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Discovery

Explorations in the world of science.

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Megadrought in Chile

Drought is a massive problem for Chile. Jane Chambers has been living in the capital Santiago for more than ten years and has seen huge changes in that time. It used to rain frequently in the winter months between June and September and the Andes Mountains which run down the whole of Chile were snow-capped all year round. But that doesn’t happen anymore. Jane reports on the impact of the mega drought on the country and what is being done about it. She talks to climate scientists Sebastian Vicuna, Director of the Global Change Research Centre, at the Catholic University of Chile and to Rene Garreaud, a Professor in the Geophysics Department at University of Chile and Deputy Director of the Center for Climate and Resilience Research, about whether the megadrought is the result of natural weather patterns or of climate change. She meets farmers who are struggling to find pasture for their goats in the village of Til Til, and Francisco Meza, a Professor in the department of agriculture and forestry at the Catholic University in Santiago, who is helping agriculture adapt to low rainfall. And Jane hears about ways to increase the availability of drinking water through small-scale desalination and by capturing moisture from the air. Picture: Flows of rivers and reservoirs have reached historic minimums in Chile. A severe drought is hitting the country's central area, making local communities more vulnerable to face the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images)

27mins

5 Oct 2020

Rank #1

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Exercise

Can exercise help people living with Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative condition, with symptoms such as loss of balance, difficulty walking and stiffness in the arms and legs.Jane Hill travels to the Netherlands to meet Mariëtte Robijn and Wim Rozenberg, coaches at Rock Steady Boxing Het Gooi and co-founders of ParkinsonSport.nl, a unique sports club ran 100% by and for people with Parkinson’s. It doesn’t take long before a transformation begins to take place in the gym.Boxing is popular in the US as well, says Professor Lisa Shulman, Director of the Parkinson’s Centre at the University of Maryland. She has been encouraging her patients to exercise for the last 25 years.Results from over 200 studies suggest that exercise is a good way to empower people as well as having physical benefits such as delaying disability.In Ghana many people receive a late diagnosis. Sheila Klufio a physiotherapist at Korle Bu Hospital in Accra works with people to help them deal with some of the more common symptoms such as freezing when walking so they feel more confident to go out.And it seems all types of exercise can help, Alan Alda and Michael J Fox both box, ballet dancing is popular, walking, cycling and Tai Chi have benefits and it’s never too late to start. Picture credit: Wim Rozenberg at Wimages.nl

26mins

7 Oct 2019

Rank #2

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Demis Hassabis

Jim Al-Khalili finds out why Demis Hassabis wants to create artificial intelligence and use it to help humanity.Thinking about how to win at chess when he was a boy got Demis thinking about the process of thinking itself. Being able to program his first computer (a Sinclair Spectrum) felt miraculous. In computer chess, his two passions were combined. And a lifelong ambition to create artificial intelligence was born.Demis studied computer science at Cambridge and then worked in the computer games industry for many years. Games, he says, are the ideal testing ground for AI. Then, thinking memory and imagination were aspects of the human mind that would be a necessary part of any artificially intelligent system, he studied neuroscience for a PhD.He set up DeepMind in 2010 and pioneered a new approach to creating artificial intelligence, based on deep learning and built-in rewards for making good decisions. Four years later, DeepMind was sold to Google for £400 million. The company’s landmark creation, Alpha Go stunned the world when it defeated the world Go champion in South Korea in 2016. Their AI system, AlphaZero taught itself to play chess from scratch. After playing against itself for just four hours, it was the best chess computer in the world. (Humans had been defeated long ago).Many fear both the supreme intelligence and the stupidity of AI. Demis imagines a future in which computers and humans put their brains together to try and understand the world. His algorithms have inspired humans to raise their game, when playing Go and chess. Now, he hopes that AI might do the same for scientific research. Perhaps the next Nobel Prize will be shared between a human and AI?

26mins

10 Mar 2020

Rank #3

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The silence of the genes

In summer of 2019 NICE approved the use of a completely new class of drugs: the gene silencers. These compounds are transforming the lives of families who have rare debilitating – and sometimes fatal - diseases such as amyloidosis and porphyria. James Gallagher, BBC Health and Science Correspondent, reveals the ups and downs in the story of how a Nobel prize winning discovery of RNA interference has become a useful drug in less than a quarter of a century.Professor Craig Mello, one of the winners of the Nobel Prize in 2006 for revealing the mechanism of RNA interference, and Professor Mark Kay of Stanford University, look back at the discovery.Sue Burrell, who has acute intermittent porphyria, explains how a gene silencing drug has reversed her symptoms of extreme pain. Dr Carlos Heras-Palou, an orthopaedic surgeon at Royal Derby Hospital, who has hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis has had his career saved by taking another gene silencing drug, patisaran. It has restored the feeling in his hands he had lost and means that he can continue to carry out operations. Professor Philip Hawkins, of the National Amyloidosis Centre at the Royal Free Hospital, tells James about how his team showed that this drug reverses some of the symptoms caused by the disease.As well as treating these rare conditions James discovers that this approach is being tried in untreatable neurodegenerative conditions. He talks to Professor Sarah Tabrizi of UCL about her research into stopping Huntington's disease, which is currently inevitably fatal.Akshay Vaishnaw of the biotech company Alnylam talks to James about the ups and downs of developing effective RNAi drugs.And Professor John Kastelein of Amsterdam University discusses the findings of a study into finding out if gene silencing could help prevent one of the biggest global killers; bad cholesterol that causes heart attacks and stroke.Picture: DNA molecules, structure of the genetic code, 3d rendering,conceptual image, Credit: Andy/GettyImages

27mins

6 Jan 2020

Rank #4

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The power of celibacy

You might think that sex is essential for life, but you'd be wrong!Lucy Cooke travels to the Hawaiian island of Oahu to meet a community of mourning geckos - self-cloning sisters who have done away with males altogether.An array of reptiles, amphibians and fish, along with a host of spineless wonders, from snails to spiders, can reproduce without sex. It's what biologists call parthenogenesis, from the Greek meaning “virgin birth”.Many, like the mourning gecko, make great “weed” species. They're explosive opportunists capable of rapidly colonising new territory, as they don’t need to waste energy finding a mate. But without the mixing up of genes, that sex with a male provides, they are less able to adapt and change.So sex pays if you don’t want to go extinct.Yet there is one self-cloning sister that defies that theory - the Bdelloid Rotifer. Living for millions of years and comprising over 450 species, these microscopic water dwelling creatures have conquered the planet. They get around the drawbacks of no sex, by stealing genes, and escape disease by desiccating and then coming back to life.Producer: Beth EastwoodPicture: Female Komodo dragon at London Zoo, Credit: Matthew Fearn/PA

27mins

1 Feb 2021

Rank #5

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The Zedonk Problem

Today I learnt that tigons and ligers are what you get when lions and tigers interbreed?!’ surprised listener Jamz G tells the doctors. ‘What determines whether species can interbreed?’Geneticist Aoife McLysaght studies molecular evolution. She explains the modern definition of a species, built on ideas from Aristotle, Linnaeus and Darwin: a species is a group of organisms capable of interbreeding to produce fertile offspring. Hybrids – such as ligons and tigers – are usually infertile, because their common ancestors long ago diverged into the lions and tigers we know today. However, this definition isn’t absolute, and there are many ways a new species can be formed.Hybrids also offer rich study subjects for scientists. Mathematical biologist Kit Yates discusses why he’s been reading research papers about hebras and zorses (horse x zebra) as their patterns offer insights into how cells spread and develop into organisms, building on a prediction made by codebreaking mathematician Alan Turing.And it turns out that these hybrids are even more intriguing. As speciation and evolution expert Joana Meier explains, hybrids are not always infertile. Hybridisation can lead to successful new species arising, such as in Lake Victoria’s cichlid fish, who it seems have been having a wild evolutionary party for the last 15,000 years. And the picture gets even murkier when we discover that modern genetics reveals our human ancestors successfully mated with Neanderthals.Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam RutherfordProducer: Jen Whyntie

27mins

30 Nov 2020

Rank #6

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Unwanted touch

Claudia Hammond explores unwanted touch and who we do and don’t mind touching us – and where. She draws on insights from the largest study that’s ever been conducted on the topic of touch – The Touch Test - commissioned by Wellcome Collection. Almost forty thousand people from all over the world chose to take part. Claudia discusses where we draw the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable touch, at work or in the street, with Dr Amy Kavanagh, a visually impaired activist and campaigner, Joanna Bourke, Professor of History at Birkbeck, University of London and the author of “Rape - a History”, and Dr Natalie Bowling, a psychologist at the University of Greenwich who co-created the Touch Test and has been crunching the numbers. After #meToo and Covid, could unwanted touch even become a thing of the past?

28mins

19 Oct 2020

Rank #7

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Climate meltdown

The year 2020 started with wildfires raging across parts of Australia, exceptional floods in East Africa, and a heatwave in the Arctic. Extremes persisted through the year in the north - where wild fires consumed record areas in Siberia, and the Arctic ice reached record lows. Death Valley saw the highest reliable temperature yet recorded on the planet, while the Atlantic saw the most active hurricane season on record. An extreme year by many measures, and one that could end up as the hottest on record globally. Roland Pease asks what it tells us about global warming.Picture credit: Wegener Institute / Steffen Graupner

37mins

28 Dec 2020

Rank #8

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Why do we get déjà vu?

4/6 Part 1: Déjà vu"Do we know what causes déjà vu?" asks Floyd Kitchen from Queenstown in New Zealand.Drs Rutherford and Fry investigate this familiar feeling by speaking to world-leading reseacher Chris Moulin from the University of Grenoble in France and memory expert Catherine Loveday from Westminster University. Plus, they find out why early investigations classed déjà vu as a type of paranormal phenomenon.For most of us, it's a fleetingly strange experience, but for some people it can become a serious problem. Lisa from Hulme in Manchester started experiencing déjà vu when she was 22 with episodes that could last all day. The origin of her déjà vu has been the key to helping psychologists investigate its cause.Part 2: Randomness"Is anything truly random, or is everything predetermined?" asks Darren Spalding from Market Harborough.Hannah and Adam go in search of random events, from dice throws to lava lamps. Can we predict the outcome of any event? "How do computers manage to pick random numbers?" asks Jim Rennie from Mackinaw in Illinois. Random numbers are vital for things like cyber security and banking. But true randomness is surprisingly hard to produce, as the team discover.Joining them for this case we have a random selection of experts: mathematician Colva Roney-Dougal, technology journalist Bill Thompson, Science Museum Curator Tilly Blyth and quantum physicist Jim AlKhalili.Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam RutherfordProducer: Michelle MartinMain Image: A fan of the New York Yankees holds up a sign which reads "It's Deja Vu" at the Yankee Stadium, New York City 29 Oct 2009. Credit: Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images

26mins

3 Jun 2019

Rank #9

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Plant scientist Dale Sanders

Professor Dale Sanders has spent much of his life studying plants, seeking to understand why some thrive in a particular environment while others struggle. His ground breaking research on their molecular machinery showed how plants extract nutrients from the soil and store essential elements. Since plants can’t move, their survival depends on these responses. In 2020, after 27 years at the University of York, he became the Director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, one of the premier plant research institutions in the world. Meeting the food needs of a growing global population as the climate changes is a major challenge. And, Dale says, it’s not only about maximising yields. We need crops that are more resilient and more nutritious. Drought resistant crop varieties, for example. And zinc-rich white rice. Dale talks to Jim about how plant science is helping to feed the world in a sustainable way and why plant scientists don’t always get the recognition they deserve.Producer: Anna Buckley

27mins

18 Jan 2021

Rank #10

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The power of one

We humans are a supremely social species, but the coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us into solitary confinement.It feels like an unnatural, regressive move, that goes against our collective nature. So why do some species embrace the power of one? And how do they make a success of a solo existence?Lucy Cooke meets some of the animal kingdom’s biggest loners - from the Komodo Dragon, to the Okapi and the Black Rhino - to explore the lure of solitude.Producer: Beth EastwoodPicture: Okapi (Okapia johnstoni), forest giraffe or zebra giraffe, Credit: Jiri Hrebicek/Getty Images

27mins

8 Feb 2021

Rank #11

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Galileo's lost letter

Galileo famously insisted in the early 17th Century that the Earth goes round the Sun and not vice versa – an idea that got him into deep trouble with the Catholic Church. In 1633 Galileo was put on trial for heresy by the Inquisition, and was threatened with imprisonment, or worse, if he did not recant. Galileo spent the rest of his days under house arrest and is now seen by some as a near-martyr to science in the face of unyielding religious doctrine. But the discovery of a letter questions the received version of events. Philip Ball tells the story of the relationship between Galileo, the church and his fellow professors.Philip talks to science historians professor Paula Findlen of Stanford University and professor Mary Jane Rubenstein of Wesleyan University about Galileo's time and about the history of the relationship between science and religion.(Picture: Galileo demonstrating his telescope. Credit: Getty Images)

26mins

2 Dec 2019

Rank #12

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Quantum Supremacy

IBM is giving users worldwide the chance to use a quantum computer; Google is promising "quantum supremacy" by the end of the year; Microsoft's Station Q is working on the hardware and operating system for a machine that will outpace any conventional computer. Roland Pease meets some of the experts, and explores the technology behind the next information revolution.Picture: Bright future for Quantum Computing, credit: Jonathan Home @ETH

28mins

15 May 2017

Rank #13

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The sting in the tail

"What’s the point of wasps?" asks listener Andrew, who is fed up with being pestered. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. Do wasps do anything to justify their presence as a picnic menace?Ecologist Seirian Sumner researches social wasp behaviour and champions their existence. Not only do yellow jacket wasps perform important ecological services as generalist pest controllers of aphids, caterpillars and flies in the UK, they have complex societies and may even perform pollination services, making them more like their better-loved bee cousins than many might think.However, much remains unknown about wasps’ contribution to our ecosystem. Seirian works with entomologist Adam Hart, and together they run The Big Wasp Survey each summer, a citizen science project dedicated to find out more about UK wasp species and their populations. Prof. Hart sets up an experimental picnic with Dr Rutherford to try and attract some native wasps, and discusses why they are so maligned.But in some parts of the world UK wasp species have become a major problem. Just after World War II, having unwittingly chosen some aircraft parts destined for New Zealand as their overwintering home, some wasp queens woke up in the city of Hamilton. With no natural predators or competitors, they quickly established a growing population. Fast forward to today, and by late summer the biomass of wasps becomes greater than all the birds, rodents and stoats in the southern island’s honeydew beech forests. Multiyear nests have been discovered that are over three metres tall and contain millions of wasps. Researcher Bob Brown is digging into wasp nests back in the UK to discover which species keep wasps in check here, and whether they might work as biological control.This causes the doctors to ponder the problems of humans moving species around the planet. Accidental or even well-meaning introductions all too often become invasive. As climate change and urbanisation accelerate, wasps may become more helpful in some ways and more harmful in others.Presenters: Hannah Fry, Adam RutherfordProducer: Jen Whyntie

27mins

28 Sep 2020

Rank #14

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Evolutionary biologist Alice Roberts

It’s amazing what we can learn from a pile of old bones. Having worked as a paediatric surgeon for several years (often doing the ward round on roller blades), Alice Roberts spent a decade teaching anatomy to medical students and studying human remains. A niche interest in the collar bone and how it has changed since we evolved from the common ancestor we share with other apes 6 million years ago, led her to some of the biggest questions in science. Who are we? And where do we come from? She is the presenter of several landmark TV series on human evolution and archaeology, such as The Incredible Human Journey and Digging for Britain. And in 2019 she became President of the British Science Association. In conversation with Jim Al Khalili, Alice shares her passion for the bones of our ancient ancestors and of the freshly dead, and describes her own incredible journey from a basement full of medieval bones to an eminent science communicator and public figure.Producer: Anna Buckley

27mins

21 Dec 2020

Rank #15

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The Great Science Publishing Scandal

Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester, explores the hidden world of prestige, profits and piracy that lurks behind scientific journals. Each year, hundreds of thousands of articles on the findings on research are published, forming the official record of science. This has been going on since the 17th century, but recently a kind of war has broken out over the cost of journals to the universities and research institutions where scientists work, and to anyone else who wants to access the research, such as policy makers, patient support groups and the general public. Traditionally journals charge their readers a subscription, but since the start of the 21st century there's been a move to what's called open access, where the authors pay to get their articles published but anyone can read them, without charge. In Europe Plan S has called for all research funded by the public purse to be open access, by 2021. If and when this is implemented it could have downsides on learned societies who depend on income from journal subscriptions to support young researchers and on scientists in the less developed world. Some universities, and even countries, have recently refused to pay the subscriptions charged by some of the big science publishers. This has led to some scientists using a service run by a Russian hacker, which has effectively stolen the whole of the scientific literature and gives it away, free, on the internet. Matthew Cobb looks back at how the scientific publishing industry got to its current state and asks how it could change. He argues that scientists themselves need to break their addiction to wanting their articles to appear in a few well known journals, and instead concentrate on the quality of their research.

27mins

19 Aug 2019

Rank #16

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Alexis Carrel and the immortal chicken heart

Philip Ball tells the story of Alexis Carrel, the French surgeon who worked to preserve life outside the body and create an immortal chicken heart in a dish. His quest was to renew ageing flesh, repair and rebuild our bodies and keep them healthy far beyond the usual human lifespan. In the early twentieth century his science was pioneering but his mission to achieve eternal life was underpinned by a dark and terrifying agenda. Carrel was a racist who advocated eugenics to preserve the superior civilisation of the West.Philip Ball discusses the history and cultural impact of the tissue culture techniques developed by Carrel with social historian Professor Hannah Landecker of the University of California at Los Angeles. And he finds out about the legacy of Carrel's research from Dr Madeline Lancaster of Cambridge University, one of the pioneers of the growth of brain organoids from stem cells; small clusters of neurons and other cells, rather like mini organs no bigger than a dried pea.Picture: Raw chicken heart, Credit: Arina_Bogachyova/Getty Images

27mins

30 Dec 2019

Rank #17

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Bringing Schrodinger's Cat to Life

Schrodinger's cat is the one that's famously alive and dead. At the same time. Impossible! Roland Pease meets the quantum scientists hoping to bring one to life in the laboratory. Not a real cat, to be fair. But large biomolecules, viruses, even bacteria, that can exhibit the quantum duality parodied in the paradox first described by one of the fathers of quantum physics. Because if they succeed, they may learn something about the interface between the quantum world, and the human world we live in.Presenter/Producer: Roland PeaseCredit: Harald Ritsch/Science Photo Library

26mins

16 Apr 2018

Rank #18

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Protecting heads in sports

The death last week of boxer Patrick Day, four days after he was stretchered out of the ring in a coma, is the latest reminder of how vulnerable sportsmen and women are to traumatic brain injury. During the latest Ashes series the Australian batsman Steve Smith was temporarily retired for one test after being struck on the helmet by a bouncer. The current World Cup Rugby has been affected too, with Welsh fly half Dan Biggar withdrawn from a game against Uruguay having received head injuries in two previous matches. In this edition of Discovery, Roland Pease talks to engineers at Imperial College and Loughborough University using the latest techniques to understand the dynamics of blows to the head, and to improve helmet protection. And to experts and Rugby players at Swansea University seeking to make precision measurements of real-life head movements with the help of gum shields stuffed with electronics.Picture credit: Mazdak Ghajari

26mins

21 Oct 2019

Rank #19

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Patient Undone

Professor Deborah Bowman reveals how a diagnosis of cancer has transformed her view of medical ethics and what it means to be a patient.As Professor of Ethics and Law at St George's, University of London, Deborah has spent the past two decades teaching and writing about medical ethics, the moral principles that apply to medicine.It's taken her down countless hospital corridors, to the clinics and the wards where medical ethics plays out in practice, behind closed doors, supporting healthcare practitioners and their patients to negotiate uncertainty and conflict.This is the field of clinical ethics and, each time, the 'patient' has been central to her response. Yet in the autumn of 2017, everything changed. Deborah was diagnosed with breast cancer and it signalled the beginning of her undoing, not just personally but professionally too, playing havoc with what she thought she knew about clinical ethics. Patient autonomy - literally 'self-rule'- is one of its cornerstones - a patient's right to make decisions about their healthcare. So what does autonomy mean if the 'self', she thought she knew, was so changeable and confusing? Deborah returns to the Royal Marsden Hospital where she is a patient, to explore this - with both her personal and professional hats on. Producer: Beth EastwoodMain Image: Deborah Bowman. Copyright: Deborah Bowman

27mins

26 Aug 2019

Rank #20