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

John Dalton  

The scientist John Dalton was born in North England in 1766. Although he came from a relatively poor Quaker family, he managed to become one of the most celebrated scientists of his age. Through his work, he helped to establish Manchester as a place where not only products were made but ideas were born. His reputation during his lifetime was so high that unusually a statue was erected to him before he died. Among his interests were meteorology, gasses and colour blindness. However, he is most remembered today for his pioneering thinking in the field of atomic theory. With: Jim Bennett Former Director of the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford and Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum Aileen Fyfe Reader in British History at the University of St Andrews James Sumner Lecturer in the History of Technology at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester Producer: Victoria Brignell.

Plasma  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss plasma, the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid and gas. As over ninety-nine percent of all observable matter in the Universe is plasma, planets like ours, with so little plasma and so much solid, liquid and gas, appear all the more remarkable. On the grand scale, plasma is what the Sun is made from and, when we look into the night sky, almost everything we can see with the naked eye is made of plasma. On the smallest scale, here on Earth, scientists make plasma to etch the microchips on which we rely for so much. Plasma is in the fluorescent light bulbs above our heads and, in laboratories around the world, it is the subject of tests to create, one day, an inexhaustible and clean source of energy from nuclear fusion. With Justin Wark Professor of Physics and Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Oxford Kate Lancaster Research Fellow for Innovation and Impact at the York Plasma Institute at the University of York and Bill Graham Professor of Physics at Queens University, Belfast Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Zeno's Paradoxes  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher from c490-430 BC whose paradoxes were described by Bertrand Russell as "immeasurably subtle and profound." The best known argue against motion, such as that of an arrow in flight which is at a series of different points but moving at none of them, or that of Achilles who, despite being the faster runner, will never catch up with a tortoise with a head start. Aristotle and Aquinas engaged with these, as did Russell, yet it is still debatable whether Zeno's Paradoxes have been resolved. With Marcus du Sautoy Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford Barbara Sattler Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and James Warren Reader in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Invention of Photography  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the development of photography in the 1830s, when techniques for 'drawing with light' evolved to the stage where, in 1839, both Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot made claims for its invention. These followed the development of the camera obscura, and experiments by such as Thomas Wedgwood and Nicéphore Niépce, and led to rapid changes in the 1840s as more people captured images with the daguerreotype and calotype. These new techniques changed the aesthetics of the age and, before long, inspired claims that painting was now dead. With Simon Schaffer Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge Elizabeth Edwards Emeritus Professor of Photographic History at De Montfort University And Alison Morrison-Low, Research Associate at National Museums Scotland Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Penicillin  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. It is said he noticed some blue-green penicillium mould on an uncovered petri dish at his hospital laboratory, and that this mould had inhibited bacterial growth around it. After further work, Fleming filtered a broth of the mould and called that penicillin, hoping it would be useful as a disinfectant. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain later shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine with Fleming, for their role in developing a way of mass-producing the life-saving drug. Evolutionary theory predicted the risk of resistance from the start and, almost from the beginning of this 'golden age' of antibacterials, scientists have been looking for ways to extend the lifespan of antibiotics. With Laura Piddock Professor of Microbiology at the University of Birmingham Christoph Tang Professor of Cellular Pathology and Professorial Fellow at Exeter College at the University of Oxford And Steve Jones Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College, London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Euclid's Elements  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Euclid's Elements, a mathematical text book attributed to Euclid and in use from its appearance in Alexandria, Egypt around 300 BC until modern times, dealing with geometry and number theory. It has been described as the most influential text book ever written. Einstein had a copy as a child, which he treasured, later saying "If Euclid failed to kindle your youthful enthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker." With Marcus du Sautoy Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford Serafina Cuomo Reader in Roman History at Birkbeck University of London And June Barrow-Green Professor of the History of Mathematics at the Open University Producer: Simon Tillotson.

1816, the Year Without a Summer  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the impact of the eruption of Mt Tambora, in 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa. This was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history and it had the highest death toll, devastating people living in the immediate area. Tambora has been linked with drastic weather changes in North America and Europe the following year, with frosts in June and heavy rains throughout the summer in many areas. This led to food shortages, which may have prompted westward migration in America and, in a Europe barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, led to widespread famine. With Clive Oppenheimer Professor of Volcanology at the University of Cambridge Jane Stabler Professor in Romantic Literature at the University of St Andrews And Lawrence Goldman Director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

The Neutron  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the neutron, one of the particles found in an atom's nucleus. Building on the work of Ernest Rutherford, the British physicist James Chadwick won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of the neutron in 1932. Neutrons play a fundamental role in the universe and their discovery was at the heart of developments in nuclear physics in the first half of the 20th century. With Val Gibson Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge and fellow of Trinity College Andrew Harrison Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Light Source and Professor in Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh And Frank Close Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oxford.

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.

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