BBC Inside Science

BBC Radio 4

A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.

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Episodes

How pure is the water from your tap?
04-04-2024
How pure is the water from your tap?
A recent study on how to get rid of microplastics in water sparked presenter Marnie Chesterton’s curiosity. When she turns on the tap in her kitchen each day, what comes out is drinkable, clean water. But where did it come from, and what’s in it? Dr Stewart Husband from Sheffield University answers this and more, including listener questions from around the UK. Is water sterile? Should I use a filter? And why does my water smell like chlorine? Also, new research indicates that bumblebees can show each other how to solve puzzles too complex for them to learn on their own. Professor Lars Chittka put these clever insects to the test and found that they could learn through social interaction. How exactly did the experiment work, and what does this mean for our understanding of social insects? Reporter Hannah Fisher visits the bee lab at Queen Mary University in London. And finally, more than 20 million years ago, our branch of the tree of life lost its tail. At that point in time, apes split from another animal group, monkeys. Now, geneticist Dr Bo Xia at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard thinks he may have found the specific mutation that took our tails. Marnie speaks with evolutionary biologist Dr Tom Stubbs from the Open University about why being tail-less could be beneficial. What would a hypothetical parallel universe look like where humans roam the earth, tails intact? And what would these tails look like? Presenter: Marnie Chesterton Producers: Louise Orchard, Florian Bohr, Jonathan Blackwell, Imaan Moin Editor: Martin Smith Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
Dimming the Sun
28-03-2024
Dimming the Sun
Switzerland has submitted a proposal to create a United Nations expert group on solar geoengineering to inform governments and stakeholders. The idea was discussed at the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, this week. Professor Aarti Gupta shares how, after tense negotiations, the different member states could not agree, and the proposal was withdrawn. Why is solar geoengineering a controversial issue? How would dimming the sun even work? And should we consider it a genuine option in our fight against climate change? Dr Pete Irvine and Professor Joanna Haigh join presenter Marnie Chesterton in the studio to discuss. Animal welfare charities have been celebrating a ban on donkey skin trade, agreed to this month by 55 African countries. This will make it illegal to slaughter donkeys for their skin across the continent, where around two thirds of the world’s 53 million donkeys live. Victoria Gill tells Marnie that the demand for the animals' skins is fuelled by the popularity of an ancient Chinese medicine called Ejiao, believed to have health-enhancing and youth-preserving properties and traditionally made from donkey hides. Lastly, Dr Jess Wade, physicist and science communicator at Imperial College London, discusses Breaking Through: My Life in Science. It’s the memoir of Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Dr Katalin Karikó, whose passion and dedication to mRNA research led to the development of the life-changing COVID mRNA vaccines. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton Producers: Florian Bohr, Louise Orchard Assistant Producer: Imaan Moin Editor: Martin Smith Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-HolesworthBBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
The Gulf Stream’s tipping point
14-03-2024
The Gulf Stream’s tipping point
The Gulf Stream, also known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), is essential to stable global climate, and the reason we have moderate temperatures in Northern Europe. Now, a new modelling study suggests that this circulation could, at some point, be at a tipping point and collapse. We hear from one of the minds behind the model, post-doctoral researcher René van Westen from Utrecht University. But how likely is it that this will actually happen in the real world? Presenter Victoria Gill speaks to Jonathan Bamber who cautions that a gulf stream collapse is not imminent, and that it may just weaken slowly over time. Every summer in the Hudson Bay, on the Eastern side of Arctic Canada, the sea ice melts and the region’s polar bears head inland. But that ice-free season is getting longer, depriving the bears of that frozen platform that they use to pounce on their favourite prey – seals. So what do the bears do all summer? Research Wildlife Biologist Karyn Rode shares how she and her colleagues put a collar with video cameras on 20 polar bears, and what it revealed about their lives. Is CERN finally going to get a gigantic new particle accelerator? Almost exactly one decade ago, Roland Pease reported from Switzerland about the very first meeting about the successor of the Large Hadron Collider which was used to discover the Higgs Boson. Now there’s an update to the story. Roland is back to tell Vic how far along CERN is with their plans, and how much more time and money it will take to build the Future Circular Collider. Lovers of certain famous, creamy French cheeses could be in for a bit of a shock. Camembert and Brie are facing extinction as we know them! The Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris has stated that, over the last 100 years, the food and farming industry has placed too much pressure on the production of these types of cheeses. Now, the fungus traditionally used to grow the famous, fluffy white rinds has been cloned to a point where the lack of diversity in its genetic makeup means it can no longer be reproduced. Turophiles must learn to appreciate more diversity of tastes, colours and textures to protect the cheeses’ future. Presenter: Victoria Gill Producers: Florian Bohr, Louise Orchard, Alice Lipscombe-Southwell  Editor: Martin Smith Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
When brains and computers meet
29-02-2024
When brains and computers meet
Are cyborgs now reality? Elon Musk certainly thinks so. His company, Neuralink, has successfully implanted one of its wireless brain chips in a human. Although billed as a breakthrough, they’re not the first to do it. In fact, similar devices have already been implanted, all with the aim of connecting our brains to computers with the aim of tackling complex neurological conditions. Joining Inside Science is neuroscientist and author, Dean Burnett. In this episode, Dean helps to break down the technology behind the brain-computer interface and digs into the ethical implications. Plus, game changing smart technology gets a run out as Rugby Union’s Six Nations Championship kicks-off. This year, all players will be wearing “Smart Mouth Guards.” These are intelligent gum shields containing miniature gyroscopes, accelerometers and Bluetooth, which provide - with incredible accuracy - a measure of the magnitude and frequency of forces experienced by players. An athlete making their international debut in this competition could have their entire collision history mapped from now until retirement, providing invaluable information for training and treatments. Crucial not only for elite squads, but ultimately for community and schools rugby where the technology will eventually land, leading to a safer game. And finally, it turns out that we can actually understand chickens even if we’ve never met them before! After assessing a group of around 200 volunteers, a team at the University of Queensland has discovered that humans with no experience of chickens at all, could understand the birds’ calls of satisfaction, or frustration. The research has serious implications for what’s known as precision farming, an area of livestock farming with little, to no, human interaction that requires automated systems of welfare detection using sound recognition. Presenter: Victoria Gill Producers: Louise Orchard, Florian Bohr, Alice Lipscombe-Southwell Editor: Martin Smith Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
Hydrogen and the race to net zero
22-02-2024
Hydrogen and the race to net zero
Hydrogen has long been touted as a potential wonder gas that could play a significant role in our race to net zero. Now, planning permission has been granted for the UK’s largest production hub of its kind, and one of the most advanced in the world. Located in Cheshire, it bills itself as a vital piece of Northwest England’s mission to help manufacturers in the region decarbonise their processes and support UK jobs. We speak to chemical engineer and the plant’s site manager, Richard Holden, and we also catch up with Mark Miodownik, Professor of Materials and Society at University College London, about hydrogen and our future energy economy. Almost 25 years ago, Dr Marc Lammers stumbled across a mystery. The humpback whale singing he was recording via an underwater microphone near the shore was quieter during the day than at night. But he wasn’t able to answer why. Many years later, a PhD student, Anke Kuegler, joined his research team and took on the task of uncovering what was really going on. Using multiple ways of listening to and tracking the whales, she found out that the singing humpbacks were moving off-shore during the day, and closer to shore at night. Part of the mystery was solved, but it raised an even bigger question: what is driving this behaviour? Plus, a recent study has shown that terrestrial hermit crabs around the world are using non-organic materials, like plastic bottle caps, as their homes. Professor Marta Szulkin and her team at the University of Warsaw looked through social media photographs and videos (known as iEcology, or Internet Ecology) to find evidence for this new behaviour. Marta has theories about why the crabs are doing this, but it will take many years of research to uncover the long-term effects on hermit crab populations and their evolutionary trajectory. And, resident materials expert, Mark Miodownik, chats to Viv about what we can, and cannot, solve about the global plastic emergency. Presenter: Victoria Gill Producers: Florian Bohr, Louise Orchard Editor: Martin Smith Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
A New Volcanic Era?
15-02-2024
A New Volcanic Era?
As lava consumes homes on the Reykjavik Peninsula in Iceland, evacuated communities have been witnessing eruptions shifting and intensifying. We take a look at the latest science that’s helping teams on the ground accurately predict where the danger is coming from, helping people to stay safe. Our go-to volcanologist, Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya, and her colleague, Professor Andrew Hooper, from the University of Leeds tell presenter Victoria about these new technological advancements, and ask the crucial question: are we entering a new millennium of volcanic activity in Iceland? When looking at clear ocean water, you might assume that, aside from fish and some algae, there isn’t much living in it. But Prof Carlos Duarte knows it is full of life. In fact, his new study shows just how many different microbes – bacteria, viruses & fungi – live in all parts of our ocean. He and his team at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia have created the largest ocean genome catalogue to date. Prof Mark Blaxter from the Wellcome Sanger Institute joins us to discuss this new study, the benefits of hypothesis-free science, and why he believes cataloguing the code of life of all the species on earth is an important endeavour. And, lastly, an old dinosaur fossil in New Mexico has been re-examined. What was believed to be of the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex may have been a different species all along. But not all palaeontologists agree. How do scientists even tell a dinosaur species from a fossil? Prof Stephen Brusatte tells Vic that it’s all about comparing bones. Presenter: Victoria Gill Producers: Florian Bohr, Louise Orchard, Hannah Robbins Editor: Martin Smith Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
Understanding Flood Forecasting
08-02-2024
Understanding Flood Forecasting
When Lois Pryce arrived at her boat in Berkshire, the area was already completely flooded. The only way to get to it was via a small pontoon. She is one of many across the UK that have been affected by the current floods, and is very familiar with the flood warning system accessible to the public. But how exactly does this system work? What information is taken into account? Marnie Chesterton speaks to Dr Linda Speight about flood forecasting, and the delicate balance of when to send out flood alerts and warnings. Plus, a supersized spacecraft is launching this October. Europa Clipper will assess whether the most intriguing of Jupiter’s 95 moons is habitable, meaning, could it support life? The evidence is tantalising. Jenny Kempmeir, Science Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, tells us why Europa might be the second body in our solar system on which life could exist. And, if you’ve been procrastinating over the housework – or should we say, mousework? - take a leaf out of a little rodent’s book. Apparently, mice do like to keep things clean, but a video that went viral this week seemingly takes this idea to another level entirely! You may well have seen the footage of a Welsh mouse gathering up objects in a shed and placing them neatly inside a box, night after night. It’s certainly very cute - Tidy Mouse carrying out its mousekeeping..but what’s the scientific explanation behind this curious behaviour? Finally, how do exercise and video games affect cognitive performance? Professor Adrian Owen is launching a new experiment to find out and he needs your help. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton Producers: Louise Orchard, Florian Bohr, Hannah Robbins Editor: Martin Smith Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
12 days of Christmas - science version
25-01-2024
12 days of Christmas - science version
Marnie Chesterton & Victoria Gill embark on a science-themed version of the classic Christmas song ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ in this festive edition of BBC Inside Science. Twelve of the biggest moments of the year in science include discussion about a very special treefrog discovered in the Ecuadorian Andes. We also hear about two new promising drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. An astronomer and visualisation scientist tells us about three new sonifications of space data. There’s more on the discovery of a 476,000 year-old wooden structure found earlier this year in Zambia and how it has changed archaeologists' understanding of ancient human life. The year has also seen 5,000 new species discovered in a deep ocean abyssal plain. Saturn has 62 new moons and is now the planet with the most moons in our solar system. A report was published deeming 75% of UK rivers as posing a risk to human health. We gathered together experts from Natural Resources Wales, Cardiff University, Bangor University and the Wye and Usk Foundation who discussed why the help from citizen science is essential for their work. And a new record has been set which is really worrying scientists - the highest average global ocean surface temperature, which reached 20.98 degrees centigrade. Other notable moments from the year include: a Japanese twelve-legged robot, eighteen video-calling parrots, proposals for the 10km long Einstein telescope and the theory behind why one player in every football team views the world slightly differently. To help us along the journey the BBC’s Radio Drama Company put all the science together into a brand-new rendition of the well-known 12 days of Christmas song. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton & Victoria Gill Producer: Hannah Fisher Assistant Producer: Emily Bird Editor: Richard Collings Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
Biggest COP in history
11-01-2024
Biggest COP in history
COP 28, the largest climate summit in history, has drawn to a close. Marnie Chesterton examines some of the main stories to emerge from this lengthy conference. The way we look after our oceans, measures needed to ensure food security and an agreement to transition away from fossil fuel dependence were some of the big themes of the summit. The BBC’s climate reporter Georgina Rannard takes us through the final agreement. We hear from Glada Lahn, senior research fellow at international affairs think-tank Chatham House, who explains how we might one day wean ourselves off so-called ‘brown energy’. Farming is also a source of greenhouse gases. Growing, processing and packaging food account for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions. How we feed the 8.1 billion of us on the planet continues to be a contentious issue. Casper Chater from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew explains what we can do to adapt our existing crops to cope with more frequent flood and drought events. Oceans are warming, losing oxygen and acidifying. Sea levels are rising. We speak to Ko Barrett, a senior climate advisor at the US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, about the role oceans have played so far in helping us mitigate the worse effects of climate change. And we meet Mervina Paueli, a 25-year-old Tuvaluan negotiator, whose small archipelago in the South Pacific is on the frontline. Presenter: Marnie Chesterton Producers: Louise Orchard, Hannah Robins and Harrison Lewis Editor: Richard Collings Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.
Vagrant Birds
04-01-2024
Vagrant Birds
Vagrant birds are those that appear in locations where they are not usually found. They might have been blown off course by a storm or have been affected by changing weather patterns due to climate change. Although a treat for birders, these visitors can also have a big impact on their new environments as Victoria Gill finds out when she heads to Burton Mere Wetlands on the Dee Estuary with Dr Alexander Lees, reader in biodiversity at Manchester Metropolitan University.As former Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives his testimony, we hear the latest from the UK Covid-19 Public Inquiry with BBC Health Reporter Jim Reed. A new study reveals that, contrary to a commonly-held view, the brain does not have the ability to rewire itself to compensate for the loss of, for example sight, an amputation or stroke. This is despite what most scientists believe and teach. Moreover, the assumption that it has this ability has led to all manner of erroneous treatments for amputees, stroke victims and other conditions, the study suggests. We’re joined by the study’s authors, Professor John Krakauer from Johns Hopkins University and Professor Tamar Making of the University of Cambridge. We’ll also hear from one of Tamar’s key case studies, Kirsty Mason, an amputee from the age of 18 who advanced the scientists’ experiments exponentially.   Presenter: Victoria Gill Producers: Hannah Robins and Louise Orchard Editor: Richard Collings Production Co-ordinator: Jana Bennett-Holesworth  BBC Inside Science is produced in collaboration with the Open University.