The Life Scientific

The Life Scientific

United Kingdom

Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates them and asking what their discoveries might do for mankind


Paul Younger at the Free Thinking Festival  

Paul Younger, Rankine Professor of Energy Engineering at the University of Glasgow, in conversation with Jim al-Khalili in front of an audience at the Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead. Paul Younger's future career was inspired by the hills around him near the River Tyne. From a background in geology he now carries out research into, as he says, "keeping the lights on and keeping homes and businesses warm whilst de-carbonising our energy systems." He spent many years at the University of Newcastle, where he built up his expertise in the relationship between water and rocks. He has advised on how to clean up the highly polluted water left in mines after they are closed - from the North East to Bolivia. His knowledge of the rocks beneath our feet has lead him to investigating how we might use more geothermal energy in the future. Paul Younger tells Jim al-Khalili about the experimental holes that have been drilled in County Durham and central Newcastle, and explains why these projects are now mothballed. And Professor Younger also talks about his research into other unconventional ways of generating energy - such as turning coal deep underground into gas.

Kathy Willis  

"I'm determined to prove botany is not the 'Cinderella of science'". That's what Professor Kathy Willis, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, told the Independent in 2014. In the two years since she took on the job at Kew she's been faced with a reduction in government funding. So, Kathy Willis has been rethinking the science that's to be done by the staff of the Gardens - and been criticised for her decisions. But as well as leading this transformation, Kathy has a distinguished academic career in biodiversity. She is currently a professor at Oxford University and, during her research career, she's studied plants and their environments all over the world, from the New Forest, when she was a student in Southampton, to the Galapagos Islands where she studied the impact of the removal of the giant tortoises on the vegetation there. Jim al-Khalili discusses the future of biodiversity with Kathy Willis.

Patrick Vallance  

Patrick Vallance is something of a rare breed: a game-keeper turned poacher; an academic who's moved over into industry. And not just any industry, but the pharmaceutical industry. At the time, Patrick Vallance was Professor of Clinical Pharmacology and Head of the Department of Medicine at University College London. A pioneer of research into some of the body's key regulatory systems, he had also been publicly critical of BIG Pharma for "funding studies more helpful to marketing than to advancing clinical care". So what made him go over to "the other side"? His involvement with the industry was limited until one evening in 2006 when he was asked a question over a dinner, a question that would be pivotal to his life and career. Today, Patrick is head of research and development at GlaxoSmithKline, one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies with annual revenues in excess of 20 billion pounds and nearly a hundred thousand employees worldwide. Whilst GSK is no stranger to scandal, since he joined, Patrick has attempted to tackle the culture of secrecy that pervades the industry. He's since reshaped the way GSK carries out its research and has been behind several radical initiatives in global healthcare, to produce a more collaborative approach to tackling major diseases like malaria.

Robert Plomin  

Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he's fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored. Born and raised in Chicago, Robert sat countless intelligence tests at his inner city Catholic school. College was an attractive option mainly because it seemed to pay well. Now he's one of the most cited psychologists in the world. He specialized in behavioural genetics in the mid seventies when the focus in mainstream psychology was very much on our nurture rather than our nature, and genetics was virtually taboo. But he persisted, conducting several large adoption studies and later twin studies. In 1995 he launched the biggest longitudinal twin study in the UK, the TED study of ten thousand pairs of twins which continues to this day. In this study and in his other work, he's shown consistently that genetic influences on intelligence are highly significant, much more so than what school you go to, your teachers or home environment. If only the genetic differences between children were fully acknowledged, he believes education could be transformed and parents might stop giving themselves such a hard time. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Danielle George  

Danielle George is a radio frequency engineer from the University of Manchester. She designs amplifiers that have travelled everywhere, from outer space to underground. Becoming a professor aged just 38, she talks to Jim about the challenges of age discrimination and working in a male dominated field. As presenter of last year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, she's passionate about DIY electronics and coding, and how to inspire the UK's next generation of inventors.

Dame Carol Black  

Carol Black was an overweight child who, aged 13, put herself on a diet. Now, as an expert advisor to the government, she's the woman behind recent newspaper headlines suggesting that obese people who refuse treatment could see their benefits cut. In the last decade, Carol has conducted several reviews on work and health, sickness absence and how best to help people with obesity, alcohol and drug problems get back into the workplace. In 2008 she suggested the Sick Note should be replaced with a Fit Note which states what people can do rather than what they can't. Later she recommended that an independent assessor should decide who is, or is not, Fit for Work. Dame Carol Black talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the challenges associated with advising government on these controversial issues; and how, despite relative adversity and several bad decisions, she achieved such a position of power and influence. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Geoff Palmer  

Jim al-Khalili talks to botanist Geoff Palmer, the UK's only professor of brewing and distilling, about revolutionising the malting industry and his unusual scientific career after arriving from Jamaica in 1955 as a 14 year old boy. When he went for an interview for an MSc in 1964 the representative from the Ministry of Agriculture suggested he go back home and grow bananas. Why? Because he didn't know the difference between wheat and barley. Undeterred he went on to become a world authority on barley, brewing and distilling and Scotland's first black professor. His research on how malt could be made more quickly saved the brewing industry millions. But he says, it's only through good luck and with the help of good Samaritans that his career took the course it did, helping him get to university and even to finish school. Now at the age of 75, he's still fighting to make education and a scientific career available to everyone, regardless of their background.

EO Wilson  

E O Wilson has been described as the "world's most evolved biologist" and even as "the heir to Darwin". He's a passionate naturalist and an absolute world authority on ants. Over his long career he's described 450 new species of ants. Known to many as the founding father of socio-biology, E O Wilson is a big hitter in the world of evolutionary theory. But, recently he's criticised what's popularly known as The Selfish Gene theory of evolution that he once worked so hard to promote (and that now underpins the mainstream view on evolution). A twice Pulitzer prize winning author of more than 20 books, he's also an extremely active campaigner for the preservation of the planet's bio-diversity: he says, "destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal". E O Wilson talks to Jim al-Khalili about his life scientific.

Niamh Nic Daeid  

Forensic chemist Niamh Nic Daeid talks to Jim Al-Khalili about investigating fires and analysing legal highs. Her team were involved in studying the infamous Philpott case in Derby when six children tragically died in a fire set by their parents, Mick and Mairead. They devised experiments to find out why, despite having smoke alarms fitted inside the house, none of the children woke up. Chemistry has also been pushed to the limits to identify 'legal highs', or Novel Psychoactive Substances. Around 350 new drugs are released on to the market every month, with Europe a hotspot for buyers. Plus, Niamh talks about the serious problems facing the world of forensic science. The field, she says, is in crisis. With rock-bottom research budgets, and the list of miscarriages of justice growing, how can we fix forensic science? Producer: Michelle Martin.

Carlos Frenk  

Carlos Frenk, Ogden Professor of Computational Cosmology at the University of Durham, studies the universe, but not by spending nights looking out at the dark skies through telescopes. Rather he creates the cosmos on computers. He is also one of the Gang of Four of astrophysics who thirty years ago came up with one of the most important theories in their field. They worked out that the universe is full of cold dark matter. In 2011 Carlos Frenk and his colleagues were awarded the Gruber prize, one of the leading accolades in astronomy, for their theory. Carlos Frenk discusses this mysterious missing mass, which is still mysterious and missing, with Jim al-Khalili. They talk about modelling the universe inside computers, and how Carlos persuaded his university to hire the architect Daniel Liebskind to design a building for creative thinking about the cosmos.

Dorothy Bishop  

Dorothy Bishop is a world-leading expert in childhood language disorders. Since the 1970s, she has been instrumental in bringing to light a little-known language disorder that may affect around two children per class starting primary school. 'Specific Language Impairment', or SLI, was originally deemed to be the fault of lazy parents who didn't talk to their children. But through her pioneering studies on twins, Dorothy found a genetic link behind this disorder, helping to overturn these widespread misconceptions. Dorothy talks to Jim Al-Khalili about how families react when they discover there's a genetic basis to their problems, and why this language impairment isn't as well known as other conditions, like autism and dyslexia. A critic of pseudoscience and media misreporting, Dorothy discusses her experiences of speaking out against folk psychology and bad science journalism. Producer: Michelle Martin.

Henry Marsh  

Neurosurgeon Henry Marsh talks to Jim Al-Khalili about slicing through thoughts, hopes and memories. Brain surgery, he says, is straightforward. It's deciding whether or not to operate that's hard. The stakes are high and it's never clear cut. He often dreads having to talk to patients and their families. Damage to healthy brain cells can result in a dramatic change to someone's quality of life; but if a bit of a tumour remains, it's likely to grow back. "How do you tell someone that the best option may be to go away and die?" Once, against his professional judgment, Henry went ahead with surgery because the patient wanted him to operate. The patient died and he blames himself for not being stronger. He talks openly about the cemetery that all doctors inevitably carry with them; and why he would rather be seen as a fallible human being, than either a superhero or villain. Perhaps it's inevitable that doctors are put on a pedestal but it can be unhelpful. Despite a chronic lack of science at school and university, Henry decided to become a neurosurgeon, having found general surgery rather disgusting. Soon after, his three month old son had surgery for a brain tumour: an experience which, he says, helped him to appreciate the fog of anxiety and concern that descends on the people he treats. Getting the balance right between compassion and detachment is a constant challenge. And Henry admits, he pioneered brain surgery under local anaesthetic, in part as a way of confronting head on the almost 'Jekyll and Hyde like split' between being a surgeon in the operating theatre and a friendly consultant who talks to and cares for his patients. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Kate Jones  

Kate Jones is Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity at UCL and the Institute of Zoology. An expert in evolution and extinction, her special interest is in bat research and conservation. Bats make up one in five of all mammal species on Earth, from the miniscule bumblebee bat to the enormous megabat. As well as controlling harmful insects bats also pollinate a large variety of crops, from bananas to blue agave plants that are used to make tequila. Kate has pioneered ground-breaking technologies that allow the public to monitor bats, including the citizen science website Bat Detective. This work led her to investigate human infectious diseases, including those spread through animals. Together with a global team of researchers, they drew up a map of global hotspots to try and predict where the next 'zoonotic' disease will emerge. Producer: Michelle Martin.

Anil Seth  

Anil Seth is professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the Sackler Centre at the University of Sussex, where he studies consciousness. His research has taken him in all kinds of directions, from reading philosophy, to computing and virtual reality, and mapping the brain. As well as running the interdisciplinary centre and carrying out experiments that test ideas about consciousness, Anil Seth has co-written a popular book, The 30 second brain, and was the consultant on Eye Benders, the winner of the Junior Royal Society Book Prize in 2014. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about how scientists can study altered states of consciousness, such as sleep and coma. He explains how he uses virtual reality to understand conditions where our idea of ourselves is distorted, such as in the Alice in Wonderland syndrome.

Susan Jebb  

Fat, sugar, salt - we all know we should eat less of them, and take more exercise, but as a nation with an ever expanding waistline we are becoming increasingly overweight. Jim al-Khalili talks to Professor Susan Jebb, the UK's authority on obesity, who has spent much of her career trying to help us put those good intentions into practice. Her challenge is not for the faint hearted. When she first got interested in obesity, as a research scientist, rates were already on the rise. Yet no one took the problem seriously. Today, with over sixty percent of adults overweight or obese, Susan remains unwavering in her commitment to ensuring we do. As Professor of Diet and Population Health at Oxford University and Chair of the government's Responsibility Deal Food Network, she wants all of us and the food industry to improve the nation's health by translating the science of what we eat into practice. And health is what it's all about. Obesity now poses such a danger that it's been dubbed the 'new smoking'. Produced by Beth Eastwood.

Nigel Shadbolt  

Sir Nigel Shadbolt, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Southampton University, believes in the power of open data. With Sir Tim Berners-Lee he persuaded two UK Prime Ministers of the importance of letting us all get our hands on information that's been collected about us by the government and other organisations. But, this has brought him into conflict with people who think there's money to be made from this data. And open data raises issues of privacy. Nigel Shadbolt talks to Jim al-Khalili about how a degree in psychology and philosophy lead to a career researching artificial intelligence and a passion for open data.

Stephanie Shirley  

As a young woman, Stephanie Shirley worked at the Dollis Hill Research Station building computers from scratch: but she told young admirers that she worked for the Post Office, hoping they would think she sold stamps. In the early 60s she changed her name to Steve and started selling computer programmes to companies who had no idea what they were or what they could do, employing only mothers who worked from home writing code by hand with pen and pencil and then posted it to her. By the mid-80s her software company employed eight thousand people, still mainly women with children. She made an absolute fortune but these days Stephanie thinks less about making money and much more about how best to give it away. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Jane Francis  

Just twenty years ago, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) would not allow women to camp in Antarctica. In 2013, it appointed Jane Francis as its Director. Jane tells Jim Al-Khalili how an intimate understanding of petrified wood and fossilised leaves took her from Dorset's Jurassic coast to this icy land mass. Camping on Antarctic ice is not for everyone but Jane is addicted, even if she does crave celery and occasionally wish that she could wash her hair. Fossils buried under the ice contain vital clues about ancient climates and can be used to check current computer models of climate change. The earth can withstand a great range of temperatures: Antarctica was once covered in lush forest. But the question is: can humans adapt? As the ice caps melt, sea levels will continue to rise. And, says Jane, the time to start planning for that is now.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore  

Until recently, it was thought that human brain development was all over by early childhood but research in the last decade has shown that the adolescent brain is still changing into early adulthood. Jim Al-Khalili talks to pioneering cognitive neuroscientist Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore who is responsible for much of the research which shows that our brains continue to develop through the teenage years. She discusses why teenagers take risks and are so susceptible to influence from their peers as well as her childhood growing up with the constant threat of attacks from animal rights groups.

Matt Taylor  

Matt Taylor talks to Jim Al-Khalili about being in charge of the Rosetta space mission to the distant comet, 67P. It is, he says, 'the sexiest thing alive', after his wife. He describes his joy when, after travelling for ten years and covering four billion miles, the robot, Philae landed on the speeding comet 67P; and turned the image tattooed on his thigh from wishful thinking into a triumph for science. Matt's father, a builder, encouraged him to do well at school. He wanted him to get a job in science and Matt didn't disappoint, joining the European Space Agency in June 2005. His charm and exuberance have brought competing teams together as they fight for their science to have priority on Rosetta. His enthusiasm has helped to spark and fuel a global interest in the mission and he deeply regrets his choice of shirt on one occasion. Producer: Anna Buckley.

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