Science in Action

Science in Action

United States

Jack Stewart and guests discuss the latest science research and news stories from all over the world.


Plastic Planet  

More than 8.3 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured since the material was initially mass-produced in the 1950s. Plastic is low cost, easy to manufacture and versatile, which is why it has permeated throughout our daily lives, from shopping bags to bottles. A new global study has quantified the production and consumption of plastic over the decades. Revealing a very big problem. If our current rate of plastic waste generation continues, it’s predicted that by 2050 there will be over 13 billion tonnes of it discarded into landfills and the environment around us. Transparent Hearts Our hearts, as muscles, are very complex and dense, making them opaque even to our most powerful microscopes. This can be particularly problematic for creating 3D structural images of the tissue, which is important for those studying heart disease and its potential treatments. Yet, a quick and simple way to turn heart tissue transparent has recently been developed, providing scientists with an opportunity to discover more about our most complex organ. Sex-changing Clownfish Clownfish – made famous by the Disney film Finding Nemo – have been shown to undergo sex-changing behaviour. When the larger female in a pair dies, the male (possibly triggered by hormones) grows and becomes female, even able to breed and lay viable eggs. Earth’s Protective Forcefield Since 2012, NASA’s Van Allen probes have been measuring the Van Allen Belts; belts of radiation cocooning the Earth protecting it from high energy particles blasted out by solar winds and eruptions. Recent measurements have shown that there has been an anthropogenic effect on the belts. Very Low Frequency (VLF) signals, which provide a way for people on land to communicate with underwater crafts such as submarines, are interacting with electrons in the Van Allen belts. The interplay between the two is creating man-made layers that act as a barrier to the highest energy, or ‘killer’ electrons heading towards Earth. Picture: Dirty used coloured plastic bottle pile, credit: sebasnoo Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Jack Meegan

Caterpillar Cannibals  

The arms race between insects that eat plants and plants, has had millions of years to evolve some pretty amazing interactions. Not least the tomato plant that produces chemicals that make caterpillars turn cannibalistic. When the caterpillar eats another caterpillar, it’s not eating the tomato plant and it’s effectively reducing the number of other caterpillars that could attack the plant. Arctic Iceberg The crack in the Antarctic ice shelf, Larsen C, has completed, leading to a giant iceberg breaking free. The more than 200m-thick tabular berg will not move very far, or very fast, in the short term. But it will need to be monitored. Currents and winds might eventually push it north of the Antarctic where it could become a hazard to shipping. Early Life All living organisms on Earth need the compound iron-sulphur in their cells in order to live. This suggests that this chemical could have been a fundamental component of the pre-biotic soup that led to life. We know that the component iron and sulphur elements were abundant on the early Earth, but they weren’t in the correct form to make these essential iron-sulphur clusters. New work shows that when the conditions are right, the clusters can form With UV light being one of the key ingredients for the reaction. This means that the surface of our early planet could have been a good place for the spark of life to begin, not the deep sea hydrothermal vents as other people think. Picture: Could this be a cannibalistic caterpillar? Credit Dr.P F Donald Producer: Fiona Roberts Presenter: Roland Pease

Dinosaurs of China  

Fossils from China are changing the image of dinosaurs. Rather than huge lizards, it seems that some dinosaurs might have more closely resembled massive chickens. Since the discovery of the transitional fossil Archeopteryx, a small dinosaur with broad wings, feathers and a long tail, we’ve known that birds and dinosaurs are close relatives. Now, incredibly well-preserved feathery fossils from the Liaoning province in North Eastern China are being shown in an exclusive exhibition at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham. These fossils provide a new insight into just how bird-like many dinosaurs would have appeared, revealing many familiar characteristics to our own modern birds. Nanocolours Imagine having planes and cars covered in vivid, bright colours like the exotic birds and butterflies found in hot climates. It could soon be possible with metallic nano-sponges. These tiny networks of holes and tubes soak up light, rather than water. Nano-sponges mimic nature’s network-based colour structures, such as that responsible for the beautiful blue plumage of the South American plum-throated Cotinga (bird). Unlike paint, which contains coloured pigments that absorb light of a particular wavelength, structural colours arise through light interacting with a material’s surface structure. This means that nano-sponges can be simply applied as a metal coating, to produce colours from auroral greens to velvety reds. Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

Neonicotinoids Harm Bees  

The first large-scale, field studies looking at the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees show largely negative effects. It’s been suspected for a number of years now, that the systemic, seed-coating, pesticides affect the survival and reproductive success of honeybees and wild bees. But testing this in the field, where other factors have to be ruled out, has so far proved very difficult. Now, the results from trials in the UK, Hungary and Germany, as well as separate trials in Canada, are affirming these concerns. The picture is still complicated, and it seems other factors, such as diet, disease and stress also play a role. But perhaps most concerning is the persistence and spread of these chemicals in the environment. Antarctic Terrestrial Biodiversity You might be surprised at just how many plants and animals live on Antarctica. Aside from penguins and seasonally nesting seabirds, the icy continent is home to grasses, mosses, lichens, springtails and other invertebrates. They survive in ice-free patches. 1% of the continent is thought to be permanently ice-free, in places such as the coast, on the steep sides and tops of mountains and in dry valleys. You’d think that with global warming predicted to increase these ice-free areas by 25% over the next 100 years, it would be a good thing – more habitat and a less harsh climate. But concerns about an increase in invasive species could threaten the survival of this terrestrial Antarctic biodiversity. ‘Celestial Sleuth’ Identifies Lord Byron’s ‘Single Star’ Exactly 200 years ago, poet Lord Byron was so impressed by a night’s sky that he wrote about it in his seminal narrative poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. The problem was, when he spoke of “The Moon is up...” as he wrote in the fourth canto, published in 1818, “…A Single Star is at her side.” He got it wrong! Celestial sleuth and Texas State University astronomer and physicist, Professor Donald Olson, has deduced the exact night, in August 1818, that Byron recalls, and the star was in fact not a star, but the planet Jupiter. However, the magnificent twilight colours of which he also waxes lyrical “of all colours seem to be melted to one vast Iris of the west…” is a correct observation, as the dust from the massive 1815 eruption of the Tambora volcano in Indonesia would have been creating some spectacular sunsets at that time. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV Stanza XXVII. The Moon is up, and yet it is not Night - Sunset divides the sky with her -- a Sea Of Glory streams along the Alpine height Of blue Friuli’s mountains; Heaven is free From clouds, but of all colours seems to be Melted to one vast Iris of the West, Where the Day joins the past Eternity; While, on the other hand, meek Dian’s crest Floats through the azure air -- an island of the blest! Stanza XXVIII. A Single Star is at her side, and reigns With her o’er half the lovely heaven; but still Yon sunny Sea heaves brightly, and remains Rolled o’er the peak of the far Rhaetian hill, As Day and Night contending were, until Nature reclaimed her order -- gently flows The deep-dyed Brenta, where their hues instil The odorous Purple of a new-born rose, Which streams upon her stream, and glassed within it glows, Stanza XXIX. Filled with the face of Heaven, which, from afar, Comes down upon the waters; all its hues, From the rich sunset to the rising star, Their magical variety diffuse: And now they change; a paler Shadow strews Its mantle o’er the mountains; parting Day Dies like the Dolphin, whom each pang imbues With a new colour as it gasps away - The last still loveliest -- till -- ‘tis gone -- and All is gray. Photo: Honey bee, credit: Paul F Donald Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

Why Bird Eggs are not all ‘Egg-shaped’  

Bird’s eggs are not all shaped like a chicken’s egg, there is a huge diversity in the shape of bird’s eggs. From the almost spherical eggs of owls, to the conical guillemot egg and the zeppelin-shaped Mallee fowl eggs. It seems that the flying ability of a bird species is a major evolutionary driving force to what shape eggs they lay. Making Heart Valves Replacement heart valves are not a new thing. There are plastic ones and you can use animal heart valves. The main problem is these are all one fixed size. What if a growing child needs a new heart valve? This is where the new technique of engineering these vital valves comes in. Researchers at Harvard University have come up with a way to create heart valves that grow with the body. And one of the bits of kit they use is a bit like a souped-up candyfloss machine! Measuring Underground Water Reserves in Bengal Water stored under the ground in the Bengal Basin in North India is a vital source of fresh water for over 100 million people. The usual way to measure how much water is in these deep ancient porous sedimentary reservoirs is to measure the water level in a borehole. But new work has shown that when it rains (as in the monsoon), the increased weight of surface water from rainfall, lakes, rivers and flooding press down on the surface of the earth, increasing the pressure of water underground and thus giving a false reading of how much groundwater is there. New Mining Technologies in Chile Mining for copper, gold and other metals is big business in Chile. But prospecting for good sites in rugged and remote locations can be dangerous. Two new prospecting techniques, one using drones and the other measuring micro earthquakes are helping to find the best sites to mine safely and remotely. Picture: Shaping of eggs, credit: Science/PA Wire Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

Wireless Charging  

New technology from Stanford University could allow wireless chargers to ‘beam’ energy directly into the electrical devices at a distance. Roland looks into the future of wireless technology, and whether it will rid us of the plague of cables. Women Misjudged By Science Science has too often helped to enhance false stereotypes of women as the ‘inferior’ sex according to author Angela Saini. She tells Roland how scientific investigations into sex can be too easily influenced by the internalised biases of the experimenter. Bloody Computers Computers, like the brains of animals, need energy to operate, but they’re pretty difficult to keep cool. Blood provides both energy and cooling for brains, but computers use wires and fans. Roland Pease meets an IBM researcher seeking to solve the problem with “electronic blood”. Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Louisa Field

Oldest Homo Sapiens Found  

The oldest fossils of Homo sapiens have been unearthed in Morocco. They are over 100,000 years older than the next oldest H.sapiens fossils, and show subtle differences in brain size and appearance from modern man. We were thought to have originated in an East African “garden of Eden” but this find, thousands of miles away, shakes up what we thought we knew about human evolution and migration. Is Cooperation a Selfish Act? Is cooperation driven by a selfless concern for others, or by a strategic – if selfish – desire to increase personal returns in the future? Roland speaks with Oxford researcher Maxwell Burton-Chellew about his team’s evidence that there needs to be a tangible future benefit for some humans to cooperate with each other. The Paris Agreement: What now? What impact could the US’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement have on the global climate? Climate experts dissect President Trump’s speech on the topic, and discuss what this will mean for world politics. Picture: The oldest Homo sapiens skull showing subtle differences in brain size and the prominence of the brow ridge compared with modern man, Credit: Philipp Gunz, MPI EVA Leipzig Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Louisa Field

More Gravitational Waves Detected  

The first detection of gravitational waves, announced February 2016, was a milestone in physics and astronomy, it was quickly followed by another find. Now teams working on the LIGO detector have just announced their third new detection. Gravitational waves are 'ripples' in the fabric of space-time caused by some of the most violent and energetic processes in the Universe. All three signals are thought to be caused by two black holes merging. This time the spin might give clues as to where the original stars formed. Safer Gold Extraction Many gold mines separate the precious metal dust from the rock using toxic substances like cyanide and mercury, but scientists at the University of Leicester have used rock samples from a gold mine in Scotland to prove they can do the job a different way, using a mixture of vitamin B4 and urea. Genetics of Ancient Egyptian Mummies Ancient Egyptian mummies give up their genetic secrets. Mitochondrial DNA from mummified remains show how much ancient Egyptians interbred with populations from Asia, Africa and Europe. Picture: Nasa’s depiction of gravitational waves emerging from a black hole. Credit: Nasa Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

Giant hurricanes at Jupiter’s poles  

The first analysis of the observations of Jupiter from NASA’s Juno mission, this includes cyclones clustered at the poles and a massive mega-magnetosphere. How Sherpas Cope with Low Oxygen Experiments from the ‘Xtreme Everest 2’ mission uncovers the physiological mechanisms that have evolved in Sherpas to help them adapt to high altitude living. The manner in which they cope with the low oxygen environment of the Himalayas, may help treat hypoxic (low blood oxygen) patients in intensive care. Saving the Vaquita Conservationists using US Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins to find the incredibly rare and endangered Vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California. With fewer than 30 individuals left in the wild, the conservationist's last resort is to try and catch these beautiful, tiny cetaceans and house them in a protected zone. Fruit Labels "Bring out the lasers!" Marks and Spencer and other European supermarkets are trying to reduce the waste and environmental burden of having to label every piece of produce by marking them with a very clever laser label. Picture credit: NASA Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

African Astronomers Recycle Old Telecoms Dishes  

Africa has a new telescope. The second radio telescope on the African continent has been built in Ghana. Using old, decommissioned telecommunications dishes, they hope to erect more of these telescopes, which can form an array, getting a better reading of things like distant pulsars in the southern skies. Severe Rainfall and Climate Change Severe rainfall and climate change – it’s almost become a mantra of climate change – “More severe weather, such as rainfall, in more unpredictable patterns”. Researchers have been looking at ways to predict severe precipitation events around the world. It was already understood that a warmer atmosphere holds more water, but new work is showing that it’s the increased turbulence in the atmosphere creates conditions for more extreme rain storms. Waterlogged Land And the worst effect of severe rainfall is when it falls on already saturated ground. This is when flooding can occur. The latest land surveying satellites can measure the waterlogged-ness of the ground and help pinpoint regions of likely flooding. Why Humans Don’t Have a Penis Bone, But Chimps Do? The evolution of the penis bone or baculum is an interesting story. Only mammals have one and not all of them at that. The size of the penis bone varies greatly between species and it’s bigger in some animals than others, but why? Apparently it has got something to do with monogamy. Picture: Men working on Ghana radio telescope. Photo courtesy SKA SA Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Fiona Roberts

A strangely-formed Exoplanet  

A good way of finding out about how our solar system formed is to look at other star systems and their planets. From the exoplanets so far examined in detail, a general correlation has emerged between the amount of elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, in the atmosphere, and the mass of the planet. It’s complicated, but this gives us clues to the size and composition of the planet as well as how and when it formed. But new observations of planet HAT-P-26b, 437 light years away, do not fit this trend. So what’s going on? More Trees Researchers have looked at tree cover in dryland regions and found that previous estimates were out by 40-47%. Using Google Earth’s very high resolution satellite images and local students and scientists to analyse the images, the team discovered there is as much forest cover in drylands (such as parts of Latin America, Africa, Australia and Southern Europe) as there are in tropical habitats. This increases the area of tree cover over the whole planet by 9%. The findings are important when putting in numbers into the big calculations about carbon cycles and climate change. Mangroves Dan Friess of the National University of Singapore studies mangrove forests around the coasts of tropical Pacific and Indian ocean countries. This kind of forest has turned out to store much more carbon than even rainforests, as measured by the hectare. Snake-skin Inspiration Given that the natural world has had millions of years to evolve the solutions to many problems, its little surprise that materials scientists often look to nature for solutions to our human problems. Inspiration from snakes shedding old skins has been applied to super-waterproof nanomaterials. This will hopefully improve on the lotus leaf effect, which involves special waxes and a textured surface, that means water beads up and runs off them, taking the dirt with it. When a coating based on the lotus gets damaged, the whole lot is compromised. But a group in Germany have looked at making materials that shed a layer when it gets damaged in a way similar to snakes shedding their skins. Picture: A planet transits its star, credit: STAN HONDA/AFP/GettyImages Presenter: Bobbie Lakhera Producer: Fiona Roberts

Counting Birds from Space  

For the first time conservationists can monitor and count birds from space. Using the next-generation Earth observation satellites, scientists count Northern Royal Albatrosses on their breeding grounds on the remote Chatham Islands, off New Zealand. Many of these large, majestic seabirds are threatened, not least by long-line fishing. But they are rarely on land, and often nest in difficult to get to places. But because they’re big and white, high-resolution satellite images can spot them. Insect Flight With wings that flap up to 600 times per second, watching the precise movements of mosquitos in flight is impossible for the human eye. Somehow, these and other tiny insects are able to fly through the heavy turbulence of wind and rain. Research out this month has uncovered unexpected aerodynamic techniques that keep the miniscule creatures airborne, the understanding of which can aid the development of smaller and better drone technology. But how do you film a 4mm mosquito’s individual wing beats in slow motion? Cassini Reveals Saturn’s Secrets 20 years ago the Cassini-Huygens mission set off to Saturn, the gas giant with its iconic rings. Since its arrival in 2004, Saturn, its moons and its rings have been revealing their secrets to NASA-ESA’s ‘Discovery Machine’ which bristles with instruments and scientific equipment. Among the main discoveries are ice-plumes erupting from the moon Enceladus, and the identification of rain, rivers, lakes and oceans on the Earth-like Titan. From its launch to its bitter-sweet grand finale, the Cassini-Huygens mission will have racked up a remarkable list of achievements. Image: Bobbie Lakhera © BBC Presenter: Bobbie Lakhera Producer: Fiona Roberts

The Earliest North Americans  

Evidence of human inhabitation of North America is quite sparse and quite contentious. So far the oldest indigenous Americans are thought to have migrated to the continent via the Beringia land bridge between Siberia and Alaska 40,000 – 17,000 years ago. But new analysis of Mastodon bones, tusks and teeth, as well as large stones, found in California, could be revealing hominin activity 130,000 years ago. The discovery of what looks like man-made breaks in the bones, and stones being brought in to be used as hammers and anvils, tied in with new dating techniques is intriguing paleoanthropologists around the world. Plastic-Eating Caterpillars Polythene from plastic bags and bottles is polluting every corner of the Earth, from the deepest deep sea trenches to the tops of mountains. This non-biodegradable substance is a growing environmental problem. So when scientists discovered a moth caterpillar can ‘eat’ plastic, they wanted to find out more. The wax moth larvae like to live in bee hives, where they’re known to eat beeswax. Beeswax has a chemical structure similar to polythene. So when a researcher noticed that the plastic bags she’d stored her beeswax in overwinter, had been chewed by wax moth caterpillars, she and a team of scientists investigated. It’s still not known whether it's the bacteria in the guts of the larvae, or enzymes produced by the larva itself, that breakdown plastic. But whatever it is, it could be a useful tool in dealing with the growing problem of plastic pollution. Homo naledi The recent discovery and naming of a new human species, Homo naledi, found in deep caves in South Africa was very exciting. At the time, it was thought that this strange creature was 1-2 million years old. Homo naledi walked upright, was about 5ft tall, with some features – notably the hands and feet – more like human species, and some, the head and upper body more like earlier ape-like people. But news has broken this week that naledi is much, much younger, a contemporary of our own recent ancestors, living only 200-300,000 years ago. Picture: A view of two mastodon femur balls, one faced up and once faced down. Neural spine of a vertebra exposed (lower right) and a broken rib (lower left). Credit: San Diego Natural History Museum Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Fiona Roberts

How to Survive Without Air  

The naked mole-rat never ceases to amaze. A new study shows that when it gets stuffy in their underground burrows, this mouse-sized wrinkly mammal is able to metabolise fructose - just as plants do - and by this bypass the need for oxygen for up to 18 minutes. In a new study scientists have created an artificial retina. The retina is a light-sensitive layer of the eye which is essential for sight. The artificial retinas are able to mimic the abilities of living tissue, reacting to light and electrical signals. In the future, scientists hope that these retinas could save the sight of many. Virtual reality (VR) is not only a fun gimmick for gamers, but could be used to train dentists in dental surgery. Our reporter Marnie Chesterton visits the VR World Congress in Bristol in the United Kingdom and tries out the technology and discovers first-hand the all too real experience of dental surgery. Lastly, with 800 million people living near a volcano, spotting eruptions in advance can be crucial. We talk to the scientists working on the technology that allows us to spot them from space with satellites. And, reporter Anand Jagatia heads to Iceland which homes the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which caused disruption to the air space back in 2010. Picture: Naked mole-rats in the laboratory of Thomas Park at the University of Illinois at Chicago. [Credit: Thomas Park / UIC] Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Louisa Field

Enceladus: Could this moon harbour life?  

Hydrogen is a favourite food for some microorganisms, so finding it on one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, increases the potential for to it to have life. During its deepest-ever dive through the jets of water vapour and other materials bursting from cracks in the ice-covered surface of Enceladus, the Cassini spacecraft has detected enough hydrogen to sustain microbes much as it does in dark undersea environments on Earth. And, while fish swim they shed DNA from their skin and faeces into the water. For the first time, scientists have been able to use this DNA to record fish moving through the rivers of New York. By doing this the scientists avoid the disturbance, and expense, of collecting fish from trawlers. Such ‘wildlife forensics’ is likely to spread to more and more corners of diversity surveying. Lastly, we tackle one of the greatest disputes between science and religion – the theory of evolution. We explore how religious groups reconcile evolution with their beliefs and learn how the Muslim world is embracing – and rejecting – evolution depending on who holds political power. Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Louisa Field Image: The view looking toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Enceladus, 27 Nov 2016. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

When Britain First Ripped Away from Europe  

Britain was in the grip of an ice age 450,000 years ago. It has long been thought that Britain’s separation from Europe resulted from spill over from a lake formed in front of the ice sheet but until now it has not been proved. New research shows that this is correct - 450,000 years ago Britain geologically separated from Europe in two stages – a spill-over from a giant lake, followed by catastrophic flooding. Tallying up the Number of Tree Species Until recently, no one knew how many tree species there are in the world. But this week the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, have published a comprehensive global list of all our tree species. Out of the 60,065 different species world-wide, an astonishing 58% exist in just one country. Why Aeroplanes Survive a Bolt of Lightning? An aeroplane struck by lightning, might sound like the stuff of horror films. But thanks to the Faraday cage effect, planes are completely safe from damage when flying through a electrical storm. Caroline Steel wanted to test this for herself when she visited Manchester University’s High Voltage Lab. She even got to press the big red button! Viruses that Protect Koalas Koala populations in the north of Australia have been hit hard by a number of bacterial and viral diseases. But the koalas in the south, even though they’re exposed, they aren’t developing the symptoms. It turns out that a retrovirus which has embedded itself in the koala’s genome and then mutated, is granting them some immunity. (Photo: Artist’s illustration of ancient ice age land bridge connecting Britain with France. Credit: Imperial College London/Chase Stone) Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Fiona Roberts

Martian Atmosphere Blew Away  

If you were to stand on the surface of Mars you would see a cold dry dessert with a thin atmosphere and not enough oxygen to breathe. But the atmosphere on Mars hasn’t always been this way. The MAVEN (The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission to monitor Mars’ atmosphere has finally concluded that the Martian atmosphere has indeed been depleted from its carbon dioxide rich, thick blanket to a thin, weak covering because of the action of solar wind. Groundwater and Crops A huge global study of how much groundwater is depleted by crop plants has revealed that we have lost almost a quarter of the un-replenished stored water reserved in the past 10 years. USA, Pakistan and Mexico have come out as the worst offenders. We ask how can we reduce this loss in the future and who should be paying for it – the producing countries or the consuming countries? Extreme Weather and Climate Change Link Eminent US climate change scientist Michael Mann, at Pennsylvania State University, has shown scientifically that the warming climate is disturbing the jet stream high in the atmosphere, affecting how it wobbles and locking it in place. This causes certain extreme weather events, such as the 2011 Texas drought, and torrential rainfall to be more severe and longer lasting. IPS Cells in Clinical Use for the First Time When they were discovered back in 2006, Induced Pluripotent Stem cells, or IPS cells were hailed as the ethically-sound future of regenerative medicine. These are cells from adult skin or blood, they are not embryonic cells. They are treated such that they turn back their developmental clock, and can then become many different cell types in the body. But the past ten years has shown little evidence of these cells being used in the clinical setting. However, back in the Kyoto lab where the initial discovery was made, lines of stem cells from ‘super-donors’ are being produced that are currently being used to treat patients with macular degeneration, which affects the eyes. It seems, stem cell compatibility works in a similar way to blood types, making some people more suitable as donors to match a large proportion of the population. Image: Water on Mars © Kees Veenenbox/Science Photo Library Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Fiona Roberts

Navigating London’s Roads from an fMRI Scanner  

In a clever experiment in which participants navigated through virtual busy London streets whilst in an fMRI scanner. Researchers pinpointed the parts of the brain involved in finding your way. If you rely on your sat nav, you may be surprised to hear that your hippocampus is almost entirely inactive. If you’re navigating without a sat nav, the more options you have at each junction, the more active your hippocampus is. But when faced with a detour, it’s your prefrontal cortex that takes control. Social Networking for Japanese Macaques Many of us spend a lot of time on social networks, allowing us to interact within our social circles. Our primate relatives may not have Facebook but they too move in social circles. For Japanese Macaques, these social circles dictate who grooms who and who catches fleas from whom. New research ties in these monkeys’ social networks with the spread of diseases and parasites. The findings could also be applied to the spread of disease in humans. Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Fiona Roberts

Volcanic Hydrogen Redefines the Habitable Zone  

Hunting for habitable exoplanets has just got easier as many exoplanets which have previously been considered too icy may have been falsely dismissed. Exoplanets with volcanos which pump hydrogen into the atmosphere may be warmer than we previously thought. Hydrogen gas absorbs outgoing radiation which warms the atmosphere and melts inhospitable ice, providing an environment which may support life. This greenhouse warming effect could expand the habitable zone around distant stars by 30-60%. New Model Improves Offshore Earthquake Forecasting The 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami far exceeded experts’ expectations, destroying defences and killing thousands of people. A new model called CRUST is the first to simulate all events caused by an offshore earthquake: tsunamis, landslides and aftershocks. It is hoped that it will improve hazard forecasting and strengthen emergency planning to help avoid huge fatalities from disasters like the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Biofuels Reduce Damage Caused by Plane Contrails With the aviation industry rapidly growing, a lot of research has been done to better understand the impact of carbon dioxide emissions. But until recently the impact of the soot found in plane contrails has been overlooked. Contrails may look beautiful and harmless but like carbon dioxide, they too contribute to global warming. By using a 50:50 biofuel conventional fuel hybrid, we may be able to reduce the impact of contrails by 50-70%. This provides a glimmer of hope for climate change as the effect of replacing conventional fuel with biofuel would be seen immediately. Picture credit: Cornell University Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Fiona Roberts

Unravelling the Mysteries of the Lut Desert  

A group of scientists are just back from an expedition to the hottest place on Earth. Dasht-e Loot or the Lut Desert in southern Iran is so hot and desolate it’s hard to imagine anything living there. There is very little plant-life in the heart of this arid, hot, desert, but a series of explorations of the region have shown that there are animals and even water. What caused the “Great Dying”? 250 million years ago Earth suffered a massive extinction event. At the Permian-Triassic Boundary nearly all marine life and most of the life on Earth were killed off. It’s long been thought that this was a result of global warming. But new research looking at the sedimentary layers of rock form the time, show that it could have actually been an Ice-age that froze the seas and killed off the creatures. Famous Fossil on the Move Archaeopteryx is on the move - The Natural History Museum in London is about to let one of its most priceless fossils leave the building for the first time since it entered the institution in the late 19th Century. Archaeopteryx, which lived 150 million years ago, is one of the iconic specimens in all of palaeontology. Seemingly part-dinosaur, part-bird – it excited Darwin when it first surfaced because it looked to be an example of the transitional fossils the great man's theory of evolution had predicted. The "London Specimen", as it is known, is what scientists refer to as the holotype – the example against which all other Archaeopteryx discoveries are compared. To date, that’s about a dozen or so discoveries. And, ordinarily, you would have to go to the London fossil if you wanted to look at it. But the Natural History Museum is about to send the specimen to Japan, as part of a touring exhibition of some key treasures Bumblebee’s Smelly Feet Bumblebees use ‘smelly footprints’ to help determine where to find lunch. A bit like humans leaving fingerprints on everything they touch, bees leave a pheromone scent mark on flowers when they land. Using these smelly cues they can determine who has previously visited a flower and taken all the food. Picture: The Lut may harbour a hidden sea: areas where the water table rises to within a few centimetres of the desert floor. Although vanishingly little reaches the surface - Reg Sookhte Spring is an exception - the extremely salty water may be vital to the Lut's denizens. Credit: Amir AghaKouchak Presenter: Adam Hart Producer: Fiona Roberts

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