Carramore International Limited
Carramore International Limited


BBC Radio 4 - The Life Scientific

The Life Scientific

Professor Jim Al-Khalili talks to leading scientists about their life and work, finding out what inspires and motivates them and asking what their discoveries might do for us in the future

The Life Scientific

  • Alex Antonelli on learning from nature's biodiversity to adapt to climate change
    With the world's biodiversity being lost at an alarming rate, Alexandre Antonelli, Director of Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has made it his life's mission to protect it. He is a bio-geographer revealing how changes to the Earth's landscape, such as the formation of mountain ranges and rainforests, leads to the evolution of new species and causes plants, fungi and animals to move around the world. His work is a masterclass in joined-up thinking, bringing together different fields of research by starting conversations between scientists who would rarely talk to one another. Together, they paint a more holistic picture of how our planet's biodiversity has developed in the hope of informing how we can protect it in the future. Alex tells presenter Jim Al-Khalili about a life spent in the wild, beginning with his earliest memories of growing up in Brazil cataloguing life in the Atlantic Rainforest. That passion is still with him today. We've only scratched the surface of understanding what lives here on Earth, he says, more than 4,000 new species are found every year. Alex is passionate that we need to speed up the rate at which we document the richness of life, arguing if we don't identify what there is we can't protect it. Presented by Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Tom Bonnett

  • Paul Murdin on the first ever identification of a black hole
    Astronomer Paul Murdin believes a good imagination is vital for scientists, since they're so often dealing with subjects outside the visible realm. Indeed, over a long and successful career his imagination has taken him on a journey through space, discovering various new and unusual celestial occurrences - notably the first successful identification of a black hole, Cygnus X-1. Paul tells Jim Al-Khalili how he spent much of his career at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, working with astronomers around the world on some of the most advanced telescopes ever built. He headed up the Astronomy section of the UK’s Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, was Director of Science for the British National Space Centre and even has an asteroid named after him. This list of achievements is testament to the fact that Paul has never let his disability hold him back; a leg brace and walking sticks have been part of his life since contracting polio in childhood. But he maintains that as long as you have curiosity and a vibrant imagination, nothing should stand in your way. Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Bahija Jallal on the biotech revolution in cancer therapies
    Some of the most complex medicines available today are made from living cells or organisms - these treatments are called biopharmaceuticals and in this episode of The Life Scientific Dr Bahija Jallal, CEO of Immunocore, shares her story of leaving her home in Casablanca, Morocco to become a world leader in developing biopharmaceutical cancer treatments. She tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili that she has always found herself ahead of the curve. When she began in oncology, the study of cancer, the common treatment was chemotherapy which attacked all the cells in an affected area. Her first studies into cancer treatments were looking at how certain therapies could focus in on the cancerous cells and move away from what she describes as the 'sledgehammer' of traditional chemotherapy. It was an early step in what became known as targeted cancer therapies, and it set Bahjia on course for a career dedicated to developing innovative drugs to improve cancer patients' lives. Through a deep understanding of the science and a resolute commitment to putting treatments in the hands of people who need them, she has produced astonishing results. Bahija has brought drugs to market faster than many believed was possible, and she has managed it by being an inspirational leader and encouraging her teams to think differently. How has she done it? Part of the secret, she says, is diversity of thought. Presented by Professor Jim Al-Khalili Produced by Tom Bonnett

  • Sir Colin Humphreys on electron microscopes, and the thinnest material in the world
    How much more of our world could we understand, if we could take stock of it, one atom at a time? If we could see the structure of individual molecules, understand the complex ways they interact with one another, and witness first-hand how they move? These are questions for electron microscopy, and more broadly, for Materials Science. Materials scientists peer into the atomic structure of the stuff that makes up our world, to figure out the relationships between the structure of a material, and its resulting properties. They study how to change materials at the molecular level, to improve the way they function in the real world. It’s an interdisciplinary field that spans the physics and chemistry of matter, engineering, and industrial manufacturing. It’s led to an enormous number of advances, from nanotechnology to aerospace engineering, pioneering medical innovations to quantum computing. And SOME of these advances are thanks to the work of Professor Colin Humphreys. As Professor of Materials Science at Queen Mary University of London, and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Department of Materials Science at the University of Cambridge, Colin works on materials with fascinating properties that would be hard to understand without delving into their atomic structure: semiconductors, superconductors, nanoparticles, and ultra-high temperature aerospace materials. He’s also a committed student of Christianity and applies his scientific mind to questions of biblical scholarship: calculating the exact date of the crucifixion for example, or naturalistic explanations for miracles. Produced by Emily Knight

  • Chris Barratt on head-banging sperm and a future male contraceptive pill
    Reproductive science has come a long way in recent years, but there's still plenty we don't understand - particularly around male fertility. The reliability and availability of data in this field has become more of a concern in light of a study published this year, suggesting that sperm counts worldwide have dropped 62% in the past 50 years. As yet there is no clear answer as to why that is. Professor Chris Barratt is one of the scientists working to change that. He's the Head of Reproductive Medicine at Ninewells Hospital and the University of Dundee Medical School, and has dedicated his career to better understanding male infertility; driving breakthroughs in how to study sperm dysfunctions – and most recently spearheading advances in developing a male contraceptive pill. Chris talks to Professor Jim Al-Khalili about his academic struggles as a youngster, the lecture that changed his life, his research into 'head-banging sperm' and why he believes a new male contraceptive could be a game-changer. Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Gideon Henderson on climate ‘clocks’ and dating ice ages
    We’re used to hearing the stories of scientists who study the world as it is now but what about the study of the past - what can this tell us about our future? Gideon Henderson’s research focuses on trying to understand climate change by looking at what was happening on our planet thousands of years ago. His work has taken him all around the world - to the deepest oceans and the darkest caves - where he collects samples containing radioactive isotopes which he uses as “clocks” to date past ice ages and other major climate events. As a geochemist and Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Oxford, his work deals with the biggest questions, like our impact on the carbon cycle and climate, the health of our oceans, and finding new ways to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. But in his role as Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he also very much works on the present, at the intersection between the worlds of research and policy. He has overseen the decision to allow gene-edited food to be developed commercially in England and a UK surveillance programme to spot the Covid-19 virus in our waste-water. Produced by Gerry Holt.

  • Deborah Greaves on wave power and offshore renewable energy
    If you’ve ever seen the ocean during a storm, you’ll understand the extraordinary power contained in waves. On an island nation like Britain, that power could well be harnessed to produce clean energy; so why have we barely begun to tap this bountiful resource? Deborah Greaves is trying to change that. As Professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of Plymouth, she combines physical wave tanks with sophisticated computer modelling to test how well wave power devices respond to stormy seas. And as Director of the Supergen ORE Hub, she brings together researchers in offshore renewable energy to imagine a future of widespread, eco-friendly ocean power. Deborah tells Jim Al-Khalili about growing up in Plymouth fascinated by the sea, and about breaking from the norm in her arts-focused family, to pursue a degree in engineering. But she spent years as a civil engineer building tunnels for the London Underground - and going on expeditions to the Arctic with her husband - before undertaking a PhD at Oxford University, exploring what happens when waves crash into solid structures. She eventually returned to Plymouth and set up the institute’s Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport (COAST) Laboratory - a building with a swimming-pool-sized wave tank for testing new technologies. As Jim hears, these wave devices have an extraordinary diversity of uses - and could help to propel Britain into a greener energy future. Produced by Phil Sansom.

  • Harald Haas on making waves in light communication
    Imagine a world in which your laptop or mobile device accesses the internet, not via radio waves – or WiFi – as it does today but by using light instead: LiFi. Well, that world may not be as far away as you might think. In fact, the technology is already here; and it’s thanks in large part to the engineering ingenuity of Harald Haas, Distinguished Professor of Mobile Communications and Director of the Li-Fi Research and Development Centre at the University of Strathclyde. He tells Jim Al-Khalili about the two decades he has spent researching optical wireless communications, building up to his LiFi breakthrough in 2011, where he made waves in the scientific community and beyond by showing how a simple desk lamp could be used to stream a video. Harald’s research could well have a very real impact on people’s lives, reinventing the way we connect online – but, as Jim hears, his early life was dogged by a very real fear he may have the same devastating disease that took his mother's life at an early age; an experience that shaped his early years and which has driven him to succeed in his own life and career. Produced by Gerry Holt.

  • Anne Ferguson-Smith on unravelling epigenetics
    Our genes can tell us so much about us, from why we look the way we look, think the way we think, even what kind of diseases we might be likely to suffer from. But our genes aren't the whole story. There are other, complex and intriguing systems within every cell in our bodies which control which of our tens-of-thousands of genes are switched on, or off, in different parts of the body, and under different circumstances. Welcome to the fascinating world of 'epigenetics', which our guest, the molecular geneticist Anne Ferguson-Smith, describes as 'genetics with knobs on'. Anne, now Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge, tells Jim about her life and work. She's spent her professional life at the cutting edge: from a degree in a brand new field of Molecular Biology, to post-grad working on brand new genetic structures, through to a lifetime of discoveries and breakthroughs which have changed our understanding of the genome. Yet she wasn't always destined to be a scientist. She says she was a 'bad student' for a lot of her early life, and believes that embracing failure is an essential part of being a working scientist. Produced by Emily Knight

  • Anne-Marie Imafidon on fighting for diversity and equality in science
    Anne-Marie Imafidon passed her computing A-Level at the age of 11 and by 16, was accepted to the University of Oxford to study Maths and Computer Science. She's used to the 'child prodigy' label that's followed her throughout her career, but that doesn't mean she's had an easy ride. It was a combination of personal experience and the discovery that the number of women working in the STEM sectors - Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - was in free-fall that inspired Anne-Marie to found Stemettes: a not-for-profit social enterprise introducing girls to STEM ideas and careers in fun and accessible ways. It's now in its tenth year and still growing, while Anne-Marie has received an MBE, enjoyed a successful stint as the numbers guru on the TV series Countdown, and is the current President of the British Science Association. In conversation in front of an audience at the 2023 Cheltenham Science Festival, she tells Jim Al-Khalili about her quest for equality and diversity across the scientific community - and explains why she thinks everyone has the potential to be a 'child prodigy', given the right opportunity... Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Bruce Malamud on modelling risk for natural hazards
    From landslides and wildfires to floods and tornadoes, Bruce Malamud has spent his career travelling the world and studying natural hazards. Today, he is Wilson Chair of Hazard and Risk and Executive Director of the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Durham University - but as he tells Jim Al-Khalili, a lifelong passion for discovery has taken Bruce from volunteering with the Peace Corps in West Africa and a Fulbright Fellowship in Argentina, to fieldwork in India; not only studying hazards themselves, but also the people they affect - and building up the character and resilience to overcome personal tragedy along the way... Over the years, his work in the field has opened up new ways of understanding such events: from statistical modelling to show how groups of hazards occur, to examining the cascading relationships between multiple hazards. And today, his focus is on projects that can bring tangible benefits to people at serious risk from environmental hazards - finding innovative ways to help them to better manage that threat. Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Gillian Reid on making chemistry count
    How often do you think about chemistry? The chances are, not often - but it is vital to every part of our lives, from the air we breathe, to the processes that take place inside our bodies and the materials we use. Gillian Reid is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Southampton and she is on a mission to make sure we all know what chemistry can do for us - and how it is tackling some of society’s biggest challenges. Hers is a story of firsts - the first in her immediate family to go to university and the first female member of staff in the chemistry department at the University of Southampton, where she later became the first female Professor and Head of Department. She is also the reigning President of the Royal Society of Chemistry - one of very few women to have taken on that mantle in its 182-year history. She tells Jim Al-Khalili about life as a female professor in a male-dominated space - and what needs to change to unlock chemistry for everyone. He also hears how Gillian is discovering new compounds that could revolutionise tech and medicine. We’ll also hear why she thinks research isn’t actually that hard and how chemistry can be a little bit like Lego… Do join us. Produced by Gerry Holt

  • Andre Geim on levitating frogs, graphene and 2D materials
    The world around us is three-dimensional. Yet, there are materials that can be regarded as two-dimensional. They are only one layer of atoms thick and have remarkable properties that are different from their three-dimensional counterparts. Sir Andre Geim created the first-ever man-made 2D material, by isolating graphene, and is one of the pioneers in this line of research. Even beyond his Nobel Prize-winning work on graphene, he has explored new ideas in many different areas of physics throughout his career. Andre tells Jim about his time growing up in the Soviet Union, being rejected from university based on his German ethnicity, his move to Western Europe, and levitating frogs. Produced by Florian Bohr.

  • Julie Williams on Alzheimer’s disease
    There are almost a million people in the UK living with dementia, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form. But the disease actually starts long before any noticeable symptoms appear, and over the past decade, studies have shown that it is much more complex than previously thought. Julie Williams has been at the forefront of this effort, uncovering the genes that make us susceptible, and has transformed our understanding of this devastating disease. She has brought researchers together to create bigger datasets and more powerful studies. Her current work with scientists from other fields, like immunology and computational biology, is looking at the mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease. Julie tells Jim about her early interest in science, her time as Chief Scientific Advisor to the Welsh government, and her belief in ‘team science’ – collaborating and sharing research findings across international borders and disciplines. Produced by Florian Bohr

  • James Jackson on understanding earthquakes and building resilience
    Since 1900, our best estimates suggest that earthquakes have caused around 2.3 million deaths worldwide; we saw the devastating effects of one just recently, in Turkey and Syria. And as scientists have been at pains to point out over the years, there is no reliable short-term warning system. But thanks to the work of people like James Jackson, an Emeritus Professor of Active Tectonics at the University of Cambridge, we are finding new ways of understanding and withstanding seismic activity. James tells Jim Al-Khalili about his career travelling the world in search of quake sites and fault lines – trialling new technology and techniques in a quest to understand the processes that shake and shape our planet’s surface; and working out how this information can help vulnerable cities become more resilient to quakes in future... Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Marie Johnston on health psychology and the power of behavioural shifts
    Marie Johnston is a pioneer in the field of health psychology: the discipline that seeks to understand how psychological, behavioural and cultural factors contribute to our physical and mental health. Today an emeritus professor in health psychology at the University of Aberdeen, her career exploring behavioural interventions has shown that even the subtlest shift in how we act can dramatically change our behaviour and lives for the better – whether that’s in an individual recovering from a stroke, or a nation coming to terms with pandemic safety measures, while her work setting up the UK’s first stress management clinic showed why mental health support needed to come out of psychiatric hospitals and into general practice. Marie tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the right interventions can be a powerful tool in improving public health, and indeed our healthcare system; and how an accident at the hairdresser's many years ago helped her become more approachable... Produced by Lucy Taylor.

  • Julia King on manipulating metals and decarbonising transport
    Professor Dame Julia King, Baroness Brown of Cambridge, is an engineer whose fascination with metals, and skill for handling both research projects and people, has taken her from academia to industry to the House of Lords. She tells Jim Al-Khalili how the dressmaking skills she learnt from her mother as a child helped her to understand the composite structures used in wind turbines later in life. And how she designed metal alloys that are resistant to both large and small cracks. As the author of the UK government's Review of Low Carbon Cars in 2007, Julia set out a route to decarbonising a major segment of the transport sector within 25 years, making an important contribution to the UK's plans to try and achieve Net Zero. But achieving Net Zero is not enough. With demand for electricity set to double or treble by 2050, there’s an urgent need to radically reform our national infrastructure and guarantee supply. Julia became a cross-bench member of the House of Lords in 2015. She’s now chair of its Science and Technology Committee, holding the government to account on its promise to make the UK a science superpower.

  • Danny Altmann on how T cells fight disease
    Jim Al-Khalili talks T cells, our immune response and Long Covid with Prof Danny Altmann. Danny Altmann joined ‘team T cells’ in his twenties and has been studying how these killer operate ever since. How do they know which cells to search and destroy? The T cell wing of our immune response is highly targeted and incredibly clever, on a par with the most sophisticated military intelligence operation and in recent decades there have been dramatic advances in our understanding of how it all works . Danny tells Jim how he came to study our immune response to all sorts of pathogens, from anthrax to zika, why he spends every morning from 5 to 6am in the bath reading 19th century classics and why he’s determined to try and understand Long Covid. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Haley Gomez on cosmic dust
    Jim Al-Khalili talks to astrophysicist Haley Gomez about defying expectations and becoming a world expert on cosmic dust. For centuries, cosmic dust was a major source of irritation to optical astronomers because, like smog, it stopped them from seeing the stars. Now studies of these tiny particles are challenging some deeply held assumptions about the physics of the universe. Haley’s research has changed the textbook explanation of how cosmic dust is formed and helped to open our eyes to just how many galaxies there are in the universe. In 2018 she was awarded an MBE for services to physics and inspiring the next generation of physicists and astronomers from less privileged communities. A cause which is very close to her heart. Produced by Anna Buckley and recorded in the Pier Head Building in Cardiff as part of the Cardiff Science Festival.

  • Adrian Smith on the power of Bayesian statistics
    How a once-derided approach to statistics paved the way for AI. Jim Al-Khalili talks to pioneering mathematician, Professor Sir Adrian Smith. Accused early in his career of ‘trying to destroy the processes of science’, Adrian went on to prove that a branch of statistics (invented by the Reverend Thomas Bayes in 1764) could be used by computers to analyse vast sets of data and to learn from that data. His mathematical proofs showed that Bayesian statistics could be applied to all sorts of real world problems: from improving survival rates for kidney transplant patients to tracking Russian submarines. And paved the way for a dramatic explosion in machine learning and AI. Working as a civil servant (2008-2012) he helped to protect the science budget in 2010, transforming the landscape for scientific research in the UK. And he has been vocal, over many years, about the urgent need to make sure children in the UK leave school more mathematically able. In 2020, he became President of the UK's prestigious national science academy, The Royal Society. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • 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

  • 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

  • Frances Arnold: From taxi driver to Nobel Prize
    Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frances Arnold left home at 15 and went to school ‘only when she felt like it’. She disagreed with her parents about the Vietnam War and drove big yellow taxis in Pittsburgh to pay the rent. Decades later, after several changes of direction (from aerospace engineer to biotech pioneer), she invented a radical new approach to engineering enzymes. Rather than try to design industrial enzymes from scratch (which she considered to be an impossible task), Frances decided to let Nature do the work. ‘I breed enzymes like other people breed cats and dogs’ she says. While some colleagues accused her of intellectual laziness, industry jumped on her ideas and used them in the manufacture of everything from laundry detergents to pharmaceuticals. She talks to Jim Al-Khalili about her journey from taxi driver to Nobel Prize, personal tragedy in midlife and why advising the White House is much harder than doing scientific research. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Sir Martin Landray on saving over a million lives
    Who could forget the beginning of 2020, when a ‘mysterious viral pneumonia’ emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Soon, other countries were affected and deaths around the world began to climb. Perhaps most alarmingly of all, there were no proven treatments to help prevent those deaths. As the World Health Organisation declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, and the UK and the rest of the world braced itself for what was to come, doctor and drug-trial designer Martin Landray had his mind on a solution, devising the protocol, or blueprint, for the world’s largest drug trial for Covid-19. As Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at Oxford University, Martin was perfectly positioned to jump, delivering what became known as the RECOVERY Trial. The trial was tasked to deliver clarity amid the predicted chaos of the pandemic and galvanised every acute NHS hospital in the UK. Within its first one hundred days, it had yielded three major discoveries and it has transformed Covid-19 treatment worldwide, already saving over a million lives. Sir Martin Landray was recently knighted for this work and RECOVERY’s legacy lives on, not just for Covid. Martin plans to revolutionise drug trials for other diseases too. PRODUCER: Beth Eastwood

  • Vlatko Vedral on the universe as quantum information
    Vlatko Vedral describes himself as a quantum information practitioner, who believes that our universe is made up of quantum bits of information. It is information, he tells Professor Jim Al-Khalili, rather than energy or matter, the traditional building blocks of classical Newtonian physics, that can help us to understand the nature of reality. Vlatko is Professor of Quantum Information Science at the University of Oxford and the Principal Investigator at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore and he talks to Jim in front of an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival. At high school in Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia, young Vlatko was bowled over by the idea that you could take the micro-laws of quantum mechanics, and apply them to the complex systems of the macro world. This drive to see the big picture, was fuelled when, as an undergraduate at Imperial College, London, he saw three words – “Information is physical” – the title of a paper by the IBM physicist, Rolf Landauer. It was a light-bulb moment for Vlatko, who realised that the kind of information processing that the universe is capable of, depends on the underlying laws of physics. This revelation led to Vlatko’s incarnation as a self-confessed “physics fundamentalist” who unashamedly crowns physics the Queen and other disciplines, her servants. It is physics alone, he tells Jim, which can answer the fundamental questions of the universe and discover the ultimate reality. His PhD in 1997 at Imperial College, London, applied quantum mechanics, including super-positioning and entanglement (which Einstein famously called “spooky action at a distance”), to Claude Shannon’s Information theory, making Vlatko one of the pioneers in the field of quantum information. As new quantum computers come on stream, he tells Jim, quantum information practitioners, like him, will have the capacity to simulate complex systems in the macroscopic domain. Producer: Fiona Hill

  • Adam Hart on ants, bees and insect burgers
    Ant-loving professor, Adam Hart, shares his passion for leaf cutting ants with Jim Al Khalili. Why do they put leaves in piles for other ants to pick up? Talking at the Hay Festival, Adam describes the experiments he designed to test the intelligence of the hive mind. When does a waggle dance become a tremble dance? And how do the honey bees know when this moment should be? We like the phrase ‘as busy as a bee’. In fact, bees spend a lot of time doing nothing at all, a sensible strategy from the point of view of natural selection. And where does Adam stand on insect burgers? Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Jacinta Tan on anorexia nervosa and the mind
    When a person with severe anorexia nervosa refuses food, the very treatment they need to survive, is that refusal carefully considered and rational, as it can appear to those around them? Or is it really the illness that’s causing them to say ‘no’? This is one of the thorny ethical dilemmas that Jacinta Tan has wrestled with over the course of her career. She is deeply curious about the mind, and has spent hundreds of hours sitting with people with anorexia nervosa, not persuading them to eat, rather listening to them talk about what’s going on in their minds and how the illness influences their decisions. These rich internal worlds, that she has revealed, shape her work as a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, where she treats people with eating disorders. The views of those with the conditon and their families have been central to the recent government reviews of the Eating Disorder Services that she led in Scotland and Wales. These conditions can be hugely challenging to treat. Jacinta Tan tells Jim Al-Khalili how it's the art of medicine, as much as the science, that helps people recover. PRODUCER: Beth Eastwood

  • Pete Smith on why soil matters
    Pete Smith is very down to earth. Not least because he’s interested in soil and the vital role it plays in helping us to feed the world, mitigate climate change and maintain a rich diversity of species on planet earth. He was born in a pub and failed the 11+ exam (designed to identify bright children just like him) but he became a distinguished professor nonetheless. Tackling climate change in isolation is a mistake, he says. We need to consider all the challenges facing humanity and identify strategies that deliver benefits on all fronts: food security, bio-diversity and human development goals. He tells Jim Al-Khalili about his life and work and the urgent need for our degraded peat bogs to be restored. Peat bogs that have been drained (for grazing or to plant trees) add to our carbon emissions. Healthy peat bogs, however, are carbon sinks. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Chi Onwurah on why engineering is a caring profession.
    Chi Onwurah tells Jim Al-Khalili why she wanted to become a telecoms engineer and why engineering is a caring profession. As a black, working class woman from a council estate in Newcastle, she was in a minority of one studying engineering at university in London and encountered terrible racism and sexism. She went on to build digital networks all over the world, the networks that make today's instant multimedia communications possible. And Chi built the first mobile phone network in Nigeria, when the country was without a reliable electricity supply. Today she is Shadow Minister for Science, Research and Innovation. When Chi decided to go into politics, her engineering colleagues were not impressed. Why would anyone leave their noble profession to enter a chaotic, disreputable and dubiously useful non-profession, they asked. But, Chi believes, parliament desperately needs more scientists and engineers, not only to help us solve science-based problems but also to create technical jobs and build a strong economy. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Ailie MacAdam on the biggest construction project in Europe
    Ailie's first engineering challenge was working out how to get the solids to settle in a mixture of raw sewage at a treatment plant in Stuttgart. Years later, she worked on the Boston Big Dig and realised that large-scale construction projects were her thing. A seven lane highway was rerouted underground and a bridge built using blocks of expanded polystyrene to support the on off ramps. When Bostonians complained about the vibrations from all the drilling, their beds were put on springs. She returned home to the UK to run the transformation of St Pancras Station in London, creating an international terminal for Eurostar while preserving the historic features of the original building. Preventing 690 cast iron pillars that supported the platform from 'breaking like carrots' was a particular challenge, as was keeping the Midlands mainline running. Next she took on Crossrail and was in charge of the challenging central London section, with a budget of £7.5 billion. Aware that diverse teams tend to be more successful she recruited a top team of engineers in which 30% were women. Ailie talks to Jim about how she rose from doing experiments with sewage to become one of the most successful engineers in the UK. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Ben Garrod on conservation and extinction
    Ben Garrod is an obsessive bone collector and wild animal behaviourist. He was destined for a career in medicine but a chance encounter with primatologist Jane Goodall reignited his life long passion for conservation and led to him managing and researching the habituation of wild chimpanzees in Africa. It was a chance to record primate behaviour that had never been seen before and examine how resilient chimps can be to anthropogenic change. Further extraordinary insights into the speed of evolution through the clues in the bones of island monkeys was to follow. He is a professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia and the presenter of several landmark TV series on animal bones and extinction, such as The Secrets of Bones and most recently, Attenborough and the Mammoth Graveyard. Ben shares his passion for the contrasting insights into conservation and extinction, the value they play, and describes his own extraordinary journey from exploring animal remains washed up on Norfolk beaches to years spend tracking chimps in Uganda to eminent science communicator and public figure. Producer Adrian Washbourne

  • Steve Brusatte on the fall of dinosaurs and the rise of mammals
    Steve Brusatte analyses the pace of evolutionary change and tries to answer big questions. Why did the dinosaurs die out and the mammals survive? How did dinosaurs evolve into birds? If you met a Velociraptor today you’d probably mistake it for a large flightless bird, says Steve. His intense interest in T. rex, Triceratops and all the other dinosaur species developed when he was a teenager and continues to this day. More recently, however, he’s focussed on the long history of mammals. For hundreds of millions of years, our mammalian ancestors remained small. Most were mouse-sized. None were bigger than a badger. Steve studies how, when an asteroid collided with earth 66 million years ago, the mammals got lucky. All the big dinosaurs were wiped out and only the small ones with wings survived. (Birds are dinosaurs, by the way). Within half a million years, mammals of all shapes and sizes had taken over on planet earth. Sabre-toothed flesh eaters, cow-sized plant guzzlers and a host of other warm blooded placental animals evolved alongside the badger sized burrowers. Steve talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his life and work, including the recent discovery of an incredibly well-preserved Pterosaur on the Isle of Skye, a place he likes to call Scotland’s Jurassic Park. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Shankar Balasubramanian on decoding DNA
    Sir Shankar Balasubramanian is responsible for a revolution in medicine. The method he invented for reading, at speed, the unique genetic code that makes each one of us who we are, is ten million times faster than the technology that was used in the human genome project at the turn of the century. What’s more, it can be done much more cheaply than before and on a desktop machine. And it’s transforming healthcare, by helping us to understand the genetic basis of many diseases (particularly cancers) and to develop new diagnostic tests, medicines and personalised treatments. ‘DNA has never failed to keep me excited and curious’ says Shankar, winner of the highly prestigious 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He didn’t set out to create a game-changing technology or to make a lot of money. He just wanted to understand the DNA double helix in the greatest possible detail; to reveal how it worked, molecule by molecule. And he still rides a rickety old bicycle to work in Cambridge. Producer: Anna Buckley Image ©University of Cambridge

  • Julia Shaw on memories that aren't true
    Early in her career, Julia wanted to know if it was possible to get someone to believe they committed a crime (when they hadn’t)? In a bold experiment she showed how students created false memories of criminal events in their teenage years, describing in rich detail how they had assaulted people, when no such events had taken place. What does this mean for a criminal justice system that relies heavily on memory-based evidence? Does it make it more difficult for the victims of crimes to have their voices heard? Victims of sex crimes, in particular. Or can the findings of false memory research be used to prevent miscarriages of justice? Julia talks to Jim Al-Khalili about growing up with her dad’s delusional beliefs and paranoid thoughts and how a profound appreciation that everyone’s reality is different pulled her to the field of false memory research. Producer: Anna Buckley

  • Sharon Peacock on hunting pandemic variants of concern
    Microbiologist Sharon Peacock has led one of the genuine science success stories of the pandemic. Professor Peacock is the founding director of COG-UK, the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium. COG-UK is the network of 600 scientists and labs around the country which has acted as our surveillance system for the appearance and spread of new and dangerous variants of concern. Thanks to Professor Peacock and her colleagues, the UK was way ahead of other countries in establishing a national network of SARS-CoV-2 sequencing and genomic analysis although she was the target of criticism when COG-UK was being set up in the spring of 2020. However, as she tells Jim Al-Khalili, it paid off. For example, it was the sequencing of virus samples by the consortium that last December identified the fast-spreading Alpha or so-called Kent variant. This was the variant responsible for the terrible second wave of deaths and hospitalisations last winter. It was a combination of the overwhelmed hospitals, rocketing infection rates and the discovery of Alpha that persuaded the government to tighten the rules for that Christmas and institute the lockdown in January. Before the pandemic, Sharon Peacock was a pioneer and advocate for the application of pathogen genome sequencing in the National Health Service to tackle the growing menace of antibiotic resistance. She is a consultant in microbiology and Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge. This is not a list of titles and achievements which Sharon could have possibly imagined when she left school at 16, to work full time in her local corner shop. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker

  • Tim Clutton-Brock on meerkats, red deer and evolution
    The huge popularity of meerkats is in no small part down to Professor Tim Clutton-Brock, zoologist and evolutionary biologist of the University of Cambridge. ‘Meerkat Manor’ and many natural history TV documentaries that have followed the lives of these small appealing mongooses were filmed at the field research centre in South Africa which Tim set up three decades ago. Colleagues describe Tim Clutton-Brock as one of the giants in the field of animal behaviour and societies, seeking to explain them from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. He is renowned for his ambitious, long-term studies of populations of animals in the wild. His research follows hundreds of individuals to see how the animals develop and fare over their entire lifetimes and what factors determine their longevity and their success at producing offspring. Among the numerous species which Tim has studied are red deer on the island of Rum in Scotland and meerkats in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa. From the minutiae of the lives of many individual animals, his aim has been to see the big picture – explanations that provide a logical framework for what we see in Nature. Professor Clutton-Brock talks to Jim Al-Khalili about his five decades of research; including why sons cost mothers more than daughters, getting close to fighting stags at night, and how to tame a meerkat so she’ll let you ultrasound her belly. Producer: Andrew Luck-Baker

  • Tim Spector and personalised diets for long term health
    Many of us take dietary rules for granted such as eating little and often, not skipping meals and keeping a check on our calorie intake. But genetic epidemiologist Professor Tim Spector argues we need to re-evaluate what we think we know about a good diet: diversity in both the types of food we eat and in the unique mix of microbes we nurture in our gut is the most important factor for health. In a multi disciplinary career following early training as a rheumatologist, Tim founded the UK Twins Registry at Kings College London to unravel the extent to which genes contribute to a vast range of human conditions and diseases. But the puzzling differences he observed in identical twins would fuel his current research on the gut microbiome and the discovery that each of us has a unique mix of gut bacteria – in effect a chemical factory that dictates our highly individual responses to different foods. Tim tells Jim Al-Khalili how his research has evolved to successfully develop a new scientific approach to personalised nutrition – through technology that during the pandemic has famously been pressed into service to track Covid symptoms across the UK, and that’s now revealing how a diverse diet has huge implications for Covid-19 outcomes. Producer: Adrian Washbourne