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.
Clifford Johnson on making sense of black holes and movie plots
Clifford Johnson's career to date has spanned some seemingly very different industries - from exploring quantum mechanics around string theory and black holes, to consulting on some of Hollywood's biggest movies; but it makes sense once you understand his ambition of making science accessible to all.
A Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Clifford's worked in the United States for decades – but was born in the UK, then spent his formative years on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, before moving back to England to study.
Here, he fell in love with quantum mechanics - before moving to the US, where he's broken new ground in finding ways to talk about quantum gravity and black holes.
Clifford's other big passion is getting as many people as possible engaged with science, making it more exciting, entertaining and most importantly diverse - and it's this attitude that's led to regular work as a science consultant on various TV shows and films; and even a recent cameo in a major movie...
Produced by Lucy Taylor.
Rebecca Kilner on beetle behaviours and evolution
A fur-stripped mouse carcase might not sound like the cosiest of homes – but that’s where the burying beetle makes its nest; and where Rebecca Kilner has focused much of her research.
A Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cambridge, Rebecca’s work – initially with cuckoos, then more recently with the beetles – has shed invaluable light on the relationship between social behaviours and evolution.
She tells Jim Al-Khalili how the beetles’ helpfully swift generational churn and mouse-based parenting has allowed her team to study evolution in action, demonstrating for the first time what was previously just evolutionary theory.
Producer: Lucy Taylor
Pam Shaw on the research battle against motor neurone disease
Motor Neuron Disease (MND) is a degenerative disease that relentlessly attacks the human nervous system, deteriorating muscle function to the point where patients can no longer move, talk, eat, or even breathe.
To date there’s no cure, and until fairly recently there were only minimal treatments to ease the symptoms.
Pam Shaw has dedicated her career to changing that.
A Professor of Neurology at Sheffield University and Founding Director of the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience, she recently led clinical trials into a drug that delivered unprecedented results: showing that it could slow the progression of MND in certain patients, and even improve symptoms for some.
It’s just one small step – but with a new tranche of research funding and a national institute to study the disease on the cards, Pamela believes this could be the start of real progress in understanding and treating Motor Neuron Disease.
Producer: Lucy Taylor
Chris Elliott on fighting food fraud
Professor Chris Elliott is something of a ‘food detective’.
A Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology at Queen's University Belfast and a founding director of its Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS), his work is all about developing scientific solutions to protect us from contaminated food, be it accidental or criminal.
Following the 2013 horse meat scandal – when prepared foods purporting to be made from beef were found to contain undeclared horse-meat – Chris conducted the independent review of the UK food system that brought to light the growing threat of food crime. Since then, his name’s become synonymous with solving cases of food fraud; today he receives regular tip-offs on everything from oregano scams to dodgy potatoes.
But as Chris tells Jim Al-Khalili, his team at the IGFS are pioneering new techniques to read the molecular fingerprint of foodstuffs, with technology that they hope will stop the fraudsters in their tracks…
Producer: Lucy Taylor
A passion for fruit flies
What use to science is a pesky organism that feeds on rotting fruit? Professor Bambos Kyriacou has spent fifty years observing the behaviour of fruit flies. He keeps them in the lab and in his garden in their thousands, has recorded fruit fly courtship songs using a microphone loved by Jonny Carson (because it made his voice sound deeper) and invented equipment to keep track of their sleeping patterns. He tells Jim Al-Khalili how fruit flies sparked his interest in genetics and how experiments with insomniac fruit flies opened our eyes to the fundamental importance of body clocks.
Why study sewage?
Leon Barron monitors pollution in our rivers, keeping tabs on chemicals that could be harmful to the environment and to our health. He’s also gathered intelligence on the behaviour of millions of Londoners by studying the water we flush down the loo. His analysis of sewage revealed, for example, just how much cocaine is consumed in London every day. And he’s helped the Metropolitan Police to crack crimes in other ways too, inventing new chemistry tools that can be used by forensic scientists to uncover clues. At school he had no idea he wanted to be an analytical chemist but a short work experience placement at the fertiliser factory convinced him that this kind of detective work was fun.
Producer: Anna Buckley
Learn about Science and the People Behind the Science
Highly recommend for those interested in learning about science and scientists! The host, Professor Jim Al-Khalili, draws out from his guests--who are leading scientists from a wide range of fields--clear explanations of their research and why it is important. In addition, he also elicits stories of how the guests became interested in and pursued their work, which helps the audience understand and appreciate the people behind the science and the sometimes circuitous paths they take in their education and careers.
Keeps Interest if you love learning WHY...
Gonna keep Listening!
Insights and ideas
Beautifully done. Jim the physicist does an amazing job of making a wide range of science areas seem totally accessible, understandable and within reach of ordinary mortals! Love the mix of men, women and topics. Thanks BBC!