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Frontiers

Programme exploring new ideas in science and meeting the scientists and researchers responsible for them, as well as hearing from their critics

Weekly hand curated podcast episodes for learning

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Cosmology

In March astronomers in the BICEP2 collaboration announced they had found gravitational waves from the Big Bang. But now the evidence is being questioned by other scientists. Dr Lucie Green reports on the debate and asks if scientists can ever know what happened billions of years ago when the universe was formed.Image: The BICEP2 telescope at twilight, which occurs only twice a year at the South Pole. The MAPO observatory (home of the Keck Array telescope) and the South Pole station can be seen in the background. Image copyright: Steffen Richter, Harvard University.

28mins

9 Jul 2014

Rank #1

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Anthropocene

Humanity's impact on the Earth is so profound that we're creating a new geological time period. Geologists have named the age we're making the Anthropocene. The changes we're making to the atmosphere, oceans, landscape and living things will leap out of the rocks forming today to Earth scientists of the far future, as clearly as the giant meteorite that ended the Age of the Dinosaurs does to today's researchers. Science writer Gaia Vince looks at the impact of these planetary transformations from the perspective of geological time. When was the last time comparable events happened in Earth history, and are what are the key marks we're making on the planet that define the Anthropocene?Gaia explores the distinctive fossil record we will leave behind on the planet. Leading biologists and palaeontologists say this that will mark out the Anthropocene as a distinctive chapter in Earth history - on a par with the evidence of the mass extinction which took out the dinosaurs and launched a geological era 65 million years ago. "This time, we are the asteroid," says Berkeley's Antony Barnosky. Extinction rates around the world are approaching those estimated for times in the deep past when most species became extinct. Far future fossil hunters may also discover a weirdly large number of large-sized fossil mammal species bones in the rocks of our times. Even more unnaturally, they come from just a tiny handful of species and they will be in the strata across every continent- a geological representation of billions of domestic livestock and the billions of people they fed.Some of our cities may also be preserved as 'artificial' layers of rock in the geological record. They will be like no other strata before in the history of the Earth. But what would a fossilised metropolis - with its concrete and glass buildings and underground train tunnels and sewers - look like in ten million years?

28mins

21 Nov 2012

Rank #2

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The Power of the Unconscious

We like to think that we are in control of our lives, of what we do, think and feel. But, as Geoff Watts discovers, scientists are now revealing that this is just an illusion.A simple magic trick reveals just how limited our conscious awareness of the world is, and how easy it is to fool us.So if our conscious brain can cope with so little, what is responsible for the rest? Science is starting to reveal the crucial role of a silent partner inside our heads, that we are completely unaware of - our unconscious.In this programme, Geoff enlists the help of not just brain scientists, but a conjuror and a musician to reveal the pivotal role the unconscious plays in pretty much everything we do, think and feel. This new-found knowledge is enabling scientists to harness its powers for both medical and military benefit.

28mins

20 Nov 2013

Rank #3

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Forensic Phonetics

Many crimes are planned, executed and sometimes gloated over using mobile phones. And the move to digital means that recordings are cheap and easy to make for the criminals themselves, as well as for their victims and witnesses.Ranging from death threats left on voicemails and hoax 999 calls to fraudulent calls to banks and conversations between terrorists, phoneticians analyse the minute acoustic components of the human voice to determine not only what was said but to create a profile of the culprit, or work out if a suspect's voice matches the voice in the criminal recording. While it's not possible to identify a unique 'voiceprint', as it is with fingerprints and DNA, speech scientists are developing new ways of teasing out the distinctive characteristics in human speech to improve their ability to identify a particular speaker. Forensic audio specialists can now determine with surprising accuracy whether a digital recording has been tampered with, and when exactly it was made. The gentle 'hum', that is constantly emitted from electrical power sources, is embedded in digital recordings. So by extracting this 'hum', which is emitted in a random pattern, forensic scientists can now pinpoint the date and time of the recording.Rebecca Morelle looks at some of the new research in this growing area of forensics, including the credibility of ear witness accounts and whether it's possible to distinguish hoax 999 calls from genuine ones. This branch of forensics has played a crucial role in a number of high profile cases, including the conviction of John Humble as the hoax caller claiming to be the Yorkshire Ripper, and identifying the mystery cougher who tried to defraud the gameshow 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire'.Producer: Beth Eastwood.

27mins

12 Dec 2012

Rank #4

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05/12/2012

A decade ago, the Human Genome Project revealed that only 1% of our DNA codes for the proteins that make our bodies. The rest of the genome, it was said, was junk, in other words with no function. But in September another massive international project, called ENCODE, announced that the junk DNA is useful after all. Adam Rutherford reports on the significance of this major discovery.He visits the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute outside Cambridge where the vast amount of data about our genome is produced and analysed. And he finds out how this new information is beginning to give insights into the origin and treatment of diseases, such as cancer.Adam also discovers that the study of genomes has changed dramatically since he finished his PhD: it's now all done in machines and not at the lab bench.

28mins

6 Dec 2012

Rank #5

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Brain Machine Interfaces

Can reading the mind allow us to use thought control to move artificial limbs? Neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, is one of the world's leading researchers into using the mind to control machines. One of his aims is to build a suit that a quadriplegic person can wear and control so that he or she can kick a football at the opening of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. His lab is working on ways of providing a sense of touch to these limbs so that the prosthetics feel more like a part of a person's body and less like an artificial appendage. Geoff Watts visits Nicolelis' laboratory to see just how near we are to achieving his aim on the football pitch.

28mins

28 Nov 2012

Rank #6

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Ageing and the brain

Geoff Watts investigates the latest thinking about our brain power in old age.He meets researchers who argue that society has overly negative views of the mental abilities of the elderly - a dismal and fatalistic outlook which is not backed up by recent discoveries and theories.Geoff talks to Professor Lorraine Tyler who leads a large study in Cambridge (CamCAN) which is comparing cognition and brain structure and function in 700 people aged between 18 and 88 years old. He also meets scientists and participants involved in an unique study of cognition and ageing at the University of Edinburgh. It has traced hundreds of people who were given a nationwide intelligence test as children in 1932 and 1947. Since the year 2000, the study has been retesting their intelligence and mental agility in their 70s to 90s. The Lothian Birth Cohort study is revealing what we all might do in life to keep our minds fast and sharp well into old age.One new and controversial idea holds that cognitive decline is in fact a myth. A team in Germany, led by Michael Ramscar, argues that older people perform less well in intelligence and memory tests because they know so much more than younger subjects and not because their brains are deteriorating. Simply put, their larger stores of accumulated knowledge slow their performance. Their brains take longer to retrieve the answers from their richer memory stores.Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker.

28mins

11 Jun 2014

Rank #7

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Gut Microbiota

What is it about the microbes in our guts that can have such an impact on our lives?The human gut has around 100 trillion bacterial cells from up to 1,000 different species. Every person's microbiota (the body's bacterial make-up) is different as a result of the effects of diet and lifestyle, and the childhood source of bacteria.Scientists are learning more and more about the importance of these bacteria, as well as the viruses, fungi and other microbes that live in our gastrointestinal tracts. Without them, our digestion, immune system and overall health would be compromised.Adam Hart talks to researchers who are discovering how important a balanced and robust gut microflora is for our health. And he asks how this can be maintained and what happens when things go wrong.

28mins

13 Nov 2013

Rank #8

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Geo-engineering

Geoengineering is a controversial approach to dealing with climate change. Gaia Vince explores putting chemicals in the stratosphere to stop solar energy reaching the earth.When volcanoes erupt they put sulphur in the stratosphere. The particles reflect solar rays back into space and the planet cools down. Scientists are suggesting that it could be possible to put sulphur into the stratosphere using specialised aircraft or a very long pipe. But if this was implemented there could be impacts on rainfall and the ozone layer. Another idea is to spray seawater to whiten clouds that would reflect more energy away from the earth. Gaia Vince talks to the researchers who are considering solar radiation management. She also hears from social scientists who are finding out what the public think about the idea and who are asking who should make decisions about implementing this way of cooling the planet.

28mins

11 Dec 2013

Rank #9

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Power Transmission

Gaia Vince looks at the future of power transmission. As power generation becomes increasingly mixed and demand increases, what does the grid of the future look like?

27mins

18 Jun 2014

Rank #10