Rank #1: Richard Peto
Professor of Medical Statistics and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford and until last year co-director of the Clinical Trial Service Unit with Professor Sir Rory Collins, Richard Peto pioneered "big data", setting up enormous randomised clinical trials and then, in a novel approach, combining results in what became known as meta-analyses, amassing unequivocal evidence about how early death could be avoided. He showed how asprin could prevent heart attacks and how the oestrogen-blocking drug tamoxifen really did affect survival rates for breast cancer patients.
Results on paper saves lives in the real world, he says, and he's famous for catchphrases like: "death in old age is inevitable, but death before old age is not" and "you can avoid more deaths by a moderate reduction of a big cause, than by a big reduction in a small cause" as well as "take the big numbers seriously".
One of the world's leading epidemiologists, Richard Peto's landmark study with Alan Lopez at the World Health Organisation predicted that a billion people would die from diseases associated with tobacco this century, compared to a hundred million killed by tobacco in the 20th century. The chilling message galvanised governments around the world to adopt anti-smoking policies. And Professor Peto's studies about smoking cessation ("smoking kills, stopping works") provided the public health evidence needed to encourage smokers that, however long they had smoked for, it was always worth quitting.
Rank #2: Brian Cox
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 is 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
(Photo: Brian Cox, BBC copyright)
Rank #3: Vagus Nerve
Now researchers such as neurologist Dr Kevin Tracey of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, and rheumatologist professor Paul-Peter Tak of Amsterdam University, are trying a new approach to improving the lives of these patients. They are firing electrical pulses along the vagus nerve, a major nerve that connects the brain with all the organs. The technology to do this has been around for some decades as stimulating the vagus nerve has been used to help people who have epilepsy that is not controlled with drugs since the 1990s.
Gaia Vince talks to these pioineers of this new field of research. And, she hears how there may be ways of improving the tone of the vagal nerve using meditation.
(Image: Vagus Nerve Stimulation. Credit: Getty Images)
Rank #4: Lovelock at 100: Gaia on Gaia
As James Lovelock, celebrates his hundredth birthday (he was born on 26th July 1919) he talks to science writer Gaia Vince about the freedom and frustrations of fifty years spent working outside the scientific establishment. While working at the National Institute for Medical Research he 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. It also took him to NASA and via designing a detector to look for life on Mars gave him the idea of Gaia.
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 though some are coming round to the idea.
Gaia Vince talks to earth system scientists Professor Andrew Watson and Professor Tim Lenton of Exeter University who have both championed the Gaia theory, and to Professor Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University, an evolutionary biologist who has changed his mind about the theory.
Producer: Deborah Cohen
Picture: British scientist James Lovelock poses on March 17, 2009 in Paris. Credit: Jacques Demarthon / AFP / Getty Images.
Rank #5: Cosmology
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 copyright: Steffen Richter, Harvard University
Rank #6: Why am I left-handed?
One in ten people are left-handed, but where does this ratio come from and when did it appear in our evolutionary past?
Hannah talks to primatologist Prof Linda Marchant from Miami University about why Neanderthal teeth could hold the answer.
Prof Chris McManus from University College London tells Adam about his quest to track down the genes responsible for whether we're right or left handed.
But does left-handedness affect people’s brains and behaviour? Some researchers point to a link between left-handedness and impairments like autism or dyslexia. Others claim that lefties are more creative and artistic.
So where does the answer lie? The team consults Professors Sophie Scott, Chris McManus and Dorothy Bishop to find out the truth about left-handers.
If you have any Curious Cases for the team to investigate please email email@example.com
Picture: Left handed child, credit: Diarmid Courreges/AFP/Getty Images
Presenter: Adam Rutherford & Hannah Fry
Producer: Michelle Martin.
Rank #7: The Power of Cute
Image: Hoffmann"s Two-Toed Sloth, credit: Science Photo Library
Rank #8: Going Lean: Health and the Toyota Way
Rank #9: The Business of Failure
Rank #10: Origins of Human Culture
She meets researchers at Birmingham University comparing the abilities of chimps and human children, and has a go at making a prehistoric stone hand axe by flint knapping.
Photo credit: William West/AFP/Getty Images
Rank #11: Black Holes: A Tale of Cosmic Death and Rebirth
(Photo: Gravitational waves © Nasa)
Rank #12: Placebo Problem
(Image: Geoff Watts, BBC copyright)
Rank #13: Inside the Shark's Mind
At the start of this year, the state government of Western Australia decided to undertake the culling of sharks longer than three metres, after what they called an “unprecedented number of attacks”. In February, thousands of Australians protested against the cull, with conservationists claiming that it will make no difference to the number of attacks.
An outspoken critic of the strategy is Rodney Fox, who was almost killed by a Great White shark when he was a young man but who subsequently made a 50-year-long career filming sharks, shark tourism and shark conservation. Rodney talks to Helen about the day he was attacked and his thoughts about the Western Australian cull. Rodney argues that another approach is needed.
On a mission to reduce shark attacks, a team has been formed at the Ocean Institute, University of Western Australia (UWA). Their task is to think like a shark to understand how a shark’s brain perceives and reacts to light, sound and vibrations, and how the shark’s finely tuned senses might be manipulated in the hunt for more effective, humanitarian shark repellents.
Research revealed that Great Whites have large chunks of their brain dedicated to vision. So UWA are developing and testing a shark-proof wetsuit that mimics the appearance of poisonous, striped sea snakes. Other solutions under study include bubble curtains and the use of devices which generate electric fields around swimmers.
Helen also questions whether sharks deserve their reputation as the most fearsome predators of the sea. Have they been misunderstood and mythologised by popular culture through films such as Jaws and Deep Blue Sea.
Proving that even the most predatory of sharks are not automatic man-eaters, Helen herself goes diving with dozens of huge bull sharks (one of the most aggressive species) and comes to the surface unscathed. These three metre long monsters have been trained to be hand-fed by locals while tourists watch close by.
Helen also talks to veteran shark researcher Eugenie Clark about the predators’ learning abilities and intelligence. Dr Clark was able to train sharks to learn to press the correct buttons with their snouts to get a food treat. She even presented the Crown Prince of Japan with a baby nurse shark who never made a mistake.
(Photo: Courtesy of Helen Scales)
Rank #14: The Power of the Unconscious
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.
Rank #15: The Science of Smell
Image: Smelling the Roses, Getty Images
Rank #16: Why Do We Dream?
"Why do we dream and why do we repeat dreams?" asks Mila O'Dea, aged 9, from Panama.
Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford delve into the science of sleep. From a pioneering experiment on rapid eye movement sleep, to a brand new 'dream signature' found in the brain, they discover how scientists are investigating our hidden dreamworld. Featuring sociologist Bill Domhoff from the University of California Santa Cruz, sleep psychologist Mark Blagrove from the University of Swansea, and neurologist Francesca Siclari from the University of Lausanne.
The Curious Face-Off
"Are machines better than humans at identifying faces?" asks the excellently named Carl Vandal.
Today’s Face Off leads our intrepid detectives to investigate why we see Jesus on toast, Hitler in houses and Kate Middleton on a jelly bean.
Face perception psychologist Rob Jenkins from the University of York explains why we're so good at spotting familiar faces, like celebrities. Plus, Franziska Knolle from the University of Cambridge discusses her face recognition study involving Barack Obama and a group of highly-trained sheep. But are we outwitted by artificial intelligence when it comes to face ID? BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones gives us the low-down on the pros and cons of current technology.
Picture: Child sleeping, Credit: Quintanilla/Getty Images
Producer: Michelle Martin
Rank #17: The Inflamed Mind
“I believe this is one of the strongest discoveries in psychiatry in the last twenty years”, says Professor Carmine Pariante of his and other research on the immune system and depression. "It allows us to understand depression no longer as just a disorder of the mind and not even a disorder of the brain, but a disorder of the whole body. It shifts conceptually what we understand about depression."
James also talks to New York journalist Susannah Cahalan. She began to experience paranoid delusions and florid hallucinations when her immune system made damaging antibodies against part of the molecular circuitry in her brain. Treatment to eliminate the antibodies prevented her committal to psychiatric hospital. Psychiatrist professor Belinda Lennox at the University of Oxford says she has evidence that a significant proportion of people presenting for the first time with psychotic symptoms are victims of a similar autoimmune problem.
(Photo: Brain Cells © Science Photo Library)
Rank #18: Quantum Supremacy
Picture: Bright future for Quantum Computing, credit: Jonathan Home @ETH
Rank #19: Mind Reading
For the last decade neuroscientists have been using fMRI brain scanners and EEG to try to communicate with people who’d been diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. They have woken up following a coma but although their eyes are open and they have spontaneous movements, they have no cognitive function and are not capable of higher level thought. Dr Damian Cruse, of Birmingham University, tells Gaia about the results of these experiments.
People with other medical conditions that lead to a loss of speech, such as motor neurone disease, can already communicate with technology. We hear from Sarah Ezekiel, who has had MND since 2000 and whose life has been transformed by being able to talk artificially with eyegaze software on a computer.
Neurologist Dr Kai Miller at Stanford University explains how he is using electrodes already implanted in the brains of people with severe epilepsy to determine what they are seeing.
And Gaia explores the ethical problems that follow from technology that captures thoughts with cognitive scientist and philosopher Dr Adina Roskies of Dartmouth College in the US and Professor Geraint Rees, the editor of a recent collection of essays called "I know what you're thinking: brain imaging and mental privacy". She looks at the controversial privacy issues raised by the technology, such as could someone put thoughts into another's mind?
Image: Fortune teller gazing into a crystal ball, © Creatas
Rank #20: Does Money Make you Mean?
Professor Paul Piff of the University of California explains his research, which finds that the richer a person becomes the more selfish, narcissistic and less generous they tend to be. However, not everyone is convinced that the American dream is a recipe for immoral behaviour, with opinions expressed by some rather unusual contributors – straight from the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
(Photo: Jack Stewart talking to Spiderman, BBC copyright)