Synopsis

Programme exploring new ideas in science and meeting the scientists and researchers responsible for them, as well as hearing from their critics

Episodes

  • Virtual Therapy

    Virtual Therapy

    24/12/2014 Duration: 28min

    "e-Therapy" has come a long way since the (slightly tongue in cheek) days of ELIZA, a very early attempt at computer based psychotherapy. ELIZA was little more than an algorithm that spotted patterns in words and returned empty, yet meaningful-sounding questions back at the user. All sorts of e-therapies are now available to help low-moderate level mental health issues. But could Virtual Reality technology bring the next great leap in our understanding of mental processes, and, in turn, be the basis of future psychotherapies? Quentin Cooper meets some of the researchers trying to find out.

  • Can Maths Combat Terrorism?

    Can Maths Combat Terrorism?

    23/12/2014 Duration: 28min

    Dr Hannah Fry investigates the hidden patterns behind terrorism and asks whether mathematics could be used to predict the next 9/11. When computer scientists decided to study the severity and frequency of 30,000 terrorist attacks worldwide, they found an distinctive pattern hiding in the data. Even though the events spanned 5,000 cities in 187 countries over 40 years, every single attack fitted neatly onto a curve, described by an equation known as a 'power law'. Now this pattern is helping mathematicians and social scientists understand the mechanisms underlying global terrorism. Could these modelling techniques be used to predict if, and when, another attack the size of 9/11 will occur? Producer: Michelle Martin.

  • Animal Personality

    Animal Personality

    10/12/2014 Duration: 27min

    Professor Adam Hart explores the newest area in the science of animal behaviour - the study of personality variation within species as diverse as chimpanzees, wandering albatrosses, sharks and sea anemones. What can this fresh field of zoology tells us about the variety of personality among humans? We are all familiar with the variety of temperament and character in the dog, Canis lupus familiaris, but this is the product of selective breeding by humans over generations. A more surprising revelation is that up and down the animal kingdom, Nature favours a mix of personality types within a species. Oxford ornithologists working in nearby Wytham Woods have discovered that in a small bird species such as the Great tit, both bold and shy individuals prosper in different ways. The same applies to hermit crabs and sea anemones in the rock pools along the South Devon coast. In these creatures, scientists see a stripped down equivalent of the Extraversion-Introversion dimension of human personality. In sharks,

  • Vagus Nerve

    Vagus Nerve

    08/12/2014 Duration: 27min

    Many people are living with chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel conditions in which the body attacks itself. Although drug treatments have improved over recent years they do not work for everyone and can have serious side effects. Now researchers such as neurologist Dr Kevin Tracey of the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, and rheumatologist Professor Paul-Peter Tak of Amsterdam University, are trying a new approach to improving the lives of these patients. They are firing electrical pulses along the vagus nerve, a major nerve that connects the brain with all the organs. The technology to do this has been around for some decades as stimulating the vagus nerve has been used to help people who have epilepsy that isn't controlled with drugs since the 1990s. Gaia Vince talks to these pioneers of this new field of research. And she hears how there may be ways of improving the tone of the vagal nerve using meditation.

  • New Space to Fly

    New Space to Fly

    03/12/2014 Duration: 27min

    As our skies become more crowded Jack Stewart examines the long awaited modernisation of air traffic control. With traffic predicted to reach 17 million by 2030 more flights will mean more delays. For many a new approach to controlling flights is long overdue since aircraft still follow old and often indirect routes around the globe, communication between the ground and air is still by VHF radio, and any flexibility is heavily constrained by a fragmented airspace operated by many national authorities. Jack Stewart examines how aviation technologists have come up with a radical solution: it enables pilots once airborne, to choose their own route. "Free Routing ", it's argued, will allow more direct flights, no planes to be caught up in holding patterns, reduced fuel emissions and flights departing and arriving on time. Crucially, free routing will enable a tripling of flights than currently we're capable of controlling. But will the ability of pilots to choose their own routes increase the risk of collis

  • The Rosetta Mission

    The Rosetta Mission

    12/11/2014 Duration: 27min

    The European Space Agency's Rosetta mission to 67P/Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko reached its most dramatic moment on 12th November. BBC News correspondent Jonathan Amos has covered the event for a special edition of Radio 4's 'Frontiers' programme. In August, the Rosetta spacecraft was the first to go into orbit around a comet; its images of the extraordinarily rugged landscape of this 4 kilometre space mountain of ice and space dust have already left everyone awestruck. Previous missions have been fleeting fly-bys. On the day of the landing the orbiting mothercraft released a small robotic probe, named Philae, to fall and land on the cometary surface. It will be the first to sample and analyse directly the make-up of a comet, and photograph a comet's landscape from an explorer's eyeview. Jonathan Amos presents 'Frontiers' from mission control at the European Space Operations Centre in Germany on the day of the landing. The probe's deployment is not the final stage of the Rosetta mission. The mo

  • Cosmology

    Cosmology

    09/07/2014 Duration: 28min

    In March astronomers in the BICEP2 collaboration announced they had found gravitational waves from the Big Bang. But now the evidence is being questioned by other scientists. Dr Lucie Green reports on the debate and asks if scientists can ever know what happened billions of years ago when the universe was formed. Image: The BICEP2 telescope at twilight, which occurs only twice a year at the South Pole. The MAPO observatory (home of the Keck Array telescope) and the South Pole station can be seen in the background. Image copyright: Steffen Richter, Harvard University.

  • Swarming robots

    Swarming robots

    02/07/2014 Duration: 28min

    Adam Hart looks at how new developments in understanding insect behaviour, plant cell growth and sub cellular organisation are influencing research into developing robot swarms. Biological systems have evolved elegant ways for large numbers of autonomous agents to govern themselves. Staggering colonies built by ants and termites emerge from a decentralized, self-governing system: swarm intelligence. Now, taking inspiration from termites, marine animals and even plants, European researchers are developing autonomous robot swarms, setting them increasingly difficult challenges, such as navigating a maze, searching for an object or surveying an area. At the same time, an American team has announced that its group of robots can autonomously build towers, castles and even a pyramid. Adam Hart reports on the latest developments in controlling groups of robots, and asks why models taken from the behaviour of social insects such as bees, ants and termites may be far more complex than previously thought. He also del

  • Anaesthesia

    Anaesthesia

    25/06/2014 Duration: 28min

    General anaesthetics which act to cause reversible loss of consciousness have been used clinically for over 150 years. Yet scientists are only now really understanding how these drugs act on the brain and the body to stop us feeling pain. Linda Geddes reports on the latest research using molecular techniques and brain scanners. Linda visits the Anaesthesia Heritage Centre where William Harrop-Griffiths, President of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland, tells her about the discovery of agents that knock us out. As an operation takes place in the Royal United Hospital in Bath, Professor Tim Cook explains the role of the anaesthetist. Linda talks to Professor Nick Franks of Imperial College, London, about his research into how anaesthetics work at the level of the cell. Irene Tracey, Professor of Anaesthetic Science at Oxford University, discusses how her fMRI scans of people as they slowly undergo anaesthesia have revealed how the brain switches off. Professor Steven Laureys, Head o

  • Power Transmission

    Power Transmission

    18/06/2014 Duration: 27min

    Gaia Vince looks at the future of power transmission. As power generation becomes increasingly mixed and demand increases, what does the grid of the future look like?

  • Ageing and the brain

    Ageing and the brain

    11/06/2014 Duration: 28min

    Geoff Watts investigates the latest thinking about our brain power in old age. He meets researchers who argue that society has overly negative views of the mental abilities of the elderly - a dismal and fatalistic outlook which is not backed up by recent discoveries and theories. Geoff talks to Professor Lorraine Tyler who leads a large study in Cambridge (CamCAN) which is comparing cognition and brain structure and function in 700 people aged between 18 and 88 years old. He also meets scientists and participants involved in an unique study of cognition and ageing at the University of Edinburgh. It has traced hundreds of people who were given a nationwide intelligence test as children in 1932 and 1947. Since the year 2000, the study has been retesting their intelligence and mental agility in their 70s to 90s. The Lothian Birth Cohort study is revealing what we all might do in life to keep our minds fast and sharp well into old age. One new and controversial idea holds that cognitive decline is in fact a

  • Driverless cars

    Driverless cars

    04/06/2014 Duration: 28min

    Most traffic accidents are caused by human error. Engineers are designing vehicles with built in sensors that send messages to other cars, trucks, bikes and even pedestrians, to prevent collisions happening. The idea is to make the vehicles react to whatever's going on faster than the human drivers. Jack Stewart drives around the university town of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, in some of the many vehicles that are fitted with experimental devices in the world's largest connected vehicles project. He finds out how the system works from researchers at UMTRI, the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, and Kirk Steudle, Director, Michigan Department of Transportation. Jack has a ride in Google's driverless car which has no steering wheel and no pedals. Google's Chris Urmson explains the company's approach to autonomous vehicles. Jack visits Stanford University's driverless car project where Professor Chris Gerdes shows him Shelley, an automated Audi that races around a track at speed as well as

  • Chronotypes

    Chronotypes

    19/12/2013 Duration: 27min

    Are you a lark or an owl? Are you at your best in the morning or the evening? Linda Geddes meets the scientists who are exploring the differences between larks and owls. At the University of Surrey's Sleep Research Centre she talks to its director, Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, and finds out her own chronotype by filling in a questionnaire. Linda discovers why we have circadian rhythms and why they don't all run at the same rate. Dr Louis Ptacek from the University of California, San Francisco, explains his investigation of the genes of families whose members get up very early in the morning and of those who get up very late. She finds out why our sleep patterns change as we age - teenagers really aren't good at getting up in the morning. Professor Mary Carskadon from Brown University explains that although some schools have experimented with a later start there is no plan to put this into universal practice. Linda talks to Professor Til Roenneberg from Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich about his concept of

  • Geo-engineering

    Geo-engineering

    11/12/2013 Duration: 28min

    Geoengineering is a controversial approach to dealing with climate change. Gaia Vince explores putting chemicals in the stratosphere to stop solar energy reaching the earth. When volcanoes erupt they put sulphur in the stratosphere. The particles reflect solar rays back into space and the planet cools down. Scientists are suggesting that it could be possible to put sulphur into the stratosphere using specialised aircraft or a very long pipe. But if this was implemented there could be impacts on rainfall and the ozone layer. Another idea is to spray seawater to whiten clouds that would reflect more energy away from the earth. Gaia Vince talks to the researchers who are considering solar radiation management. She also hears from social scientists who are finding out what the public think about the idea and who are asking who should make decisions about implementing this way of cooling the planet.

  • Nitrogen Fixing

    Nitrogen Fixing

    04/12/2013 Duration: 28min

    3.5 billion people are alive today because of a single chemical process. The Haber-Bosch process takes Nitrogen from the air and makes ammonia, from which synthetic fertilizers allow farmers to feed our massive population. Ammonia is a source of highly reactive nitrogen, suitable not just for fertilizer but also as an ingredient in bomb making and thousands of other applications. Now we make around 100 million tonnes of ammonia annually, and spread most of it on our fields. But this is a very inefficient way to use what amounts to 1-2% of the planet's energy needs. Only around 20% of fertilizer made ends up in our food. Prof. Andrea Sella explores some of the alternative ways we might make fertilizer. Legumes, such as peas and beans, allow certain cells in their roots to become infected by a specific type of bacteria. In return, these bacteria provide them with their own fertilizer. Could we infect the plants we want to grow for food - such as cereals - in a similar way to cut down the climatic and envi

  • Self-Healing Materials

    Self-Healing Materials

    27/11/2013 Duration: 28min

    Quentin Cooper takes a look at the new materials that can mend themselves. Researchers are currently developing bacteria in concrete which, once awakened, excrete lime to fill any cracks. In South America you can choose a car paint that heals its own scratches. And there are even gold atoms which can migrate to mend tiny breaks in jet turbine blades. Engineers normally design things so the likelihood of breaking is minimised. But by embracing the inevitability of breakage, a new class of materials which can mend cracks and fissures before you can see them may extend the lives of our cars, engines, buildings and aeroplanes far beyond current capability.

  • The Power of the Unconscious

    The Power of the Unconscious

    20/11/2013 Duration: 28min

    We like to think that we are in control of our lives, of what we do, think and feel. But, as Geoff Watts discovers, scientists are now revealing that this is just an illusion. A simple magic trick reveals just how limited our conscious awareness of the world is, and how easy it is to fool us. So if our conscious brain can cope with so little, what is responsible for the rest? Science is starting to reveal the crucial role of a silent partner inside our heads, that we are completely unaware of - our unconscious. In this programme, Geoff enlists the help of not just brain scientists, but a conjuror and a musician to reveal the pivotal role the unconscious plays in pretty much everything we do, think and feel. This new-found knowledge is enabling scientists to harness its powers for both medical and military benefit.

  • Gut Microbiota

    Gut Microbiota

    13/11/2013 Duration: 28min

    What is it about the microbes in our guts that can have such an impact on our lives? The human gut has around 100 trillion bacterial cells from up to 1,000 different species. Every person's microbiota (the body's bacterial make-up) is different as a result of the effects of diet and lifestyle, and the childhood source of bacteria. Scientists are learning more and more about the importance of these bacteria, as well as the viruses, fungi and other microbes that live in our gastrointestinal tracts. Without them, our digestion, immune system and overall health would be compromised. Adam Hart talks to researchers who are discovering how important a balanced and robust gut microflora is for our health. And he asks how this can be maintained and what happens when things go wrong.

  • Oxytocin

    Oxytocin

    17/07/2013 Duration: 28min

    The hormone oxytocin is involved in mother and baby bonding and in creating trust. Linda Geddes finds out if taking oxytocin can help people with autism become more sociable. Larry Young, Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Emory University in Atlanta, talks about the work in voles that demonstrated the role of oxytocin in pair bonding. Professor Markus Heinrichs of Freiburg University in Germany tells Linda Geddes about doing the first research on oxytocin in human subjects. He was one of the authors of an influential paper on the hormone and trust, published in Nature in 2005. As journalists for New Scientist, Linda and her husband, Nic, invited one of the other authors of that paper, Professor Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California, to carry out an oxytocin experiment at their wedding. At Cambridge University, Dr Bonnie Auyeung, is currently carrying out studies to find out if giving the hormone to adults with autism can improve their social skills. And Profes

  • Crossrail - Tunnelling under London

    Crossrail - Tunnelling under London

    10/07/2013 Duration: 28min

    Tracey Logan goes underground to find out how Crossrail is using the latest engineering techniques to create 26 miles of tunnels below London's tube network, sewers and foundations and through its erratic, sometimes unpredictable geology. She finds out about the latest science being used in Europe's biggest engineering project. London sits on a varied geology of deposits of fine-grained sand, flint gravel beds, mottled clay, shelly beds which are sometimes mixed with pockets of water. This sheer variety has presented a challenge to London's tunnel engineers since the early 1800s. Tracey goes on board one of the huge, 150 metre long, 1000 tonne tunnel boring machines as it makes its way beneath London's Oxford Street. At depths of up to 40 metres it can negotiate London's complex geology with incredible precision and can instantly adjust the pressure it applies at the cutting head to ensure there is no ground movement above. Its precision engineering means it also follows a route which avoids the many exist

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