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The Science Hour



Science, health and technology news and highlights of the week.
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access_time6 days ago
When Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins – who passed away this week – looked down on the earth from lunar orbit during those days in 1969, he saw more ice and a smaller liquid ocean than you would see today. Of the 200,000 glaciers outside of the polar and Greenland ice sheets, their melting in the last two decades accounts for about a fifth of the sea level rise we are also seeing. Thus according to a paper published this week in the journal nature by, amongst others Bob McNabb of Ulster University who describes to Roland how and why these numbers are more certain than others before. As fellow earth observation expert Anna Hogg adds, the work synthesises years of data from almost half a million images of glaciers taken from space, and provides our best handle yet on our accelerating loss of this finite and dwindling natural feature.

Researchers at Kew in the UK and in Sierra Leone have re-discovered a species of coffee plant once thought lost. As Marnie Chesterton reports, climate change threatens many coffee crops around the world as the most popular variety – arabica – needs cool high altitude conditions which are going to become more scarce. But after a long and arduous search, the researchers have discovered a more resilient variety that might not only save the morning brew for many, it may even prove agriculturally and even economically transformative for some African economies.

And whilst many of us watch the antics of NASA’s Martian helicopter, Ingenuity, as it whizzes across the distant plains of “Wright’s Field” aerodrome on Mars, some are watching with more trepidation than others. In 6 years’ time, Zibi Turtle, Principle Investigator of NASA’s Dragonfly mission, hopes to launch a much larger octocopter drone to Titan, moon of Saturn. As she describes to Roland, the challenges are huge, not least because dragonfly will carry all its instruments on board as it hops around, finding new landing sites autonomously. And communicating with Earth will take a whopping hour each way.

When eating a blackberry one day, CrowdScience listener Charles got a tiny seed stuck in his teeth. That got him wondering: why are seeds the size they are? Why does a blackberry have dozens of tiny pips, while a peach has one huge stone right in the middle?

Plant seeds have been around for hundreds of millions of years, so they’ve had plenty of time to shapeshift into wildly different forms: from dust-like orchid seeds to giant coconuts. This evolution has been a long and intricate dance with wind, water and animals; we ask how different kinds of seeds might respond to today’s environmental threats and rapidly changing ecosystems.

And we go in search of the world’s biggest seed, the coco de mer: native to just two remote islands in the Indian Ocean and weighing up to 18kg, how did this seed evolve to be so much bigger than any other?

(Image: The lunar module , carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, ascends back up to the command module with Michael Collins. It is often said that Michael Collins is the only human, living or dead, who is not in this photograph.
Credit: Michael Collins / NASA)
access_time13 days ago
As Covid cases surge almost beyond belief in India, how much is to do with social distancing, and how much to do with the mutations to the original virus?

Ramanan Laxminarayan talks to Roland from Delhi about ways in which the huge second wave could and could not have been predicted and avoided. Suggestions of the latest variant to make the headlines, B1.617, have got virologists such as Ravindra Gupta working hard to identify the clinical significance of the latest combinations of mutations.

In the journal Science, Stephen Chanock of the US Cancer program reports work with colleagues in Ukraine looking at the long footprint of radiation dosing from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, 35 years ago this week. In the first of two papers, they find a definite footprint of radiation damage accounting for the many sad cases of thyroid cancer in people alive in the region at the time. But in another study, they looked at whether any higher level of mutations could be detected in the germlines of children conceived subsequently to parents who had experienced radiation in the disaster. While the parents' own health is often affected, 35 years on, thus far their offspring show no widespread elevated levels of disease, as was commonly expected.

And in the week that the world witnessed a guilty verdict delivered in the trial for the murder of George Floyd in the US, David Curtis of the University of Utah and colleagues report in the journal PNAS a study that suggests the widespread media coverage of acts of racial violence, including deaths at the hands of police, leads to poorer mental health in Black Americans. As the BBC’s Samara Linton reports, the study involved google search data over five years up to 2017, and nearly 2.3 million survey respondents.

Also, most of us don’t like to dwell on our toilet habits, but this week we have gone down the drain to discover what wastewater can tell us about our health.

It’s been more than a year since scientists across the globe started to track the spread of Covid-19, with help from home test results and hospital data. Marnie Chesterton investigates the latest tool in their arsenal: sewage. Listener Kevin has heard how human waste can be monitored to check for virus levels, and wants to know if it can also be used to stop the disease in its tracks?

Although the coronavirus has been discovered in people’s poo, so far there’s little indication it’s actually being spread through the water system. But by taking regular samples from different parts of cities, authorities are now able to accurately predict a local peak weeks before the population shows signs of sickness, then take immediate measures to alert them. In Detroit we hear how environmental engineer Professor Irene Zagoraraki used this method to detect a rare strain of Herpes which doctors didn’t even know was a potential problem.

We talk to Professor Nick Thomson from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, who sequenced the genome of the bacteria that causes cholera, to understand how it has crisscrossed the globe. He discovered that the pandemic currently devastating Yemen actually originated in Asia. It’s a discovery that has changed how the WHO is thinking about this killer disease and could have important implications for vaccination programmes. But our effluent can also pose environmental problems, and Professor Andrew Johnson from the UK’s Centre for Ecology and Hydrology explains there are now as many as 300,000 chemicals that could threaten natural habitats.

While authorities try to test each one individually, he’s concerned they may have different effects when they mix in wastewater, and current monitoring systems don’t take this into account. Not only that, but some of these substances contain silver nanoparticles, which Professor Juliane Filser tells us stick around in soil for ever, threatening organisms and bacteria at the base of the food chain

Image: NurPhoto/Getty Images
access_time20 days ago
Two weeks ago several G7 leaders called for an international treaty on Pandemic Preparedness for the future. This week 175 prominent leaders called for lifting the IP on vaccine design. And former UK PM Gordon Brown called on the G7 to finance vaccines for the world in the next two months. But are there technical difficulties that limit the pace of manufacture?

Anthony McDonnell is an economist at think tank Centre for Global Development who has been looking at the problem since last year. He suggests, amongst other things, one limit is the human expertise in manufacturing these brand-new technologies, with another being a level of vaccine nationalism that is seeing a lack of exports of components involved in manufacture.

Professor Trudie Lang heads the University of Oxford’s Global Health Network, and looks at health research across the world. She says in most countries there is no lack of public health or infrastructure potential for rolling out the vaccines, if only the supply existed.

The volcano that erupted explosively on St Vincent last week has led to many thousands of people being evacuated. Dr Joan Latchman of the University of West Indies Seismic Research Centre - who has monitored Caribbean volcanos for several decades - describes from Trinidad how the layers of ash mean recovery will take a long time, even if the explosions and pyroclastic dangers subside reasonably soon. Back in The UK, Prof Jenni Barclay and colleagues are examining rocks from the early part of the eruption, before the explosive phase began, to see if there are clues in the microstructure that could provide clues to the future.

And how do our brains so quickly tell a scream of delight from a scream of horror? Or of pain? Prof Sascha Frühholz of the University of Geneva has written in the journal PLOS Biology this week about work looking at how we identify the nature of different human screams. One finding is that we perceive joy quicker than fear.

Grief is universal. It is something almost all of us will go through at some point. And it is something that the people we love will experience when we die.

Grief can be all consuming, it can make everyday tasks like getting out of bed, feel impossible. Which makes listener Oliver from Australia wonder - what is the point? It doesn’t bring what we lost, back.

Why have we evolved to be so affected by loss? Be it the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship or the loss of a job. Does it serve any purpose? Or perhaps it is just the price we pay for being a social species with such strong connections.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time27 days ago
On Wednesday the EU’s EMA and UK’s JCVI announced a suspected correlation between vaccination and an extremely rare type of blood clot. Prof Sabine Eichinger is a co-author of a new paper suggesting a link with vaccination or the immune response to Covid vaccination and suggests the name VIPIT for the condition. One of her patients died at the end of February having presented with a rare combination of symptoms – blood clots and a low blood platelet count. Sabine tells Roland the dots they have managed to join in the story so far.

Scientists at Fermilab in the USA posted four papers and announced an exciting development in particle physics that might lift the curtain on science beyond the Standard Model. Their measurement of something known as g-2 (“gee minus two”, just fyi), by measuring with phenomenal accuracy the magnetic properties of muons flying round in circles confirms a 20-year old attempt at a similar value by colleagues at Brookhaven. At the time, it was breathtaking but suspicious. Muons, rather like heavy electrons, don’t quite behave as the Standard Model might have us believe, hinting at fields and possibly particles or forces hitherto unknown. Dr. Harry Cliffe – a member of the LHCb team who found something similarly weird two weeks ago - describes the finding and the level of excitement amongst theorists worldwide.

Superfans around the world have learned to speak fluent Klingon, a fictional language originating from Star Trek. In a quest to understand the science behind these languages often dismissed as gobbledygook, Gaia Vince has been speaking to some of the linguists responsible for creating these languages. It’s time for her to relax the tongue, loosen those jaw muscles and wrap her head around the scientific building blocks embedded in language and what languages like Klingon tell us about prehistoric forms of communication.

Also, gossip often has negative connotations, but does get a bad rap? Might it serve a useful function and should we think of gossiping as an advanced social skill rather than a personality defect? CrowdScience listener Jayogi thinks it might be useful, and has asked CrowdScience to dig into the reasons why we find it so hard to resist salacious stories.

Datshiane Navanayagam meets a scientist who views gossip as a key evolutionary adaption - as humans started to live in bigger cooperative groups, gossiping was a way of bonding and establishing acceptable group behaviour as well as cementing reputations of trustworthiness.

Datshiane heads to the local park to catch some real gossiping in action and finds out that whilst people like to gossip they don’t consider themselves gossipers.

Datshi asks a team of scientists what information we are most keen to share and glean in these interactions and if there is such a thing as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ gossip. She hears that in some group settings – like in the workplace - gossip can enhance cooperation and limit free-riders, but that it can also have a more self-serving dark side.

Datshiane finds out if our stone-age gossipy minds are fit to operate in the world of mass communication and social media – is our fixation on celebrities related to our being hard wired to gossip?

Image: Platelets, computer illustration. Credit: Sebastian Kaulitzki /Science Photo Library via Getty Images
access_time1 month ago
After last year’s first wave of covid-19 in the UK, individuals who had been discharged after hospitalisation suffered higher rates of coronary and respiratory disorders, and even diabetes subsequently over 140 days. As Dr Ami Banerjee of University College London explains, out of 48,000 cases, patients who had had acute covid-19 were four times more likely to be readmitted and 8 times more likely to die. Ami’s team suggests in their paper published in the British Medical Journal that diagnosis, treatment and prevention of post-covid syndrome needs an integrated approach.

In France, researcher Xavier Montagutelli describes how his team has observed that unlike the original virus, some of the newer Variants of Concern can infect mice in laboratories. They do not show serious illness, but nevertheless host the virus in their lungs. Whilst infection is unlikely in natural environments and not yet observed in the wild, it does show how the viral variants can extend the host range, perhaps leading to more opportunities for mutation. But this finding, posted as a pre-print, also perhaps represents an avenue for deeper gene-specific research that has not so far been possible.

Over in Colombia, Monica Carvalho of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute describes her team’s findings regarding the origins of the diversity and habitat of rainforests in south America. Looking at leaf fossils and pollen grains from 60 million years ago, they have found significant differences between the forests of the dinosaurs, and the ones we see today. As they write in the journal Science, it all changed when the Chixulub meteor hit the Gulf of Mexico and the global lights went out. The rainforests that grew back were simply not the same.

But much further back in time, some billion years ago, the forests of the world that were changing the chemistry and making seas inhabitable allowing complex multicellular life, consisted of pencil-lead sized algae quietly photosynthesizing in the shallows of an ocean in what is today remote Canada. Katie Maloney of University of Toronto Mississauga spotted fossils of just these when out on a field trip in Yukon territory. Publishing in Geology Magazine this week, her eagle-eyed finds shed light on this crucial epoch in life history of which there are scant fossilized remains.

If a tree falls in a forest, and no-one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? This is an age-old debate that listener Richard and his family have been arguing about for years. Can CrowdScience settle it once and for all?

Caroline Steel speaks to experts in hearing, biology, philosophy, physics and sound design, which takes her to some unexpected places.

Professor Stefan Bleek is an expert in psychoacoustics who says that sounds only exist in our heads.
Dr Eleanor Knox and Dr Bryan Roberts are philosophers that make her question if anything exists outside our own perception. Professor Lilach Hadany wonders if it’s limited to humans and animals - could other plants hear the falling tree too?
And Mat Eric Hart is a sound designer who says that sound is subjective – it’s always tangled up with our own interpretations.

Things get truly weird as we delve into the strange implications of quantum physics. If there is such a thing as reality, doesn’t it change when we’re there to observe it? Does the tree even fall if we aren’t there?

Image: Rainforest canopy
Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty Images
access_time1 month ago
Sightseers and social media scrollers have flocked to the slopes of Fagradalsfjall, a volcano erupting 40 kilometres west of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. Having produced less than 1 square kilometre of lava this eruption could be deemed relatively minor, allowing bystanders to get up close and personal. Among the hubbub, you might also spot Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya from University of Leeds, just one of the researchers measuring and observing the event from an alarmingly small distance. Her interest is more in the invisible toxic gases and trace elements being emitted from one of the deepest magma eruptions in recent times than the more cinematic molten rock.

This week scientists working on results from the Large Hadron Collider at CERN announced intriguing evidence (NB “evidence” – not yet a definite discovery) of physics beyond our current understanding. Everything we can detect directly in the universe is made from a few basic building blocks, fundamental particles. These particles are governed by four universal fundamental forces. Our best understanding of these forces and particles are sewn together in the Standard Model of particle physics. Since the 1970s this model has been able to explain most of our experimental results, but not all. Professor Gudrun Hiller from Technische Universität Dortmund has been theorizing as to what sort of experiments might lead to evidence of where the model might be incomplete. And this week, she has reason to feel a little bit proud. As she and her fellow member of the LHCb consortium, Harry Cliff, explain, a mysterious asymmetry in the way certain quarks – beauty quarks – have been seen to decay could be pointing at a deeper, more sophisticated, picture of the nature of the universe. Theorists are theorizing all around the world: could this be a new class of particle called a “leptoquark” that mediates a whole new type of force?

The new results have been submitted for publication in the journal Nature, but have also been made public online in what is known as a “preprint”. Science publication has, for hundreds of years, been governed by peer-review. This process has prevented the wider community of scientists from accessing new scientific reports and papers unless vetted by a smaller number of fellow experts in the field. But this hasn’t been the case for all disciplines. “Preprints”, uncorrected proofs, have for some decades played a role in the publication process of physics and mathematics. In these fields, on the whole, lives are not at risk if mistakes get through to publication, but over the past year the practice of posting proofs to preprint servers is now common in the biomedical and life sciences, to accommodate the deluge of research being conducted on Covid-19. Might this be a problem? Or could it demonstrate the value of preprints? A new paper from Jonny Coates (also a preprint) and colleagues has looked at whether much changes on a biomedical or life-science preprint as it travels through peer-review towards conventional publication.

Animals experience all the colds, stomach pains, headaches, parasites, and general illnesses that humans do. But unlike us, animals can’t just grab a painkiller off the shelf at the supermarket to cure it. They don’t have a pharmacy to browse… or at least, not the sort that we’d recognise.

Listener Andrew Chen got in touch to ask whether animals use any kind of medicine themselves. After all, our own drugs largely come from the plants and minerals found in wild habitats. So perhaps animals themselves are using medicines they find in nature.

Anand Jagatia speaks with the primate researcher who stumbled across a chimp chewing on a bitter leaf 35 years ago, Professor Mike Huffman, whose observations opened up a whole new field of research. We discover why plants contain the medicinal compounds they do, and how butterflies with brains no bigger than a pin-head are still able to select and use medicine to protect their young.

We think of medicine as a human invention - but it turns out that we’ve learnt a lot of what we know from copying the birds, bugs and beasts.

Image: Lava flows from Fagradalsfjall volcano in Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland
Credit: Kristinn Magnusson/
access_time2 months ago
In the UK thousands of scientists have signed open letters to the UK government protesting cuts to international funding announced this week. Abruptly and severely, the cuts may end hundreds of international collaborations between UK scientists and colleagues around the world working on health, climate change, disaster resilience, sustainability and many development topics.

Professor Jenni Barclay is a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, and is one of the organisers of the protest. At the University of Cape Town, Dr Chris Trisos is the director of the Climate Risk Lab at the African Climate and Development Initiative, one of the authors of the IPCC 6th assessment, and he has just learned his funding will be terminated, as the UK’s Royal Society must trim its output in this area by two thirds. They speak about the repercussions to Roland Pease.

Antarctica Iceberg A74 break away
Earlier this week German Research Vessel Polarstern released images from its remarkable circumnavigation of Antarctica’s latest iceberg, known as A74. This is the largest chunk of ice to break away from this sector of Antarctica since 1971, approaching the same size of Greater London. Dr Autun Purser describes a hair-raising voyage between the narrow gap left between the berg and the shelf, including the first images of life that have spent at least 50 years in total darkness, hundreds of miles from the open sea.

Are the space junk and carbon footprint issues of extra-terrestrial endeavours solvable?
The space industry, with its fuel-burning rockets, requirements for mined metals and inevitable production of space junk, is not currently renowned for its environmental credentials. Can space exploration ever be truly environmentally friendly? Marnie Chesterton answers a selection of listeners’ questions on the topic of space environmentalism. She starts by examining the carbon footprint of spaceship manufacturing here on Earth, and asking whether reusable rocket ships such as Space X or Virgin Galactic offer a green route for commuting or tourism in low Earth orbit.

Just beyond our atmosphere, space junk and space debris are multiplying at an exponential rate, jeopardising our communications and mapping satellites, and even putting our access to the wider solar system at risk. As more probes and landers head to the Moon and Mars, what plans are in place to deal with space debris far beyond Earth?

Image: Polarstern between Brunt and iceberg A74, Antarctica
Credit: RalphTimmermann
access_time2 months ago
Last week a fireball lit up the sky of western England. Locals and professionals scoured the countryside for any surviving precious fragments of meteorite, and thanks to them some bits of the earliest solar system are now in London’s Natural History Museum. And as an excited Sara Russell, Merit Researcher in Cosmic Mineralogy tells us, examples of carbonaceous chondrite – the soft, loamy type that fell in Winchcombe – such as this, are a rare and special chunk of luck.

Spotting tsunamis in the ionosphere
Exactly a decade ago the disastrous huge wave caused by an earthquake at sea struck the coast of Japan, causing death and devastating consequences. But could new ways of spotting tsunamis beyond the horizon be, well, just over the horizon? Giovanni Occhipinti of the Paris Geophysics Institute tells Roland Pease about his technique of looking at disruptions in the highest levels of the atmosphere - using the slight twinkle in a beam from a GPS or GNS satellite - to infer that a massive wave may be on its way.

Hacked EMA emails and mRNA vaccine stability
This week a piece in the British Medical Journal provides some insight into how the medical regulatory bodies scrutinised the novel RNA vaccines that were the science marvels of 2020. Investigative journalist Serena Tinari was one of the people who received anonymously a large, though selective, bundle of hacked emails and documents dating back to November copied from the servers of the European Medicines Agency. They make mention of concerns the Agency had over the levels of effective RNA contained in some batches of the industrially produced Pfizer Biontech Covid vaccine compared to the laboratory produced doses. The EMA did subsequently licence the vaccine - the problem having presumably been solved. However, as Serena describes, she was then surprised that the companies and agencies she and the BMJ approached would not tell her what the threshold was for adjudging acceptable levels, given as is well known, the fragility of mRNA and the need to store it carefully. They said it was commercially sensitive. But as RNA researcher Prof Anna Blakney tells Science in Action, there are fascinating reasons why that might simply not be known, and also why precise accuracy likely doesn’t matter too much compared to the better-known clinical efficacy these vaccines continue to demonstrate.

The information superhighway of the body
The Vagus nerve is part of our parasympathetic nervous system, delivering information from all our major organs to the brain stem, and stimulating it can help us switch off our fight or flight response and calm us down. But listener Mags wants to know what science says about its impact on our general wellbeing? Marnie Chesterton learns some deep breathing techniques and discovers how the length of our exhale is closely linked to our heart rate, all of which is important for developing something called vagal tone. Cold water immersion also said to stimulate the Vagus, so Marnie braves a freezing shower, only to discover she needs to get her face wet but keep the rest of her body dry, to avoid what scientists called autonomic conflict, which is when your stress response and calming response are both switched on by the same event. Activating both arms of the nervous system in this way can lead to serious heart problems in some people. New research into the gut-brain axis has shown that the Vagus nerve may be responsible for transporting the so-called happy hormone serotonin, which could have important implications for the treatment of depression. And innovations in electrical stimulation of this nerve means implanted devices may soon be used to treat inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

Image: Meteorite of carbonaceous chondrite found in Gloucestershire, England, UK
Credit: Anonymous
access_time2 months ago
Science news and highlights of the week
access_time2 months ago
Although vaccines will go a long way to reducing the number of cases of Covid, there’s still a need for other approaches. One of these could be an engineered biomolecule, designed by virologists Anne Moscona and Matteo Porotto, that blocks SARS-CoV-2 precisely at the moment it tries to enter cells in the nose and upper airways. Roland Pease talks to Anne Moscona about this “molecular mask”.

We’re already beginning to see really encouraging analyses showing that Covid vaccines are performing as well in the real world as was promised by last year’s trials. Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology discusses progress so far and the question of one dose or two with Roland.

Lives can be saved if there’s an early warning system for earthquakes and tsunamis. Seismologist Zhongwen Zhan at CalTech has been experimenting with a newly installed 10,000 km cable laid along the Pacific coasts of north and south America by Google, all the way from Los Angeles to Santiago. What he was looking for were subtle changes in a property of light that’s important to IT engineers, and can detect subsea earthquakes.

We are still sending too much waste to landfill sites. At the Commonwealth Science Conference this week Veena Sahajwalla of the University of New South Wales explained how she is creating small scale factories that can use discarded objects such as ceramics and textiles to make new products.

Listener Paula from Kenya is a computer scientist, she can’t help but notice the inequality in her workplace.

With only 1 in 10 countries having female heads of state, there is no doubt that men are in charge.

Paula wants to know if there is any scientific underpinning to this inequality? Perhaps it can be explained by our brains and bodies? Or does evolution weigh in?

Or maybe it is all down to society and the way we raise our boys and girls. The toys and ideals we give our children must surely have an impact.

And most importantly, if we want a world run by men and women equally, how can we get there? We hear how Iceland became the most gender equal country in the world.

Presented by Marnie Chesterton. Produced by Caroline Steel for the BBC World Service

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time3 months ago
A paper in the BMJ shows that deaths from Covid 9 are being massively overlooked in Zambia. The new data come from post-mortem tests at the University Hospital mortuary in Lusaka, showing that at least 1 in 6 deaths there are due to the coronavirus; many of the victims had also been suffering from tuberculosis. Chris Gill of Boston University’s Department of Global Health, and Lawrence Mwananyanda, chief scientific officer of Right to Care, Zambia, discuss their findings with Roland Pease.

New variants of concern continue to be reported, such as the one labelled B 1 1 7 in the UK, or B 1 351 identified in South Africa. Geneticist Emma Hodcroft, of the University of Bern, talks about seven variants that have been found in the US. Although all these variants are evolving from different starting points, certain individual mutations keep recurring – which suggests they have specific advantages for the virus.
Her co-author Jeremy Kamil, of Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, explains how he can watch the viruses replicating inside cells.

Much of the United States, as far south as Texas, and Eurasia, has been gripped by an extraordinary blast of Arctic weather. Roland hears from climatalogist Jennifer Francis, of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, about the Arctic’s role in this weird weather.

Life, in the form of sponges, has been discovered hundreds of metres under the thick ice surrounding Antarctica, where it’s dark, subzero and barren. The British Antarctic Survey’s Huw Griffiths reveals how it was spotted unexpectedly in pictures colleagues took with a sub-glacial camera.

It’s the stuff of fairy tales – a beautiful cottage, with windows, chimney and floorboards … and supported by a living growing tree. CrowdScience listener Jack wants to know why living houses aren’t a common sight when they could contribute to leafier cities with cleaner air. The UK has an impressive collection of treehouses, but they remain in the realm of novelty, for good reasons. Architects are used to materials like concrete and steel changing over time, but a house built around a living tree needs another level of flexibility in its design. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible and CrowdScience hears about a project in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where architect Ahadu Abaineh made a three-storey, supported by 4 living Eucalyptus trees as a natural foundation.

Host Marnie Chesterton meets some of the global treehouse building fraternity, including builder of over 200 structures, Takashi Kobayashi, who adapts his houses to the Japanese weather. In Oregon, USA, Michael Garnier has built an entire village of treehouses for his “Treesort”. He’s developed better ways of building , including the Tree Attachment Bolt, which holds the weight of the house while minimising damage to the tree.

Professor Mitchell Joachim from Terreform One explains the wild potential of living architecture, a movement which looks at organic ways of building. He’s currently building a prototype living house, by shaping willow saplings onto a scaffold that will become a home, built of live trees.

(Image: A man walks to his friend's home in a neighbourhood without electricity as snow covers the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas, U.S. Credit: Reuters)
access_time3 months ago
On 18th February the Perseverance rover should land on Mars. Katie Stack-Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab tells Roland Pease about the technological advances that mean that the spacecraft should be able to land in Jezero Crater. Imperial College geologist Sanjeev Gupta discusses what this crater can reveal about the history of life on the red planet.

After months of negotiations, and weeks of work on the ground, a team brought together by the World Health Organisation has just concluded its first attempts to find out the origins of SARS-Cov2 in Wuhan. Peter Daszak, who has worked closely with Chinese virologists in the past, briefed Roland Pease on what had been discovered.

The South African government has announced that it will not be rolling out the Astra Zeneca Covid vaccine as it appears it is not very effective against the dominant strain in the country. Helen Rees, of Witwatersrand University and a member of South Africa’s Health Products Regulatory Authority, explains that the ‘ban’ is an overstatement.

At least 35 people died in a flood disaster in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India on February 6th. The details are still unclear, but the trigger seems to be associated with a glacier overhanging an upstream lake in the steep valley. Rupert Stuart-Smith of Oxford University, who has just published an analysis of a glacier melting disaster in waiting in the Andes, talks about the impacts of climate change on the stability of mountain glaciers.

And Do you find your bearings quickly or are you easily disorientated? Do your friends trust you with the directions in a new city?
Finding our way in the physical world – whether that’s around a building or a city - is an important everyday capability, one that has been integral to human survival. This week CrowdScience listeners want to know whether some people are ‘naturally’ better at navigating, so presenter Marnie Chesterton sets her compass and journeys into the human brain.
Accompanied by psychologists and neuroscientists Marnie learns how humans perceive their environment, recall routes and orientate themselves in unfamiliar spaces. We ask are some navigational strategies better than others?

Marnie also hears that the country you live in might be a good predictor of your navigation skills and how growing up in the countryside may give you an wayfaring advantage. But is our navigational ability down to biology or experience, and can we improve it?

With much of our modern map use being delegated to smartphones, Marnie explores what implications an over-reliance on GPS technology might have for our brain health.

(Image: An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars.
Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Presenter: Roland Pease
Producer: Deborah Cohen
access_time3 months ago
A new trial is about to start in the UK, seeing if different vaccines can be mixed and matched in a two-dose schedule, and whether the timing matters. Governments want to know the answer as vaccines are in short supply. Oxford University’s Matthew Snape takes Roland Pease through the thinking.

Despite the numbers of vaccines being approved for use we still need treatments for Covid-19. A team at the University of North Carolina is upgrading the kind of manufactured antibodies that have been used to treat patients during the pandemic, monoclonal antibodies. Lisa Gralinski explains how they are designing souped-up antibodies that’ll neutralise not just SARS-CoV-2, but a whole range of coronaviruses.

Before global warming, the big ecological worry that exercised environmentalists was acid rain. We’d routinely see pictures of forests across the world dying because of the acid soaking they’d had poisoning the soil. In a way, this has been one of environmental activism’s success stories. The culprit was sulphur in coal and in forecourt fuels – which could be removed, with immediate effect on air quality. But biogeochemist Tobias Goldhammer of the Leibniz Institute in Berlin and colleagues have found that sulphur, from other sources, is still polluting water courses.

There’s been debate over when and where dogs became man’s best friend. Geoff Marsh reports on new research from archaeology and genetics that puts the time at around 20,000 years ago and the place as Siberia.

Could being happier help us fight infectious disease?

As the world embarks on a mass vaccination programme to protect populations from Covid-19, Crowdscience asks whether our mood has any impact on our immune systems. In other words, could being happier help us fight infectious diseases? Marnie Chesterton explores how our mental wellbeing can impact our physical health and hears that stress and anxiety make it harder for our natural defence systems to kick in – a field known as psychoneuroimmunology. Professor Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham explains flu jabs are less successful in patients with chronic stress.

So scientists are coming up with non-pharmacological ways to improve vaccine efficiency. We investigate the idea that watching a short feel-good video before receiving the inoculation could lead to increased production of antibodies to a virus. And talk to Professor Richard Davidson who says mindfulness reduces stress and makes vaccines more effective.
access_time3 months ago
Researchers at Imperial College have been working on a strategy that can make RNA vaccines stretch further. Anna Blakely explains how the new approach works and why RNA vaccines are adaptable to a changing disease.

In January 2019 a dam collapsed in Brazil, spilling 10 million cubic metres of red sludge down nearby rivers, claiming the lives of at least 259 people. An engineering report into the collapse looked at data from safety sensors around the site, and said they’d not revealed any weakening of the dam prior to the failure. But a new study using data from Earth observing satellites has found signs of subtle movement starting weeks earlier. Stephen Grebby of Nottingham University and Roland Pease discuss this finding.

An international collaboration led by Kew Gardens has just set out a list of ten golden rules for maintaining and restoring forests. The main author, Kate Hardwick talks about why the rules are necessary and why it isn’t as simple as planting any old trees.

There’s been a lot of debate about whether being bilingual is good for the brain. Does knowing more than one language take up precious capacity that could be used for better things? Or does it sharpen it, all the better to take on more challenges? Dean d’Souza of Anglia Ruskin University has been addressing this question by comparing the behaviour of infants brought up in monolingual and multilingual homes.

And, When planning to have a baby, women are expected to give up everything from smoking to alcohol, even soft cheese. But the other half of fertility comes from the sperm, usually provided by a man. So should men also give up their vices to improve the quality of their sperm, and their chances of conception?
That’s what Listener Stuart in Australia wants to know. He emailed CrowdScience after he and his wife had been trying to have a second child for two years. He gave up alcohol, and coffee, but wants to know if there is any hard science to back up the idea that this would improve his fertility.

To find out, presenter Anand Jagatia speaks with Professor Allan Pacey, a scientist who specialises in the study of male fertility and sperm. He discovers that male subfertility accounts for 50% the problems with getting pregnant. And we’re far from alone. Sperm is a remarkably diverse, but also fragile cell. Across the animal kingdom, different species have problems with male fertility, but have adapted novel ways to improve their chances of reaching the egg.

Men often struggle to speak about their fertility, and reporter Chhavi Sachdev tells Anand the impact this has on couples in India who struggle to conceive, or don’t want to. She speaks with fertility specialist Professor Nirmal Kumar Lohiya about how this reticence to speak about fertility is changing.

Viruses from Mumps to HIV have long been known to target the delicate sperm production cells in the testicles. Dr Krutika Kuppalli tells Anand why, and what we know about the possible impact of SARS CoV-2 on male fertility.

Professor Allan Pacey gives Anand and Stuart some advice for what to do while trying to conceive - don’t wear tight underwear - and get used to talking about your swimmers or even getting them checked out.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time3 months ago
Northern white rhinos are extinct in the wild and there are just two females in captivity in Kenya. Conservationists are working on an artificial breeding programme, using eggs from the females and sperm from a deceased male. Now five embryos have been created. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin explained the research.

President Biden’s first executive order was what’s being called the hundred-day mask mandate. The day before the inauguration a massive analysis of mask-wearing and COVID rates demonstrated a clear, if small, benefit. Epidemiologist Ben Rader told Roland Pease that it got over 300,000 opinions by using the online questionnaire, SurveyMonkey.

After the alarming series of record-breaking heatwaves last year, global warming is causing specific problems in the innumerable lakes around the world. Lakes are ecologically particularly vulnerable to extremes. The European Space Agency’s Yestyn Woolway has been analysing past trends, and modelling the future.

2020 delivered a record year in hurricanes, which caused around $60 billion dollars in damage to the US alone, according to one estimate. A new technology called Airborne Phased-Array Radar promises to improve the measurements that are currently made by planes that fly right into the eye of the hurricanes, and make the missions safe. It’s being developed at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research and Roland discussed the new technology with the Director of NCAR, Vanda Grubišić.

And Covid-19 has prompted a cleaning frenzy. CrowdScience listener William works as a personal trainer in a gym, and while cleaning’s always been part of his job, it’s now taken over much of his working day. He’s constantly wiping down equipment and doing regular deep cleans, and he reckons he can sanitize his hands 40 times in one shift.

This kind of routine might strike a chord with many of us, and it’s certainly vital to take hygiene seriously during times of pandemic.

But could there be any downsides to all this extra cleaning? There’s a whole world of microbes out there: some, like SARS-CoV-2, make us sick, but others are essential for our health. A rich microbiome is linked to a healthy immune system, while ‘good’ microbes help keep ‘bad’ ones at bay. And what about the chemicals in cleaning products – do they have any unintended consequences for our health?

CrowdScience turns to the experts to ask whether our supercharged hygiene routines could damage our immune systems, or promote the spread of superbugs. And we hear why, as long as we have a good diet, plenty of fresh air, and ideally a furry pet, we don’t need to worry too much about being too clean.

(Image; Najin and Fatu, the only two remaining female northern white rhinos graze in their paddock. Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)
access_time4 months ago
After collecting data for more than twelve years the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) announced it may have detected new kinds of gravitational waves caused by colliding supermassive black holes. Professor Chiara Mingarelli of the University of Connecticut tells Roland Pease why this is such an exciting discovery.

Supermassive black holes are at the heart of galaxies and they are the engines of quasars, the brightest light sources in the heavens that can be seen across the expanse of the Universe. A team including Professor Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona has identified the oldest quasar in the universe.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus looks much like bat coronaviruses, but the mostly likely route into humans involved some other infected animal. Roland talks to Dr Dalan Bailey of The Pirbright Institute about how he has been looking for possible intermediaries.

A new study that looks into the genetics of twins and their families in Iceland shows that identical twins aren’t really identical. Kari Stefansson of the Icelandic genome company, DeCode, explains that the differences can appear when the twins are at the embryonic stage.

And , When it comes to speed, humans have got nothing on cheetahs - or greyhounds, kangaroos or zebras for that matter. It’s over long distances we really come into our own: when running for hours or even days, our body structure and excellent sweating skills make us able to outpace much faster mammals.

But what are the limits of human endurance? Can we run ever further and faster, and what’s the best diet to fuel such ambitions?

This week’s questions come from two CrowdScience listeners in Japan who already know a fair bit about stamina, having run several marathons and long-distance triathlons between them. We head to Greece, legendary birthplace of the marathon, to witness an even more arduous challenge: hundreds of athletes following in the footsteps of the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, to run an astonishing 246km across the country. The ever-so-slightly less fit CrowdScience team do our best to keep up, and try to discover the secrets of these runners’ incredible endurance.

(Image: Representative illustration of the Earth embedded in space-time which is deformed by the background gravitational waves and its effects on radio signals coming from observed pulsars.
Credit: Tonia Klein / NANOGrav)
access_time4 months ago
Mutant strains of SARS-Cov2 have been identified not only in the UK, where it was first identified, but also in at least 30 other countries. And to complicate matters, another alarming variant, with some similar mutations, has arisen in South Africa. Roland Pease talks to Ravi Gupta, a virologist at Cambridge University and Tulio de Oliveira of the University of KwaZulu Natal about these new strains.

There’s only so much that can be learned about the virus by looking at the patients it infects. Thanks to techniques developed to study HIV, Ebola, flu and other viruses in the past, researchers have methods for growing key parts of viral structures in the lab and watching closely how they behave in cell cultures. Jeremy Luban of the University of Massachusetts and Alli Greaney at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center talk to Roland about how they are studying the biology of the mutations to discover how the new strains might respond to vaccines.

And, one of the more surprising consequences of the pandemic has been the trend for people wanting to move out of cities and back to the countryside. Not everyone has that privilege of course, but undoubtedly for some living in urban areas during lockdown, the lack of access to green spaces took its toll on their mental health and physical well-being. Now, with renewed hope of a global vaccine roll-out, ensuring more people have better access to nature is more important than ever, especially in cities of glass, steel and concrete.

Italian CrowdScience listener Enrica loves nothing better than walking along the verdant riverbank near her home after a hard week at work. But is this activity doing more than making her feel good? Is it having an actual effect on her health? Presenter Anand Jagatia meets Enrica and visits a radical scheme in the city of Milan, where officials have been working hard to increase urban green features and have committed to planting 3 million trees and building twenty new parks by 2030.

One such idea is the innovative Bosco Verticale - or vertical forest, planted up the side of two high rises apartment blocks. Amongst other benefits It’s hoped it could provide cooling microclimates to reduce the dangers

(Image: Swab test. Credit: Getty Images)
access_time4 months ago
This has been an incredible year for scientific advance and collaboration, epitomised by the roll out of vaccines that didn’t exist a year ago, against a virus that no one had ever heard of .

And yet at the same time its been a year of incredible frustration. We are stil largely using the same methods to counter the virus that were used in past pandemics, going back a hundred years.
Here we look back at key the findings on who is most susceptible and why, and ask how to improve the strategies for reducing transmission.

As regular listeners may recall, CrowdScience has delved into the strange world of fungi before, as we dug down into the forest floor to reveal how plants and trees are connected to the vast mycelial network known as the “wood wide web”. But what makes this network possible and how might it have evolved? Fungi are incredible clever, or at least , it appears that they’re capable of displaying complex behaviour that gives them the appearance of intelligence. In this episode, we speak to fungal ecologist and author of a new book, Merlin Sheldrake, about fungal “brains”, the evolution of magic mushrooms and zombie insects – the astonishing way certain fungi can take over the bodies of ants and wasps in order to sow their spores above ground.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time4 months ago
It was the end of December 2019 when reports of a new flu like infection first came out of China. Within weeks millions of people were in lockdown as the virus took hold around the world.

In this programme we look back and revisit the scientists who were ready, those who had been studying bat coronaviruses and warning of their pandemic potential.

The scientific response was immediate. The coronavirus tests now used across the world were being developed within a few hours of news of the outbreak in China, and the vaccines we now have licenced for use began to be formulated just a few days later.

At Christmas, is there a better gift than knowledge? CrowdScience has cooked up its own version of 'secret Santa', with members of the team setting one another the challenge of answering surprising questions from all over the world.

Are humans the only animals to exercise? Can you get colder than absolute zero? Why are sounds louder at night? When it comes to food dropped on the floor, is there such thing as the "three-second rule"? And, does honey really have healing properties?

Producers and presenters from the CrowdScience team speak to all manner of experts, from zoologists through to material scientists, to find the answers.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time5 months ago
This week the UK Health secretary raised concerns over a new variant of SARS- CoV-2 currently spreading across Europe. Viruses mutate all the time so it’s no surprise that a new form of the one causing Covid -19 would emerge. However, virologist Ravi Gupta who analysed the new strain says we need to be weary in case future strains mutate in ways that could overcome vaccines.

Immunologist Akiko Iwasaki is part of a team looking at the impact of Covid -19 on our immune system. Her research has uncovered autoantibodies linked to infection with the virus. These are responsible for a number of autoimmune diseases. The finding goes some way to explaining the symptoms seen by some people long after a Covid -19 infection.

And how clever are ravens? According to behavioural scientist Simone Pika at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in many ways they are up there with chimps or young children. She found they performed well in tests designed for primates.

Following the dinosaur destroying meteor strike where was the best place for life to develop a new? Geologists, David Kring and Tim Bralower, think they’ve found the answer hidden in plain sight.

CrowdScience listener Simon has a problem. He’s always bumping into things, dropping tools and knocking stuff over. And he’s sick of it. He wants to know what is going on. Was he born like this? Or is it contagious? And most importantly, can he doing anything about it or is he going to be the proverbial ‘bull in a china shop’ for the rest of his life?

Host Anand Jagatia gets on the case, investigating the complex coordination needed for the simplest movements, like throwing a ball and catching it. With help from Dr Andrew Green, an exercise physiologist from Johannesburg University, he delves into our secret “sixth sense” – proprioception, which helps us locate our limbs without looking. Anand discovers that an easy task, like kicking a football, needs multiple parts of the brain to coordinate in order to work smoothly. Assistant Professor Jessica Bernard from Texas AMU studies the brain, particularly the cerebellum, a part that controls smooth movements. Dr Bernard explains how tiny glitches and larger lesions in different parts of the brain can make us clumsy in different ways. And how we use our thinking powers to stay balanced; a reason why, as your memory goes with old age, you’re more prone to falling over.

Our listener is not alone. Around the world, there is an under- diagnosed condition that affects millions of us. Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia is a motor coordination condition that affects 5% of the global population. As Professor Amanda Kirby from the University of South Wales and CEO of Do-It solutions explains, if you can’t tie shoelaces, catch a ball and your handwriting is awful, there’s a chance that you have DCD. There’s a large genetic component, so you are likely to come from a clumsy family.

There’s no cure for DCD/Dyspraxia but all of us are capable of becoming better at a chosen task, and there’s a common pathway to mastery, whether that’s bike mechanics or open heart surgery. Professor Roger Kneebone is the author of Becoming Expert, and he talks to Simon about possible solutions to clumsiness, including accepting and living with it.

[IMAGE: Getty Images]
access_time5 months ago
Pictures of coffins and mass graves seen by satellites showed that Manaus has been badly affected by Covid- 19. Now analysis of blood samples shows the extent to which the virus took hold in the Amazon city earlier this year. Investigators Ester Sabino and Lewis Buss from Brazil’s University of Sao Paulo discuss how and why the virus spread.

Humanity has been modifying the environment for millennia, but have we now reached a point where it’s all too much? An analysis by Emily Elhacham from Tel Aviv University shows the amount of stuff produced by humanity, from plastics to buildings now has a greater mass than all natural biomass on the planet.

And China has been to the moon. Space watcher Andrew Jones tells us how the robotic mission mimics the manned missions of the 1960s and 70s.

The space between stars is usually measured in light years, but this makes it less easy to acknowledge the true scale of the distance. Even the closest star system to Earth, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years or 40.13 trillion kilometres from Earth. If we are ever going to bridge the gap between the stars, we will have to have some very fast spaceships, with extremely reliable, long-lasting technology on board.

So does science allow for these spacecraft to exist? That’s what listener Allan wants to know, and to find out, Presenter Anand Jagatia speaks with Tracy Drain, a systems engineer at NASA JPL responsible for overseeing the development and missions of multiple unmanned interplanetary probes including some around Jupiter and Mars. She tells us the challenges involved with simply keeping our spacecraft working for the long-haul.

Even if we can overcome issues of wear and tear over time, powering a ship to other star systems will not be easy. Today’s chemical rockets are too inefficient for the job, so we speak with Rachel Moloney, a researcher in electric propulsion to ask if this relatively new technology could power ships through interstellar space.

Faster than light travel is the solution most often found in Science Fiction, but it goes against Einstein’s laws of relativity. Is there a way around it? Theoretical physicist Professor Miguel Alcubierre thinks there may be, and he describes the way a spaceship may be able to create a bubble of spacetime around itself to move faster than light without breaking these fixed laws. But there’s a catch
(Image: Getty Images)
access_time5 months ago
This year’s Atlantic hurricane season has seen a new record for severe storms says Climatologist Michael Mann. He says warming oceans are one of the drivers.

And Australia has seen spring temperatures hit new highs. Climate scientist Sarah Perkins – Kirkpatrick says it’s all the more remarkable as weather patterns are currently in a cycle associated with cooler temperatures.

Where exactly did SARS- COV-2 emerge from? That’s one of the questions for a WHO fact-finding mission to China looking into the origins of the Virus. Peter Daszak has worked with Chinese scientists for many years, looking for bat viruses with the potential to jump to humans. He tells us how the mission hopes to map out the event which led to the initial spread of the virus.

And the Japanese Hayabusa2 space probe is due to return to earth. Masaki Fujimoto
Deputy director of the Japanese Space Agency JAXA, tell us what to expect when a cargo of material from a distant asteroid lands in the Australian desert.

From dumping raw sewage into rivers to littering the streets with our trash, humans don’t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with our waste. It’s something that CrowdScience listener and civil engineer Marc has noticed: he wonders if humans are particularly prone to messing up our surroundings, while other species are instinctively more hygienic and well-organised.

Aasre we, by nature, really less clean and tidy than other animals? Farming and technology have allowed us to live more densely and generate more rubbish - maybe our cleaning instincts just aren’t up to the vast quantities of waste we spew out? CrowdScience digs into the past to see if early human rubbish heaps can turn up any answers. We follow a sewer down to the River Thames to hear about The Great Stink of Victorian London; turn to ants for housekeeping inspiration; and find out how to raise hygiene standards by tapping into our feelings of disgust and our desire to follow rules.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time5 months ago
While developing new treatments drug companies usually release little useful information on how the clinical trials are progressing. However with the world’s attention on potential vaccines against Covid -19, the usually dull data on the progression of each trial step is subject to huge scrutiny. It doesn’t help to clarify things says epidemiologist Nicole Basta when that data raises questions about the rigour of the trial itself. This seems to be what happened with the latest Astra Zeneca, and Oxford University trial – where the best results were reportedly due to a mistake.

The link between locust plagues and extreme weather was demonstrated once again when cyclone Gati hit Somalia – dumping 2 years worth of rain in just a few days. This creates a perfect environment for locusts to breed to plague proportions. And this will be the third time in as many years that cyclones will trigger such an effect says Keith Cressman from the UNFAO. However thanks to the previous recent locust plagues in East Africa the countries most in line for this returning locust storm are better prepared this time.

A study of tree rings from Greater Mongolia suggests the region is now drying out rapidly, the past 20 years have been drier than the past thousand says climate scientist Hans Liderholm. This points to potential desertification in coming years.

And the death of a scientific icon. The Arecibo observatory, featured in the films ‘Goldeneye’ and ‘Contact’, and responsible for the Nobel Prize winning detection of gravitational waves is facing demolition. Sitting in a crater in the jungles of Puerto Rico this 57 year old radio telescope dish has suffered severe storm damage and is in danger of collapse. Astronomer Anne Virkki, who works at the telescope and science writer Shannon Stirone explain its significance.

This year, dramatic wildfires wreaked havoc across the globe from Australia to Siberia. CrowdScience listener Melissa wants to know the extent to which climate change is a factor in blazes that appear to be increasing in both frequency and intensity.

Presenter Anand Jagatia hears how scientists use alternative worlds in computer models, to understand the role that global warming plays. After Siberia’s hottest ever year on record, he discovers the impact of increasing temperatures on boreal forests – and how they could help release huge stocks of carbon that has been stored in the soil. But is there anything we can do to prevent this happening? He visits the UK’s Peak District region, where conservationists are re-wilding a massive area with a special species of moss, which may offer a solution to an increase in infernos.

(Image: Credit: Getty Images)
access_time6 months ago
Tests on patients for up to 8 months following their infection with SARS- CoV-2 suggests an immune response can persist. Alessandro Sette and Daniela Weiskopf at the La Jolla Institute in California are optimistic this could mean vaccines would also confer long lasting immunity.

An analysis of samples from Kenya’s blood banks by Sophie Uyoga at the KEMRI-Wellcome Research Programme reveals far more people in Kenya contracted the virus than was previously know. The figures mean Kenya has similar levels of infection to many European countries.

And a study of mosquitoes by Louis Lambrechts of the Pasteur Institute in Paris reveals why Zika, a virus originating in Africa is much more prevalent in other parts of the world.

We also look at the future of the Nile. Ethiopia is building a massive Dam which will have consequences for Sudan and Egypt who are reliant on the Nile’s waters says hydrologist Hisham Eldardiry from the University of Washington, Seattle.

Every year, Western Afghanistan is hit with a fierce 120-day wind, and listener Hamid wants to know what causes this phenomenon? He’s from the city of Herat, where what starts as a gentle breeze in the morning can pick up to become a dangerous gale just a few hours later, devastating buildings and causing power outages.

The BBC’s Abdullah Elham in Kabul tells us the country has plenty of other ‘friendly’ wind but this one is considered ‘fierce’. CrowdScience talks to Professor Amir Aghakouchak to discover more about the phenomenon, and learns about the pollution problems Herat’s summer storm causes in neighbouring Iran. But it’s not all bad news. Professor Lorraine Remer explains how NASA used satellites to map how wind transport Saharan sand almost half way round the world, fertilising the Amazon rainforest.

[IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images]
access_time6 months ago
The WHO is working with China to try and pinpoint the source of SARS- COV-2. Sian Griffiths, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says there are lessons we can learn from the investigation she led into the original SARS outbreak back in 2003. That inquiry revealed how SARS had spread from bats to humans via civet cats.

A Covid-19 vaccine claims to be 90% effective. It uses genetic material, messenger RNA. Daniel Anderson of Harvard MIT Health Science tells us about the huge potential of mRNA to provide treatments for many medical conditions.

However, rolling out such a vaccine globally faces a huge range of economic and practical obstacles as ethicist Nicole Hassoun of Binghamton University explains.

And a unique experiment shows despite a vast range of precautions including being isolated US Marines have contracted Covid -19. Stuart Sealfon, Professor of Neurology at Mount Sinai Hospitals says this study shows we need testing to be integrated more thoroughly into everyday life and that many of the precautions we currently use may not be enough to prevent transmission.

We all feel pain on a regular basis; when we stub a toe, break a bone or even experience heartbreak. Bebeto from Cameroon wants to know how to cope with a pain in his wrist that just won’t go away. Does a positive mindset help? Or perhaps meditation? Marnie Chesterton speaks to psychologists and neuroscientists to find the answers.

We hear from two people with very different experiences of pain. Lucy has fibromyalgia and experiences pain all over her body every day. While Stephen has a rare genetic condition which means he doesn’t feel physical pain at all. But they both argue that pain shouldn’t always be unwanted. Perhaps we need to embrace and accept our pain in order to beat it.

(Image: Credit: Getty Images)
access_time6 months ago
All the farmed mink in Denmark are to be killed. Around 17 million. This is because they have SARS COV-2 coronavirus circulating among them and some humans have contracted a new strain from the animals. The scientific detail is sketchy, but Emma Hodcroft at Basel University pieces together a picture of what this means for tackling the virus.

Typhoon Goni and hurricane Eta are two very powerful tropical cyclones. But the way these storms are recorded differs by geographical location and recording style. We speak with Kerry Emanuel, a professor at MIT in Boston, USA.

The magnitude 7 earthquake that hit the Mediterranean last Friday (30/10/20) was 70 miles away from the city of Izmir, but despite this, there was devastating loss of life due to collapsed buildings. Earthquake engineer Eser Çaktı from the Turkish University of Boğaziçi, and Tiziana Rossetto from University College London talk us through the damage.

Migratory arctic animals are a weathervane for how the world is coping with climate change. Scientists have now pulled together monitoring data for these species’ movements into one accessible bank. Sarah Davidson tells us how this can help us understand the impact of Arctic climate change.

CrowdScience listeners come in all shapes, sizes and ages. This episode is dedicated to our younger listeners who, as we’ve learned before, are experts at asking those superficially obvious questions that for parents, are anything but easy to answer. To start off with, Sylvia, asks why elephants are so big? As we hear from our expert – mammals were at one time, much larger – so perhaps the question should be, why aren’t they bigger? We investigate what drives body size in the animal kingdom.

Presenter Marnie Chesterton, together with our ‘cub’ reporter Arlo, goes in search of the most brilliant scientific minds to respond to a slew of other queries. Shambhavi, from Singapore wonders why humans have five digits on each hand? And Benni from California asks why dogs don’t get sick when they drink from muddy puddles? Do dogs have some amazing ability to fight off viruses and bugs?

Beyond the confines of our planet, we’ve also got a question from Olivia, from Sydney, Australia, who regularly contemplates the universe: what is the biggest object in it she wonders? Marnie and her experts do their best to solve these mysteries.

(Image: Credit: Getty Images)
access_time6 months ago
Last week NASA’s Osiris-Rex mission successfully touched down on asteroid Bennu’s crumbly surface. But the spacecraft collected so much material that the canister wouldn’t close. NASA systems engineer Estelle Church tells Roland Pease how she and the team back on Earth performed clever manoeuvres to remotely successfully shut the lid.

As winter draws on in the North, and people spend more time indoors, there’s considerable debate about the conditions in which SARS-Cov2 is more likely to spread. Princeton University’s Dylan Morris has just published research exploring the coronavirus’s survival in different humidities and temperatures.

Indian agriculture in some areas uses vast amounts of water. Dr Vimal Mishra of the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar has discovered that this irrigation, plus very high temperatures, is causing not just extreme discomfort amongst the population but also more deaths.

In the 1930s serious dust storms over several years ruined crops and lives over a huge part of Midwest America. The dustbowl conditions were made famous by the folk songs of Woodie Guthrie and in John Steinbeck’s novel Grapes of Wrath. Now a study in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that levels of dust have doubled in the past twenty years. Roland Pease asks researchers and farmers if they think the dust bowl is returning.

We’ve probably all got a friend who sings along wildly out of tune - or maybe you are that person. But why are some of us apparently tone deaf, while others can hold a melody? Can you train yourself to sing in tune, or is it mostly down to raw talent?

These musical questions, from CrowdScience listeners Jenny and Anastasia, certainly struck a chord with us. Anastasia loves to sing but her friends tell her she’s off-key - or that “a bear trod on her ear,” as they say in her native Russia. Is it possible for her to improve her singing voice, and what are the best ways of going about it?

Both musicians and scientists help us tackle these questions, and explain what’s going on in our ears, brains and throats when we try to sing the right notes. We learn about congenital amusia, a condition which makes it almost impossible to tell if you’re in tune or not, and attempt to tease out the relative influence of our genes and our environment when it comes to musical ability.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time6 months ago
Science in Action talks to Nasa researcher Hannah Kaplan who is part of the team for the space agency’s sampling mission to the asteroid Bennu. Mission scientists were overjoyed this week when the probe Osiris Rex momentarily touched the asteroid and sucked up some of the sand and grit on its surface.

What might we learn when the sample is returned to Earth in three years' time? There is some not-such-good news about a theory about immunity to the pandemic coronavirus, and medical researchers in the UK announce the world’s first study that will deliberately infect volunteers with the novel coronavirus. The so-called challenge study is planned to begin in London in January. The purpose is to speed up the quest for effective Covid-19 vaccines but will it be safe for the participants? And there’s a new green chemistry breakthrough for tackling the world’s plastic waste crisis.

And All living things are related to each other, from elephants to algae, e-coli to humans like us. Within our cells we hold genetic information in the form of DNA or RNA. But despite viruses sharing these molecules, many scientists don't consider them to be 'life'.
Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, but some can insert their DNA into a host to pass genes sideways through the branching tree of life. As a result, viruses’ relationship with life is . complex.

Two of our listeners had viruses on the mind, so they sent in the same question to CrowdScience. Senan from Singapore and Melvin from South Africa want to know how viruses began to see if this can tell us whether they shared a common ancestor with humans.

To dig into this complexity Marnie Chesterton speaks with an expert on Koala genetics – Dr Rachael Tarlinton. Koalas are in the middle of tackling a retroviruses, a type of virus that plants DNA into our cells as a reproduction strategy. Her research could reveal why humans life has so much viral DNA within our genomes.

Marnie speaks with a computational biologist Professor Gustavo Caetano-Anolles, who has found a new way to trace the family tree for billions of years using proteins common to all life on earth, and speaks with Professor Chantal Abergel who paints a picture of how viruses went from being the losers of evolution, to being highly successful parasites of cells.

(Image: Nasa probe Osiris Rex lands on asteroid. Credit Nasa)
access_time7 months ago
Why is there such a range in the number of deaths from Covid -29 between countries? A study of the data across 21 industrialised countries reveals a wide discrepancy. Preparedness and the point at which countries went into lockdown were key factors says Epidemiologist Jonny Pearson- Stuttard

Recurring illnesses which show up sometimes months after a Covid -19 infections are being more commonly reported. The Uk’s National Institute for Health research has launched a major initiative to better understand this long term effect of the disease, Candace Imison tells us more.

And another reported case of Covid 19 reinfection raises questions about widely held beliefs on immunity Microbiologist Sarah Pitt helps us separate the science from the fiction.

We also take a look at a black hole as it swallows up a star or at least at what’s detectable. Katy Alexander has trained radio telescopes at this distant event.

Curious CrowdScience listeners have suddenly been struck by the oddity of their behaviours. Elise ponders why she blushes. Thankfully, listener David is a vascular surgeon and knows a thing or two about blushing, as he performs operations on people debilitated by constant red-dening. He has some answers for us, but asks why did blushing evolve?

In the past, red cheeks have been linked to necrophilia, repressed cannibalism, and even a de-sire for men to experience menstruation! Thankfully, research has come a long way since then, as blushing experts Peter de Jong and Corine Dijk explain.

Scientists believe that it evolved as a nonverbal signal to show someone you’re sorry or that you care about what they think. This would have important for our survival in the group, en-suring we didn’t get into a fight or get kicked out the group.

Anand Jagatia gets to grips with blushing and other bodily behaviours – including a question from Thai listener Nitcha who wonders why we yawn as well as a question from Mohamed in Ghana and Biana in Trinidad and Tobago who both asked why people scratch their heads when they think. To answer these questions, Anand’s joined by yawning researcher Andrew Gallup and Sophie Scott as well as body language expert Blanca Cobb.

[Images: Getty Images]
access_time7 months ago
Data from clinical investigations has suggested that a specific mutation in the SARS-Cov -2 virus has made it more transmissible. This finding is now supported by molecular biology work. Ralph Baric from the University of North Carolina led a team comparing the form of the virus which first emerged from China with the mutated type now prevalent word wide.

Bats are known to carry many different types of viruses, horseshow bats specifically carry coronaviruses, apparently without any ill effects to themselves. However some viruses do affect or even kill bats. Daniel Streicker from the University of Glasgow says more research in this area may help find those bat viruses most likely to jump to humans.

Malaria is no stranger to Africa, but largely keeps out of urban centres as it’s difficult for the mosquitoes which carry the parasites to survive there. However an Asian mosquito which is better adapted to life in the city is now threatening to move in. Entomologist Marianne Sinka
Has been looking at how and where it might spread.

And the Nobel prize for chemistry has been won by the inventors of the Crispr gene editing technique
Gunes Taylor is a genetic engineer who used this technique at the Crick Institute in London tells us why it is now so central to biological research.

Crowdscience solves a range of listeners’ cosmic mysteries, from the reason we only ever see one side of the moon, to why planets spin, and discover the answer can be found in the formation of the solar system. We talk to astronomer Dr Carolin Crawford to understand how stars are made, and investigate the art of astronomy with journalist Jo Marshall, hearing how the ancient Greeks came up with a zodiac long before the invention of a telescope, revealing an intimate relationship between humans and the night sky.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time7 months ago
An analysis of Covid-19 data from South India shows children more than any other group are transmitting the virus both to other children and adults, Epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan tell us the data also shows the situations in which the virus is most likely to spread, public transport is of particular concern.

The WHO has launched an initiative to roll out rapid testing, particularly to countries that don’t have access to lab based tests, Catharina Boehme who leads one of the WHO’s partner organisation in the project tells us the test, which looks similar to home pregnancy tests should give results within fifteen minutes.

Andrea Crisanti led a ground-breaking testing initiative in Italy which eliminated Covid-19 in a small town in a matter of weeks. We look to the lessons learned.

And in California residents have been in a kind of self- enforced lockdown, not because of Covid – 19 but due to wildfires fires. Molly Bentley from the Seti Institute podcast ‘ Big Picture Science’ tells us about how the fires have created an atmosphere of toxic smoke, even in the cities.

Also, What makes things sticky? Listener Mitch from the USA began wondering while he was taking down some very sticky wallpaper. Our world would quite literally fall apart without adhesives. They are almost everywhere – in our buildings, in our cars and in our smartphones. But how do they hold things together?

To find out, presenter Marnie Chesterton visits a luthier, Anette Fajardo, who uses animal glues every day in her job making violins. These glues have been used since the ancient Egyptians –but adhesives are much older than that. Marnie speaks to archaeologist Dr Geeske Langejans from Delft University of Technology about prehistoric glues made from birch bark, dated to 200,000 years ago. She goes to see a chemist, Prof Steven Abbott, who helps her understand why anything actually sticks to anything else. And she speaks to physicist Dr Ivan Vera-Marun at the University of Manchester, about the nanotechnologists using adhesion at tiny scales to make materials of the future.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time7 months ago
While vaccines against Covid -19 are being developed at unprecedented speed, none of them have been tested to see if they can actually stop transmission of the virus. They are designed to stop those who are vaccinated from developing Covid -19 disease, but not becoming infected.

This says Virologist Malik Peiris from Hong Kong University means while vaccinated people themselves may be protected they might also spread the virus.

Cells produced in the bone marrow may be responsible for an extreme immune response to Covid 19 in some people. Immunologist Lizzie Mann from Manchester University says this finding may help predict who will develop serious disease symptoms, and also provide a target for future treatments.

Extreme ice melt in the Arctic this summer may have a long term impact on the region says glaciologist Julienne Stroeve. She spent the winter in the Arctic and tells us about the environment she encountered.

And climate change is also impacting the tropics, research in Gabon from Ecologists Emma Bush and Robin Whytock shows a reduction of the amount of fruit available which is now impacting the health of forest elephants.

And why am I embarrassed to be naked? Chumbuzzo in Zambia wonders. And what would happen if we ditched our clothes and embraced nudity? Presenter Anand Jagatia and Producer Caroline Steel spend the day naked with other naturists to see if they can shift their embarrassment.

Maybe there are good evolutionary reasons to cover up or perhaps we are contributing to inequality and negative body image by hiding our real selves? Marnie Chesterton explores different cultural attitudes to nudity and finds out about the science behind embarrassment. Clothes optional.

(Image Credit: Getty Images)
access_time8 months ago
Some East Africans have a genetic mutation which gives them resistance to Malaria. Investigations into how it works have produced a surprising finding. As researcher Silvia Kariuki explains it’s all to do with the surface tension of the red blood cells.

SARS-CoV- 2 can pass from people in the very early stages of Covid -19, before they show symptoms. New research shows identifying cases at this early stage is crucial to controlling the pandemic. And yet most testing regimes require symptoms to show before testing. Luca Ferretti did this latest analysis.

And how about getting up close with virus? That’s what Camille Ehre has done, using an electron microscope to produce remarkable pictures of the virus as it attacks lung tissue.

Carl Wunsch tells us of a technique he developed in the 1970s to measure changes in global ocean temperatures using sound waves. Revisiting this method may give us insight into the impact of climate change on the deep ocean.

And Many of us willingly subject ourselves to pain and irritation by eating chilli. CrowdScience listener Tina wonders what’s driving this apparent masochism: why does ‘feeling the burn’ make so many of us feel so good?

It’s just one of several tasty questions we tuck into in this episode. Also on the menu is stew: why does it taste better the next day? Listener Helen’s local delicacy is Welsh cawl, a meat and vegetable concoction. Tradition dictates it should be eaten the day after it’s made, but is there any science behind this?

And we finish the meal with cheese. Listener Leander asks what makes some cheeses blue, some hard and crumbly, and some run all over your fridge. How is milk transformed into such radically different end products?

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time8 months ago
Science news and highlights of the week
access_time8 months ago
A new survey of the volcano's activity suggests there may be an eruption in the next 4 to 7 years. It's a particular concern for the populations of Goma and Gisenyi, two cites between the volcano and lake Kivu. As we hear from the director of the Goma Volcano Observatory Katcho Karume, the city of Goma in particular has expanded so much that many people now live right next to fissures in the flank of the volcano through which any eruption would likely occur.

Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana's main area of swamp land, missing big urban areas to either side. It was a lucky escape for many, but as hurricane historian Jill Trepanier tells us such extreme weather events do seem to be more frequent and potentially more destructive.

And wildfires ravaging California and other Western US states may have been intensified by changes to global weather systems . Climate scientist Bill Lau says those weather systems in turn have been modified by man-made climate change.

In November 2018 a Chinese scientist announced he had edited the genes of twin girls. The announcement was greeted with horror by many researchers in the field. Now a way to regulate gene editing internationally has been proposed by some of the world's leading scientific institutions. Kay Davies co-author of their report explains the plan.

What does science say about controlling urination, and other bodily functions? We tackle three queries about peeing triggers, pooing positions and missing sweat. This episode CrowdScience presenter Marnie Chesterton poses some of the best listener follow-up questions that have landed in our inbox to a panel of experts.

Listener Samuel in Ghana is wondering why watery sounds seem to induce urination. Producer Melanie Brown heads out to survey whether this is the case for individuals in an actual crowd at a public fountain in London. And urologist and trustee of the International Continence Society Marcus Drake talks Marnie through how he uses the sound of running water during his work as a hospital doctor helping patients with common but distressing peeing issues, and the limitations of research into this question.

And he's not the only listener who wants us to dig deeper into topics we've explored on the show before. Anna in Tokyo also got in touch after hearing our show about toilets, to ask if there is a toilet design that is most 'natural' for our health. Gastroenterologist Anton Emmanuel explains why small changes in people's posture whilst pooing can have a significant impact on their quality of life.

Finally, listeners Stelle, James and Joel emailed after hearing Marnie investigate hyperhidrosis: Sweating too much. They and their relatives experience the opposite.

(Main Image: Sunset, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Shamim Shorif Susom / EyeEm / Getty Images)
access_time8 months ago
This week Science in Action examines the evidence around the Trump Administration’s emergency use authorisation of convalescent plasma therapy for the treatment of Covid-19. Donald Trump described its US-wide roll-out as ‘historic’ but the majority of scientists and doctors disagree, questioning the scientific basis for the government’s decision. Roland Pease talks to Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner, the leader of the convalescent plasma therapy study on which the action was based. The Mayo Clinic trial involved a large number of patients but none of them were compared to Covid-19 patients who were not treated with convalescent plasma. Trials that incorporate that comparison are the only way to properly assess the therapy’s effectiveness. Roland talks to Martin Landray of the University of Oxford who is testing convalescent plasma therapy in the UK’s Recovery randomised control trial, and to medical ethicist Alison Bateman-House of the New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

We also talk to nanotechnologist Marc Miskin about the million-strong army of microscopic robots he’s creating in his lab at the University of Pennsylvania.

The idea of creating underwater habitats has captured the imagination of writers, thinkers and scientists for decades. However, despite numerous grand visions, these dreams of aquatic metropolises have not yet come to fruition. Crowdscience listener and scuba enthusiast Jack wonders whether - given improved technology and the growing environmental pressures facing humans on land - it is time to reconsider the ocean as an alternative permanent living space for humans. Marnie Chesterton dons her flippers for Crowdscience in search of the oceanographers and architects who have dedicated their lives to designing vessels, labs and underwater habitats. She explores whether oceanic cities remain a sci-fi dream or a realistic solution to some of our modern challenges. Can the oceans’ largely unexplored resources be harnessed to support living underwater?

(Main image: New York lab tests serum from recovered covid-19 patients for possible therapy. Credit: Misha Friedman / Getty Images)
access_time9 months ago
Has the loss from Greenland’s vast ice sheet reached a tipping point? According to glaciologist Michalea King, the rate at which its ice flows into the sea stepped up about 15 years ago. The process of glacial retreat is outpacing the accumulation snow and ice in Greenland’s interior and the loss of Greenland’s ice to the Ocean is set to continue for many years to come.

An international study of past climate changes during the last ice age reveals how fast changes to weather patterns and climate states can reverberate around the world. During the last ice age, when temperatures rose suddenly in Greenland a series of changes to the climate in Europe and the monsoons in Asia and South America occurred almost simultaneously - within decades of each other. Climate scientists Eric Wolff and Ellen Corrick have discovered this through studies of stalagmites from caves around the world. It’s a demonstration of how rapidly and dramatically the Earth’s atmospheric system can change when it’s perturbed.

Was the hottest temperature ever on Earth recorded last weekend? A weather station in Death Valley in California recorded a temperature of 54.4 degrees C. Roland Pease discusses the controversy with extreme weather historian Christopher Burt.

Andrea Dupree of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reveals the latest on the giant star Betelgeuse which to everyone’s amazement dimmed dramatically at the beginning of the year. At the time some people wondered whether it was about to explode as a supernova but Andrea’s new findings suggest an event at the star which is almost as extraordinary.

If you’re one of the millions of people who used lockdown to try something new like baking sourdough bread, you may well be wondering what’s happening chemically inside your loaf, especially if the end result keeps changing. Well, you’re not alone. Listeners Soheil and Sean are both keen bakers but want to know more about the thing that makes bread rise: yeast. What is yeast? Where does it come from and can you catch it? And how hard is it to ‘make’ yourself? Soon after lockdown took effect, commercial supplies of the stuff disappeared from supermarket shelves across the globe.

The shortage also affected brewers the world over. A big fan of yeast in most of its forms, Marnie Chesterton took on the challenge of creating her own. She talks to the brewers who hunt rare strains to create the perfect beer, and hears from the biologist who says these amazing microbes, used for thousands of years, could be used to make food production more sustainable. And she discovers how this simple ingredient could be instrumental in the fight against climate change.

(Image: Masses of ice break off from the edge of a glacier. Credit: Press Association)
access_time9 months ago
Russia’s President Putin announced the registration of a vaccine for coronavirus. This was reported with widespread alarm amid concerns over safety, but as BBC Russian Service’s Sergei Goryashko, tells us the announcement was a political move to capture the headlines.

Investigations by Alexandra Reynolds and Hooman Poor at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Centre have revealed why some Covid 19 patients have low oxygen levels, but don’t have breathing difficulties. The answer came when looking for signs of stroke in the brain.

Nisreen Alwan, a specialist in public health at Southampton University is concerned about the quality of life of people who have had a Covid -19 infection. Being classed as recovered is not enough she says and we need to look more at recurring health problems associated with the disease.

And Cardiff University’s Haley Gomez has news of a tantalising discovery. The detection of a neutron star hidden in a dust cloud for more than 30 years.

Squelching into the science of slime, Chhavi Sachdev seeks to find out why it took so long for listener Helen Tyson to remove slime from her fingers, after she picked up a tiny slug while gardening.

This unfortunate and hugely repulsive experience set Helen to wonder what it is about the structure of slug slime that makes it gloopy, so she sent Chhavi to meet with slug slime expert Professor Andrew Smith who reveals how the complex molecular structure of this pervasive fluid makes it so difficult to scrub off.

Slime is used by all sorts of creatures including the Giant African Land snail, which invaded India by hitching a ride on imported timber. But invasive species biologist Dr TV Sajeev reveals that these snails are themselves giving a lift to another meningitis-causing parasite that can infect people. Chhavi looks for these massive molluscs in her own garden in Mumbai.

Marine biologist Helen Scales describes how animals can use slime for catching food, mating, defence, or even transportation, and Chhavi speaks with Dr Adam Celiz who has been inspired by this slimy adaptability to create a tool that can provide new cells to replace damaged heart cells after a cardiac arrest.

Slugs, snails and even fish keep a variety of useful chemicals in their slime. Some make them taste bitter, and others numb the mouth of predators, but they may also prevent the animals from contracting infections. Dr Sarah Pitt has investigated these compounds in the slimy mucus of a garden snail and discovered an antibiotic that is brand new to science.
Slime is pretty disgusting, but it’s also completely fascinating.

(Image:President Putin. Credit: Reuters)
access_time9 months ago
Science news and highlights of the week
access_time9 months ago
NASA launches its new robotic mission to Mars. The rover, Perseverance, will land in a 50 kilometre wide crater which looks like it was filled by a lake about 4 billion years ago - the time when life on Earth was getting started. Mission scientist Melissa Rice explains why this is one of the most promising places on Mars to continue the search for past life on the red planet.

Japanese and US scientists have revived microbes that have been buried at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean for 100 million years. Sampled from compacted mud 70 metres below the seafloor and beneath 6 kilometre of water, Yuki Morono and Steve D'Hondt admit they struggle to understand how the bacteria have survived for so long.

Science in Action celebrates the little unknown oceanographer Marie Tharp who in the late 1950s discovered the mid-Atlantic ridge which helped to launch the plate tectonics revolution in earth sciences. It would be Tharp's 100th birthday this week.

New research this week suggests that coronaviruses capable of infecting humans have been in bats for 40 to 70 years, and that there may be numerous and as yet undetected viruses like the Covid-19 virus in bat populations with the potential to cause future pandemics. Their message is that we should be sampling and testing wild bat colonies much more extensively than currently. Their findings provide further evidence against the unfounded claim that the Covid-19 virus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Roland Pease talks to Dr Maciej Boni at Pennsylvania State University.

Listener Avalon from Australia wants to know why people use conspiracy theories to explain shocking events. Are we more likely to believe conspiracy theories in times of adversity? What purpose do conspiracy theories serve in society?

Marnie Chesterton speaks to the scientists to explain their popularity, even in the face of seemingly irrefutable evidence.

(Image: NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: Illustration provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS)
access_time10 months ago
There's been encouraging news about the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine this week from a trial involving about 1,000 people. But how great is the challenge in scaling up from making a few thousand doses of the vaccine to manufacturing two billion by the end of this year? Sandy Douglas of Oxford's Jenner Institute explains how they plan to mass-produce the vaccine safely given the speed and magnitude of the scale up.

A new kind of treatment for Covid-19 may come from an unlikely source: llamas and alpacas, the South American relatives of the camel. Camelids produce unusually small and simple antibodies against viruses, including the coronavirus. This feature may make these molecules an effective Covid-19 therapy. Jane Chambers reports on research in Chile and the UK.

Also in the programme: what has made just a few mosquito species evolve a preference for biting humans, and the theory that 800 million years ago the Moon and the Earth were bombarded by a shower of asteroids which plunged the Earth into a global ice age - an event which changed the course of the evolution of life.

These days we're more acquainted with soap than ever before, as we lather up to help stop the spread of coronavirus. And for CrowdScience listener Sharon, this set off a steady stream of soapy questions: how does soap actually work? How was it discovered in the first place, long before anyone knew anything about germs? Are different things used for washing around the world, and are some soaps better than others?

We set up a CrowdScience home laboratory to explore the soap making process with advice from science-based beauty blogger Dr Michelle Wong, and find out what it is about soap's chemistry that gives it its germ-fighting superpowers. Soap has been around for at least 4000 years; we compare ancient soap making to modern methods, and hear about some of the soap alternatives used around the world, like the soap berries of India.

And as for the question of whether some soaps are better than others? We discover why antibacterial soaps aren't necessarily a good idea, and why putting a toy inside a bar of soap might be more important than tweaking its ingredients.

(Image: A team of experts at the University of Oxford are working to develop a vaccine that could prevent people from getting Covid-19. Credit: Press Association)
access_time10 months ago
Science in Action looks at some of the latest research on how response of our immune system to infection by the coronavirus. Researchers at Kings College London find that protective antibodies appear to fade away after about three months following infection whereas a team at the Karolinska Institute has discovered that although antibodies may decline, other important players called T cells in our defences do not. Dr’s Katie Doores and Marcus Buggert talk about the implications of these discoveries for the quest for a vaccine against the coronavirus.

Roland Pease also talks to Dr Barney Graham of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States about the results from the Phase 1 trial of novel type of vaccine against the virus. NIAID have partnered with biotech company Moderna to produce the first mRNA vaccine in the Institute’s pandemic preparedness program.

Biologist Dr Sonja Wild tells Roland about the remarkable fishing strategy devised by dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia. They chase fish into the empty shell of giant sea snails, then take the shells to the surface and tip the fish into their mouths. Dr Wild’s 7 years of research has revealed how the dolphins have learned to do this.

Think of the oceans and an empty and peaceful expanse relatively untouched by humankind might come to mind. But is this peace an illusion? CrowdScience listener Dani wants to know if the noise of shipping and other human activity on the oceans is impacting on sea life.

To find out, Marnie Chesterton takes a deep dive to learn how marine animals have evolved to use sound; from navigating their environments to finding a mate or hiding from prey. She then speaks to a scientist who is using acoustic observatories to track the many ways human activity - like sonar and shipping – can interfere.

Marnie virtually visits a German lab which tests the ears of beached whales, dolphins and seals from around the world to try and ascertain whether they suffered hearing damage, and what might have caused it. What other smaller creatures are negatively impacted by underwater noise? Marnie learns that acoustic trauma is more widespread than first thought.

As human life continues to expand along ocean waters, what is being done to reduce the impact of sound? Marnie meets some of the designers at the forefront of naval architecture to see how ship design, from propellers to air bubbles and even wind powered vessels can contribute to reducing the racket in the oceans.

Main image: Abs COVID-19 antibody - Viral Infection concept. Credit: Getty Images
access_time10 months ago
African scientists have developed a reliable, quick and cheap testing method which could be used by worldwide as the basis for mass testing programmes.

The method, which produces highly accurate results, is built around mathematical algorithms developed at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Kigali. We speak to Neil Turok who founded the institute, Leon Mutesa Professor of human genetics on the government coronavirus task force, and Wilfred Ndifon, the mathematical biologist who devised the algorithm.

The virus is mutating as it spreads, but what does this mean? There is particular concern over changes to the spike protein, part of the virus needed to enter human cells. Jeremy Luban has been analysing this mechanism. So far he says ongoing genetic changes seem unlikely to impact on the effectiveness of treatments for Covid -19.

And Heatwaves are increasing, particularly in tropical regions, that’s the finding of a new analysis by climate scientist Sarah Perkins – Kirkpatrick.

Worms are not the cutest of creatures. They’re slimy, often associated with death and tend to bring on feelings of disgust in many of us. But listener Dinesh thinks they’re underrated and wants to know whether earthworms could be the key to our planet’s future agricultural success? He’s an organic farmer in India’s Tamil Nadu province who grows these annelids to add to the soil, and he wants Crowdscience to find out exactly what they’re doing.

Anand Jagatia dons his gardening gloves and digs the dirt on these remarkable creatures, discovering how they can help improve soil quality, prevent fields from becoming waterlogged, and improve microbial numbers, all of which has the potential to increase crop yield.

But he also investigates the so-called ‘earthworm dilemma’ and the idea that in some parts of the world, boreal forest worms are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, which could have dangerous consequences for climate change.

Main image: People stand in white circles drawn on the ground to adhere to social distancing in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 4, 2020, Photo by Simon Wohlfahrt / AFP via Getty Images
access_time10 months ago
Studies in children who have been severely affected by Covid-19 in Italy, Britain and the US are showing the same thing – a range of symptoms linked to an overactive immune system. Elizabeth Whittaker from London’s Imperial College discusses the similarities in these cases and possible reasons for this syndrome with Shanna Kowalsky from Mount Sinai hospital in New York.

How much should drugs for Covid-19 cost? Remdesivir, which has shown promise against the virus, has been priced at over $2000 for a course of treatment, but drug price analyst Andrew Hill says the cost of production is actually below $10.

And how about some really alternative energy? Marion Cromb at Glasgow University has run an experiment to simulate a spinning black hole. In theory, a rocket sent to an equivalent real black hole could use its rotation as a power source.

Shoes are a surprisingly recent human invention. But running isn’t. That means for most of our time on the planet, we’ve run barefoot. Today, in most countries, it’s rare to see people out in public without shoes, let alone running. But might our aversion to the free foot be causing us pain?

CrowdScience mega-fan Hnin is an experienced runner - she enjoys ultra-marathons back home in Australia. But about six months ago she developed extreme foot pain, the condition Plantar Fasciitis, and this meant she had to stop doing what she loves. She reached out to CrowdScience presenter Chhavi Sachdev, to find out if barefoot running could reduce her pain and improve her performance. Simply put, is barefoot running better?

In an attempt to find Hnin some answers, Chhavi hits the ground… running. Literally throwing off her own shoes on the streets of her home city of Mumbai, India, to see how feeling the ground can change her whole gait. And with Prof. Dan Lieberman, Chhavi learns what sets the human runner apart from other species, while uncovering the strange form our feet have. She speaks with Dr Peter Francis, a researcher whose life’s work has focused on curing the pain in his own feet and learning how to help others.

But performance is also important for runners. Biomechanics and shoe expert Dr Sharon Dixon explains how modifications to the sports-shoe are helping marathon runners set records, and blade-running athlete Kiran Kanojia shows Chhavi how the technology behind her two prosthetic legs let her emulate either natural walking or natural running.

(Image: Getty Images)
access_time10 months ago
A record summer temperature in Siberia is an indication of major changes in the Arctic climate. Changing weather patterns there have a knock on effect for other parts of the planet says Climatologist Steve Vavrus

Chile appeared to get Covid-19 under control, but in reality the virus was spreading uncontrollably through poor areas, As we hear from our correspondent in Santiago Jane Chambers, the lockdown has tightened but cases continue to rise.

And could mass testing using new saliva tests help control or even end the epidemic? Epidemiologist Julian Peto tells us about his plan which is designed to contain the virus within individual households and stop community spread.

Experiments to investigate dark matter have produced some tantalising results, Physicist Laura Manenti says it’s not confirmation of detection, but potentially close.

If you put one person’s blood into another person , sometimes it’s fine and sometimes it’s a death sentence.

French physician Jean-Baptiste Denis discovered this when he performed the first blood transfusion back in 1667. He put the blood of a lamb into a 15-year boy. The teenager survived but Denis’s third attempt killed the patient and led to a murder charge.

In 1900, Austrian doctor Karl Landsteiner discovered the reason for this lottery – blood types. The red blood cells in our bodies are decorated with different marker molecules called antigens. These define us as A, B, AB or O blood type. And this is just one of 38 different systems for classifying our blood. CrowdScience listeners have discovered that we aren’t the only animal with blood types and want to know more.

Dogs have 12 different blood groups, so how do they cope when they need a transfusion? CrowdScience meets some very good dogs who donate a pint to the pet blood bank in return for a toy and a treat. Each pint saving up to 4 other dogs’ lives.

We also hear how examining our blood types can tell us more about our links to our ape-like cousins and how the human species spread around the world. And what about the future of blood types – can we use science, and animal blood to get around the problems of transfusions?

(Image: Rural Scene in Verkhoyansk. Credit: Dean Conger/Corbis via Getty Images)
access_time11 months ago
A multi arm trial testing a range of drugs has shown that readily available steroids can be lifesaving for people severely ill with Covid-19. Max Parmar, head of the UK Medical Research Council’s clinical trials unit says the trial design, where many potential drugs can be tested against the same controls, is key to producing results quickly.

As it spreads around the world SARS-CoV-2 is mutating. But what does this mean? These mutations are part of a natural process and some researchers are finding they make no real difference to patient outcomes so far, but others are concerned the virus may become more dangerous. Neville Sanjana from New York University has been running lab tests on the mutant virus.

Measles mutated from an animal virus, developing the ability to jump from cattle to human around 2,500 years ago. Sebastien Calvignac-Spencer from Germany’s Robert Koch Institute tracked its origins using preserved lung samples from centuries old measles victims.

Covid -19 has become a magnet for conspiracy theorists. A common unfounded claim is that the virus was deliberately manufactured. During the boredom of lockdown such ideas have taken off online, with conspiracy videos receiving millions of views. We speak to scientists who have been targeted, and become the subject of this online misinformation.

Also What exactly it means to be conscious has long been a question of profound debate amongst philosophers, and more recently, scientists. There are no easy answers, and it gets even trickier when you start asking whether animals are conscious: how can you find out about their subjective experience when they can’t tell you about it?

Never afraid to tackle the impossible, CrowdScience is looking for answers after listener Natalie got in touch. She has lived with her cat for years and has a strong sense that he has thoughts and feelings: he has his own personality, acts in complex ways, and even has ‘grumpy days’. But is this consciousness? Is there any way of scientifically testing for it? How different from our own inner world is that of a cat, an octopus, or a bumblebee? And if we can find any answers to these puzzling questions, how does that affect the way we treat animals - not just our pets, but all the animals we share our planet with?

We meet Natalie and her cat, and discover how scientists have explored the minds of pigs, cows and cuttlefish. Helping us ponder the elusive question of animal consciousness are philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, neuroscientist Anil Seth, animal welfare expert Donald Broom, ethicist Jessica Pierce, and comparative psychologist Alex Schnell.

Featuring David Seddon as the voice of Chicco the Cat.

(Image: Doctor examines Covid-19 virus patient. Credit: Getty Images)
access_time11 months ago
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic efforts to counter massive swarms of locusts across East Africa have continued. In many places this has been very effective, killing up to 90% of locusts. However, the threat of repeated waves of locusts remains says Cyril Ferrand, who leads the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Resilience Team in East Africa.

Conversely West Africa is unaffected by locusts and with a block on imports local producers have seen demand grow for their produce, an unusual positive effect from the pandemic according to Sandrine Dury from the French agricultural research agency CIRAD.

We examine the potential for a second wave of coronavirus as many countries relax lockdown measures, businesses reopen and mass protests take to the streets. Epidemiologist Carl Bergstrom is interested in working out which of these movements is likely to have the most impact.

And from South Africa, how radio telescope engineers there have turned their hands to developing new ventilators appropriate for regional needs.

And we were bowled over by a question from one CrowdScience listener in Australia wants to know how likely it is that the atoms in his body have been used in someone else’s body? We all like to think we are unique; no one is quite like us. But is that really true?

Presenter Marnie Chesterton tackles Moshe’s question with help from every area of science. From geologists helping us work out how many atoms are on the Earth’s surface to biologists helping us work out how many atoms each body uses. Perhaps we are much less special than we think.
access_time11 months ago
Autopsies show Covid 19 can affect the brain and other organs. Pathologist Mary Fowkes from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai found the signs of stroke - unusually in young people, as well as a disruption of the immune system throughout the body.

And studies of heart stem cells show these can be killed by the virus. Cell Biologist Stefanie Dimmeler from the University of Frankfurt says this finding could prove useful in providing treatment and preventative medicine.

A massive research project in China has identified over 700 different types of coronavirus carried by bats, some of these obscure virus sequences are thought to have already jumped from bats to human and animals such as pigs. In a similar way to SARS-CoV-2 they present a potential threat as a source of future pandemics says Peter Daszak from the EcoHeath Alliance which conducted the research in collaboration with Chinese scientists.

And is there racism in the way people with Covid -19 infections are categorised? It’s an issue which concerns toxicologist Winston Morgan from the University of East London. He says as race is a social construct it’s an inappropriate measure to use when trying to work out who is vulnerable to the virus.

And, Have you ever broken up a fight? Or pushed someone out the way of an oncoming vehicle, only to be hit by it yourself? Most of us probably haven’t taken as many risks as listener Alix, who has put herself in peril to save strangers on several occasions, and she wants Crowdscience to investigate why? At a time when medical professionals have to weigh up the personal dangers of working on the frontline of the Coronavirus crisis, it’s a particularly timely question. Marnie Chesterton finds out why it’s a good thing that children push the boundaries of what’s safe during playtime, because it makes them less anxious adults. And she questions the existence of the so-called bystander effect, discovering how evolution has ensured we’re a much braver species than we sometimes give ourselves credit for. But she hears from some social scientists who say there’s no such thing as a ‘hero’ however likely they are to intervene to help others
access_time11 months ago
The number of cases of Covid -19 infections in Brazil and deaths related to the pandemic may be much higher than official figures show. Testing of the living is not widespread and there are few resources for analysing the potential role of the virus as a cause of death. Virologist Fernando Spiliki gives us his bleak assessment.

A remarkable study from South Africa shows just how easily the virus can spread around a hospital, with a single infected person infecting many. However the route of infection is not necessarily direct person to person transmission says investigator Richard Lessells from the University of KwaZulu Natal.
And from London a study in a hospital with many Covid patients at the height of the pandemic supports the South African findings; Researchers found viral particles on surfaces and in the air says Professor Wendy Barclay from Imperial College.

An early warning system for outbreaks of the virus or second waves may come from analysis of sewage, Jordan Peccia from Yale University analysed waste from his local sewage treatment works and found peaks in concentrations of the virus in the sludge occurred a few days before increases in hospital admissions.

(Image: Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wear face masks as they demonstrate against quarantine and social distancing measures imposed by governors and mayors to combat the new coronavirus outbreak and demand military intervention.

Also this week, The kids take over. Our younger listeners are as curious as their parents, it seems, so presenter Marnie Chesterton seeks out the finest minds and attempts to answer a raft of their science questions, including why can’t you tickle yourself? Why don’t our eyebrows grow as long as the hair on our heads?

Not content with humankind, these whizz kids have been pondering deeply about other animals. Ava, 9, from the UK wants to know if any other animals kill for fun, like some humans do.

Not limited by planet Earth, these little thinkers have been contemplating even weightier questions. Joshua, 13, from Kenya wonders if our Solar System rotates around anything. And Seattle-based Michael, 10, puzzles over what would happen if a black hole collided with a wormhole.

These and other mysteries are uncovered by Marnie and her experts.

Credit: SERGIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images)
access_time12 months ago
There are more than 100 different Covid -19 vaccine trials currently going on. We look at which seem to be the most promising with Helen Branswell from Stat News.

And we examine a very old idea, using antibodies from one virus – in this case SARS, to counter another virus SARS- CoV-2 , which causes Covid-19. Davide Corti from Vir Biotechnology says a version of these antibodies offers potential for both vaccination and treatment.

Race and Covid -19, there seems to be a link between ethnicity and susceptibility to the virus which can’t be easily explained away by economic factors. That's the finding from a study of nearly 6 million people in the US conducted by Epidemiologist Chris Rentsch from the London School of hygiene and tropical medicine.

And social distancing in ancient times, how plagues and pandemics in the past seem to have been defeated using similar behavioural adaptations to those we are current employing. Archaeologist Shadreck Chikure has seen the evidence in sites across Africa.

(Image:Vaccine trials Credit: Getty Images)

Presenter: Roland Pease
Producer: Julian Siddle