Rank #1: Einstein's Fridge
In the late 1920s Einstein was working on a grand unified theory of the universe, having given us E=mc2, space-time and the fourth dimension. He was also working on a fridge.
Perhaps motivated by a story in the Berlin newspapers about a family who died when toxic fumes leaked from their state-of the-art refrigerator, Einstein teamed up with another physicist Leo Szilard and designed a new, safer refrigerating technology. And so it was that in 1930, the man who had once famously worked in the patent office in Bern was granted a patent of his own. Number: 1, 781, 541. Title: refrigeration.
Phillip Ball explores this little known period of Einstein's life to try and find out why he turned his extraordinary mind to making fridges safer.
Despite considerable commercial interest in the patent, Einstein's fridge didn't get built in his lifetime.The Great Depression forced AEG and others to close down their refrigeration research. But in 2008 a team of British scientists decided to give it a go.Their verdict : Einstein's fridge doesn't work.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Apr 01 2016
Rank #2: The meteorite and the hidden hoax
At that time, a debate had been raging over the origin of life; Could life possibly form from mere chemicals? Or did it need some strange unidentified vital substance?
Into this debate fell the Orgueil meteorite, and because it seemed remarkably similar to loamy soil, some wondered whether it may hint at the existence of extra-terrestrial life.
The great Pasteur allegedly investigated, but disappointingly found no such thing. Nevertheless, the mere possibility prompted later ideas that the origin of life on earth indeed lay elsewhere in the universe, ideas that were greeted with varying degrees of skepticism over ensuing decades.
As Phil Ball narrates, given how much was at stake, and how bitterly scientists argued on either side, the most remarkable thing about the story is the extraordinary secret the meteorite kept to itself until exactly 100 years later.
Producer: Alex Mansfield
Jan 20 2016
Rank #3: The duchess who gatecrashed science
Twice he was frustrated and couldn't spot her, but eventually she made a grand visit to meet the Fellows of the newly formed Royal Society. She was the first woman ever to visit.
Pepys watched as they received her with gritted teeth and fake smiles.
They politely showed her air pumps, magnets and microscopes, and she politely professed her amazement, then left in her grand carriage.
Naomi Alderman asks what it was it about this celebrity poet, playwright, author, and thinker that so fascinated and yet also infuriated these men of the Restoration elite?
Part of the answer strikes right at the core of what we now call the scientific method.
Producer: Alex Mansfield
Jan 27 2016
Rank #4: Hypatia: The Murdered Mathematician
And there's historical evidence that Hypatia made some discoveries and innovations of her own. She invented a new and more efficient method of long division. In a time before electronic calculators, the actual business of doing sums was an arduous part of engineering or astronomy, and any improvement in efficiency was very welcome.
All quite innocent science, so why did Hypatia end up being murdered by a mob? Natalie Haynes presenter of "Natalie Haynes Stands Up For The Classics" tells the inside story to Naomi Alderman. And Professor Edith Hall discusses Hypatia's legacy.
Jul 04 2018
Most Popular Podcasts
Rank #5: Mary Anning and Fossil Hunting
Naomi Alderman tells the science story of how Mary Anning, a poor and relatively uneducated young woman, became the supplier of the best fossils to the gentlemen geologists who were beginning to understand that the earth was very old and had been inhabited by strange extinct creatures. Naomi talks to Tracy Chevalier, author of Remarkable Creatures, a novel about Mary Anning, about her life and relationship with the geologists of the time, and to Dr Susannah Maidment, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, about fossil hunting today.
Jul 11 2018
Rank #6: Descartes' Daughter
Descartes championed a view of nature in which everything happened because of the physical forces acting between its constituent parts: nature as a machine. It was a coolly rational vision that caught the scientific spirit of the seventeenth century. He was fascinated by automata and what they tell us about what it is to be human.
Philip Ball tells the story of Descartes and his "daughter" and his writings about humans and machines. He finds out more about the thirst for mechanical wonders and what it said about theories of the human body in Descartes' time, from historian of science Simon Schaffer of Cambridge University. And Kanta Dihar of the Centre for the Future of Intelligence also at Cambridge University talks about current research into AIs, driven purely by some mechanism of formal logic, that can mimic the capabilities of the human mind, and how contemporary culture explores our fears about them.
Jun 27 2018
Rank #7: Urea and the Wohler Myth
Philip Ball sorts out fact from fiction in what Wöhler really achieved in conversation with Peter Ramberg of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and he finds out about chemical synthesis of natural products today from Professor Sarah O'Connor of the John Innes Centre in Norwich.
Producer: Erika Wright.
Jun 20 2018
Rank #8: 17th-Century Space Flight: The Real Cyrano de Bergerac
Cyrano was a soldier, gambler and duellist who retired from military exploits on account of his wounds around 1639, at the grand old age of 20. But he studied at university and, to judge from the books he went on to write, he was well versed in the philosophical and scientific debates of his day.
He wrote two books, called The States and Empires of the Moon and its sequel, The States and Empires of the Sun. And he designed spaceships to travel to the moon and to the sun. Philip discusses the life and times of Cyrano with Mary Baine Campbell of Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
Journeys to the New World in the seventeenth century were voyages of trade - and ultimately of colonisation. What those travellers wanted were minerals, spices, gold, rare and precious objects that could fetch a fortune in the Old World. Today, the profit motive has returned to space travel. Efforts to develop spacecraft and to send people into space are increasingly being conducted not just by government agencies but by private companies, in search again of land and minerals. The use of resources on the moon and the planets is in principle governed by the Outer Space Treaty. Philip discusses the control of exploitation of space with Patricia Lewis of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
Jun 13 2018
Rank #9: Eddington's Eclipse and Einstein's Celebrity
Philip Ball's tale is of a solar eclipse 100 years ago observed by Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer who travelled to the remote island of Principe off the coast of West Africa and saw the stars shift in the heavens. His observations supplied the crucial proof of a theory that transformed our notions of the cosmos and turned a German physicist named Albert Einstein into an international celebrity. But this is also a tale of how a Quaker tried to use science to unite countries. The reparations imposed on Germany after the war extended into science too as many in Great Britain and other Allied nations felt that German science should be ostracised from the international community. As a Quaker, Eddington wanted just the opposite: to see peaceful cooperation restored among nations.
Producer: Erika Wright
Dec 12 2018
Rank #10: Alexis Carrel and the immortal chicken heart
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.
Sep 10 2019