Science Stories

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01The 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.

02The 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.

03Dna'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.

04How 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.

05Seeing 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.

02Einstein'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.

02How 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.

02Submarine for a Stuart King20160106

02Submarine for a Stuart King20160106

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.

02Submarine for a Stuart King20160106

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.

02Submarine For A Stuart King20160106

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

02The 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.

02The 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.

0301Florence Nightingale: Statistician20160518

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.

0301Florence Nightingale: Statistician20160518

0301Florence Nightingale: Statistician20160518

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.

0301Florence Nightingale: Statistician20160518

0302Chaucer's Astrolabe - The Medieval GPS20160525

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.

0302Chaucer's Astrolabe - The Medieval GPS20160525

0302Chaucer's Astrolabe - The Medieval GPS20160525

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.

0302Chaucer's Astrolabe - The Medieval GPS20160525

0303Paul Ehrlich's 'Magic Bullet' and the Cure for Syphilis20160601

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.

0303Paul Ehrlich's 'Magic Bullet' and the Cure for Syphilis20160601