Discovery

Discovery

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Explorations in the world of science.

Episodes

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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The Curious Cases of Rutherford & Fry: Tea & Tears  

A story of sorrow and comfort today, as Drs Adam Rutherford & Hannah Fry investigate two mysteries sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk: THE PSYCHIC TEAR Edith Calman challenges our scientific sleuths to answer the following question: “What is it about extreme pain, emotional shock or the sight of a three year old stumbling their way through an off-key rendition of 'Away in a Manger' that makes the brain send messages to the lacrimal glands to chuck out water?" Hannah discovers how the eye produces tears, with the help of Dr Nick Knight. Broadcaster Claudia Hammond, author of 'Emotional Rollercoaster', describes why Darwin experimented on his children until they cried. Adam watches a tearjerker to take part in a psychological study, but ends up getting angry instead. THE TEA LEAF MYSTERY The team examine how to make the perfect cup of British tea, in response to Fred Rickaby from North Carolina: "When we are preparing a cup of tea and the cup contains nothing but hot, brewed tea we need to add milk and sugar. My wife always adds the sugar first, stirs the cup to make sure it is dissolved and then add the milk. So, is that an optimum strategy for adding milk and sugar to a cup of tea?" Adam consults Prof Andrea Sella from University College London about the chemistry of tea. Hannah visits a tea factory in Kent where Master Blender Alex Probyn teaches her an unusual method for tasting tea. They conclude with the most important question: should you add the milk first or last? And can tea professionals really tell the difference? If you have any everyday mysteries for the team to investigate using the power of science, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk Image: © BBC Presenters: Dr Hannah Fry, Dr Adam Rutherford Producer: Michelle Martin

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The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry: Hair  

Doctors Adam Rutherford and Hannah Fry set out to solve the following perplexing cases sent in by listeners: The Scarlet Mark Sheena Cruickshank in Manchester asks, "My eldest son is ginger but I am blonde and my husband brunette so we are constantly asked where the red came from. Further, people do say the 'ginger gene' is dying out, but how good is that maths or is it just anecdotal?" Our science sleuths set out to discover what makes gingers ginger with a tale of fancy mice, Tudor queens and ginger beards. Featuring historian and author Kate Williams and Jonathan Rees from the University of Edinburgh, who discovered the ginger gene. The Hairy Hominid "How does leg hair know it has been cut? It does not seem to grow continuously but if you shave it, it somehow knows to grow back," asks Hannah Monteith from Edinburgh in Scotland. Hannah Fry consults dermatologist Dr Susan Holmes, from the Hair Clinic at Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, to discover why the hairs on your legs do not grow as long as the hairs on your head. Adam attempts to have a serious discussion about the evolutionary purpose of pubic hair with anatomist and broadcaster Prof Alice Roberts. If you have a scientific mystery for the team to investigate, please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk

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China Science Rising  

China is super-sizing science. From building the biggest experiments the world has ever seen to rolling out the latest medical advances on a massive scale and pushing the boundaries of exploration in outer space - China’s scientific ambitions are immense. Just a few decades ago the nation barely featured in the world science rankings. Now, in terms of research spending and the number of scientific papers published, it stands only behind the US. But despite this rapid progress, China faces a number of challenges. Rebecca Morelle discusses China's science with Charlotte Liu, Nature Springer publishers. Image: Artist impression of completed Fast radio telescope, China © BBC Presenter: Rebecca Morelle Producer: Paula McGrath

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The Power of Cute  

Zoologist and broadcaster Lucy Cooke explores the science behind our seeming obsession with all things adorable. There has been an explosion in interest in cuteness, particularly online, with an ever growing number of websites dedicated to pandas, kittens, puppies and of course babies. If you are feeling a bit down in the dumps, what better way to brighten your day then looking at some cute baby animal frolicking about. But what is it that makes these creatures so darn attractive to us and can you be addicted to cute? Lucy investigates the latest scientific research looking at just what makes babies cute, and what looking at them does to our brain, with some surprising results. She visits London Zoo to visit her number one cute creature of choice, the sloth, to find out why sloths hit the top of the cute charts, but the Chinese giant salamander definitely doesn't, and why in terms of conservation, that matters. Image: Hoffmann"s Two-Toed Sloth, credit: Science Photo Library

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Failing Gracefully  

Dr Kevin Fong concludes his exploration of the boundaries between the medical profession and other industries for valuable lessons that might be of use to us all. In this final episode, Kevin talks to people who have spent their lives investigating what it takes to make high-performance, high-reliability systems work safely when lives are on the line. Since the days of Project Apollo, People have come to rely more and more heavily upon the digital computer. Whether it’s aerospace, the automotive industry, medicine or even the financial sector, technology has become so central to the success of these complex systems, that it’s become increasingly more difficult for the human to remain in control when these systems fail. Technology, some argue, isn’t just replacing us, it’s displacing us. Is this situation inevitable or is there a way to better protect ourselves from the risks that opaque, complex technological systems create?

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Going Lean: Health and the Toyota Way  

In the third programme in the series, Dr Kevin Fong explores the concept of ‘lean’ in healthcare. He visits Toyota’s largest car assembly plant in the United States and discovers how the company’s legendary management philosophy – the Toyota Production System – is being implemented in hospitals, in an effort to improve patient care. Toyota’s philosophy of continuous improvement aims to increase quality and flow whilst decreasing cost. But whilst this may work well for the mass production of cars, can it really improve the care of individual patients?

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“Faster, Better, Cheaper”  

Kevin Fong explores the success and failure of NASA’s missions to Mars

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