About the podcast Discovery
Explorations in the world of science.
The slippery situation
'What is the slipperiest thing in the world?' asks 8 year old Evelyn? 'Why do my feet slip on a wet floor but when my feet are even slightly moist it's nearly impossible to put on a pair of socks without falling over and cursing the universe. What is going on here?' asks Evelyn's Dad, Sam. Hannah and Adam investigate the science of friction and lubrication - so called 'tribology' with the help of tribologists and mechanical engineers Professor Ashlie Martini from California University Merced and Professor Roger Lewis from the University of Sheffield. With their help Hannah and Adam find out why leaves on the line are so slippery, what happens to graphite in space and what is the slipperiest food. Professor of Materials, Mark Miodownik from University College London explains what's going on when friction stops two materials sliding past each other and wonders whether the slipperiest substance was actually discovered accidentally in a lab by scientists looking for something completely different. Also in the programme why the ability to reduce friction, even by minuscule amounts could have a huge impact for sustainability and reducing energy use. Producers: Jen Whyntie and Pamela Rutherford
The painless heart
Dr Mitch Lomax is a sports scientist at the University of Portsmouth. She helps actual Olympic swimmers get faster. She explains how most of the muscles attached to our skeletons work: Tiny fibres use small-scale cellular energy, which, when all these fibres work in concert, turns into visible muscular movement. Mitch also explains how the dreaded Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, can hit, taking a stair-wincing 48-72 hours to peak after exercise. But skeletal muscles turn out to be quite different to heart muscles, as consultant cardiologist Dr Rohin Francis explains. Heart cells are more efficient and don't get fatigued like skeletal muscle cells. They are extremely energetic and 'just want to beat'. He also explains that the sensory feedback from the heart muscles is different too. They have a different sort of nerve supply, with fewer sensory nerves, so that there is less chance of pain signals being sent to the brain. However, heart cells' incredible abilities are counterbalanced by one Achilles-like flaw: They cannot easily heal. Professor Sanjay Sinha is a British Heart Foundation (BHF) Senior Research Fellow and a Professor in Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine at the University of Cambridge. His job is to fix broken hearts and he explains to Adam how new research into stem cells could be used to fix normally irreparable heart cells. Producer - Jennifer Whyntie and Fiona Roberts Presenters - Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford
The weirdness of water, Part 2 of 2
“I don’t really understand why water has so many properties on different scales ranging from very large and cosmic to very small quantum and quarky - Could you help by zooming in and out on water to explain what is known about it? Asks Neil Morton in Stirling. “Why does boiling water sound different to cold water?’ asks Barbara Dyson in Brittany in France Ollie Gordon, in Christchurch in New Zealand, wants to know ‘why water is essential for all life as we know it?’ And many more questions on the weirdness of water are tackled by super science sleuths Hannah and Adam helped by quantum physicist Professor Patricia Hunt, at the Victoria University in Wellington in New Zealand, science writer and author of ‘H2O – a biography of water’ Philip Ball and physicist and bubble expert in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UCL, Dr Helen Czerski. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Fiona Roberts
The weirdness of water, Part 1 of 2
“I don’t really understand why water has so many properties on different scales ranging from very large and cosmic to very small quantum and quarky - Could you help by zooming in and out on water to explain what is known about it? Asks Neil Morton in Stirling. Rutherford and Fry learn about the special hydrogen bonds that makes water such an unusual liquid. Quantum physicist Professor Patricia Hunt, at the Victoria University in Wellington in New Zealand explains to Hannah the quantum properties of individual water molecules and how they link up with other water molecules in liquid water and solid ice. She describes the hydrogen bonds that give water some of it’s weird and wonderful properties such as why ice floats, why water is able to store huge amounts of heat and why water has such a strong surface tension. Science writer and author of ‘H2O – a biography of water’ Philip Ball describes how in the 18th century it was discovered that water was not one of the classical elements, but a compound liquid of water and hydrogen and explains to Adam why there are at least 15 different types of ice. Physicist Dr. Helen Czerski sets the record straight on how ice forms in oceans and lakes and why water is at its densest at 4 degrees Centigrade and not zero. Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford Producer: Fiona Roberts
The Evidence: When will the pandemic end?
Everybody hopes that the new super-charged Omicron variant of coronavirus will be less severe, but even if it is, it’s spreading so fast and infecting so many people, health services around the world could still buckle under the strain. Two years into the pandemic, Claudia Hammond is joined by two world-leading scientists to discuss the impact of Omicron and to review what the world has got right in its response to coronavirus, and what it has got very, very wrong. As many countries roll out and plan for booster campaigns in the face of this new variant, concerns are raised that enhancing vaccine coverage in richer countries will again monopolise scarce supplies, and leave the millions of unvaccinated in poorer countries – including three quarters of healthcare workers in Africa – exposed yet again. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation, acknowledges the need to boost the elderly and vulnerable, but says it's good science to make sure everyone around the world gets their first vaccine doses. Only then will further deaths be prevented and new variants stalled. Director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar agrees. Booster vaccines in rich countries, maybe even a fourth dose, are unsustainable he says, when so many people have yet to receive their first jab. It’s not just a moral and ethical argument to vaccinate the world, he says, but it makes sound scientific sense too. Produced by: Fiona Hill, Anna Buckley, Maria Simons and Emily Bird Studio Engineer: Tim Heffer and Giles Aspen
The guiding hound
Dogs and humans have gone paw in hand for thousands of years. Historic and genetic evidence shows we’ve shaped each other's existence over millennia. But dogs were only first trained as guides for blind people in the UK 90 years ago. What’s the biology behind this extraordinary partnership? Hannah heads to Guide Dogs UK’s training school in Royal Leamington Spa. She meets up with expert Graham Kensett to find out what it takes to make a guide dog from nose to tail, starting from before birth and following the life course through to retirement. Hannah also meets the delightful Wendy and Wilmott, a German shepherd and a retriever cross. Despite both still growing into their ears, they show her their already extraordinary skill set, from tackling obstacle courses to safely crossing roads. Cool, calm, patient, unflappable: Guide dogs are the astronauts of the canine world. But, as trainer Jenna explains, it’s all in the partnership with the owner, who needs to do plenty of work in terms of training and learning routes to journey in harmony with their furry guide. Richard Lane has owned guide dogs for over 25 years, and confirms this first hand. He reveals just how he gets to the toothpaste aisle, and tells Adam how at its peak a partnership can navigate London Waterloo station better than some sighted people, even at rush hour. Richard also explains how deeply felt the bond that forms between owner and dog is, and describes the hardest part of guide dog ownership: Letting go at the end.
The James Webb Space Telescope
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is only days away. Scheduled for lift off on 22 December, the largest and most complex space observatory ever built will be sent to an orbit beyond the moon. James Webb is so huge that it has had to be folded up to fit in the rocket. There will be a tense two weeks over Christmas and the New Year as the space giant unfurls and unfolds. Its design and construction has taken about 30 years under the leadership of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. With its huge 6.5 metre-wide primary mirror, the giant observatory promises to extend our view across the cosmos to the first stars to shine in the early universe. That’s a vista of Cosmic Dawn: the first small clusters of stars to form and ignite out of what had been a universe of just dark clouds of primordial gas. If the James Webb succeeds in capturing the birth of starlight, we will be looking at celestial objects more than 13.5 billion light years away. Closer to home, the telescope will also revolutionise our understanding of planets orbiting stars beyond the solar system. BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos reports from the European Space Agency’s launch site in French Guyana from where James Webb will be sent into space. He talks to astronomers who will be using the telescope and NASA engineers who’ve built the telescope and tested it in the years leading to launch. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker Picture: James Webb Space Telescope, Credit Northrup Grumman
Genetic Dreams, Genetic Nightmares
CRISPR is the latest and most powerful technique for changing the genetic code of living things. This method of gene editing is already showing great promise in treating people with gene-based diseases, from sickle cell disease to cancer. However, in 2018 the use of CRISPR to edit the genes of two human embryos, which were subsequently born as two girls in China, caused outrage. The experiment was done in secrecy and created unintended changes to the children's genomes - changes that could be inherited by their children and their children's children. The scandal underlined the grave safety and ethical concerns around heritable genome editing, and called into doubt the ability of the scientific community to self-regulate this use of CRISPR. CRISPR gene editing might also be used to rapidly and permanently alter populations of organisms in the wild, and indeed perhaps whole ecosystems, through a technique called a gene drive. A gene drive is a way of biasing inheritance, of getting a gene (even a deleterious one) to rapidly multiply and copy itself generation after generation, sweeping exponentially through a population. In theory, this could be used to eradicate species such as agricultural pests or disease-transmitting mosquitoes, or to alter them in some way: for example, making mosquitoes unable to carry the malaria parasite. But do we know enough about the consequences of releasing a self-perpetuating genetic technology like this into the environment, even if gene drives could, for example, eradicate insects that spread a disease which claims hundreds of thousands of deaths every year? And who should decide whether gene drives should be released? Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTSDesign/SCIENCEPHOTOLIBRARY/Getty Images
About the podcast Discovery
Explorations in the world of science.