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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 BBC

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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.

    Liz Seward and the dream of spaceflight

    Liz Seward and the dream of spaceflight

    Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to Liz Seward, Senior Space Strategist for Airbus Defence and Space. Liz's young interest in Science Fiction led to a career designing spacecraft and robots for exploring our own earth, other planets, and the stars.

    From a library in the US where the science fiction section stood next to the children's section, Liz took inspiration from Robert A. Heinlien and Arthur C. Clarke through a degree in Physics and Space Science at the University of Leicester to begin a career at EADS Astrium (now part of Airbus), initially as a Thermal Engineer. As Liz explains to Jim, thermal engineering lies at the heart of any successful space mission. Any metal box floating in space has to deal with the searing heat of the Sun on one side and the deep, deep freeze of the cosmos on the other. Engineering solutions to cope with these extremes means the difference between triumph and failure.

    Liz has worked on several missions and international collaborations, including a design for a landing (since de-scoped) on Mercury aboard the current BepiColombo mission due to arrive at Mercury in 2025, and the experimental Areolus satellite that currently keeps our weather forecasters up to speed on global wind dynamics.

    A large part of Liz's career was spent with the ESA Martian rover, named Rosalind Franklin, which should have been on its way to the red planet this summer, but has been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

    Nowadays at Airbus, Liz works on the strategy of maximizing commercial potential in space, whilst abiding by issues of responsibility around exploration, pollution, and even space traffic management. What if a launch to Mars collides with a long dead weather satellite on its way there? Or that the first detection of life on Mars turns out to be a cold virus from Stevenage?

    But as she explains to Jim, miniaturization and cheaper launches suggest a bright future for human activity in space. And one day, it may include vertical satellite launches from Scotland, and even passenger flights from Cornwall.

    Producer Alex Mansfield,
    Sound production by Giles Aspen.

    • 29 Min.
    Frank Kelly on air pollution

    Frank Kelly on air pollution

    Long before most of us gave air pollution a second thought, Frank Kelly was studying the impact of toxic particles on our lungs. In a pioneering set of experiments on human volunteers in northern Sweden, he proved that pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and particulates, are harmful to our health. And he is the driving force behind an air quality monitoring system in London that is the envy of the world.

    When in the late 1990s, the UK government was encouraging us all to buy diesel cars to help reduce our carbon emissions, he warned that while diesel engines might be less bad for the planet than petrol engines, they were more damaging to our health. Later Frank and his team provided evidence that the car manufacturers were not telling the truth about emissions from diesel vehicles.

    As the chair of the Government Medical Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution, he has worked tirelessly to try and move air pollution up the political agenda and worked closely with successive Mayors of London to improve air quality in the capital. Changing all the buses from diesel to hybrid or electric vehicles would make a huge difference, he says. But we will also need to get used to relying less on driving our cars to get us from A to B.
    Producer: Anna Buckley

    • 27 Min.
    Debbie Pain on conserving globally threatened bird species

    Debbie Pain on conserving globally threatened bird species

    Professor Debbie Pain has spent the last 30 years solving some of the most devastating threats to birdlife, saving many species from the brink of extinction. Her childhood passion for bird spotting drove her into conservation research with the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. She’s led scientific groundwork all over the planet: from reversing a dramatic mysterious decline in Asian vultures in the Indian sub-continent through to daring helicopters journeys into remote foggy North-East Russia in a bid to locate and conserve eggs of a hugely charismatic and threatened bird - the Spoon-billed Sandpiper. And as she tells Jim, her career defining research into one of the great hidden threats to birdlife - the toxic effect of billions of spent lead shot used to catch game birds - is finally turning the tide on attitudes to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of wildfowl.

    Producer Adrian Washbourne

    • 28 Min.
    Jim McDonald on power networks

    Jim McDonald on power networks

    Jim McDonald grew up in Glasgow. He was the son of a rope-maker and the first in his family to go to university. Now he’s the Principal of Strathclyde University, a non-executive director of Scottish Power and President of the Royal Academy of Engineering. He worked in the electrical power industry for many years before becoming an academic. Much of his life has been spent making sure that we all have access to the electricity we need, when we need it. That includes when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow! As we rely more and more on renewable energy and more of us start driving electric cars, making sure the National Grid is fit for purpose is going to be a real challenge. But Jim is on the case.
    Producer: Anna Buckley

    • 27 Min.
    Brian Greene on how the universe is made of string

    Brian Greene on how the universe is made of string

    Jim talks a man who studies the universe at the largest and smallest scales imaginable. When Brian Greene was just twelve years old, he wandered round Columbia University in New York looking for someone to teach him mathematics, with a letter of recommendation from his school teacher. While his mother wanted him to make money, his father encouraged Brian to pursue his passion, which was trying to understand the nature of the universe. He studied physics at Harvard University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. While at Oxford he learnt about a bold new Theory of Everything which predicts that the universe is made not of particles but rather tiny strings which vibrate in multiple dimensions. Now a Professor at Columbia University, he has worked on string theory ever since. He talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the rise and fall of string and superstring theory and why when he first started to think about what would happen to the universe at the end of time, he experienced a feeling of ‘hollow dread’.
    Producer: Anna Buckley

    • 34 Min.
    Myles Allen on understanding climate change

    Myles Allen on understanding climate change

    Professor Myles Allen has spent thirty years studying global climate change, trying to working out what we can and can't predict. He was one of the first scientists to quantify the extent to which human actions are responsible for global warming. As a lead author on the 3rd Assessment by the International Panel on Climate Change in 2001, he concluded that ‘most of the observed global warming was due to human influence’. More recently, (having established that calculating a safe concentration of greenhouse gases was very difficult indeed), he worked out instead how many tonnes of carbon would be acceptable, a shift in emphasis that paved the way for the current Net Zero carbon emissions policy. Myles tells Jim Al-Khalili how our ability to predict climate change has evolved from the early days when scientists had to rely on the combined computing power of hundreds of thousands of personal computers. He sheds light on how the IPCC works and explains why, he believes, fossil fuel industries must be forced to take back the carbon dioxide that they emit. If carbon capture and storage technologies makes their products more expensive, so be it. Producer: Anna Buckley

    Image Credit: Fisher Studios, Oxford.

    • 36 Min.

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