BBC Inside Science
About the podcast BBC Inside Science
A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.
The Rutland ‘Sea Dragon’, An Astronomer's Christmas and some Animal Magic
After 20 years of planning, preparation and a nail-biting build up fraught by delays The James Webb Space telescope finally launched on Christmas day 2021. Anxious astronomers across the globe looked on as the JWST then completed even riskier manoeuvres to unfurl the 18 hexagonal components that make up its 6.5 meter diameter primary mirror. Cosmologist Dr Sheona Urquhart from the Open University tells us about the astronomical community’s tense Christmas day. Fresh from a TV spot on BBC Two’s Digging for Britain this week, Dr Dean Lomax and PhD candidate Emily Swaby share their excitement unearthing Rutland’s ‘Sea Dragon’ and explore what this find could tell us about Ichthyosaurs. At over 10 meters long this ancient ocean predator is the largest complete fossil of its kind to be discovered in the UK. Ichthyosaurs are commonly associated with Dorset and Yorkshire coastlines where fossils are often revealed as surrounding rock is eroded by the elements. Finding an ichthyosaur fossil inland is unusual but not unexpected as the higher sea levels 200 million years ago would put the east midlands underwater. And whilst the palaeontologists have been struggling through the Jurassic mud, cognition researchers at the University of Cambridge have been wowing their birds with magic tricks. Professor Nicky Clayton FRS, Professor of Comparative Cognition, explains what we can learn about the way jays think by assessing their reaction to different sleight-of-hand tricks. Corvids, the family to which these feathered friends belong, have long interested researchers due to their impressive cognitive abilities and Nicky’s team has shown that their Jays are not fooled by all of the same mis-directions as we are, but are fooled by some. And it could be down to not being able to tell the difference between a finger and a feather. Presented by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Alex Mansfield Assistant Producer Emily Bird Made in association with The Open University
Deep ocean exploration
UCL oceanographer Helen Czerski explores life in the ocean depths with a panel of deep sea biologists. They take us to deep ocean coral gardens on sea mounts, to extraordinary hydrothermal vent ecosystems teeming with weird lifeforms fed by chemosynthetic microbes, to the remarkable biodiversity in the muds of the vast abyssal plains. Helen's guests are Adrian Glover of the Natural History Museum in London, Kerry Howell of Plymouth University and Alex Rogers, scientific director of REV Ocean. They discuss the dramatic revelations made by deep ocean explorers in just the last forty years, and the profound connections that the deep sea floor has with life at the Earth's surface. They also consider the threats to the ecosystems down there from seabed mining and climate change. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker BBC Inside Science is made in association with the Open University.
A new space age?
Dr Kevin Fong convenes a panel of astronautical minds to discuss the next decade or two of space exploration. 2021 was an eventful year in space. Captain James Kirk a.k.a William Shatner popped into space for real for a couple of minutes, transported by space company Blue Origin's tourist rocket New Shepard. Elon Musk's Space X ferried more astronauts and supplies between Earth and the International Space Station, using its revolutionary resuable launchers and Dragon spacecraft. On Mars, the latest NASA robot rover landed and released an autonomous helicopter - the first aircraft to fly on another planet. 2022 promises even more. Most significantly NASA plans to launch the first mission of its Artemis programme. This will be an uncrewed flight of its new deep space vehicle Orion to the Moon, propelled off the Earth by its new giant rocket, the Space Launch System. Artemis is the American space agency's project to return astronauts to the lunar surface and later establish moon bases. China has a similar ambition. Are we at the beginning of a new space age and if so, how have we got here? When will we see boots on the Moon again? Could we even see the first people on Mars by the end of this decade? Even in cautious NASA, some are optimistic about this. Kevin's three guests are: Dr Mike Barratt, one of NASA's most senior astronauts and a medical doctor, based at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas Dr Anita Sengupta, Research Associate Professor in Astronautical Engineering at the University of Southern California Oliver Morton, Briefings editor at The Economist and the author of 'Mapping Mars' and 'The Moon' Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker BBC Inside Science is made in association with the Open University
The Origin of Celtic Culture in Britain?
Victoria Gill hears of ancient DNA evidence for an unrecognised mass migration from continental Europe 3,000 years ago that may even have brought the Celtic languages with it. In a paper in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers have gathered hundreds of middle-late Bronze Age DNA samples to identify a moment in pre-history when half the ancestry of people living in southern Britain became continental European. Sometime around 1000 BC, continental Europeans living in Kent spread rapidly into what is now England and Wales. As Prof Ian Armit tells Vic, the spread need not have been one event, and likely spanned around 200 years, but by the start of the Iron Age, Britons' DNA was 50% changed. The researchers suggest further that this may have been the time when Celtic languages spread from the continent into the islands too. Data are starting to be published that suggest the Omicron variant of SARS CoV-2 may be a little less awful than was first feared, though it clearly is still a lethal foe. Prof Penny Moore, one of the scientists in South Africa who helped alert the world to the new virus is very tentatively relieved that death and hospitalisation numbers there and in the UK are beginning to show clinically some of the resilience that earlier strains and vaccines may have bestowed on populations. Three "Glimpses of Spike", either through prior infection and survival or vaccination and boosting seem to be accompanied by improved survival rates. Gaia Vince has been to the Arctic Circle to talk climate change and reindeer. Sami language and culture in Lapland is under strain as climate change rapidly changes alters the predatory threats reindeer farmers face, increasing numbers of wolves and even sea-eagles that prey on young reindeer calves. And over at UCSC in California, recordings of elephant seal pups have been played to maternal harems to ascertain how well mothers recognize their own. Caroline Casey and colleagues report in Royal Society journal Biology Letters, how they can spot their own offspring from their call alone in as little as two days after birth. But if they can do that, why then do so many lactating females feed pups that aren’t their own? Elephant seal mothers fast throughout lactation and lose a huge percentage of their own body weight, quite what the evolutionary driver is for this behaviour remains uncertain, but it can’t now be a case of mistaken identity. Presenter Victoria Gill Producer Alex Mansfield Assistant Producer Emily Bird Made in Association with The Open University
The James Webb Space Telescope
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is only days away. Scheduled for lift off on 24 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 BBC Inside Science is made in association with the Open University. Image: James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: Adriana Manrique Gutierrez, NASA animator
Initial Omicron Lab Data, Creative Naps, and Fishy Sounds.
T-Cells in vaccinated people may be holding the fort, or at least fighting serious illness, against the latest SARS CoV2 variant. Also, how the briefest of sleeps aids creativity. Prof Penny Moore, of South Africa’s National Centre for Infectious Disease and Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, joins us again this week to give us an update from the front line of scientists trying to get the data we need to try to predict the seriousness of the omicron variant. These early data, published as pre-prints and not yet peer-reviewed, seem to suggest that for those in the world lucky enough to have "seen a spike" three times (double vaccination plus booster, or double vaccination plus recovered from infection) the chances of serious illness remain similar to earlier variants. One chink of hope continues to be the fascinating response of the "killer" T-Cells. Prof Danny Altmann of Imperial College London attempts to give us a T-Cell 101 course. This other division of the body’s defences, besides the binding antibodies of which we hear so much, may be more resilient to the sorts of mutations the virus has shown so far, and also perhaps have a slower waning in their ability to recognize it at all. What did Salvador Dali and Thomas Edison have in common? A fondness for the occasional creative nap. And this week scientists suggest they weren't wrong. Delphine Oudiette, a sleep researcher at the L’Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle épinière in Paris, has been experimenting with the idea that just a small nap, where you doze off for a few seconds but don't fall into deep sleep statistically helps you solve creative or mathematical problems. Her results are published in the journal Science Advances. Meanwhile, in shallow seas off Indonesia, attempts to regrow coral reefs previously pounded to rubble by fishing with explosives, really sound like they are recovering. How do scientists know? By swimming about with microphones of course. Dr Tim Lamont, a marine Biologist at the University of Exeter has been listening to thousands of recordings of fish and other marine animal noises and talks Vic through some of the odder ones that so far can't be recognized. He says the sheer number and frequency of the odd sounds point to an ecosystem beginning to thrive. The coral rebuilding strategy there won't work for all the world's dwindling corals, but this new way of monitoring success or failure makes for a great listen. Presenter: Victoria Gill Producer: Alex Mansfield Assistant Producer: Emily Bird Made in Association with The Open University
When Pandemics Collide
As virologists around the world race to investigate the latest SARS CoV2 variant of concern, the UN’s World AIDS Day this week reminds us of the other global pandemic raging for some 40 years. Much of the work achieved over the last two years on SARS CoV2 has been achieved because of the investment made into, and the understanding gained from, HIV research over the last two decades. But to what further extent do they overlap in the population? There is a theory that the omicron variant, displaying so very many mutations compared to previous variants, might well have been incubated in a person suffering from a compromised immune system, possibly due to HIV, in whom the covid virus was able to linger longer than in fitter individuals. Prof. Penny Moore, of South Africa’s National Centre for Infectious Disease and Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, is one of many virologists who transferred from HIV to coronavirus research, and hers, like hundreds of labs around the world, is racing to clone the parts of the omicron virus to enable research into its transmissibility and severity as soon as possible. She describes to Vic what we yet know and what we don’t about it, and also how it is high time to bring the same sense of urgency back to HIV research. Nottingham University’s Prof. Jonathan Ball is another virologist who suddenly transferred experience over to coronaviruses early on. He outlines something of what is really happening when viruses mutate, and how the arms race between host and invader can play out. Our regular Inside Science listener will be interested to know that this week Merlin Sheldrake was awarded the Royal Society’s Science Book Prize, sponsored by Insight Investment, and the hefty cheque that accompanies it, for his book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures. Merlin is one of several high profile advisors to something called the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks - SPUN. They have received funding recently to begin an international mission to map the world’s subterranean fungal mycelial networks, including the infamous Wood Wide Web. SPUN Co-Founder Prof. Toby Kiers of VU University in Amsterdam tells Vic about the need to preserve, map and cherish this unseen yet essential part of the global ecosystem. And could rising sea levels paradoxically be used to help fight climate change? Researchers up in St Andrews took Vic for a squelch about the salt marshes reclaimed recently by the sea in an estuary near Grangemouth, where flora and fauna are thriving just a few years since the seas were allowed back in. Finally, you may have thought that wasps eat meat whereas bees eat honey and nectar. But this week we learned that some bees eat meat, preserving it in honeycombs to feed young and augment their own nutrition. Intrepid field entomologist Laura Figueroa of Cornell University describes to Vic her work in the jungle with Vulture Bees, social bees that over evolutionary time seem to have rescinded their vegetarian instincts and now are happy to enjoy a bit of “chicken on the side”. Laura found that they can digest their flesh because of big adjustments to their gut microbes, including acid-loving bacteria also found in other carnivorous animals. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Assistant Producer, Emily Bird Made in Association with The Open University
Malaria: what's in it for the mosquito?
Malaria, a disease that infects hundreds of millions of people and kills hundreds of thousands each year. It is caused after a plasmodium parasite is passed from a blood-feeding mosquito into a human host. Subject to much research over hundreds of years, both host and parasite, one of the evolutionary mysteries has been why the plasmodium so prospers in the mosquito populations in infected areas. Why haven’t mosquitoes’ immune systems learned to fight back? In short, what’s in it for the mozzies? Ann Carr, working with Laurence Zwiebel at Vanderbuilt University, reports in the journal Nature Scientific Reports how they managed to discover a mutual symbiotic relationship between the plasmodium and the mosquito. Using advanced sequencing technology they discovered that the infected insects can live longer, and have enhanced sensing (olfaction) and egg positioning than their uninfected brethren. This, in turn could help them finds meals better, bestowing higher numbers of infection opportunities for the parasite, benefitting both. NASA this week successfully launched its DART mission, which will next year attempt to nudge an asteroid in its orbit by smashing a mass into it. Could this method allow future humans, endangered by an impending collision push an asteroid out of the way to save the planet? It is billed as human’s first ever “earth-defence mission”, but as relieved-sounding mission leads Nancy Chabot and Andy Rivkin of Johns Hopkins University told the BBC, it is perhaps finally time to stop talking about these sorts of things and have a go. Less relieved perhaps are astronomers around the world as the James Webb Space Telescope team announce a further small delay to its launch to sometime after December 22nd. The BBC’s John Amos a few weeks ago stood in the presence of the telescope before it was coupled to the launch vehicle, and spoke with ESA’s Peter Jensen about its cost and complexity. BBC Inside Science is planning a special episode devoted to the instrument to accompany the launch of the successor to the Hubble Telescope. Watch, as they say, this space... And finally an insight perhaps into the origin of words and language. Apart from onomatopoeia, where a word can sound like the noise of a noise-making thing, can a word sound like other properties, such as for example its shape? In the late 1920s psychologists found that different people would match certain made-up words with the same abstract shapes. This “Bouba/ Kiki” effect has been studied since, where the word “Bouba” is associated with rounded shapes, and “Kiki” with softer, blobby forms. But there wasn’t so much evidence whether or not the effect worked across different languages or different written alphabets, until now. Aleksandra Ćwiek of Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft in Berlin tells Gaia of her international study (published in Royal Society Phil Trans B) looking at the effect in 25 different languages and cultures. The effect is robust, so it is not simply about the shape of a letter b or letter k when written, but could allude to something deeper. Presented by Gaia Vince Produced by Alex Mansfield Assistant Producer, Emily Bird Made in Association with The Open University.
About the podcast BBC Inside Science
A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.