In Our Time: Science

In Our Time: Science

United Kingdom

Scientific principles, theory, and the role of key figures in the advancement of science.

Episodes

Robert Hooke  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work or Robert Hooke (1635-1703) who worked for Robert Boyle and was curator of experiments at the Royal Society. The engraving of a flea, above, is taken from his Micrographia which caused a sensation when published in 1665. Sometimes remembered for his disputes with Newton, he studied the planets with telescopes and snowflakes with microscopes. He was an early proposer of a theory of evolution, discovered light diffraction with a wave theory to explain it and felt he was rarely given due credit for his discoveries. With David Wootton Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York Patricia Fara President Elect of the British Society for the History of Science And Rob Iliffe Professor of History of Science at Oxford University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Chromatography  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origins, development and uses of chromatography. In its basic form, it is familiar to generations of schoolchildren who put a spot of ink at the bottom of a strip of paper, dip it in water and then watch the pigments spread upwards, revealing their separate colours. Chemists in the 19th Century started to find new ways to separate mixtures and their work was taken further by Mikhail Tsvet, a Russian-Italian scientist who is often credited with inventing chromatography in 1900. The technique has become so widely used, it is now an integral part of testing the quality of air and water, the levels of drugs in athletes, in forensics and in the preparation of pharmaceuticals. With Andrea Sella Professor of Chemistry at University College London Apryll Stalcup Professor of Chemical Sciences at Dublin City University And Leon Barron Senior Lecturer in Forensic Science at King's College London.

Saturn  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the planet Saturn with its rings of ice and rock and over 60 moons. In 1610, Galileo used an early telescope to observe Saturn, one of the brightest points in the night sky, but could not make sense of what he saw: perhaps two large moons on either side. When he looked a few years later, those supposed moons had disappeared. It was another forty years before Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens solved the mystery, realizing the moons were really a system of rings. Successive astronomers added more detail, with the greatest leaps forward in the last forty years. The Pioneer 11 spacecraft and two Voyager missions have flown by, sending back the first close-up images, and Cassini is still there, in orbit, confirming Saturn, with its rings and many moons, as one of the most intriguing and beautiful planets in our Solar System. With Carolin Crawford Public Astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy and Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge Michele Dougherty Professor of Space Physics at Imperial College London And Andrew Coates Deputy Director in charge of the Solar System at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at UCL.

Michael Faraday  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the eminent 19th-century scientist Michael Faraday. Born into a poor working-class family, he received little formal schooling but became interested in science while working as a bookbinder's apprentice. He is celebrated today for carrying out pioneering research into the relationship between electricity and magnetism. Faraday showed that if a wire was turned in the presence of a magnet or a magnet was turned in relation to a wire, an electric current was generated. This ground-breaking discovery led to the development of the electric generator and ultimately to modern power stations. During his life he became the most famous scientist in Britain and he played a key role in founding the Royal Institution's Christmas lectures which continue today. With: Geoffrey Cantor Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Leeds Laura Herz Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford Frank James Professor of the History of Science at the Royal Institution Producer: Victoria Brignell.

Circadian Rhythms  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the evolution and role of Circadian Rhythms, the so-called body clock that influences an organism's daily cycle of physical, behavioural and mental changes. The rhythms are generated within organisms and also in response to external stimuli, mainly light and darkness. They are found throughout the living world, from bacteria to plants, fungi to animals and, in humans, are noticed most clearly in sleep patterns. With Russell Foster Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford Debra Skene Professor of Neuroendocrinology at the University of Surrey And Steve Jones Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London.

P v NP  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the problem of P versus NP, which has a bearing on online security. There is a $1,000,000 prize on offer from the Clay Mathematical Institute for the first person to come up with a complete solution. At its heart is the question "are there problems for which the answers can be checked by computers, but not found in a reasonable time?" If the answer to that is yes, then P does not equal NP. However, if all answers can be found easily as well as checked, if only we knew how, then P equals NP. The area has intrigued mathematicians and computer scientists since Alan Turing, in 1936, found that it's impossible to decide in general whether an algorithm will run forever on some problems. Resting on P versus NP is the security of all online transactions which are currently encrypted: if it transpires that P=NP, if answers could be found as easily as checked, computers could crack passwords in moments. With Colva Roney-Dougal Reader in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews Timothy Gowers Royal Society Research Professor in Mathematics at the University of Cambridge And Leslie Ann Goldberg Professor of Computer Science and Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Perpetual Motion  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the rise of the idea of perpetual motion and its decline, in the 19th Century, with the Laws of Thermodynamics. For hundreds of years, some of the greatest names in science thought there might be machines that could power themselves endlessly. Leonardo Da Vinci tested the idea of a constantly-spinning wheel and Robert Boyle tried to recirculate water from a draining flask. Gottfried Leibniz supported a friend, Orffyreus, who claimed he had built an ever-rotating wheel. An increasing number of scientists voiced their doubts about perpetual motion, from the time of Galileo, but none could prove it was impossible. For scientists, the designs were a way of exploring the laws of nature. Others claimed their inventions actually worked, and promised a limitless supply of energy. It was not until the 19th Century that the picture became clearer, with the experiments of James Joule and Robert Mayer on the links between heat and work, and the establishment of the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. With Ruth Gregory Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Durham University Frank Close Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oxford and Steven Bramwell Professor of Physics and former Professor of Chemistry at University College London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Extremophiles  

In 1977, scientists in the submersible "Alvin" were exploring the deep ocean bed off the Galapagos Islands. In the dark, they discovered hydrothermal vents, like chimneys, from which superheated water flowed. Around the vents there was an extraordinary variety of life, feeding on microbes which were thriving in the acidity and extreme temperature of the vents. While it was already known that some microbes are extremophiles, thriving in extreme conditions, such as the springs and geysers of Yellowstone Park (pictured), that had not prepared scientists for what they now found. Since the "Alvin" discovery, the increased study of extremophile microbes has revealed much about what is and is not needed to sustain life on Earth and given rise to new theories about how and where life began. It has also suggested forms and places in which life might be found elsewhere in the Universe. With Monica Grady Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University Ian Crawford Professor of Planetary Science and Astrobiology at Birkbeck University of London And Nick Lane Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Science of Glass  

While glass items have been made for at least 5,000 years, scientists are yet to explain, conclusively, what happens when the substance it's made from moves from a molten state to its hard, transparent phase. It is said to be one of the great unsolved problems in physics. While apparently solid, the glass retains certain properties of a liquid. At times, ways of making glass have been highly confidential; in Venice in the Middle Ages, disclosure of manufacturing techniques was a capital offence. Despite the complexity and mystery of the science of glass, glass technology has continued to advance from sheet glass to crystal glass, optical glass and prisms, to float glasses, chemical glassware, fibre optics and metal glasses. With: Dame Athene Donald Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Cambridge and Master of Churchill College, Cambridge Jim Bennett Former Director of the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford and Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum Paul McMillan Professor of Chemistry at University College London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Earth's Core  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Earth's Core. The inner core is an extremely dense, solid ball of iron and nickel, the size of the Moon, while the outer core is a flowing liquid, the size of Mars. Thanks to the magnetic fields produced within the core, life on Earth is possible. The magnetosphere protects the Earth from much of the Sun's radiation and the flow of particles which would otherwise strip away the atmosphere. The precise structure of the core and its properties have been fascinating scientists from the Renaissance. Recent seismographs show the picture is even more complex than we might have imagined, with suggestions that the core is spinning at a different speed and on a different axis from the surface. With Stephen Blundell Professor of Physics and Fellow of Mansfield College at the University of Oxford Arwen Deuss Associate Professor in Seismology at Utrecht University and Simon Redfern Professor of Mineral Physics at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Curies  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the scientific achievements of the Curie family. In 1903 Marie and Pierre Curie shared a Nobel Prize in Physics with Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, a term which Marie coined. Marie went on to win a Nobel in Chemistry eight years later; remarkably, her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie would later share a Nobel with her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie for their discovery that it was possible to create radioactive materials in the laboratory. The work of the Curies added immensely to our knowledge of fundamental physics and paved the way for modern treatments for cancer and other illnesses. With: Patricia Fara Senior Tutor of Clare College, University of Cambridge Robert Fox Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at the University of Oxford Steven T Bramwell Professor of Physics and former Professor of Chemistry at University College London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Dark Matter  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss dark matter, the mysterious and invisible substance which is believed to make up most of the Universe. In 1932 the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort noticed that the speed at which galaxies moved was at odds with the amount of material they appeared to contain. He hypothesized that much of this 'missing' matter was simply invisible to telescopes. Today astronomers and particle physicists are still fascinated by the search for dark matter and the question of what it is. With Carolin Crawford Public Astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge and Gresham Professor of Astronomy Carlos Frenk Ogden Professor of Fundamental Physics and Director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology at the University of Durham Anne Green Reader in Physics at the University of Nottingham Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Photon  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the photon, one of the most enigmatic objects in the Universe. Generations of scientists have struggled to understand the nature of light. In the late nineteenth century it seemed clear that light was an electromagnetic wave. But the work of physicists including Planck and Einstein shed doubt on this theory. Today scientists accept that light can behave both as a wave and a particle, the latter known as the photon. Understanding light in terms of photons has enabled the development of some of the most important technology of the last fifty years. With: Frank Close Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oxford Wendy Flavell Professor of Surface Physics at the University of Manchester Susan Cartwright Senior Lecturer in Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield. Producer: Thomas Morris.

Behavioural Ecology  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Behavioural Ecology, the scientific study of animal behaviour. What factors influence where and what an animal chooses to eat? Why do some animals mate for life whilst others are promiscuous? Behavioural ecologists approach questions like these using Darwin's theory of natural selection, along with ideas drawn from game theory and the economics of consumer choice. Scientists had always been interested in why animals behave as they do, but before behavioural ecology this area of zoology never got much beyond a collection of interesting anecdotes. Behavioural ecology gave researchers techniques for constructing rigorous mathematical models of how animals act under different circumstances, and for predicting how they will react if circumstances change. Behavioural ecology emerged as a branch of zoology in the second half of the 20th century and proponents say it revolutionized our understanding of animals in their environments. GUESTS Steve Jones, Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London Rebecca Kilner, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cambridge John Krebs, Principal of Jesus College at the University of Oxford Producer: Luke Mulhall.

Brunel  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer responsible for bridges, tunnels and railways still in use today more than 150 years after they were built. Brunel represented the cutting edge of technological innovation in Victorian Britain, and his life gives us a window onto the social changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution. Yet his work was not always successful, and his innovative approach to engineering projects was often greeted with suspicion from investors. Guests: Julia Elton, former President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology Ben Marsden, Senior Lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen Crosbie Smith, Professor of the History of Science at the University of Kent Producer: Luke Mulhall.

Nuclear Fusion  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss nuclear fusion, the process that powers stars. In the 1920s physicists predicted that it might be possible to generate huge amounts of energy by fusing atomic nuclei together, a reaction requiring enormous temperatures and pressures. Today we know that this complex reaction is what keeps the Sun shining. Scientists have achieved fusion in the laboratory and in nuclear weapons; today it is seen as a likely future source of limitless and clean energy. Guests: Philippa Browning, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Manchester Steve Cowley, Chief Executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority Justin Wark, Professor of Physics and fellow of Trinity College at the University of Oxford Producer: Thomas Morris.

e  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Euler's number, also known as e. First discovered in the seventeenth century by the Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli when he was studying compound interest, e is now recognised as one of the most important and interesting numbers in mathematics. Roughly equal to 2.718, e is useful in studying many everyday situations, from personal savings to epidemics. It also features in Euler's Identity, sometimes described as the most beautiful equation ever written. With: Colva Roney-Dougal Reader in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews June Barrow-Green Senior Lecturer in the History of Maths at the Open University Vicky Neale Whitehead Lecturer at the Mathematical Institute and Balliol College at the University of Oxford Producer: Thomas Morris.

The Sun  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Sun. The object that gives the Earth its light and heat is a massive ball of gas and plasma 93 million miles away. Thanks to the nuclear fusion reactions taking place at its core, the Sun has been shining for four and a half billion years. Its structure, and the processes that keep it burning, have fascinated astronomers for centuries. After the invention of the telescope it became apparent that the Sun is not a placid, steadily shining body but is subject to periodic changes in its appearance and eruptions of dramatic violence, some of which can affect us here on Earth. Recent space missions have revealed fascinating new insights into our nearest star. With: Carolin Crawford Gresham Professor of Astronomy and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge Yvonne Elsworth Poynting Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham Louise Harra Professor of Solar Physics at UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory Producer: Thomas Morris.

Robert Boyle  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life and work of Robert Boyle, a pioneering scientist and a founder member of the Royal Society. Born in Ireland in 1627, Boyle was one of the first natural philosophers to conduct rigorous experiments, laid the foundations of modern chemistry and derived Boyle's Law, describing the physical properties of gases. In addition to his experimental work he left a substantial body of writings about philosophy and religion; his piety was one of the most important factors in his intellectual activities, prompting a celebrated dispute with his contemporary Thomas Hobbes. With: Simon Schaffer Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge Michael Hunter Emeritus Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London Anna Marie Roos Senior Lecturer in the History of Science and Medicine at the University of Lincoln Producer: Thomas Morris.

Photosynthesis  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss photosynthesis, the process by which green plants and many other organisms use sunlight to synthesise organic molecules. Photosynthesis arose very early in evolutionary history and has been a crucial driver of life on Earth. In addition to providing most of the food consumed by organisms on the planet, it is also responsible for maintaining atmospheric oxygen levels, and is thus almost certainly the most important chemical process ever discovered. With: Nick Lane Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London Sandra Knapp Botanist at the Natural History Museum John Allen Professor of Biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London. Producer: Thomas Morris.

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