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The Life Scientific

Updated 29 days ago

Science
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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.

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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

122 Ratings
Average Ratings
93
11
12
4
2

All the interesting people are here.

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

Needs More Depth

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

iTunes Ratings

122 Ratings
Average Ratings
93
11
12
4
2

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.

Best weekly hand curated episodes for learning

Cover image of The Life Scientific

The Life Scientific

Latest release on Jan 19, 2021

Best weekly hand curated episodes for learning

The Best Episodes Ranked Using User Listens

Updated by OwlTail 29 days ago

Rank #1: Richard Dawkins

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Richard Dawkins' first book on evolutionary biology "The Selfish Gene" was published to much acclaim and some controversy in 1976. In this interview with Jim Al-Khalili, Professor Dawkins discusses his enthusiasm for the science that inspired the book and how he popularised the idea of the immortal gene. Using the source material from scientists such as Bill Hamilton, Robert Trivers and John Maynard Smith, he presented a gene's eye view of the world.
He's written many other books on evolutionary biology, such as "The Extended Phenotype" "Unweaving the Rainbow" and "The Ancestors Tale". In 2006 he published a polemic which he describes as "a gentlemanly attack on religion", "The God Delusion". Jim asks what he hoped to achieve by writing the book and finds out why he would rather be known for his science than his atheism.

Sep 04 2012

28mins

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Rank #2: Brian Cox on quantum mechanics

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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

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Rank #3: Jonathan Ball on his arms race against viruses

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Ebola, Zika, Sars, Mers - rarely a week goes by without a deadly virus stealing the headlines.

For Jonathan Ball, getting to know a virus at its most basic level is crucial to mounting a defence. As the son of a coal miner, who grew up in a mining village in the 1970s, a future in academic research studying deadly viruses wasn’t really on the agenda.

Yet his work has led him to the forefront of scientific research to find the antibodies that can protect us from some of the nastiest diseases known to humankind.

As Professor of Virology at Nottingham University, he’s interested in how a virus evolves and mutates, as it moves from person to person, so that he can pinpoint chinks in its armour to find a way to disable it.

However, there are occupational hazards to his chosen field of work. Just when his own research was starting to show promise, another team pipped him to the post!

Yet, ever the optimist, he believes this just adds to the excitement.

Producer: Beth Eastwood

Jul 30 2019

27mins

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Rank #4: Jared Diamond

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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

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Rank #5: Patricia Wiltshire on how pollen can solve crimes.

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Patricia Wiltshire grew up in a mining village in South Wales, left home when she was 17 and worked for many years, first as a medical technician and then as a business secretary (a profession her first husband considered to be more ladylike). When she was studying botany A level at evening classes, her teacher encouraged her to apply for university as a mature student. (She would never have considered it otherwise). And so began her career as a palynologist (studying pollen). She worked for many years reconstructing ancient environments on archaeological sites. But a phone call from a police detective led to a dramatic change of direction, when she was in her fifties. Since then, Pat has been involved in some of the most high-profile murder cases in Britain, including the murder of two ten year old girls in Soham in Cambridgeshire in 2002. She tells Jim Al-Khalili how she pioneered the use of pollen as evidence in criminal cases. Studying spores taken from suspects and victims, she can establish who’s been where and when. Her life, she says, has been 'a mess' but, on many occasions, the pollen she has gathered and analysed has helped to see that justice has been done.
Producer: Anna Buckley

Jan 07 2020

33mins

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Rank #6: Sean Carroll on how time and space began

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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

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Rank #7: Frank Close and particle physics

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Frank Close is a theoretical particle physicist and a pioneer of popular writing about physics. His first book aimed at a non-specialist audience, The Cosmic Onion, was published 35 years ago. His latest, Half Life, is the story of physicist and spy, Bruno Pontecorvo. Frank has also had a distinguished research career studying the fundamental structure of matter. It was during his PhD in the late 60s that quarks were discovered. These are the fundamental entities we now know make up particles such as protons and neutrons, which in turn make up the nuclei of atoms, and therefore all of us and everything around us. Frank Close went on to make a name for himself studying what holds the quarks together inside matter. Among his many best-selling books was his thorough account of the controversial claims about the discovery of cold fusion - the idea of unlimited fusion energy in a test tube - and which brought the remarkable story to the world's attention in his book Too Hot to Handle. Frank has spent most of his working life around the Thames Valley - at the Rutherford Appleton Labs, and now at the University of Oxford where is an emeritus professor of physics. In front of an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival Jim al-Khalili discusses physics and writing with Frank Close.

Jun 12 2018

41mins

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Rank #8: Anil Seth on consciousness

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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

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Rank #9: EO Wilson on ants and evolution

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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

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Rank #10: Susannah Maidment on stegosaurs

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Susie was dinosaur-mad as a child. But unlike most children, she never grew out of her obsession. She tells Jim about an exciting new stegosaur find in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and describes the time she spent dinosaur hunting (with a toddler in tow) in the Morrison Formation in the American Mid-West: a place where there are thought to be enough dinosaur remains to keep a thousand paleontologists happy for a thousand years.
She is at her happiest out in the field, with a hammer and a notebook, studying rocks and looking for dinosaur remains. We tend to lump dinosaurs together as though they all roamed the earth at the same time which is silly - given that they had the run of the place for nearly two hundred million years. Susie wants to sort out exactly which dinosaurs lived when. Although she warns, the fossil record is woefully incomplete. We will probably only ever know about 1% of what there is to know about all the dinosaurs that ever lived.
Producer: Anna Buckley

Jan 14 2020

32mins

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Rank #11: Carlo Rovelli on why time is not what it seems

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Carlo Rovelli first became interested in the nature of time when he took LSD as a young man. Later he became curious about the world of the almost absurdly small, where time has no meaning and space is grainy.
He took seven years to complete his undergraduate degree, having spent a lot of time protesting against the political establishment, falling in love and travelling. An extended hippy trip across north America was, he says, perhaps the most useful time of his life. All this rebelling taught him the value of seeing the world in a different way and the benefits of challenging the status quo. In the end he concluded it was easier, and more meaningful, to challenge Einstein's understanding of time, than it was to overthrow the government.
He's a theoretical physicist who became a household name when his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics became an unexpected international bestseller. His concise, and poetic, introduction to the laws and beauty of physics has sold more than a million copies. He's also a pioneer of one of the most exciting and profound ideas in modern physics, called loop quantum gravity.
Early in his research career, he rejected more mainstream approaches to unifying physics (string theory for example) in favour of trying to understand the quantum nature of gravity. No one in Italy was working on this when he started to think about it in the early 1980s, and his PhD thesis was effectively unsupervised. The quantum world he studies is a billion trillion times smaller than the smallest atomic nucleus. When understood at this absurdly tiny scale, the world is 'a frenzied swarming of quanta that appear and disappear'. It makes no sense to talk about time as we understand it, or even things. The world is made up of a network of interacting events, 'kisses not stones', that are linked together by loops. And the evidence that's needed to prove the theory of loop quantum gravity will be found by studying the white holes that emerge when a black hole dies.
Producer: Anna Buckley.

May 08 2018

27mins

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Rank #12: Paul Davies on the origin of life and the evolution of cancer

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Physicist, Paul Davies is interested in some of the biggest questions that we can ask. What is life? How did the universe begin? How will it end? And are we alone? His research has been broad and far-reaching, covering quantum mechanics, cosmology and black holes. In the 1980s he described the so-called Bunch-Davies vacuum - the quantum vacuum that existed just fractions of a second after the big bang - when particles were popping in and out of existence and nothing was stable.

As the chair of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Post Detection Task Group, he’s the person responsible for announcing to the world when we make contact with aliens. He’s now Regents Professor of Physics at Arizona State University in the American south west where he runs research groups studying the evolution of cancer and the origins of life.

Paul Davies talks to Jim al-Khalili about how he applies the principles of physics to these big questions and about how he has worked closely with religious thinkers.

Producer: Anna Buckley

Mar 26 2019

29mins

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Rank #13: Dr Nick Lane on the origin of life on earth

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Dr Nick Lane is attempting to answer one of the hardest questions in science. How did life on earth begin? You might think that question had been solved by Darwin in the 19th century. He wrote that he thought life might have started on earth "in a warm little pond", where all the necessary ingredients: water, sunlight and nutrients combined in this "primordial soup" to create the very first biomolecule of life. Others - like Fred Hoyle - thought that life came to earth from elsewhere in space. But Nick Lane has different ideas of how, and where, it happened. The place in question was deep under the sea in hydrothermal vents. Amongst other research he carries out at University College London, he's running an experiment to try to recreate this moment.
Nick Lane had an unusual route to this point in his scientific career. For some years he left his research career to become a medical journalist and write popular books. A rare opportunity took him back into the laboratory.

Feb 23 2016

28mins

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Rank #14: DNA detective Turi King

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When a skeleton was unearthed in 2012 from under the tarmac of a car park in Leicester, Turi King needed to gather irrefutable evidence to prove that this really was the body of Richard III, England's infamous medieval monarch.

Under the microscope was not only the king's genetic identity, but his entire reputation. Was Richard a ruthless villain, as depicted by Shakespeare? Or did the incoming Tudors spread 'fake news' to besmirch his name? As Jim discovers, clues in his skeletal remains have helped to solve some of these mysteries, and reveal the real Richard III.

When she was young, Turi King wanted to be the next Indiana Jones. Her love of archaeology led her to study genetics so she could use ancient DNA to solve historic mysteries.

She tells Jim how genetic testing, of both the dead skeleton and his living relatives, provided the vital evidence they needed to identify Richard III. But first, she had to extract his DNA, by pulling out one of his teeth.

Producer: Michelle Martin

Main image: Turi King
Credit: Jonathan Sisson

Jul 09 2019

28mins

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Rank #15: Fay Dowker on a new theory of space-time

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For a long time Fay Dowker was mathematically precocious, but emotionally uncertain. These days, despite working in an area with few academic allies, she is more confident than ever. Her approach to a Theory of Everything, known as causal set theory, acknowledges the quantum nature of the universe and takes the arrow of time more seriously than Einstein. Bye bye time travel. Fay started her Life Scientific working on the assumption that the texture of the universe was continuous and smooth, with Stephen Hawking as her supervisor. But mid-career, she changed her mind. She now thinks in terms of 'atoms' of space-time. Down at the tiniest scale imaginable, the universe is granular, made of discrete entities that represent a point in space and a moment in time. Most theoretical physicists were shocked to discover in 1998 that the expansion rate of the universe was accelerating. Not the causal set theorists. Unlike everyone else, they were expecting this result. What's more, if causual set theory is right, there will be no need to explain dark energy, an idea which seems 'just wacky and a little bit malicious', to Fay.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

May 09 2017

27mins

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Rank #16: Daniel Dennett on the evolution of the human brain

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Daniel Dennett has never been one to swallow accepted wisdom undigested. As a student he happily sought to undermine the work of his supervisor, Willard Quine. Only one of the most respected figures in 20th century philosophy, a thinker eminent enough to appear on US postage stamps. Later in Oxford, he became frustrated by his fellow philosophers' utter lack of interest in how our brains worked and was delighted when a medical friend introduced him to neurons. And so began an intellectual quest to understand the human mind that spans five decades. He has always believed that our minds are machines. And anyone who disagrees lacks imagination, he says. Reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins introduced him to the power of Darwin's theory of evolution. And he has, perhaps, taken Darwinism further than anyone, seeking to explain how we evolved from uncomprehending bacteria to highly intelligent human beings. We know humans and chimpanzees evolved from a common ancestor. And that we share 99 % of our DNA with our closest animal relatives. So why would poetry, ethics, science and literature be somehow cut-off or insulated from our underlying biology? "You've given this much ground. Think about giving a little bit more".

Producer: Anna Buckley.

Apr 04 2017

28mins

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Rank #17: Peter Higgs

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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

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Rank #18: Rachel Mills exploring the sea floor

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Professor Rachel Mills is a marine geochemist who studies the sea floor and hydrothermal vents, where water erupts from the earth's crust at 360 degrees. The thick plumes emit many metals such as copper, gold, iron and rare earth minerals that are deposited on the sea bed. Rachel's career has taken her all over the world and 4km deep under the ocean in small submersibles. These journeys are exciting and terrifying as samples are taken to understand how the metals travel many thousands of miles. The metals are involved in creating nutrients that supply the ocean's food chain and control carbon uptake. There is also a lot of interest in mining the valuable deposits but can this be done without upsetting the ocean's eco-system?

Jun 19 2018

27mins

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Rank #19: Martin Rees

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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

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Rank #20: Erica McAlister on the beauty of flies

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Dr Erica McAlister, of London's Natural History Museum, talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the beautiful world of flies and the 2.5 million specimens for which she is jointly responsible.

According to Erica, a world without flies would be full of faeces and dead bodies. Unlike, for example, butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars spend their time devouring our crops and plants, fly larvae tend to help rid the world of waste materials and then, as adults, perform essential work as pollinators. Yet they are rather unloved by humans who tend to regard them as pests at best and disease vectors at worst.

2019 is international Year of the Fly, and dipterists and entomologists around the world are working to raise the profile of the many thousands of species so far known to science.

Erica tells Jim about her work in the museum, cataloguing and identifying new species either sent in from other researchers or discovered by her and her colleagues on swashbuckling trips around the world. Modern gene sequencing techniques are revealing new chapters in the life histories of species, and her collection of 300 year old dead flies continues to expand our knowledge of how the world works.

Perhaps in the future, she argues, we will all be eating pasta and bread made from fly-larvae protein, or using small tea-bag like packets of maggots in our wounds to clean out gangrenous infection.

Producer: Alex Mansfield

Apr 16 2019

30mins

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