Episodes

  • Whilst watching a documentary about some poisonous frogs, Curio Janni in Amsterdam, started to wonder what would happen if a frog licked itself or another frog of the same species. She asks Dr Adam Rutherford and Professor Hannah Fry to investigate whether an animal would react badly to a toxin it itself produces? In essence 'can a venomous snake kill itself by biting itself?'

    Of course the answer is complicated, but the sleuths know exactly who to ask.

    Steve Backshall, award-winning wildlife explorer, best known for his BBC series 'Deadly 60'. Author of 'Venom – Poisonous Creatures in the Natural World'. Steve has been bitten, stung and spat at by a plethora of venomous creatures during his career. He also studied the first known venomous newt - the sharp-ribbed newt - a creature that has sharpened ribs that when it's under attack, it will squeeze its body force those ribs out through its skin, coating them in venom, which is then delivered into the mouth of an attacker.

    Professor Nick Casewell, studies venomous snakes and their impact on humans. He works on treatments for snakebites at the Liverpool School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Snakebites have a huge impact on communities in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and South America. It's now been reinstated as one of the most serious neglected tropical diseases by the World Health Organisation. Traditional treatments - antivenins - can be expensive, difficult to access and don't always work - Nick is looking into alternative medicines to treat snakebite victims.

    Dr. Ronald Jenner is Principle Researcher in the Comparative Venomics group at the Natural History Museum's Life Sciences, Invertebrates Division and co-wrote the book ‘Venom -the secrets of nature's deadliest weapon.’ He explains the evolutionary arms race between venomous predators and their prey and poisonous prey and their predators. He explains how resistance to venom has evolved and how venom has evolved to be more or less powerful over time, answering another Curio - Scott Probert's question on the evolution of venom.

    Christie Wilcox wrote 'Venomous – How Earth’s Deadliest Creatures Mastered Biochemistry'. She studied the molecular basis of lionfish venom. Christie describes how venom and immunity to venom works at the molecular level.

  • 'What is the slipperiest thing in the world?' asks 8 year old Evelyn? 'Why do my feet slip on a wet floor but when my feet are even slightly moist it's nearly impossible to put on a pair of socks without falling over and cursing the universe. What is going on here?' asks Evelyn's Dad, Sam. Hannah and Adam investigate the science of friction and lubrication - so called 'tribology' with the help of tribologists and mechanical engineers Professor Ashlie Martini from California University Merced and Professor Roger Lewis from the University of Sheffield. With their help Hannah and Adam find out why leaves on the line are so slippery, what happens to graphite in space and what is the slipperiest food. Professor of Materials, Mark Miodownik from University College London explains what's going on when friction stops two materials sliding past each other and wonders whether the slipperiest substance was actually discovered accidentally in a lab by scientists looking for something completely different. Also in the programme why the ability to reduce friction, even by minuscule amounts could have a huge impact for sustainability and reducing energy use.

    Producers: Jen Whyntie and Pamela Rutherford

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  • Dr Mitch Lomax is a sports scientist at the University of Portsmouth. She helps actual Olympic swimmers get faster. She explains how most of the muscles attached to our skeletons work: Tiny fibres use small-scale cellular energy, which, when all these fibres work in concert, turns into visible muscular movement. Mitch also explains how the dreaded Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, can hit, taking a stair-wincing 48-72 hours to peak after exercise.

    But skeletal muscles turn out to be quite different to heart muscles, as consultant cardiologist Dr Rohin Francis explains. Heart cells are more efficient and don't get fatigued like skeletal muscle cells. They are extremely energetic and 'just want to beat'. He also explains that the sensory feedback from the heart muscles is different too. They have a different sort of nerve supply, with fewer sensory nerves, so that there is less chance of pain signals being sent to the brain.

    However, heart cells' incredible abilities are counterbalanced by one Achilles-like flaw: They cannot easily heal. Professor Sanjay Sinha is a British Heart Foundation (BHF) Senior Research Fellow and a Professor in Cardiovascular Regenerative Medicine at the University of Cambridge. His job is to fix broken hearts and he explains to Adam how new research into stem cells could be used to fix normally irreparable heart cells.

    Producer - Jennifer Whyntie and Fiona Roberts
    Presenters - Hannah Fry and Adam Rutherford

  • “I don’t really understand why water has so many properties on different scales ranging from very large and cosmic to very small quantum and quarky - Could you help by zooming in and out on water to explain what is known about it? Asks Neil Morton in Stirling.

    “Why does boiling water sound different to cold water?’ asks Barbara Dyson in Brittany in France

    Ollie Gordon, in Christchurch in New Zealand, wants to know ‘why water is essential for all life as we know it?’

    And many more questions on the weirdness of water are tackled by super science sleuths Hannah and Adam helped by quantum physicist Professor Patricia Hunt, at the Victoria University in Wellington in New Zealand, science writer and author of ‘H2O – a biography of water’ Philip Ball and physicist and bubble expert in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UCL, Dr Helen Czerski.

    Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford
    Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • “I don’t really understand why water has so many properties on different scales ranging from very large and cosmic to very small quantum and quarky - Could you help by zooming in and out on water to explain what is known about it? Asks Neil Morton in Stirling. Rutherford and Fry learn about the special hydrogen bonds that makes water such an unusual liquid.

    Quantum physicist Professor Patricia Hunt, at the Victoria University in Wellington in New Zealand explains to Hannah the quantum properties of individual water molecules and how they link up with other water molecules in liquid water and solid ice. She describes the hydrogen bonds that give water some of it’s weird and wonderful properties such as why ice floats, why water is able to store huge amounts of heat and why water has such a strong surface tension.

    Science writer and author of ‘H2O – a biography of water’ Philip Ball describes how in the 18th century it was discovered that water was not one of the classical elements, but a compound liquid of water and hydrogen and explains to Adam why there are at least 15 different types of ice.

    Physicist Dr. Helen Czerski sets the record straight on how ice forms in oceans and lakes and why water is at its densest at 4 degrees Centigrade and not zero.

    Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford
    Producer: Fiona Roberts

  • Everybody hopes that the new super-charged Omicron variant of coronavirus will be less severe, but even if it is, it’s spreading so fast and infecting so many people, health services around the world could still buckle under the strain.

    Two years into the pandemic, Claudia Hammond is joined by two world-leading scientists to discuss the impact of Omicron and to review what the world has got right in its response to coronavirus, and what it has got very, very wrong.

    As many countries roll out and plan for booster campaigns in the face of this new variant, concerns are raised that enhancing vaccine coverage in richer countries will again monopolise scarce supplies, and leave the millions of unvaccinated in poorer countries – including three quarters of healthcare workers in Africa – exposed yet again.

    Dr Soumya Swaminathan, the Chief Scientist of the World Health Organisation, acknowledges the need to boost the elderly and vulnerable, but says it's good science to make sure everyone around the world gets their first vaccine doses. Only then will further deaths be prevented and new variants stalled.

    Director of the Wellcome Trust, Sir Jeremy Farrar agrees. Booster vaccines in rich countries, maybe even a fourth dose, are unsustainable he says, when so many people have yet to receive their first jab. It’s not just a moral and ethical argument to vaccinate the world, he says, but it makes sound scientific sense too.

    Produced by: Fiona Hill, Anna Buckley, Maria Simons and Emily Bird
    Studio Engineer: Tim Heffer and Giles Aspen

  • Dogs and humans have gone paw in hand for thousands of years. Historic and genetic evidence shows we’ve shaped each other's existence over millennia. But dogs were only first trained as guides for blind people in the UK 90 years ago. What’s the biology behind this extraordinary partnership? Hannah heads to Guide Dogs UK’s training school in Royal Leamington Spa. She meets up with expert Graham Kensett to find out what it takes to make a guide dog from nose to tail, starting from before birth and following the life course through to retirement.

    Hannah also meets the delightful Wendy and Wilmott, a German shepherd and a retriever cross. Despite both still growing into their ears, they show her their already extraordinary skill set, from tackling obstacle courses to safely crossing roads. Cool, calm, patient, unflappable: Guide dogs are the astronauts of the canine world. But, as trainer Jenna explains, it’s all in the partnership with the owner, who needs to do plenty of work in terms of training and learning routes to journey in harmony with their furry guide.

    Richard Lane has owned guide dogs for over 25 years, and confirms this first hand. He reveals just how he gets to the toothpaste aisle, and tells Adam how at its peak a partnership can navigate London Waterloo station better than some sighted people, even at rush hour. Richard also explains how deeply felt the bond that forms between owner and dog is, and describes the hardest part of guide dog ownership: Letting go at the end.

  • The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is only days away. Scheduled for lift off on 22 December, the largest and most complex space observatory ever built will be sent to an orbit beyond the moon.

    James Webb is so huge that it has had to be folded up to fit in the rocket. There will be a tense two weeks over Christmas and the New Year as the space giant unfurls and unfolds. Its design and construction has taken about 30 years under the leadership of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

    With its huge 6.5 metre-wide primary mirror, the giant observatory promises to extend our view across the cosmos to the first stars to shine in the early universe. That’s a vista of Cosmic Dawn: the first small clusters of stars to form and ignite out of what had been a universe of just dark clouds of primordial gas. If the James Webb succeeds in capturing the birth of starlight, we will be looking at celestial objects more than 13.5 billion light years away.

    Closer to home, the telescope will also revolutionise our understanding of planets orbiting stars beyond the solar system.

    BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos reports from the European Space Agency’s launch site in French Guyana from where James Webb will be sent into space. He talks to astronomers who will be using the telescope and NASA engineers who’ve built the telescope and tested it in the years leading to launch.

    Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker
    Picture: James Webb Space Telescope, Credit Northrup Grumman

  • CRISPR is the latest and most powerful technique for changing the genetic code of living things. This method of gene editing is already showing great promise in treating people with gene-based diseases, from sickle cell disease to cancer. However, in 2018 the use of CRISPR to edit the genes of two human embryos, which were subsequently born as two girls in China, caused outrage. The experiment was done in secrecy and created unintended changes to the children's genomes - changes that could be inherited by their children and their children's children. The scandal underlined the grave safety and ethical concerns around heritable genome editing, and called into doubt the ability of the scientific community to self-regulate this use of CRISPR.

    CRISPR gene editing might also be used to rapidly and permanently alter populations of organisms in the wild, and indeed perhaps whole ecosystems, through a technique called a gene drive. A gene drive is a way of biasing inheritance, of getting a gene (even a deleterious one) to rapidly multiply and copy itself generation after generation, sweeping exponentially through a population.

    In theory, this could be used to eradicate species such as agricultural pests or disease-transmitting mosquitoes, or to alter them in some way: for example, making mosquitoes unable to carry the malaria parasite. But do we know enough about the consequences of releasing a self-perpetuating genetic technology like this into the environment, even if gene drives could, for example, eradicate insects that spread a disease which claims hundreds of thousands of deaths every year? And who should decide whether gene drives should be released?

    Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTSDesign/SCIENCEPHOTOLIBRARY/Getty Images

  • Professor Matthew Cobb looks at how genetic engineering became big business - from the first biotech company that produced human insulin in modified bacteria in the late 1970s to the companies like Monsanto which developed and then commercialised the first GM crops in the 1990s. Were the hopes and fears about these products of genetic engineering realised?

    Thanks to The State of Things from North Carolina Public Radio WUNC for the interview with Mary-Dell Chilton.

    (Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTSDesign/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

  • As all eyes have been on the virus, other serious killer diseases took a backseat.
    Resources and staff were diverted, lockdowns were common all over the world and a very real fear of Covid-19 kept people away from clinics and hospitals.

    Claudia Hammond and her expert panel from Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America look at the devastating impact of the pandemic on illnesses other than Covid, on global killers like tuberculosis, polio, measles and HIV/Aids.

    And they hear that the worldwide disruption to cancer care will inevitably lead to late diagnoses, late-stage cancer treatment and more deaths.

    Dr Ramya Ananthakrishnan runs REACH, which supports, cares for and organises treatment for TB patients in Chennai, India’s fourth most populous city. She tells Claudia about how hard the pandemic hit the work they do.

    Claudia’s guests include Dr Abeeba Kamarulzaman, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the President of the International Aids Society; Dr Lucica Ditiu, respiratory physician originally from Romania, Executive Director of the Stop TB Partnership, Geneva, Switzerland; Dr Balcha Masresha, coordinator of the measles and rubella programmes for the World Health Organisation in Brazzaville, Congo and cancer physician Dr Carlos Barrios, Director of the Latin American Clinical Oncology Research Group from Brazil.

    Produced by: Fiona Hill and Maria Simons
    Studio Engineer: Bob Nettles

  • Biologist Matthew Cobb presents the first episode in a series which looks at the 50-year history of genetic engineering, from the concerns around the first attempts at combining the DNA of one organism with the genes of another in 1971 to today’s gene editing technique known as CRISPR.

    The first experiments to combine the DNA of two different organisms began at Stanford University in California in 1971. The revolutionary technique of splicing genes from one lifeform into another promised to be a powerful tool in understanding how our cells worked. It also offered the prospect of a new cheap means of manufacturing life-saving drugs – for example, by transferring the gene for human insulin into bacteria, growing those genetically engineered microbes in industrial vats and harvesting the hormone. A new industrial revolution based on biology looked possible.

    At the same time some scientists and the public were alarmed by disastrous scenarios that genetic engineering might unleash. What if microbes engineered with toxin genes or cancer genes escaped from the labs and spread around the world?

    In early 1974, responding to the public fears and their own disquiet about how fast the techniques were developing, the scientists leading this research revolution called for a global moratorium on genetic engineering experiments until the risks had been assessed.

    This was followed by an historic meeting of 130 scientists from around the world in February 1975 in California. Its purpose was to decide if and how the genetic engineering research could be done safely. It was a rancorous affair but the Asilomar conference is held up as an idealist if imperfect example of scientists taking responsibility as they developed a powerful new technology.

    (Picture: DNA molecule, Credit: KTS Design/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

  • Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, and also some of the noisiest. Up close, a healthy reef teems with trills, whoops, buzzes, hums and snaps made by the diverse lifeforms that inhabit it. But as many reefs are now degrading due to rising temperatures, their sound signatures are changing.

    Conservationist Rory Crawford meets marine scientists who believe these sounds could provide a new way of monitoring the health of coral reefs, and boosting their resilience. He listens in to soundscapes that have been recorded around reefs in diverse parts of the world, and hears a selection of the sometimes surprising noises that have been picked up by researchers’ hydrophones.

    Sounds are crucial to underwater species and a healthy-sounding reef will attract fish and other organisms to settle on it, so is it possible to use acoustics to boost the ecosystem on damaged coral?

    Underwater recordings courtesy of: Tim Lamont/University of Exeter, Ben Gottesman, The Centre for Global Soundscapes, and Discovery of Sound in the Sea

    Producer: Anne McNaught
    Editor: Deborah Cohen

    Picture: The underwater world of Philippines, Southeast Asia, Pacific Ocean, Credit: Giordano Cipriani/Getty Images

  • Geoengineering is already underway from Australia to the Arctic as scientists try to save places threatened by global heating. It’s time for a global conversation about how we research these powerful techniques, with agreements on how and where to deploy them.

    Global temperature today is 1.2°C hotter than preindustrial levels and it is causing climate change and sea level rise, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. Coral reef ecosystems are headed for extinction within decades; glacial melt is speeding up with runaway consequences; agriculture has been hit by drought and extreme weather…. And as our carbon emissions rise, it’s only going to get worse, because we’re headed this century for at least 3°C of temperature rise if governments meet their netzero targets.
    Faced with this heat emergency, scientists are acting. In Australia, they are brightening clouds to make them more reflective, hoping to save the Great Barrier Reef, and coating the waters with a thin reflective film; in the Arctic, glaciers are being covered with fine glass beads to reflect the sun’s heat and slow melting; on the Asian plains, clouds are being seeded to deliver rain over droughtlands. Beaches are being coated with rock dust to try to “react out” the air’s CO2, and where coral reefs have already been destroyed by bleaching, scientists are creating artificial coral structures inhabited by genetically modified coral organisms.

    No global body is overseeing any of this, but it is mostly local and small scale. As temperatures climb further, heatwaves and deadly weather events will kill even more people than today. Scientists want to look at methods of preventing catastrophic temperature rise that could help large regions – potentially cooling global temperature. They want to see if seeding stratospheric clouds with sulphates would be possible, and whether it would have any unwanted affects.

    But a large vocal group of environmentalists is opposed even to feasibility studies. They claim that this sort of geoengineering is “unnatural”, and instead are pressing for huge societal change that is difficult to achieve, unpopular, and could cause hardship. Planned experiments have been cancelled after pressure by these campaigners, repeatedly, over several years. Now they are trying to get a moratorium on any research into geoengineering. Many fear that even talking about geoengineering risks reducing efforts to decarbonise.
    Meanwhile, the temperature keeps rising. Undoubtedly, there will come a point when society will decide it is no longer acceptable for thousands of people to die from hot temperatures, and seek to deploy cooling technologies. Technologies that we haven’t properly researched. The government of India may decide to unilaterally cool the planet after a deadly heatwave; or the government of the US after an even more violent Sandy; or the government of an island nation after a typhoon that drowns the land…

    This is not something that should be decided by a few powerful nations, but equally, ignoring these potential lifesaving technologies because of cultural reticence would be a moral and political failure. Instead, we need to have a conversation about how geoengineering should be researched, governed, regulated and deployed.

    This is a programme about how we cool the planet with the latest geoengineering technologies, and the loaded cultural values and politics around the biggest planetary dilemma of our time.

    Picture: Rough sea, Credit: Jacob Maentz/Getty Images

  • Even with the best efforts, it will be decades before we see any change in global temperatures through our mitigation efforts. Given the pace of global heating and the time lag before our emissions reductions have any impact, scientists are exploring additional ways of reducing global temperature. Gaia Vince explores ways of actively removing carbon from the atmosphere. She discusses the idea of BECCS, biological energy with carbon capture storage, and DAC, direct air capture with Simon Evans of Climate Brief. Sir David King, Chair of the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge University, explains how he is planning an experiment in the Arabian Sea that will allow the oceans to take up more carbon. Professor Rachael James of the University of Southampton talks about her experiments in enhanced rock weathering, where she finds ways of speeding up the slow continual process in which carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in rainwater, forming a weak acid that reacts with the surface of rocks. She hopes this will lock up more carbon and bring benefits to farmers and mining companies.

    And psychologist Ben Converse of the University of Virginia considers whether we might find geoengineering a socially acceptable approach to tackling climate change.

    Editor: Deborah Cohen

    Picture: Clouds, Credit: Gary Yeowell/Getty Images

  • A maelstrom of misinformation and its sinister cousin, disinformation, have been swirling all around us about Covid-19. The rumours and conspiracy theories have raced around the globe as fast as the virus itself.

    Untruths, half-truths, misunderstandings and deliberate mischief-making aren’t new when it comes to health of course, but a global pandemic with a novel virus means that there is much uncertainty and a lack of definite facts. In that gap, falsehoods flourish and in our super-connected world, they spread far and wide.

    Claudia Hammond and her panel of global experts assess the scale of misinformation and its impact and conclude that misinformation really does cost lives.

    Dr Brett Campbell, a physician in a dedicated Covid intensive care unit at Ascension St Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, tells Claudia about the unvaccinated patients, many of them close to death, who still cannot accept that the virus is real.

    Claudia’s guests include Heidi Larson , Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Dr Saad Omer, Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases in the USA and Robert Kanwagi, a public health specialist and a member of the Global Task Force on Vaccine Confidence and Uptake.

    Produced by: Fiona Hill and Maria Simons
    Studio Engineer: Jackie Marjoram

  • Think of ancient mummies, and you might imagine Egyptian pharaohs in their highly decorated cases. But in actual fact, Chile has the oldest mummies in the world. Unesco recently addded the archaeological sites and the artificial mummification of the Chinchorro culture to its World Heritage List. Around 300 mummies have been excavated from three different sites in the north of the country, near the border with Peru. The nomination took decades of work, drawing on many years of different scientific studies.

    Jane Chambers travels to Arica in northern Chile to find out more about the Chinchorro culture and how they used mummification to remember their dead, 7000 years ago.

    Photo: Chilean mummy from the Chinchorro culture (Credit: Bioarchaeology lab of the University of Tarapaca)

  • Over the last 2 weeks we have featured the 15 finalists in the Earthshot prize, an initiative to highlight and award projects designed to conserve and sustain natural environments, and improve our lives in ways that are sensitive to issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss. Here we discuss this year’s winning projects and what future investment could mean for them.

    There are five prize categories with a million pounds up for grabs in each.

    Protect and restore nature.
    Clean our air.
    Revive our oceans.
    Build a waste-free world.
    Fix our climate.


    Image: Europe, Middle East and Africa region on planet Earth from space. (Elements by NASA)
    Credit: Harvepino/Getty Images

  • Just how do we balance the growing demand for electricity worldwide with the need to reduce fossil fuel emissions to address climate change?

    In our second programme on the Earthshot prize Chhavi Sachdev looks at some of the solutions. From projects looking at providing green hydrogen to industry worldwide and remote communities, to village scale solar electricity networks in Bangladesh and a portable pay as you go powerpack in Nigeria.

    Also how to provide a livelihood for people who live in areas where conservation concerns mean they are no longer able to follow their traditional hunting practices .
    And we feature solutions for dealing with our wastes in their many forms from cleaning up polluted water to recycling human and agricultural organic waste – including an innovative city based system for collecting and redistributing food that would otherwise be destroyed.

    The Earthshot Prize is an initiative from the Royal Foundation designed to highlight and reward inspiring solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges. There are 5 categories with a million pound prize available in each.

    Protect and restore nature.
    Clean our air.
    Revive our oceans.
    Build a waste-free world.
    Fix our climate.

    Image: Earth at night, Credit: Roydee/Getty Images

  • While international meetings to discuss climate change and polices that affect the world can seem rather distant to us as individuals, on a local level there are many exciting and creative initiatives all over the world where people are developing practical solutions to the environmental problems they see. The Earthshot prize highlights many of these projects, ideas and initiatives which have the potential to make a difference locally and globally.

    In this three part series Chhavi Sachdev looks at the practical work of the prize nominees, and profiles their solutions on a range of subjects; protecting nature, cleaning the air, ocean revival, climate change and waste.

    Picture: Earth floating in space, Credit: Chris Clor/Getty Images