The Life Scientific
About this podcast
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.
About this podcast
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.
The Life Scientific
Mark Spencer on how plants solve crimes
Inside the mind of a forensic botanist, Mark Spencer tells Jim Al-Khalili how he uses plant evidence to help solve crimes. By studying the vegetation at crime scenes, Mark can tell how long a dead body has been laying in the ground. Brambles can be particularly informative, he says. And by looking at tiny traces of plants under the microscope, he can link suspects to victims, or particular locations. Mark tells Jim Al-Khalili how he came to be a forensic botanist. After working in bars and clubs in Soho for many years, he decided to study for a degree in botany and developed a special interest in water moulds. As a curator of the botanical collections at the Natural History Museum in London, he became intimately acquainted with British flora past and present. And, more recently, has spent a lot of time monitoring urban wildlife – recording how the composition of native species and non-native species in the capital is changing, as the global climate changes and the global trade in plants continues. Producer: Anna Buckley
Sarah Bridle on the carbon footprint of food
What would happen to our carbon emissions if we all went vegan? Astrophysicist, Sarah Bridle tells Jim Al-Khalili why she switched her attention from galaxies to food. A rising star in the study of extra-galactic astronomy, Sarah was a driving force behind one of the most ambitious astronomy projects of recent times, the Dark Energy Survey of the universe. A few years ago, concerned about climate change, she started trying to calculate the carbon emissions from different foods so that she could make more informed choices about what she was eating. Before long, she was adapting the statistical tools and techniques she had developed to study dark matter and dark energy, to quantify the carbon cost of different foods and lobby government to make food labels indicating carbon cost of foods compulsory. Producer: Anna Buckley
Richard Bentall on the causes of mental ill health
For a long time people who heard voices or suffered paranoid delusions were thought to be too crazy to benefit from talking therapies. As a young man working on a prison psychiatric ward, Richard Bentall thought otherwise. Together with a small group of clinical psychologists, he pioneered the use of the talking therapy CBT for psychosis and conducted rigorous randomized controlled trials to find out if and why it worked. Turns out, having a good relationship with your the therapist is at the heart of why therapy succeeds, regardless of the type of therapy practised. Richard talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his quest to understand psychosis and how his own mental health has suffered at times. He's interested in how adverse life events affect our mental health and has shown that people who suffer abuse, bullying and victimization as children are three times more likely to have a psychotic episode later in life. If someone has a genetic vulnerability too, they are 20 or 30 times more at risk. A large survey of our mental health, launched by Richard and colleagues on day one of the first lockdown has revealed that lockdown and Covid-19 has not led to a tsunami of mental illness that many feared. 10% of the population has seen their mental health improve. Producer: Anna Buckley
Jane Hurst on the secret life of mice
Mice, like humans, prefer to be treated with a little dignity, and that extends to how they are handled. Pick a mouse up by its tail, as was the norm in laboratories for decades, and it gets anxious. Make a mouse anxious and it can skew the results of the research it’s being used for. What mice like, and how they behave, is the focus of Professor Jane Hurst’s research. Much of that behaviour, she’s discovered, can be revealed by following what they do with their noses - where they take them and what’s contained in the scent marks they sniff. Now William Prescott Professor of Animal Science at the University of Liverpool, Jane has unravelled a complex array of scent signals that underpin the way mice communicate, and how each selects a mate. Within this heady mix of male scent, she’s identified one particular pheromone that is so alluring to females that she named it Darcin, after Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Producer: Beth Eastwood
Anne Johnson on the importance of public health
Public health has been on all of our minds during the pandemic and Prof Dame Anne Johnson has spent more time thinking about it than most of us. She studies the human behaviours that enable viruses to spread and is an architect of a highly influential report on Covid-19 published in July 2020 by the Academy of Medical Sciences, Preparing for a Challenging Winter. For many years Anne was uncertain about a career in medicine. But the time she spent in the slums of Caracas and working as a GP in some deprived areas of Newcastle opened her eyes to the importance of good public health. In the early days of the HIV AIDS epidemic, Anne proved that HIV AIDS was transmitted heterosexually. Her landmark study involved asking people detailed questions about their sex lives and she went on to co-create the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. The survey was banned by the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and thought by many to be a scientific enterprise that was doomed to fail. But it continues to this day, informing our sex education policy and public health interventions to control the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. In the noughties, Anne turned her attention to influenza. She was heavily involved in Flu Watch, a community survey that collected a great wealth of data during the Swine Flu pandemic of 2009. It revealed high levels of asymptomatic infections and showed how T cell immunity could offer protection against different strains of influenza. Insights that have proved to be highly relevant to the study of Covid-19 and how it spreads. Anne tells Jim Al-Khalili what gets epidemiologists like her out of bed in the morning and why it’s so important to focus on prevention as well as cure. Producer: Anna Buckley Credit: Academy of Medical Sciences/Big T Images
Giles Yeo on how our genes can make us fat
Many of us think we’re in control of what we eat and that, coupled with what we do, dictates our shape and size. It’s physics after all - if you eat too much and move too little, you put on weight; do the opposite, and you lose it. Genes, the theory goes, have minimal if any effect on our size. But what if we’re wrong? What if our genes have a powerful influence over how we put on weight, and why many struggle to lose it? Over the past two decades, this once controversial idea has gained acceptance and has inspired the work of Giles Yeo. His research on the genetics of obesity at Cambridge University reveals the powerful ways in which our genes, which function within our brains, influence our eating behaviour. These genes are far better suited to times of food scarcity. Fast forward to the modern diet, packed with sugar and fat, and our genetic makeup quickly becomes a recipe for disaster. Producer: Beth Eastwood
Cath Noakes on making buildings Covid-safe
Professor Cath Noakes studies how air moves and the infection risk associated with different ventilation systems. Early in the pandemic, she was invited to join the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, SAGE and asked to study the transmission routes for Covid-19. In July, together with many other scientists, she urged governments around the world and the World Health Organisation to recognise that Covid-19 could be transmitted in tiny particles in the air, even if the risk of getting infected in this way was much smaller than the risk from larger particles that travel less far. Her research highlights the importance of good ventilation as a way to stop the spread of infection in indoor environments. Being in a well ventilated space can reduce the risk of inhaling tiny airborne pathogens by 70%. Cath talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her journey from studying industrial processes to infection risk, her work on the airborne transmission of diseases and the challenge of designing buildings that are both well ventilated and energy efficient. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo credit: University of Leeds
Chris Jackson on sustainable geology
Chris Jackson is the kind of scientist who just loves to get out into the landscape he loves. He’s often introduced as ‘geologist and adventurer’. For the past five years he’s been Professor of Basin Analysis in the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering at Imperial College London and he’s now about to move back to the University of Manchester, where he studied as a student, to become Professor of Sustainable Geoscience. As a child growing up in Derby, Chris learned to love the outdoors on family trips to the Peak District. Recently, you may have seen him abseiling into a crater of an active volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a BBC TV series. He’s also been telling us about the link between our planet’s geology and climate change as part of the recent Royal Institution Christmas lectures. Chris talks to Jim al-Khalili about working in the oil and gas exploration industry at the start of his career, searching for massive deposits of salt deep inside the earth and his experience of being a black geologist.
Scientists in the Spotlight during the Pandemic
More of us have been exposed to so more science than ever before during 2020. And our insatiable appetite for science shows no sign of diminishing. Back in 2019, most scientists struggled to get any media attention. Now scientists involved in fighting the pandemic are generating headlines almost daily. On top of working harder than ever to further our understanding of the virus, many have become public figures. Some have been caught in the headlights. Others have stepped into the footlights. Many have found themselves at the centre of highly politicised conversations - not something a scientific training prepares you for. And the fact that everyone is now an expert on R numbers and immunology has created a new set of challenges. Jim Al-Khalili explores how The Life Scientific has changed during the pandemic and asks if, during these difficult times, a new relationship between scientists and the media has been forged. We look to science for certainty (all the more so during uncertain times) but there is no magic moment when scientists can announce with absolute certainty that ‘this is how it is’. Now that science is being reported in real time, revealing all the ups and downs on the bumpy road to discovery is there a danger that our faith in science will be undermined. Or could one legacy of the pandemic be a much greater appreciation of the true nature of scientific knowledge and how it’s formed? Has good journalism helped science to progress by synthesising scientific findings and interpreting what they mean? And, when the pandemic is over, will scientists continue to be part of the national debate? Producer: Anna Buckley
Neil Ferguson on modelling Covid-19
Neil Ferguson is known to many as Professor Lockdown. The mathematical models he created to predict the spread of Covid-19 were influential but, he says, it took him quite a long time to be persuaded that full lockdown was a good idea. A physicist by training, Neil switched from studying string theory to the spread of disease and presented scientific advice to government during the BSE crisis, an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in livestock in 2001 and the swine flu pandemic of 2009. In January 2020, he issued his first report on Covid-19 estimating the extent of the outbreak in Wuhan City in China. In March, he predicted that 510,000 people in the UK could die if nothing was done to mitigate the spread of this pandemic. Does he stand by that prediction? And how worried is he now? Jim Al-Khalili talks to Neil Ferguson about his life and work, the tricky relationship between politics and science and asks if he has any regrets about lockdown. Producer: Anna Buckley for BBC Radio Science
Sarah Gilbert on developing a vaccine for Covid-19
Sarah Gilbert started working on a vaccine for Covid-19 just as soon as the virus genome was sequenced. Within weeks, she had a proof of principle. By early April, her team at the Jenner Institute in Oxford had manufactured hundreds of doses ready for use in clinical trials. In phase one of these trials, completed in July, this vaccine was shown to be safe for use in a thousand healthy volunteers, aged between 18 and 55. It also provoked exactly the kind of immune response to Covid-19 that Sarah was hoping to achieve. Larger scale clinical trials are currently underway in the UK, South Africa and Brazil. If everything goes according to plan and the vaccine meets all the necessary regulatory standards, it will be manufactured in multiple locations including the Serum Institute in India and made available for use in low to middle income countries. AstraZeneca has already committed to making two billion doses, each costing about $4. The UK has an order in for 100 million. Sarah talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her life and work. As a young woman, she nearly gave up on a career in science. Now she’s in charge of one the most successful vaccine projects in the world. How did Sarah and her Oxford team get so far, so fast in developing a vaccine against Covid-19? Producer: Anna Buckley
Steve Haake on technology, sport and health
Steve Haake,has spent much of his career using technology to help elite sports people get better, faster and break records. He has turned his hand to the engineering behind most sports, from studying how golf balls land, to designing new tennis racquets and changing the materials in ice skates. He’s now Professor of Sports Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University and was the Founding Director of the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre there. Since the 2012 London Olympics, Steve has also been working to improve the health and wellbeing of all of us. As Chair of the Parkrun Research Board he’s heavily involved in this international phenomenon in which thousands of people have sprinted, jogged and stumbled around a 5-kilometre course on Saturday mornings, which he’s shown really does encourage people to be generally more active. Jim al-Khalili talks to Steve Haake about how he got from a physics degree to being one of the leading sports engineers in the world, and how we can all improve our health by moving more.
Francesca Happé on autism
When Francesca Happé started out as a research psychologist thirty years ago, she thought she could easily find out all there was to know about autism – and perhaps that wouldn’t have been impossible as there were so few papers published on it. Francesca’s studies have increased our knowledge of how people with autism experience the world around them, and their social interactions. She’s looked at their brains using various imaging techniques, studied the families of people with autism to explore their genetics, and raised awareness of how the condition can appear differently in women than in men. Jim al-Khalili talks to Francesca, now Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London, about her research career and her current projects, including how people with autism experience mental health issues, such as PTSD.
Heather Koldewey on marine conservation
Professor Heather Koldewey wants to protect our oceans from over-fishing and plastic pollution. An academic who is not content to sit back and let the science speak for itself, she wants to turn science into action and has found conservation allies in some unexpected places. Working with a carpet manufacturer, she created Net-Works, a business that turns old fishing nets into high-end carpet tiles and she has collaborated with Selfridges department store to give marine conservation a make-over. A research career that began studying the genetics of brown trout in Welsh rivers took her to the Philippines to save seahorses and a job running the aquarium at London Zoo. In 2018, she was made a National Geographic Fellow. Heather tells Jim Al-Khalili why, despite all the challenges to marine life, she remains an ‘ocean optimist’ and how she learned to drop her ‘scientific seriousness’. Producer: Anna Buckley
Dale Sanders on feeding the world
Professor Dale Sanders has spent much of his life studying plants, seeking to understand why some thrive in a particular environment while others struggle. His ground breaking research on their molecular machinery showed how plants extract nutrients from the soil and store essential elements. Since plants can’t move, their survival depends on these responses. In 2020, after 27 years at the University of York, he became the Director of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, one of the premier plant research institutions in the world. Meeting the food needs of a growing global population as the climate changes is a major challenge. And, Dale says, it’s not only about maximising yields. We need crops that are more resilient and more nutritious. Drought resistant crop varieties, for example. And zinc-rich white rice. Dale talks to Jim about how plant science is helping to feed the world in a sustainable way and why plant scientists don’t always get the recognition they deserve. Producer: Anna Buckley
Andy Fabian on black holes
Professor Andrew Fabian from Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy has spent his career trying to unravel the mystery of how some of the most dramatic events in the universe can profoundly influence its evolution. For over 50 years he’s been examining our universe using X-ray satellites orbiting way above earth’s atmosphere . He’s built up compelling evidence that supermassive black holes at the heart of galaxies are the engines that drive the movement of energy through the universe and provide the building blocks for the formation of new galaxies. They're extraordianry insights, for which he’s now been awarded the 2020 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics, one of the world's most prestigious science prizes. Jim Al-Khalili hears how Andy gets to capture epic galactic events in motion to build up a picture of this vast ecosystem - and also how he earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records for discovering the deepest note in the universe – a B flat , 57 octaves below middle C. Producer Adrian Washbourne
Alice Roberts on bones
It’s amazing what we can learn from a pile of old bones. Having worked as a paediatric surgeon for several years (often doing the ward round on roller blades), Alice Roberts spent a decade teaching anatomy to medical students and studying human remains. A niche interest in the collar bone and how it has changed since we evolved from the common ancestor we share with other apes 6 million years ago, led her to some of the biggest questions in science. Who are we? And where do we come from? She is the presenter of several landmark TV series on human evolution and archaeology, such as The Incredible Human Journey and Digging for Britain. And in 2019 she became President of the British Science Association. In conversation with Jim Al Khalili, Alice shares her passion for the bones of our ancient ancestors and of the freshly dead, and describes her own incredible journey from a basement full of medieval bones to an eminent science communicator and public figure. Producer: Anna Buckley
Clifford Stott on riot prevention
Why does violence break out in some crowds and not in others and what can the police do to reduce the risk of this happening? Professor Clifford Stott tells Jim Al-Khalili about his journey from trouble maker to police advisor and explains why some policing strategies are more successful than others. As a teenager Clifford was often in trouble with the police. Now he’s a professor of crowd psychology who works with the police suggesting new evidence-based strategies for public order management. ‘If we misunderstand the psychology of the crowd then all attempts at crowd control are doomed to fail’, he says. Cliff’s work on football crowds revolutionised the way matches were policed and led to a dramatic reduction in football hooliganism. He’s studied the riots in London and other British cities in 2011 and the mass protests in Hong Kong in 2019. And in 2020 he joined the government advisory board, SAGE to advise the government on how to reduce the risk of civil unrest in the wake of a global pandemic. Producer: Anna Buckley
Emma Bunce on the gas giants
Emma Bunce, Professor of Planetary Plasma Physics at the University of Leicester, was inspired to study the solar system as a child by a TV programme that featured Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune. She has spent the last 20 years focusing on the magnetic fields around the outer planets, in particular that of Jupiter. The Earth’s magnetic field interacts with the solar wind to create aurorae, the spectacular Northern lights. Emma’s discovered how aurorae are also produced at Jupiter's poles. Emma Bunce talks to Jim al-Khalili about her fascination with the gas giants, why she has to be patient to check out her theories as missions to the planets are few and far between and how she'd love to work on a spacecraft to Neptune. And in the year when the Royal Astronomical Society marks its 200th anniversary, Emma explains why she's taken on the role of its President.
Jane Goodall on living with wild chimpanzees
Jane Goodall, aged 86, reflects on the years she spent living with the wild chimpanzees in Gombe in eastern Tanzania and tells Jim Al Khalili why she believes the best way to bring about change is to ‘creep into people’s hearts’. Jane shot to fame when she appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1963 and appeared in a documentary film directed by Orson Welles. Her ground breaking observations introduced us to the social and emotional lives of wild chimpanzees and changed our view of what it is to be human. Images of her younger self play wrestling with baby chimps make Jane feel slightly apprehensive now but at the time she didn’t give it a second thought. However, she did take care to protect her young son. Seeing distressing footage of chimps who were living in captivity, she gave up fieldwork to become an activist, working to liberate chimpanzees that were being used for medical research or sold for meat or as pets, and setting up chimp sanctuaries for animals that were no longer able to live in the wild. For the last thirty years, she has campaigned gently but relentlessly to protect wild animals and wild places, touring the world and performing on stage in front of huge audiences. Her global youth programme, Roots and Shoots has inspired and empowered millions of people to understand and respect nature, leading some to call her ‘the mother Theresa of the environment’. A label she dislikes. Producer: Anna Buckley Photo credit: the Jane Goodall Institute / By Bill Wallauer