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.
Peter Goadsby on migraine
Throbbing head, nausea, dizziness, disturbed vision – just some of the disabling symptoms that can strike during a migraine attack. This neurological condition is far more common than you might think, affecting more people than diabetes, epilepsy and asthma combined.
While medications, to help relieve the symptoms of migraine, have been around for some time, they haven’t worked for everyone. And what happens in the brain during a migraine attack was, until recently, poorly understood.
Peter Goadsby is Professor of Neurology at King's College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience and is a true pioneer in the field of migraine.
Over the course of his career, he has unravelled what happens in the brain during a migraine attack and his insights are already benefiting patients - in the form of new medications that can not only treat a migraine, but also prevent it from occurring.
Peter shares this year’s Brain Prize, the world's largest prize for brain research, with three other internationally renowned scientists in the field.
Producer: Beth Eastwood
Jane Clarke on Protein Folding
Professor Jane Clarke has had a fascinating double career. Having been a science teacher for many years, she didn’t start her research career until she was 40. Today she is a world-leading expert in molecular biophysics and, in particular, in how protein molecules in the body fold up into elaborate 3D structures, that only then enables them to carry out their roles. How they do this has been one of the fundamental questions in biology and the key to combating some of our most challenging diseases, caused by the misfolding of proteins.
Jane talks about her journey, from Tottenham schoolteacher to Cambridge Professor and Fellow of the Royal Society, and how, despite the obstacles she’s encountered along the way, she’s always been driven by her passion to understand the mystery of the machinery of life.
Producer: Adrian Washbourne
Professor Martin Sweeting, inventor of microsatellites
When Martin Sweeting was a student, he thought it would be fun to try to build a satellite using electronic components found in some of the earliest personal computers. An amateur radio ham and space enthusiast, he wanted to create a communications satellite that could be used to talk to people on the other side of the world. It was a team effort, he insists, with friends and family pitching in and a lot of the work being done on his kitchen table. Somehow he managed to persuade Nasa to let his microsatellite hitch a ride into space and, after the first message was received, spent more than a decade trying to get a good picture of planet earth. The technology that Martin pioneered underpins modern life with thousands of reprogrammable microsatellites now in orbit around the earth and thousands more due to launch in the next few years to bring internet connections to remote parts of the world. The university spin-off company, Surrey Satellite Technologies Limited (SSTL) that Martin set up in the 1980s with an initial investment of £100 sold for £50 million a quarter of a century later. If his company had been bought by venture capitalists, he says he would probably have ended up making TVs. Instead he developed the satellite technology on which so much of modern life depends.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Photo Credit: SSTL
Theresa Marteau on how to change behaviour
We all know how to be more healthy. And yet we are also remarkably good at NOT doing what we know is good for us. We keep meaning to get fit, but the sofa seems so much more appealing than a run. We know we shouldn’t have another slice of cake, but we do.
Behavioural psychologist, Professor Dame Theresa Marteau wants to understand why, despite the best of intentions, so many of us fail to adopt healthier lifestyles. She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her life and work and why, after studying the evidence she changed her mind about how to change our behaviour.
Back in the 90s, it seemed reasonable to assume that telling people they were at high risk of dying would jolt them into eating more healthily and taking more exercise. Now we know better. Thanks in large part to research pioneered by Theresa, we have a much more sophisticated understanding of what drives our behaviour. It turns out that small scale interventions to redesign our environment can exert a big influence on our behaviour by nudging us all into make better decisions, in ways that are beyond our awareness. Spoiler alert - smaller wine glasses really do make you drink less!
Responses to Covid-19 show that nations can act rapidly and radically in response to immediate threats to health, even at huge cost. Can we do the same to tackle other threats to global health?
Producer: Anna Buckley
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, she started trying to calculate the carbon emissions from different foods so that she could make more informed choices about what she was eating in terms of the impact they were having on climate change. 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