In Our Time: Science
About this podcast
Scientific principles, theory, and the role of key figures in the advancement of science.
About this podcast
Scientific principles, theory, and the role of key figures in the advancement of science.
In Our Time: Science
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the search for Longitude while at sea. Following efforts by other maritime nations, the British Government passed the Longitude Act in 1714 to reward anyone who devised reliable means for ships to determine their longitude at sea. Mariners could already calculate how far they were north or south, the Latitude, using the Pole Star, but voyaging across the Atlantic to the Caribbean was much less predictable as navigators could not be sure how far east or west they were, a particular problem when heading for islands. It took fifty years of individual genius and collaboration in Britain and across Europe, among astronomers, clock makers, mathematicians and sailors, for the problem to be resolved. With Rebekah Higgitt Principal Curator of Science at National Museums Scotland Jim Bennett Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum And Simon Schaffer Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Laplace (1749-1827) who was a giant in the world of mathematics both before and after the French Revolution. He addressed one of the great questions of his age, raised but side-stepped by Newton: was the Solar System stable, or would the planets crash into the Sun, as it appeared Jupiter might, or even spin away like Saturn threatened to do? He advanced ideas on probability, long the preserve of card players, and expanded them out across science; he hypothesised why the planets rotate in the same direction; and he asked if the Universe was deterministic, so that if you knew everything about all the particles then you could predict the future. He also devised the metric system and reputedly came up with the name 'metre'. With Marcus du Sautoy Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford Timothy Gowers Professor of Mathematics at the College de France And Colva Roney-Dougal Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews Producer: Simon Tillotson
The Late Devonian Extinction
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the devastating mass extinctions of the Late Devonian Period, roughly 370 million years ago, when around 70 percent of species disappeared. Scientists are still trying to establish exactly what happened, when and why, but this was not as sudden as when an asteroid hits Earth. The Devonian Period had seen the first trees and soils and it had such a diversity of sea life that it’s known as the Age of Fishes, some of them massive and armoured, and, in one of the iconic stages in evolution, some of them moving onto land for the first time. One of the most important theories for the first stage of this extinction is that the new soils washed into oceans, leading to algal blooms that left the waters without oxygen and suffocated the marine life. The image above is an abstract group of the huge, armoured Dunkleosteus fish, lost in the Late Devonian Extinction With Jessica Whiteside Associate Professor of Geochemistry in the Department of Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton David Bond Professor of Geology at the University of Hull And Mike Benton Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology at the School of Life Sciences, University of Bristol.
Emilie du Châtelet
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the outstanding French mathematicians and natural philosophers of the 18th Century, celebrated across Europe. Emilie du Châtelet, 1706-49, created a translation of Newton’s Principia from Latin into French that helped spread the light of mathematics on the emerging science, and her own book Institutions de Physique, with its lessons on physics, was welcomed as profound. She had the privileges of wealth and aristocracy, yet had to fight to be taken seriously as an intellectual in a world of ideas that was almost exclusively male. With Patricia Fara Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge David Wootton Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York And Judith Zinsser Professor Emerita of History at Miami University of Ohio and biographer of Emilie du Châtelet. Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss solar eclipses, some of life’s most extraordinary moments, when day becomes night and the stars come out before day returns either all too soon or not soon enough, depending on what you understand to be happening. In ancient China, for example, there was a story that a dragon was eating the sun and it had to be scared away by banging pots and pans if the sun were to return. Total lunar eclipses are more frequent and last longer, with a blood moon coloured red like a sunrise or sunset. Both events have created the chance for scientists to learn something remarkable, from the speed of light, to the width of the Atlantic, to the roundness of Earth, to discovering helium and proving Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. With Carolin Crawford Public Astronomer based at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge and a fellow of Emmanuel College Frank Close Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford And Lucie Green Professor of Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London Producers: Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Alan Turing (1912-1954) whose 1936 paper On Computable Numbers effectively founded computer science. Immediately recognised by his peers, his wider reputation has grown as our reliance on computers has grown. He was a leading figure at Bletchley Park in the Second World War, using his ideas for cracking enemy codes, work said to have shortened the war by two years and saved millions of lives. That vital work was still secret when Turing was convicted in 1952 for having a sexual relationship with another man for which he was given oestrogen for a year, or chemically castrated. Turing was to kill himself two years later. The enormity of his contribution to computing was recognised in the 1960s by the creation of the Turing Award, known as the Nobel of computer science, and he is to be the new face on the £50 note. With Leslie Ann Goldberg Professor of Computer Science and Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford Simon Schaffer Professor of the History of Science at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Darwin College And Andrew Hodges Biographer of Turing and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the theoretical physicist Dirac (1902-1984), whose achievements far exceed his general fame. To his peers, he was ranked with Einstein and, when he moved to America in his retirement, he was welcomed as if he were Shakespeare. Born in Bristol, he trained as an engineer before developing theories in his twenties that changed the understanding of quantum mechanics, bringing him a Nobel Prize in 1933 which he shared with Erwin Schrödinger. He continued to make deep contributions, bringing abstract maths to physics, beyond predicting anti-particles as he did in his Dirac Equation. With Graham Farmelo Biographer of Dirac and Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge Valerie Gibson Professor of High Energy Physics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College And David Berman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson
The Evolution of Horses
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the origins of horses, from their dog sized ancestors to their proliferation in the New World until hunted to extinction, their domestication in Asia and their development since. The genetics of the modern horse are the most studied of any animal, after humans, yet it is still uncertain why they only have one toe on each foot when their wider family had more, or whether speed or stamina has been more important in their evolution. What is clear, though, is that when humans first chose to ride horses, as well as eat them, the future of both species changed immeasurably. With Alan Outram Professor of Archaeological Science at the University of Exeter Christine Janis Honorary Professor in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol and Professor Emerita in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University And John Hutchinson Professor in Evolutionary Biomechanics at the Royal Veterinary College Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the flow of particles from the outer region of the Sun which we observe in the Northern and Southern Lights, interacting with Earth's magnetosphere, and in comet tails that stream away from the Sun regardless of their own direction. One way of defining the boundary of the solar system is where the pressure from the solar wind is balanced by that from the region between the stars, the interstellar medium. Its existence was suggested from the C19th and Eugene Parker developed the theory of it in the 1950s and it has been examined and tested by a series of probes in C20th up to today, with more planned. With Andrew Coates Professor of Physics and Deputy Director in charge of the Solar System at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London Helen Mason OBE Reader in Solar Physics at the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, Fellow at St Edmund's College And Tim Horbury Professor of Physics at Imperial College London Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what happens when parents from different species have offspring, despite their genetic differences. In some cases, such as the zebra/donkey hybrid in the image above, the offspring are usually infertile but in others the genetic change can lead to new species with evolutionary advantages. Hybrids can occur naturally, yet most arise from human manipulation and Darwin's study of plant and animal domestication informed his ideas on natural selection. With Sandra Knapp Tropical Botanist at the Natural History Museum Nicola Nadeau Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Sheffield And Steve Jones Senior Research Fellow in Genetics at University College London Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the work and ideas of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994), awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for revealing the structures of vitamin B12 and penicillin and who later determined the structure of insulin. She was one of the pioneers of X-ray crystallography and described by a colleague as 'a crystallographers' crystallographer'. She remains the only British woman to have won a Nobel in science, yet rejected the idea that she was a role model for other women, or that her career was held back because she was a woman. She was also the first woman since Florence Nightingale to receive the Order of Merit, and was given the Lenin Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts to bring together scientists from the East and West in pursuit of nuclear disarmament. With Georgina Ferry Science writer and biographer of Dorothy Hodgkin Judith Howard Professor of Chemistry at Durham University and Patricia Fara Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how scientists sought to understand the properties of gases and the relationship between pressure and volume, and what that search unlocked. Newton theorised that there were static particles in gases that pushed against each other all the harder when volume decreased, hence the increase in pressure. Those who argued that molecules moved, and hit each other, were discredited until James Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann used statistics to support this kinetic theory. Ideas about atoms developed in tandem with this, and it came as a surprise to scientists in C20th that the molecules underpinning the theory actually existed and were not simply thought experiments. The image above is of Ludwig Boltzmann from a lithograph by Rudolf Fenzl, 1898 With Steven Bramwell Professor of Physics at University College London Isobel Falconer Reader in History of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews and Ted Forgan Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Birmingham Producer: Simon Tillotson
The Evolution of Teeth
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss theories about the origins of teeth in vertebrates, and what we can learn from sharks in particular and their ancestors. Great white sharks can produce up to 100,000 teeth in their lifetimes. For humans, it is closer to a mere 50 and most of those have to last from childhood. Looking back half a billion years, though, the ancestors of sharks and humans had no teeth in their mouths at all, nor jaws. They were armoured fish, sucking in their food. The theory is that either their tooth-like scales began to appear in mouths as teeth, or some of their taste buds became harder. If we knew more about that, and why sharks can regenerate their teeth, then we might learn how humans could grow new teeth in later lives. With Gareth Fraser Assistant Professor in Biology at the University of Florida Zerina Johanson Merit Researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum and Philip Donoghue Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how members of the same species send each other invisible chemical signals to influence the way they behave. Pheromones are used by species across the animal kingdom in a variety of ways, such as laying trails to be followed, to raise the alarm, to scatter from predators, to signal dominance and to enhance attractiveness and, in honey bees, even direct development into queen or worker. The image above is of male and female ladybirds that have clustered together in response to pheromones. With Tristram Wyatt Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford Jane Hurst William Prescott Professor of Animal Science at the University of Liverpool and Francis Ratnieks Professor of Apiculture and Head of the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the remarkable achievement of Aristotle (384-322BC) in the realm of biological investigation, for which he has been called the originator of the scientific study of life. Known mainly as a philosopher and the tutor for Alexander the Great, who reportedly sent him animal specimens from his conquests, Aristotle examined a wide range of life forms while by the Sea of Marmara and then on the island of Lesbos. Some ideas, such as the the spontaneous generation of flies, did not survive later scrutiny, yet his influence was extraordinary and his work was unequalled until the early modern period. The image above is of the egg and embryo of a dogfish, one of the animals Aristotle described accurately as he recorded their development. With Armand Leroi Professor of Evolutionary Development Biology at Imperial College London Myrto Hatzimichali Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge And Sophia Connell Lecturer in Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the ideas and life of one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, Emmy Noether. Noether’s Theorem is regarded as one of the most important mathematical theorems, influencing the evolution of modern physics. Born in 1882 in Bavaria, Noether studied mathematics at a time when women were generally denied the chance to pursue academic careers and, to get round objections, she spent four years lecturing under a male colleague’s name. In the 1930s she faced further objections to her teaching, as she was Jewish, and she left for the USA when the Nazis came to power. Her innovative ideas were to become widely recognised and she is now considered to be one of the founders of modern algebra. With Colva Roney Dougal Professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of St Andrews David Berman Professor in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary, University of London Elizabeth Mansfield Professor of Mathematics at the University of Kent Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the planet Venus which is both the morning star and the evening star, rotates backwards at walking speed and has a day which is longer than its year. It has long been called Earth’s twin, yet the differences are more striking than the similarities. Once imagined covered with steaming jungles and oceans, we now know the surface of Venus is 450 degrees celsius, and the pressure there is 90 times greater than on Earth, enough to crush an astronaut. The more we learn of it, though, the more we learn of our own planet, such as whether Earth could become more like Venus in some ways, over time. With Carolin Crawford Public Astronomer at the Institute of Astronomy and Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge Colin Wilson Senior Research Fellow in Planetary Science at the University of Oxford And Andrew Coates Professor of Physics at Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London Produced by: Simon Tillotson and Julia Johnson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the properties of atoms or molecules with a single unpaired electron, which tend to be more reactive, keen to seize an electron to make it a pair. In the atmosphere, they are linked to reactions such as rusting. Free radicals came to prominence in the 1950s with the discovery that radiation poisoning operates through free radicals, as it splits water molecules and produces a very reactive hydroxyl radical which damages DNA and other molecules in the cell. There is also an argument that free radicals are a byproduct of normal respiration and over time they cause an accumulation of damage that is effectively the process of ageing. For all their negative associations, free radicals play an important role in signalling and are also linked with driving cell division, both cancer and normal cell division, even if they tend to become damaging when there are too many of them. With Nick Lane Professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London Anna Croft Associate Professor at the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at the University of Nottingham And Mike Murphy Professor of Mitochondrial Redox Biology at Cambridge University Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of real and imagined machines that appear to be living, and the questions they raise about life and creation. Even in myth they are made by humans, not born. The classical Greeks built some and designed others, but the knowledge of how to make automata and the principles behind them was lost in the Latin Christian West, remaining in the Greek-speaking and Arabic-speaking world. Western travellers to those regions struggled to explain what they saw, attributing magical powers. The advance of clockwork raised further questions about what was distinctly human, prompting Hobbes to argue that humans were sophisticated machines, an argument explored in the Enlightenment and beyond. The image above is Jacques de Vaucanson's mechanical duck (1739), which picked up grain, digested and expelled it. If it looks like a duck... with Simon Schaffer Professor of History of Science at Cambridge University Elly Truitt Associate Professor of Medieval History at Bryn Mawr College And Franziska Kohlt Doctoral Researcher in English Literature and the History of Science at the University of Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how some bats, dolphins and other animals emit sounds at high frequencies to explore their environments, rather than sight. This was such an unlikely possibility, to natural historians from C18th onwards, that discoveries were met with disbelief even into the C20th; it was assumed that bats found their way in the dark by touch. Not all bats use echolocation, but those that do have a range of frequencies for different purposes and techniques for preventing themselves becoming deafened by their own sounds. Some prey have evolved ways of detecting when bats are emitting high frequencies in their direction, and some fish have adapted to detect the sounds dolphins use to find them. With Kate Jones Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College London Gareth Jones Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol And Dean Waters Lecturer in the Environment Department at the University of York Producer: Simon Tillotson.