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.
Can computers discover new medicines?
Daphne Koller was a precociously clever child. She completed her first degree – a double major in mathematics and computer science – when she was just 17 and went on to become a distinguished Professor at Stanford University in California. But before long she’d given up this comfortable academic position to create the biggest online education platform in the world. In 2018, she founded the drug discovery company Insitro hoping to create a space where data scientists and molecular biologists could work together as equals.
Daphne tells Jim Al-Khalili how a single question from her supervisor nudged her to use her considerable mathematical ability to do something useful and why she believes the time is right for artificial intelligence to discover new medicines.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Emily Holmes on how to treat trauma
Emily Holmes is a distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at Uppsala University and a neuroscientist who struggled to learn to read and write as a child. She tells Jim Al-Khalili about her work as a mental health scientist and her life-long love of art and explains why the images we see in our mind’s eye have more of an impact on our emotions than their verbal counterpart. And describes how this fundamental insight led her to develop a simple and cost-effective treatment for the fleeting flashbacks that haunt people with post traumatic stress disorder: briefly recalling the traumatic event and playing the computer game Tetris.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Judith Bunbury on the shifting River Nile in the time of the Pharaohs
Think Sahara Desert, think intense heat and drought. We see the Sahara as an unrelenting, frazzling, white place. But geo-archaeologist Dr Judith Bunbury says in the not so distant past, the region looked more like a safari park.
In the more recent New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, from around 3.5 thousand years ago (the time of some of Egypt’s most famous kings like Ahmose I, Thutmose III, Akhenaten, Tutankhamun and queens like Hatshepsut) evidence from core samples shows evidence of rainfall, huge lakes, springs, trees, birds, hares and even gazelle, very different from today.
By combining geology with archaeology, Dr Bunbury, from the department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and Senior Tutor at St Edmund’s College, tells Jim Al-Khalili that evidence of how people adapted to their ever-changing landscape is buried in the mud, dust and sedimentary samples beneath these ancient sites, waiting to be discovered.
With an augur (like a large apple corer), Judith and her team take core samples (every ten metre sample in Egypt reveals approximately 10,000 years of the past) and then read the historical story backwards. A model of the topography, the environment, the climate and the adapting human settlements can then be built up to enrich the historical record.
The core samples contain chipped stones which can be linked directly to the famous monuments and statues in the Valley of the Kings. There are splinters of amethyst from precious stone workshops, tell-tale rubbish dumped in surrounding water as well as pottery fragments which can be reliably time-stamped to the fashion-conscious consumers in the reign of individual Pharaohs.
The geo-archaeological research by Judith and her team, has helped to demonstrate that the building of the temples at Karnak near Luxor, added to by each of the Pharaohs, was completely dependent on the mighty Nile, a river which, over millennia, has wriggled and writhed, creating new land on one bank as it consumes land on another. Buildings and monuments were adapted and extended as the river constantly changed course.
And Judith hopes the detailed, long-range climate records and models we already have, can be enriched with this more detailed history of people, their settlements and their activities within a changing landscape and this will contribute to our ability to tackle climate change.
Producer: Fiona Hill
Frances Arnold: From taxi driver to Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frances Arnold left home at 15 and went to school ‘only when she felt like it’. She disagreed with her parents about the Vietnam War and drove big yellow taxis in Pittsburgh to pay the rent.
Decades later, after several changes of direction (from aerospace engineer to biotech pioneer), she invented a radical new approach to engineering enzymes. Rather than try to design industrial enzymes from scratch (which she considered to be an impossible task), Frances decided to let Nature do the work. ‘I breed enzymes like other people breed cats and dogs’ she says.
While some colleagues accused her of intellectual laziness, industry jumped on her ideas and used them in the manufacture of everything from laundry detergents to pharmaceuticals.
She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her journey from taxi driver to Nobel Prize, personal tragedy in midlife and why advising the White House is much harder than doing scientific research.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Sir Martin Landray on saving over a million lives
Who could forget the beginning of 2020, when a ‘mysterious viral pneumonia’ emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Soon, other countries were affected and deaths around the world began to climb. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, there were no proven treatments to help prevent those deaths.
As the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, and the UK and the rest of the world braced itself for what was to come, doctor and drug-trial designer Martin Landray had his mind on a solution, devising the protocol, or blueprint, for the world’s largest drug trial for Covid-19.
As Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Oxford University, Martin was perfectly positioned to jump, delivering what became known as the RECOVERY Trial. The trial was tasked to deliver clarity amid the predicted chaos of the pandemic and galvanised every acute NHS hospital in the UK. Within its first one hundred days, it had yielded three major discoveries and it has transformed Covid-19 treatment worldwide, already saving over a million lives. Sir Martin Landray was recently knighted for this work and RECOVERY’s legacy lives on, not just for Covid. Martin plans to revolutionise drug trials for other diseases too.
PRODUCER: Beth Eastwood
Vlatko Vedral on the universe as quantum information
Vlatko Vedral describes himself as a quantum information practitioner, who believes that our universe is made up of quantum bits of information.
It is information, he tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili, rather than energy or matter, the traditional building blocks of classical Newtonian physics, that can help us to understand the nature of reality.
Vlatko is Professor of Quantum Information Science at the University of Oxford and the Principal Investigator at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore and he talks to Jim in front of an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival.
At high school in Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia, young Vlatko was bowled over by the idea that you could take the micro-laws of quantum mechanics, and apply them to the complex systems of the macro world.
This drive to see the big picture, was fuelled when, as an undergraduate at Imperial College, London, he saw three words – “Information is physical” – the title of a paper by the IBM physicist, Rolf Landauer.
It was a light-bulb moment for Vlatko, who realised that the kind of information processing that the universe is capable of, depends on the underlying laws of physics.
This revelation led to Vlatko’s incarnation as a self-confessed “physics fundamentalist” who unashamedly crowns physics the Queen and other disciplines, her servants. It is physics alone, he tells Jim, which can answer the fundamental questions of the universe and discover the ultimate reality.
His PhD in 1997 at Imperial College, London, applied quantum mechanics, including super-positioning and entanglement (which Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance”), to Claude Shannon’s Information theory, making Vlatko one of the pioneers in the field of quantum information.
As new quantum computers come on stream, he tells Jim, quantum information practitioners, like him, will have the capacity to simulate complex systems in the macroscopic domain.
Producer: Fiona Hill