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.
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
The sounds of coral reefs
Tim Lamont is a young scientist making waves. Arriving on the Great Barrier Reef after a mass bleaching event, Tim saw his research plans disappear and was personally devastated by the destruction. But from that event he discovered a novel way to restore coral reefs. Playing the sounds of a healthy coral reef entices fish in to recolonise the wrecked reefs. Tim's emotional journey forced him to realise that environmental scientists can no longer just observe. They need to find new prisms with which to view the world and to intervene to save or protect the natural environment.
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