Cover image of The Life Scientific
(115)
Science

The Life Scientific

Updated 4 days ago

Science
Read more

Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires them and asking what their discoveries might do for us in the future.

Read more

Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires them and asking what their discoveries might do for us in the future.

iTunes Ratings

115 Ratings
Average Ratings
88
10
12
4
1

All the interesting people are here.

By Dennis_Home_Again - Oct 22 2017
Read more
I’m so happy I have access into the minds of people who I admire.

Needs More Depth

By Apple1234Pie - Apr 23 2017
Read more
Not enough detail, but better than some other BBC Radio 4 shows.

iTunes Ratings

115 Ratings
Average Ratings
88
10
12
4
1

All the interesting people are here.

By Dennis_Home_Again - Oct 22 2017
Read more
I’m so happy I have access into the minds of people who I admire.

Needs More Depth

By Apple1234Pie - Apr 23 2017
Read more
Not enough detail, but better than some other BBC Radio 4 shows.
Cover image of The Life Scientific

The Life Scientific

Latest release on Feb 18, 2020

The Best Episodes Ranked Using User Listens

Updated by OwlTail 4 days ago

Rank #1: Brian Cox on quantum mechanics

Podcast cover
Read more
Professor Brian Cox of Manchester University describes how he gave up appearing on Top of the Pops to study quarks, quasars and quantum mechanics.

Although he describes himself as a simple-minded Northern bloke, he has acquired an almost God-like status on our TV screens; while the 'Cox effect' is thought to explain the significant boost to university admissions to read physics. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about learning to be famous, his passion for physics and how he sometimes has difficulty crossing the road.

In 2005 Brian was awarded a Royal Society Research Fellowship for his work on high energy particle collisions at CERN and elsewhere - an enviable academic achievement. In 2009, he was voted one of the sexiest men alive by People magazine. He has invented a new kind of celebrity - a scientist who's regularly snapped by the paparazzi.

Brian wants everyone to be as excited as he is about the laws that govern our universe: the beautiful, counter-intuitive and often weird world of quantum mechanics that explains what happens inside the nucleus of every atom, right down at the level of those exotically named elementary particles - quarks, neutrinos, gluons, muons.

Challenged by Jim to explain the rules of quantum mechanics in just a minute, Brian succeeds; while conceding that the idea that everything is inherently probabilistic, is challenging. Even Einstein found it difficult. Schrodinger's cat, or Brian Cox, for that matter, are simultaneously both dead and alive. That's a fact. What this is all means is another question. "Am I just an algorithm?" Brian asks. "Probably", says Jim.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

Sep 23 2014

27mins

Play

Rank #2: Lawrence Krauss on dark energy

Podcast cover
Read more
Lawrence Krauss has had an unusual career for a cosmologist.

Not content with dreaming up theoretical models of the Universe, and writing bestselling science books, he gathers audiences of thousands for his talks with leading figures, from Noam Chomsky to Johnny Depp. And soon, he will star as an evil scientist in the film 'Salt & Fire' directed by Werner Herzog.

Inside the world of physics, Krauss predicted the existence of a mysterious 'dark energy' in space, several years before it was found, although the Nobel Prize for the discovery was later given to three other scientists.

As a public atheist, Krauss has come to blows with religious and political lobbies inside the United States. He tells Jim Al-Khalili why 'coming out' as an atheist in the US is considered so controversial.

Producer: Michelle Martin.

May 31 2016

28mins

Play

Rank #3: Martin Rees

Podcast cover
Read more
Jim enters the multiverse with Astronomer Royal Martin Rees. He's worked on the big bang, black holes and the formation of galaxies but what he would really like to know is if there is life elsewhere in the universe.

As an ex president of the Royal Society and a member of the House of Lords he is at the heart of science policy and worked with the G8 to put science on the international agenda. An atheist, he has attracted criticism from other scientists for his religious views.

He says we can now be fairly certain of what happened in the universe from a nanosecond after the big bang until today and is a supporter of the idea that there may have been many big bangs leading to many universes.

Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Mar 06 2012

28mins

Play

Rank #4: Sir Michael Marmot

Podcast cover
Read more
When Professor Sir Michael Marmot was a junior doctor he decided that medicine was failed prevention.
To really understand disease you have to look at the society people live in. His major scientific discovery came from following the health of British civil servants over many years. The Whitehall studies, as they're known, challenged the myth about executive stress and instead revealed that, far from being 'tough at the top', it was in fact much tougher for those lower down the pecking order. This wasn't just a matter of rich or poor, or even social class. What Marmot showed was the lower your status at work, the shorter your lifespan. Mortality rates were three times higher for those at the bottom than for those at the top. The unpleasant truth is that your boss will live longer than you.

What's more, this social gradient of health, or what he calls Status Syndrome, isn't confined to civil servants or to the UK but is a global phenomenon. In conversation with Jim Al-Khalili Michael Marmot reveals what inspires and motivates his work.

Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Nov 01 2011

28mins

Play

Rank #5: Colin Blakemore

Podcast cover
Read more
Colin Blakemore is a neuroscientist who nearly became an artist. He specialised in vision and the development of the brain, and pioneered the idea that the brain has the ability to change even in adulthood contrary to the popular view at the time.

Professor Blakemore, the youngest ever Reith Lecturer, is an influential science communicator and is committed to raising the profile of brain research. Because of his work he was targeted by animal rights campaigners for over a decade, but rather than keeping a low profile as advised, he decided to work with the activists and explain his point of view about the need for animal testing in medical research. He was appointed head of the Medical Research Council in 2003 but threatened to resign shortly after when he was refused a knighthood, because of his defence of animal research. He has been equally outspoken on many issues including classification of drugs and GM foods. His current areas of research include how the brain develops which has implications for many conditions including autism and schizophrenia.

He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about why he's not been afraid to stand up to his critics.

Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Nov 08 2011

27mins

Play

Rank #6: Colin Pillinger

Podcast cover
Read more
On this day eight years ago, planetary scientist Colin Pillinger was still hopeful that the Beagle 2 Lander that he had spent years designing, building and publicising (with the help of Blur and Damien Hirst) might yet be found somewhere on the surface of Mars. But, as more time passed, it became clear that The Beagle 2 Lander would be forever lost in space. Jim al -Khalili talks to Colin Pillinger about studying moon rock and meteorites from Mars whilst running a successful dairy farm; broken space dreams and why, even if a space project fails, useful scientific lessons can still be learned.

Dec 27 2011

28mins

Play

Rank #7: EO Wilson on ants and evolution

Podcast cover
Read more
EO Wilson has been described as the "world's most evolved biologist" and even as "the heir to Darwin". He's a passionate naturalist and an absolute world authority on ants. Over his long career he's described 450 new species of ants.

Known to many as the founding father of socio-biology, EO Wilson is a big hitter in the world of evolutionary theory. But, recently he's criticised what's popularly known as The Selfish Gene theory of evolution that he once worked so hard to promote (and that now underpins the mainstream view on evolution).

A twice Pulitzer prize winning author of more than 20 books, he's also an extremely active campaigner for the preservation of the planet's bio-diversity: he says, "destroying rainforest for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal".

EO Wilson talks to Jim al-Khalili about his life scientific.

Jul 28 2015

27mins

Play

Rank #8: Anil Seth on consciousness

Podcast cover
Read more
Anil Seth is professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at the Sackler Centre at the University of Sussex, where he studies consciousness.

His research has taken him in all kinds of directions, from reading philosophy, to computing and virtual reality, and mapping the brain. As well as running the interdisciplinary centre and carrying out experiments that test ideas about consciousness, Anil Seth has co-written a popular book, The 30 second brain, and was the consultant on Eye Benders, the winner of the Junior Royal Society Book Prize in 2014.

He talks to Jim al-Khalili about how scientists can study altered states of consciousness, such as sleep and coma. He explains how he uses virtual reality to understand conditions where our idea of ourselves is distorted, such as in the Alice in Wonderland syndrome.

Jun 16 2015

37mins

Play

Rank #9: Nicky Clayton

Podcast cover
Read more
Nicky Clayton is Professor of Comparative Cognition at Cambridge University. Her work challenges how we think of intelligence and she says that birds' brains developed independently from humans or apes. Members of the corvid family, such as crows and jays appear to plan for the future and predict other birds behaviour in her elegant experiments.One experiment she has designed was inspired by Aesop's fable of the hungry crow.

Her work raises questions about the understanding of animal behaviour, including whether, as humans, we can ever interpret the actions of other species accurately.
But she says her research with birds and other animals can help illuminate young children's activities and how their brains develop.

Nicky Clayton is scientist in residence at the Rambert Dance Company and her latest collaboration with Mark Baldwin, the artistic director, is "Seven for a secret, never to be told" which takes concepts from childhood behaviour and reinterprets them choreographically.

Producer: Geraldine Fitzgerald.

Nov 22 2011

27mins

Play

Rank #10: Molly Stevens

Podcast cover
Read more
Jim al-Khalili talks to a scientist who grows human bones in a test tube, Molly Stevens.

Molly Stevens does geeky hard core science but her main aim is to help people. Twenty years ago, nobody thought it was possible to make human body parts in the laboratory, but today scientists are trying to create almost every bit of the body. Professor Molly Stevens grows bones. Towards the end of her PHD, a chance encounter with the founding father of tissue engineering and an image of a little boy with chronic liver failure, convinced her that this was what she wanted to do. Ten years on, she runs a highly successful lab at Imperial College London and has been photographed by Vogue.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

Nov 15 2011

27mins

Play

Rank #11: Peter Higgs

Podcast cover
Read more
Peter Higgs opens up to Jim Al-Khalili, admitting that he failed to realise the full significance of the Higgs boson and to link it to the much celebrated Standard Model of Physics. An oversight he puts down to a string of missed opportunities, including one night at physics summer camp when, most regrettably, he went to bed early.

Working alone in Edinburgh in the sixties, Peter Higgs was considered 'a bit of a crank'. 'No-one wanted to work with me', he says. In 1964, he predicted the possible existence of a new kind of boson but, at the time, there was little interest in his boson. And in the years that followed, Peter Higgs says, he was 'looking in the wrong place for the application'.

Three years later, the Higgs mechanism was shown to be central to the new Standard Model of
Physics, which brings together three of the four fundamental forces of nature and has dominated physics ever since. Higgs met one of the key architects of the Standard Model several times, but they failed to realise they were working on the same thing. He particularly regrets one night at physics summer camp when he decided to go to bed early. The others meantime stayed up all night working up The Standard Model.

The seventies was an exciting time for particle physics but Higgs says he 'struggled to keep up'.
His PhD was in a different field and he says he 'lacked technical competency'. He says work pressure contributed to the breakdown of his marriage and that perhaps he suffered a personality change in the mid-sixties when he realised his research might be on to something good and started working harder.

Four decades and several billion pounds on, scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN confirmed that the Higgs boson had indeed been found and Peter Higgs shot to fame.

This ephemeral speck of elusive energy is now so well-known it's featured in car adverts and countless jokes. There's even song by Nick Cave called the Higgs Boson Blues. But Higgs has always called it the 'scalar boson' and remains embarrassed that it is named after only him.

Three different research groups, working independently, published very similar papers in 1964 describing what's now known as the Higgs mechanism. And Higgs remains surprised that another British physicist, Tom Kibble from Imperial College, London didn't share the 2013 Nobel Prize for Physics along with him and Belgian physicist, Francois Englert.

"[Kibble] wrote a longer paper which was really very important in generalising the sort of thing I had written in '64 ", says Higgs.

Peter Higgs found physics boring, as it was taught at school. He was going to be an engineer, like his father, but was clumsy in the lab and, he says, became a theoretical physicist 'by default'.

When the 2013 Nobel Prize winners were announced, many assumed Higgs was blissfully unaware that he might win or just not that interested. In fact, he left the house quite deliberately that morning fully expecting the Nobel Committee to call.

These days, he's constantly stopped in the street and asked for autographs and photographs which, he says, is 'nice but a bit of a nuisance'.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

Feb 18 2014

27mins

Play

Rank #12: Russell Foster

Podcast cover
Read more
Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at Oxford University, is obsessed with biological clocks. He talks to Jim al-Khalili about how light controls our wellbeing from jet lag to serious mental health problems. Professor Foster explains how moved from being a poor student at school to the scientist who discovered a new way in which animals detect light.

Aug 20 2013

27mins

Play

Rank #13: James Lovelock

Podcast cover
Read more
Jim al-Khalili talks to James Lovelock about elocution lessons, defrosting hamsters and his grand theory of planet earth, Gaia. The idea that from the bottom of the earth's crust to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, planet earth is one giant inter-connected and self-regulating system.

It's a scientific theory that's had an impact way beyond the world of science: Gaia has been embraced by poets, philosophers, spiritual leaders and green activists. Vaclav Haval called it "a moral prescription for the welfare of the planet".

James Lovelock, now 92, talks about the freedom and frustrations of fifty years spent working outside the scientific establishment.

Public interest in Gaia proliferated after the publication of his first book Gaia: a new look at life on earth in 1979; but the scientific community remained highly sceptical. For decades Gaia was ignored, dismissed and even ridiculed as a scientific theory. To this day, evolutionary biologists, in particular, take issue with the notion of a self-regulating planet. John Maynard Smith called it "an evil religion".

Jonathon Porritt says Lovelock taught him "the value of cantankerous, obstinate independence, sticking to what you think is right and making those the cornerstones of your existence". Outspoken in support of nuclear power, Lovelock has offered to store a large amount of high level nuclear waste in a concrete box in his garden. On climate change, he believes it's too late for mankind to save the planet.

At the start of his Life Scientific, Lovelock says he learnt more working as an apprentice for a photographic firm in south London than he ever did later at university. The best science, he insists, is done with your hands as well as your head.

Thanks to Henry Higgins style elocution lessons aged 12, he was able to get a job at the well respected National Institute for Medical Research. Wartime science was all about solving ad -hoc problems and he loved it. A prolific inventor, he made a very early microwave oven to defrost hamsters and invented the Electron Capture Detector - an exquisitely sensitive device for detecting the presence of the tiniest quantities of gases in the atmosphere and led to a global ban on CFCs.

Aged 40, Lovelock decided to go it alone and, he insists, the theory for which he is best known, Gaia, simply would not have been possible had he remained working within the scientific establishment.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

May 08 2012

27mins

Play

Rank #14: Jared Diamond

Podcast cover
Read more
Jim Al-Khalili talks to Jared Diamond about how his passion for the birds of Papua New Guinea overtook his medical interest in the gall bladder, and led him to undertake a scientific study of global history.
Science polymath and celebrated author, Jared Diamond has tackled some of the big questions about humanity: what is it that makes us uniquely human not just a third species of chimpanzee; and why do some societies thrive and others struggle to survive, or collapse?
Once a Professor of Physiology (specialising in the gall bladder), he became increasingly fascinated by the birds of Papua New Guinea and does an excellent imitation of the ptilinopus fruit dove, among others.
Now Professor of Geography at University of California in LA, he stresses the vital importance of the environment in determining the success or otherwise of a society. He argues first that it was settled agriculture that enabled the white man to develop guns, germs and steel and later that abuse of the environment is often responsible for their collapse.
But can the history of humanity really be understood in much the same way as we might seek to explain the success or otherwise of a particular species of bird?

Dec 04 2012

28mins

Play

Rank #15: David Spiegelhalter

Podcast cover
Read more
Is it more reckless to eat a bacon sandwich everyday or to go skydiving? What's the chance that all children in the same family have exactly the same birthday? Jim Al-Khalili talks to Professor David Spiegelhalter about risk, uncertainty and the real odds behind everyday life.

As one of the world's leading statisticians, he is regularly called upon to help answer questions in high profile inquiries - like the one into the Harold Shipman murders, infant heart surgery at Bristol Royal Infirmary and the PiP breast implant scandal.

Jim finds out more about the Life Scientific of the man who despite winning many awards and his research papers being some of the most cited in his field David Spiegelhalter says he isn't really that good at maths.

Jun 18 2013

27mins

Play

Rank #16: Robert Plomin on the genetics of intelligence

Podcast cover
Read more
Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he's fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored. Born and raised in Chicago, Robert sat countless intelligence tests at his inner city Catholic school. College was an attractive option mainly because it seemed to pay well. Now he's one of the most cited psychologists in the world. He specialized in behavioural genetics in the mid seventies when the focus in mainstream psychology was very much on our nurture rather than our nature, and genetics was virtually taboo. But he persisted, conducting several large adoption studies and later twin studies. In 1995 he launched the biggest longitudinal twin study in the UK, the TED study of ten thousand pairs of twins which continues to this day. In this study and in his other work, he's shown consistently that genetic influences on intelligence are highly significant, much more so than what school you go to, your teachers or home environment. If only the genetic differences between children were fully acknowledged, he believes education could be transformed and parents might stop giving themselves such a hard time.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

Oct 20 2015

28mins

Play

Rank #17: Sean Carroll on how time and space began

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

Feb 07 2017

27mins

Play

Rank #18: Neil de Grasse Tyson on Pluto

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

Dec 20 2016

27mins

Play

Rank #19: Carlos Frenk on dark matter

Podcast cover
Read more
Carlos Frenk, Ogden Professor of Computational Cosmology at the University of Durham, studies the universe, but not by spending nights looking out at the dark skies through telescopes. Rather he creates the cosmos on computers. He is also one of the Gang of Four of astrophysics who thirty years ago came up with one of the most important theories in their field. They worked out that the universe is full of cold dark matter. In 2011 Carlos Frenk and his colleagues were awarded the Gruber prize, one of the leading accolades in astronomy, for their theory.

Carlos Frenk discusses this mysterious missing mass, which is still mysterious and missing, with Jim al-Khalili. They talk about modelling the universe inside computers, and how Carlos persuaded his university to hire the architect Daniel Liebskind to design a building for creative thinking about the cosmos.

Jul 14 2015

28mins

Play

Rank #20: Angela Gallop

Podcast cover
Read more
Jim al-Khalili talks to Angela Gallop, the scientist who provided the vital forensic evidence in the recent re-trial for the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

Angela describes the painstaking scientific detective work that led her team to find a tiny blood clot on Gary Dobson's jacket, that was not identified during the original trial in 1995; and how they proved that this evidence was not the result of contamination during the handling and storage of the clothing exhibits.

Never before in the history of criminal justice have so many cases relied so heavily on scientific evidence. Forensic scientists have ever more sophisticated and powerful techniques at their disposal but, as long as these techniques rely on human judgement (and a surprising number still do) there will be limits to their reliability. Much as we would like to believe the opposite, forensic science is fallible.

Further, even when the science is accurate, there's ample scope in a court of law for good science to be made to look bad and bad science, good. Lawyers locked into an adversarial system can all too easily cast doubt on excellent scientific evidence. Equally, Angela warns of the dangers of putting science on a pedestal .

After a brief spell studying sea slugs on the Isle of Wight, she joined the Forensic Science Service, later switched to working for the defence and is now probably the most sought after forensic scientist in the UK, involved in countless high profile cases, including the Cardiff Three, the coastal path murders as well as both the trial and retrial of Stephen Lawrence.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

Mar 27 2012

27mins

Play