203 episodes

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.

The Life Scientific BBC

    • Science

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.

    Susannah Maidment on stegosaurs

    Susannah Maidment on stegosaurs

    Susie was dinosaur-mad as a child. But unlike most children, she never grew out of her obsession. She tells Jim about an exciting new stegosaur find in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and describes the time she spent dinosaur hunting (with a toddler in tow) in the Morrison Formation in the American Mid-West: a place where there are thought to be enough dinosaur remains to keep a thousand paleontologists happy for a thousand years.
    She is at her happiest out in the field, with a hammer and a notebook, studying rocks and looking for dinosaur remains. We tend to lump dinosaurs together as though they all roamed the earth at the same time which is silly - given that they had the run of the place for nearly two hundred million years. Susie wants to sort out exactly which dinosaurs lived when. Although she warns, the fossil record is woefully incomplete. We will probably only ever know about 1% of what there is to know about all the dinosaurs that ever lived.
    Producer: Anna Buckley

    • 32 min
    Patricia Wiltshire on how pollen can solve crimes.

    Patricia Wiltshire on how pollen can solve crimes.

    Patricia Wiltshire grew up in a mining village in South Wales, left home when she was 17 and worked for many years, first as a medical technician and then as a business secretary (a profession her first husband considered to be more ladylike). When she was studying botany A level at evening classes, her teacher encouraged her to apply for university as a mature student. (She would never have considered it otherwise). And so began her career as a palynologist (studying pollen). She worked for many years reconstructing ancient environments on archaeological sites. But a phone call from a police detective led to a dramatic change of direction, when she was in her fifties. Since then, Pat has been involved in some of the most high-profile murder cases in Britain, including the murder of two ten year old girls in Soham in Cambridgeshire in 2002. She tells Jim Al-Khalili how she pioneered the use of pollen as evidence in criminal cases. Studying spores taken from suspects and victims, she can establish who’s been where and when. Her life, she says, has been 'a mess' but, on many occasions, the pollen she has gathered and analysed has helped to see that justice has been done.
    Producer: Anna Buckley

    • 33 min
    Elizabeth Fisher on chromosomes in mice and men

    Elizabeth Fisher on chromosomes in mice and men

    Elizabeth Fisher, Professor of Neurogenetics at University College London, spent 13 years getting her idea – finding a new way of studying genetic disorders – to work. She began her research career at a time, in the 1980s, when there was an explosion of interest and effort in finding out what genes did what, and which of them were responsible for giving rise to the symptoms of various neurodegenerative conditions. Elizabeth has been particularly interested in those in which there are chromosomal abnormalities, like Down syndrome and Turner syndrome, as distinct from specific genetic disorders. Her work has helped in the understanding of what’s different about the genetic make-up of people with these conditions, and what new therapies might be developed in the future.

    Lizzie Fisher talks to Jim al-Khalili about how she was inspired to study genetics while standing on the red carpet, how she kept going during the 13 years it took to introduce human chromosomes into mice and why she's starting the process all over again.

    • 28 min
    Demis Hassabis on artificial intelligence

    Demis Hassabis on artificial intelligence

    In the 200th episode of The Life Scientific, Jim Al-Khalili finds out why Demis Hassabis wants to create artificial intelligence and use it to help humanity.
    Thinking about how to win at chess when he was a boy got Demis thinking about the process of thinking itself. Being able to program his first computer (a Sinclair Spectrum) felt miraculous. In computer chess, his two passions were combined. And a lifelong ambition to create artificial intelligence was born.
    Demis studied computer science at Cambridge and then worked in the computer games industry for many years. Games, he says, are the ideal testing ground for AI. Then, thinking memory and imagination were aspects of the human mind that would be a necessary part of any artificially intelligent system, he studied neuroscience for a PhD.
    He set up DeepMind in 2010 and pioneered a new approach to creating artificial intelligence, based on deep learning and built-in rewards for making good decisions. Four years later, DeepMind was sold to Google for £400 million. The company’s landmark creation, Alpha Go stunned the world when it defeated the world Go champion in South Korea in 2016. Their AI system, AlphaZero taught itself to play chess from scratch. After playing against itself for just four hours, it was the best chess computer in the world. (Humans had been defeated long ago).
    Many fear both the supreme intelligence and the stupidity of AI. Demis imagines a future in which computers and humans put their brains together to try and understand the world. His algorithms have inspired humans to raise their game, when playing Go and chess. Now, he hopes that AI might do the same for scientific research. Perhaps the next Nobel Prize will be shared between a human and AI?
    Producer: Anna Buckley

    • 32 min
    Saiful Islam on materials to power the 21st century

    Saiful Islam on materials to power the 21st century

    Not so long ago, all batteries were single use. And solar power was an emerging and expensive technology. Now, thanks to rechargeable batteries, we have mobile phones, laptops, electronic toys, cordless power tools and other portable electronic devices. And solar power is reducing our reliance on carbon-based fossil fuels. None of this would have been possible without a deep understanding of the chemistry of materials that have particular properties – the ability to turn sunlight into energy for example. Professor Saiful Islam of the University of Bath tells Jim Al-Khalili how ‘the Woodstock of physics’ got him excited about material science and how his research on the properties of materials is helping to power the 21st century with renewable energy and could dramatically reduce the cost of making solar panels.
    Producer: Anna Buckley

    • 28 min
    Adrian Owen on scanning for awareness in the injured brain

    Adrian Owen on scanning for awareness in the injured brain

    Neuroscientist Adrian Owen has spent much of his career exploring what he calls ‘the grey zone’, a realm of consciousness inhabited by people with severe brain injuries, who are aware yet unable to respond to those around them. It's this inability to respond which has led doctors to conclude that they are unaware.

    In the late 1990's, Adrian started to question the assumption that they lacked awareness and a chance discovery set him on a novel path of enquiry - could some of these patients be conscious or aware even though they don’t appear to be?

    His research has revealed that some are, and he’s pioneered techniques to help them to communicate with the outside world.

    This emerging field of science has implications, not only for patients but, for philosophy and the law.

    A Britain scientist, Adrian now runs a research programme at the Brain and Mind Institute at Western University in Canada, dedicated to reaching people in this ‘grey zone’.

    Producer: Beth Eastwood

    • 28 min

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