Discovery

Discovery

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Explorations in the world of science.

Episodes

Sesame Open  

There's a new light of hope in the Middle East. It's a scientific experiment called SESAME - intended to do world-class science and bring together researchers from divided nations. Its members include Palestine and Israel, Pakistan and Iran, Jordan, Egypt, and more. First conceived in the late 1990s, it has just seen the first spark of electricity flow through its high-vacuum steel pipes, last week, and first science should follow soon. The BBC’s Roland Pease paid his second visit to the SESAME campus just as the final pieces were being put in place, and met some of the key players, and heard their hopes. Picture: Sesame with presenter Roland Pease and Herman Winnick, copyright Noemi Caraban

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The Future of the Climate Deal  

The incoming administration of President Trump has frightened many in the international environmental community. The result of US election in November was announced during the 2016 Marrakech UN Climate Change Conference, a meeting where most delegates were working to deliver on the promises of the previous Paris accord. Instead, a new US direction seemed to have emerged, with some in the new US cabinet going so far as to suggest the US should withdraw altogether from Paris, scrap the US’s own Clean Power act, and re-open coal mines. Roger Harrabin explores whether the Climate Deal is dead, and whether the EU and other countries, such as China and India, might follow the Trump suit and relax their low-carbon initiatives. Image: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump holds a sign supporting coal during a rally at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania on October 10, 2016, credit: Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images

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Mesmerism and Parapsychology  

Anton Mesmer was a doctor who claimed he could cure people with an unknown force of animal magnetism. He was the subject to a committee that found there was no evidence for his powers. Phil Ball tallks to Simon Shaffer, Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University, about the rise of showmanship in science at the time of Mesmer in the later 18th Century, and to Professor Richard Wiseman of Hertfordshire University about contemporary parapsychology. Image: 1784: Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734 -1815) Austrian doctor known for inducing a trance-like state, called mesmerism, Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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The Woman Who Tamed Lightning  

Naomi Alderman tells the story of Hertha Marks Ayrton, the first woman to be admitted to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, who improved electric arc lights. Photo: Street lamps light up a road in Colombo, credit: Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

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Testosterone: Elixir of Masculinity  

Testosterone has been claimed as one of the most important drivers of human life – through the agency of sex and aggression. In the 19th century, Charles-Eduoard Brown-Séquard injected himself with extracts from ground-up animal testicles, and made startling claims for its rejuvenating properties and its ability to enhance virility. But the amount of testosterone derived from the injection was actually so small that it could only have been a placebo effect. Today synthesised testosterone is increasingly prescribed for the so-called ‘male menopause’; it’s also regularly used for trans men as they transition, as well as for some women with low libido. In ‘How Much Testosterone Makes You a Man’, Naomi Alderman explores how testosterone had been used and abused in the past. She considers the credits and deficits of its story, and asks what it can tell us about identity and masculinity. Image: Stick men, BBC Copyright

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Making the Earth Move  

Prior to 1543 it was generally believed that the earth lay static in the centre of the universe, while the Sun, moon, planets and stars revolved around it in various complex paths, some even looping back and forth, as described by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy over a millennium before. This Ptolemaic system sat comfortably reconciled with philosophy and biblical scripture, not to mention immediate experience and observations. In the 16th century astronomy and astrology were closely intertwined, as the art of predicting where the small dots of light on the night sky would appear had consequences if you were the sort of person who based your actions on horoscopes. But astronomers didn't have the right to start telling philosophers and theologians how the universe was actually constructed - what its mechanisms were - they merely observed the moving dots of light and used mathematics to predict where they would be the next night, week or month. This was an essential function for the Catholic church too - as the all-important date of Easter is based around a complicated lunar pattern. But also at that time in northern Europe, Martin Luther and others had begun a protestant revolution, fundamentally questioning the authority of the Pope and Vatican. It was an auspicious time for a fairly middle ranking Catholic cleric, Nicolaus Copernicus, working in a remote corner of northern Poland to drop a note around telling other astronomers that he'd worked out a new system that made for better astronomical calculations by making the moon travel round a spinning earth, and the earth and all the planets travel around the Sun. If that were the true shape of the universe, the bible could no longer be literally true. It took 30 years, but eventually a keen young Austrian mathematician convinced him to publish his book. So a German radical protestant published a book by a mild-mannered Polish Catholic cleric, a book that allegedly simplified the cosmos, rightfully placing the Sun at the centre of our local universe, kicking off the scientific revolution and leading to the European enlightenment. But as Phil Ball explains, the real story of 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' - 'On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres' - is not quite as straight forward as all that. Image: © BBC

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Origins of Human Culture  

We humans are such a successful species. Homo sapiens have been around for only around 100 000 years and in that time we have utterly transformed the world around us. Our shelters allow us to live in all climates and from the poles to the tropics; our technology lets us communicate across the planet. We’ve created art and music and literature; and our agriculture has changed global biodiversity, shifting forever the way we feed ourselves. In other words, human culture dominates the earth. Gaia Vince finds out what has given us the cultural edge over other animals. This includes our closest relatives – the great apes – with whom we share over 95% of our genes. She meets researchers at Birmingham University comparing the abilities of chimps and human children, and has a go at making a prehistoric stone hand axe by flint knapping. Photo credit: William West/AFP/Getty Images

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Mind Reading  

Whether it's gossiping over a drink, teaching our children, or politicians debating we use words to communicate with each other and share ideas. It’s what makes us human. But what if we can’t? Could it be possible to broadcast our thoughts directly from our brains without the need for speech? Gaia Vince meets the scientists who say they are getting close to being able to read minds. For the last decade neuroscientists have been using fMRI brain scanners and EEG to try to communicate with people who’d been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. They have woken up following a coma but although their eyes are open and they have spontaneous movements, they have no cognitive function and are not capable of higher level thought. Dr Damian Cruse, of Birmingham University, tells Gaia about the results of these experiments. People with other medical conditions that lead to a loss of speech, such as motor neurone disease, can already communicate with technology. We hear from Sarah Ezekiel, who has had MND since 2000 and whose life has been transformed by being able to talk artificially with eyegaze software on a computer. Neurologist Dr Kai Miller at Stanford University explains how he is using electrodes already implanted in the brains of people with severe epilepsy to determine what they are seeing. And Gaia explores the ethical problems that follow from technology that captures thoughts with cognitive scientist and philosopher Dr Adina Roskies of Dartmouth College in the US and Professor Geraint Rees, the editor of a recent collection of essays called "I know what you're thinking: brain imaging and mental privacy". She looks at the controversial privacy issues raised by the technology, such as could someone put thoughts into another's mind? Image: Fortune teller gazing into a crystal ball, © Creatas

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Custom of Cutting  

More than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, or cutting. It's where parts or all of a girl's genitals are damaged or removed. There are no medical benefits to FGM, and people who undergo the practice can face problems in later pregnancies, infections and even death due to blood loss. FGM is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The head of the UNFPA recently described it as child abuse. The BBC's Global Health Correspondent Tulip Mazumdar has travelled to East and West Africa to investigate efforts to end the practice and ask why this extremely harmful tradition, is proving so difficult to stamp out. Reporter: Tulip Mazumdar Producer: Krizstina Satori Picture: Women in Narekuni © Krisztina Satori

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The Inflamed Mind  

Depression or psychotic illness is experienced by hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people in the UK. James Gallagher talks to the psychiatrists investigating this new understanding of mental illness and to people who may benefit from treatments aimed at the immune systems rather than their brain cells. “I believe this is one of the strongest discoveries in psychiatry in the last twenty years”, says Professor Carmine Pariante of his and other research on the immune system and depression. "It allows us to understand depression no longer as just a disorder of the mind and not even a disorder of the brain, but a disorder of the whole body. It shifts conceptually what we understand about depression." James also talks to New York journalist Susannah Cahalan. She began to experience paranoid delusions and florid hallucinations when her immune system made damaging antibodies against part of the molecular circuitry in her brain. Treatment to eliminate the antibodies prevented her committal to psychiatric hospital. Psychiatrist professor Belinda Lennox at the University of Oxford says she has evidence that a significant proportion of people presenting for the first time with psychotic symptoms are victims of a similar autoimmune problem. (Photo: Brain Cells © Science Photo Library)

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The City That Fell Into The Earth  

How do you move a city? Lesley Riddoch travels to Arctic Sweden to find out. Kiruna is gradually sliding into Europe's biggest iron ore mine. The city has to be rebuilt two miles away. That requires an extraordinary blend of planning, architecture, technology and stoicism. If anyone can do it then it's the Swedes.

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The Sun King of China  

Meet Huang Ming, the Chinese inventor who describes himself as, 'the number one crazy solar guy in the world'. One of the prize exhibits of his museum in northern China is a vintage solar panel. It is a water heater, installed by President Jimmy Carter on the roof of the West Wing of the White House. Back in 1979 the installation was meant to symbolise a new solar-powered future for America. Instead, oil prices fell and Ronald Reagan removed the White House panels. Thirty-seven years on and it is China, not the US that is embracing the idea of a solar-powered economy. Huang Ming, an engineer, prominent political figure and businessman is leading the way with his foundation of Solar Valley. In 800 acres of land south of Beijing he employs 3000 people in solar research, development and manufacture. Peter Hadfield visits Solar Valley to see the fruits of the sun, from a solar-powered yurt to the world's biggest solar-powered building. He asks if Huang Ming can persuade his nation to turn its back on coal and oil and angle its face toward the sun.

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The Mars of the Mid-Atlantic  

Ascension Island is a tiny scrap of British territory, marooned in the tropical mid-Atlantic roughly halfway between Brazil and Africa. It is the tip of a giant undersea volcano – rugged, remote and, up until around 150 years ago, almost completely devoid of vegetation. Peter Gibbs visits to learn how 19th Century botanist Joseph Hooker, encouraged by Charles Darwin, planted a forest on the island’s summit to trap moisture brought by the trade winds, introducing a panoply of flora from around the world - ginger, guava, bamboo, ficus and dozens more. But is Ascension’s cloud forest all it appears? He talks to conservationists struggling to cope with invasive species running riot, hears about the rescue of Ascension’s tiny endemic ferns, encounters nesting turtles on the beaches and ventures among the chattering ‘wideawakes’ on the sweltering lava plains by the coast. (Photo: Ascension Island. Credit: Matthew Teller)

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Creating the Crick  

The Francis Crick Institute, in the centre of London, is the UK’s brand new, game-changing centre for biology and medical research. Roland Pease joins the scientists as they move into the building. Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate, one of the UK’s top biologists and director of the Crick explains what makes the new institute so special. Professor Richard Treisman, who helped shape its vision, shows Roland how the building is designed to encourage collaboration. And Roland learns how cancer researcher Dr Caroline Hill is packing up and moving her experimental subjects – thousands of fish. Named for Francis Crick – the British scientist who unravelled the structure of DNA and how it codes the design of the molecules of life – this central London Institute is set to be the heart of British biomedical science – bringing together experts from 3 other world famous institutes, from three of London’s great universities, and from industry. Picture: Scientists Move Into The Newly-built Francis Crick Institute in King's Cross on August 25, 2016, credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease Editor: Deborah Cohen

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Black Holes: A Tale of Cosmic Death and Rebirth  

The discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO observatory opens up a new form of astronomy, which will allow scientists explore the ultimate fate of dead stars, Black Holes. Roland Pease reports. (Photo: Gravitational waves © Nasa)

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The Whale Menopause  

Killer whales and humans are almost unique in the animal kingdom. The females of both species go through the menopause in their 40s or 50s, and then live for decades without producing any more offspring themselves. It is an extremely rare phenomenon. No other mammal does this, including other apes, monkeys and elephants, with the exception of another species of toothed whale. There are good grounds for thinking the menopause evolved for a reason, but why? BBC science reporter Victoria Gill takes to the sea off the north-west coast of the USA with scientists who believe the killer whales in this part of the world can explain why the menopause evolved in both orca whales and our own species. Victoria encounters 'Granny', the world's oldest known orca - a matriarch killer whale who is estimated to be between 80 and 105 years old. 'Granny' has not had a calf for at least 40 years and is still very much the leader of her family group. (Photo: An Orca whale jumps out of the water © Jane Cogan)

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Reversing Parkinson's  

Parkinson’s Disease is one of the major neurodegenerative conditions. Cells die, for reasons not fully understood, causing a reduction in the production of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, and a raft of physical and behavioural problems. Although effective drug treatments are available, they wear off over time and have side effects. The highly individual nature of the condition and variation in its progression also makes dosage difficult. Sue Broom reports on two new approaches that could lead to treatments for Parkinson’s. One potential therapy is to replace the dying cells with new ones. This was tried several decades ago but the results were not promising. The new TRANSEURO trial of cell therapy hopes to lead to better outcomes. The second approach is to use stem cells. Sue Broom talks to the doctors and patients involved in these trials. Image: Parkinson's disease MRI brain scan,© Science Photo Library Presenter/Producer: Sue Broom

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The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry: Space  

Two spacey cases today for doctors Rutherford and Fry to investigate, both sent in to BBC Future via Facebook. The Stellar Dustbin 'Can we shoot garbage into the sun?' asks Elisabeth Hill. The doctors embark on an astronomical thought experiment to see how much it would cost to throw Hannah's daily rubbish into our stellar dustbin. From space elevators to solar sails, they explore the various options that could be used to send litter to the Sun. Featuring space scientist Lucie Green and astrophysicist Andrew Pontzen. A Study in Spheres Another stellar question comes from Brian Passineau who wonders: 'why everything in space tends to be circular or spherical?' Hannah gazes at Jupiter at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich with public astronomer, Dr Marek Kukula. Science writer, Philip Ball, explains how the astronomical obsession with celestial spheres came to an untidy end. And, physicist Dr Helen Czerski helps Adam on his quest to find the perfect natural sphere. If you have any everyday mysteries for the team to investigate using the power of science, please email: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk (Photo: Dr Adam Rutherford (L) and Dr Hannah Fry)

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The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry: Fainting & Counting  

Swooning maidens and clever horses feature in today's Curious Cases, sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk The Squeamish Swoon Science sleuths Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford investigate the following question sent in by Philip Le Riche: 'Why do some people faint at the sight of blood, or a hypodermic needle, or even if they bash their funny bone? Does it serve any useful evolutionary purpose, or is just some kind of cerebral error condition?' Adam is strapped onto a hospital tilt table in an attempt to make him blackout and Hannah receives an aromatic surprise. Featuring consultant cardiologists Dr Nicholas Gall and Dr Adam Fitzpatrick and cardiac physiologist Shelley Dougherty. The Counting Horse Our second case was sent in by retired primary school teacher Lesley Marr, who asks: "Can horses count? I think they can. Any ideas about which animals can count and which can't?” The team considers the case of Clever Hans, and hears from Dr Claudia Uller who has been conducting modern studies on equine counting. Mathematician Prof Marcus Du Sautoy explains the basic concept of counting to Adam, and Hannah looks across the animal kingdom to find the cleverest mathematical creature. If you have any questions you'd like the duo to investigate, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Producer: Michelle Martin.

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The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry: Traffic & Telephones  

How does traffic jam? And, why do some people shout into their cellphones in public places? Two subjects guaranteed to annoy even the most patient listeners. The Phantom Jam Listener Matthew Chandler wrote to us: "I travel on the motorway for work and often I find myself sitting in a traffic jam for ages, thinking there must be roadworks or an accident ahead, then suddenly the jam mysteriously disappears to reveal… nothing! There's no apparent reason whatsoever." Doctors Rutherford and Fry discover the cause of these phantom jams. Adam ventures on to the M25 in search of a tailback, and Hannah looks at projects around the world designed to thwart traffic tailbacks. This case features Neal Harwood from the Transport Research Laboratory and BBC technology reporter, Jane Wakefield. Plus a special guest appearance from Greg Marston, aka 'Masdar City Man'. The Aural Voyeur Listener Daniel Sarano, from New Jersey, asks why people shout on their mobile phones in public: "I have no interest in hearing about people’s private lives. I don’t enjoy the aural voyeurism. If people want to say 'honey I’m running late, be home in 5'. That’s OK, but discussing business or, worse, personal details…. I hate it. The whole idea would have seemed an anathema to older generations. I think they would have considered it rude to talk loudly in public. No sense of that in the 21st Century.” We discover the answer to this annoying modern habit by delving into the inner workings of telephony. What follows is a tale of engineering rivalry, Victorian etiquette and early otolaryngology. Providing the answers are acoustic technologist Nick Zakarov and historian Greg Jenner, author of 'A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Daily Life'. If you have any everyday mysteries for the team to investigate using the power of science, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Producer: Michelle Martin (Photo: Dr Adam Rutherford and Dr Hannah Fry)

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