Rinderpest destruction, Noise and birdsong, Science as entertainment
Rinderpest – Sequence and Destroy
Last week the UK’s Pirbright Institute announced that it had destroyed its remaining stocks of the deadly cattle virus Rinderpest. This repository was one of the biggest remaining stores of it since it was announced in 2011 that vaccines had eradicated it in the wild. Dr Michael Baron, amongst others, has been arguing for years that because we can now obtain a full sequence of such viruses, we no longer need to run the risk of such scientific samples ever being released, through accident or malice. As such, for Pirbright at least, the rinderpest virus that once killed millions of cattle and starved similar numbers of humans now only exists as a digital memory.
Oi, You Singin' at My Bird?
The delightful song of the European Robin is actually a fierce territorial warning between males that functions to avoid costly mismatched conflict. In fact, the complexity of the song seems to represent the fitness of the singer. Gareth Arnott of Queen’s University in Belfast talks about his investigation into whether noise – including anthropogenic noise interferes with this life-or-death conversation. It sounds like it does.
Science as Entertainment
All this week and next BBC2 is hosting a new programme called The Family Brain Games. The games are designed not to test merely general knowledge or conventional measures of IQ, but rather a functional, communicative sort of intelligence that competing families display amongst themselves as a team. But can this sort of nuanced science be properly communicated on TV? Host Dara Ó Briain and neuroscientist Prof Sophie Scott discuss the ins and outs of making science entertaining.
Presenter: Adam Rutherford
Producer: Alex Mansfield
Net-Zero carbon target, Science Policy Under Thatcher, Screen time measures
Net-Zero Carbon Target
The UK is set to become the first member of the G7 industrialised nations group to legislate for net-zero emissions after Theresa May’s announcement this week. The proposed legislation would commit the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions to ‘net-zero’ by 2050, which would mean that after reducing emissions as much as possible, any remaining emissions would be offset through schemes such as planting trees or investing in renewable energy infrastructure. Dr Jo House, from the department of Geography at Bristol University, has spent time advising the government on previous carbon budgets and was there in the build-up to the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2016. She talks to Gareth Mitchell about the proposal, what it means for the UK’s climate future and how realistic she thinks the targets are.
Science Policy Under Thatcher
30 years ago a new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, told her officials - in a break from the norm - that she would keep a personal eye on science policy in her government. By 1987, the relationship between government, university research and industrial research would be changed utterly. Prof Jon Agar has been scouring The National Archives and a wealth of hitherto private communications that shed light on how her approach to science policy formed. His new book is out this week and he discusses the events with Prof Dame Wendy Hall, a young scientist in the 80s but now fresh to the programme from hearing announcements at the London Technology Week regarding large investment and an industrial strategy towards Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.
Screen Time Measures
If you are using evidence to inform your policy, you need to make sure that evidence is as robust as you think it is. David Ellis of Lancaster University tells Gareth about his team’s recent work to evaluate a certain type of self-reporting, particularly involving studies into our well-being with regards to technology use. How much time do you spend with your device? Your answer might not be completely aligned with reality, as revealed by actual screen-time data. Unfortunately, many of the headline-grabbing papers we read regarding health and screen time are based on self-reporting questionnaires, which David suggests might require more scepticism.
Presenter: Gareth Mitchell
Producer: Alex Mansfield
CCR5 Mutation Effects, The Surrey Earthquake Swarm, Animal Emotions
Some people have a genetic mutation in a gene called CCR5 that seems to bestow immunity to a form of HIV. This is the mutation which controversial Chinese scientist Jianqui He tried to bestow upon two baby girls last year when he edited the genes in embryos and then implanted them in a mother. A paper in the journal Nature Medicine this week uses data from the UK Biobank to look at the long term health patterns associated with this gene variant. It suggests that whilst the HIV-1 immunity may be considered a positive, having two copies of the gene also comes with a cost. It seems that it may also lower our immunity to other diseases and shows in the database as a 21% increase in mortality overall. Author Rasmus Nielsen talks about how important this gene is to evolutionary biologists trying to find signs of natural selection in humans. Adam discusses the ethical implications of the research with Dr Helen O’Neill.
The Surrey Earthquake Swarm
Over the last year several small earthquakes have been detected in one part of Surrey. Many have surmised that these may be caused by oil drilling taking place nearby, but it might be simpler than that. So the British Geological Survey has been monitoring the region. Roland Pease joined Imperial College seismologist Steven Hicks out in the countryside inspecting his detectors to find out more.
Mama’s Last Hug
Frans de Waal, one of the world’s leading primatologists talks to Adam about his latest book, and the difficulties we as human observers have with studying emotion in animals. Prof de Waal coins a neologism ‘anthropodenialism’ to describe the belief that emotions in animals are incommensurable with human experience. He thinks most mammals, and certainly primates, experience pretty much the same emotions as we do, for similar reasons. Feelings, however, are a different matter.
Producer: Alex Mansfield
How maths underpins science
Adam Rutherford and guests at the Hay Festival discuss how maths underwrites all branches of science, and is at the foundation of the modern world.
His guests are the following.
Professor Steve Strogatz, of Cornell University, the author of a new book on calculus, Infinite Powers. He’s worked on all kinds of problems including some biological ones such as the shape of DNA, how fireflies create light and the grandness of small world theories.
Dr Emily Shuckburgh, is a climate change scientist at University of Cambridge, who has a PhD in maths studying fluid dynamics. She is the co-author of the Ladybird book on Climate Change with Prince Charles,
Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, is President of the Royal Society, and was originally a physicist, who moved into biology, to study the 3-dimensional shape of one of the most important biological structures, the ribosome, for which he won the Nobel prize winner.
New CFC emissions, Cannabis and the Environment, The Noisy Cocktail Party, Automated Face Recognition
New CFC emissions
Researchers say that they have pinpointed the major sources of a mysterious recent rise in a dangerous, ozone-destroying chemical. CFC-11 was primarily used for home insulation but global production was due to be phased out in 2010. But scientists have seen a big slowdown in the rate of depletion over the past six years. This new study published in the Journal Nature says this is mostly being caused by new gas production in eastern provinces of China.
Dr Matt Rigby of the University of Bristol and the BBC’s Matt McGrath, who has also been following the trail, tell Gareth about the mystery.
Yeast to make cannabinoids
In California, where cannabis has become a major cash crop since legalisation there, researchers are trying to evaluate the environmental impacts of large scale agricultural planting. But, as Geoff Marsh reports, other researchers are finding other ways to produce various cannabinoids for potential future sale. Can humble yeast be modified to produce the active substances that some believe to have therapeutic benefits?
Hearing aids for cocktail parties
One of the most impressive properties of the human auditory system is the way most of us can overhear or eavesdrop on specific voices in an otherwise crowded room. Most hearing aids can’t help with that: they can sometimes filter out noises that are not human voices, but cannot do the very human trick of sorting one voice from a sea of others. Nima Mesgarani from Columbia University reports in the journal Science Advances a proof of principle for a device that might be able to do just that. Firstly, a new algorithm can separate out one voice from another. Then brain waves from the wearer could be used to recognise which of those voices they are trying to hear. Then it’s a simple case of turning that voice up, and lowering the volume of the others, all in nearly real-time.
Automatic face recognition
So called Neural Network computing techniques are revolutionising our lives. They are able to perform a host of tasks that not so long ago would be the preserve of human brains, and to process huge sets of data and “learn” very quickly. One of the things they are proving exceptional at is face recognition; being able to identify faces in a crowd, or on a street, from a set of images provided by a user. But with great computing power comes great computing responsibility. What are the implications for policing and personal privacy? Gareth discusses these issues with Stephanie Hare.
Producer: Alex Mansfield