122 episodes

Science news and highlights of the week

The Science Hour BBC World Service

    • Science
    • 4.4 • 171 Ratings

Science news and highlights of the week

    Portrait of the monster black hole at our galaxy’s heart

    Portrait of the monster black hole at our galaxy’s heart

    The heaviest thing in the Galaxy has now been imaged by the biggest telescope on Earth. This is Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our Galaxy – a gas and star-consuming object, a 4 million times the mass of the Sun. The Event Horizon Telescope is not one device but a consortium of radio telescopes ranging from the South Pole to the Arctic Circle. Their combined data allowed astronomers to focus in on this extreme object for the first time. Astronomer Ziri Younsi from University College London talks to Roland Pease about the orange doughnut image causing all the excitement.

    Also in the programme…

    Climatologist Chris Funk talks about the role of La Niña and climate change in the record-breaking two year drought that continues to threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in East Africa.

    Was a pig virus to blame for the death of the first patient to receive a pig heart transplant? We talk to the surgeon and scientist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who led the historic animal to human transplant operation this year.

    How easy will it be to grow plants in lunar soil on future moon bases? Plant biologist Anna Lisa Paul has been testing the question in her lab at the University of Florida, Gainesville, with cress seeds and lunar regolith collected by the Apollo missions.


    Does photographic memory exist?

    Most people are great at remembering key points from important events in their lives, while the finer details - such as the colour of the table cloth in your favourite restaurant or the song playing on the radio while you brushed your teeth - are forgotten.

    But some people seem to have the power to remember events, documents or landscapes with almost perfect recall, which is widely referred to as having a photographic memory. CrowdScience listeners Tracy and Michael want to know if photographic memory actually exists and if not, what are the memory processes that allow people to remember certain details so much better than others?

    Putting her own memory skills to the test along the way, presenter Marnie Chesterton sets out to investigate just what’s happening inside our brains when we use our memories, the importance of being able to forget and why some people have better memories than others.

    Photo: First image of Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy
    Credit: EHT Collaboration, Southern European Observatory

    Presenter: Roland Pease and Marnie Chesterton
    Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker and Hannah Fisher

    • 1 hr 4 min
    Mekong Delta will sink beneath the sea by 2100

    Mekong Delta will sink beneath the sea by 2100

    The Mekong Delta is home to 17 million people and is Vietnam’s most productive agricultural region. An international group of scientists warn this week that almost all of the low lying delta will have sunk beneath the sea within 80 years without international action. Its disappearance is the result of both sea level rise and developments such as dams and sand mining, as Matt Kondolf of the University of California, Berkeley explains to Roland Pease.

    Also in the programme:

    Seismologist Laura Emert on using the rumbling of traffic in Mexico City to monitor earthquake hazards.

    Mars-shaking Marsquakes – recent record-breaking quakes on Mars explained by seismologist Anna Horleston of Bristol University.

    A record-breaking high jumping robot designed by mechanical engineer and roboticist Elliot Hawkes which is so light it can access any terrain, perhaps even the moon.

    And gene editing….

    Humans now have the ability to directly change their DNA and gene-editing tool CRISPR has led to a new era in gene-editing. CrowdScience listener ‘Bones’ wants to know how gene-editing is currently being used and what might be possible in the future.

    Gene-editing offers huge opportunities for the prevention and treatment of human diseases, and trials are currently underway in a wide range of diseases like sickle cell anaemia. CrowdScience presenter Caroline Steel finds out about some of the most promising work tackling disease before turning to consider the possibilities of using gene editing for non-medical changes.

    Will we be able to extend human longevity, swap our eye colour or enhance athletic performance? And even if we can do all these things, should we?

    As scientists push the boundaries of gene-editing and some people are DIY experimenting on themselves with CRISPR, we discuss the practical and ethical challenges facing this promising but potentially perilous area of science.

    Photo: Mekong River in Kampong Cham, Cambodia
    Credit: Muaz Jaffar/EyeEm/Getty Images

    Presenters: Roland Pease and Caroline Steel
    Producers: Andrew Luck-Baker and Melanie Brown

    • 1 hr 1 min
    The Indian subcontinent’s record-breaking heatwave

    The Indian subcontinent’s record-breaking heatwave

    Deadly heat has been building over the Indian sub-continent for weeks and this week reached crisis levels. India experienced its hottest March on record and temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (and in some places approaching 50 degrees) are making it almost impossible for 1.4 billion people to work. It’s damaging crops and it’s just what climate scientists have been warning about. Roland Pease talks to Vimal Mishra of the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar about the impact and causes of the unprecedented heatwave.

    What could be behind the incidence of hepatitis in young children around the world in recent months? Ordinarily, liver disease in childhood is extremely rare. Could a virus normally associated with colds be responsible or is the Covid virus involved? Roland Pease talks to virologist William Irving of Nottingham University.

    Also in the programme:

    How climate change is increasing the likelihood of animal viruses jumping the species barrier to humans with global change modeller Colin Carlson of Georgetown University.

    Myths about the personalities of dog breeds are exploded with new research by Elinor Karlsson of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

    And how do we stay up when we ride a bicycle? Lots of us can do it without even thinking about it, but probably very few of us can say exactly HOW we do it. Well, CrowdScience listener Arif and his children Maryam and Mohammed from India want to understand what’s going on in our heads when we go for a cycle, and how we learn to do it in the first place.

    Marnie Chesterton is on the case, tracking down a neuroscientists studying how our brains and bodies work together to keep us balanced whether we’re walking or trying to ride a bicycle. She learns about the quirks of bicycle engineering from researchers in the Netherlands who are part of a lab entirely devoted to answering this question. In the process falling off of some unusual bicycles and uncovering the surprising truth that physics might not yet have a proper answer. And we peer deeper into our brains to find out why some memories last longer than others, whether some people can learn quicker than others and the best way to learn a new skill.

    (Photo: Woman cooling herself in India heatwave
    Credit: Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

    Presenters: Roland Pease and Marnie Chesterton
    Producers: Andrew Luck-Baker and Emily Bird for BBC World Service

    • 1 hr 5 min
    Climate techno-fix would worsen global malaria burden

    Climate techno-fix would worsen global malaria burden

    As a series of UN climate reports have warned recently, drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – a halving over the next decade – are needed if we are to keep global warming down to manageable levels. No sign of that happening.

    An emergency measure to buy time that’s sometimes discussed is solar geoengineering – creating an atmospheric sunscreen that reduces incoming solar heat. Sulphate compounds in volcanic gases or in industrial fumes attract water vapour to make a fine haze and have that effect. The difference would be starting a deliberate programme of injecting sulphate particles into the stratosphere.

    There are a host of arguments against it, including a revulsion against adding another pollutant to the atmosphere to offset the one, carbon dioxide, that’s giving us problems in the first place. Another objection, outlined this week, is that it could set back the global fight against malaria - a major killer in its own right. University of Cape Town ecologist Chris Trisos tells Roland Pease what his team’s modelling study revealed.

    Yale University neurologist Kevin Sheth talks to us about a revolution in medical scanning – small-scale MRI machines that can be wheeled to the patient’s bedside.

    According to palaeontologist Maria McNamara, an amazingly preserved pterosaur fossil from Brazil proves that some of these flying reptiles did have feathers similar to those of birds (and some dinosaurs), and that the feathers were of different colours, possibly for mating display.

    Primatologist Adrian Barnett has discovered that spider monkeys in one part of the Brazilian Amazon seek out fruit, full of live maggots to eat. Why?

    The ancient Maya flourished in modern day Mexico and Central America for millennia. They built incredible cities and they had sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, architecture and the natural world. But although Maya culture continues to exist today, around 900 AD, many of their great settlements collapsed, and today they lie in ruins.

    CrowdScience listener Michael wants to know - how did the Maya sustain their populations successfully for so long? And what happened 1000 years ago that led them to abandon their cities?

    To find out, Melanie Brown travels to the forests of Western Belize. She visits the archaeological site of Xunantunich to learn about what life would have been like for the Maya living in what was once a prosperous city. She hears about the importance of water to the Maya way of life in this region, and their ingenious methods for capturing and storing rainfall.

    She meets archaeologists using lasers and drones to map Maya settlements that have lain hidden by jungle for centuries. And she discovers what material from the bottom of lakes can tell us about how the Maya faced a changing climate, which may have had huge consequences for their society.

    (Photo: Illustration of a mosquito biting
    Credit: SCIEPRO/Science Photo Library/Getty Images)

    Presenters: Roland Pease and Melanie Brown
    Producers: Andrew Luck-Baker and Anand Jagatia

    • 1 hr 7 min
    How ‘magic mushroom’ chemical treats depression

    How ‘magic mushroom’ chemical treats depression

    Brain scanning experiments reveal how psilocybin works to relieve severe depression. Psilocybin is the psychedelic substance in 'magic mushrooms'. The psychoactive chemical is currently in clinical trials in the UK and US as a potential treatment for depression and other mental illnesses. Professor David Nutt of Imperial College London tells Roland about the research

    Also in the show, worrying findings about the increase in premature deaths because of air pollution in growing cities in tropical Africa and Asia. An international group of climatologists has found that the tropical storms which struck Mozambique, Malawi and Madagascar in early 2022 had been made more intense by human-induced climate change. And astronomer David Jewitt used the Hubble telescope to measure the largest known comet in the solar system - it's huge at about 120 kilometres across.

    The team at CrowdScience has spent years answering all sorts of listener questions, which must make them pretty smart, right? IN this week’s episode, that assumption is rigorously tested as Marnie Chesterton and the team pit their wits against a multitude of mind-bending puzzles from an old TV game show - all in the name of answering a question from Antonia in Cyprus.

    She wants to know: how do we work out how clever someone is? Is IQ the best measure of cleverness? Why do we put such weight on academic performance? And where does emotional intelligence fit into it all?

    In the search for answers, presenter Marnie Chesterton and the team are locked in rooms to battle mental, physical, mystery, and skill-based challenges, all against the clock. Unpicking their efforts in the studio are a global team of cleverness researchers: Dr. Stuart Ritchie from Kings College London, Professor Sophie von Stumm from York University, and Dr. Alex Burgoyne, from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US.

    They are challenged to face the toughest questions in their field: Why do men and women tend to perform differently in these tests? Is our smartness in our genes? And what about the Flynn effect – where IQs appear to have risen, decade after decade, around the world.

    (Image: Mexican Psilocybe Cubensis. An adult mushroom raining spores. Credit: Getty Images)

    • 1 hr 14 min
    Tsunami detective in Tonga

    Tsunami detective in Tonga

    Just over two months ago, the undersea volcano of Hunga Tonga erupted catastrophically, generating huge tsunamis and covering the islands of Tonga in ash. University of Auckland geologist Shane Cronin is now in Tonga, trying to piece together the sequence of violent events.

    Edinburgh University palaeontologist Ornella Bertrand tells us about her studies of the ancient mammals that inherited the Earth after the dinosaurs were wiped out. To her surprise, in the first 10 million years after the giant meteorite struck, natural selection favoured larger-bodied mammals, not smarter ones.

    At the University of Bristol, a team of engineers is developing skin for robots, designed to give future bots a fine sense of touch. Roland shakes hands with a prototype.

    A global satellite survey of the world’s largest coastal cities finds that most of them contain areas that are subsiding faster than the rate that the sea level is rising. Some cities are sinking more than ten times faster, putting many millions of people at an ever-increasing risk of flooding. Oceanographer Steven D’Hondt at the University of Rhode Island explains why this is happening.

    The odds of becoming a fossil are vanishingly small. And yet there seem to be an awful lot of them out there. In some parts of the world you can barely look at a rock without finding a fossil, and museum archives worldwide are stuffed with everything from ammonites to Archaeopteryx. But how many does that leave to be discovered by future fossil hunters? What’s the total number of fossils left to find?

    That’s what listener Anders Hegvik from Norway wants to know and what CrowdScience is off to investigate. Despite not having the technology or time to scan the entire planet, presenter Marnie Chesterton prepares to find a decent answer. During her quest, she meets the scientists who dig up fossils all over the world; does some very large sums; and asks whether we'll ever run out of the very best and most exciting fossil finds.

    (Image: An eruption occurs at the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha"apai off Tonga, January 14, 2022.
    Credit: Tonga Geological Services/via Reuters)

    • 1 hr 1 min

Customer Reviews

4.4 out of 5
171 Ratings

171 Ratings

Al Muzza ,

Consistently high quality science content

The Science Hour offers consistently high quality science content .

FWJM66 ,

Repeats content/stories from other podcasts

I feel this show repeats too many stories/articles I’ve already heard from the other science podcast shows I listen too weekly. If you only have time for one show then this is for you, unfortunately though, for me, I would wish for more original/exclusive content.

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Provokes division instead of constructing consensus.

I was enjoying an episode when it suddenly turned into a racially polarised exercise in how to divide a population by calling them racist in the radio programmes they listen to. This propaganda was delivered twice in one program. Thankyou for selling out our national broadcaster as an eternal apologist for the very existence of the majority of its listeners. Why are you talking about racism in intentionally divisive and accusative terms in 2020? On a science program! You are disturbingly aligned with how fascism takes over a society. You bring race in as a way to wind people up so I must unsubscribe unless there is an immediate and effective review of the incursion of Critical Race Theory, an unsubstantiated pseudoscience, into the BBC’s output. When you poke division instead of constructing consensus it’s playing with fire. The program should be about science.

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