for greater computing power and capacity to improve both weather forecasting and global climate models.
Julia Slingo took up the job of the chief scientist at the Met Office in 2009. Her profile has been high in the last few months following her remarks that the persistent heavy rains and storminess of Winter 2013 to 2014 were likely to be linked to an
08/04/2014 • 28 minutes 16 seconds
Veronica van Heyningen
Charles Darwin described the eye as an 'organ of extreme perfection and complication'. How this engineering marvel of nature forms out of a few cells in the developing embryo has been the big question for Veronica van Heyningen, emeritus professor at the MRC's Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine at the University of Edinburgh.
Veronica is a world lead in the genetics of the development of the eye. She tells Jim Al Khalili about her part in the discovery of a gene called Pax-6 which turned to be a master builder gene for the eye, in all animals which have eyes - from humans to fruit flies.
As she explains, further research on this gene may eventually help people with the genetic vision impairment, Aniridia. It was Veronica's research on patients with this condition which led to the gene's final discovery. She tells Jim about why it's important for scientists to engage in public discussion on the ethical implications of their work.
Veronica also talks about her arrival in Bri
01/04/2014 • 28 minutes 11 seconds
Alf Adams FRS, physicist at the University of Surrey, had an idea on a beach in the mid-eighties that made the modern internet, CD and DVD players, and even bar-code readers possible. You probably have half a dozen 'strained-layer quantum well lasers' in your home.
25/03/2014 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Anne Glover is currently one of the most influential scientists in Europe. She advises the President of the European Commission on the research behind issues ranging from nuclear power to genetically modified foods. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about how she makes an impact working across the many countries in Europe with different ideas about science. For example, Germany and France have very different attitudes to nuclear power.
Anne Glover is also a Professor at Aberdeen University where she uses glow in the dark microbes to solve problems such as polluted land. It's a technique she developed after seeing minute glowing creatures while swimming at night in the Algarve.
She tells Jim about her life in the lab, setting up a company to exploit her bioluminescent microbes and how she gets on in the world of politics.
18/03/2014 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Mark Miodownik's chronic interest in materials began in rather unhappy circumstances. He was stabbed in the back, with a razor, on his way to school. When he saw the tiny piece of steel that had caused him so much harm, he became obsessed with how it could it be so sharp and so strong. And he's been materials-mad ever since.
Working at a nuclear weapons laboratory in the US, he enjoyed huge budgets and the freedom to make the most amazing materials. But he gave that up to work with artists and designers because he believes that if you ignore the sensual aspects of materials, you end up with materials that people don't want.
For Mark, making is as important as reading and writing. It's an expression of who we are, like music or literature, and 'everyone should be doing it'. To this end, he wants our public libraries to be converted into public workshops, with laser cutters and 3 D printers in place of books.
11/03/2014 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to psychiatrist Vikram Patel about the global campaign he is leading to tackle mental health. He reflects on his early career working in Zimbabwe, when he doubted any western diagnoses or treatments for peoples' distress would be of much use. However, his subsequent research made him question this and come to the realisation that some conditions, like depression and psychosis, could be tackled universally. Now based in India, Vikram's research guides the public health approach he is taking. Yet critics question the application of Western categories for diagnosis and treatment to other parts of the world.
Producer: Beth Eastwood.
04/03/2014 • 28 minutes 7 seconds
Forensic anthropologist Professor Sue Black began her career with a Saturday job working in a butcher's shop. At the time she didn't realise that this would be the start of a lifelong fascination with anatomy.
Her job has taken her to some extreme and challenging locations to identify human bodies, such as Kosovo, where she uncovered evidence used in the UN's War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.
Back home, Sue has been integral in solving many high-profile criminal cases, including cracking Scotland's biggest paedophile ring in 2009.
In The Life Scientific, Jim Al-Khalili asks how she deals with the emotional pressures of the job, and why she is so fascinated by the inner workings of the human body.
In her spare time, Sue Black also advises crime fiction authors like Val McDermid, providing inspiration for new plotlines and characters.
In return, Val and a group of writers have offered to help with Sue's latest challenge - fundraising for a mortuary. This facility will use new techni
25/02/2014 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Peter Higgs opens up to Jim Al-Khalili, admitting that he failed to realise the full significance of the Higgs boson and to link it to the much celebrated Standard Model of Physics. An oversight he puts down to a string of missed opportunities, including one night at physics summer camp when, most regrettably, he went to bed early.
Working alone in Edinburgh in the sixties, Peter Higgs was considered 'a bit of a crank'. 'No-one wanted to work with me', he says. In 1964, he predicted the possible existence of a new kind of boson but, at the time, there was little interest in his boson. And in the years that followed, Peter Higgs says, he was 'looking in the wrong place for the application'.
Three years later, the Higgs mechanism was shown to be central to the new Standard Model of
Physics, which brings together three of the four fundamental forces of nature and has dominated physics ever since. Higgs met one of the key architects of the Standard Model several times, but they failed to
18/02/2014 • 27 minutes 43 seconds
Dame Wendy Hall, Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, has spent a career at the forefront of developments around the web and digital media. Trained as a mathematician, she moved to the fledgling department of computer science in the mid 1980's, a time of great change and great excitement in the field.
She talks to Jim Al Khalili about the rate that things have changed, how the web is still not quite what it should be, and about the new discipline she has helped to found known as Web Science.
08/10/2013 • 27 minutes 54 seconds
Australian geneticist Jenny Graves discusses her life pursuing sex genes in her country's weird but wonderful fauna, the end of men and singing to her students in lectures.
01/10/2013 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to neuroscientist and occasional stand up comedian, Professor Sophie Scott about how she is using brain imaging techniques to reveal secrets of the complexity of brain activity when we speak and when we hear others speak. And Sophie Scott explains why laughter is such an important human social tool. But why is it that if we're laughing hard it can completely override our ability to speak? Also why it's not just humans who have a funny bone: even rats laugh.
24/09/2013 • 27 minutes 54 seconds
Ian Stewart, Professor of Maths at Warwick University, has had a dual career as a research mathematician and as a populariser. He wrote his first book for a general audience - on chaos theory - over thirty years. He's also the author of short stories and novels of science fiction, and of the Science of Discworld series.
Ian Stewart talks to Jim al-Khalili about his life, including his research into applying mathematics to problems of biology and how he communicates the ideas of number and maths to the general public.
17/09/2013 • 27 minutes 35 seconds
Life on earth has gone through a series of mass extinctions. Mike Benton talks about his fascination with ancient life on the planet and his work on the Bristol Dinosaur Project.
10/09/2013 • 28 minutes 5 seconds
Professor Mark Lythgoe created and runs the largest medical imaging research facility in Europe - the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at University College London. That is quite an achievement for someone who spectacularly failed his A levels because he was dancing on the podiums of Manchester clubs or tuning the engine of his motorbike.
Now the Centre does everything from testing new treatments for cancer, stroke and heart disease to probing the homing sense of pigeons. Mark Lythgoe's team develops new techniques to image the living body and its biochemical activities in ever-minute detail, with radio, light and ultrasound waves.
In The Life Scientific, Mark Lythgoe talks about the frontier research at his centre and the thrill he gets from it. As well as a scientist, he is also an intrepid mountain climber and believes there are parallels between the experiences of a mountaineer and those of an inventor of new views of the human brain and body.
Professor Lythgoe talks can
03/09/2013 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
Joanna Haigh, Professor of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial College, London, studies the influence of the sun on the earth's climate using data collected by satellites. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about how she got started on her career in climate physics: she can trace her interest in it back to her childhood when she built herself a home weather station.
Jo Haigh explains why we need to know how the sun affects the climate: it's so scientists can work out what contribution to warming is the result of greenhouse gases that humans produce, and what is down to changes in the energy coming from the sun.
She has sat on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and discusses with Jim how it delivers its reports. And as a prominent scientist who speaks out about the dangers of increasing man made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, she explains how she responds to climate change deniers.
27/08/2013 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University, is obsessed with biological clocks. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about how light controls our wellbeing from jet lag to serious mental health problems. Professor Foster explains how moved from being a poor student at school to the scientist who discovered a new way in which animals detect light.
20/08/2013 • 27 minutes 39 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to the social psychologist Liz Stokoe about her research as a conversation analyst. Her interest is in the nuances of everyday chit chat but also people going on first dates, the verbal abuse between neighbours at war as well as interviews by the Police with suspected criminals.
Liz is professor of social interaction at the University of Loughborough and her unusual approach involves collecting and analysing the fine details of hundreds of real, spontaneous conversations as a source of raw data. This is in contrast to more traditional means, used by other psychologists of finding out what people think by asking them directly using surveys and questionnaires.
Her most recent research has overturned ideas about the best ways to teach people how to communicate, negotiate or deal with confrontation. Role play using actors to stage a scenario, has been seen by many as a gold standard training device. But, Liz says there's no evidence to show that it works. Her alterna
25/06/2013 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
Is it more reckless to eat a bacon sandwich everyday or to go skydiving? What's the chance that all children in the same family have exactly the same birthday? Jim Al-Khalili talks to Professor David Spiegelhalter about risk, uncertainty and the real odds behind everyday life.
As one of the world's leading statisticians, he is regularly called upon to help answer questions in high profile inquiries - like the one into the Harold Shipman murders, infant heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary and the PiP breast implant scandal.
Jim finds out more about the Life Scientific of the man who despite winning many awards and his research papers being some of the most cited in his field David Spiegelhalter says he isn't really that good at maths.
18/06/2013 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Ewan Birney talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his work on deciphering the human genome and the race to come up with the right number of genes that make us human. Ewan explains why he started a sweepstake to get fellow scientists to estimate the final number and why numbers were wildly wrong. He explains his role in the recent controversy over claims about the demise of 'Junk' DNA. He also talks about artificial DNA and whether it could be the future for information storage? With a colleague, he has already used a small speck of artificial DNA to store Shakespeare's sonnets. In theory, all of the world's information could be held on DNA in a space the size of a small room. If kept cold, dry and dark, DNA lasts for thousands of years so could it be the archive medium of the future?
11/06/2013 • 28 minutes 1 second
When she started her career, physicist Dame Athene Donald took a decision that shocked her colleagues. She wanted to apply the strict rules of physics to the messy, complicated world of biology.
Since then, she has taken the field of biological physics out of an unfashionable rut in the 1980s, and helped to turn into one of the most exciting and promising areas in science today.
As Professor of Experimental Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge University, she studies the microscopic structure of everyday stuff, from plants to plastics.
Jim Al-Khalili talks to Athene about her life and her passionate campaign to get more women working in science.
Producer: Michelle Martin
04/06/2013 • 27 minutes 47 seconds
Will we ever be able to escape the diseases of old age?
That's the aim of today's guest, Prof Dame Linda Partridge who studies the genetics of ageing. From fruit flies to nematode worms, she uses simple organisms to unmask the secret processes that cause our bodies to deteriorate as we get older.
But her route into science was far from normal - growing up in a Catholic convent boarding school, the girls were encouraged to be good housewives rather than diligent scientists. However, the lack of science facilities and teachers meant that the students had to run their own laboratory, ordering chemicals and tending to equipment.
It was the start of a long and successful career, which has culminated in Linda becoming the Founding Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Germany and the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College, London.
Her life's goal is to produce pharmacological treatments that will help people stay healthier in old age. But what are the s
28/05/2013 • 28 minutes 1 second
Lord John Krebs
As a scientist, John Krebs made his name discovering that the brains of birds that store seeds are different from those that don't. But he gave up his successful research career and job as Professor of Zoology at Oxford University to move into science policy and management. After five years as Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council, John Krebs became the first Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, where he was embroiled in controversial questions such as is organic food better for us and how can the spread of foot and mouth disease be stopped.
Lord Krebs is now Master of Jesus College, Oxford, but is still involved in issues where science meets public policy, in particular the debate over whether culling badgers will prevent cattle contracting TB.
He talks to Jim al-Khalili about his life in science and in the public eye and about how he brings a scientific approach to every issue.
21/05/2013 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Geologist Sanjeev Gupta talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his love of exploring exotic terrains, from the foothills of the Himalaya to the red deserts of Mars. His research has taken him across the earth and now into space, working as a Long Term Planner on NASA's current Mars Curiosity Mission.
But Sanjeev Gupta's big discovery lay at the bottom of the English Channel. Unearthing a 'wacky' theory from the 1980s, Sanjeev set out to prove that a series of megafloods caused Britain to separate from continental Europe and become an island.
Producer: Michelle Martin.
14/05/2013 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell is not only one of the UK's leading brain scientists and physiologists; for the last three years Nancy Rothwell has also run the country's largest university - as President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Manchester.
When Nancy Rothwell is not making decisions about the university's �800 million annual budget and 50,000 students and staff, she oversees a laboratory of researchers developing and trialling an experimental treatment to prevent death and disability caused by stroke. Given that someone in the UK will have a stroke every five minutes, that adds up to a lot of people who might end up benefitting from Nancy Rothwell's life in science.
Nancy did not start her career working on the brain. As a young scientist, in 1970s, she made her reputation with original and high profile research into the causes of obesity, and the role of a tissue type known as brown fat. But in the early 1990s, a shock finding from an experiment stopped her in her t
07/05/2013 • 28 minutes 8 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to the former technical director of British Nuclear Fuels, Dame Sue Ion, about a lifetime of working in the nuclear industry. When Sue got her first job at a nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Preston, nuclear power was generally seen as force for good but, during the dark decades post Chernobyl, it was a hard sell. Still, Sue continued to push for investment and innovation in the industry and in 2006 persuaded Tony Blair to change his mind about nuclear power, insisting that if Britain is to have any chance at all of keeping the lights on and cutting its carbon emissions, we will need to invest heavily not only in renewables like offshore wind but also in a new generation of nuclear power stations.
26/02/2013 • 27 minutes 32 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to Professor Alan Watson from the University of Leeds who has spent 40 years trying to unravel a mystery at the frontier of physics. Where do cosmic rays, subatomic particles with the highest known energies in the entire Universe, come from? And which violent astronomical events are producing these hugely energetic jets of particles that travel for light years to reach us? As many as a million of them pass through us every night as we sleep, the equivalent of having 2 chest x rays every year.
His quest to find the origins of cosmic rays has taken him from the North York Moors to the South Pole and the pampas grasslands of Argentina where he has been instrumental in creating the largest ever Cosmic ray detector, covering an area bigger than Luxembourg.
19/02/2013 • 27 minutes 42 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to breast cancer pioneer, Professor Valerie Beral director of the cancer epidemiology unit in Oxford about her Million Women study and why she thinks a so-called 'vaccine' should be developed to prevent breast cancer.
Jim finds out why the brilliant mathematician who became female Australia junior chess champion as a teenager and who got a first class degree in medicine decided she was unhappy with the uncertainties of diagnosis as a doctor, and turned her back on clinical medicine in the quest for answers to the bigger questions about public health. She talks about pioneering research into the causes of cancer, effects of the contraceptive pill, radiation from Chernobyl and Hiroshima. Most recently as lead investigator on the million women study she has looked at the risks and health effects from taking HRT. She has said that it is a 'crime' that more research hasn't been done on what is known about women who don't get breast cancer to prevent breast cancer in ot
05/02/2013 • 27 minutes 43 seconds
Robots probably won't take over the world, but they probably will be given ever greater responsibility. Already, robots care for the elderly in Japan, and drones have dropped bombs on Afghanistan. Professor Noel Sharkey fell in love with artificial intelligence in the 1980s, celebrated when he programmed his first robot to move in a straight line down the corridor and , for many years, judged robot wars on TV. Now, he thinks AI is a dangerous dream. Jim al-Khalili hears how Noel left school at 15 to become an electrician's apprentice and amateur rock musician before graduating as a Doctor of Psychology and world authority on robots, studying both their strengths and their limitations.
29/01/2013 • 27 minutes 36 seconds
Annette Karmiloff-Smith, from the Birkbeck Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development in London talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her Life Scientific. Starting out as a simultaneous interpreter for the United Nations she soon decided that not being allowed to express any thoughts of her own wasn't for her. After a chance encounter with Jean Piaget, one of the most renowned psychologists of all time, she decided to pursue psychology and over forty years later she is a world expert in brain development and how babies and children learn. Her research has been cited not just by fellow psychologists, but by philosophers, linguists, educationalists, geneticists and neuroscientists. Her controversial response to guidance issued by the American Academy of Paediatrics, that parents should discourage TV viewing in children under 2, is that if the subject matter is chosen well, and is scientifically based, a TV screen can be better for a baby than a book.
21/01/2013 • 27 minutes 40 seconds
Prof Robert Mair
Jim Al-Khalili talks to Robert Mair, professor of Civil engineering at Cambridge University about his life as an engineer in academia and industry and his expertise on finding innovative solutions to the problems of building tunnels under already congested cities.
He talks about his innovative technique of 'compensation grouting' which prevented Big Ben from tilting and even cracking and coming away from the Houses of Parliament during Jubilee line extension.
Crossrail is one of the biggest engineering projects in Europe and involves constructing 26 miles of new tunnels underneath London's busy streets and under the existing tube network. Robert talks the latest tunnelling technology being used and the huge drilling machines with names like 'Ada' and Phyliss' which use high pressure to minimise ground movements as they drill and even have a kitchen and bathroom facilities on board.
He also talks about his latest work on how smart sensors which can harvest their own energy. And when b
15/01/2013 • 27 minutes 39 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to Amoret Whitaker, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum in London. Her intricate understanding of the life cycles of the flies, beetles and the other insects' which feed on decomposing bodies means she is regularly called by the Police to the scene of a crime or a murder investigation. There she collects and analyses any insect evidence to help them pin point the most likely time of death. In some instances, this can be accurate to within hours.
She is just one of only a handful of forensic entomologists working in the UK. She talks to Jim about her life as a research scientist, breeding flies in the far flung towers of the Natural History Museum and her work as a forensic expert with police services across the country. Dropping her work at a moment's notice she can be called any time of day to anywhere in the country to attend a crime scene. She also talks about her regular trips to a research facility at the 'Body Farm' at the University of Tennesee i
08/01/2013 • 27 minutes 54 seconds
Sir John Gurdon talks to Jim al-Khalili about how coming bottom of the class in science was no barrier to winning this year's Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. We're familiar with Dolly the Sheep but many people find the idea of cloning humans rather disturbing. It seems to cut to the core of who we are; but, scientifically speaking, we are getting closer to a time when cloning people might be possible. John Gurdon gives it fifty years. After a famously bad school report for science, he won the Nobel Prize for cloning a frog, decades before Dolly the Sheep. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about his pioneering work on cloning and where it all might lead.
18/12/2012 • 27 minutes 10 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to Jared Diamond about how his passion for the birds of Papua New Guinea overtook his medical interest in the gall bladder, and led him to undertake a scientific study of global history.
Science polymath and celebrated author, Jared Diamond has tackled some of the big questions about humanity: what is it that makes us uniquely human not just a third species of chimpanzee; and why do some societies thrive and others struggle to survive, or collapse?
Once a Professor of Physiology (specialising in the gall bladder), he became increasingly fascinated by the birds of Papua New Guinea and does an excellent imitation of the ptilinopus fruit dove, among others.
Now Professor of Geography at University of California in LA, he stresses the vital importance of the environment in determining the success or otherwise of a society. He argues first that it was settled agriculture that enabled the white man to develop guns, germs and steel and later that abuse of the environment
04/12/2012 • 28 minutes
As the Curiosity rover ventures into previously unexplored territory on the surface of Mars and attempts to pick up and analyse rock samples for the first time, many hope that the NASA robot might find signs of life on the red planet. But, after so many false dawns and with such ambiguous evidence, how can we know for certain whether or not there was ever life on Mars? Jim al-Khalili and Monica Grady, Professor in Planetary Sciences at the Open University, discuss what life on Mars might look like; Monica's passion for meteorites and the asteroid named "monicagrady" in her honour.
16/10/2012 • 27 minutes 52 seconds
Professor Hugh Montgomery is an intensive care physician and researcher at University College Hospital in London. His work has taken him to the Himalayas, where he and colleagues were studying the effect of oxygen uptake at high altitude. The findings were surprising and have implications for patients in intensive care. Jim al-Khalili talks to Hugh Montgomery about the gene for fitness and how mountaineers have influenced intensive care medicine.
09/10/2012 • 27 minutes 56 seconds
Sir Mark Walport
Jim al-Khalili talks to the next chief scientific advisor to the government, Sir Mark Walport about how he thinks science can save the UK economy; how he plans to ensure that scientific evidence is taken seriously by an arts-dominated civil service and why he believes scientific research should be made available to everyone, free of charge. Sir Mark, who started his Life Scientific studying immune responses, has spent the last ten years in charge of one of the largest funders of medical research in the world, the Wellcome Trust. Many love his robust, straight-talking style: others find him uncompromising. He hopes to tackle environmental change and many of the problems associated with our ageing population, as well as changing Whitehall's attitude to science. It's hard to predict what other issues he may have to deal with, but even without an unexpected crisis, many anticipate that his forthcoming time in government will be nothing if not eventful.
02/10/2012 • 27 minutes 40 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili meets Sunetra Gupta, a scientist and novelist. As a Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology she studies infectious diseases such as flu and malaria and explains how a mathematical equation can be as beautiful as a Keats poem.
25/09/2012 • 27 minutes 58 seconds
Professor David Nutt was sacked in 2009 as the government's chief drugs adviser after criticising its decision to reclassify cannabis. He is a psychiatrist and one of the country's leading experts on the effects of drugs on the brain. His latest research is investigating how psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, could be used to treat depression. He talks to Jim about his passion for science and his disputes with government over drug policy.
18/09/2012 • 27 minutes 56 seconds
Andrea Sella is a science showman, whose theatrical demonstrations of chemistry are filling theatres up and down the country. But as Professor of Materials and Inorganic Chemistry, Jim Al-Khalili asks him if he would rather be known for his research into rare metals than for his whizz bang displays.
11/09/2012 • 27 minutes 56 seconds
Richard Dawkins' first book on evolutionary biology "The Selfish Gene" was published to much acclaim and some controversy in 1976. In this interview with Jim Al-Khalili, Professor Dawkins discusses his enthusiasm for the science that inspired the book and how he popularised the idea of the immortal gene. Using the source material from scientists such as Bill Hamilton, Robert Trivers and John Maynard Smith, he presented a gene's eye view of the world.
He's written many other books on evolutionary biology, such as "The Extended Phenotype" "Unweaving the Rainbow" and "The Ancestors Tale". In 2006 he published a polemic which he describes as "a gentlemanly attack on religion", "The God Delusion". Jim asks what he hoped to achieve by writing the book and finds out why he would rather be known for his science than his atheism.
04/09/2012 • 28 minutes 9 seconds
Dame Ann Dowling
A world in which planes are silent may sound like a pipe dream; but University of Cambridge engineer, Dame Ann Dowling, and her team proved it is possible to build an aircraft that barely makes any noise. A brilliant mathematician and a keen pilot, Ann now heads of one of the largest engineering departments in Europe. Her design for a silent aircraft could improve the quality of life for millions of people living near airports worldwide: so does she mind that it never got off the ground? Jim talks to Ann Dowling about mathematics, engines and how she always wanted to do something useful.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
28/08/2012 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
For fifteen years, Martin Siegert has dreamt about Lake Ellsworth, a hidden lake buried beneath the Antarctic ice that's been cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years. Having studied data from airborne radar surveys, Martin knew the lake must exist and was determined to find out more. Finally, this winter, a team of British scientists led by Martin will drill through three kilometres of ice to unlock the secrets of this hidden lake. Can life exist in such a cold, dark and isolated place? And if so what form will it take? Martin describes working in Antarctica as being like an episode of Mash and explains why, unlike so many Antarctic scientists, he prefers analysing data to having icy adventures.
21/08/2012 • 27 minutes 48 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to botanist, Pat Wolseley about her obsession with lichen and the environmental secrets it holds. This humble and ancient organism contains a wealth of information about the quality of air we breathe. Certain species thrive on road traffic pollution: others prefer acid rain. And, for the last five years, thousands of people throughout the UK have been gathering scientific data on different lichen populations in their local area and using it to monitor air pollution.
14/08/2012 • 27 minutes 46 seconds
Professor Steve Jones is a geneticist who says he lives life in the slow lane, studying snails. His work shows how animals adapt to the environment they live in. He is also a prolific writer of science books who wrote his first book, "The Language of the Genes" as a response to unsuccessful grant applications.
07/08/2012 • 28 minutes 23 seconds
Professor John Pickett's research into GM crops was at the centre of a public debate last month.
His experimental work has engineered insect alarm systems into wheat, so that the plants give off chemicals which repel greenflies or aphids.
Activists known as "Take the Flour Back" had threatened to destroy field trials, but the day passed peacefully.
Professor Pickett's research for over 30 years has been based on using insect pheromones (the chemical messengers the insects send to one another) and understanding how plants are able to attract or push crop pests away. A pioneering technique he's developed known as push pull means that farmers in Africa have been able to improve their yields simply by planting what are known as companion crops that repel pests and trap crops which entice the insects. So if this approach is so successful is there really a need for GM versions?
12/06/2012 • 27 minutes 59 seconds
Jim al-Khalili talks to the former chief scientific advisor, Robert May about restoring public trust in science in the wake of the BSE crisis and at the height of the anti-GM campaigns of the mid-nineties. If he were a species of plant, Bob May says he would be the "weedy type", moving as he has into new fields of science and proliferating rapidly, rather than a more established, specialised variety. He has applied mathematics first to physics, then ecology and, most recently, to banking.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
05/06/2012 • 27 minutes 50 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili meets neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain which effect our memory and understanding, and neuropharmacology is the study of drugs which can be used in conditions like Alzheimer's disease or depression. But can new treatments improve the performance of surgeons or pilots and could they even be used to make us more entrepreneurial?
29/05/2012 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili meets British Antarctic Survey scientist Lloyd Peck and discovers giant sea spiders. They and other small animals grow far bigger than usual in the extreme cold. Diving is an important part of Lloyd's job and we hear what it's like to play football under the ice. Studies suggest that the sea temperature is rising, and Lloyd investigates whether the animals he researches will be able to adapt and survive.
Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.
22/05/2012 • 28 minutes 1 second
Jim Al-Khalili talks to this year's winner of the L'Oreal -UNESCO Woman in Science award, Frances Ashcroft.
After decades spent studying the link between blood sugar and insulin, she talks about the absolute thrill of discovery as well as the long lean years "in a cloud of not knowing". It's very rare indeed for a scientist to see any medical benefit from their research but Frances Ashcroft has been lucky. Her scientific understanding of a key biochemical mechanism in our pancreatic cells has helped transform the lives of hundreds of children who are born with diabetes, enabling them to come off insulin injections and instead take a daily pill.
Producer: Anna Buckley
And yet, thirty years on, it's still not clear precisely what goes wrong with the mechanism in the much more common Type II diabetes, now affecting hundreds of millions.
15/05/2012 • 28 minutes 2 seconds
Jim al-Khalili talks to James Lovelock about elocution lessons, defrosting hamsters and his grand theory of planet earth, Gaia. The idea that from the bottom of the earth's crust to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, planet earth is one giant inter-connected and self-regulating system.
It's a scientific theory that's had an impact way beyond the world of science: Gaia has been embraced by poets, philosophers, spiritual leaders and green activists. Vaclav Haval called it "a moral prescription for the welfare of the planet".
James Lovelock, now 92, talks about the freedom and frustrations of fifty years spent working outside the scientific establishment.
Public interest in Gaia proliferated after the publication of his first book Gaia: a new look at life on earth in 1979; but the scientific community remained highly sceptical. For decades Gaia was ignored, dismissed and even ridiculed as a scientific theory. To this day, evolutionary biologists, in particular, take issue with the
08/05/2012 • 27 minutes 5 seconds
Jim al-Khalili talks to Angela Gallop, the scientist who provided the vital forensic evidence in the recent re-trial for the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Angela describes the painstaking scientific detective work that led her team to find a tiny blood clot on Gary Dobson's jacket, that was not identified during the original trial in 1995; and how they proved that this evidence was not the result of contamination during the handling and storage of the clothing exhibits.
Never before in the history of criminal justice have so many cases relied so heavily on scientific evidence. Forensic scientists have ever more sophisticated and powerful techniques at their disposal but, as long as these techniques rely on human judgement (and a surprising number still do) there will be limits to their reliability. Much as we would like to believe the opposite, forensic science is fallible.
Further, even when the science is accurate, there's ample scope in a court of law for good science to be made
27/03/2012 • 27 minutes 29 seconds
Jim talks CERN physicist, Tejinder Virdee about the search for the elusive Higgs boson, also known as the "God particle". Last December, scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider caught a tantalising glimpse of the Higgs; but they need more data to be sure of its existence. Twenty years ago, Tejinder set about building a detector within the Large Hadron Collider that's capable of taking forty million phenomenally detailed images every second. Finding the Higgs will validate everything physicists think they know about the very nature of the universe: not finding it, will force them back to the drawing board. By the end of the year, we should know one way or the other.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Producer: Anna Buckley.
20/03/2012 • 27 minutes 28 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to environmental scientist John Lawton about making space for nature. A keen birdwatcher from the age of 7, John describes his studies of birds, dragonflies and bracken and his groundbreaking experiments in the Ecotron, essentially a box full of nature. For the last few decades John has advised successive governments on a host of environmental issues such as GM crops, road traffic pollution and nature conservation. His latest report Making Space for Nature was turned into policy remarkably fast but, he says, it isn't always easy to get governments to listen to environmental advice based on science.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
13/03/2012 • 27 minutes 48 seconds
Jim enters the multiverse with Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. He's worked on the big bang, black holes and the formation of galaxies but what he would really like to know is if there is life elsewhere in the universe.
As an ex president of the Royal Society and a member of the House of Lords he is at the heart of science policy and worked with the G8 to put science on the international agenda. An atheist, he has attracted criticism from other scientists for his religious views.
He says we can now be fairly certain of what happened in the universe from a nanosecond after the big bang until today and is a supporter of the idea that there may have been many big bangs leading to many universes.
Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.
06/03/2012 • 28 minutes 4 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili talks to the pioneering health services researcher, Iain Chalmers, who was one of the founders of the Cochrane Collaboration.
Once described by one writer as 'The Maverick Master of Medical Evidence'. Iain Chalmers trained as a doctor, eventually specialising in obstetrics. But early in his career, he started to question the basis of everything he was trained to do and this set him on a very different path: to champion treatments based on the best available evidence, first in his own field and then across healthcare. It's a journey that has at times challenged the foundations of medical practice.
In 1992, he was appointed Director of the Cochrane Centre, which led to the foundation of the Cochrane Collaboration, dedicated to ensuring that patients, doctors and researchers have access to unbiased information about the effectiveness of healthcare interventions, across the world.
Iain wants to reduce uncertainty in medicine so that patients can make sensible choices a
28/02/2012 • 27 minutes 47 seconds
What do miniature solar cells, making clothes that dissolve in the rain and new treatments for motor neurone disease all have in common? Chemistry - according to Professor Tony Ryan of Sheffield University. He develops innovative materials with nanotechnology. In this week's, The Life Scientific, Tony Ryan talks to Jim Al-Khalili and explores issues around the still controversial science of nanotechnology, including how safe it is and how scientists need to learn to talk to the public.
Much of Tony's work involves unlikely collaborations to discover novel ways of solving problems and of communicating science. He argues that chemistry can solve today's global challenges such as supporting the needs of 7 billion people in terms of food and power.
Clothes that absorb a dangerous greenhouse gas and sheets of plastic solar cells are just a few of his ongoing projects. He says chemistry needs to learn how to recycle every atom, whilst still providing all the things that people want - energ
21/02/2012 • 27 minutes 55 seconds
Jim Al-Khalili meets leading paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer to find who our ancestors were.
As a post graduate Chris went on a road trip with a difference, driving round Europe in an old Morris Minor measuring Neanderthal skulls. After being thrown out of several countries, the results of his analysis led to a controversial theory which ran counter to what many people thought at the time. Chris suggested that our most recent relative originated in Africa. He also reveals how genetics has transformed his work and talks about his own unconventional origins.
That there were cannibals in Somerset is one of the more surprising findings of Chris' work on early man in Britain and Jim discovers what it's like to work on an archaeological dig.
Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.
14/02/2012 • 27 minutes 48 seconds
Jim al-Khalili talks to psychiatrist, Robin Murray about his life's work trying to understand why some people have schizophrenia and others don't. As a young man, Murray lived in an Asylum in Glasgow for two years, mainly because it offered free accommodation to medical students. Struck by how people's minds could play tricks on them and the lack of proper research into the condition, he resolved to put the study of schizophrenia on a more scientific footing. Fifteen years ago he believed schizophrenia was a brain disease. Now, he's not so sure. Despite decades of research, the biological basis of this often distressing condition remains elusive. Just living in a city significantly increases your risk (the bigger the city the greater the risk); and, as Murray discovered, migrants are six times more likely to develop the condition than long term residents. He's also outspoken about the mental health risks of smoking cannabis, based both on his scientific research and direct experience w
07/02/2012 • 27 minutes 41 seconds
On this day eight years ago, planetary scientist Colin Pillinger was still hopeful that the Beagle 2 Lander that he had spent years designing, building and publicising (with the help of Blur and Damien Hirst) might yet be found somewhere on the surface of Mars. But, as more time passed, it became clear that The Beagle 2 Lander would be forever lost in space. Jim al -Khalili talks to Colin Pillinger about studying moon rock and meteorites from Mars whilst running a successful dairy farm; broken space dreams and why, even if a space project fails, useful scientific lessons can still be learned.
27/12/2011 • 28 minutes 5 seconds
Lord Robert Winston
He's the man on the telly with the big moustache, famous for A Child of Our Time, The Human Body and Making Babies but Robert Winston is also a well respected scientist. He played a pioneering role in developing IVF technology, and has brought life to many hundreds of couples who had given up hope of ever having a baby . Jim Al-Khalili talks to Robert Winston about why he quit the theatre to become a medic, creating human life in a test tube and why he disagrees with Richard Dawkins about The God Delusion.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
20/12/2011 • 26 minutes 21 seconds
Tim Hunt is an experimental wizard, a flamboyant thinker and a stickler for scientific procedure.
As a young man at Cambridge in the sixties, he heard Francis Crick (of DNA fame) ask questions "that made him sound rather stupid"; broke into workshops and performed experiments through the night with Bach and Pink Floyd playing at top volume.
True eureka moments are, in fact, quite rare in science but, at the age of 39, Tim Hunt performed an experiment on sea urchin eggs that changed both his life and our understanding of every living thing. He had very little idea what exactly it all meant but had a strong sense that he was onto something important. And he was.
Back in the early eighties, it just wasn't obvious that all life worked in the same way. But what Tim Hunt showed was that the process by which cells divide (and therefore live and grow) is the same in all living things and that this process is controlled by a protein that appears and disappears in the most startling fashio
13/12/2011 • 27 minutes 20 seconds
Professor Uta Frith came from a grey post war Germany to Britain in the swinging sixties, when research into conditions such as autism and dyslexia was in its infancy. At the time many people thought there was no such thing as dyslexia and that autism was a result of cold distant parenting, but Professor Frith was convinced that the explanation for these enigmatic conditions lay in the brain. And she set out to prove this through a series of elegant experiments. Together with her students Francesca Happe and Simon Baron Cohen she developed the idea that people with autism find it hard to understand the intentions of others, known as theory of mind. Neuro-imaging experiments carried out with her husband Professor Chris Frith, meant she was able to show that there is a region in the brain which is linked to dyslexia. Uta Frith talks about her pioneering work that has changed how we view these brain disorders with Jim Al Khalili.
Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.
06/12/2011 • 28 minutes 5 seconds
Jim al-Khalili talks to biologist John Sulston about sequencing the genome first of a worm and then of man.
When, as a young man, John Sulston first decided to sequence the DNA of a worm, many of his fellow scientists thought he was wasting his time. It took twenty years of painstaking research but it paid off handsomely. Sulston's research on this humble worm led to one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the modern age - the sequencing of the human genome. Jim al -Khalili talks to Sulston about the highs and lows of doing genetic research; fighting to keep scientific findings in the public domain; protecting human health against corporate wealth; and having his DNA portrait done.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
29/11/2011 • 28 minutes
Nicky Clayton is Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge University. Her work challenges how we think of intelligence and she says that birds' brains developed independently from humans or apes. Members of the corvid family, such as crows and jays appear to plan for the future and predict other birds behaviour in her elegant experiments.One experiment she has designed was inspired by Aesop's fable of the hungry crow.
Her work raises questions about the understanding of animal behaviour, including whether, as humans, we can ever interpret the actions of other species accurately.
But she says her research with birds and other animals can help illuminate young children's activities and how their brains develop.
Nicky Clayton is scientist in residence at the Rambert Dance Company and her latest collaboration with Mark Baldwin, the artistic director, is "Seven for a secret, never to be told" which takes concepts from childhood behaviour and reinterprets them choreographically.
22/11/2011 • 27 minutes 54 seconds
Jim al-Khalili talks to a scientist who grows human bones in a test tube, Molly Stevens.
Molly Stevens does geeky hard core science but her main aim is to help people. Twenty years ago, nobody thought it was possible to make human body parts in the laboratory, but today scientists are trying to create almost every bit of the body. Professor Molly Stevens grows bones. Towards the end of her PHD, a chance encounter with the founding father of tissue engineering and an image of a little boy with chronic liver failure, convinced her that this was what she wanted to do. Ten years on, she runs a highly successful lab at Imperial College London and has been photographed by Vogue.
Producer: Anna Buckley.
15/11/2011 • 27 minutes 44 seconds
Colin Blakemore is a neuroscientist who nearly became an artist. He specialised in vision and the development of the brain, and pioneered the idea that the brain has the ability to change even in adulthood contrary to the popular view at the time.
Professor Blakemore, the youngest ever Reith Lecturer, is an influential science communicator and is committed to raising the profile of brain research. Because of his work he was targeted by animal rights campaigners for over a decade, but rather than keeping a low profile as advised, he decided to work with the activists and explain his point of view about the need for animal testing in medical research. He was appointed head of the Medical Research Council in 2003 but threatened to resign shortly after when he was refused a knighthood, because of his defence of animal research. He has been equally outspoken on many issues including classification of drugs and GM foods. His current areas of research include how the brain develops which has
08/11/2011 • 27 minutes 46 seconds
Sir Michael Marmot
When Professor Sir Michael Marmot was a junior doctor he decided that medicine was failed prevention.
To really understand disease you have to look at the society people live in. His major scientific discovery came from following the health of British civil servants over many years. The Whitehall studies, as they're known, challenged the myth about executive stress and instead revealed that, far from being 'tough at the top', it was in fact much tougher for those lower down the pecking order. This wasn't just a matter of rich or poor, or even social class. What Marmot showed was the lower your status at work, the shorter your lifespan. Mortality rates were three times higher for those at the bottom than for those at the top. The unpleasant truth is that your boss will live longer than you.
What's more, this social gradient of health, or what he calls Status Syndrome, isn't confined to civil servants or to the UK but is a global phenomenon. In conversation with Jim Al-Khalili Michael M
01/11/2011 • 28 minutes 1 second
Cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, has been dubbed "science's agent provocateur".
Pinker studies how the mind works. Presenter Jim al-Khalili wants to find out how his mind works. Pinker replies: "as a psychologist you look at your own life as data and say geez that's what I'm like".
From verbs to violence, he's author of several books that many say are mind-changing.
He's now something of a science superstar, but his early experiments with electrodes on rats didn't quite go according to plan: "I realised then that that kind of science required a level of meticulousness that I just didn't have". So instead of studying neuroscience, he became a cognitive psychologist.
Now perhaps better known for his writing than his science, he shot to fame with his book The Language Instinct, based on his early studies of how children tackle irregular verbs, for example saying "holded" not held, and "digged" instead of dug. These cute sounding mistakes are proof that three year olds are gr
18/10/2011 • 27 minutes 30 seconds
Their work is changing the world we live in, but what do we really know about their lives beyond the lab?
Each week on The Life Scientific, Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Physics at Surrey University, invites a leading scientist to tell us about their life and work. He wants to get under their skin and into their minds; to find out what first inspired them towards their field of research and what motivates them to keep going when the evidence seems to be stacking up against their theories. And he'll ask what their ideas and discoveries will do for us.
He'll talk to Nobel laureates as well as the next generation of beautiful minds, finding out what inspired them to do science in the first place and what motivates them to keep going. The programme will also feature short drop-ins from fellow scientists. Some will comment on our guest's early career, the implications of their discoveries, or offer alternative perspectives.
In this first programme, Jim talks to geneticist Paul Nurse, ar