100 episodes

Science news and highlights of the week

The Science Hour BBC

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Science news and highlights of the week

    Omicron, racism and trust

    Omicron, racism and trust

    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)

    • 1 hr 2 min
    Deliberately doomed dart

    Deliberately doomed dart

    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

    • 1 hr 2 min
    The end for coal power?

    The end for coal power?

    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

    • 57 min
    Bambi got Covid

    Bambi got Covid

    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

    • 53 min
    Jet fuel from thin air

    Jet fuel from thin air

    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.

    • 1 hr 13 min
    Can we still avoid climate catastrophe?

    Can we still avoid climate catastrophe?

    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

    • 1 hr 2 min

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