Science Stories

By BBC Radio 4

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Description

Surprising stories from the history of science told by Naomi Alderman and Philip Ball.

Episode Date
Alexis Carrel and the immortal chicken heart
1671
Philip Ball tells the story of Alexis Carrel, the French surgeon who worked to preserve life outside the body and create an immortal chicken heart in a dish. His quest was to renew ageing flesh, repair and rebuild our bodies and keep them healthy far beyond the usual human lifespan. In the early twentieth century his science was pioneering but his mission to achieve eternal life was underpinned by a dark and terrifying agenda. Carrel was a racist who advocated eugenics to preserve the superior civilisation of the West. Philip Ball discusses the history and cultural impact of the tissue culture techniques developed by Carrel with social historian Professor Hannah Landecker of the University of California at Los Angeles. And he finds out about the legacy of Carrel's research from Dr Madeline Lancaster of Cambridge University, one of the pioneers of the growth of brain organoids from stem cells; small clusters of neurons and other cells, rather like mini organs no bigger than a dried pea.
Sep 10, 2019
Ibn al-Haytham and How We See
1667
Philip Ball's story is of Ibn al-Haytham, the first scientist, and his book of optics that defined how we see.
Jan 09, 2019
Lady Mary Montagu's Smallpox Experiment
1657
Naomi Alderman's Science Story reveals how Lady Mary Wortley Montagu experimented on her own child in a quest to prove that smallpox inoculation works. Born in 1689 in a position of some power and influence, Lady Mary travelled to Constantinople as the wife of the ambassador to Turkey and witnessed 'variolation parties'. Here 'a nut shell' of virus on a needle is put in an opened vein to infer immunity. Having lost her own brother to smallpox and survived with terrible scaring herself, Lady Mary knew first hand the dangers of the deadly disease. She became the first person to bring smallpox inoculation to the West. Medical historian Lindsey Fiztharris tells the remarkable story of how condemned prisoners are given the opportunity to escape execution under the orders of King George I if they are given the virus and survive. Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at Kings College, London, and Naomi discuss some of today's counter intuitive treatments, such as faecal transplants.
Jan 02, 2019
Kepler's Snowflakes
1672
Philip Ball reveals the tale of a small booklet 'On The Six-Cornered Snowflake", written by Johannes Kepler as a New Year's gift. The C17th astronomer wished to explain the intricate and symmetrical shape of winter's tiny stars of snow. His insightful speculations about minerals and geometry was the beginning of the modern understanding of crystals.
Dec 26, 2018
Lucretius, Sheep and Atoms
1666
Naomi Alderman's tale is of Lucretius, author of a 2000 year old poem that theorised about atoms and the natural world. Written in the first century BCE, during a chaotic and frightening time when the Roman Republic was collapsing, Lucretius encouraged people to feel free through contemplating the physics of the Universe. Naomi learns that many of the theories still hold water today and that the poem, De Rerum Natura, is an epic beautiful and persuasive piece of work.
Dec 19, 2018
Eddington's Eclipse and Einstein's Celebrity
1674
Eddington's Eclipse and Einstein's Celebrity Philip Ball's tale is of a solar eclipse 100 years ago observed by Arthur Eddington, a British astronomer who travelled to the remote island of Principe off the coast of West Africa and saw the stars shift in the heavens. His observations supplied the crucial proof of a theory that transformed our notions of the cosmos and turned a German physicist named Albert Einstein into an international celebrity. But this is also a tale of how a Quaker tried to use science to unite countries. The reparations imposed on Germany after the war extended into science too as many in Great Britain and other Allied nations felt that German science should be ostracised from the international community. As a Quaker, Eddington wanted just the opposite: to see peaceful cooperation restored among nations. Producer: Erika Wright
Dec 12, 2018
Mary Anning and Fossil Hunting
1653
Mary Anning lived in Lyme Regis on what is now known as the Jurassic Coast in the first half of the 19th century. Knowing the shore from childhood and with a remarkable eye for detection she was extremely successful in finding fossils. In 1812 she unearthed parts of an Icthyosaur and in 1823 she discovered the first skeleton of what became known as a Plesiosaurus - a long-necked, flippered creature with a tiny head. It looked a bit like an elongated turtle with no shell. Naomi Alderman tells the science story of how Mary Anning, a poor and relatively uneducated young woman, became the supplier of the best fossils to the gentlemen geologists who were beginning to understand that the earth was very old and had been inhabited by strange extinct creatures. Naomi talks to Tracy Chevalier, author of Remarkable Creatures, a novel about Mary Anning, about her life and relationship with the geologists of the time, and to Dr Susannah Maidment, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, about fossil hunting today.
Jul 11, 2018
Hypatia: The Murdered Mathematician
1660
Naomi Alderman's tale is a murder mystery, the story of Hypatia, the mathematician murdered by a mob in the learned city of Alexandria, around the year 415 CE. Hypatia was a communicator of science, tackling difficult maths and teaching it to her students. This was incredibly important work. It was enough, at the time, to make her Alexandria's pre-eminent mathematician, and probably therefore the leading mathematician in the world. And there's historical evidence that Hypatia made some discoveries and innovations of her own. She invented a new and more efficient method of long division. In a time before electronic calculators, the actual business of doing sums was an arduous part of engineering or astronomy, and any improvement in efficiency was very welcome. All quite innocent science, so why did Hypatia end up being murdered by a mob? Natalie Haynes presenter of "Natalie Haynes Stands Up For The Classics" tells the inside story to Naomi Alderman. And Professor Edith Hall discusses Hypatia's legacy.
Jul 04, 2018
Descartes' Daughter
1716
There's a story told about French philosopher René Descartes and his daughter. He boards a ship for a voyage over the North Sea with a large wooden box which he insists be handled with such great care that the sea captain's curiosity is aroused. When Descartes is out of his cabin the sea captain opens the box and is horrified to find a life sized automaton inside. He's so shocked he throws the "daughter" overboard. Descartes championed a view of nature in which everything happened because of the physical forces acting between its constituent parts: nature as a machine. It was a coolly rational vision that caught the scientific spirit of the seventeenth century. He was fascinated by automata and what they tell us about what it is to be human. Philip Ball tells the story of Descartes and his "daughter" and his writings about humans and machines. He finds out more about the thirst for mechanical wonders and what it said about theories of the human body in Descartes' time, from historian of science Simon Schaffer of Cambridge University. And Kanta Dihar of the Centre for the Future of Intelligence also at Cambridge University talks about current research into AIs, driven purely by some mechanism of formal logic, that can mimic the capabilities of the human mind, and how contemporary culture explores our fears about them.
Jun 27, 2018
Urea and the Wohler Myth
1668
Philip Ball tells the story of German chemist Friedrich Wöhler's creation of urea, an organic substance previously thought only to be produced by living creatures. Yet in 1828 Wöhler created urea from decidedly non-living substances. It was exciting because the accidental transformation seemed to cross a boundary: from inorganic to organic, from inert matter to a product of life. It's a key moment in the history of chemistry but like many scientific advances, this one has also been turned into something of a myth. To read some accounts, this humble act of chemical synthesis sounds almost akin to the 'vital spark of being' described by Mary Shelley in her book published ten years previously, when Victor Frankenstein brought dead flesh back to life. Philip Ball sorts out fact from fiction in what Wöhler really achieved in conversation with Peter Ramberg of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, and he finds out about chemical synthesis of natural products today from Professor Sarah O'Connor of the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Producer: Erika Wright.
Jun 20, 2018
17th-Century Space Flight: The Real Cyrano de Bergerac
1674
Philip Ball reveals the real Cyrano de Bergerac - forget the big nosed fictional character - and his links to 17th Century space flight. Cyrano was a soldier, gambler and duellist who retired from military exploits on account of his wounds around 1639, at the grand old age of 20. But he studied at university and, to judge from the books he went on to write, he was well versed in the philosophical and scientific debates of his day. He wrote two books, called The States and Empires of the Moon and its sequel, The States and Empires of the Sun. And he designed spaceships to travel to the moon and to the sun. Philip discusses the life and times of Cyrano with Mary Baine Campbell of Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Journeys to the New World in the seventeenth century were voyages of trade - and ultimately of colonisation. What those travellers wanted were minerals, spices, gold, rare and precious objects that could fetch a fortune in the Old World. Today, the profit motive has returned to space travel. Efforts to develop spacecraft and to send people into space are increasingly being conducted not just by government agencies but by private companies, in search again of land and minerals. The use of resources on the moon and the planets is in principle governed by the Outer Space Treaty. Philip discusses the control of exploitation of space with Patricia Lewis of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.
Jun 13, 2018
Einstein's Fridge
1650
What do you do when you've described the nature of the universe? In the late 1920s Einstein was working on a grand unified theory of the universe, having given us E=mc2, space-time and the fourth dimension. He was also working on a fridge. Perhaps motivated by a story in the Berlin newspapers about a family who died when toxic fumes leaked from their state-of the-art refrigerator, Einstein teamed up with another physicist Leo Szilard and designed a new, safer refrigerating technology. And so it was that in 1930, the man who had once famously worked in the patent office in Bern was granted a patent of his own. Number: 1, 781, 541. Title: refrigeration. Phillip Ball explores this little known period of Einstein's life to try and find out why he turned his extraordinary mind to making fridges safer. Despite considerable commercial interest in the patent, Einstein's fridge didn't get built in his lifetime.The Great Depression forced AEG and others to close down their refrigeration research. But in 2008 a team of British scientists decided to give it a go.Their verdict : Einstein's fridge doesn't work. Producer: Anna Buckley
Apr 01, 2016
The duchess who gatecrashed science
1677
In the spring of 1667 Samuel Pepys queued repeatedly with crowds of Londoners and waited for hours just to catch a glimpse of aristocrat writer and thinker Margaret Cavendish. Twice he was frustrated and couldn't spot her, but eventually she made a grand visit to meet the Fellows of the newly formed Royal Society. She was the first woman ever to visit. Pepys watched as they received her with gritted teeth and fake smiles. They politely showed her air pumps, magnets and microscopes, and she politely professed her amazement, then left in her grand carriage. Naomi Alderman asks what it was it about this celebrity poet, playwright, author, and thinker that so fascinated and yet also infuriated these men of the Restoration elite? Part of the answer strikes right at the core of what we now call the scientific method. Producer: Alex Mansfield
Jan 27, 2016
The meteorite and the hidden hoax
1674
In 1864 a strange type of rock fell from the sky above Orgueil in rural France. Shocked and frightened locals collected pieces of the peculiar, peaty blob from the surrounding fields, and passed them on to museums and scientists. At that time, a debate had been raging over the origin of life; Could life possibly form from mere chemicals? Or did it need some strange unidentified vital substance? Into this debate fell the Orgueil meteorite, and because it seemed remarkably similar to loamy soil, some wondered whether it may hint at the existence of extra-terrestrial life. The great Pasteur allegedly investigated, but disappointingly found no such thing. Nevertheless, the mere possibility prompted later ideas that the origin of life on earth indeed lay elsewhere in the universe, ideas that were greeted with varying degrees of skepticism over ensuing decades. As Phil Ball narrates, given how much was at stake, and how bitterly scientists argued on either side, the most remarkable thing about the story is the extraordinary secret the meteorite kept to itself until exactly 100 years later. Producer: Alex Mansfield
Jan 20, 2016
How an eel sparked our interest in electricity
1654
Naomi Alderman presents an alternate history of electricity. This is not a story of power stations, motors and wires. It’s a story of how the electric eel and its cousin the torpedo fish, led to the invention of the first battery; and how, in time, the shocking properties of these slippery creatures gave birth to modern neuroscience. Our fascination with electric fish and their ability to deliver an almighty shock - enough to kill a horse - goes back to ancient times. And when Alessandro Volta invented the first battery in 1800, the electric eel was a vital source of inspiration. In inventing the battery, Volta claimed to have disproved the idea of ‘animal electricity’, but 200 years later, scientists studying our brains revealed that it’s thanks to the electricity in our nerve cells that we are able to move, think and feel. So, it seems, an idea that was pushed out of science and into fiction, when Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein, is now alive and well and delivering insight once again into what it means to be alive. Producer: Anna Buckley
Jan 13, 2016
Submarine for a Stuart King
1674
Philip Ball dives into the magical world of Cornelis Drebbel , inventor of the world's first submarine in 1621. How did the crew of this remarkable vessel manage to breathe underwater, completely cut off from the surface, 150 years before oxygen was officially discovered? King James I of England and thousands of his subjects lined the banks of the River Thames in London to watch the first demonstration. The strangest boat they had ever seen sank beneath the waves and stayed there for three hours. Did Drebbel know how to make oxygen? Historian Andrew Szydlow reveals that Drebbel did have secret knowledge of how to keep the air fresh. In his day, Drebbel was a pioneer of exploring uninhabitable places. Today's equivalent is to make oxygen on the Moon and as scientists grapple with this ultimate challenge, Monica Grady explains their work is being used under the waves where Drebbel began. Producer: Erika Wright.
Jan 06, 2016