Explorations in the world of science.
The end of everything
Everyone knows about the Big Bang being the beginning of the universe and time - but when and how is it going to end? ask brothers Raffie and Xe from Rome. For this series, with lockdown learning in mind, Drs Rutherford and Fry are investigating scientific mysteries for students of all ages. The doctors sift science from philosophy to find out.
Cosmologist Jo Dunkley studies the origins and evolution of the universe. She explains how astrophysical ideas and techniques have evolved to tell us what we now know about our galaxy and far beyond, from the elegant parallax technique to standard candles. This particular distance measure, which uses stars of a known brightness to work out how far away other objects in the universe are, was discovered by American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt in 1912, who worked at the Harvard University as one of several “computers” – women who processed and calculated data and made significant contributions to astronomy.
Curious Cases’ universal guru Andrew Pontzen puts this into context. Because the universe is so enormous, it turns out that these measurements are just the first steps on the cosmic distance ladder – a suite of tools that astrophysicists use to determine distances to celestial objects. Scientists know that objects are moving away from us because the wavelengths of light from them get stretched and appear redder in our telescopes – the so-called red shift effect. But having a handle on the distances to and between those objects allows cosmologists to monitor what’s happening to them over time. And it turns out that not only are they getting further apart, indicating that the universe is expanding, but that this process is accelerating.
So what might happen in the end? Expansion and then collapse – a big crunch? Expansion into the void – a big freeze, or a big rip? Or what if there is more than one universe – might a new one bubble up with totally different laws of physics that would cause our own to cease existing? It turns out that when dealing with predictions for something involving infinite space and time, the possibilities are largely limited by human imagination alone. Ideas are where science starts, but experiments are required to build evidence confirming or rejecting them as fact. The doctors discuss how gravitational wave detectors and quantum computers might one day provide this.
Presenters: Hannah Fry & Adam Rutherford
Producer: Jen Whyntie
Autism is a lifelong condition, often seen as particularly ‘male’. Yet a growing number of women, and those assigned female at birth, are being diagnosed as autistic in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. Writer and performer Helen Keen is one of them, and she’s found this diagnosis has helped her make sense of many aspects of her life, from growing up with selective mutism, to struggling to fit in as a young adult. In this programme Helen asks why she, like a growing number of others, had to wait till she was well into adulthood before finding her place on the autistic spectrum. She discovers that for many years psychologists believed that autism was rarely seen in women and non-binary people. Now it is accepted that people often display autistic traits in different way - for example, they may learn to ‘camouflage’ and behave in a neurotypical way - but at what cost? Helen talks to others like her who have had late diagnoses, and finds out if knowing they are on the autistic spectrum has given them insight into how they can navigate the pressures on them from contemporary society. She also explores how we can value and celebrate neurodiversity.
Helen also talks to psychologists Professor Francesca Happé, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in London, and Dr Steven Stagg of Anglia Ruskin University about their research into autism.
Picture: Geometric camouflage pattern, Credit: Yuri Parmenov/Getty Images
Birds: singing for survival
As large areas of the world have locked down this year, many of us have become more aware of the birdsong around us. The relative silence has allowed us to listen in. But scientists have known for several years that the birds themselves have been responding to human noise too, by pitching their songs and other calls higher, to be heard over the rumble of our urban life.
There are several ways in which birds can adapt how they communicate in the face of environmental pressures, but what are the limits to these adaptations? And what can this tell us about how to maximise conservation efforts in the future? Rory Crawford talks to ornithologists and animal behaviourists studying bird species around the world. He finds out how the advance of technology is helping researchers explore birds’ preferences and behaviours in the wild, and hears how one particular bird changed its song, and the new version rapidly spread across North America – “the most viral tweet of all time”, as it’s been called!
Picture: A Robin [Erithacus rubecula], Credit: Gary Chalker/Getty Images
Claudia Hammond asks if touch can be replicated digitally? What devices exist already and how likely are we to use them?
Michael Banissy, co-creator of the Touch Test, neuroscientist David Eagleman and researcher Carey Jewitt look at the possibilities for touch technologies in the future. David has developed a wristband that translates sound into touch for deaf people, Carey looks at the ethics of digital touch and Michael reveals the attitudes from the Touch Test towards digital technologies. If we could replicate the feeling of holding a loved one's hand in hospital would it really be the same? And dancer Lisa May Thomas talks about her experience of extending touch into space and through virtual reality.
The Evidence: Are national lockdowns evidence of policy failure?
As a surge of cases risks overwhelming health services in parts of Europe, Claudia Hammond and experts from around the world examine the evidence behind using lockdowns to supress the virus.
Lockdowns describe a huge range of actions that many governments took in the first wave of the pandemic when so little was known about where the virus was circulating. But full lockdowns are seen as very blunt tools, a last resort because they can have enormous social and economic consequences.
Instead a more targeted, localised, smarter response to slow down transmission is recommended, where data about virus circulation informs focussed interventions.
Also in the programme, The Great Barrington Declaration earlier this month called for an end to current lockdown policies and appealed for the vulnerable to receive “focussed protection” while everybody else “should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal”. The goal, the group of scientists said, should be to minimise deaths and social harm, until herd immunity, or population immunity, is reached.
The World Health Organisation has described such a strategy as dangerous and counterproductive. Claudia’s guests discuss the scientific and ethical issues raised and consider the scale of global exposure to this novel virus. So far only around 10% of the world’s population have been infected so what would a policy of herd immunity in the absence of a vaccine mean for the remaining 90%?
Listeners put their questions about coronavirus and the pandemic directly to Claudia and her panel of specialists, which this month includes Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, Technical Lead for the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Response; Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a clinical infectious diseases epidemiologist and Chair of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee for Covid-19; Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and one of the signatories to the John Snow Memorandum; epidemiologist Tove Fall, Professor at Uppsala University in Sweden running the Covid-19 symptom app and virologist Professor Steven Van Gucht, from Sciensano, the Belgian national institute for public and animal health.
The Evidence is produced in association with Wellcome Collection.
Production team: Fiona Hill and Maria Simons
Studio engineer: Jackie Margerum
Editor: Deborah Cohen
Claudia Hammond looks at the neuroscience behind our sense of touch. Why does a gentle touch from a loved one make us feel good? This is a question that neuroscientists have been exploring since the late 1990's, following the discovery of a special class of nerve fibres in the skin. There seems to be a neurological system dedicated to sensing and processing the gentle stroking you might receive from a parent or lover or friend, or that a monkey might receive from another grooming it. Claudia talks to neuroscientists Victoria Abraira, Rebecca Bohme, Katerina Fotopoulou and Francis McGlone who all investigate our sense of emotional touch, and she hears from Ian Waterman who lost his sense of touch at the age of eighteen.
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