Episodes

  • The effects of the Tonga eruption could be felt around the world, many heard the boom of a sonic shock, and tsunami waves travelled far and wide. Volcanologist Shane Cronin from the University of Auckland in New Zealand is one of only a handful of people to have landed on the tiny islands above the volcano where the eruption took place. Those islands have now sunk beneath the waves but Shane tells us what he found when he went there and how his findings could inform what happens next.

    Stephan Grilli from the School of Ocean Engineering at the University of Rhode Island joins us from Toulon in France where he felt the effects of the shockwave and Tsunami. He says the force of the shockwave drove those waves worldwide.

    The oceans have continued to warm, producing continuous record temperature rises for several years now. That’s the finding of Michael Mann of the University of Pennsylvania and author of The New Climate Wars. He says warming occurred last year despite the presence of global weather patterns which would usually have a cooling effect.

    The long-term effects of covid-19 on health are a cause of growing concern even though in many places the virus itself now appears to be taking on a milder form. Yale University neuroscientist Serena Spudich is particularly concerned with covid’s impact on the brain. She says while the SARS- CoV-2 virus might not be found in brain cells themselves there are neurological impacts.

    Scientists have been searching for dark matter for decades, and think there’s six times more of it in the universe than the stuff we can actually see, like stars and planets. But they still don’t know what it is. So how can we be sure dark matter really exists? And why does it matter, anyway?

    Back in 2018, armed with a boiler suit, hard hat and ear defenders, Marnie Chesterton travelled over a kilometre underground into a hot and sweaty mine to see how scientists are valiantly trying to catch some elusive particles – in the hope of settling things once and for all.

    Several years on we return to the problem, tackling a few more CrowdScience listeners’ questions about dark matter, and hearing whether we’re any closer to uncovering its mysteries. We’re joined in our quest by Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, physicist and author of The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred.

    With Professor Malcolm Fairbairn, Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Dr Chamkaur Ghag and Professor Katherine Freese.

  • Studies using swabs from coronavirus patients seem to contradict earlier findings from cell cultures which showed Omicon replicated faster than earlier variants. As Benjamin Meyer from the centre for Vaccinology at the University of Geneva, explains there may be other reasons why omicron is spreading faster not just how quickly it reproduces.

    Predicting how the pandemic will develop is not possible, however predicting what individual mutations in the virus may develop and the impact they might have individually and collectively is getting closer,
    Cyrus Maher and Amalio Telenti of the biotech company Vir, have developed a way to model potential future viral mutations which they hope will now be used by many scientists worldwide looking to understand the virus.

    There are concerns that other viruses may be on the rise, bird flu in particular, which as Nicola Lewis of the Royal Veterinary College explains is now spreading to part of the world where it is not usually seen, and infecting other animals as well as birds.

    And we’ve news of a massive collection of nests – at the bottom of the sea, Deep sea Ecologist Autun Perser describes how he found them in Antarctica.


    Also, Are big heads smarter? We live in a world where bigger is often seen as better - and the size of someone's brain is no exception. But a listener in Nairobi wants to know, does size really matter when it comes to grey matter? CrowdScience presenter Marnie Chesterton is on a mission to find out if the physical attributes of our head and brain can tell us anything about what's going on inside. We certainly thought so in the past.

    In the 1800s, phrenology – determining someone’s characteristics by their skull shape – was very fashionable and curator Malcolm MacCallum gives us a tour of the extensive phrenological collection of death masks and skulls in Edinburgh’s anatomy museum. It's a 'science' that's now been completely debunked. Yet there’s no escaping the fact that over our evolutionary history, human brain size has increased dramatically alongside our cognitive capabilities.

    But is it the whole story? Rick Potts, Director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian tells of the point in time when human brains expanded the most; a time when the climate was changing, resources were unreliable and the intelligence to be adaptable might mean the difference between life and death. Adaptability is also key to Professor Wendy Johnson’s definition of intelligence, although she points out that IQ test, flawed as they are, are still the best predictor we have for intelligence… and that, yes, there is a weak correlation between having a larger head, and doing better at IQ tests. Why is that? We don’t know, says Dr Stuart Ritchie from KCL. According to him, neuroscientists are only in the foothills of understanding how a physical difference in the brain might underpin a person’s psychology. But researching this could offer valuable insights into how our amazing brains work.


    (Image: Getty Images)

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  • Now being produced in India CORBEVAX is grown in yeast in a similar way to several other widely available vaccines. The technology used to make it is far simpler and much more readily available than that used to produce mRNA vaccines. In theory, CORBEVAX could be produced cheaply in large quantities and go a long way to addressing the problems of Covid19 vaccine availability globally. It was developed by a team from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas including Maria Elena Bottazzi.

    Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are thought to have emerged in repose to the use of antibiotics, however, the discovery of a superbug living on the skin of hedgehogs has challenged this view. The superbug is thought to have been living with hedgehogs long before antibiotics were discovered. Jesper and Anders Larsen at the Danish State Serum Institute in Copenhagen explain.

    Modifying viruses, using them to infect or kill pest organisms is an attractive proposition. However, there are concerns over what might happen when they are released, particularly over their ability to mutate and evolve says Filippa Lentzos from Kings College Department of Global Health and Social Medicine in London.

    And The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew have released the names of over 200 new species of plants and fungi discovered last year. Mycologist Tuula Niskanen and botanist Martin Cheek tell us more.

    Also... “I’m bored!” We can all relate to the uncomfortable - and at times unbearable - feeling of boredom. But what is it? Why does it happen? And could this frustrating, thumb-twiddling experience actually serve some evolutionary purpose? CrowdScience listener Brian started wondering this over a particularly uninspiring bowl of washing up, and it’s ended with Marnie Chesterton going on a blessedly un-boring tour through the science and psychology of tedium. She finds out why some people are more affected than others, why boredom is the key to discovery and innovation, and how we can all start improving our lives by embracing those mind-numbing moments.

    (Image: Getty Images)

  • Studies from South Africa and the UK suggest Omicron may be a mild infection for the majority of people. Hospital admissions are down when compared with other variants. However, the virus is replicating at a much faster rate than earlier variants and is able to overcome vaccines to some extent. Cases studies so far have mainly been in young people. There is concern over what will now happen as Omicron spreads across Europe and the US where there are older unvaccinated populations.
    Anne von Gottberg from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases tells us what early results from studies there show and discusses the implications.

    Typhoon Rai in the Philippines led to the loss of many lives and even destroyed buildings designed to resist such extreme weather events. Could more have been done either to predict the ferocity of the typhoon or to prepare for its impact?
    Liz Stephens, Associate Professor in Climate Risks and Resilience from the University of Reading discusses these issues.

    Beavers are making a comeback – in the Arctic. Their activity in engineering the landscape, building dams, and changing water courses is so widespread it can be picked out by satellites. However, this is not entirely welcome says Helen Wheeler Senior Lecturer in Zoology at Anglia Ruskin University. who has been working with local people concerned about the beavers impact on their livelihoods.

    And the James Webb telescope is finally launching. Heidi Hammel, who has been involved in the project for over 20 years tells us what it’s all about.

    Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens – CrowdScience has covered a lot this year. And what better way to see out 2021 than to look back at a few of our (and your!) favourite things? Great questions are right at the top of the team’s list – especially with the way that for every one we answer, five more appear in our inbox!

    So for a festive treat, Marnie asks the crew to answer three of them. What's the sun's role in our sense of direction? Why are we so uncomfortable with other people’s sadness? And why does listening to the radio make us sleepy? (Or is it just too much eggnog…?) From our favourite listener advice on how to keep your Christmas lights untangled to why cold swimming could activate your Vagus nerve, tune in for new questions and more CrowdScience favourites to light up your holiday season!

    Presented by Marnie Chesterton and many members the CrowdScience Team – Melanie Brown, Marijke Peters, Caroline Steel, Hannah Fisher, Samara Linton and Anand Jagatia.
    Produced by Sam Baker for BBC World Service.

    Featuring:

    • Haneul Jang, post-doctoral researcher, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
    • Juliet Rosenfeld, psychotherapist and author of The State of Disbelief: A Story of Death, Love and Forgetting
    • Mathias Basner, professor of psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania


    (Image: Getty Images)

  • A study from Hong Kong university shows Omicron replicates 70 times faster than two earlier variants of the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Virologist Malik Peiris, explains how tests using cells from the wind pipe showed the dramatic difference, which supports observations of increased transmission. In contrast Omicron replicated less well than other variants on cells from dep in thre lung – offering some possibility that it may produce mild infections.

    Tornados in the US do not normally occur in December. The one which swept across Kentucky and 3 other states was fuelled by weather patterns likely to have been influenced by long term climate change says Geographer James Elsner of Florida State University.

    The Parker Solar probe continues its mission of flying closer and closer to the sun. Results just published show what the data the probe picked up when it dipped into the surrounding plasma. NASA’s Nicky Fox is our guide.

    And how many legs does a millipede have? Until now not as many as you might think. Entomologist Paul Marek of Virginia Tech reveals the Australian specimen with more legs than ever seen before.

    As many of us gear up for the annual Christmas feast, some of you may be wondering how to eat everything before it goes off. It’s a great question, as the UN puts global food waste at a whopping 1.3 billion tonnes a year – that’s one third of all edible produce being thrown in the bin.

    So this week the team investigates listener Peter’s query about what makes some fruit and vegetables rot faster than others. Preserving food used to be about ensuring nomadic populations could keep moving without going hungry, but these days some things seem to have an almost indefinite shelf-life. Is it about better packaging or can clever chemistry help products stay better for longer? A Master Food Preserver explains how heat and cold help keep microbes at bay, and how fermentation encourages the growth of healthy bacteria which crowd out the ones that make us ill.

    Presenter Datshiane Navanayagam learns how to make a sauerkraut that could keep for weeks, and investigates the gases that food giants use to keep fruit and veg field-fresh. But as the industry searches for new techniques to stretch shelf-life even further could preservatives in food be affecting our microbiome? Research shows sulphites may be killing off ‘friendly’ gut bacteria linked to preventing conditions including cancer and Crohn’s disease.

    (Image: Omicron variant (B.1.1.529): Immunofluorescence staining of uninfected and infected Vero E6 cells. Credit: Microbiology HKU/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

  • Which came first the volcano or the rain? Volcanic eruptions are known to influence global climate systems, even leading to the cooling of the planet. However local weather conditions can also influence the timing and ferocity of volcanic eruptions. As volcanologist Jenni Barclay explains rainwater can contribute to volcanic instability and even increase the explosiveness of eruptions.

    Syria has been experiencing civil war for more than 10 years. Many people have left including many of the country's scientists. We speak with 3 exiled Syrian scientists Shaher Abdullateef, Abdulkader Rashwani, and Abdul Hafez about their current work, which involves working with other academics and students in Syria sometimes remotely and sometimes directly.

    New findings from Chile reveal an unknown Tsunami emanating from an earthquake there in the 1700s. Historical records mention other ones, but not this one. Geoscientist Emma Hocking found the evidence in layers of sand.

    And we discuss the development of tiny robot-like structures made from frog cells, they can move and build other copies of themselves. Sam Kreigman and Michael Levin explain how.

    And, Life is full of choices, from the mundane (like what to wear today) to the critical (how should we deal with the pandemic?). So how can we make the best decisions? That’s what listener David wants to know.

    To investigate, Caroline Steel learns how being smarter doesn’t necessarily make you a good decision maker. She speaks to researchers about the importance of ‘gut feelings’ – and how certain people with no intuition whatsoever can struggle to make choices. She also learns why it’s easier to give advice to other people than to follow it yourself, and how we can work together to make the best decisions in a group.

    (Image: Eruption of Semeru. Credit: Getty Images)

  • South Africa announced their discovery of the Omicron variant to the world as quickly as they could. The response from many nations was panic and the closure of transport links with southern Africa. Tulio de Oliveira who made the initial announcement and leads South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation tells us this is now having a negative effect on the country, with cases rising but vital supplies needed to tackle the virus not arriving thanks to the blockade.

    Omicron contains many more mutations than previous variants. However scientists have produced models in the past which can help us understand what these mutations do. Rockefeller University virologist Theodora Hatziioannou produced one very similar to Omicron and she tells us why the similarities are cause for concern.

    Science sleuth Elisabeth Bik and Mohammad Razai, professor of Primary Care in St George’s University in London have just been awarded the John Maddox Prize for their campaigning investigations in science. Elisabeth is particularly concerned with mistakes, deliberate or accidental in scientific publications, and Mohammad structural racism in approaches to healthcare.

    Laura Figueroa from University of Massachusetts in Amhert in the US, has been investigating bees’ digestive systems. Though these are not conventional honey bees, they are Costa Rican vulture bees. They feed on rotting meat, but still produce honey.

    And, What makes things sticky? Listener Mitch from the USA began wondering while he was taking down some very sticky wallpaper. Our world would quite literally fall apart without adhesives. They are almost everywhere – in our buildings, in our cars and in our smartphones. But how do they hold things together?

    To find out, presenter Marnie Chesterton visits a luthier, Anette Fajardo, who uses animal glues every day in her job making violins. These glues have been used since the ancient Egyptians –but adhesives are much older than that. Marnie speaks to archaeologist Dr Geeske Langejans from Delft University of Technology about prehistoric glues made from birch bark, dated to 200,000 years ago. She goes to see a chemist, Prof Steven Abbott, who helps her understand why anything actually sticks to anything else. And she speaks to physicist Dr Ivan Vera-Marun at the University of Manchester, about the nanotechnologists using adhesion at tiny scales to make materials of the future.

    (Photo: Vaccination centre in South Africa administering Covid-19 vaccine after news of Omicron variant. Credit: Xabiso Mkhabela/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

  • d dart
    Science in Action

    DART is a space mission designed to hit a distant asteroid and knock it slightly out of orbit. It’s a test mission, a pilot project for a way of potentially protecting the earth from a stray asteroid. We hear from mission coordinators Nancy Chabot and Andy Rivkin, both from the Applied Physics Labs, APL, of Johns Hopkins University.

    A new kind of Covid-19 vaccine has successfully undergone preliminary tests. Tuebingen University’s Juliane Walz tells us about how it hopes to stimulate a longer lasting protective effect against the virus than current vaccines.

    And Haley Randolph of Chicago University sheds light on how our ancient ancestors’ exposure to viruses influences our susceptibility today.

    Historian Robert Schulmann gives us an insight into the significance of research notes by Albert Einstein and Michele Besso. Sold at auction in France the notes give an insight into the collaboration between the two scientists which led to much of what we now understand about the fundamentals of physics.

    And, In most cultures, the soundtrack to our lives is one of optimism. We're told to aim for the stars, dream big and believe that tomorrow will definitely be a better day. But why do so many people subscribe to the cult of 'glass half full' when life’s hardships should make any reasonable person a bit more wary?

    Listener Hannah from Germany - a self-described pessimist - is intrigued as to whether the alternative, optimistic way of life is really the best way to be. Cheerily taking on the challenge is ray of sunshine Marnie Chesterton, who finds out why 80% of the population have an optimism bias and how the ability to hope and take risks may have helped the human species get where it is today. She also meets a man who pushes the optimistic outlook to its very limits - BASE jumping world champion, Espen Fadnes. Listener Hannah on the other hand looks into the psychology of pessimism to find out if there are any advantages to her less rose-tinted view on life - and whether the culture we grow up in shapes how realistically we see the world.

    We ask whether optimism or pessimism is the answer to a happy life.


    Image: NASA's DART Spacecraft Launches in World's First Planetary Defense Test Mission
    Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

  • The political message from the COP meeting was a fudge over coal, but what does the science say? Surprisingly India seems to be on track to switch away from coal to renewables. We explore the apparent contradiction with Lauri Myllyvirta of the thinktank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

    Also a synchrotron for Africa, how such a project would give a boost to scientific development across the continent, with Marielle Agbahoungbata from the X-tech Lab in Seme City in Benin.

    Moriba Jah, who leads the Computational Astronautical Sciences and Technologies Group, at the University of Texas, in Austin, tells us what he saw when an exploding Russian satellite sent a shower of debris into the path of the International Space Station.

    And the animals that carry SARS-Cov-2, an analysis from Barbara Han of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York shows there are many more than previously thought.

    Image: A coal-fired power station in Nanjing in east China
    Credit: Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

    Presenter: Roland Pease
    Producer: Julian SiddleThe political message from the COP meeting was a fudge over coal, but what does the science say? Surprisingly India seems to be on track to switch away from coal to renewables. We explore the apparent contradiction with Lauri Myllyvirta of the thinktank Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

    Also a synchrotron for Africa, how such a project would give a boost to scientific development across the continent, with Marielle Agbahoungbata from the X-tech Lab in Seme City in Benin.

    Moriba Jah, who leads the Computational Astronautical Sciences and Technologies Group, at the University of Texas, in Austin, tells us what he saw when an exploding Russian satellite sent a shower of debris into the path of the International Space Station.

    And the animals that carry SARS-Cov-2, an analysis from Barbara Han of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York shows there are many more than previously thought.

    And, Cats started hanging out with humans thousands of years ago, and nowadays these fluffy, lovable pets are found in many of our homes. But there’s no doubt lots of them still have keen hunting instincts - witness all the birds and small mammals they kill each year.

    CrowdScience listener Rachel started wondering whether her cat Eva could fend for herself while watching her uncoordinated swipes at a toy on a string, and seeing her fall off the sofa. Even though Eva was once a stray, she now lives entirely indoors, and it's hard to imagine her holding her own back on the mean streets. But could this pampered pet recover her survival instincts? Or would she go hungry, or fall foul of other cats or predators?

    Cat behaviour expert Roger Tabor is on hand with answers. His pioneering ‘cat-navs’ shine a light on what cats get up to inside and outside the home: we meet one of his subjects, a tiny cat with a fierce personality. Roger explains how a cat’s survival toolkit depends on their sex, breed, and above all their early life. Environment matters, too, so in Japan, where Rachel and her pet cat live, we visit a cat shelter to learn about the day-to-day challenges stray cats face

    And just how ‘domestic’ are our cats, anyway? How different are they from their wildcat cousins, and how did they come to be our companions in the first place? It turns out beguiling humans might be even more of a survival trick than hunting.

    Image: A coal-fired power station in Nanjing in east China
    Credit: Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

  • Up to 8 percent of deer sampled in studies in the US were found to be infected with the SARS-Cov-2 Virus. Suresh Kuchipudi from the Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at Penn State University in the US says what they are seeing is a mixture of human to deer and deer to deer transmission of the virus. There is concern that its presence in animal reservoirs could lead to a new form of the virus emerging.

    Tropical forests and spread of zoonotic diseases And as the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow draws to a close we ask how global policy on climate will impact the spread of zoonotic disease. Spill over of possible pandemic pathogens from animals to humans occurs with the destruction of tropical forests in particular and can expose people to previously unknown zoonotic diseases such as Covid 19.

    Aaron Bernstein from the Coalition to Prevent Pandemics at the Source says healthcare initiatives designed to reduce the potential spread of such diseases need to be designed to work in tandem with conservation and climate change impact reduction initiatives, essentially tackling both problems simultaneously.

    LED lighting Researchers in South Africa are looking into ways of making LED lighting both cheaper and more efficient. This should help reduce energy consumption, a prerequisite for effective policy on climate change.

    In addition, as Professor Odireleng Martin Ntwaeaborwa tells us, the technology now has many applications in places where access to electricity is limited, including South Africa which currently has regular power outages.

    Personalised medicine And personalised medicine based on our genes took a further step forward this week. Richard Scott, Chief Medical Officer for Genomics England discusses new findings which reveal the genetic basis for a range or rare diseases.

    And, Concrete is the most widely used substance on earth after water. It’s quite literally the foundation of the modern world, and no wonder - it’s strong, cheap, and mouldable into nearly any shape.

    But these benefits come at a cost: concrete production is responsible for around 8% of global CO2 emissions - that’s around three times more than the aviation industry.

    Concrete might not look pretty, but given its carbon footprint, should we be more careful about how we use it? And rather than throwing waste into landfill, could we recycle it instead? That’s what Crowdscience listener Catherine wants to know.

    To investigate, Marnie Chesterton and Anand Jagatia learn more about what makes concrete such a brilliant and versatile material. It’s down to the chemistry of how cement dries – which, it turns out, is anything but boring. They find out how the stuff is made, and why that produces so much carbon. And they hear about some ingenious projects to repurpose demolition waste – including creating underwater habitats for marine life, and using 3D printers to turn crushed concrete into street furniture.

    Image: Bambi, lobbycard, 1942 Photo by LMPC via Getty Images Presenter: Roland Pease

  • Scientists in Switzerland have developed a system which uses solar energy to extract gases such as hydrogen and carbon dioxide from the air and turns them into fuels for transport. So far they have only made small quantities in experimental reactors, however they say with the right investment their alternatives to fossil fuels could be scaled up to provide a climate friendly way to power transport, particularly aviation and shipping. We speak to Aldo Steinfeld and Tony Patt from ETH Zurich and Johan Lilliestam from the University of Potsdam.

    And what will rises in global temperature mean where you live? An interactive model developed by Bristol University’s Seb Steinig shows how an average global rise of say 1.5C affects different regions, with some potentially seeing much higher temperatures than others. Dan Lunt – one of the contributing authors to this year’s IPCC report discusses the implications.

    We also look at racism in science, with problems caused by decisions on the naming of ancient bones more than 200 years ago. As more is known about human evolution, the way we classify the past seems to make less sense says Mirjana Roksandic.

    And the issue of colonialism looms large in the international response to conservation. Its legacy has been discussed at COP26 and as Lauren Rudd, author of a new study on racism in conservation tells us, this hangover from colonial times is limiting the effectiveness of current conservation initiatives.

    And, The science is unequivocal: human-made climate change is leading the world into an environmental crisis, and time is running out to prevent permanent damage to ecosystems and make the planet uninhabitable for many of us humans.

    As communities around the world increasingly experience the devastating effects of global warming, world leaders, policy makers and scientists from all over the globe are attending COP26, the United Nation’s major climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Each nation will be frantically negotiating its commitments to tackling emissions - many agree it’s a pivotal moment for the future of humanity.

    Crowdscience hosts a panel of three experts taking part in the conference, to hear their thoughts on what progress has been made so far. They answer listener questions on rising sea levels, explaining that a temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees won’t just affect small island nations but will have serious consequences for every country in the world. We hear about an interactive atlas developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that shows the impact of higher temperatures in different regions.

    And presenter Marnie Chesterton asks about the financial barriers that have prevented many people from traveling to COP26 and discovers why it’s vital that people from the global south have their voices heard.

    Image: President Biden and his wife travelling to the G20 summit in Rome and COP26 in Glasgow.
    Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images.

  • Just a few days before COP26 opens in Glasgow, the World Meteorological Organisation reported record greenhouse gas levels, despite a fall in CO2 due to pandemic restrictions.

    The UN Environment Programme’s Emissions Gap Report also revealed that current country pledges will only take 7.5% off predicted greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, well below the 55% needed to limit global warming to 1.5C. Worse still, many large emission producers are not on track to meet their countries’ pledges. Rachel Warren, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, tells us the 1.5C limit is still achievable if we work in tandem with nature.

    Research by Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), illustrates this. Her contribution to the WMO Greenhouse Bulletin revealed that New Zealand’s indigenous forests play a bigger role in absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than previously thought. Also on the programme, Abinash Mohanty, Council on Energy, Environment and Water, has been mapping climate vulnerability in India and explains why communities should be at the forefront of climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. And particle physicist Claire Malone shares her insights on how we can help women thrive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Picture: Aerial shot at the edge of Lake Carezza showing storm damaged forest, Dolomites, Italy.

    And, As the world slowly moves away from using fossil fuels for electricity, one tiny Scottish island has proved it’s possible to rely almost entirely on renewables.

    The inner Hebridean isle of Eigg used to get its power from diesel generators. But in 2008 its residents launched the world’s first electricity system powered by nature, and the Crowdscience team wants to know exactly how they did it, and whether such a model could work in other places with no national grid? Marnie discovers that the community is key to the success of this project, meeting the maintenance men who taught themselves to install equipment and solve any problems themselves, and hearing from residents who’ve changed their habits to use less juice. With the mainland more than an hour away by a once-daily ferry, this kind of resourcefulness is vital. Hydroelectric generators harness the power of running water and are complemented by wind turbines and solar panels on peoples roofs, meeting 95% of Eigg’s energy needs. Now others are learning from this unique experiment and we meet the Malawians who were inspired after visiting Eigg. A solar grid in the village of Sitolo has provided power to thousands of people, and the people who designed it are planning others.


    Credit: Abstract Aerial Art/Getty Images

  • We’ve talked a huge amount the past 18 months, for obvious reasons, about the way that white blood cells protect us from infection. But red blood cells – it’s probably among the earliest things I learned in human biology that they’re simple bags for carrying oxygen around the body. But over recent years, immunologist Nilam Mangalmurti, University of Pennsylvania, has been finding several clues to challenge that dogma – including molecules on the surface of red blood cells known from other parts of the immune system.

    The Last Ice Area, home to the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic, is expected to act as the last refuge for ice-dependent wildlife as the rest of the Arctic melts. Kent Moore, University of Toronto-Mississauga, tells us that the formation of a 3,000 square kilometre rift in the area means the ice is not as resilient as we once thought.

    Also on the programme, an obituary for the renowned Dutch climate scientist and physicist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh (October 22, 1961 – October 12, 2021), and, Dominique Gonçalves, Gorongosa National Park, explains how ivory poaching during the Mozambican civil war led to the rapid evolution of tusklessness in African elephants.

    'To be or not to be' was never your decision. No one alive today is an 'exister' by consent - your parents made that call for you. But who can blame them? Animals are hardwired with strong impulses towards their procreative goals, and we humans, by and large, are no different. But for some conscientious people alive today, this most fundamental of biological impulses is butting up against a rational pessimism about the future...

    With apocalyptic scenes of natural disasters, rising sea levels and global pandemics causing existential dread and actual suffering, it's understandable that CrowdScience listener Philine Hoven from Austria wrote to us asking for help her make sense of what she sees as the most difficult question she faces - should she have children.

    In this episode, presenter Geoff Marsh helps Philine to predict what kind of a world her hypothetical child might inhabit, and explores the impact their existence, or indeed non-existence might have on society and the planet. Plus, we'll explore how medical ethicists can help us to navigate the moral landscape of the unborn. Brooding or broody, this is essential listening for any prospective parents.

    Image: Confocal microscopy of CpG-treated human RBCs stained for Band 3. Credit: Mangalmurti Lab / Nilam Mangalmurti, MD)

  • Since its introduction four decades ago, Spartina alterniflora, a salt-water cordgrass from the USA, has been spreading along China’s coasts.

    Today, it covers nearly half of the country’s salt marshes. As the UN Biodiversity Conference COP 15 kicks off in China, we look at how this invasive plant species threatens native species in protected coastal wetlands. Featuring Yuan Lin, East China Normal University, and Qiang He, Fudan University.

    In January 2020, Barney Graham and Jason McLellan teamed up to engineer a coronavirus spike protein that now powers the COVID-19 vaccines for Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. They discuss their work, a next-generation vaccine using chicken eggs, and the future of pandemic preparedness. Also, a recent Nature survey reveals the extent of abuse against scientists who speak about COVID-19 publicly. Deepti Gurdasani, Queen Mary University of London, shares her experiences of trolling and online abuse and discusses the implications for academia and scientific discourse going forward. And Tom Scott explains how his team uses novel robots and sensors to go into and create 3D digital radiation maps of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and surrounding areas.


    Philosophers have long pondered the concept of a brain in a jar, hooked up to a simulated world. Though this has largely remained a thought experiment, CrowdScience listener JP wants to know if it might become reality in the not-too-distant future, with advances in stem cell research.

    In the two decades since stem cell research began, scientists have learned how to use these cells to create the myriad of cell types in our bodies, including those in our brains, offering researchers ways to study neurological injuries and neurodegenerative disorders. Some labs have actually started 3D printing stem cells into sections of brain tissue in order to study specific interactions in the brain. Human brain organoids offer another way to study brain development and diseases from autism to the Zika virus.

    So, might stem cell research one day lead to a fully-grown human brain, or is that resolutely in the realm of science fiction? If something resembling our brains is on the horizon, is there any chance that it could actually become conscious? And how would we even know if it was?

    Host Marnie Chesterton takes a peek inside the human brain and speaks with leading scientists in the field, including a philosopher and ethicist who talks about the benefits – and potential pitfalls – of growing human brain models. Along the way, we'll pull apart the science from what still remains (at least for now) fiction.

    (Credit: Getty Images)

  • n December 2020, China's Chang'e-5 mission returned to earth carrying rock samples collected from the moon – the first lunar samples to be collected since the American Apollo and Luna missions to the moon in the 1970s.

    Laboratory analysis has revealed that these are the youngest samples of rocks to be collected from the moon. Lunar geologist Katherine Joy explains what this tells us about the moon’s volcanic past. Also on the programme, a recent study reveals that the hepatitis B virus has been infecting humans for at least 10,000 years.

    Denise Kühnert from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History shares what the evolution of the virus tells us about human evolution, as well as the rise and fall of civilisations. In the wake of Cyclone Shaheen, we also speak to Princeton University’s Ning Lin about how climate modelling can help us predict tropical storms in the Arabian Sea, and Fredi Otto joins us to discuss the 2021 Nobel Prizes for Science.

    Snails are a major enemy of gardeners around the world, invading vegetable patches and gobbling prize plants. CrowdScience listener Alexandre reckons he’s removed thousands of them from his garden, which got him wondering: apart from eating his garden to the core, what’s their wider role in nature? Would anyone or anything miss them if they suddenly disappeared?

    And for that matter, what about other creatures? We all know how complex biodiversity is, but it seems that some animals are more important than others in maintaining the balance of life on earth. Is there anything that could go extinct without having knock-on effects?

    CrowdScience heads to the Hawaiian mountains, a snail diversity hotspot, to discover the deep value of snails to native ecosystems there. Researchers and conservationists are working together to protect these highly endangered snails, and their natural habitats, from multiple threats.
    We hear why all snails – even the ones munching Alexandre’s petunias – have their role to play in the natural world, and get to grips with cascading extinctions: how the loss of a single species can trigger unpredictable effects on a whole ecosystem.



    (Image: Getty Images)

  • Since their discovery in the 1970s, artemisinin-based drugs have become the mainstay of treatment for malaria caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Researchers have identified artemisinin-resistant malaria parasites in Southeast Asia since the early 2000s, but now, there is evidence of resistance in Rwanda and Uganda. Dr Betty Balikagala of Juntendo University tells us how this resistance developed and what it means for managing malaria in Africa, which carries the greatest burden of malaria cases and deaths worldwide.

    We hear from some of the scientists from COVID Moonshot, a non-profit, open-science consortium which has just received key funding to develop affordable antivirals to stop SARS-CoV-2 in its tracks.

    Also on the programme, Dr Rakesh Ghosh from the University of California, San Francisco tells us how air pollution is contributing to 6 million preterm births globally each year, and Dr Catherine Nakalembe of the University of Maryland and Africa Lead for NASA Harvest returns to the programme as NASA/USGS launches Landsat 9.

    Also In the past 18 months we have heard lots about the human immune system, as we all learn about how our bodies fight off Covid-19 and how the vaccine helps protect us. But this got listener John, in Alberta, Canada, thinking about how trees and plants respond to diseases and threats. Do they have immune systems and if so, how do they work? Do they have memories that mean they can remember diseases or stressful events 5 months, or 5 years down the line, to be better prepared if they encounter the same threats again?

    Presenter Marnie Chesterton sets out to investigate the inner workings of plants and trees, discovering that plants not only have a sophisticated immune system, but that they can use that immune system to warn their neighbours of an attack. Some researchers are also investigating how we can help plants, especially crops, have better immune systems – whether that’s by vaccination or by editing their genes to make their immune systems more efficient.

    But some plants, like trees, live for a really long time. How long can they remember any attacks for? Can they pass any of those memories on to their offspring? Crowdscience visits one experimental forest where they are simulating the future CO2 levels of 2050 to understand how trees will react to climate change.


    Image: Mosquito net demonstration in a community outreach centre in Kenya
    Credit: Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images

  • Researchers studying bats in Northern Laos have found evidence that brings us closer than ever to understanding the origin of Covid-19. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic scientists have tried to pin-point the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2. But recent evidence from the Institut Pasteur has identified several novel coronaviruses with similarities to the current coronavirus in bats. Professor Marc Eliot spoke to Roland Pease about how this research could give us a better idea where Covid-19 came from.

    Could an oral COVID treatment be available soon?
    Daria Hazuda, responsible for infectious disease and bacteria research at MSD tells us about their clinical trials for an oral antiviral drug that could combat Covid-19: Molnupiravir.

    Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer's
    Roland Pease travels to Bath to meet scientists who may have developed a way to diagnose Alzheimer's in the earlier stages of the disease. Dr George Stothart, has led the team from Bath university in the development of this simple 2 minute test.

    Inducing Earthquakes
    Scientists are experimenting with artificially managing earthquakes by injecting fluid into fault lines. Professor Derek Elsworth at Pennsylvania state university explains his research into how these induced earthquakes can be more tightly controlled.

    This year has been a weird one for UK gardeners – unpredictable spring temperatures meant flowers failed to bloom and throughout the rainy summer, slugs have been savaging salad crops. But why and when plants blossom is about more than just early cold spells and wet weather, and a listener in California has asked Crowdscience to investigate.

    Flowering is vital to both plants and us. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to evolve and survive (and we wouldn’t have anything to eat). Anand Jagatia hears that different species have developed different strategies for doing this based on all sorts of things, from where they’re located to how big they are to what kind of insects are around to pollinate them. The famously stinky Titan Arum, or corpse flower, for example, blooms for a single day once every decade or so before collapsing on itself and becoming dormant again.

    This gives it the best chance of attracting carrion beetles in the steamy Sumatran jungle. But other plants open their petals much more regularly, which is a process regulated by a clever internal clock that can sense daylight and night. It’s even possible to trick some of them into producing flowers out of season. Cold is also a vital step for some brassicas and trees, and scientists are starting to understand the genes involved. But as climate change makes winters in parts of the world warmer and shorter, there are worrying knock on effects for our food supply.

    (Image credit: Getty Images)

  • An international team of researchers has discovered that an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea in February this year was the result of re-activated Ebola virus in someone who’d been infected at least five years ago during the earlier large Ebola epidemic that swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. This means the virus can remain dormant in some Ebola survivors for five years or more.

    Virologists Alpha Kabinet Keita and Robert Garry talk to Roland Pease about the research and its implications. Also in the programme: The eruption of lavas from Iceland’s newest volcano Fagradalsfjall continues six months on. Geochemist Ed Marshall tells us how he gets up close to sample the molten rock with a long scoop and a bucket of water, and what he’s learning about this remarkable eruption. NASA’s Katie Stack Morgan updates Science in Action on the Perseverance rover’s successful sampling of rocks from Jezero crater on the planet Mars. When the specimens are eventually returned to Earth, she says they may turn out to contain tiny samples of Mars’ water and atmosphere from early in the Red Planet’s history.

    Also...Look into my eyes. What do you see? Pupil, lens, retina… an intricate set of special tissues and mechanisms all working seamlessly together, so that I can see the world around me. Charles Darwin called the eye an ‘organ of extreme perfection’ and he’s not wrong!

    But if the eye is so complex and intricate, how did it evolve? One listener, Aloyce from Tanzania, got in touch to pose this difficult question. It’s a question that taxed Darwin himself, but CrowdScience is always up for a challenge!

    The problem is that eyes weren’t ever designed - they were cobbled together over millions and millions of years, formed gradually by the tweaks and adaptations of evolution. How do you get from the basic detection of light to the wonderful complexity - and diversity – of visual systems we find throughout the animal kingdom?

    CrowdScience sent Marnie Chesterton on an 800 million year journey to trace how the different elements that make up the human eye gradually came into being; from the emergence of the first light-sensitive proteins to crude eye-cups, from deep sea creatures with simple pinhole eyes to the first light-focusing lenses, all the way to the technicolour detail of the present day.


    (Image credit: Getty Images)

  • For the world to have a decent chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, 90 per cent of remaining coal reserves and 60% of unexploited oil and gas have to stay in the ground. These are the stark findings of carbon budget research by scientists at University College London. Dan Welsby spells out the details to Roland Pease.

    Virologist Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge describes his latest research that explains why the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is much more infectious and more able to evade our immune systems and covid vaccines than other variants.

    When dense fog rises from the Pacific ocean into the foothills of the Andes, oases of floral colour bloom for a few weeks or months. When the fog goes, the plants die and disappear for another year or maybe another decade. The true extent of these unique ecosystems (known as fog oases or Lomas) has now been revealed by researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the UK, working with colleagues in Peru and Chile. They’ve discovered that the Lomas are much more extensive than suspected. Ecologist Carolina Tovar tells Roland why the fog oases are threatened and need to be protected.

    A species of duck can now be added to the list of birds such as parrots and starlings that mimic human speech and other sounds in their environment. Listen to Ripper, the Australian musk duck who was hand-reared on a nature reserve where he learnt to imitate his keeper say ‘You bloody fool’ and imitate the sound of an aviary door closing. Animal behaviour researcher Carel ten Cate of Leiden University says that Ripper is not the only mimicking musk duck mimic but why this duck species has evolved this trick remains a mystery.

    Pioneering physicist Nikolas Tesla had a dream of connecting the world up through wireless communication and power. And whilst at the start of the 20th Century Tesla demonstrated that electricity could be transmitted wirelessly very short distances, the amount of power that was needed to do this made it an unfeasible venture and the idea has since lain mostly forgotten.

    CrowdScience listener, George from Ghana, has asked the team whether it is once again time to reconsider this means of power generation. In countries where rugged landscapes make laying traditional power lines difficult, could wireless electricity help connect those currently reliant on costly and polluting generators?

    CrowdScience gets talking to various scientists who are now using state of the art technology to reimagine Tesla’s dream. We speak to a team in New Zealand developing ‘beamable’ electricity and hear how they are using lasers to make sure they don’t harm any wildlife that might wander into the beam.

    We then hear how wireless electricity could help fulfil the power demands of a growing electric vehicle market. We learn how a town in the USA is turning its bus fleet electric and putting wireless chargers into the tarmac at bus stops so that the busses can trickle charge as passengers get on and off.

    Finally, we ask whether one day, the tangled knot of wires spilling out of our electronic devices will be but a thing of the past.

    (Image credit: Getty Images)

  • The latest IPCC assessment raised alarm about the rate at which manmade emissions are contributing to climate change. Much of the focus for action is on reducing levels of carbon dioxide, however there is a more potent greenhouse gas, methane, produced by natural and industrial processes which, as Roland Pease tells Drew Shindell of Duke University and lead author on the Global Methane Assessment, is relatively easy to target for reduction.

    Gut microbes and behaviour
    Roland speaks to neuroscientist John Cryan of University College, Cork in Ireland who is interested in the effects our gut microbes can have on our behaviour. It’s an unusual connection and one which he’s been experimenting on in mice. By feeding the faeces of younger mice to older ones he has found that the older ones’ took on some of the younger ones’ behaviour.

    Ball lightning
    Ball lightning is the stuff of legend and the supernatural. And yet there are many reported sightings of this phenomenon. Texas State University's Karl Stephan explains to Roland that he is keen to uncover the science behind these observations. He’s running a crowd sourcing project encouraging people to contribute video recordings of any ball lightening events they might observe.

    Chile mummies
    And Chile is home to the oldest known mummies in the World. UNESCO world heritage status has been given to a collection of around 300 mummies from Chile’s northern deserts. The mummies of babies, children and adults are thought to have been created in response to arsenic poisoning in the region around 7,000 years ago.


    How can smart tech tackle climate change?
    Humans are responsible for emitting over 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year – and we all know that we need to reduce that figure to prevent devastating climate change. Listener Saugat wonders whether smart technology and artificial intelligence can help us do this more quickly?

    Green energy will go a long way to tackling the problem, but integrating wind and solar into our current electricity grid is complicated. Marnie Chesterton hears how AI is being used at a wind farm on the island of Orkney to predict periods of high winds, so that excess energy can be turned into hydrogen and stored, then converted back to electricity when there’s greater demand.

    Digital mirrors are also playing a major role in optimising performance, and scientists say cloud-based “twins” of physical assets like turbines can improve yield by up to 20%, allowing engineers to identify problems via computer without ever having to be on site.

    Marnie visits an intelligent building in London’s financial district where sensors control everything from air-conditioning to lighting, and machine learning means the building knows which staff will be on which floor at any given time, switching off lifts that are not in use and adjusting ventilation to save on power. Its designer says incorporating this kind of digital technology will help companies achieve net zero more quickly.

    And in India, more than half the population are involved in agriculture, but the sector is plagued by inefficiency and waste. Tech start-ups have realised there’s potential for growth, and are using drones to monitor crop production and spraying, giving farmers apps which help them decide when and where to fertilise their fields.

    Image: Livestock farm in Brazil
    Credit: Photo by Igor Do Vale/NurPhoto via Getty Images

    Presenters: Roland Pease and Marnie Chesterton
    Producers: Julian Siddle and Marijke Peters