173 episodes

We take your questions about life, Earth and the universe to researchers hunting for answers at the frontiers of knowledge.

CrowdScience BBC

    • Science

We take your questions about life, Earth and the universe to researchers hunting for answers at the frontiers of knowledge.

    What is cancer?

    What is cancer?

    Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world. Many of us will at some point in our lives be confronted with the disease – either by falling ill ourselves or through a family member or friend. For CrowdScience presenter Marnie Chesterton, the diagnosis would change her life.

    The range of cancer symptoms and mortality rates vary considerably. Not all cancers are fatal and in some cases, cancer ends up more like a chronic debilitating disease, resulting in patients eventually dying from some other condition. This has got listener Gill in Scotland wondering – why do we call all cancers, cancer? And when did doctors first realise that all cancers are part of the same problem?

    First described by the Egyptians thousands of years ago and later coined by the Greek physician Hippocrates as “karninos”, the Greek word for “crab”, cancer is ominously absent from medical literature until the late 19th century. Throughout history it has puzzled, infuriated and enticed doctors and scientists to push medical science to its breaking point. Archaeologists have recently discovered that the ancient Egyptians had a term for cancer and that remedies they used then contain compounds that are found in modern chemotherapy.

    As we uncover the science and history of cancer, presenter Marnie Chesterton takes us on a journey through her own experience of living with and beyond the diagnosis and we examine the promise of future treatments.

    Presented by Marnie Chesterton.
    Produced by Louisa Field.

    [Photo: Cancer Cell. Credit: Getty Images]

    • 37 min
    How did humans discover medicine?

    How did humans discover medicine?

    Today, once-fatal diseases like the plague, sepsis, or cholera can be treated simply and quickly with a pill. These tiny tablets hold compounds that can fix illnesses, and most people don’t think twice about taking an asparin for a headache.

    Modern medicine looks nothing like the plants that many of them are derived from. But there must have been a moment, when the first humans decided that a particular plant, fungus, or mineral might cure them of an upset stomach, or infected wound. Right? That’s what listener Andrew Chen wondered, so he emailed CrowdScience to find answers.

    Presenter Anand Jagatia speaks with an archaeologist, a botanist, an ethno-pharmacologist, a zoologist and a historian to uncover the story of early human experimentation with ‘drugs’ from plants, fungi, animals and minerals.

    The history of humans is full of illness and poor health, and it seems we’ve always tried to fix this. Anand discovers the connection between food and medicine while making tonic water from scratch with Kim Walker at the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, and tastes the daisy-like Chinese herb that was first used thousands of years ago, and then – once tested - became one of the best modern drugs for treating the world’s most deadly infectious disease.
    Listener Andrew’s inspiration came from a previous episode of CrowdScience ‘Who were the first farmers?’ and so we return to expert anthropologist Cheryl Makerewicz who tells us about the ecological knowledge of hunter-gatherers and pastoralist communities. With Jaap de Roode, Anand discovers that conscious thought isn’t a pre-requisite of medical discovery, and historian Vivienne Lo explains how written word helped to standardise generations of medical knowledge in East Asia. Previously medical knowledge had been irrevocably linked with shamanism, magic and spirituality, but with modern medicine this changed – but today there is still much we can learn from ancient forms of knowledge, Christophe Wiart explains how his science focuses of discovering what plants tribal people in east Asia have used for centuries to cure their ailments. These early methods may help us combat new diseases today.

    Presented by Anand Jagatia
    Produced by Rory Galloway


    [Photo: Women using plant medicines. Credit: Getty Images]

    • 31 min
    Can digital technology transform West Africa?

    Can digital technology transform West Africa?

    CrowdScience heads to Freetown, Sierra Leone for a panel debate in front of a live audience to answer listener questions about how artificial intelligence is helping tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues. Anand Jagatia is joined by regional science experts to explore how robots, drones and big data are transforming sectors such as agriculture, health and governance. Could clever machines help eradicate invasive species? Will block chain IDs eventually replace physical documents? And while this technology is heralded as a force for change we’ll ask whether fears of an AI takeover are unfounded?

    Presented by Anand Jagatia and Produced by Marijke Peters and Mel Brown

    (Photo: The panel and Audience at Crowd Science live event in Sierra Leone. Credit: BBC)

    • 32 min
    Could we survive an extinction event?

    Could we survive an extinction event?

    Super-sized volcanic eruptions and giant asteroids crashing in from outer space are the stuff of disaster movies. They have listener Santosh from South Africa slightly concerned. He’d like to know what’s being done in real life to prepare for this kind of event.

    Although the chance of these events occurring is low, Santosh isn’t entirely wrong to be worried: Earth has a much longer history than humans do, and there’s evidence that several past extinction events millions of years ago wiped out the dominant species on the planet at the time, as we’ve heard before on CrowdScience. The kind of extraordinary geological and extra-terrestrial hazards thought to be responsible for the death of millions of lives do still exist. So is there really any way that humans could survive where the dinosaurs – and plenty of other species – have failed?

    Presenter Marnie Chesterton finds out by meeting experts who are already preparing for the remote but real possibility of the biggest disaster we could face. It turns out that in real life most things we can think of which could cause an extinction event are being watched closely by scientists and governmental agencies. How worried we should really be by the possibility of a sudden super-volcanic eruption at Yellowstone in the USA, or one of the other enormous volcanoes dotting our planet’s surface? Marnie heads into an underground bunker near the remote Scottish coast to find out if hiding out is a viable survival option. Now a museum, Scotland’s Secret Bunker, formerly RAF Troywood, is one of a network of nuclear shelters built by nation states during the Cold War. And she hears about one of the combined space agencies most ambitious projects yet: NASA and ESA’s Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission to crash an impactor into an asteroid’s moon to find out whether we could knock any potentially problematic collisions off-course well before Earth impact.

    Produced by Jennifer Whyntie for BBC World Service


    (Photo: Post apocalypse sole survivor. Credit: Getty Images)

    • 38 min
    What is infinity?

    What is infinity?

    Is there something bigger than infinity? Does quantum mechanics affect how I think? And why can I suddenly do algebra? As ever, we’re not afraid to tackle the big questions on CrowdScience.
    After a previous episode about the relationship between mathematics and reality, we received a flood of profound and difficult questions, so we dive back into the world of maths, physics and philosophy to try and answer them.
    A panel of experts help us puzzle out whether some infinities are bigger than others - and why that matters, as well as what quantum mechanics can teach us about the workings of the brain. And we seek answers for one of our listeners who surprised himself by being able to figure out mathematics equations he previously found unfathomable.
    With philosopher of physics Dr Eleanor Knox, mathematician Dr Katie Steckles, and Dr Aldo Faisal, an expert in neurotechnology.

    Presented by Marnie Chesterton
    Produced by Cathy Edwards for the BBC World Service


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    • 33 min
    How low-carbon can CrowdScience go?

    How low-carbon can CrowdScience go?

    Reducing climate change and global warming is one of the biggest and most urgent challenges for everyone as we enter a new decade. The CrowdScience team have been trying to figure out how to play our part in reducing our carbon footprint. So what’s the best way forward?

    Presenter Marnie Chesterton starts to find out by pitting three of her colleagues against each other for the first phase of our challenge. Anand Jagatia, Geoff Marsh and Melanie Brown have all been tasked with answering a listener’s question in the lowest-carbon way possible. Along the way, they must monitor and account for every emission – from their travel methods to their choice of sustenance whilst working. It turns out that the challenge is not only in acknowledging all the types of activity that produce emissions, but in working out the volume of greenhouse gases produced. Marnie judges her colleagues’ efforts, determines a winner, and dispatches the losing challenger to look further into carbon calculation, and to find out about the possibilities of legitimately offsetting the overall footprint. And we start our on-going experiment using a broadcast industry carbon calculator to find out the most carbon-efficient and sustainable ways to keep answering everyone’s questions and sharing more cutting-edge global science.

    Presented by Marnie Chesterton

    Produced by Jen Whyntie for the BBC World Service


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    • 40 min

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