Cover image of The Life Scientific
(105)
Science

The Life Scientific

Updated 5 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

105 Ratings
Average Ratings
81
9
11
3
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

105 Ratings
Average Ratings
81
9
11
3
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

Updated 5 days ago

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.

Rank #1: Richard Dawkins

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #2: 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 #3: 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 #4: Dr Nick Lane on the origin of life on earth

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #5: 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 #6: 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 #7: 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 #8: Frank Close and particle physics

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #9: Ian Stewart

Podcast cover
Read more
Ian Stewart, Professor of Maths at Warwick University, has had a dual career as a research mathematician and as a populariser. He wrote his first book for a general audience - on chaos theory - over thirty years. He's also the author of short stories and novels of science fiction, and of the Science of Discworld series.

Ian Stewart talks to Jim al-Khalili about his life, including his research into applying mathematics to problems of biology and how he communicates the ideas of number and maths to the general public.

Sep 17 2013

27mins

Play

Rank #10: Carlo Rovelli on why time is not what it seems

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #11: Daniel Dennett on the evolution of the human brain

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #12: Fay Dowker on a new theory of space-time

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #13: Rachel Mills exploring the sea floor

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #14: 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 #15: Matt Taylor on the Rosetta space mission

Podcast cover
Read more
Matt Taylor talks to Jim Al-Khalili about being in charge of the Rosetta space mission to the distant comet, 67P. It is, he says, 'the sexiest thing alive', after his wife. He describes his joy when, after travelling for ten years and covering four billion miles, the robot, Philae landed on the speeding comet 67P; and turned the image tattooed on his thigh from wishful thinking into a triumph for science. Matt's father, a builder, encouraged him to do well at school. He wanted him to get a job in science and Matt didn't disappoint, joining the European Space Agency in June 2005. His charm and exuberance have brought competing teams together as they fight for their science to have priority on Rosetta. His enthusiasm has helped to spark and fuel a global interest in the mission and he deeply regrets his choice of shirt on one occasion.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

Mar 17 2015

27mins

Play

Rank #16: 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 #17: Paul Davies on the origin of life and the evolution of cancer

Podcast cover
Read more
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

Play

Rank #18: Roger Penrose on black holes

Podcast cover
Read more
In a career of over fifty years Sir Roger Penrose has changed the way we see the Universe. He carried out seminal research on black holes and the big bang, and he's questioned the current received wisdom on some of the most important ideas in science, such as quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence and where consciousness comes from. His ideas in geometry directly influenced the work of the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Now Emeritus Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, Roger Penrose is one of the world's most lauded mathematical physicists. He's written a number of popular science books in which he certainly doesn't shy away from the mathematics.

Jim al-Khalili talks to Roger Penrose about his continuing fascination with the biggest questions in science.

Nov 22 2016

28mins

Play

Rank #19: Stephen Reicher on the psychology of crowds

Podcast cover
Read more
Stephen Reicher is a social psychologist at St Andrews University who has spent decades understanding how people behave when in a group. To do so, he's often had to immerse himself among the subjects of his studies, from the Bristol riots in 1980 to the millions of Hindu pilgrims who go to the Magh Mela. Stephen Reicher talks to Jim al-Khalili about the positive and the negative sides to a crowd and the role of a leader of a crowd. He explains how he gave up a place to read medicine, to the annoyance of his parents, to study psychology. Now, he says, his mother would be proud of him as he's publishing research on the health benefits of attending mass gatherings.

Mar 13 2018

28mins

Play

Rank #20: 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