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In Our Time: Science

BBC

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Scientific principles, theory, and the role of key figures in the advancement of science.
25 Episodes Play All Episodes
Free+Radicals
access_time18 days ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the properties of atoms or molecules with a single unpaired electron, which tend to be more reactive, keen to seize an electron to make it a pair. In the atmosphere, they are linked to reactions such as rusting. Free radicals came to prominence in the 1950s with the discovery that radiation poisoning operates through free radicals, as it splits water molecules and produces a very reactive hydroxyl radical which damages DNA and other molecules in the cell. There is also an argument that free radicals are a byproduct of normal respiration and over time they cause an accumulation of damage that is effectively the process of ageing. For all their negative associations, free radicals play an important role in signalling and are also linked with driving cell division, both cancer and normal cell division, even if they tend to become damaging when there are too many of them.

With

Nick Lane
Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London

Anna Croft
Associate Professor at the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nottingham

And

Mike Murphy
Professor of Mitochondrial Redox Biology at Cambridge University

Producer: Simon Tillotson
The+Proton
access_time7 months ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the discovery and growing understanding of the Proton, formed from three quarks close to the Big Bang and found in the nuclei of all elements. The positive charges they emit means they attract the fundamental particles of negatively charged electrons, an attraction that leads to the creation of atoms which in turn leads to chemistry, biology and life itself. The Sun (in common with other stars) is a fusion engine that turn protons by a series of processes into helium, emitting energy in the process, with about half of the Sun's protons captured so far. Hydrogen atoms, stripped of electrons, are single protons which can be accelerated to smash other nuclei and have applications in proton therapy. Many questions remain, such as why are electrical charges for protons and electrons so perfectly balanced?

With

Frank Close
Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oxford

Helen Heath
Reader in Physics at the University of Bristol

And

Simon Jolly
Lecturer in High Energy Physics at University College London

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
George+and+Robert+Stephenson
access_time7 months ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the contribution of George Stephenson (1781-1848) and his son Robert (1803-59) to the development of the railways in C19th. George became known as The Father of Railways and yet arguably Robert's contribution was even greater, with his engineering work going far beyond their collaboration.

Robert is credited with the main role in the design of their locomotives. George had worked on stationary colliery steam engines and, with Robert, developed the moving steam engine Locomotion No1 for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825. They produced the Rocket for the Rainhill Trials on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in 1829. From there, the success of their designs and engineering led to the expansion of railways across Britain and around the world.

with

Dr Michael Bailey
Railway historian and editor of the most recent biography of Robert Stephenson

Julia Elton
Past President of the Newcomen Society for the History of Engineering and Technology

and

Colin Divall
Professor Emeritus of Railway Studies at the University of York

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Rosalind+Franklin
access_time9 months ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the pioneering scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920 - 1958). During her distinguished career, Franklin carried out ground-breaking research into coal and viruses but she is perhaps best remembered for her investigations in the field of DNA. In 1952 her research generated a famous image that became known as Photograph 51. When the Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson saw this image, it enabled them the following year to work out that DNA has a double-helix structure, one of the most important discoveries of modern science. Watson, Crick and Franklin's colleague Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize in 1962 for this achievement but Franklin did not and today many people believe that Franklin has not received enough recognition for her work.


With:

Patricia Fara
President of the British Society for the History of Science

Jim Naismith
Interim lead of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, Director of the Research Complex at Harwell and Professor at the University of Oxford

Judith Howard
Professor of Chemistry at Durham University

Producer: Victoria Brignell.
Fungi
access_time9 months ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss fungi. These organisms are not plants or animals but a kingdom of their own. Millions of species of fungi live on the Earth and they play a crucial role in ecosystems, enabling plants to obtain nutrients and causing material to decay. Without fungi, life as we know it simply would not exist. They are also a significant part of our daily life, making possible the production of bread, wine and certain antibiotics. Although fungi brought about the colonisation of the planet by plants about 450 million years ago, some species can kill humans and devastate trees.

With:

Lynne Boddy
Professor of Fungal Ecology at Cardiff University

Sarah Gurr
Professor of Food Security in the Biosciences Department at the University of Exeter

David Johnson
N8 Chair in Microbial Ecology at the University of Manchester

Producer: Victoria Brignell.
Cephalopods
access_time10 months ago
The octopus, the squid, the nautilus and the cuttlefish are some of the most extraordinary creatures on this planet, intelligent and yet apparently unlike other life forms. They are cephalopods and are part of the mollusc family like snails and clams, and they have some characteristics in common with those. What sets them apart is the way members of their group can change colour, camouflage themselves, recognise people, solve problems, squirt ink, power themselves with jet propulsion and survive both on land, briefly, and in the deepest, coldest oceans. And, without bones or shells, they grow so rapidly they can outstrip their rivals when habitats change, making them the great survivors and adaptors of the animal world.

With

Louise Allcock
Lecturer in Zoology at the National University of Ireland, Galway

Paul Rodhouse
Emeritus Fellow of the British Antarctic Survey

and

Jonathan Ablett
Senior Curator of Molluscs at the Natural History Museum

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Carl+Friedrich+Gauss
access_time12 months ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Gauss (1777-1855), widely viewed as one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He was a child prodigy, correcting his father's accounts before he was 3, dumbfounding his teachers with the speed of his mental arithmetic, and gaining a wealthy patron who supported his education. He wrote on number theory when he was 21, with his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, which has influenced developments since. Among his achievements, he was the first to work out how to make a 17-sided polygon, he predicted the orbit of the minor planet Ceres, rediscovering it, he found a way of sending signals along a wire, using electromagnetism, the first electromagnetic telegraph, and he advanced the understanding of parallel lines on curved surfaces.

With

Marcus du Sautoy
Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford

Colva Roney-Dougal
Reader in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews

And

Nick Evans
Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Southampton

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Feathered+Dinosaurs
access_time1 year ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the development of theories about dinosaur feathers, following discoveries of fossils which show evidence of feathers. All dinosaurs were originally thought to be related to lizards - the word 'dinosaur' was created from the Greek for 'terrible lizard' - but that now appears false. In the last century, discoveries of fossils with feathers established that at least some dinosaurs were feathered and that some of those survived the great extinctions and evolved into the birds we see today. There are still many outstanding areas for study, such as what sorts of feathers they were, where on the body they were found, what their purpose was and which dinosaurs had them.

With

Mike Benton
Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol

Steve Brusatte
Reader and Chancellor's Fellow in Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Edinburgh

and

Maria McNamara
Senior Lecturer in Geology at University College, Cork


Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Bird+Migration
access_time1 year ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss why some birds migrate and others do not, how they select their destinations and how they navigate the great distances, often over oceans. For millennia, humans set their calendars to birds' annual arrivals, and speculated about what happened when they departed, perhaps moving deep under water, or turning into fish or shellfish, or hibernating while clinging to trees upside down. Ideas about migration developed in C19th when, in Germany, a stork was noticed with an African spear in its neck, indicating where it had been been over winter and how far it had flown. Today there are many ideas about how birds use their senses of sight and smell, and magnetic fields, to find their way, and about why and how birds choose their destinations and many questions. Why do some scatter and some flock together, how much is instinctive and how much is learned, and how far do the benefits the migrating birds gain outweigh the risks they face?

With

Barbara Helm
Reader at the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow

Tim Guilford
Professor of Animal Behaviour and Tutorial Fellow of Zoology at Merton College, Oxford

and

Richard Holland
Senior Lecturer in Animal Cognition at Bangor University

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Enzymes
access_time1 year ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss enzymes, the proteins that control the speed of chemical reactions in living organisms. Without enzymes, these reactions would take place too slowly to keep organisms alive: with their actions as catalysts, changes which might otherwise take millions of years can happen hundreds of times a second. Some enzymes break down large molecules into smaller ones, like the ones in human intestines, while others use small molecules to build up larger, complex ones, such as those that make DNA. Enzymes also help keep cell growth under control, by regulating the time for cells to live and their time to die, and provide a way for cells to communicate with each other.

With

Nigel Richards
Professor of Biological Chemistry at Cardiff University

Sarah Barry
Lecturer in Chemical Biology at King's College London

And

Jim Naismith
Director of the Research Complex at Harwell
Bishop Wardlaw Professor of Chemical Biology at the University of St Andrews
Professor of Structural Biology at the University of Oxford

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Louis+Pasteur
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and his extraordinary contribution to medicine and science. It is said few people have saved more lives than Pasteur. A chemist, he showed that otherwise identical molecules could exist as 'left' and 'right-handed' versions and that molecules produced by living things were always left-handed. He proposed a germ theory to replace the idea of spontaneous generation. He discovered that microorganisms cause fermentation and disease. He began the process named after him, pasteurisation, heating liquids to 50-60 C to kill microbes. He saved the beer and wine industries in France when they were struggling with microbial contamination. He saved the French silk industry when he found a way of protecting healthy silkworm eggs from disease. He developed vaccines against anthrax and rabies and helped establish immunology. Many of his ideas were developed further after his lifetime, but one of his legacies was a charitable body, the Pasteur Institute, to continue research into infectious disease.

With

Andrew Mendelsohn
Reader in the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London

Anne Hardy
Honorary Professor at the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

and

Michael Worboys
Emeritus Professor in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Pauli%27s+Exclusion+Principle
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and ideas of Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), whose Exclusion Principle is one of the key ideas in quantum mechanics. A brilliant physicist, at 21 Pauli wrote a review of Einstein's theory of general relativity and that review is still a standard work of reference today. The Pauli Exclusion Principle proposes that no two electrons in an atom can be at the same time in the same state or configuration, and it helps explain a wide range of phenomena such as the electron shell structure of atoms. Pauli went on to postulate the existence of the neutrino, which was confirmed in his lifetime. Following further development of his exclusion principle, Pauli was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945 for his 'decisive contribution through his discovery of a new law of Nature'. He also had a long correspondence with Jung, and a reputation for accidentally breaking experimental equipment which was dubbed The Pauli Effect.



With



Frank Close

Fellow Emeritus at Exeter College, University of Oxford



Michela Massimi

Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Edinburgh



and



Graham Farmelo

Bye-Fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge





Producer: Simon Tillotson.
The+Paleocene-Eocene+Thermal+Maximum
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the high temperatures that marked the end of the Paleocene and start of the Eocene periods, about 50m years ago. Over c1000 years, global temperatures rose more than 5 C on average and stayed that way for c100,000 years more, with the surface of seas in the Arctic being as warm as those in the subtropics. There were widespread extinctions, changes in ocean currents, and there was much less oxygen in the sea depths. The rise has been attributed to an increase of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, though it is not yet known conclusively what the source of those gases was. One theory is that a rise in carbon dioxide, perhaps from volcanoes, warmed up the globe enough for warm water to reach the bottom of the oceans and so release methane from frozen crystals in the sea bed. The higher the temperature rose and the longer the water was warm, the more methane was released. Scientists have been studying a range of sources from this long period, from ice samples to fossils, to try to understand more about possible causes.

With

Dame Jane Francis
Professor of Palaeoclimatology at the British Antarctic Survey

Mark Maslin
Professor of Palaeoclimatology at University College London

And

Tracy Aze
Lecturer in Marine Micropaleontology at the University of Leeds

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
The+Kuiper+Belt
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Kuiper Belt, a vast region of icy objects at the fringes of our Solar System, beyond Neptune, in which we find the dwarf planet Pluto and countless objects left over from the origins of the solar system, some of which we observe as comets. It extends from where Neptune is, which is 30 times further out than the Earth is from the Sun, to about 500 times the Earth-Sun distance. It covers an immense region of space and it is the part of the Solar System that we know the least about, because it is so remote from us and has been barely detectable by Earth-based telescopes until recent decades. Its existence was predicted before it was known, and study of the Kuiper Belt, and how objects move within it, has led to a theory that there may be a 9th planet far beyond Neptune.

With

Carolin Crawford
Public Astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy and Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

Monica Grady
Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University

And

Stephen Lowry
Reader in Planetary and Space Sciences, University of Kent

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Maths+in+the+Early+Islamic+World
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the flourishing of maths in the early Islamic world, as thinkers from across the region developed ideas in places such as Baghdad's House of Wisdom. Among them were the Persians Omar Khayyam, who worked on equations, and Al-Khwarizmi, latinised as Algoritmi and pictured above, who is credited as one of the fathers of algebra, and the Jewish scholar Al-Samawal, who converted to Islam and worked on mathematical induction. As well as the new ideas, there were many advances drawing on Indian, Babylonian and Greek work and, thanks to the recording or reworking by mathematicians in the Islamic world, that broad range of earlier maths was passed on to western Europe for further study.

With

Colva Roney-Dougal
Reader in Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews

Peter Pormann
Professor of Classics & Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester

And

Jim Al-Khalili
Professor of Physics at the University of Surrey

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Parasitism
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the relationship between parasites and hosts, where one species lives on or in another to the benefit of the parasite but at a cost to the host, potentially leading to disease or death of the host. Typical examples are mistletoe and trees, hookworms and vertebrates, cuckoos and other birds. In many cases the parasite species do so well in or on a particular host that they reproduce much faster and can adapt to changes more efficiently, and it is thought that almost half of all animal species have a parasitic stage in their lifetime. What techniques do hosts have to counter the parasites, and what impact do parasites have on the evolution of their hosts?

With

Steve Jones
Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College, London

Wendy Gibson
Professor of Protozoology at the University of Bristol

and

Kayla King
Associate Professor in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Johannes+Kepler
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630). Although he is overshadowed today by Isaac Newton and Galileo, he is considered by many to be one of the greatest scientists in history. The three laws of planetary motion Kepler developed transformed people's understanding of the Solar System and laid the foundations for the revolutionary ideas Isaac Newton produced later. Kepler is also thought to have written one of the first works of science fiction. However, he faced a number of challenges. He had to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft, he had few financial resources and his career suffered as a result of his Lutheran faith.
With
David Wootton
Professor of History at the University of York

Ulinka Rublack
Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St John's College

Adam Mosley
Associate Professor in the Department of History at Swansea University

Producer: Victoria Brignell.
John+Dalton
access_time2 years ago
The scientist John Dalton was born in North England in 1766. Although he came from a relatively poor Quaker family, he managed to become one of the most celebrated scientists of his age. Through his work, he helped to establish Manchester as a place where not only products were made but ideas were born. His reputation during his lifetime was so high that unusually a statue was erected to him before he died. Among his interests were meteorology, gasses and colour blindness. However, he is most remembered today for his pioneering thinking in the field of atomic theory.

With:

Jim Bennett
Former Director of the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford and Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum

Aileen Fyfe
Reader in British History at the University of St Andrews

James Sumner
Lecturer in the History of Technology at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester

Producer: Victoria Brignell.
Plasma
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss plasma, the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid and gas. As over ninety-nine percent of all observable matter in the Universe is plasma, planets like ours, with so little plasma and so much solid, liquid and gas, appear all the more remarkable. On the grand scale, plasma is what the Sun is made from and, when we look into the night sky, almost everything we can see with the naked eye is made of plasma. On the smallest scale, here on Earth, scientists make plasma to etch the microchips on which we rely for so much. Plasma is in the fluorescent light bulbs above our heads and, in laboratories around the world, it is the subject of tests to create, one day, an inexhaustible and clean source of energy from nuclear fusion.

With

Justin Wark
Professor of Physics and Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Oxford

Kate Lancaster
Research Fellow for Innovation and Impact at the York Plasma Institute at the University of York

and

Bill Graham
Professor of Physics at Queens University, Belfast


Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Zeno%27s+Paradoxes
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher from c490-430 BC whose paradoxes were described by Bertrand Russell as "immeasurably subtle and profound." The best known argue against motion, such as that of an arrow in flight which is at a series of different points but moving at none of them, or that of Achilles who, despite being the faster runner, will never catch up with a tortoise with a head start. Aristotle and Aquinas engaged with these, as did Russell, yet it is still debatable whether Zeno's Paradoxes have been resolved.

With

Marcus du Sautoy
Professor of Mathematics and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford

Barbara Sattler
Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews

and

James Warren
Reader in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Cambridge

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
The+Invention+of+Photography
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the development of photography in the 1830s, when techniques for 'drawing with light' evolved to the stage where, in 1839, both Louis Daguerre and William Henry Fox Talbot made claims for its invention. These followed the development of the camera obscura, and experiments by such as Thomas Wedgwood and Nicéphore Niépce, and led to rapid changes in the 1840s as more people captured images with the daguerreotype and calotype. These new techniques changed the aesthetics of the age and, before long, inspired claims that painting was now dead.

With

Simon Schaffer
Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge

Elizabeth Edwards
Emeritus Professor of Photographic History at De Montfort University

And

Alison Morrison-Low,
Research Associate at National Museums Scotland


Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Penicillin
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. It is said he noticed some blue-green penicillium mould on an uncovered petri dish at his hospital laboratory, and that this mould had inhibited bacterial growth around it. After further work, Fleming filtered a broth of the mould and called that penicillin, hoping it would be useful as a disinfectant. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain later shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine with Fleming, for their role in developing a way of mass-producing the life-saving drug. Evolutionary theory predicted the risk of resistance from the start and, almost from the beginning of this 'golden age' of antibacterials, scientists have been looking for ways to extend the lifespan of antibiotics.

With

Laura Piddock
Professor of Microbiology at the University of Birmingham

Christoph Tang
Professor of Cellular Pathology and Professorial Fellow at Exeter College at the University of Oxford

And

Steve Jones
Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College, London

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
Penicillin
access_time2 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss penicillin, discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. It is said he noticed some blue-green penicillium mould on an uncovered petri dish at his hospital laboratory, and that this mould had inhibited bacterial growth around it. After further work, Fleming filtered a broth of the mould and called that penicillin, hoping it would be useful as a disinfectant. Howard Florey and Ernst Chain later shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine with Fleming, for their role in developing a way of mass-producing the life-saving drug. Evolutionary theory predicted the risk of resistance from the start and, almost from the beginning of this 'golden age' of antibacterials, scientists have been looking for ways to extend the lifespan of antibiotics.

With

Laura Piddock
Professor of Microbiology at the University of Birmingham

Christoph Tang
Professor of Cellular Pathology and Professorial Fellow at Exeter College at the University of Oxford

And

Steve Jones
Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College, London

Producer: Simon Tillotson.
1816%2C+the+Year+Without+a+Summer
access_time3 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the impact of the eruption of Mt Tambora, in 1815, on the Indonesian island of Sambawa. This was the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history and it had the highest death toll, devastating people living in the immediate area. Tambora has been linked with drastic weather changes in North America and Europe the following year, with frosts in June and heavy rains throughout the summer in many areas. This led to food shortages, which may have prompted westward migration in America and, in a Europe barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars, led to widespread famine.

With

Clive Oppenheimer
Professor of Volcanology at the University of Cambridge

Jane Stabler
Professor in Romantic Literature at the University of St Andrews

And

Lawrence Goldman
Director of the Institute of Historical Research at the University of London


Producer: Simon Tillotson.
The+Neutron
access_time3 years ago
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the neutron, one of the particles found in an atom's nucleus. Building on the work of Ernest Rutherford, the British physicist James Chadwick won the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of the neutron in 1932. Neutrons play a fundamental role in the universe and their discovery was at the heart of developments in nuclear physics in the first half of the 20th century.

With

Val Gibson
Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge and fellow of Trinity College

Andrew Harrison
Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Light Source and Professor in Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh

And

Frank Close
Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Oxford.
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