Science Stories

Episodes

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0101The Bone Wars20150610

The Bone Wars

In the first of a new series looking at amazing events and characters from science history, Tracey Logan takes us back to the wild west of America, and looks at the extraordinary feud that came to be known as the Bone Wars. This is a tale of corruption, bribery and sabotage - not by cowboys, but by two palaeontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who would stop at nothing in their race to find new dinosaur fossils. This was the golden age of dinosaur discovery, and their bitter war led to the discovery of some of our most iconic dinosaur species: Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Diplodocus and Camarasuarus to name a few. What led these two seemingly respectable men of science to behave in such an unseemly way, and what was the legacy of this now infamous feud? Tracey Logan investigates.

Producer: Alexandra Feachem.

0102The Engine That Nearly Ran Out Of Steam20150617

Continuing this new series of Science Stories, Naomi Alderman tells the story of James Watt and the steam engine that nearly never got made. A breath of steam hits cold metal. It cools suddenly and becomes a drop of water. There an idea. But the designs for Watt's radically more efficient steam engine laid on the shelf in his workshop for years. Watt, a depressive, cautious perfectionist had no interest in actually making engines. Had it not been for his friend, the businessmen Matthew Boulton driving him on, his engine might never have left the drawing board. Naomi talks to historian, Jenny Uglow about the five friends who kick started the industrial revolution. And, in this era of patent trolls, to digital guru, Bill Thompson about the scientific legacy of Watt's obsession with getting a patent: an obsession which led to an Act of Parliament.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

0103Dna's Third Man20150624

What does it take to be remembered well? The discovery of the structure of DNA is often attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick. But a third man shared the stage with them for the 1962 Nobel Prize for medicine - Maurice Wilkins. He was a brilliant physicist who after work on the Manhattan Project was determined to move from "the science of death to the science of life". He made his mark in the fast progressing world of x-ray crystallography and in the late 1940's was the first to propose that biological material that passed on genetic information from one generation to the next might have an order and structure that scientists could elucidate and control. He was to play an integral role one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. But why did he fail to capture the public imagination?

Kevin Fong examines Maurice Wilkins achievements offering a new slant on the familiar story of the race to unravel DNA

Producer: Adrian Washbourne.

0104How Perkin Brought Purple To The People20150701

In 1856, a teenager experimenting at home accidentally made a colour that was more gaudy and garish than anything that had gone before. William Perkin was messing about at home, trying to make the anti-malarial, quinine; but his experiment went wrong. Instead he made a purple dye that took Victorian London by storm. Philip Ball tells the story of this famous stroke of serendipity. Laurence Llewelyn- Bowen describes the fashion sensation that ensued and chemist, Andrea Sella tells how Perkin's purple prompted the creation of much more than colourful crinolines.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

0105 LASTSeeing Is Believing - The Leviathan Of Parsonstown20150708

Today, astronomers believe the universe is a violent, constantly changing place. But it was not always the case.

At the beginning of the 19th century, many believed fervently that the celestial sky was a constant, divinely perfected, completed creation.

But as telescopes got larger, the mystery of the number, origin and role of the "nebulae" - those colourful, cloud-like smudges on the sky - grew and grew. Were they really vast clouds of gas and dust as they sometimes appeared? Or were they merely closely packed, very distant clusters of stars, as some of them allegedly appeared when magnified through the great reflecting telescopes?

When some astronomers and writers suggested they were in fact a vision of creation in action, matter condensing to form stars and planets like our own, some establishment religious figures cried foul, fearing the social implications.

Could bigger telescopes resolve the crisis?

For most of the 19th century, the biggest telescope in the world was in Birr, Ireland, then known as Parsonstown. It was built by an Anglo-Irish nobleman, William Parsons, Earl of Rosse, in the midst of the Irish famine. 50 feet long, 6 feet in diameter, the monster instrument was dubbed "The Leviathan".

But even thus equipped, in the days before photography and spectroscopy, observers could only describe and sketch what they saw, and it was hard to be objective.

As Simon Schaffer, James Bennet, and Chris Lintott narrate, the debate as to the truth of the "Nebular Hypothesis", and the concern as to whether the Irish astronomers really saw what they claimed to see, paved the way for the Darwinian debates in the coming decades.

Producer: Alex Mansfield.

0201Submarine For A Stuart King2016010620160817 (R4)

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.

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, their work is being used under the waves where Drebbel began.

0202How An Eel Sparked Our Interest In Electricity20160113

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.

0203The Meteorite And The Hidden Hoax20160120

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 scepticism 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.

0204The Duchess Who Gatecrashed Science20160127

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.

0205 LASTEinstein's Fridge20160203

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.

0301Florence Nightingale: Statistician2016051820160824 (R4)

Naomi Alderman tells a little-known story about a rather well-known nurse. Florence Nightingale is famous for mopping the brows of sick and wounded soldiers during the Crimean war. Generations of Nightingale Nurses are named after her. But according to her sister Parthenope: 'she was a shocking nurse'. She was the lady of the lamp but the light she cast wasn't the light of the nurse's lantern; it was the light of statistics. This is the story of Florence Nightingale, the intellectual pioneer and revered statistician.

0302Chaucer's Astrolabe - The Medieval Gps2016052520160831 (R4)

Philip Ball tells the story of Chaucer's Astrolabe, the medieval equivalent of GPS, and how England's most renowned poet came to write the world's first scientific manual.

Philip Ball tells the story of Chaucer's Astrolabe and why the famed poet came to write the world's first scientific instruction manual. In the Middle Ages, no self respecting astronomer would be without an Astrolabe, a pocket sized device for working out the movements of the planets and stars. So how did a poet come to write the first user booklet? This story shows Chaucer in a new light: as a pre-eminent astronomer, and offers a new key to unlocking his most famous literary works.

0303Paul Ehrlich's 'magic Bullet' And The Cure For Syphilis2016060120160907 (R4)

Naomi Alderman tells the story of Paul Ehrlich's 'magic bullet' cure for syphilis. If you take a drug today to cure an illness, you have this man to thank for inventing the concept of targeted treatments that aim to hit the disease and not the patient. This revolutionary idea opened the door to modern pharmaceutical therapies and initiated debates about the role of medical research that echo through the 20th Century.

0304Maxwell's Demon20160608

Philip Ball explains the thought experiment, motivated by religion, that niggled physicists for a hundred years. To rescue free will from the clutches of deterministic science, James Clark Maxwell picked a hole in the second law of thermodynamics, aided by a demon. Maxwell's Demon would give us a whole new insight into the very nature of information, and what we do with it, and maybe even what the universe is made of.

Matthew Stanley, author of Huxley's Church and Maxwell's Demon, describes how Maxwell's deeply religious personality flavoured much of his thinking.

In the present day, Vlatko Vedral of Oxford University explains how the experiment Maxwell never thought physically possible is now being done in labs, and shows us how to turn information into energy.

0305 LASTBlood And Fire: The Segregation And Racialisation Of Blood20160615

Blood and Fire: the segregation and racialization of blood

The development of plasma transfusion for masses of people was born of urgent necessity during WW2. In 1940, Britain struggled to treat thousands of civilians injured in the Blitz and many more soldiers in Dunkirk. Into that desperate maelstrom Charles Drew, an African American doctor, came to the rescue. Dr Drew was the key driving force behind a project called Plasma for Britain which saved many lives.

But when a similar project was rolled out in the USA the authorities insisted that the blood be segregated; Charles Drew resigned and returned to work at a black establishment.

A few years later Dr Drew was involved a catastrophic car accident; he was taken to a segregated (whites only) hospital but died of his injuries. For decades afterwards, the myth persisted, especially amongst African Americans, that the man credited with saving the lives of so many through transfusion was denied blood (because of his colour) that would have spared him. In Blood and Fire, Naomi Alderman explores the pivotal moment in the history of blood transfusion and its legacy in the controversy over race-based medicine.

Producer: Colin Grant.

0401The Day The Earth Stopped Standing Still20161130

Prior to 1543 it was generally believed that the earth lay static in the centre of the universe, while the Sun, moon, planets and stars revolved around it in various complex paths, some even looping back and forth, as described by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy over a millennium before. This Ptolemaic system sat comfortably reconciled with philosophy and biblical scripture, not to mention immediate experience and observations.

In the 16th century astronomy and astrology were closely intertwined, as the art of predicting where the small dots of light on the night sky would appear had consequences if you were the sort of person who based your actions on horoscopes. But astronomers didn't have the right to start telling philosophers and theologians how the universe was actually constructed - what its mechanisms were - they merely observed the moving dots of light and used mathematics to predict where they would be the next night, week or month. This was an essential function for the Catholic church too - as the all-important date of Easter is based around a complicated lunar pattern.

But also at that time in northern Europe, Martin Luther and others had begun a protestant revolution, fundamentally questioning the authority of the Pope and Vatican.

It was an auspicious time for a fairly middle ranking Catholic cleric, Nicolaus Copernicus, working in a remote corner of northern Poland to drop a note around telling other astronomers that he'd worked out a new system that made for better astronomical calculations by making the moon travel round a spinning earth, and the earth and all the planets travel around the Sun.

If that were the true shape of the universe, the bible could no longer be literally true.

It took 30 years, but eventually a keen young Austrian mathematician convinced him to publish his book.

So a German radical protestant published a book by a mild-mannered Polish Catholic cleric, a book that allegedly simplified the cosmos, rightfully placing the Sun at the centre of our local universe, kicking off the scientific revolution and leading to the European enlightenment.

But as Phil Ball explains, the real story of 'De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium' - 'On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres' - is not quite as straight forward as all that.

0402How Much Testosterone Makes You A Man?20161207

Testosterone has been claimed as one of the most important drivers of human life - through the agency of sex and aggression. In the 19th century, Charles-Eduoard Brown-Séquard injected himself with extracts from ground-up animal testicles, and made startling claims for its rejuvenating properties and its ability to enhance virility. But the amount of testosterone derived from the injection was actually so small that it could only have been a placebo effect. Today synthesised testosterone is increasingly prescribed for the so-called 'male menopause'; it's also regularly used for trans men as they transition, as well as for some women with low libido. In 'How Much Testosterone Makes You a Man', Naomi Alderman explores how testosterone had been used and abused in the past. She considers the credits and deficits of its story, and asks what it can tell us about identity and masculinity.

0403The Man Who Predicted Deforestation And Climate Change 200 Years Ago2016121420171109

The man who predicted deforestation and harmful human-induced climate change 200 years ago

The man who predicted deforestation and harmful human induced climate change 200 years ago. When Alexander von Humboldt explored the South American rain forests he realised that nature was a 'web of life' and witnessed how human activities were catastrophically damaging the landscape. Historian Andrea Wulf argues that climbing Chimborazo, then believed to be the highest peak in the world, was Humboldt's equivalent to modern day satellite pictures showing the devastation of deforestation. Looking down he recognised the significance of what he saw, so why did it take so long for science to take such concerns seriously? Philip Ball discusses this question with Kathy Willis, Director of Science at Kew Gardens.

The man who predicted deforestation and harmful human induced climate change 200 years ago. When Alexander von Humboldt explored the South American rain forests he realised that nature was a 'web of life' and witnessed how human activities were catastrophically damaging the landscape. Historian Andrea Wulf argues that climbing Chimborazo, then believed to be the highest peak in the world, was Humboldt's equivalent to modern day satellite pictures showing the devastation of deforestation. Looking down he recognised the significance of what he saw, so why did it take so long for science to take such concerns seriously? Philip Ball discusses this question with Kathy Willis, Director of Science at Kew Gardens.

0404The Woman Who Tamed Lightning20161221

Naomi Alderman tells the story of engineer Hertha Ayrton, who refined street lights.

0405Mesmerism20161228

Anton Mesmer's magnetic cures for nervous conditions were famous in Vienna and Paris in the 1780s. He figured that the currents of an invisible fluid in the patient's body were like movements of the fluid thought to cause the force of magnetism. And so he decided that he should use magnets to affect it.

Mesmer set up a clinic in his house in which patients came to dip their hands or feet, or even their whole bodies, into baths filled with what he called magnetized water, given healing powers by magnetized iron rods or plates immersed in them. His treatment was a performance as it involved music, gestures, and props, and his own forceful personality.

But in 1784 the suspicious French medical profession persuaded the King, Louis 16th, to launch an official investigation into Mesmer's methods. The inquiry found that his treatment was useless and possibly dangerous and should be stopped. Mesmer retreated to Austria and died in 1815.

This was one of the first occasions on which what we might now call parapsychology was put under scientific scrutiny.

Philip Ball tells the story of Mesmer and the rise and fall of animal magnetism. He talks to Simon Shaffer, Professor of the History of Science at Cambridge University, about the role of spectacle in science and medicine in the late 18th century and to Richard Wiseman, Professor of Psychology at Hertfordshire University, about the legacy of scientific scrutiny of the claims of parapsychology.

0406Jumping Genes20170104

Geneticist Barbara McLintock won the Nobel prize in 1983 for work on jumping genes. Philip Ball asks if it is really true that her work was initially ignored by other scientists.

0407 LASTThe Birth Of Photography2017011120171108

How William Fox Talbot captured a moment in time.

Naomi Alderman tells the story of how William Fox Talbot preserved a moment of the past forever, when he invented the photographic negative. He wasn't the only person experimenting with photography in the 1830s. In Europe and America, the hunt was on to find the right chemical mixture that would react with light to capture an image on paper or glass. Everyone knew that light had an effect on certain dyes and chemicals - think of the wallpaper which fades over time in the sunlight but the bit behind the sofa stays as bright as the day it was put up. The questions that needed answers were: how do you make a dye which reacts very precisely to sunlight? And then how do you stop your dye reacting to sunlight when you don't want it to, how do you fix the image? Fox Talbot found a way to make permanent images. In 1835 he made what is now the oldest surviving photographic negative in the world. It is a picture of the oriel latticed window at Lacock Abbey, a summer's day at his ancestral home, captured forever in the photographic pane.

Naomi Alderman discusses the speed at which Fox Talbot's invention caught on with Lynda Nead, a Professor of the History of Art at Birkbeck College, and the future of the mass reproduction of images in the digital age with technologist Bill Thompson.

Naomi Alderman tells the story of how William Fox Talbot preserved a moment of the past forever, when he invented the photographic negative. He wasn't the only person experimenting with photography in the 1830s. In Europe and America, the hunt was on to find the right chemical mixture that would react with light to capture an image on paper or glass. Everyone knew that light had an effect on certain dyes and chemicals - think of the wallpaper which fades over time in the sunlight but the bit behind the sofa stays as bright as the day it was put up. The questions that needed answers were: how do you make a dye which reacts very precisely to sunlight? And then how do you stop your dye reacting to sunlight when you don't want it to, how do you fix the image? Fox Talbot found a way to make permanent images. In 1835 he made what is now the oldest surviving photographic negative in the world. It is a picture of the oriel latticed window at Lacock Abbey, a summer's day at his ancestral home, captured forever in the photographic pane.

Naomi Alderman discusses the speed at which Fox Talbot's invention caught on with Lynda Nead, a Professor of the History of Art at Birkbeck College, and the future of the mass reproduction of images in the digital age with technologist Bill Thompson.

0501Pavlov And His Dogs2017060720170821

Naomi Alderman tells the story of Pavlov and his selectively drooling dogs.

Say Pavlov and most people think of bells ringing and dogs salivating. Ivan Pavlov is firmly associated in many people's minds with the idea that animals and, to some extent humans, automatically respond to certain stimuli. Internal thought processes are over-rated. But, as Naomi Alderman's story of selectively drooling dogs reveals, our Pavlovian response to Pavlov himself,is often wrong. For starters, he never used bells. Using metronomes and harmoniums, he noticed that dogs could distinguish between beats played at different speeds and identify individual notes from an A minor chord. He trained dogs to recognize precise time intervals: to expect food in precisely half an hour, for example. He wanted to understand how dogs learn and treated the brain as a black box because he had no way of getting inside it. He analysed what he could, principally the arrival of saliva; but he never thought free will was an illusion. In fact, he said "it would be stupid to reject the subjective world".

Producer: Anna Buckley.

0502The Medieval Bishop's Big Bang Theory2017061420170822

Philip Ball on a very modern medieval Big Bang Theory forged by a 13th-century bishop.

Philip Ball tells the tale of Robert Grosseteste and his medieval Big Bang Theory. This is the story of how a 13th Century Bishop, obsessed with rainbows, colour and light streaming through Cathedral windows, describes the birth of the cosmos in his treatise 'On Light'. It's a tale of daring invention and imagination, of how an early faith in scientific and mathematical principles, coupled to a belief in a universe ordered by God, gave rise to an uncannily prescient idea. It was nothing less than a medieval Big Bang.

Producer: Erika Wright.

Philip Ball on a very modern medieval Big Bang Theory forged by a 12th-century bishop.

0503The Anglo-saxon Remedy That Kills Mrsa2017062120170823

Naomi Alderman opens the pages of medieval recipe books to find antimicrobial salves.

0504The Man Who Found Physics In Shells, Seeds And Bees2017062820170824

The man who put maths into biology and saw physics in shells, seeds and bees 100 years ago

100 years ago D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson published On Growth and Form, a book with a mission to put maths into biology. He showed how the shapes, forms and growth processes we see in the living world aren't some arbitrary result of evolution's blind searching, but are dictated by mathematical rules. A flower, a honeycomb, a dragonfly's wing: it's not sheer chance that these look the way they do. But can these processes be explained by physics? D'Arcy Thompson loved nature's shapes and influenced a whole new field of systems biology, architects, designers and artists, including Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

Producer: Erika Wright.

0505Caroline Herschel And The Comets2017070520171110

Naomi Alderman tells the story of 18th-century comet spotter and singer Caroline Herschel.

As the youngest daughter in her family, Caroline Herschel was destined for a life of drudgery helping her mother in the home in Hanover. But when she was twenty one her musician and astronomer brother William persuaded the family that he needed her to perform in concerts he was running in Bath. Caroline became a well respected singer, but when William's passion became astronomy she followed.

Caroline became William's assistant. She ran the household and he taught her to look at the stars, schooling her in his techniques for long nights spent "sweeping the stars" - taking a small patch of sky and noting everything she saw there, then moving on methodically. Although she was initially reluctant to take up astronomy she began to enjoy it. William built her a telescope and on 1st August 1786, Caroline found her first comet.

William had already impressed King George the Third with his discovery of the planet Uranus five years earlier. In September 1786, the royal family summoned William "to exhibit the new comet lately discovered by his sister, Miss Herschel". Along with an enormous grant to William to continue his work, the King gave Caroline £50 a year for life. This was the first time a salary was ever paid to a female scientist in Britain.

Naomi Alderman tells Caroline Herschel's story and discusses what women could achieve in science in the eighteenth century with historian Professor Marilyn Ogilvie of the University of Oklahoma, the author of a biography of Caroline.

Alan Fitzsimmons, Professor of Astronomy at Queens University, Belfast, talks to Naomi about the Caroline's legacy, how comets are discovered today and why researchers want to study them.

Naomi Alderman tells the story of 18th-century comet spotter and singer Caroline Herschel.

As the youngest daughter in her family, Caroline Herschel was destined for a life of drudgery helping her mother in the home in Hanover. But when she was twenty one her musician and astronomer brother William persuaded the family that he needed her to perform in concerts he was running in Bath. Caroline became a well respected singer, but when William's passion became astronomy she followed.

Caroline became William's assistant. She ran the household and he taught her to look at the stars, schooling her in his techniques for long nights spent "sweeping the stars" - taking a small patch of sky and noting everything she saw there, then moving on methodically. Although she was initially reluctant to take up astronomy she began to enjoy it. William built her a telescope and on 1st August 1786, Caroline found her first comet.

William had already impressed King George the Third with his discovery of the planet Uranus five years earlier. In September 1786, the royal family summoned William "to exhibit the new comet lately discovered by his sister, Miss Herschel". Along with an enormous grant to William to continue his work, the King gave Caroline £50 a year for life. This was the first time a salary was ever paid to a female scientist in Britain.

Naomi Alderman tells Caroline Herschel's story and discusses what women could achieve in science in the eighteenth century with historian Professor Marilyn Ogilvie of the University of Oklahoma, the author of a biography of Caroline.

Alan Fitzsimmons, Professor of Astronomy at Queens University, Belfast, talks to Naomi about the Caroline's legacy, how comets are discovered today and why researchers want to study them.

06How Humphry Davy discovered laughing gas20171213

Naomi Alderman describes how Humphry Davy discovered laughing gas.

In Bristol in 1799, a young man started to experiment with newly discovered gases, looking for a cure for tuberculosis. Humphry Davy, aged 20, nearly killed himself inhaling carbon monoxide. Nitrous oxide was next. It was highly pleasurable, 'particularly in the chest and extremities' and he began to dance around his laboratory 'like a madman', before passing out. By day, he gave the gas to patients, carefully noting their reactions. In the evenings, he invited his friends over to have a laugh (with assistants on standby to revive them with oxygen, as needed). The Romantic poets, Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, could barely contain their excitement.

During one session, Davy noted that the gas numbed his toothache and suggested that it could perhaps be used during surgical operations. But it was another fifty years before nitrous oxide was used by doctors. Throughout the 20th century, it was widely used during dentistry and to numb the pain of childbirth. (Nitrous oxide is the gas in 'gas and air': the 'air' is oxygen). And it still is today, but less so. (It's a potent greenhouse gas that damages the ozone layer, it's difficult to store and there are side-effects). But, just as medical use is diminishing, recreational use is on the rise. A new generation of pleasure seekers have started experimenting, just as Davy did, despite the associated risks of injuries caused by fainting and death by suffocation.

Naomi Alderman tells how a gas that created 'ecstatic lunatics' came to be used as an anaesthetic, with help from biographer, Richard Holmes and anaesthetist, Kevin Fong.

Producer: Anna Buckley.

06Michael Faraday and his 'instructess' in chemistry20171220

Philip Ball tells the story of Michael Faraday and his 'first instructess' in chemistry.

Michael Faraday was the most famous scientist of the Victorian age and was the director of the Royal Institution in London from 1825 till his death in 1867. As the son of a blacksmith who, because of poor health, could barely support his family, in 1804 at the age of 13, Michael had to stop his schooling and start bringing in some money. He was apprenticed to a London bookbinder, and it was here, he later said, that he got his real education from reading the books. Two in particular made an impression: the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Mrs Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry.

Philip Ball tells the story of Jane Marcet and how she came to write Conversations on Chemistry. She was a woman who had had no formal scientific training herself, but who grasped the principles as well as anyone in her time. She explained her subject in the form of a conversation between Mrs B and her two pupils. Her book sold well and launched the whole idea of popular science. Philip discusses how science was presented to the public in the first half of the nineteenth century with Dr Melanie Keene, historian of science at the University of Cambridge,

As well as making important discoveries in chemistry, electricity and magnetism, Faraday organised the first Christmas lectures for children at the Royal Institution. They have run ever since 1825. The 2017 lecturer is cognitive scientist Professor Sophie Scott of University College London. She talks to Philip about how science communication has changed since Faraday's time.

0601A Wolf, A Goat And Some Cabbages20171122

Philip Ball dives into the Dark Ages to reveal the author of the river crossing riddle.

The Dark Ages are often painted as an era of scholarly decline. The Western Roman Empire was on its way out, books were few and far between, and, if you believe the stereotype, mud-splattered peasants ran around in rags.

However, it was far more intellectually vibrant than you might imagine. Out of this era emerged a set of 'problems to sharpen the young,' including the famous river crossing puzzle that's still taught in maths today. The presumed author of these riddles is Alcuin of York - 'the most learned man in the world.' And it was this monk and his puzzles that laid the foundations for a branch of mathematics called combinatorics - the thinking behind today's computer coding and cryptography.

Philip Ball speaks to historian Mary Garrison from the University of York to learn of Alcuin's character and how he encouraged his students to learn for the sake of learning, as opposed to salvation. And University College London mathematician Hannah Fry shows Philip just how much of a role combinatorics plays in today's world.

Producer: Graihagh Jackson.

0602The Wondrous Transformation Of Caterpillars20171129

How a 13-year-old girl mapped metamorphism in the 1600s. Naomi Alderman presents.

Maria Merian was born in 1647. At the time of her birth, Shakespeare had been dead for 30 years; Galileo had only just stood trial for arguing that the Earth moved around the Sun. And yet, here in Germany, was a child who would become an important but oft-forgotten figure of science.

Aged 13, she mapped out metamorphism, catching caterpillars from her garden and painting them in exquisite detail. At that point, most believed that caterpillars spontaneously generated from cabbages and maggots materialised from rotten meat. She later voyaged to Suriname in South America to pursue pupae further, discovering not just new species but also the conditions needed for their survival.

Some call her the first field ecologist; others admire her for her eloquent brushwork. However, her studies will help today's biologists plot which insects lived where. These data are invaluable because this could help scientists predict what species will survive climate change.

Naomi Alderman discusses the life and legacy of Maria Merian with biologist and historian Kay Etheridge from Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania and biologist Kathy Willis from Kew Gardens.

Producer: Graihagh Jackson.

0603Lise Meitner: Humanitarian Physicist Who Unlocked The Science Of The Atom Bomb20171206

Lise Meitner, the humanitarian physicist who unlocked the science of the atom bomb.

Philip Ball reveals the dramatic tale of Lise Meitner, the humanitarian physicist of Jewish descent, who unlocked the science of the atom bomb after a terrifying escape from Hitler's Germany. One of the most brilliant nuclear scientists working in Germany her flight from terror cost Hitler's regime dearly. In the early twentieth century it was barely possible for women to work in science at all and yet Einstein once called Meitner Germany's own Marie Curie. It was Meitner's insight that began the nuclear age and her story remains ever relevant, as the threat of nuclear conflict lies once again over the world.

Philip Ball talks to historian Dr Patricia Fara about Lise Meitner and her research and to Patricia Lewis of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN, based in Geneva, which this year was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for its work in trying to reverse nuclear proliferation, about Meitner's legacy today.