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

Episodes

Michele Dougherty on Saturn  

The Cassini mission into deep space has witnessed raging storms, flown between Saturn's enigmatic rings and revealed seven new moons. And, thanks in no small part to Professor Michele Dougherty, it's made some astonishing discoveries. For the last twenty years, Michele been responsible for one of the key instruments on board Cassini - the magnetometer. In 2005, she spotted a strange signature in the data during a distant fly by of Saturn's smaller moons, Enceladus and became curious. Now,space missions are planned years ahead of time. Every detail is nailed down. But Michele convinced mission control to divert Cassini from its carefully planned route to take a closer look at Enceladus. And her gamble paid off. Cassini scientists soon discovered jets of water vapour and organic material shooting out of the south pole of Enceladus, not bad for a small moon that could so easily have been ignored. It's now thought that this tiny moon might be able to support microbial life underneath its icy surface. In 2008, Michele was awarded the hugely prestigious Hughes medal for her work - an honour last given to a woman in 1906! She's also been voted by the UK Science Council as one of the country's top 100 living scientists. She talks to Jim al-Khalili about growing up in South Africa, moving from mathematics to managing space missions and what they hope will happen when Cassini crashes into Saturn later this year. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Alison Woollard on what she has learnt from mutant worms  

C. elegans is a rather special worm, so-named for the elegant way it moves in sinusoidal curves. It's studied, and much loved, by thousands of scientists around the world. Alison Woollard joined this exclusive club of worm scientists when she moved to the world famous Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, also known as 'worm Mecca' in 1995. She started her career working as a lab technician, having dropped out of university. After later graduating from Birkbeck, she worked on yeast. But once she found the worm there was no turning back. She describes the hours she spent staring down the microscope at these tiny creatures, unprepossessing to the uninitiated, but an absolute joy to her. These hours led her to the discovery of two genes responsible for different defects in the tails of the male worms, called male abnormality 2 and male abnormality 9. (There are no female worms by the way, only males and hermaphrodites). It's not easy finding a gene or genes when you don't even know what it is that you're looking for, only the effect it has on the tails of mutant worms, each no more than a mm long. And it took Alison a year of repetitive trial and error to see which normal gene corrected the fault in the next generation. "Most days are failures", she says. Finding her first gene was a euphoric moment. She celebrated by buying everyone a cup of tea. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Alan Winfield on robots  

Alan Winfield is the only Professor of Robot Ethics in the world. He is a voice of reason amid the growing sense of unease at the pace of progress in the field of artificial intelligence. He believes that robots aren't going to take over the world - at least not any time soon. But that doesn't mean we should be complacent. Alan Winfield talks to Jim al-Khalili about how, at a young age, he delighted in taking things apart. After his degree in microelectronics and a PhD in digital communication at Hull University, he set up a software company in the mid-80s, which he ran for the best part of a decade before returning to academia. In 1993, he co-founded the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at the University of the West of England, by far the largest centre of robotics in the UK. Today, he is a leading authority, not only on robot ethics, but on the idea of swarm robotics and biologically-inspired robotics. Alan explains to Jim that what drives many of his enquiries is the deeply profound question: how can 'stuff' become intelligent.

Simon Wessely on unexplained medical syndromes  

Professor Sir Simon Wessely has spent his whole career arguing that mental and physical health are inseparable and that the Cinderella status of mental health funding is a national disgrace. His current role, as President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has given him a platform to bang the drum for parity of funding, better training for doctors and the need to reduce stigma around mental health (and armchair psychiatrists who think it's OK to diagnose the new American President with a mental illness get short shrift as well). Professor of Psychological Medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, part of King's College in London, Simon Wessely has always been fascinated by those puzzling symptoms and syndromes which can't easily be explained. So it was perhaps inevitable that he would find himself at the centre of research trying to explain the distressing and debilitating illness, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Threats and abuse finally led to him leave this particular research field, and he moved instead to military health and another complex illness which appeared after the first Gulf War in the early 90s, Gulf War Syndrome. Years of detailed epidemiological studies about the health of British troops followed through the King's Centre for Military Health Research and many of the findings had a direct impact on policy within the armed forces. Yet for somebody who has spent years as a psychiatrist treating patients with serious mental illness, Simon tells Jim Al-Khalili that people are tougher than many in authority give credit for and his research has had a major impact on the way we treat people after traumatic events. We used to think "better out than in" but studies showed after the London 7/7 Bombings for example, that jumping in and getting people to talk through the trauma straight away can actually do more harm than good.

Sean Carroll on how time and space began  

How did time and space begin? From the age of ten, Sean Carroll has wanted to know. He first read about the big bang model of the universe as a child. Later, he turned down two job offers from Stephen Hawking. The big bang model of the universe is well established but, as Sean readily admits, the big bang itself remains a mystery. In the beginning, Sean applied Einstein's theories of relativity to this problem. But mid-career and painfully aware that trying to out Einstein Einstein was a tough call, he turned his attention from the very big to the very small. His most recent work imagines a universe without time and without space and describes how these two rather important aspects of our existence might have been created, using the laws of quantum mechanics and, in particular, the idea of quantum entanglement. Apparently it's quite straightforward. Things that are more entangled are closer. It doesn't explain the origin of time, however. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Alison Smith on algae  

Think of algae and you'll probably think trouble. Algal blooms turned the diving pool green at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Smelly seaweed ruins many a trip to the beach. But Alison Smith, Professor of Plant Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge, argues that we should appreciate algae more. They range in size from giant kelp to microscopic diatoms. They are found all over the world from the Arctic to the Tropics, live in water and make energy from the sun by photosynthesis. Alison Smith talks to Jim al-Khalili about algae's sometimes bizarre biochemistry and how she discovered that they obtain their vitamins from bacteria they live alongside in the sea. They also discuss how we are beginning to farm algae to make all kinds of chemicals, from food stuffs to biofuels. We may become very dependent on them when the oil runs out.

Sadaf Farooqi on what makes us fat  

Is it true that some people put on weight more easily than others? And if so why? It's a question that's close to many of our hearts. And it's a question that medical researcher, Professor Sadaf Farooqi is trying to answer. In 1997, Sadaf noticed that two children she was studying lacked the hormone leptin. From there, she went on to discover the first single gene defect that causes obesity. For most us, how much we eat is within our control. But for children with this rare inherited condition and, it turned out, several other rare genetic disorders, the evidence is clear. A voracious appetite is not a lifestyle choice: it's a biological response to brains signalling starvation. Sadaf tells Jim how she discovered ten rare genetic disorders that cause severe childhood obesity and what this means for the rest of us. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Jan Zalasiewicz on the Age of Man  

Jan Zalasiewicz, Professor of Palaeobiology at Leicester University, talks to Jim al-Khalili about the Anthropocene, the concept that humans now drive much geology on the earth. He's one of the leading lights in the community of scientists who are working to get the Anthropocene, the Age of Man, recognised. They discuss the controversy about the date of when it began- some say it was a thousand years ago, or the Industrial revolution, others that it was the Second World War, and yet others that it's as recent as the 1960s. It all turns on finding the Golden Spike, a layer in rock strata above which the geology changes. Jan Zalasiewicz began his career as a traditional geologist studying rocks 500 million years old in Welsh border. After years out in the field mapping the landscape for the British Geological Survey he moved into academia at Leicester University.

Neil de Grasse Tyson on Pluto  

The US science superstar, Neil de Grasse Tyson grew up in the Bronx, and studied astrophysics at Harvard, Columbia and Princeton Universities before becoming director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. But he's best known for his TV and movie appearances, his books, podcasts and his tweets or 'scientific droppings' as he likes to call them. He has over 6 million followers on Twitter and is often credited with turning millennials around the world on to science. Neil tells Jim al-Khalili why he's so committed to making science feel exciting, why we are all stardust and why Pluto isn't a planet. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Richard Morris on how we know where we are  

How do we know where we are? The question sounds simple enough. But there's much more to it than simply looking around. Our sense of place is embedded in the very structure of our brains, in such a way that we can remember the exact place we used to play as a child, even if the neighbourhood has been transformed and few of the original visual cues remain. The park you played in as a child may now be full of high rise flats but somehow you know where your favourite tree used to be. Richard Morris has devoted his Life Scientific to trying to understand this profound sense of place and in 2016 was awarded the prestigious Brain Prize for his work on brain cells and circuits. Over the years, he's performed thousands of of experiments on rats in water mazes, an experimental tool that he invented in the eighties and that's now used in labs all over the world. And, in one of his latest experiments, he set up a rat restaurant. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Julia Higgins on polymers  

Plastic Bags and the DNA in our cells are both polymers, very long molecules ubiquitous in nature and in their synthetic form, in materials like polythene, perspex and polystyrene. Professor Dame Julia Higgins has spent a lifetime researching the structure and movement of polymeric material. Trained as a physicist, Dame Julia was one of the early researchers in polymer science and throughout her career worked alongside chemists and engineers. No surprise then that she was the first woman to become both a Fellow of the Royal Society and of the Royal Academy of Engineering. In the 1960s with other young researchers she worked at the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Centre in Oxfordshire, one of the first people to use neutron scattering as a technique to investigate how polymer molecules move. Emeritus Professor of Polymer Science and former Principal at the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College, London, Professor Higgins tells Jim Al-Khalili how she used her influence as a leading academic to improve representation of women in top posts in science and medicine.

Roger Penrose on black holes  

In a career of over fifty years Sir Roger Penrose has changed the way we see the Universe. He carried out seminal research on black holes and the big bang, and he's questioned the current received wisdom on some of the most important ideas in science, such as quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence and where consciousness comes from. His ideas in geometry directly influenced the work of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher. Now Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Roger Penrose is one of the world's most lauded mathematical physicists. He's written a number of popular science books in which he certainly doesn't shy away from the mathematics. Jim al-Khalili talks to Roger Penrose about his continuing fascination with the biggest questions in science.

Lynne Boddy on Fungi  

Fungi are responsible for rotting fruit, crumbling brickwork and athlete's foot. They have a mouldy reputation; but it's their ability to destroy things that enables new life to grow. 90% of all plants depend on fungi to extract vital nutrients from the soil. And it's probably thanks to fungi that the first plants were able to colonize land 450 million years ago. Professor Lynne Boddy shares her passion for fungi with Jim Al-Khalili and describes some of the vicious strategies they use to defend their territory. Direct strangulation and chemical weapons; it's all happening underground. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Ian Wilmut on Dolly the sheep  

Dolly the sheep was born near Edinburgh, twenty years ago this summer. She was the first mammal to be cloned from an adult animal, (named after Dolly Parton because she was created from a breast cell). And became a global media star, inspiring both amazement that an animal be created with three mothers but no father,and fear. Many worried about where such a development might lead. The papers reported: 'dreaded possibilities are raised'; 'cloned sheep in Nazi storm'. Professor Ian Wilmut,the man who created Dolly, was compared to Frankenstein. Jim talked to Ian in front of an audience at the Edinburgh Festival and asked him why he decided to try and clone a sheep; how he and the team did it; and whether cloning humans is now a real possibility. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Frans de Waal on chimpanzees  

We share 99% of our DNA with the chimpanzee and the bonobo. And yet we're often surprised to learn that apes, like us, can be both kind and clever. Behavioural biologist and best-selling author, Frans de Waal has spent many years observing our closest living animal relatives. He pioneered studies of kindness and peace-making in primates, when other scientists were focussing on violence, greed and aggression. Empathy, he argues, has a long evolutionary history; and he is determined to undermine our arrogant assumptions of human superiority. Frans talks to Jim Al-Khalili about growing up on the Dutch polders, chimpanzee politics, and the extraordinary sex lives of the bonobos. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Trevor Cox on sound  

Inside a Victorian sewer, with fat deposits sliding off the ceiling and disappearing down the back of his shirt, Trevor Cox had an epiphany. Listening to the strange sound of his voice reverberating inside the sewer, he wondered where else in the world he could experience unusual and surprising noises. As an acoustic engineer, Trevor started his career tackling unwanted noises, from clamour in the classroom to poor acoustics in concert halls. But his jaunt inside a sewer sparked a new quest to find and celebrate the 'sonic wonders of the world'. In this episode he shares these sounds with Jim Al-Khalili and discusses the science behind them. Producer: Michelle Martin.

Georgina Mace on threatened species  

Despite decades of conservation work, in zoos and in the field, the rate at which species are going extinct is speeding up. Georgina Mace has devoted her Life Scientific to trying to limit the damage to our planet's bio-diversity from this alarming loss. For ten years she worked on the Red List of Threatened Species, developing a robust set of scientific criteria for assessing the threat of extinction facing every species on the planet. When the list was first published, she expected resistance from big business; but not the vicious negative reaction she received from many wildlife NGOS. Her careful quantitative analysis revealed that charismatic animals, like the panda and the polar bear, are not necessarily the most at risk. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Faraneh Vargha-Khadem on memory  

Self-taught Professor of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Faraneh Vargha-Khadem has spent decades studying children with developmental amnesia. Her mission: to understand how we form memories of the events in our past, from things we've experienced to places we've visited and people we've met. She talks to Jim about the memories we lay down during our lives and the autobiographies stored in our brains that define us as individuals. Faraneh was also part of the team that identified the FoxP2 gene, the so called 'speech gene', that may explain why humans talk and chimps don't. Plus Faraneh discusses how her Baha'i faith informs her scientific thinking.

Hazel Rymer on volcanoes  

Hazel Rymer has journeyed closer to the centre of the earth than most, regularly peering into the turbulent, fiery world than makes up the earth's core. By taking measurements of micro-gravity on, and inside, volcanoes all over the world, she hopes to better understand why they erupt and what happens when they do. Having lost a close colleague to a random volcanic eruption, she appreciates the risks involved and, at the same time, insists that they are no greater than driving on the M25. She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about learning to think like a geologist after studying physics; the joys and frustrations of doing fieldwork on volcanoes; and why she loves gravity meter, G513. Producer: Anna Buckley.

Nick Davies on cuckoos  

Nick Davies has been teasing apart the dark relationship between the cuckoo and the birds it tricks into bringing up its young, for more than three decades. The Professor of Behavioural Ecology at the University of Cambridge has spent more than 30 springs and summers on nearby fenland of watching, recording and crucially experimenting. Nick's studies have deployed simple yet ingenious experiments, among the reed beds where the birds nest. They have involved mock eggs, stuffed birds and miniature loudspeakers, to piece together the cuckoo's dark story. He has even swopped cuckoo chicks with blackbird nestlings in the nests of the feathered parasite's victims. No birds are harmed in his revealing tests. Prof Davies also talks to Jim al-Khalili about the origins of his life with birds, and the revolution in animal behaviour science beginning as he began his scientific career. Ideas about the selfish gene and game theory, along with DNA fingerprint in the 1980's, transformed the research of zoologists asking 'why' questions about what animals do. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

Sheila Rowan on gravitational waves  

Half a century after the search for gravitational waves began, scientists confirmed that they had finally been detected in February 2016. Physicists around the world were ecstatic. It was proof at last that Einstein was right: the tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime that he predicted a hundred years ago are real. And now that we can detect them, a new era for astronomy is anticipated. Traditional telescopes rely on light for information. No good when you want to find objects that are dark. Now for the first time we can 'see' black holes colliding. Sheila talks to Jim at the Cheltenham Science Festival about her part in this momentous discovery. Producer: Anna Buckley.

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