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Ewine van Dishoeck on cosmic chemistry


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Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: Ewine van Dishoeck on cosmic chemistry
Episode pub date: 2019-07-02


Ewine van Dishoeck has spent her life studying the space between the stars. Not so long ago, interstellar space was thought to be an empty, sterile void. The idea that there would be organic molecules in interstellar clouds was absurd. Ewine, however, has revealed that there are some astonishingly sophisticated organic molecules in space. The molecules that are needed to form the building blocks of life were formed long before planets emerged from these swirling clouds of interstellar dust. Jim talks to Ewine, winner of the 2018 Kavli Prize for Astrophysics, about quantum chemistry, astronomy and why we need to keep building telescopes. Do Ewine’s discoveries make it more likely that we will find life elsewhere in the universe?

Producer: Anna Buckley

Main Image: Ewine van Dishoeck receiving the Kavli Prize in astrophysics, 4 September 2018 in Oslo. Credit: Berit Roald / NTB SCANPIX / AFP) / Norway

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Erica McAlister on the beauty of flies


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Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: Erica McAlister on the beauty of flies
Episode pub date: 2019-04-16


Dr Erica McAlister, of London’s Natural History Museum, talks to Jim Al-Khalili about the beautiful world of flies and the 2.5 million specimens for which she is jointly responsible.

According to Erica, a world without flies would be full of faeces and dead bodies. Unlike, for example, butterflies and moths, whose caterpillars spend their time devouring our crops and plants, fly larvae tend to help rid the world of waste materials and then, as adults, perform essential work as pollinators. Yet they are rather unloved by humans who tend to regard them as pests at best and disease vectors at worst.

2019 is international Year of the Fly, and dipterists and entomologists around the world are working to raise the profile of the many thousands of species so far known to science.

Erica tells Jim about her work in the museum, cataloguing and identifying new species either sent in from other researchers or discovered by her and her colleagues on swashbuckling trips around the world. Modern gene sequencing techniques are revealing new chapters in the life histories of species, and her collection of 300 year old dead flies continues to expand our knowledge of how the world works.

Perhaps in the future, she argues, we will all be eating pasta and bread made from fly-larvae protein, or using small tea-bag like packets of maggots in our wounds to clean out gangrenous infection.

Producer: Alex Mansfield

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Katherine Joy on moon rock


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Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: Katherine Joy on moon rock
Episode pub date: 2019-07-16


Katherine Joy studies moon rock. She has studied lunar samples that were brought to earth by the Apollo missions (382kg in total) and hunted for lunar meteorites in Antarctica, camping on ice for weeks on end and travelling around on a skidoo. Working at the forefront of the second wave of lunar exploration, she studied remote sensing data from Europe’s first mission to the moon, Smart 1 which launched in 2003 and data from many subsequent missions. She tells Jim Al-Khalili why she believes the moon is the most exciting destination in our solar system and explains what it can tell us about the long history of planet earth.
Beneath the magnificent desolation of the moon’s surface, multicoloured rocks contain vital clues about the history of our solar system. Every crater on the moon is evidence of a collision and the chemistry of these rocks tells us when these collisions took place. Katherine’s research supports the idea that a period known as the late heavy bombardment was a particularly turbulent time. Could the late heavy bombardment explain the origin of life on earth?
Producer: Anna Buckley

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Sue Black on women in tech


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Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: Sue Black on women in tech
Episode pub date: 2019-02-12


Sue Black left home and school when she was 16. Aged 25, she attended an access course to get the qualifications she needed to go to university to study computer science. It was a bit lonely being the only student in a mini- skirt surrounded by a sea of suits, but she came top of the class nonetheless. She signed up to do a PhD (not really knowing what a PhD was) and worked on the ripple effect in software. What happens when you change one bit of code? Does it mess up everything else? A lot of new software is created by building on and adapting existing programmes so these are important questions to ask. In 2003 she embarked on a three year campaign to save Bletchley Park where ten thousand people built some of the first computers and cracked the Enigma code used by the Nazis during World War Two. More than half of the people who worked there were women. No-one had any previous experience of computers. And more than half a century on, there are fewer women working in tech than there were in the 1960s. Sue is determined to change this backwards step. Perhaps another Bletchley Park recruitment drive is needed to encourage more people, women in particular, to engage with tech and help to build our future?
Producer: Anna Buckley

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Jim Al-Khalili on HIS life scientific


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Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: Jim Al-Khalili on HIS life scientific
Episode pub date: 2019-02-05


In an ideal (quantum) world, Jim Al-Khalili would be interviewing himself about his life as a scientist but since the production team can’t access a parallel universe, Adam Rutherford is stepping in to ask Jim questions in front of an audience at The Royal Society. Jim and his family left Iraq in 1979, two weeks before Saddam Hussein came to power, abandoning most of their possessions. Having grown up listening to the BBC World Service, he had to drop his ts to fit in at school in Portsmouth where he was one of just three boys in a class of more than a hundred girls. He specialised in nuclear physics and spent fifteen years in front of a computer screen trying to understand an exotic and ephemeral sub-atomic phenomenon known as the halo effect. His ‘little eureka moment’ came in 1996 when Jim discovered that, for the mathematics to add up, these halo nuclei had to be a lot bigger than anyone had thought. It isn’t going to lead to a new kind of non-stick frying pan any time soon but it was exciting, nonetheless. More recently he has become interested in quantum biology. It started as a hobby back in the 1990s when physicists were sceptical and many biologists were unconvinced. Since then evidence has been stacking up. Several studies suggest that lasting quantum mechanical effects could explain photosynthesis, for example. ‘It maybe a red herring’ Jim admits but Jim and his team at the University of Surrey are determined to find out if the idea of quantum biology makes sense. Could life itself depend on quantum tunnelling and other bizarre features of the sub-atomic world?
Download the special extended podcast to hear questions from past guests on The Life Scientific and some cheeky contributions from members of the Al-Khalili family.
Producer: Anna Buckley

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2018 Nobel Prize winner, Donna Strickland, on laser physics


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Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: 2018 Nobel Prize winner, Donna Strickland, on laser physics
Episode pub date: 2019-03-05


When the first laser was built in 1960, it was an invention looking for an application. Science fiction found uses for these phenomenally powerful beams of light long before real world applications were developed. Think Star Wars light sabres and people being sliced in half. Today lasers are used for everything from hair removal to state of the art weapons. Working with her supervisor Gerard Mourou in the 1980s, the Canadian physicist, Donna Strickland found a way to make laser pulses that were thousands of times more powerful than anything that had been made before. These rapid bursts of intense light energy have revolutionised laser eye surgery and, it’s hoped, could open the doors to an exciting range of new applications from pushing old satellites out of earth’s orbit to treatments for deep brain tumours. Donna tells Jim Al-Khalili why she wanted to work with lasers and what it feels like to be the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for Physics in 55 years.
Producer: Anna Buckley

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Frank Close and particle physics

Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: Frank Close and particle physics
Episode pub date: 2018-06-12


Frank Close is a theoretical particle physicist and a pioneer of popular writing about physics. His first book aimed at a non-specialist audience, The Cosmic Onion, was published 35 years ago. His latest, Half Life, is the story of physicist and spy, Bruno Pontecorvo. Frank has also had a distinguished research career studying the fundamental structure of matter. It was during his PhD in the late 60s that quarks were discovered. These are the fundamental entities we now know make up particles such as protons and neutrons, which in turn make up the nuclei of atoms, and therefore all of us and everything around us. Frank Close went on to make a name for himself studying what holds the quarks together inside matter. Among his many best-selling books was his thorough account of the controversial claims about the discovery of cold fusion – the idea of unlimited fusion energy in a test tube – and which brought the remarkable story to the world’s attention in his book Too Hot to Handle. Frank has spent most of his working life around the Thames Valley – at the Rutherford Appleton Labs, and now at the University of Oxford where is an emeritus professor of physics. In front of an audience at the Cheltenham Science Festival Jim al-Khalili discusses physics and writing with Frank Close.

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Rachel Mills exploring the sea floor

Podcast: The Life Scientific
Episode: Rachel Mills exploring the sea floor
Episode pub date: 2018-06-19


Professor Rachel Mills is a marine geochemist who studies the sea floor and hydrothermal vents, where water erupts from the earth’s crust at 360 degrees. The thick plumes emit many metals such as copper, gold, iron and rare earth minerals that are deposited on the sea bed. Rachel’s career has taken her all over the world and 4km deep under the ocean in small submersibles. These journeys are exciting and terrifying as samples are taken to understand how the metals travel many thousands of miles. The metals are involved in creating nutrients that supply the ocean’s food chain and control carbon uptake. There is also a lot of interest in mining the valuable deposits but can this be done without upsetting the ocean’s eco-system?

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