BBC Inside Science
About this podcast
A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.
About this podcast
A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.
BBC Inside Science
Disobedient particles, noisy gorillas, sharks and fictional languages
In 2016, an accelerator physics centre called Fermilab acquired a massive circular 50 foot magnet from a lab in New York. Too big for the roads, the magnet had to take a 2000km detour via New Orleans to get to its new home. This was the start of the “muon g-2” experiment. Last week, Fermilab announced some of their results, and they don’t quite add up. UK experiment lead Professor Mark Lancaster from Manchester University tells us what they have discovered about the tiny particle that is disobeying the laws that govern how our entire universe fits together. Mountain gorillas are among the most impressive and powerful primates alive today. Living in the dense forests of eastern and central Africa, they are able to communicate with other gorillas a mile away by cupping their hands and beating their chests. Primatologist Edward Wright and colleagues have been studying male silverback gorillas and explains how gorillas use chest beating to attract potential mates and suss out competitors. And Professor Corey Bradshaw from Adelaide, South Australia sheds light on a more fearsome animal: sharks. His research has investigated the likelihood of shark attacks around the Australian coast into the future, up to 2066, and asked what would happen to those figures if everyone wore an electrical emitter that interferes with the sharks electrical senses. He finds that shark attacks are remarkably low already, but these emitters could reduce bites by up to 3000 over the next 50 years. Super fans around the world have learned to speak fluent Klingon, a fictional language originating from Star Trek. In a quest to understand the science behind these languages often dismissed as gobbledygook, Gaia Vince has been speaking to some of the linguists responsible for creating these languages. It’s time for her to relax the tongue, loosen those jaw muscles and wrap her head around the scientific building blocks embedded in language and what languages like Klingon tell us about prehistoric forms of communication. Presented by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Rory Galloway
Science funding cuts; Mice get Covid-19; Native oyster reintroductions
Scientists were delighted earlier this year to find they would still have access to the EU Horizon 2020 funding and collaborations. Now, it has been revealed that membership of this group, which was previously paid for through fees to the European Union, may come directly from the science budget, at a cost of about £15 billion over the next 7 years. That’s £1-2 billion a year. Marnie Chesterton speaks with Beth Thompson, head of policy at the Wellcome Trust about the implications, and Roland Pease asks scientists working around the world how the previously announced ODA cuts are affecting their work. Native oysters help to filter coastal waters of the UK of pollutants including nitrates, while also providing habitat for other species. But their numbers have declined by 95% throughout their British range. Now, the Zoological Society of London is placing thousands of mature oysters under pontoons in marinas across the UK to let them breed, and encourage the return of the species to their former numbers. And the new coronavirus mutations that are worrying us all have been found to affect mice in experimental studies at the Pasteur Institute in France. Marnie asks if this change to the infectivity of the new variants has implications for human health and our ability to combat the virus. Presented by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Rory Galloway
Halfway to net zero; hydrogen as a fuel; Fagradalsfjall, Iceland’s active volcano
The UK is reportedly halfway towards meeting its 2050 target of "net zero" carbon emissions. How did we get there and how will we achieve the next stage? ‘UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were 51% below 1990 levels, according to a new Carbon Brief analysis. This means the UK is now halfway to meeting its target of “net-zero” emissions by 2050.’ Simon Evans explains his predictions from the report, outlines how we define net zero and what is required from the next few decades to ensure that the UK meets its 2050 goal. Much of Europe is attempting to replace fossil fuels, transforming transport and domestic heating to run on electrical alternatives, such as batteries and heat pumps. But where electrification isn’t possible or cost effective, such as in many homes, an alternative is still needed. Natural gas is responsible for over 30% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Hydrogen would, theoretically, appear to be the perfect alternative, as combustion only produces water as a by product. Gaia discusses the options with hydrogen strategist, Dr Jenifer Baxter, and Dr Angela Needle of Cadent explains the pilot projects the company is carrying out to introduce 20% hydrogen into gas going into our homes. Last Friday, Fragradalsfjall began erupting for the first time in 800 years. The volcanic system is located in the West of Iceland close to the capital city of Reyjkavik. Dr Evgenia Ilynskaya of Leeds University has been out measuring the gases emitted by the eruption and she describes the experience of working on an active volcanic system.
Human embryo research and ethics; sperm whale social learning; Antikythera mechanism
We still know very little about exactly how the embryo forms out of a mass of dividing cells in those crucial first weeks after conception. This is also the time when many miscarriages occur, and scientists want to understand why. Couples going through IVF donate spare embryos for research and scientists are permitted to study them in a test tube, or in vitro, allowing them to grow and develop for up to 14 days. This 14 day rule is abided by globally, and it’s enshrined in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in the UK. Thirty years ago no-one could keep these embryos alive for more than a few days but recently the techniques have moved on and they have been cultured for nearly 14 days. So should the 14 day rule be extended? Gaia Vince discusses this question with bioethicist professor Insoo Hyun of Case Western University and Harvard Medical School. There are other ways of studying this early development that don’t involve growing an actual embryo, and that’s by using just a few stem cells from it. These are cells that haven’t yet specialised into any type of body cell and so they have the potential to become any cell type. Researchers can grow these cells into structures that resemble embryos, although they could never survive inside a woman’s womb, and these artificial embryos aren’t subject to the 14 day rule. Gaia talks to Dr Naomi Moris of the Crick Institute in London about her work on what she calls gastruloids. Whaling was a huge industry in the 19th century, and populations of sperm whales plummeted, as hunters sought the oil in their heads that was used everywhere for lighting. The whalers who were hunting in the North Pacific kept meticulous records that have been recently made public. Biologists have been studying them, and picking out unexpected changes in the patterns of whale capture. Dr Luke Rendell of St Andrews University explains how he and his colleagues worked out that that the whales seemed to be learning from each other how to avoid the boats. A piece of intricate Ancient Greek engineering called the Antikythera mechanism, that was found by sponge divers in 1901 in the Mediterranean, has fascinated many people. Last week a team from University College London published the latest explanation of how the device worked. Science writer Jo Marchant herself became so obsessed with the mechanism that she published a book on it called Decoding the Universe and she talks to Gaia about the object and what the new research tells us about how the Greeks understood the cosmos two thousand years ago.
China's green growth plan
On Friday 5th March China published a draft for its 14th five-year plan in Beijing. The document acts as a national economic blueprint and was expected to provide an outline as to how the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions planned on tackling its target of reaching net zero emissions by 2060, put forward by President Xi Jinping last September. It appears that greenhouse emissions could continue to increase by 1% or more each year up until 2021. Sam Geal, acting CEO at China dialogue, explains how influential Chinese efforts are when combatting climate change. Since the late 1980s conservationists have used captive breeding to prevent the extinction of North America’s only native ferret species, the black footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Now, an individual called WIlla, who died without leaving any offspring over 30 years ago has been cloned. Her genes represent 300% of the current genetic diversity of the species, and could help boost the chances of these animals. Dr Bridget Baumgartner works with one of the teams that took part in the successful cloning project, she describes how this novel process could bolster and prop up the genetic diversity of the dwindling population. How does one get a closer look at nutrient cycling and water temperature in marine Antarctic conditions? You could always recruit some of the local inhabitants, elephant seals! That’s exactly what Yixi Zheng at the University of East Anglia did. Her furry research assistants have revealed that surface water temperatures around the ice shelves and glaciers of Antarctica are warmer than expected in winter, and this holds implications for nutrient cycling and the productivity of the southern ocean. And finally, after an ancient rock seized the attention of the residents of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, Professor Sara Russel discusses the rarity of finding meteors here on earth, let alone finding one early in the morning sat on your driveway. We hear what the nearly 400g of space rock that's been found this week could reveal about the origins of our solar system. Presented by Gaia Vince Produced by Rory Galloway This programme was made in association with the Open University.
Blue carbon; inside Little Foot's skull; reading locked letters
With global warming continuing to increase at an alarming rate, we need all the help we can get to lock up the carbon that we’ve released into the atmosphere. Fortunately, plants have evolved to do just this, but there’s a whole class of plants that often get forgotten: the mangroves and seagrasses that grow between land and sea, which are among the planet’s most effective carbon sinks. Gaia Vince talks to Fanny Douvere, head of the marine programme at UNESCO, about its new report that shows the importance of blue carbon locked up in its marine World Heritage Sites. And Professor Hilary Kennedy, of Bangor University, explains why seagrasses are so effective at locking up carbon. Roland Pease reports on the secret journey made by one of the most valuable of human fossils, Little Foot, from Johannesburg to Oxfordshire, where it was scanned at the Diamond Light Source facility – one of the most powerful X-ray machines in the world. He talks to some of the main players about the hush hush voyage, and what they’re hoping to discover. There are few things more intriguing than an unopened letter, but what about one from 300 years ago? The Brienne Collection is a Postmaster's trunk containing more than 2000 letters sent to the Hague between 1680 and 1706, and more than 600 are still unopened. In the days before envelopes, people used elaborate folding techniques to secure letters, even tearing off a bit of paper and using that to sew the letter shut, effectively locking it. It makes reading those letters very tricky indeed, especially as antiquarians don't want to risk opening them. Instead, researchers hatched a plan to scan the letters in their untouched, still folded state, and generate a 3D image of their insides of such detail it could be used by an algorithm to unfold it virtually. David Mills from Queen Mary University London tells Gaia about how he used a microtomography scanner to peek inside the unopened letters. Presented by Gaia Vince.
Good COP Bad COP, Shotgun Lead Persistence, and Featherdown Adaptation
On Thursday, The UN Environmental Programme published a report called Making Peace With Nature. It attempts to synthesise vast amounts of scientific knowledge and communicate “how climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution can be tackled jointly within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals”. But it also offers clear and digestible messages that governments, institutions, businesses and individuals can act upon. Concluding BBC Inside Science’s month-long look at some of the challenges ahead of COP26 in Glasgow later this year, and its sister biodiversity meeting in China, Vic speaks with the report’s co-lead Prof Sir Robert Watson FRS and the Tyndall Centre’s Prof Rachel Warren, also a contributing author. Can all the ills of the natural world really be tackled at once? Game-shooting, for sport and food, has traditionally used the toxic metal lead for ammunition. In other parts of the world its use has been banned for the dangers to the human food chain and to the pollution in natural environments, and even deaths of wildfowl from poisoning. But not so in the UK. A year ago, as reported on Inside Science at the time, the shooting community announced a voluntary five year transition period to alternative shot materials. But researchers including profs Rhys Green and Debbie Pain from Cambridge University have discovered that a year on, little seems to have changed. Gathering game sold for food across the UK, they found that all but one bird in their sample of 180 contained lead shot. Meanwhile, up in the Himalayas, Smithsonian scientist Dr Sahas Barva was enjoying the scenery on a cold day off in 2014 when he saw and heard a tiny Goldcrest, thriving in temperatures of -10C. Wondering how such a tiny thing could keep its body insulated, he decided to investigate feathers, and utilizing the huge numbers of specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection he found some striking commonalities in the thermal properties and adaptations of birds everywhere. The higher up they live, the fluffier their coats. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in association with The Open University.
Nasa's Perseverance - will it pay off? And spotting likely hosts for future pandemics.
On Thursday 18th Feb 2020 Nasa’s Perseverance Rover is due to touch down – gently and accurately – in the Jezero crater on Mars. Using similar nail-biting Sky Crane technology as its predecessor Curiosity, if successful it will amongst many other things attempt to fly the first helicopter in the thin Martian atmosphere, and leave small parcels of interesting samples for future missions to collect and return to earth. Unlike previous Martian landings of course, there are no mass-landing parties to be held because of Covid. So Vic Gill invites you to join her and current Curiosity and future Rosalind Franklin (ESA’s 2023 Rover) team scientists in nervously awaiting the signal of success. Dr Susanne Schwenzer was so tense during Curiosity’s final approach in 2012 that she managed to draw blood from her own hand from clutching her mobile phone too hard. BBC Inside Science expects nothing less this time round. Dr Peter Fawdon has been part of the team seand examining the landing site for ESA’s Martian lander and Rover, currently slated to launch in 2022. The project has had a complicated history, having been delayed several times. But with so much at stake, it’s worth getting right. Meanwhile, at Liverpool University, computer scientist Dr Maya Wardeh and virologist Dr Marcus Blagrove have been collaborating to see if Machine Learning and AI can help predict which mammalian species are more likely to harbour the next big coronavirus. Pitting traits and genomes, species similarities, lifestyles and ecosystems of mammals and viruses, they highlight in a paper published in Nature Communications some of the potentially most potent combinations where different coronaviruses could meet and spawn a new breakout. Not just looking for the more quotidian viral mutations the world is increasingly and unfortunately aware of, they have been looking instead for those species where something called homologous recombination between two different viruses, producing a third completely novel type, may occur. It turns out there are many possibilities beyond just bats, which are highly suspected of being the crucible in which SARS-CoV2 was smelted. To spot whatever comes next we should keep an eye on camels, rabbits, palm civets and even hedgehogs, according to the algorithm. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in Association with the Open University.
Meeting Mars, Melting Ice, Ozone on the Mend Again, and A Sea Cacophany
Victoria Gill and guests discuss the signs and symptoms of melting ice and anthropogenic climate warming, illicit CFC production and the racket we make in the seas. As two robotic missions from UAE and China arrive at Mars , and a third from NASA arrives next week, UK astronaut Tim Peake talks of the international collaboration in Mars research that is to come. And continuing BBC Inside Science's look at some of the issues facing COP26 delegates to Glasgow this autumn, Victoria is joined by cryosphere scientist Dr Anna Hogg, Anna studies – sometimes from space - how polar and Greenland ice sheets are melting and shifting as our climate warms. But those giant volumes of ice and concomitant rising sea levels might not be the only threat to people’s lives. It may be that the recent deadly flash flood in India was a result of a swiftly melting Himalayan glacier. The Montreal treaty - prohibiting the production of CFCs to allow the man-made polar hole in the Ozone layer identified back in the 1980s to repair - has long been cited as the classic example of an effective international agreement to protect earth's environment. But just a few years ago in 2018 Luke Western and colleagues identified not just that CFC production was suddenly and unexpectedly rising, but that it was mainly emanating from an area in eastern China. It was speculated then that their use in foams for buildings was happening illicitly on a large scale. This week, they happily announce that those emissions seem to have ceased, and that the target of a healthy ozone layer is back on track. The oceans are, since man first took to the waves, a noisy place. In a comprehensive paper published last week in the journal Science Carlos Duarte and colleagues describe how huge an impact the many anthropogenic noises that echo for miles across the sea beds have on virtually all aquatic life. He argues that it is one stressor, rather like CFCs, that we could and should take swift and effective action to address, that the time for that is ripe, and that doing so will see a swift rebound in many aquatic ecosystems. Humans are not naturally adapted to hear the noise underwater, but to illustrate the point, co-author digital artist Jana Winderen has made an acoustic demonstration for your benefit, of quite how noisy neighbours we are Also, for listeners on BBC Sounds, the BBC's Roland Pease gives an update on where and how scientists think the covid-19 epidemic began, after a WHO team of scientists report on their recent mission to Wuhan and the infamous market. As Roland and WHO delegate Peter Daszak surmise, we still don't quite know, but it wasn't in a lab. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in Association with The Open University.
Putting a number on biodiversity
Ahead of the COP summit in Glasgow at the end of the year, this week an important study was published that attempts to enumerate the value of biodiversity in the economics of humankind. Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta's review makes it clear how essential and yet vulnerable it is. Trees play a large part in the biosystems of the planet, and replanting them is often touted as a solution to many of the carbon challeneges of the next century. But a paper and forthcoming conference hosted by Kew points out just how carefully reforestation - let alone aforestation - must be done, Kew tree expert Kate Hardwick tells Victoria about their 10 golden rules of planting trees. In a forest in Borneo, trees have been planted that will extract the highlevels of Nickel from the local soil. It is hoped that the biomass from the trees can then be used to harvest the nickel. It is an attempt to commercialize successfully the dreams of "phytomining" - finding specific crops or traits in plants that can act to "hyperaccumulate" minerals and metals from soils. As Inside Science's Harrison Lewis reports, it might just now be bearing heavy fruit. But finding the plants that do what you want does not mean they should be planted just anywhere. Lulu Zhang from United Nations University in Dresden, Germany tells Victoria about the Chinese experience of a few decades ago when the Black Lotus tree seemed to be just the ticket for reforesting huge areas of China to stabilize and neutralize soils. Unfortunately, nobody realized how thirsty the monocultured forest would be, and it deprived the area of much of the water for humans and agriculture. Meanwhile this week scientists have published work looking at how even the noise from traffic on the roads can disrupt animal behaviour. Chris Templeton describes how bird's cognititve abilities can be affected. And Adam Bent from Anglia Ruskin University has been studying how crickets' mating choices can be adversely affected by recordings of the A14. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in association with The Open University
Next Gen Covid Vaccines; Man's Oldest Bestest Friend; Bilingual Brain Development
A year after first covid-19 virus sequences were received in the vaccine labs, Dr Alex Lathbridge and guests look into ongoing development and what next year's booster shots might be like. Robin Shattock's team at Imperial College are still working on their vaccine technology - called 'Self Amplifying RNA' or saRNA. A little bit behind their well financed corporate colleagues, this week they announced that instead of pressing ahead with a phase III trial, they will instead look to developing possible boosters and alternative targets just in case more and more serious mutations happen. But as Anna Blakney explains, the possibilities of saRNA don't stop with coronaviruses. Researchers in the journal PNAS report this week a new theory as to when and where dogs were first domesticated by humans, and suggest that they accompanied the first humans across the Bering straight into America. Inside Science's Geoff Marsh has a sniff around. And Dean D'Souza from Anglia Rushkin University describes work he has done looking at certain kinds of development in children who grow up in bilingual households. His work suggests a slightly faster and keener observation of detailed changes in visual cues, and that this is a trait that survives into adulthood. Presented by Alex Lathbridge Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in Association with The Open University
Vaccine Hesitancy and Ethnicity; The Joy of catnip; Lake Heatwaves
Reports this week talk of some BAME ethnic minorities being significantly less likely to take a covid vaccine if offered. Vittal Katikireddi and Tolullah Oni both sit on the SAGE ethnicity subgroup, and they discuss with Alex Lathbridge where the figures come from and quite what they might mean. And yet some of these same groups have suffered some of the worst outcomes from infection. Addressing any underlying problems that bely the figures will take a nuanced approach. Researchers in Japan and Liverpool have been investigating cat's prediliction for the Herb Catnip and Silver Vine. It turns out that there may well be a deep evolutionary reason they have evolved to love rubbing it in their fur so much - a key ingredient is a good mosquito repellent. As Professors Masao Miyazaki and Jane Hurst describe. It might keep the mozzies away but you might end up being talied by cats. And researcher Iestyn Woolway of the Euroopean Space Agency Climate Group, at Didcot UK, describes his work modelling the world's lakes' reaction to a warming climate over coming decades. It's not very comforting, with increased duration and intensity of what he calls "Lake Heatwaves".
UK Science post Brexit; GMOs vs Gene Editing regulation; Identical Twins That Aren't Indentical
In the new EU-UK deal, the UK is to be an associate member of the latest EU research funding round, known as Horizon Europe. costing around £2bn to take part, what can UK scientists now do and what has changed? UKRI CEO Otteline Leyser and the Wellcome Trust EU specialist Beth Thompson discuss ways in which UK researchers are breathing a sigh of relief. Of all the things the UK can now diverge from the EU, DEFRA is currently holding an open consultation on whether to tweak the current GMO regulations so as not to include CRISPR style Genetic Editing. The EU is coincidentally looking at the same issue. John Innes Centre's Janneke Balk works on making strains of wheat that have a higher level of iron for nutrituiional fortification. Interim head of the Roslin Institute in Scotland Bruce Whitelaw thinks developing disease resistance in farm animals is potentially profitable area. Both agree the GMO regulations should be more tightly specified to bring clarity and opportunity for innovation. In Iceland, Kari Stefansson's company Decode Genetics analyse the genetic codes of most of the population of Iceland. This has allowed them to look at the parents, siblings, and offspring of identical twins, and identify how early genetic differences between them develop. And it's very early indeed. Given that identical twins studies are so often used to address issues surrounding the so-called Nature-vs Nurture debate, the findings, published in the Journal Nature, are striking. Presenter by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in association with the Open University.
Vaccine Dosing and Biodiversity Soundscape Monitoring
After the decision by the UK government last week to change the spacing between dosings of vaccine from the recommended 3 weeks to 12 weeks, immunologists around the world have been discussing with some urgency the wisdom of such a move. The FDA and the WHO are deeply sceptica, and the manufacturers have distanced themselves to some extent by cautioning not to deviate from the regime tested in last year's phase III trials. The thinking behind the move is to get more people injected with a single dose in a shorter time, and that the longer wait for the second shot is worth the risk, if it means more people receive some level of protection in the short term. Clinical Epidemiologist Dr Deepthi Gudasani and Imunoligist Prof Danny Altmann of Imperial College describe to Marnie evidence, experience and hunch are combining in the face of the covid crisis, and quite what we know and don't know abou this nationwide experiment. Increasingly, ecologists wanting to monitor remote areas are relying on such things as solar powered audio recorders to measure biodiversity in the sounds of the wild. But how to scrutinize years and years worth of 24 hour, multi site recordings? Sarab Sethi and colleagues have not only been leaving solar-powered Raspberry Pi recorders out in the jungles of Borneo, they've been using machine learning techniques to look out for species and biodiversity changes. You can listen to some of the Borneo work at the SAFE acoustic website (link on BBC page). Presented by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in collaboration with the Open University
Brian Cox and Alice Roberts on a decade of extraordinary science
As a new decade ticks over, Dr Adam Rutherford, Professor Alice Roberts and Professor Brian Cox look back on a decade of science that has transformed perceptions of our medicine, our history and our universe. From advances in genetics that have brought personalized medicine to reality, and revealed the ghosts of ancestral human species never before identified, to quantum computing lessons that hint at the nature of existence and causation throughout the universe, it has been an interesting time. New observational technologies have revealed fresh windows in time and space. And all of it has been reported by BBC Inside Science. But what of the next decade? Programme may contain traces of informed speculation, but (almost) no references to Covid. Presented by Adam Rutherford Produced by Melanie Brown Made in association with The Open University.
Space Rocks, Aquatic Dinosaurs and Global Temperatures; 2020 science reviewed
Nobody could have failed to notice the one story dominating the science news this year - but what about the discoveries that have been overshadowed in 2020? This week, Dr Adam Rutherford eschews all mentions of the pandemic as he invites dinosaur researcher Dr Susie Maidment, climate scientist Dr Tamsin Edwards and astrophysicist Dr Emma Chapman to share their science highlights of the year. We journey to the moon and beyond to discuss the many missions that have been blasting and grabbing bits of space rock to bring back to earth and tackle the ongoing debate about whether signs of life have been found on Venus. Back down on earth, this year could be one of, if not the, hottest years on record, with particularly high temperatures in the Arctic Circle. What might a warming world mean for ice-shelf collapse in Antarctica and how are governments responding? We discuss Joe Biden’s presidency, UK carbon emissions and what China’s recent announcements of net zero by 2060 might mean for the future of the planet. And despite limitations on travel this past year, exciting discoveries in the dinosaur world have nonetheless continued with what is believed to be the first aquatic dinosaur. The detection of soft shell eggs is also changing understandings of how dinosaurs reared their offspring. And if that wasn’t enough, Dr Adam Rutherford challenges our experts to predict what big science stories might lie on the horizon in 2021.
Covid mutation; On the facial expression of emotions; A mystery object
Dr Alex Lathbridge with your peek at the week in science. This week in the House of Commons Matt Hancock announced a new variant inthe Covid virus, discovered to be srpreading through the south east of the UK. As Prof Jonathan Ball of the University of Nottingham describes, there have been many slight mutations and changes to the DNA in the virus since it first emerged, and most are of no added danger, but it is important that new ones - and new combinations of them - are tracked through collaborations and networks such as COG-UK, who provide an almost real-time track of the spread of new mutations. The new one this week is of some interest as it involves a slight change to the protein of the binding area on the virus, but much lab work remains to be done, Is an angry face always an angry face? A paper inthe Journal Nature this week uses Machine Learning to scan millions of videos of faces on YouTube to shed light on an old problem - the universailty of facial expressions in people. The authors - working with Google - suggest that broadly speaking, in a number of contexts such as weddings and sporting events, people in much of the world tend to pull the same faces. But as Lisa Feldman Barrett - who wrote an accompanying comentary in the same journal - suggests, the way Machine Learning approaches in this area require very human perceptions to train the algorithm in the first place means care must be taken before inferring too much. This year BBC Inside Science has been showcasing some of the mystery objects the Science Museum has uncovered in the course of moving its collections to a new home in Wroughton, Wiltshire. Jessica Bradford talks to Alex about our next one. If you have any ideas what it might be for, you can let them know by dropping a note or memory to email@example.com Presented by Alex Lathbridge Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in Association with The Open University
Future risk planning; Millennium Seed Bank; Urban trees
Dr Alex Lathbridge brings you the week in science. As the first COVID vaccines are delivered this week hastening the first glimmers of a return to normal life, is it too soon to be thinking about other future threats to humanity? James Arbuthnot, chair of a House of Lords select committee tasked to look at risk planning, and fellow committee member Martin Rees discuss their meeting this week and the assessment of the scientists invited to share their interpretations of future threats like AI, solar flares and volcanic eruptions. They are inviting evidence submissions until January 28th 2021. The Millennium Seed Bank was setup as a safety net to protect and conserve rare, threatened and useful wild plants for generations to come. As it celebrates 20 years of operation it can claim to host 16 per cent of the world’s bankable flora in its sturdy underground vaults. Alex heads down to Wakehurst, Sussex and meets the team coaxing seeds to life to check their viability or using cryopreserving on those seeds less convivial to being preserved. One key project is protecting farmed crops that have lost genetic diversity over time and are at risk from climate change. Through collecting and researching the wild ‘cousins’ of our modern day crops Kew and its partners are researching and harnessing the resilient traits found in these less pampered crop relatives. Treezilla.org is a citizen science project designed to increase understanding of all the urban tress in the UK. Scientist’s, together with the public, are getting their tape measures out and cataloguing the trees to better ascertain how they influence the environment in towns and cities across the UK, to map their ages, species, sizes and health, and to help future planners to put the knowledge to work. Kate Hand is a researcher at the Open University who is looking at ways to increase our knowledge of the values trees bring to our urban environments – in case, specifically through the lens of Milton Keynes which, it transpires, is quite the urban arboretum. Presented by Alex Lathbridge Produced by Alex Mansfield and Melanie Brown Made in association with The Open University
Protein folding; Hyabusa sample return; Holiday Covid testing
DeepMind’s work using AI to unravel proteins as the next major step in biology, Asteroid samples due to return, and screening university students for COVID before the holidays.
Last weekend a joint European-US satellite blasted into space to begin its mission - monitoring the oceans back here on earth. Sentinel 6 Michael Freilich is one of a long line of satellites and has a striking design – appearing like a bright gold farmyard barn with a big pitched roof. Anand Jagatia speaks to Dr Ralph Cordey at Airbus Space and Defence about the latest design iteration and the technology on-board. Oceanographer Professor Penny Holiday from the National Oceanography Centre explains how Sentinel 6’s readings will enhance understanding of sea-level rises and give more detail about the currents in our oceans. We journey back to the cosmic ‘Dark Ages’, a period of time that we know hardly anything about. Dr Emma Chapman is an astrophysicist at Imperial College London who has written a book ‘First Light: Switching on Stars at the Dawn of Time’ to throw light on this illusive chapter in the history of our universe. How close are scientists to finding the first stars? With ambitious new government targets to end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 how ready are electric cars to fill the gap? One key area many companies are trying to improve are the batteries powering electric vehicles. Peter Bruce, professor of materials science from Oxford University and chief scientist at the Faraday Institution has been working on rechargeable lithium ion energy storage since the 1990s. He speaks with Anand about the current limitations and the most recent developments in battery research and development. Presented by Anand Jagatia Produced by Melanie Brown