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Discovery

BBC

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Explorations in the world of science.
128 Episodes Play All Episodes
Kepler%27s+Snowflake
access_time2 days ago
The Six Cornered Snowflake, a booklet written by Johannes Kepler as a New Year's gift, sought to explain the intricate and symmetrical shape of winter's tiny stars of snow. His insightful speculations about minerals and geometry were the beginning of the modern understanding of crystals.

Philip Ball tells the story of how Kepler became a key figure in the scientific revolution of the 17th Century. He was a precocious mathematician who became an adviser to Emperor Rudolf II in 1600. Although he contributed to the idea that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the solar system, his role at the court was to be an astrologer.

Philip brings the story of the shape of the snowflakes up to date. It was only 20 years ago with the development of the maths of fractals that we got to understand the formation of the myriad patterns of snowflakes.
Lucretius%2C+Sheep+and+Atoms
access_time9 days ago
2000 years ago Lucretius composed a long poem that theorised about atoms and the natural world. Written in the first century BCE, during a chaotic and frightening time when the Roman Republic was collapsing, Lucretius encouraged people to feel free through contemplating the physics of the Universe. He said that despite living through a time of bloody civil wars and dictatorship people should not believe they were sheep who had to follow those in power.

Naomi discovers that the poem is an epic, beautiful and persuasive piece of work. It begins with a discussion of atoms. Lucretius, like Epicurus, followed the Greek tradition in believing that the universe is composed of tiny, indivisible particles. De Rerum Natura asks us to consider that all that really exists in the universe are these atoms and the void between them. Atoms are indestructible, the number of atoms in the universe is infinite and so is the void in which the atoms move. What Lucretius is saying here was revolutionary then – and still has the power to surprise. He’s saying that there are no supernatural forces controlling our lives, no fate pulling the strings, if there are gods they’re made of atoms just like everything else. There is nothing else.

Naomi discusses the life of Lucretius and his poem with classicist Dr Emma Woolerton of Durham University. And she talks to particle physicist Professor Jonathan Butterworth of UCL about which of his theories still holds water today.

Picture: Gathered sheep, Credit: Chris Strickland, Getty Images
Eddington%27s+Eclipse+and+Einstein%27s+Celebrity
access_time16 days ago
Philip Ball's tale is of a solar eclipse 100 years ago observed by Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer who travelled to the remote island of Principe off the coast of West Africa and saw the stars shift in the heavens. His observations supplied the crucial proof of a theory that transformed our notions of the cosmos and turned a German physicist named Albert Einstein into an international celebrity. But this is also a tale of how a Quaker tried to use science to unite countries. The reparations imposed on Germany after the war extended into science too as many in Great Britain and other Allied nations felt that German science should be ostracised from the international community. As a Quaker, Eddington wanted just the opposite: to see peaceful cooperation restored among nations.

Picture: Image of the 1919 Solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington (1882-1944), Credit: Science Photo Library

Producer: Erika Wright
Earthrise
access_time23 days ago
On Christmas Eve in 1968 Bill Anders was in orbit around the moon in Apollo 8 when he took one of the most iconic photos of the last fifty years: Earthrise. The image got to be seen everywhere, from a stamp issued in 1969 to commemorate the success of Apollo 8, to posters that are still available today. Gaia Vince explores the impact of this image on the environmental movement and our understanding of our place in the universe.

“Oh my God. Look at that picture over there. Here’s the earth coming up. Wow, isn’t that pretty.”

Bill Anders was on the fourth of the ten orbits of the moon on Apollo 8, along with James Lovell and Frank Borman. Bill had spotted the earth through one of the hatch windows and grabbed his camera to take a black and white photo. But just in time, he picked up another camera with a colour film loaded, and the rest is history. When they returned from space – the first mission to orbit the moon – Nasa used Bill Anders’ image of Earthrise in its publicity. Nasa had understood there was an added value of going into space: taking pictures of our home planet.

Stewart Brand was part of both the counterculture and the environmental movement; he’d hung out with Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters and put on happenings. He went on to found the Whole Earth Catalog, which brought together all kinds of alternative thinkers. Stewart Brand put the Earthrise photo on the front cover of one of the editions of the Whole Earth Catalog.

Gaia Vince talks to Stewart Brand, and to scientists and artists, about the continuing importance of seeing Earth from above.

Picture: Earthrise - The rising Earth is about five degrees above the lunar horizon in this telephoto view taken from the Apollo 8 spacecraft on December 24th 1968, Credit: Nasa

Presenter: Gaia Vince
Producer: Deborah Cohen
The+Supercalculators
access_time1 month ago
Alex Bellos is brilliant at all things mathematical, but even he can't hold a candle to the amazing mathematical feats of the supercalculators. Alex heads to Wolfsburg in Germany to meet the contestants at this year's Mental Calculation World Cup. These men and women are the fastest human number crunchers on the planet, able to multiply and divide large numbers with no need to reach for a smart phone, computer or calculator. So how do they do it, and is it a skill that any of us can learn? Alex talks to Robert Fountain, the UK's two-time winner of this prestigious prize, about his hopes for this year's competition and the mathematical magicians of the past who have inspired him. He also meets Rachel Riley, Countdown's number queen, to find out what it takes to beat the countdown clock.

Picture: The Supercalculators, Credit: Alex Bellos
The+China+Syndrome
access_time1 month ago
Plastic waste and pollution have become a global problem but is there any sign of a global solution? And how did we allow this to happen in the first place?

Materials scientist and broadcaster, Professor Mark Miodownik, explores how we fell in love with plastic, why we've ended up with oceans of waste blighting the environment and what science and society can do about it.

Programme Three:
Roland Pease hears from Kenya where one of the most stringent bans on plastic bags has been in force for nearly two years, from the US where the reuseable cup has taken off and from Sweden where reverse vending machines give you money back when you return your plastic bottles. And he looks at places where plastic is the best material for the job.

Picture: Bike loaded with empty plastic bottles. Shanghai China, Credit: typhoonski/Getty Images
How+Much+Plastic+Can+We+Recycle%3F
access_time1 month ago
Plastics are fantastically versatile materials that have changed our lives. It is what we do with them, when we no longer want them, that has resulted in the global plastic crisis. Mark Miodownik explores our love hate relationship with plastics.

Programme Two: Things begin to go stale
Plastic waste has been a global crisis waiting to happen. To date it's estimated that around 8.3 billion tonnes of waste plastic exists. That's 25 Empire State Buildings or 1 billion elephants. Incredibly around half of this has been generated in just the last 14 years, despite mass production having begun in the 1950s.

Events such as China's recent refusal to take any more "foreign rubbish" from the west and Sir David Attenborough's graphic portrayal of the devastation that plastic waste is causing in our oceans, has prompted political and media discussion like never before. We are at a critical moment where, if we're to turn the tide on plastic pollution, it will require science and society to come together to create real change. But it won't be easy. One major area that needs an overhaul is recycling. In the UK only 14% of plastic collected is recycled. Europe tends to burn our waste for energy, and plastic has a calorific value similar to that of coal. But proponents of the circular economy say we should never consider plastic as waste at all and we should think of it as 'Buried Sunshine' - a resource that needs conserving - by reusing and recycling again and again.

Picture: Production line for the processing of plastic waste in the factory, Credit: Getty Images
Why+We+Fell+In+Love+with+Plastic
access_time2 months ago
Plastic waste and pollution have become a global problem but is there any sign of a global solution? And how did we allow this to happen in the first place?

Materials scientist and broadcaster, Professor Mark Miodownik, explores how we fell in love with plastic, why we've ended up with oceans of waste blighting the environment and what science and society can do about it.

Programme One: First Flush of Love
We may not be on speaking terms right now. But we do have a love affair with plastic, in fact it can be all consuming. Adaptable, lightweight, cheap and hygienic - fantastic plastics started to win our affection back in the late 19th century. Bakelite was an early plastic invented to replace expensive wood. Celluloid was one of the earliest plastics, failing to replace ivory in billiard balls, but revolutionising the world as movie film.

Plastic really did change our world. Plastic radar insulation played a role in helping the Allied forces win the Second World War and after the conflict, factories start to churn out cheap, mass-produced goods in the new synthetic polymers. But some of the key virtues of plastic may now have paradoxically poisoned the relationship. Being virtually indestructible, has led to a build-up of toxic micro-plastic in the oceans and environment. We've grown to regard many plastics as cheap and disposable, we take it for granted, rely on it too much, value it too little and are too ready to cast it aside after one single use.

Producer: Fiona Roberts

Picture: The Bakelite Museum, Credit: Getty Images
Finding+the+Coelacanths
access_time2 months ago
The first Coelacanth was discovered by a woman in South Africa in 1938. The find, by the young museum curator, was the fish equivalent of discovering a T- Rex on the Serengeti, it took the Zoological world by storm. Presenter Adam Hart tells the story of this discovery, and the steps taken by Coelacanth biologists in the decades since to find more fish, in other populations, and record them for science. Adam hears personal accounts from a deep diver who swam with Coelacanths, Eve Marshall, conservationist Dr Mark Erdman, and geneticist Professor Axel Meyer.

Picture: 3 Coelacanths at 116 metres depth in Sodwana Bay, South Africa, Credit: Eve Marshall

Producer: Rory Galloway
The+Big+Bang+and+Jet+Streams
access_time2 months ago
Evidence for the big bang was initially thought to be a mistake in the recording. Jet streams in the upper atmosphere were revealed by the dust emitted by Krakatoa and a collection of interested citizen scientists. In the second three episodes about the genius of accidents in science, presenter Adam Hart explores two stories of unexpected observations. Sometimes accidental discoveries are bigger than you might expect.

Picture: Moonlit Coast, Credit: shaunl/Getty Images
The+Genius+of+Accidents%3A+Viagra+and+CRISPR
access_time2 months ago
Viagra’s effects on men were first discovered as an unexpected side-effect during trials for a medication meant to help patients with a heart condition. CRISPR cas– 9 is now a tool that can be used to modify and replace genes – but it was first noted as a random collection of genes. In the first of three episodes about the genius of accidents in science, Professor Adam Hart explores how, sometimes, the results you’re looking for are not as important as those that appear unexpectedly.

Picture: Test Tubes, Credit: Grafner/Getty Images

Producer: Rory Galloway
What%E2%80%99s+the+Tiniest+Dinosaur%3F
access_time8 months ago
Two small creatures are at the heart of today’s questions, sent in to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk.



The Tiniest Dinosaur

"What is the tiniest dinosaur?" asks young listener Ellie Cook, aged 11.



Our hunt takes us from the discovery of dinosaurs right up to the present day, which is being hailed as a 'golden age' for palaeontology. Currently, one new species of dinosaur is unearthed on average every single week. But what's the smallest dino? And what can size reveal about the life of extinct animals?

Hannah Fry goes underground at the Natural History Museum in London to look through their vaults in search of the tiniest dinosaur with palaeontologist Susie Maidment. Meanwhile Adam Rutherford chats to dinosaur expert Steve Brusatte from Edinburgh University about why size really does matter, especially when it comes to fossils.



The Baffled Bat

"Why don't thousands of bats in a cave get confused? How do they differentiate their own location echoes from those of other bats?" This puzzling problem was sent in by Tim Beard from Hamburg in Germany.

Since eco-location was first discovered, this question has perplexed biologists. Hannah turns bat detective to try and track down these elusive creatures at The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. This is where zoologist Kate Jones from University College London is using a network of smart sensors to find, identify and track wild bats.

Bat researcher and impressionist John Ratcliffe from Toronto University explains how bats use sonar to find their way around, and the clever tricks they’ve developed along the way. It's an unlikely tale involving gruesome early experiments, cunning electric fish and some surprising bat maths.



(Image: Dinosaurs and a meteor falling from the sky in back background. Credit: ugurhan/Getty Images)



Producer: Michelle Martin
Can+Anything+Travel+Faster+Than+Light%3F
access_time8 months ago
Two astronomical questions today sent in to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk for Drs Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford to answer.



The Cosmic Speed Limit

"We often read that the fastest thing in the Universe is the speed of light. Why do we have this limitation and can anything possibly be faster?" asks Ali Alshareef from Qatif from Saudia Arabia. The team grapples with Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, with help from cosmologist Andrew Pontzen and a British train, travelling somewhat slower than the speed of light. Plus physicist and presenter Jim Al-Khalili describes how he nearly lost his boxer shorts in a daring bet concerning the speed of subatomic particles.



The Cosmic Egg

"How do we measure the age of the Universe?" asks Simon Whitehead. A hundred years ago this wouldn't even have been considered a valid question, because we didn't think the Universe had a beginning at all. Even Einstein thought that space was eternal and unchanging.

This is the tale of how we discovered that the Universe had a beginning, and why calculating its age has been one of the greatest challenges in modern astronomy. We also uncover the mysterious dark energy that pervades the cosmos and discover why it's been putting a scientific spanner in the works.

Helping to unravel today's question are physicists Andrew Pontzen, Jo Dunkley and Jim Al-Khalili.



Picture: Star sun supernova galaxy gold, Credit: Eastern Lightcraft/Getty Images



Producer: Michelle Martin
Why+Do+We+Dream%3F
access_time8 months ago
Can+We+Use+Chemistry+to+Bake+the+Perfect+Cake%3F
access_time8 months ago
Domestic science is on the agenda today, with two culinary questions sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk



The Curious Cake-Off

Can chemistry help us bake the perfect cake? Listener Helena McGinty aged 69 from Malaga in Spain asks, "'I have always used my mother's sponge cake recipe. But is there a noticeable difference in the outcome if you vary some of the ingredients, or the method?"



Hannah and Adam go head to head in a competition to create the perfect cake using the power of science. They are aided by materials scientist Mark Miodownik, from University College London, with tips on how to combine the ideal ingredients and trusted techniques to construct a structurally sound sponge. Food critic Jay Rayner is on hand to judge the results. But who will emerge victorious in this messy baking battle?



The Atomic Blade

"What makes things sharp? Why are thinner knives sharper? What happens on the molecular level when you cut something?" All these questions came from Joshua Schwartz in New York City.



The ability to create sharp tools allowed us to fashion clothing, make shelters and hunt for food, all essential for the development of human civilisation. And, more importantly today they allow us to prepare dinner. So what makes kitchen knives sharp? We hear from IBM scientist Chris Lutz, who has used one of the sharpest blades in the world to slice up individual atoms. Plus palaeoarchaeologist Becky Wragg Sykes reveals the sharpest natural object in the world, a volcanic glass used by the Aztecs called ‘obsidian’.



Picture: Colourful Cupcakes, Credit: RuthBlack/Getty Images



Producer: Michelle Martin
Earworms+and+Static
access_time8 months ago
Two very annoying cases today sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk to our scientific sleuths, mathematician Dr Hannah Fry and geneticist Dr Adam Rutherford.



The Sticky Song



Why do songs get stuck in our heads? And what makes some tunes stickier than others?

Drs Rutherford and Fry investigate 'earworms', those musical refrains that infect our brains for days. Every morning BBC 6Music DJ Shaun Keaveny asks his listeners for their earworms, and Hannah finds out which tunes keep coming back.

Adam asks Dr Lauren Stewart, from Goldsmiths University, to reveal the musical features that make some songs catchier than others.

And they find out why, in times of crisis, an earworm may just save your life.



The Shocking Surprise



Jose Chavez Mendez from Guatemala asks, "Some years ago, in the dry season, I used to be very susceptible to static electricity. I want to know - why do static shocks happen?"

The team uncover some slightly unethical science experiments on static electricity from the 1700s. Hannah Fry uses a Leyden Jar to demonstrate how static electricity works with help from her glamorous assistant, Adam Rutherford. Spoiler Alert: it doesn't end well for Adam.

They discover what makes some people more susceptible to static shocks, and how bees and spiders have harnessed the awesome power of electricity.

Featuring electromagnetism scientist Rhys Phillips and physicist Helen Czerski, author of 'Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life'.
Behaving+Better+Online
access_time9 months ago
Humans have become the most successful species on earth because of our ability to cooperate. Often we help strangers when there is no obvious benefit to us as individuals. But today in the age when social media and the internet could be seen as a way of bringing people together more than ever, the opposite is happening. In this two-part series for Discovery science writer Gaia Vince meets the psychologists, evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists who are studying our built in human behaviour in groups and asks how their discoveries can guide projects to increase cooperation.



(Photo: Support button on keyboard, Credit: Abdoudz/Getty Images)
The+Cooperative+Species
access_time9 months ago
People are incredibly rude to each other on social media. Much ruder than they would ever be face to face. The great potential of the internet to bring humanity together in a glorious collaborating network seems naïve – instead of embracing a massive extension of our social circles, we seem to revert to tribalism and conflict online. And while we generally conduct our real-life interactions with strangers with politeness and respect, online, we can be horrible.



But it was our human ability to communicate ideas across networks of people that enabled us to so successfully solve life’s challenges and to build the modern world. Gaia Vince travels to Yale University to meet the researchers who are studying how we cooperate today and why it can go wrong when we communicate online.



Part of the Crossing Divides season.



(Photo: Helping Hands, Credit: Kieferpix/Getty Images)
Bringing+Schrodinger%27s+Cat+to+Life
access_time9 months ago
Schrodinger's cat is the one that's famously alive and dead. At the same time. Impossible! Roland Pease meets the quantum scientists hoping to bring one to life in the laboratory. Not a real cat, to be fair. But large biomolecules, viruses, even bacteria, that can exhibit the quantum duality parodied in the paradox first described by one of the fathers of quantum physics. Because if they succeed, they may learn something about the interface between the quantum world, and the human world we live in.



Presenter/Producer: Roland Pease



Credit: Harald Ritsch/Science Photo Library
Bonus+Podcast%3A+Death+in+Ice+Valley
access_time9 months ago
A special preview of the new podcast Death in Ice Valley. An unidentified body. Who was she? Why hasn’t she been missed? A BBC World Service and NRK original podcast, investigating a mystery unsolved for almost half a century. Episode One was released on 16 April 2018 and new episodes will be released every Monday.

Search for Death in Ice Valley wherever you find your podcasts.
Barbara+McLintock
access_time9 months ago
Barbara McClintock’s work on the genetics of corn won her a Nobel prize in 1983. Her research on jumping genes challenged the over-simplified picture of chromosomes and DNA that Watson and Crick’s discovery has all too often been used to support. During the half century that she worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory she became something of a living legend, a pioneer in a time when women weren’t expected to take much interest in science. In that story, she made a profound discovery that her male colleagues dismissed for years, leaving her out in the cold until they finally realized that it was true and granted her a belated Nobel Prize.



Philip Ball tells the story of Barbara McLintock's life and work, from her early preference for sports, for solitude, and for intellectual life, that disturbed her parents, to her meticulous research on corn. In conversation with her recent biographer, Dr Nathaniel Comfort of Johns Hopkins University, he explores the facts and the fictions that grew up around her. Philip Ball talks about the legacy of her discovery of jumping genes with Professor Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Institute at Cambridge University, who spent 25 years working in the McLintock Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor.



Picture Corn Cobs, Credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/GettyImages)
D%27Arcy+Thompson
access_time10 months ago
One hundred years ago D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published On Growth and Form, a book with a mission to put maths into biology. He showed how the shapes, forms and growth processes we see in the living world aren’t some arbitrary result of evolution’s blind searching, but are dictated by mathematical rules. A flower, a honeycomb, a dragonfly’s wing: it’s not sheer chance that these look the way they do. But can these processes be explained by physics? D'Arcy Thompson loved nature’s shapes and influenced a whole new field of systems biology, architects, designers and artists, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.



Presented by Phillip Ball.



Picture: Corn shell, Getty Images
The+Far+Future
access_time10 months ago
How do we prepare for the distant future? Helen Keen meets the people who try to.



If our tech society continues then we can leave data for future generations in huge, mundane quantities, detailing our every tweet and Facebook 'like'. But how long could this information be stored? And if society as we know it ends, will our achievements vanish with it? How do we plan for and protect those who will be our distant descendants and yet may have hopes, fears, languages, beliefs, even religions that we simply cannot predict? What if anything can we, should we, pass on?



Picture: Filing cabinets, Credit: fotofrog
Why+We+Cut+Men
access_time10 months ago
Male circumcision is one of the oldest and most common surgical procedures in human history. Around the world, 1 in 3 men are cut. It’s performed as a religious rite in Islam and Judaism; in other cultures it’s part of initiation, a social norm or marker of identity. Some individuals think it’s cleaner, sexier or safer. In this documentary, anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota explores the reasons we cut men. She meets people who passionately promote the practice – and others who protest against it.



Across sub-Saharan Africa, medical circumcision is endorsed in the fight against HIV – research shows it reduces the risk of a man getting infected if he has sex with an HIV-positive woman. More than 10 million men and boys have been circumcised so far; officials plan to reach another 25 million by 2020.



In rural Uganda, Mary-Ann visits a mobile clinic to watch 21-year-old Wajuli undergo the operation. She meets another young man in Kampala who reveals his regret about getting cut.



The United States is the only western country where most boys are circumcised for non-religious reasons – $270 million a year is spent on infant circumcision. In downtown New York, Mary-Ann meets ‘Intact-ivists’ who believe male circumcision is genital mutilation. She speaks to members of the public confronted with the protest, and interviews a leading US paediatrician who reflects on the reasons US doctors keep cutting.



With contributions from Uganda’s national VMMC coordinator Dr Barbara Nanteza, Dr Marc Cendron (Boston Children’s Hospital) and Georganne Chapin, Intact America.



Picture: Intactivist van in Union Square, New York, Credit: Nick Minter
Iodine
access_time10 months ago
The phrase 'essential 'element' is often incorrectly used to describe the nutrients we need, but can aptly be applied to iodine - without it we would suffer severe developmental problems. Iodine is a key component of thyroid hormones, responsible for the regulation of our metabolism. And yet most of us have no idea how much we need, nor where it comes from.



In her research, Margaret Rayman, Professor of Nutritional Medicine at Surrey University, has found pregnant women in particular are at risk of iodine deficiency - and there's a lack of iodine in what many consider healthy diets.



As well as looking at contemporary issues with iodine, Margaret explores the legacy of past iodine deficiency - the word cretin, was coined to describe someone living in the Alps with such a condition. We learn why you might find iodine in British milk - but not necessarily elsewhere in the world, and we discuss the consequences of exposure to radioactive iodine isotopes - both good and bad.



Picture: Pregnant woman with milk, Credit: Arief-Juwono/Getty Images
Phosphorus
access_time11 months ago
What links trade unions with urine, Syria with semiconductors, and bones and bombs? The answer is phosphorus, UCL Inorganic Chemistry Professor Andrea Sella, who is himself engaged in researching new phosphorus based materials, looks at this often rather frightening element.

We hear how the health impact of phosphorus on a group of Irish girls changed politics, how the element has been used as a weapon of war and we peer into the future, as chemists break new ground on what might be possible with phosphorus and nanotechnology.



Photo: BBC Copyright
Lead
access_time11 months ago
From the plumbing of ancient Rome, to lead acid batteries, paint, petrol and a dangerous legacy, the metal lead has seen a myriad of uses and abuses over thousands of years. In bullets, and poisons it has killed us both quickly and slowly, and yet its malleability, low melting point and resistance to corrosion make it a fantastic material for all kinds of containers and water proofing. And it is key to one of the most commonly used, and ignored, devices on the planet, the car battery.



However it's only recently that the serious impact of lead poisoning on the development of children's brains has come to light.

Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London, who studied the impact of lead poisoning in the 1970s and 80s, journeys with lead from the iron age to the present day delving into the history and scandal associated with this often overlooked element.



Photo: BBC Copyright
The+Power+of+Sloth
access_time11 months ago
Zoologist and founder of the Sloth Appreciation Society, Lucy Cooke, unleashes her inner sloth to discover why being lazy could actually be the ultimate evolutionary strategy.



The explorers of the New World described sloths as ‘the lowest form of existence’, but sloths are actually some of the most enduring of all tropical mammals. They make up one third of the mammalian biomass in rainforests and have survived some 64 million years - outliving far flashier animals like sabre tooth tigers.



The secret to the sloth’s success is their slothful nature and their suite of energy-saving adaptations. In fact slothfulness is such a successful strategy, that there are examples all over the animal kingdom, including, surprisingly, worker ants. Recent studies in humans have shown the many health benefits of adopting a slower pace of life. Sleep itself is universal amongst the animal kingdom. All animals do it, but why remains a mystery. What is clear though, is that unleashing your inner couch potato is no bad thing, be you sloth or human.



Lucy discovers the genius behind the sloths laid back attitude and fights the corner for laziness.



Producer: Alexandra Feachem



Picture: A young two-toed sloth sits in a bucket, September 2017. Credit: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert / AFP / Getty Images
Pain+of+torture
access_time11 months ago
Does knowing that someone is inflicting pain on you deliberately make the pain worse? Professor Irene Tracey meets survivors of torture and examines the dark side of pain.



A woman mourns during the funeral procession of Abdulrassul Hujairi. Photo credit: Joseph Eid / AFP / Getty Images)



Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald
Controlling+Pain
access_time12 months ago
What if your brain could naturally control pain? Professor Irene Tracey and her colleagues are trying to unlock the natural mechanisms in the brain that limit the amount of pain we feel.



We hear about how children learning judo are taught special techniques and from ex-marine Chris Shirley who ran a marathon carrying a 45kg rucksack and could ignore the pain of the blisters and torn shoulder muscles.



One study found that religious people feel less pain than agnostics by looking at a picture of the Virgin Mary. Neuroscientists and psychologists are beginning to understand how this is possible, how the brain can block out pain in the right circumstances, so is this something we could all benefit from?



Picture: The statue of the Virgin Mary, Credit: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images



Producer Geraldine Fitzgerald
Knowing+Pain
access_time12 months ago
Scientists reveal why we feel pain and the consequences of life without pain. One way to understand the experience of pain is to look at unusual situations which give clues to our everyday agony.



Phantom limb pain was described in ancient times but only after WWI did it gain acceptance in modern medicine. For those living with it, it can be a painful reminder of a lost limb. New studies are now unravelling why the brain generates this often unpleasant experience and how the messages can be used positively.



Its only since the 1980s that doctors agreed that babies are able to feel pain but we still don’t know how the developing brain processes information and how premature babies can be protected from the many invasive tests they have to go through. New research aims to provide appropriate pain relief that could have long term consequences.



Picture: Nerve cells, computer artwork, Credit: Science Photo Library
Seeing+Pain
access_time12 months ago
Mystery still surrounds the experience of pain. It is highly subjective but why do some people feel more pain than others and why does the brain appear to switch off under anaesthesia so we are unaware of the surgeon’s scalpel? Professor Irene Tracey uses brain scanners to ask if we can actually see pain in the brain. On air we hear for the first time the results of the latest research into diabetes and nerve pain. Promising new techniques means scientists are able to see regions in the brain which effectively turn up the pain in some people and not others.



Anaesthetics prevent pain during surgery but how the brain disengages is only just beginning to be understood, which could in the future lead to personalised doses of anaesthetics leading to faster recovery times.



Picture: Graphic of neurons firing in the of the neural network within the Brain, Credit: Science Photo Library
Humphry+Davy
access_time1 year ago
In Bristol in 1799, a young man started to experiment with newly discovered gases, looking for a cure for tuberculosis. Humphry Davy, aged 20, nearly killed himself inhaling carbon monoxide. Nitrous oxide was next. It was highly pleasurable, ‘particularly in the chest and extremities’ and he began to dance around his laboratory ‘like a madman’, before passing out. By day, he gave the gas to patients, carefully noting their reactions. In the evenings, he invited his friends over to have a laugh (with assistants on standby to revive them with oxygen, as needed).



The Romantic poets, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge could barely contain their excitement.

During one session, Davy noted that the gas numbed his toothache and suggested that it could perhaps be used during surgical operations. But it was another fifty years before nitrous oxide was used by doctors. Throughout the 20th century, it was widely used during dentistry and to numb the pain of childbirth. (Nitrous oxide is the gas in ‘gas and air’: the ‘air’ is oxygen) .And it still is today, but less so. (It’s a potent greenhouse gas that damages the ozone layer, it’s difficult to store and there are side-effects). But, just as medical use is diminishing, recreational use is on the rise.



A new generation of pleasure seekers have started experimenting, just as Davy did, despite the associated risks of injuries caused by fainting and death by suffocation.



Naomi Alderman tells how a gas that created ‘ecstatic lunatics’ came to be used as an anaesthetic, with help from biographer, Richard Holmes and anaesthetist, Kevin Fong.



Picture: Humphry Davy and Anaesthesia, Credit: Science Photo Library
Lise+Meitner
access_time1 year ago
Philip Ball reveals the dramatic tale of Lise Meitner, the humanitarian physicist of Jewish descent, who unlocked the science of the atom bomb after a terrifying escape from Hitler's Germany. One of the most brilliant nuclear scientists working in Germany her flight from terror cost Hitler’s regime dearly.



In the early 20th Century it was barely possible for women to work in science at all and yet Einstein once called Meitner Germany’s own Marie Curie. It was Meitner’s insight that began the nuclear age and her story remains ever relevant, as the threat of nuclear conflict lies once again over the world.



Philip Ball talks to historian Dr Patricia Fara about Lise Meitner and her research and to Patricia Lewis of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN, based in Geneva, which this year was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for its work in trying to reverse nuclear proliferation, about Meitner’s legacy today.



Picture: Lise Meitner, Credit: Central Press/Getty Images
The+Day+the+Earth+Moved
access_time1 year ago
Roland Pease tells the story of how fifty years ago geologists finally became convinced that the earth’s crust is made up of shifting plates. The idea of mobile continents, continental drift, had been talked about, for example because it looked like Africa and South America had once been joined, and were now separated by the Atlantic. But given the solidity of rocks and the vastness of continents, that idea made no sense. Until plate tectonics, as it became known, gave it a scientific basis and rebuilt it into a mechanism that explained earthquakes, mountain belts, chains of volcanic islands and many other geological phenomena. Roland Pease talks to many of the key researchers in the story, now in their 70s and 80s, and finds out how their work transformed our understanding of the earth.



Picture: Tectonic plates of planet earth - map with names of major and minor plates, Credit: PeterHermesFurian



Presenter: Roland Pease
Maria+Merian
access_time1 year ago
Maria Merian was born in 1647. At the time of her birth, Shakespeare had been dead for 30 years; Galileo had only just stood trial for arguing that the Earth moved around the Sun. And yet, here in Germany, was a child who would become an important but oft-forgotten figure of science.



Aged 13, she mapped out metamorphosis, catching caterpillars from her garden and painting them in exquisite detail. At that point, most believed that caterpillars spontaneously generated from cabbages and maggots materialised from rotten meat. She later voyaged to Suriname in South America to pursue pupae further, discovering not just new species but also the conditions needed for their survival.



Some call her the first field ecologist; others admire her for her eloquent brushwork. However, her studies will help today’s biologists plot which insects lived where. These data are invaluable because this could help scientists predict what species will survive climate change.



Naomi Alderman discusses the life and legacy of Maria Merian with biologist and historian Kay Etheridge from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania and biologist Kathy Willis from Kew Gardens.



Picture: Belly-ache bush (Jatropha gossypifolia) with metamorphosis of a giant sphinx moth (Cocytius antaeus), created by Maria Sibylla Merian and Joseph Mulder, Credit: GRI Digital Collections



Producer: Graihagh Jackson
Alcuin+of+York
access_time1 year ago
The Dark Ages are often painted as an era of scholarly decline. The Western Roman Empire was on its way out, books were few and far between, and, if you believe the stereotype, mud-splattered peasants ran around in rags.



However, it was far more intellectually vibrant than you might imagine. Out of this era emerged a set of ‘problems to sharpen the young,’ including the famous river crossing puzzle that’s still taught in maths today. The presumed author of these riddles is Alcuin of York – ‘the most learned man in the world.’ And it was this monk and his puzzles that laid the foundations for a branch of mathematics called combinatorics – the thinking behind today’s computer coding and cryptography.



Philip Ball speaks to historian Mary Garrison from the University of York to learn of Alcuin's character and how he encouraged his students to learn for the sake of learning, as opposed to salvation. And University College London mathematician Hannah Fry shows Philip just how much of a role combinatorics plays in today’s world.



Picture: White horned goat chewing a cabbage leaf, Credit: Oxana Medvedeva



Producer: Graihagh Jackson
Cheating+the+Atmosphere
access_time1 year ago
All countries are supposed to measure and report their greenhouse gas emissions but BBC environment correspondent, Matt McGrath, reveals there are gaping holes in national inventories. He uncovers serious failings in countries’ accounts of warming gases with many not reporting at all. There are disturbing signs that some banned warming chemicals, which are supposed to have been phased out completely, are once again on the rise. And evidence that worthless carbon credits are still being traded. Meanwhile scientists are growing increasingly frustrated by the refusal of countries to gather and share accurate data in the face of this planetary emergency



(Photo: The Jungfraujoch Air Monitoring Station in Switzerland. Credit: Jungfraujoch)
Better+Brains
access_time1 year ago
Every three seconds someone is diagnosed with dementia, and two thirds of the cases are Alzheimer’s Disease. As the global population ages, this is becoming an epidemic, and with no cures currently available for the collection of neurodegenerative conditions that include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Motor Neurone Disease the public and personal cost is escalating. Sue Broom reports on new efforts to find ways to stop the progress of these diseases for the first time, and to bring treatment for neurodegenerative conditions in line with those of cancer and heart disease.



Picture: Human head, Credit: Science Photo Library



Presenter: Sue Broom
The+Dark+Star+and+Sonic+Weapon+-+Curious+Cases+of+Rutherford+and+Fry
access_time1 year ago
Two deadly cases today sent in by listeners to curiouscases@bbc.co.uk



The Dark Star

"What's inside a black hole and could we fly a spaceship inside?" asks Jorge Luis Alvarez from Mexico City.



Astrophysicist Sheila Rowan explains how we know invisible black holes actually exist. Plus cosmologist Andrew Pontzen is on hand to help cook one up.



But which of our intrepid doctors will volunteer to fly into the heart of a black hole?



Kate Bush’s Sonic Weapon

"It started while listening to the excellent Experiment IV by Kate Bush. The premise of the song is of a band who secretly work for the military to create a 'sound that could kill someone'. Is it scientifically possible to do this?" asks Paul Goodfield.



Hannah consults acoustic engineer Trevor Cox to ask if sonic weapons could kill. And Adam delves into subsonic frequencies with parapsychologist Chris French to investigate their spooky effects.



Plus the team investigates the Curious Case of the Embassy in Cuba – could a sonic weapon really be responsible for the wide-ranging symptoms reported by American diplomats in Havana?



You can send your scientific mysteries for the team to investigate to: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk



Picture: A computer-generated image of a rich star field with a Black Hole in front of it which distorts starlight into a brilliant ring around itself, Credit: BBC



Producer: Michelle Martin
Poles+and+Spin
access_time1 year ago
The Polar Opposite

No one knows why the Earth's magnetic North and South poles swap. But polar reversals have happened hundreds of times over the history of the Earth.

John Turk emailed curiouscases@bbc.co.uk to ask, “when is the next pole swap due and what will happen to us?”

Featuring Prof Lucie Green from Mullard Space Science Laboratory and Dr Phil Livermore from the University of Leeds.

Plus, astronaut Terry Virts, author of The View from Above, describes his experiences of a strange magnetic glitch in the earth's magnetic field, known as The Bermuda Triangle of Space.



The World That Turns

"Why does the Earth spin?" asks Joe Wills from Accra in Ghana.

Hannah quizzes cosmologist Andrew Pontzen about the birth of the Solar System. BBC weatherman John Hammond describes the curious things that would happen if the Earth spun the opposite way.

Send your questions to: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk



Picture: The Earth reflecting light from the sun whilst aboard the International Space Station, Credit: Alexander Gerst / ESA via Getty Images



Producer: Michelle Martin
Balloons+and+Memory
access_time1 year ago
The Astronomical Balloon

"How far up can a helium balloon go? Could it go out to space?" asks Juliet Gok, aged 9.

This calls for an experiment! Dr Keri Nicholl helps Adam launch a party balloon and track its ascent. But their test doesn't quite go to plan.

Meanwhile, Hannah discovers where space begins by asking Public Astronomer Dr Marek Kukula, from the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Send your Curious Cases to the team: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk



The Forgetful Child

"Why don't we remember the first few years of our lives?" asks David Foulger from Cheltenham.

The team investigate the phenomenon of 'infant amnesia' with Catherine Loveday from the University of Westminster.

40% of us claim to remember being under two years old and 18% recall being babies. But can we really trust these early memories? Martin Conway from City University thinks not.



Picture: Baby Foot, Credit H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Hulton Archive/Getty Images



Producer: Michelle Martin.
Balloon+and+Memory+-+The+Curious+Cases+of+Rutherford+and+Fry
access_time1 year ago
The Astronomical Balloon

"How far up can a helium balloon go? Could it go out to space?" asks Juliet Gok, aged 9.

This calls for an experiment! Dr Keri Nicholl helps Adam launch a party balloon and track its ascent. But their test doesn't quite go to plan.

Meanwhile, Hannah discovers where space begins by asking Public Astronomer Dr Marek Kukula, from the Royal Observatory Greenwich.

Send your Curious Cases to the team: curiouscases@bbc.co.uk



The Forgetful Child

"Why don't we remember the first few years of our lives?" asks David Foulger from Cheltenham.

The team investigate the phenomenon of 'infant amnesia' with Catherine Loveday from the University of Westminster.

40% of us claim to remember being under two years old and 18% recall being babies. But can we really trust these early memories? Martin Conway from City University thinks not.



Picture: A baby contemplates the sole of its foot, circa 1950, Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Hulton Archive/Getty Images



Producer: Michelle Martin.
Cats+and+Itch+%E2%80%93+The+Curious+Cases+of+Rutherford+and+Fry
access_time1 year ago
“How on earth do cats find their way back to their previous home when they move house?" asks Vicky Cole from Nairobi in Kenya.



Our enduring love for our feline friends began when Egyptian pharaohs began to welcome domesticated moggies into their homes. Pictured reclining in baskets at the feet of royalty, pet cats soon became fashionable throughout society in Egypt. Today they are the most popular pet in the world, and home is definitely where their hearts lie.



"Whereas dogs are bonded to people, cats are bonded to place," explains zoologist Dr John Bradshaw. "It's very typical for them to try and find their way back to their old house when you move."



But how do they do it? And if their navigational skills are so good, why do they get lost? Prof Matthew Cobb reveals the super-senses that cats possess, and how to spot when your pet is deploying them.



Itchy and Scratchy

"What is an itch and how does scratching stop it? Why does scratching some itches feel so good?!" asks Xander Tarver from West Sussex in England.



Our doctors set off to probe the mysteries of itch, and discover that this overlooked area of medicine is revealing surprising results about the human brain. From why itching is contagious to why scratching is pleasurable, we get under the skin of this medical mystery.



The programme features interviews with neuroscientist Prof Francis McGlone from Liverpool John Moores University and dermatologist Dr Brian Kim from the Center for the Study of Itch at Washington University. Yes, that is a real place.



If you have any Curious Cases for the team to solve please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk.



Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry

Producer: Michelle Martin



(Photo: Cat, Credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Bacteria+and+Blood+%E2%80%93+The+Curious+Cases+of+Rutherford+and+Fry
access_time1 year ago
Science sleuths Drs Rutherford & Fry take on everyday mysteries and solve them with the power of science. Two cases in this episode concerning the inner workings of our bodies, and not for the faint hearted!



The Broken Stool

"Science tells us that our body houses microbial organisms. Then how much our weight is really our weight? If I am overweight, is it because of my own body cells or excess microflora?" asks Ajay Mathur from Mumbai in India.



Adam bravely sends off a personal sample to the 'Map My Gut' project at St Thomas' Hospital to have his microbes mapped. Prof Tim Spector reveals the shocking results - a diet of fried breakfasts and fizzy drinks has left his guts in disarray. But help is at hand to makeover his bacterial lodgers.



Science writer Ed Yong, author of 'I Contain Multitudes', reveals how much our microbes weigh. We're just beginning to discover the vast array of vital functions they perform, from controlling our weight, immune system and perhaps even influencing our mood and behaviour.



A Code in Blood

"Why do we have different blood types?" asks Doug from Norfolk in the UK.



The average adult human has around 30 trillion red blood cells, they make up a quarter of the total number of cells in the body.



We have dozens of different blood groups, but normally we're tested for just two - ABO and Rhesus factor. Adam and Hannah delve into the gory world of blood and the early history of blood transfusions, to discover why we have blood groups and how they differ around the world.



Featuring interviews with Dr Jo Mountford, from the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service and immunologist Dr Sheena Cruikshank from the University of Manchester.



If you have any Curious Cases for the team to solve please email curiouscases@bbc.co.uk.



Presenters: Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry

Producer: Michelle Martin



Image: Illustration of red blood cells in a blood vessel. Copyright: Science Photo Library
Sydney+Brenner%3A+A+Revolutionary+Biologist
access_time1 year ago
Sydney Brenner was one of the 20th Century’s greatest biologists. Born 90 years ago in South Africa to impoverished immigrant parents, Dr Brenner became a leading figure in the biological revolution that followed the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson, using data from Rosalind Franklin, in the 1950s. Brenner’s insights and inventive experiments laid foundation stones for new science of molecular biology and the genetic age in which we live today, from the Human Genome Project to gene editing.



Sydney Brenner talks to biologist and historian Matthew Cobb of the University of Manchester about this thrilling period in biological science, and Dr Brenner’s 20 year-long collaboration with DNA pioneer Francis Crick: a friendship which generated some of their most creative research.



Picture: Sydney Bremmer, Credit: Cold Spring Harbor Lab Archive



Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
SOS+Snail
access_time1 year ago
This is a big story about a little snail. Biologist Helen Scales relates an epic tale that spans the globe and involves calamity, tragedy, extinction and we hope, salvation. It stars the tiny tree-dwelling mollusc from French Polynesia, Partula, a snail that has captivated scientists for centuries. Like Charles Darwin studied finches on the Galapagos, Partula became an icon of evolution because, in the living laboratories of the Pacific islands, it had evolved into multiple species. But a calamity drove Partula to extinction, when a botched biological control, the predatory Rosy Wolf Snail, was introduced. It was supposed to eat another problem mollusc, but in a cruel twist, devoured tiny Partula instead. An international rescue mission was scrambled to save a species and from just one or two rescued individuals, populations of this snail species have been built up over thirty years in captive breeding programmes in zoos around the world. And now, in the nailbiting sequel, we track Partula’s journey home.



Picture: Reintroduced Partula dispersing on Moorea in French Polynesia, Credit: ZSL



Presenter: Helen Scales

Producer: Fiona Hill
Indian+Science+%E2%80%93+The+Colonial+Legacy
access_time1 year ago
This month London’s Science Museum launched a new exhibition on Indian science.



For more than 200 years Britain ruled India, bringing many aspects of British culture to India - including European science developed during the enlightenment. However centuries earlier India had already pioneered work in astronomy, mathematics and engineering.



How was India’s scientific progress affected by colonialism? Did British rule hold the country back, or did it drive it forward? Presented by Angela Saini.



Picture: The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) communication satellite GSAT-19, carried onboard the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV-mark III ), launches at Sriharikota on June 5, 2017, Credit: ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images
India%27s+Ancient+Science
access_time1 year ago
We go behind the scenes of a new exhibition on India at London’s Science Museum. What can historical objects tell us about India’s rich, and often hidden scientific past? We look at the influential mathematics, metallurgy and civil engineering of ancient India.



The exhibition also contain artefacts from India’s time under the British Empire. We ask how the many years of colonial rule shaped the more recent scientific development of India.



Science journalist Angela Saini presents.



Image: Bakhshali manuscript, Credit: Bodleian Library
Africa%E2%80%99s+Great+Green+Wall
access_time1 year ago
Can Africa’s Great Green Wall beat back the Sahara desert and reverse the degrading landscape? The ambitious 9 miles wide and 5000 miles long line of vegetation will stretch all the way from Dakar in the west to Djibouti in the east.



Thomas Fessy is in Senegal where the wall has already begun to evolve into a series of forests and garden communities. He meets the planners, planters, ecologists and local villagers to hear how its early progress is reversing years of poor land use, turning nomads back to farmers, empowering women and creating healthy ecosystems for rain fed agriculture.



But can it meet its ambition to stabilize an unstable region, reverse the growing trend of migration, fight the effects of climate change and ensure this big African dream doesn’t die in the sand?



Picture: The Great Green Wall, credit: BBC



Producer Adrian Washbourne
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